Hiring for Engageability

by External10 Sep 2013

An enormous amount of time and money is spent by companies on employee engagement, under the premise that a more engaged workforce contributes to the bottom line. Much of the effort afforded to engagement is via employee surveys used to  identify how the work environment can be optimised to engage people further. While there is no doubt considerable benefit to be gained from implementing change initiatives aimed at optimising engagement, we feel too many organisations concentrate their efforts on engaging people once they are in the organisation. Yet engagement is a two-way street – it depends on how you treat people as well as on who you hire.

Very few engagement studies (or consultancies for that matter) deal with the issue of engagement as a fundamental  capacity of the individual that is not solely related to how the employee is treated or managed once they become an employee.  No one is suggesting that corporate culture, leadership and management practices are not extremely important, but we must also recognise that there are clear differences in  individuals’ capacity to respond to corporate engagement efforts. Just as each person has a physical or intellectual limit no matter what the motivation or reward, so too does  everyone have limits on their engageability. What is important to recognise is you can assess for levels of engageability.
Research by Kenexa, an IBM company, provides insights into what tends to differentiate engageable versus less engageable people. High engageability, captured via the Kenexa Engageability Index, tends to be grounded in high levels of  positivity, optimism and conscientiousness – attributes that predict both employee engagement scores in later organisation  surveys, as well as key business outcomes such as customer satisfaction. On the less-engageable front, negativity and pessimism are key characteristics – both of which negatively impact customer satisfaction. 
Our observation is that there is a bias toward believing that everybody has the same potential for passion and commitment in their job. If it is suggested otherwise, there can be a strong negative reaction that borders on political correctness: “Why would you question this core assumption about human potential?” The result of this assumption is that there is an increased burden on the company to provide a great place to work that taps this potential, more so than making sure that engageable employees are hired. 
We are not suggesting that companies should not do all they can to maximise employee motivation; however, all employees are not created equal in their ability to respond.  Consequently, it is critical to hire not only the most capable employees available but also to hire those that have the highest probability of being or becoming engaged in their work. Balancing ‘engaging’ versus ‘engageability’ increases productivity and decreases the burden on management. 
Hiring for engageability is one of those intangible ingredients that typically elude managers in the selection process. Job interviews generally place a priority on  experience and skills, while assessments tend to favour ability. 
These all have a place in weeding out the worst or selecting the best, but to this battery should be added a systematic,  effective selection process that quickly and inexpensively measures employee engageability. 
Unfortunately, while at Kenexa we have reviewed hundreds of competency models used during the selection process; we have never reviewed one that included engageability as a core competency for success. Yet making sure that as many  employees as possible enter the company with the potential of becoming highly engaged employees has a much higher ROI  than post-hire engagement initiatives alone. 
Of course, not hiring those candidates that have a negative, blaming and pessimistic view, which leads to disengagement, has many positive collateral benefits for the organisation as well, including fewer workers’ compensation claims, fewer absences and greater retention.
Dr Neal Knight-Turvey is an Executive Consultant at Kenexa, an IBM Company located at  348 Edward St, Brisbane. Phone 132 426 or email nturvey@au1.ibm.com