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For most managers, the most difficult and trying decisions are those involving whom to hire or whom to promote. Small firms are particularly vulnerable to making poor decisions about people, but so, too, are small or specialized departments or units in even the largest organizations.

Some years ago, my partner and I agonized over the first person we added to our staff. We were expanding by 50 percent. The risks were terrific. I'm confident similar decisions kept more than one manager awake last night.Regardless of the size of the enterprise, the risks that accompany the selection process are great, and the decisions every bit as challenging. A poor choice, or even a mediocre choice in today's competitive environment will affect more customers, more vendors, more employees than any other single decision.

Nevertheless, most choices are made using biased or notoriously inaccurate tools. The vast majority of choices are influenced by personal contact or knowledge, by references, by length of experience, by personal bias regarding race or sex, or by first impressions in an uncontrolled interview.

Most decisions are made in the interview or a series of interviews, despite overwhelming research that proves this technique, even when conducted by a "professional" is the poorest predictor of performance available. IBM demonstrated years ago that a firm is better off using random choice than an interview because it is so susceptible to subjective and irrelevant evaluations.

The frustration of the manager has created an easy mark for a variety of hiring gimmicks ranging from polygraphs to color tests and from handwriting analysis to paper and pencil profiles.

Although many of these provide interesting reading, virtually all have proven useless for predicting performance. Most were stopped in the late '70s when the liability for biased selection was a more pressing threat, although they have begun to reappear recently as the courts have become more lenient.

The fact is the gimmicks do not work regardless of the stance of the courts and most have been ruled illegal in some or all states.

How strong your organization is, and how well it performs, will largely depend on your ability to choose the right people. Anyone can put together an organization of 85 percenters.

In today's competitive environment, however, it will take 110 percenters if you expect to seize upon the slight edge difference that provides the small and difficult-to-measure difference between mediocre and great performers. Eight to 5 percent of a coach's success will be determined by his or her ability to select and recruit master performers. Even the best coach cannot teach pigs to dance.

There are a few techniques in common use that have proven extremely accurate when used in selection decisions to predict future performance. In considering these, it must be noted that two considerations are most important.

First, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible in most contexts, to assess a person's personal habits or traits. Characteristics like motivation, commitment, integrity or willing spirit can only be determined by evaluating the behavioral past of the candidate in terms of its relevance to the new assignment.

A person's past behavior is the best predictor of his or her future behavior, but to try to presume traits is risky at best and even unethical or illegal in many contexts.

Second, there is no better way to evaluate a person's competence than by asking him or her to demonstrate it. Whether choosing a truck driver or a senior executive, the most accurate method for assessing ability to perform is through a work situation.

"Let me see you drive." Our firm is currently making recommendations to several major U.S. and Japanese firms on whom to hire for sales positions through the use of structured behavioral event interviews of candidates (conducted via telephone with candidates all over the country), combined with a series of self-description behavioral history questionnaires the candidate submits to us for evaluation.

This technique has allowed us to make extremely accurate predictions of performance. Supervisors, managers and executives require more effort. In these cases, we conduct a literal daylong work simulation involving hundreds of supervisory and managerial tasks chosen specifically to simulate the demands of the position in question.

Not unlike an audition, this assessment allows us to accurately evaluate the ability to analyze, to make correct judgments, to coach or to work accurately or with sustained levels of energy. Similar techniques are in use in thousands of organizations today, ranging from US Suzuki to G.M., and from IBM to Westinghouse.

Any organization can assemble such work samples or assignments. For a behavioral interview, ask what have you done? How did you do it? What did you contribute? Walk me through that project step by step. Why did you do it that way? The object is to gain a detailed summary of what and how this candidate has accomplished.

In this way, you can decide if you are willing to pay for the same level of performance and activity the person has demonstrated in the past, because that's what you will get in most cases.

To conduct a managerial evaluation, you can ask the person to make a presentation, to interview one of your employees (simply observe the candidate interviewing one of your employees rather than you interviewing the candidate), or provide a list of the problems and decisions others in the same position handled the previous 24 hours to determine just how the candidate would have handled the same problems or decisions.

Such simulations are commercially available also, as is help in designing, or even conducting, such assessments by experienced experts. As the advertisement says - get help some place - these decisions are too important to leave to chance or to the traditional methods in common use.

Learning how to decide whom to hire and whom to promote deserves your closest attention. Just because you have hired interviewers, don't assume this will be of much help unless they have learned to use the most accurate and valid techniques available.

Ed Yager, Yager Associates, is a consultant based in Park City. He works with organizations of all sizes on selection and promotional decisions, organizational change, productivity and quality.