Voodoo HR

In the bid to find and retain the best staff, some companies are exploring the wilder paths of ‘alternative’ recruitment and motivational techniques. But are they serious business tools, or just snake oil?

Finding the right talent is probably the second hardest job for any company these days. The hardest job, of course, is keeping talent once you’ve found it. On average, four out of every 10 recruits will leave your company within 18 months.

At the same time, business is changing so fast that many industries are operating on Internet time. Like dogs ageing, the on-line world works at a rate of seven years for every calendar year, all of which makes it harder for companies to do what they need to do best – retain talent and motivate it.

Recruitment has long experimented with other techniques, often decked out with pseudo-scientific credentials, such as psychometric testing and more recently Neuro Linguistic Programming. Not everyone is impressed with the results. Jonathan Benn, group managing director of the Opera recruitment group, says, “This may not be the right thing to say, but I think a lot of the time companies use these tests to cover themselves. If the hiring goes wrong, they can hold the tests up and say: ‘Look, it’s not my fault’.”

That said, Benn admits that his company does use these tests but claims there is no hypocrisy at work. “We mainly use them to make it harder for candidates. That way, we eliminate those who cannot be bothered to make the effort.” But Jacqueline Clarke, from CSA management consultants, disagrees. “If you were a shareholder in a major public company, would you want your new chairman chosen just from an interview and gut instinct or would you want that backed up by as much supporting evidence as you could find?”

Cynics, like one recruiter who asked not to be named, see all this as “just another excuse for someone else to charge you a few hundred a day on stuff that just confirms what you already think anyway”. What makes these tests so seductive is that they appear to offer managers the chance to quantify the unquantifiable, measuring that softest of factors – company fit.

But by using them, management explicitly recognises that an employee’s whole personality is key to their success, a recognition which often vanishes when the applicant signs up. Many companies invite staff to leave their personalities at home in an attitude best summed up by Henry Ford who said, “How come when I need a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?”

Those who shun psychometrics have turned to other solutions such as Neuro Linguistic Programming. Asked if she is a believer, Clarke laughs and says, “It’s incredibly accurate, or it was when applied to our team. But again, it can be misused. You see people using parts of it, like the mirroring technique, and it’s so naff. You just want to say to them, ‘Oh be yourself’.”

Clarke is even less enamoured of those employers/recruiters who turn the job interview into a psychodrama. Frank Williams, manager of the eponymous Formula 1 team, once interviewed a nervous would-be driver in the nude. The idea was to shock the driver so he would be too surprised to press for a high salary. Clarke’s response to such theatrics is, “How dare they? What gives an employer the right to do that? It’s not fair, it’s not cricket and I don’t think it’s productive.”

But then, when it comes to finding and keeping staff, companies have been forced to go to incredible lengths. Corporate America is leading the trend with Fortune 500 companies offering on-site swimming pools and hair and nail salons, daily transcendental meditation sessions, cabaret singers to coach executives on better presentations, retreats, time off and funds to do MBAs, you name it.

The list of perks is such that you feel it is only a matter of time before a multinational takes up the walk-in freezer therapy offered by German physiotherapist Franziska Weber. Just three minutes in Weber’s chamber at temperatures of -110íF is guaranteed to reduce stress, although to some it may smack a bit too much of cryogenics.

But some companies have eschewed bribery and the dubious attractions of large on-site freezers to focus on their staff as individuals. Roger Lewin and Birute Regime, co-authors of The Soul At Work, make a persuasive case that managers need to reach staff through their emotions, which chimes in with those HR professionals who have argued that companies must take a more holistic approach to their staff.

Director of HR policy at the CBI John Cridland says, “As a business discipline, HR needs to innovate but because the basic issues in HR are as old as the hills, the quest for innovation can take you into some very different areas.” What follows is a whistlestop tour of some of those areas, areas which only the genetically polite like Cridland could call “different”. Prepare to be surprised, amazed, appalled and, perhaps, intrigued.


Hypnosis


How it works All that stuff about swinging watches and “You are feeling very sleepy” is stage hypnotism. In hypnotherapy, the hypnotist counts the subject down into a trance-like state using their voice and implanting suggestions.

When the subject is in a trance, the hypnotist will implant positive vibes and encourage the subject to see visions – for example, if the subject is terrified of speaking in public, they will be asked to visualise an audience applauding them.

Typically, after 50 minutes, they will be led back to consciousness. This practice cannot be used on any employee who is diabetic, epileptic or on medication. Nor, says, Steve Miller, hypnotherapist and group training consultant at Auto Trader, should it be used on anyone who feels uneasy with the idea of going into a trance.

Miller hypnotises individuals and groups and a session is usually built into training programmes. He believes it works particularly well in a sales environment. “I’ve worked in sales and I know that there, more than anywhere else in industry, the product is the people. That’s what people are buying, so if you feel good about yourself you’re likely to sell more.”


But does it work? Miller has anecdotal evidence from employees that after sessions they feel “incredibly positive and relaxed”. Asked if he had any qualms about playing with people’s minds he says, “No, because I’m qualified and I’m only leaving them with positive thoughts.”

Other HR professionals were more sceptical, with one asking what gave employers the moral right to play with employees’ psyches in this way.

But Auto Trader is so convinced of the benefits that Miller will be using these techniques on 40-something senior executives from the north-west region. He is, however, still waiting to hypnotise his own managing director. “We were discussing something the other day and I said, ‘You know we could deal with that in a session’ and he looked terrified.”

There is no hard statistical feedback on his effectiveness “but the managers and the employees can’t get enough of it”. Part of his treatment is to empower staff by teaching them how to hypnotise themselves.

A similar experiment at Barnet Football Club in the old Third Division in 1993-1994 ended a 10-game losing streak, but after two post-hypnosis games without defeat they blew a vital relegation battle against Cambridge United.



Clairvoyance


How it works Clairvoyant Francesca Kimpton sits in on interviews and says, “The best way I can describe it is that I see a film of the future and whether that person will fit into the organisation.”

Clairvoyants such as Kimpton believe the future is predestined, that we choose our parents but forget our destiny in the trauma of birth. We are all born with the ability to see into the future but in most cases, she says, “Life squashes it out of us.” Kimpton, whose clients include 15 to 20 companies and the managing director of a bank, can also read a person’s “aura” – the electromagnetic field which, she says, surrounds all of us. (For obvious reason she is not introduced to applicants as a clairvoyant.) She also helps assess company morale.


But does it work? On a no-names, no pack-drill approach, Kimpton can cite enough examples to suggest there’s something to this. “A good example was when she advised a company that they would hire a woman with red hair called Sarah J and to hang on to her for six months because even though her and the employer would almost come to blows because their working styles were so different this person would be good for the company. My client said those words were the only thing that kept her going through those first six months and she realised I was right – the customers loved the new employee and the two have now become great friends.”

Although Kimpton has been doing this for companies for 12 years – her current rate is £300 a day – she knows nothing she can say will convince the cynics. “I just say, try it and see if it works.”

It sounds kooky but Kimpton, from her unusual vantage point, makes some sound points about what’s wrong with many companies. “Many managers are not good at thinking outside the box, especially when they are recruiting, and when they hire people they tend to give them a desk and forget about them. There is a reluctance to treat employees as individuals, which I think comes from the manager’s own insecurity.”



Food


How it works You are what you eat which, given the statistics for the consumption of fast food, ought to mean that the vast majority of staff are quarter pounders with cheese. But the link between diet and well-being lies at the root of much modern medical science and government health education policy. Companies have traditionally not put this link to any more serious purpose than, say, making sure staff don’t drink too much at lunchtime or ensuring that the staff canteen has salad on the menu.

That may be about to change. Eric White, project manager for nutrition education company Energis, is convinced diet can help a business’s bottom line. To that end, Energis managing director and state dietician Penny Hunking is conducting a study with at least 12 UK companies which will involve staff keeping diaries of what they eat and how they feel.

The results will be published later this year, but some employers don’t want to wait that long. “We have had a lot of interest in this research from organisations such as certain police forces who want to know how they can advise employees on what to eat to best ease the transition from one shift pattern to another,” says White.


But does it work? Experience and some research suggest employees are less productive immediately after lunch. White says companies could focus employees on good eating practice by having themed weeks in the company canteen or just providing guidance to employees. Focusing on diet certainly fits in with a holistic approach to managing the workforce, and with absenteeism costing the public sector alone £3bn a year, any incremental savings made will be more than welcome.



Face reading


How it works It was Shakespeare who said there is no art in finding the mind’s construction in the face, but even the Bard’s colossal imagination did not foresee that this mind-reading technique would one day support an entire industry.

Simply put, in books such as It’s All In The Face by a woman with the unlikely name of Naomi R Tickle, this is the idea that facial features should tell an employer all about an applicant’s personality. So, for instance, a candidate’s verbosity is directly proportional to the thickness of their upper lip and if their eyes are set too close together they will be very intolerant.

If you believe the theory, from 60 to 100 personality traits – from big ones (sensitivity) to smaller ones (whether they have what Tickle calls “dry wit”) – can be identified from the face and, here’s the added bonus, even more can be identified if you can persuade the applicant to let you examine their feet.


But does it work? Tickle’s book claims tests have proved this is 92 per cent accurate, a claim which sounds uncannily like the old advertising slogan that in tests eight out of 10 owners said their cats preferred it.

The bottom line is, despite claims by one US practitioner that it cuts staff turnover by 20 per cent, there is not enough research to support or refute this approach. Face reading’s advocates, in a bid for scientific status, call their approach “personology”, a term invented by California judge Dr Edward Vincent Jones, whose detailed notes on thousands of people who appeared before him in court persuaded him that certain traits are infallible guides to human behaviour.

At the basis of this theory is a kernel of common sense. Why else is the face-to-face interview still the keystone of most recruiting? But taken literally and to extremes, face reading can lead to some deeply dodgy conclusions.

In the 1970s, some British police officers were taught how to recognise people with criminal tendencies using rather similar reasoning.



Chaos


How it works This isn’t the chaos which management guru Tom Peters says companies should thrive on, nor is it the chaos of scientific theory. This is the injection of a certain amount of anarchy, if not downright irrationality, into corporate life.

The best British example is probably St Lukes, the company which set out to be an ethical advertising agency. Co-founders Andy Law and David Abraham took an even bigger step away from standard practice by abolishing offices, secretaries, corporate dress, even ownership of a company mobile phone – staff picked one up from a stack by reception as they started the day – and building a “chill-out” room where staff lockers are decorated according to the employee’s whim by a company artist and a library which stocks works on ethics and radical feminism.

This might sound more like an all-or-nothing attempt to abolish hierarchies than what you might call voodoo HR, but what St Lukes has created has been driven as much by emotion as reason. Part of its creed is that its approach forces people to move physically around the company in a much more radical way than hopping from one hot desk to another.

Californian software marketeer Accolade has introduced anarchy into the very department which epitomises the command-and-control, rigidly hierarchical, old school management – the finance department, known inside the company as the department where most of the water pistol fights break out. Other Accolade initiatives include ping pong tables in conference rooms, a six times a year off-site company poker game, and awaydays when the whole company goes bowling, to the cinema or the miniature golf course.

The theory, as expressed by another US executive, is that adults can learn from play as well as children and if you’re putting the same part in the same widget a million times a day you’re going to get bored and quality will drop unless the company schedules some “non-boring time”.


But does it work? Accolade’s employee turnover in the early 1990s, when it first pioneered this approach, was 2 per cent a year – not bad for any company, let alone one based in Silicon Valley. (The company has since merged). As for St Lukes, it was voted ad agency of the year in 1988. Its biggest problem now is growth.


Graphology

How it works Your handwriting is a definitive guide to your personality, so all an employer needs to do is hire a graphologist who can decode an applicant’s writing. (If the applicant underlines their signature, that’s probably bad news as it means they’ve got an ego bigger than your annual turnover).

Various business magazines will tell you graphology is in everyday use in business, but big companies willing to go public on their use of this technique are few and far between. Heidelberg, the world’s largest supplier of printing equipment, does admit to having used this practice for years.


But does it work? Consider this diagnosis: “This is written by a man who doesn’t like to be overruled. He is probably better at the big picture than the little detail, has a lot of energy to achieve what he wants and considers it very important to get his message across”. Add the words “control freak” and you have a near-perfect description of the Prime Minister, whose handwritten 10-point plan for Britain in April 1997 was analysed by a member of the British Society of Graphology. The biggest problem with graphology, as expressed by the clairvoyant Kimpton, is that what you learn is not much more detailed or surprising than what you could find out via more conventional means.

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