Best Buy HR Manager: “Don’t hire him, he sucks”

Best Buy

This is an interesting story about how NOT to do reference checks. When a former Manager at superretailer Best Buy was fired, he went on to apply at a few big box stores. When he abruptly ran up against the stone wall of rejection after a couple of promising starts, he got suspicious and did a little sleuthing. He faked an e-mail from a Target employee and e-mailed his former employer asking for a reference.

According to the lawsuit that followed these shenanigans, the Best Buy District Human Resources Manager allegedly replied thusly:

“I will give you the skinny on him but you can’t say you got any info from Best Buy or we can be sued. Just don’t hire him and say you went with a better candidate.

“He was hired as GM and demoted after 12 months or so because he sucked. He is desperate for a job because supposedly his wife left him because he has no job. I would not touch him.

“Again, do not forward this e-mail to anybody or say where you heard the info from because we were not allowed to give this info out, but I would hate you to get stuck with this guy!”

Oops, if true.I think there are two lessons here. One, be careful what you put in e-mails. You never know for sure who you’re talking to, nor to whom the e-mail will be forwarded.

More importantly, though, the second lesson is that if you give out references on ex-employees, be objective. How much information you give out is up to you and how much legal exposure you can tolerate, but in general keep it objective, quantifiable, and try to avoid the use of the word “suck.”

Of course, I’m not a fan of personal references at all. The research I’ve seen (a couple of articles in refereed journals and a SIOP presentation or two) is pretty clear that they’re worthless. There’s no variance (i.e., this person at Best Buy aside, almost all references provide nothing but unqualified praise), and they don’t predict performance worth a darn.

Practitioner Periodicals vs. Academics: Round One, FIGHT!

There’s a great article in a recent issue of Academy of Management Journal titled “The Very Separate Worlds of Academic and Practitioner Periodicals in Human Resource Management: Implications for Evidence-Based Management.” It’s a mouthful, but basically what the researchers did was pick certain facts/issues about which academics feel mighty confident and then examine how those issues were covered by three more mainstream Human Resource Management publications:

  • HR Magazine (the publication of the Society for HR Management, or SHRM)
  • Human Resource Management (a “bridge” publication that theoretically appeals to both practitioners and researchers)
  • Harvard Buisiness Review (which admittedly isn’t HR specific, but which is definitely read by a lot of HR managers)

The researchers started with a medium-sized list of findings from the academic research that they felt (probably rightfully so) that are de facto true at this point, but pared it down to three:

  1. The importance of intelligence or general mental ability for job performance
  2. The importance of goal setting and feedback for job performance
  3. The validity of personality measures (including integrity tests) as predictors of job performance

With two of those factors directly related to many selection tests, you can see why this piqued my interest. The researchers wanted to know how much these topics were covered, and when they were covered how in line with academic knowledge they were.

The long and the short of it is that these publications VERY RARELY mentioned any of these topics –at most, just over 1% of the articles mentioned anything related to any of the three. HR Magazine –the official publication of the largest professional society for HR Professionals in the world and with a circulation of over 200,000– didn’t mention cognitive ability testing AT ALL and barely mentioned personality or goal setting.

Let’s think about that: If the researchers had also included in their sample The Archie and Jughead Double Digest and the assembly instructions that came with that end table you bought from Ikea, HR Magazine would not have scored any better than these.

The few times that these three periodicals did mention cognitive ability, personality, or goal setting, what they said was sometimes in line with academic research, but it was also often wrong, incomplete, or just bizarre. My favorite was from one of the very few articles on personality testing that recommended not that you use a scientifically developed and scrupulously validated personality test to screen applicants, but rather suggested this:

You can pick up a multitude of clues about a person’s character by simply having a restaurant meal together. You’ll see how they interact with the waiter or the people sitting at adjacent tables. I sometimes say, “Gee, how much tip do you think we should leave?” Then, based on whatever percentage they suggest, I ask why. I want to see how they make those decisions. A lot of it bears on how they view the world in a more general sense.

The authors of the Academy of Management article say, quite diplomatically, that “This quote represents a selection tactic that is low in validity and utility but high in exposure to potential legal liability.” Personally, it reminds me of the time I interviewed for a job and later found out that one interviewer had dinged me because I had somehow chosen the wrong chair to seat myself in.

The article goes on, describing the different things they found in this audit of the 3 journals, and by the end the finding is clear: mainstream journals don’t cover this stuff very frequently (if at all), and when they do they often get it wrong. They go on to explain some reasons for this and some ways to fix it, which I’d encourage you find out about if you have access to the AMJ article. There are also other articles that respond to this study and the topic in general, but I haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

I think a good follow-up to this kind of research would be to do an audit of not HR magazines, but general HR textbooks. If education is the problem, this seems like a good place to start and an easier problem to fix.

My Column in TIP


The column that I co-author in The Industrial Psychologist is now up. Actually, it’s been up for a while, I’ve just forgotten to mention it.

In this issue, my part of the column focuses on a series of articles in a recent Academy of Management Journal that themselves focus on the Scientist/Practitioner divide. There’s some interesting stuff there, and I recommend the series of articles if you have easy access to AMJ (it’s from volume 50, which I think came out in late in 2007). A lot of pretty smart people took a stab at not only solutions to the scientist/practitioner problem, but at speculation about whether or not the divide actually exists in the first place, as well. One of the repeated themes is “teach, teach, use your own research to teach your students and your executive education clients). This makes a lot of sense to me. One of the authors made the very good point that academics should seek to open their loop, so to speak, by seeking out audiences and collegues outside of their normal circles. Look, don’t just show your tidy little correlation matrix to your research assistants and your department chair –figure out how to get your findings into the heads of more people running businesses or other organizations. It’s not easy and it’s most definitely NOT routinely encouraged by the academic reward systems (“publish or perish,” as the saying goes), but it’s more in line with the mission of I/O Psychology than a lot of things you could do.

Anyway, read the whole column here. And as a side note, this is the first column where I finally got rid of that awful, awful photograph of me that accompanies each publication of the column. It was a full-on snapshot hastily taken with a cheap digital camera, and though I always thought I looked like some goofball instead of someone who actually knows what he’s talking about I never seemed to get around to replacing it until now. The reason I was able to is that I had taken a photography class (a hobby of mine) and in one session we worked in a studio with proper studio lighting. When they asked for a volunteer I jumped at it, stipulating that I’d like a copy of the pics.

So, big improvement. I did, however, briefly consider going with this version of the portrait, which resulted when the front flashes failed to fire:

Mystery Date

It’s got kind of a “Mystery Date” vibe going, no?

EEOC Issues Fancy New Fact Sheet


Capitalizing, perhaps oddly, on the Harry Potter mania, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) has released a new “fact sheet” on employment testing and selection practices.

Not to give out any spoilers, but the information is pretty basic and straight forward: what selection tests are, what the relevant laws are, a smattering of recent rulings, and links to more information. This is a handy link to have in your favorites browser, as I could see it as useful for forwarding on to managers who need a refresher or overview of this kind of thing.