Hiring Problems

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

Sometimes chiefs and chief officers joke that many of their personnel problems are the result of hiring mistakes. This is not a joke. Too often problems are created by people who made it through the hiring process in spite of some flaws in their character, talent, or interpersonal skills. Evaluating talent is not only important for sports teams, but it is also essential when pursuing the right people for the critical job of firefighting. Organizations must invest in their hiring process not only to get the candidates with the most ability but also to “weed out” potential problems.

Doing the research necessary to develop a fair hiring process that produces the desired candidates is time consuming. Once the process is established, that, too, can take time to complete. Sometimes administrators and managers are tempted to speed up the process, as they get impatient when trying to fill vacancies. This is not a good idea; shortcuts either in establishing the process or completing it can, and most likely will, cause future problems.

Any hiring process used must be fair, must be unbiased, and must not create an adverse impact. If you are unsure of what this means, you need to contact an attorney or a competent human resources professional. Regardless of your personal beliefs and views regarding hiring, you must follow established laws and rules. Failure to do so could place you in a very difficult position. Do your research and learn what laws, rules, and local ordinances are applicable to your circumstances.

Once you know the rules you must play by, determine the qualities that you desire in your candidates. This should be determined through the development and use of an appropriate job description. If you have what you believe to be an appropriate job description, then you can develop a process that will yield people who are most likely to successfully meet the criteria established in the job description. If you do not have a written job description for the positions in your organization, then you need to create them. Seek help from competent professionals with human resources backgrounds. Don’t just rely on the old standby of “cut and paste” from other organizations. Although there are many good examples to copy, don’t do it haphazardly. Make sure you use due diligence.

Regardless of the content of your job description, there are some core skills that will be required by everyone. There will need to be basic intelligence requirements and physical capabilities. In addition, there are some “softer” skills that you may consider desirable. They would include some general things such as character, teamwork, leadership potential, and interpersonal skills. Uncovering these characteristics in candidates takes more effort, but their importance should not be minimized.

In most fire service organizations, the expectations of employers have grown. In addition to performing basic firefighting skills, there is more emphasis on the ability of employees to communicate effectively verbally and in writing. Organizations providing advanced life support and specialty services such as hazardous materials responses will require personnel with corresponding aptitudes. Candidates who have not done well in some school subjects may not have the background necessary for today’s fire service.

Many departments include a written exam as part of the hiring process. This test must be job related and must measure the basic skills, knowledge, and ability the job requires. There are standardized tests that are used throughout the country. Some larger organizations have developed their own tests. Organizations must know the implications of using standardized or their own tests relative to validity. If you are unaware of the need for valid, job-related tests and issues such as adverse impact, you need to find competent assistance as you select your testing vehicle. One thing to consider with a written test is to evaluate writing skills. Today’s fire service requires more written reports, and candidates who lack adequate writing skills may never be capable of meeting your standards and requirements.

Regardless of your department’s run volume, it is reasonable to expect firefighters to be capable of physically performing the essential functions of the job. Firefighters will be asked to move hose (charged and uncharged), carry people and equipment, and use ladders, among other tasks. Candidates would be hard pressed to perform these tasks if they did not have adequate strength. Departments need a test to measure the ability of candidates to perform the essential job functions. There are recognized tests such as the Candidate Physical Abilities Test, along with others, that have been used. Make sure the test is related to the essential job functions. Remember, few people improve their basic physical capabilities after they get a job. If they struggle from the get-go, you could be faced with a challenge for a long time. One way to minimize the risk that candidates will become a firefighter struggling to perform some of the basic functions is to make sure they start out with a good foundation of strength and fitness.

Oral interviews are a standard practice in hiring processes in virtually all industries. They are a great way to gain information directly from the candidate. They can provide insight into the “softer” skills that you are seeking. Of course, for this to be successful, you must be trained in interviewing techniques. Often, people think they are capable in this area because it is “just talking to someone.” It should be much more. The people doing the interviewing must be prepared. I have been on many interviews where the interviewers have done a poor job and allowed a marginal, or worse, candidate to progress further into the system. Interviews must be scored in a manner that does not pass candidates you think are not capable or are likely to be average or mediocre. You need to assess attitude, character, passion for the job, and personal impression, to name a few aspects. In all of these areas, candidates don’t improve once they get hired. If they are not what you want, fail them.

One element of the selection process many departments often overlook is a psychological evaluation. Properly trained and educated psychologists have the ability to evaluate candidates and make a recommendation regarding their mental and emotional makeup regarding the position of firefighter. Again, this is something that you would want to know before you hire. A failure to identify characteristics that may not be conducive to the position of firefighter will lead to problems with which you will have to deal in the future. The time and expense are justified.

One thing to remember-since this is a medical evaluation-is that the psychological evaluation cannot be given until a conditional offer of employment is made. This is similar to a physical examination, which also must be given before hire but after a conditional job offer has been made.

A thorough background check must be completed before hiring a firefighter. Even if you have a solid selection process, some things may not be revealed. Occasionally, fire departments will get feedback on a firefighter after the hiring, and it is too late to change anything. You don’t want to hear this: “You should have called me about your latest hire. You may not have made that choice.” Of course, getting the right information is important. You should use a trained investigator to do background checks. You have the choice of asking your police department, hiring a company specializing in this, or training your own personnel. Regardless, this is an extremely important part of the process. I have seen numerous instances when a red flag appeared and kept us from hiring a potential problem employee.

A part of the selection process must include a probationary period. During that time, the candidates must be evaluated with an appropriate system based on the standards of performance your department has adopted. Personnel expected to evaluate probationary personnel must be trained. These people must also be of strong character and willing to make tough choices when candidates demonstrate that they are not meeting expectations. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that a problem employee was identified during probation but no one was willing to issue a failing evaluation. When that happens, you will be stuck with a problem employee for years. Take the probationary period seriously; consider it the final step in a comprehensive selection process.

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to hire people. I have also seen many other departments go through a process. I can tell you that good hiring practices lead to good hires and reduce the risk of future problems. I can also tell you that many “problem employees” didn’t do well in the hiring process but were allowed to progress through the system even though they were marginal at best.

The hiring process should be narrowing the candidate pool to the point that you are hiring the best. If your organization desires to provide outstanding service, you must start with the talent capable of being developed to do so.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been a chief for more than 27 years and has been chief in Northville Township, Michigan, since January 2009. Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills (1984–2008), president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He is a speaker at FDIC, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, and editor of the seventh edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.

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Hiring Problems

1

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

In almost all cases, the best way to fix a problem is to get to the root cause and look for the solution there. Although this may not always be possible, you get the added value of not only resolving one of your problems but also greatly reducing the likelihood of a reoccurrence. Often, when a case is reviewed and the base cause investigated, it is found that the problem existed from day one, when the employee started. It didn’t surface right away; it waited until an “opportunity” arose. More frequently than we would like to think, the root of our problem was a hiring mistake. We don’t like to admit it, but we do err in our selections, and there are reasons that we do. This column will explore the reasons for poor selections and suggest ways to minimize the risks for a “bad” hire. The next column will discuss issues and possible solutions for when you are “stuck” with a bad hire.

There are many reasons we don’t get the people we want during the selection process. If you understand these reasons, it will help you find solutions for your future hires. I can speak from experience. When I think of many of the problems I have faced in nearly 24 years as chief, I realize that many could have been avoided or eliminated with a good hiring process. Through the years, we have continued to change our hiring process with hopes of better predicting the performance of the individuals selected. We have not found a foolproof way of selection, but we can hire a quality individual when we become more “picky” when we add staff.

TAKE YOUR TIME

When a vacancy occurs or you are authorized to add staff, your first tendency often is to do so as quickly as possible. You know that a new “probie” will not be an instant contributor, so you want to get the ball rolling so that you get the help you need as soon as you are able. You need to resist this temptation so that you follow the steps needed to help you get the individual you desire. There are pressures to speed up the process. You are understaffed and have increasing overtime coverage required. You may be concerned about revenue and the need to “spend it while you have it!” You may have experienced other pressures. Regardless, always take the necessary time.

Some fire departments do not have the input they should have in the hiring process because of local policies or laws. Others opt out of the process, turning it over to the Human Resources Department, because of a lack of internal resources or because it is easier. Occasionally, resources are lacking to make the selection properly. Don’t fall into these traps. A hiring mistake will last your organization 25 years. It will also create many future challenges for you and your staff.

What is the best process to use to help get the best possible candidate? There are many options, and you will need to figure out which is best for you based on your local needs, policies, and resources. Hiring can be expensive, but remember a mistake is much more so. (As a side note, you should consider going through a process even if you have no openings. This can be used to establish a list so that if a vacancy occurs, you can move quicker.) Whether or not you like this part of the job, you need to be actively involved. All of the issues that later develop with a poor hire always end up on the desk of the chief. If local policies do not allow or require your input, do what you can to change this.

BEGIN WITH KSAs

Begin with a review of the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required of the job. In addition to the usual requirements of mechanical aptitude and physical ability, consider the “soft” skills needed to be successful. Interpersonal skills are critical in building a cohesive team (and minimizing conflict). Often, this is not an easy skill to teach compared with some of the more basic fire and EMS skills needed to do the job. You probably can teach someone to wear an SCBA. It is not as easy to teach someone to “get along.” If loyalty is a trait that is important, you may wish to have a component in your process that provides insight into the background of the individuals you are considering.

In addition to the KSAs, consider any prerequisites needed for the job. Will you require any prior training, or do you provide your own? What is the expense of the training? For example, many departments today provide paramedic services. Training and licensing to this level require much time and money. There is great savings in selecting those who already possess this licensure. However, be aware that this prerequisite will reduce your selection pool. You need to determine how important this is to your department.

PROMOTE THE VACANCIES

Once you know the KSAs and prerequisites, you are ready to receive the applications. Remember to advertise in as many places as practical and affordable. The more applications you receive, the better choices you will have. Realize that there are financial restrictions in most cases, but promote your vacancies as much as you can. Also recognize the way most people get their information today—through the Internet! Post on your Web site. Also, always take an application even if you are not hiring. Keep it on file for a minimum of one year. Notify the applicant when you are hiring and when you plan to purge your files.

TESTING AND INTERVIEWING

The next step is to determine the steps in your process. Consider written exams, interviews, and agility tests. In most cases, it is not practical to develop your own written test. Do some research to see who has what best fits your circumstances. Take a look at the review copies that the reputable companies provide. Pick the one that is most likely to address the issues of importance to you. If you are looking for general knowledge, there are tests for that. If you are concerned about mechanical aptitude, make sure that is measured. Also, check out the validity of the test. This reduces the risk of a challenge—a challenge that can be expensive and time consuming.

With respect to interviews, some organizations prefer an independent panel to provide a score. Although I would not argue the value of this, I would suggest that you not eliminate participation from you or your department. Whether or not you have an independent panel, consider a separate panel made up of your members. Your officers and firefighters want the best people, too. They know their job and what it takes to be successful. If you use people in your organization, provide them with training. There are learned skills that are needed to become an effective interviewer. With that said, do not abdicate your responsibility. You most likely have good instincts and need to play a major part in the selection.

Agility testing can be the most controversial step of the process. Yet, it is extremely important in seeking candidates who have the necessary physical abilities to do all parts of the job. Even though many departments have become EMS driven, there is still the need to perform on the fireground, even if infrequent. You also need to consider the long-term benefit of having candidates who are physically fit when they begin the job. Agility testing can be challenged, so do your homework and seek the opinion of legal counsel and human resource experts.

BACKGROUND CHECK

One of the most important, if not the most important, parts of a selection process is the background check. This can get expensive and time consuming, so often shortcuts are taken. From personal experience, I would recommend not taking any shortcuts. There is so much that you can discover about a candidate. One of the most significant things is that past performance is a great indicator of future performance. People who create problems on their present job probably were doing so on their previous one as well. For example, people who are late to work in their current employment will most likely continue that pattern when you hire them. If it is important in your organization to show up on time, then this would be something to investigate during the background check. You can learn a great deal about an individual—interpersonal skill, loyalty, dedication, ability to be part of a team, work ethic, and a whole host of other “soft” skills needed to do the job and keep from creating problems for your organization. Now is not the time to skimp on the background check.

CONDITIONAL JOB OFFER

After you have gone through your process, you are ready to make a conditional job offer. The requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) state that you cannot submit a candidate to a medical or psychological exam prior to an offer of employment. This is not to be interpreted to mean that such tests can’t be used and a failure can’t be used to deselect an individual. Make sure you use specialists in these areas, people who know what the job requires. Quality exams are vital to a successful process.

This has been a brief discussion of things you can do to help predict successful candidates. Nothing is foolproof, but you can minimize the risks. Good selections reduce the potential for future problems that you will need to address. Many individuals who cause these problems could have been identified with a comprehensive selection process. A review of their past performance would have provided clues for you. Take the time, and make the necessary investment. It will pay off.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department since 1984. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1997-98 and chair of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as senior advisor to Director James Lee Witt of FEMA and acting chief operating officer of the United States Fire Administration for seven months as part of a loan program between the City of Farmington Hills and FEMA. He received the Outstanding Public Service Award from the director for his efforts. Marinucci has three B.S. degrees: in secondary education from Western Michigan University, in fire science from Madonna College, and in fire administration from the University of Cincinnati. He was the first graduate of the Open Learning Fire Service Program at the University of Cincinnati (summa cum laude) and was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1995.