Recruiting without a safety net

I own a big old house right in the centre of the city. More importantly, it is situated right between all the university campuses. We have it divided into two large flats and this is our fifth year of being landlords and finding tenants.

It’s the start of the university year and the last 2 weeks have been a mad whirl of open homes and private viewings as what seems like hundreds of students have looked around the property. I leave the financial side of things to my wife, and I manage the tenant relationships. Well, I’m in HR after all!

Finding student tenants is a little bit like recruiting graduates. Thankfully I have a lot of experience of that. They are an odd mix of the motivated and disinterested, clued up and clueless. The girls seem far better organized – the good ones come armed with a CV of all the flat mates and pre-completed application forms to leave with us. The boys leave everything to the last minute and never submit anything in time. Just finding their way to the flat unaided seems like a major accomplishment for some of them.

We try to be good landlords. A lot of the student accommodation locally is of very poor standard. We have been gradually improving ours each year from the run down state we bought it in, and so are very selective about the tenants we choose. So far we’ve got it right each year and have never had any tenancies we were glad to see the back of. Some tenants require a little more management than others but such is life. It’s our investment at stake and we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Choosing tenants is stressful. They are locked into a 12 month fixed term tenancy so I have to get it right first time. Yes, I have an application form and I can do reference checks but more often than not I have to rely on gut feel. As you can imagine, for an HR person this is like flying blind. There are no formal interviews and you’ve met them only for a matter of minutes. There is no psychometric testing, no assessment centre, no personality profile to check if they can handle the stress of independent living for the first time, no opportunity to get second opinions from colleagues, no drinks evening to see how they handle themselves socially. And of course this goes against everything I know in my day job and everything I’ve learned about recruitment best practice.

As we know of course, we can use all the tools at our disposal when recruiting and still get it wrong. More often than not we get it right in the real world. You do tend to remember the poor hires your organization makes because a) there are hopefully so few of them and b) because getting rid of them probably consumes most of your time. I also remember the occasions when I have advised a manager not to recruit someone and they ignored me and went ahead, thinking they know best or that their gut feel is always right. When they utter the immortal words “I know what I’m getting here and I’ll manage it” you just have to stand back and quietly park the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s their decision and they have to be accountable and learn from the experience.

So here I am making important financial decisions outside of work largely on gut feel. But you know what? It feels good. I have no safety net and that’s quite liberating. Fortunately though I think I’ve got enough experience of assessing and recruiting students to spot the time wasters and unreliables. But I’m not going to lie to you, as a manager myself I have made bad hiring decisions once or twice. I’m not perfect.

But I do think that sometimes, just sometimes, in the work context you do have to use your gut feel and hire or promote someone that others don’t want or rate. Take a punt. Maybe you’ve spotted something that others haven’t, or you know from their track record they can deliver even if the evidence you’ve gathered says they won’t. But that doesn’t mean you have to be reckless and that’s the point managers often miss. In the rush to recruit someone who they think is a good fit, or reminds them of their self ten years ago, they let their heart rule their head.

There is a real science and skill to recruitment and if you aren’t going to use it you have to make sure your risk is calculated and the odds are weighed in your favour. It’s a very fine line between getting it spectacularly right and spectacularly wrong. Any manager who tells you he doesn’t need HR’s input/tools to recruit is an idiot. Anyone who recruits without a safety net is just asking for trouble!

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