‘Brown Shorts’ and Hiring for Attitude: Question Your Questions

Look around you (assuming you are in the office). Those employees who’ve been at your organization less than two years? About half of them will fail at their jobs. What’s more surprising is by “fail” I don’t mean they’ll leave or be let go. Most of them will stay. And many – if not most – of them will be highly skilled. In fact, their resume matches their skill set.  So what’s so bad about them, you may ask.  In a word, Attitude. If you need to visualize it: click here to see someone you don’t want on your team. They are such a bad fit, says Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude and head of the training institute Leadership IQ, that you might implement a more aggressive telecommuting strategy so you never have to be in the same room with them.

Murphy spoke this week at a publishing industry conference in Washington, DC, about the mistakes we make when interviewing candidates – the poor questions that lead to weak hires.  He offered up the “Brown Shorts” story in which, according to Murphy, Southwest would bring in a group of pilots who were applying for a job there, and hand them brown shorts with the option of putting them on or not. Picture a room full of men in starchy white shirts, a black jacket, nicely pressed slacks, knee high socks and spit-clean loafers.  Less than half would go into the dressing room to change into the brown shorts. The others who didn’t? According to Murphy, they were told a variation of: “Thanks, you can leave now.”   Southwest was having some fun with these job candidates because, as those who read PR News knows, Southwest’s culture is one of fun, of out-of-the-box thinking and doing. Their PR News-award-winning blog is called Nuts about Southwest. And if you’re “nuts about Southwest” you’d put on those brown shorts.

Murphy asked the audience what their organization’s “Brown Shorts” are.  Not to be taken literally. Is yours  a culture of creativity and juggling a lot of balls in the air? Is yours a culture of quiet, where everyone sticks to their space and the best sound is one of a pin dropping? Do you hate mistakes? Or embrace them? Do you favor a noisy office, with celebrations in the meeting room and very casual Fridays?  As you think about this, don’t revert to your Brown Shorts being about Teamwork or Collaboration or High Standards.  Surely you want that kind of culture, but is that how you define yourselves? How you are differentiated from your competitors? Who doesn’t want a job candidate who enjoys collaboration and high standards? Is willing to work late to get the job done? Some candidates are such great interviewers that in retrospect you feel the fool for hiring them  (admit it.)  But if you know what your “Brown Shorts” are, you would throw out the canned questions and focus on the few that really matter.

It’s easy to hire for skills: I agree with Murphy on this.  It’s very difficult to hire for Attitude.  Not for any attitude but for the attitude that matches your “Brown Shorts”.   So we need to figure out what our Brown Shorts are within our company or department and make sure we ask the questions that get us to the true answers of whether that candidate is a good fit for you and your team.  You can even extend the Brown Shorts test to business partners and clients.

Murphy suggests trying out your interview questions on your best employees and see how they answer them.  And for giggles (and some insights), try out those same questions on your worst employees.

In his research, Murphy said nearly 90% of the hiring managers saw signs during the interview that they shouldn’t hire this person. And yet.  Whether that’s 20/20 hindsight or not, there’s also something to be said about going with your gut.  I suggest this hiring formula of: Your Gut + Brown Shorts Questions will equal an A-Player.

–   Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz