Zero gravity with no room for error (Editor's Notes)

Mission to Mars not the only time stakes are high for getting hiring right
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2014

The mission to Mars outlined on the cover of this issue may never actually happen. But we put it on the front page because it’s the ultimate recruitment challenge. (Plus, when you were a kid, weren’t stories about missions to Mars the type of headlines you expected to see in 2014?)

When you’re recruiting people for a one-way trip to Mars, you can’t afford to make a hiring mistake. Because, really, once they get past the moon, it’s pretty tough to fire them — with or without cause. They’re not coming back to pick up a pink slip.

So you had better make the right decision upfront, and I think it’s very telling what the advisors to the project have suggested as a way to ensure the Mars One project gets the right talent.

Raye Kass, a professor in the department of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, said the criteria around the mission’s recruitment is still being developed. But what’s clear is that personality is going to trump everything else.

Skills, after all, can be taught. But if you’re a jerk, you’re always going to be a jerk — regardless of your talents. Sure, training can temper that darker side somewhat. But it’s eventually going to resurface — maybe in the heat of the moment or maybe after a long period of frustration has passed.

The most important skill on a mission to Mars is, undoubtedly, teamwork. The first mission is going to cram four people into a spacecraft for the seven-month journey, and since it’s undoubtedly a one-way trip, those people absolutely have to work together and get along.

But let’s step away from the realm of science fiction for a few minutes and think about how that scenario compares to today’s workplace.

We know the Mars One project simply can’t afford to hire a bad astronaut. It could be disastrous if somebody snaps during the mission — but does that really differ, at all, from your organization?

Putting personality ahead of skills

Teamwork and collaboration are two of the hottest buzzwords in human resources — frankly, they’ve occupied that space for as long as I can recall. And yet it’s not that easy to find organizations that, when hiring, act as if personality is truly more critical than skills.

Every HR professional knows the tremendous hit the bottom line takes when a bad hire comes onboard — if you account for recruitment time, training time, lost productivity, morale and damage to reputation, the price tag can be stunning.

The consequences may not be as apparent as they are for the Mars One mission, but they’re just as real.

Sure, you can jettison an employee here on Earth — unless you’re talking about a worker with a lot of seniority at a unionized workplace or a professor with tenure, in which case they might as well be beyond the moon. But why make that hiring mistake in the first place?

If you’ve ever made a bad hire — and most HR professionals and hiring managers have — then no doubt you wished you would have spent a bit more time upfront during the recruitment process. Perhaps they could have brought in more candidates, contacted just one more reference or conducted a better test.

There’s little doubt that every person involved in hiring can learn something from the Mars example. In some situations, skills will be critical — a hospital can’t very well teach a doctor medicine, nor can an oil sands producer teach the fine art of engineering.

But in many roles, skills can be taught on the job. And in an era where teamwork and collaboration should be paid more than lip service, perhaps more weight should be placed on a worker’s personality than on skills.

The question, though, is how that gets measured. There are some decent tools on the market now, including some basic ones that have proven to be far more accurate than I would have guessed.

But to get a level of perfection demanded by the Mars example, we need a bulletproof method of predicting personality — you might call that the holy grail of HR.

Whether the mission to Mars ever gets off the ground remains to be seen. But let’s keep an eye on the recruitment model they develop — it could be out of this world.

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