Emotional intelligence's role in recruitment

Everyone agrees, in theory, measuring EI can be a powerful recruitment tool. But does it have a practical application?

Emotional intelligence is one of the hottest buzzwords in HR, and it’s playing a greater role in the recruitment and advancement process. Understanding how and why staff, and particularly leaders, interact with other people and react to stressful situations is an attractive proposition.

EI encompasses a number of personality traits, including self-awareness, self-discipline, persistence, empathy and compassion, and is considered a predictor of individual success at home and at work.

But what role, if any, should EI play in the recruitment process? That depends on who you ask.

The upside

June Donaldson, president of Donaldson & Associates Inc. in Calgary and author of Emotional Smarts!, says the measurement of EI is a powerful tool in recruitment that can give a good indication of future performance.

“But it’s not the be all and end all,” she says. “There are a number of things to consider when hiring an individual, but it can provide good indicators.”

Donaldson gives the example of employees who might not look like the best candidates on paper, but turn out to be great hires, because they are emotionally intelligent.

“In my management experience, my best hires were not necessarily the first-impression stars,” she says. “The people who looked like they had it all, talked the story, had the background, the best hires are not necessarily those people. My best hires were often the people who were likeable in terms of attitude and optimism, openness, honesty and positive intentions.”

And while EI can provide indications of all of these, Donaldson says it’s important the testing be optional for candidates.

“Some people have a real sensitivity to completing a profile of any kind and having it scored by someone out there in the universe,” she says. “They’re unsure if it will come back to haunt them or be used inappropriately.”

To counter this, the interviewer should have a definite position around confidentiality and explain it to the candidate.

“They should say that ‘If you fill this out, and we hope that you do, you can be assured only I and the department manager will see your results,’” she says. If a candidate opts out of the test, the hiring decision should not be affected by the refusal.

“They should not be penalized or denied a position,” she says. “There are so many other things that come into play. Look at the results of other assessments, personality traits, references, professional deportment and performance track record. If it all checks out and looks positive, and someone is uncomfortable completing an emotional intelligence assessment, well I think that should be taken at face value.”

Getting senior management to buy into the importance of EI, and educating them on its use, is the key to success.

“The leaders and executives of an organization need to recognize the value and contribution emotionally intelligent people bring to the organization,” she says. “We have to eliminate terms like ‘touchy-feely’ and ‘kissy-face’ when we refer to emotional intelligence. In my experience, generally speaking, when people use those terms to refer to the non-technical side of business it’s because they themselves are not very good at interfacing with others and doing many of the things we talk about under the umbrella term of EI. They need to educate staff as to what it looks like to be emotionally intelligent, and be prepared to mentor, coach and reinforce the concepts put forth in their education programs.”

When assessing people for promotion, measuring EI can also be a valuable practice. By taking it into consideration, organizations can take steps to help staff become more aware of the benefits of being emotionally intelligent.

“When people are not demonstrating emotional intelligence, when they are behaving in a counter productive way to the people and projects, those people need to be called in on their behaviour,” she says. “People often don’t say anything to them, because they’re bringing in the numbers and getting results. But people don’t want to work with them or be with them.”

Because EI can be taught, she says, it means high-performers who are being insensitive or destructive can be helped.

“You need to be willing to help people who want to be helped develop their skills,” says Donaldson. “If someone says they hate conflict, that person might want to take some courses through the local college or university. I would like to think the company would support them in some type of a financial perspective.”

The downside

In theory, EI sounds like a wonderful tool, says John Towler, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and a senior partner with the management consulting firm Creative Organizational Design. In practice, though, he says it’s an entirely different matter.

“There is something attractive about the whole idea of helping people be more in tune with their feelings and being sensitive, and it would be a better world if that were the case,” he says. “It’s a lovely concept, but I don’t think we know how to do it. It shouldn’t play a very important role in the recruitment process because people don’t know what it is and it can’t be measured.”

Even if a reliable way is found to accurately test and measure an EI score, Towler questions how useful it would be given the vast array of stressful situations that can occur in the workplace.

“It’s one thing to find out whether this person is normally a warm, caring person,” he says. “It’s quite another to put them in a situation to find out if they retain these abilities. If their backs are against the wall, and they’re in a dangerous situation, people cave in and some go right for the jugular. Nobody lives in a state of terror all the time.”

There are also a range of practical realities that make EI irrelevant, he says. Towler gives the example of a a medical specialist he knows who would undoubtedly score poorly on any EI test.

“Would he be a better doctor if he was more attuned?” Towler says. “He might be nicer to go to as a patient, but every doctor continues to refer patients to him because he is a professional expert. His bedside manner is the pits, but that’s not required for his job. We all know people who are very self-centred. Can you change them? Probably not. The person who’s a CEO who has managed to get to the top because he is tough, aggressive and insensitive probably isn’t going to change.”

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