Hire for attitude, train for skill is a common mantra of many managers. The general assumption is that people can be trained to perform the technical responsibilities for most jobs, but they cannot be instilled with the attitude, disposition or personality aspects necessary for successful performance.
The belief that attitudes predict performance better than cognitive ability is pervasive, even though research has shown repeatedly that cognitive ability is a better predictor of performance for new employees. Indeed, the more appropriate mantra should be hire for attitude and skill.
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to find individuals who possess all of the desirable attributes, and thus, some degree of compromise is generally required. A recent study (Tracey, Sturman & Tews 2007) found that while both general mental ability (GMA) and conscientiousness predicted performance of restaurant employees on the front line, they were important at different stages of an employee’s job tenure.
Using data from 241 line-level restaurant employees, the researchers found that general mental ability was a better predictor of performance for new employees, whereas conscientiousness was a better predictor of performance for experienced employees.
This finding makes intuitive sense. When individuals are new to their jobs, they focus on learning the fundamental task requirements and gaining information required to perform their basic job duties. Once they have achieved proficiency, their GMA becomes less important and other individual characteristics, such as personality, determine how well they sustain their performance. GMA remains important, but other factors may be more relevant for job performance as time unfolds.
These findings have direct implications for staffing decisions, as well as new employee training and development and performance management. Again, while it is clearly desirable to hire applicants who score high on both GMA and conscientiousness, most decision makers are not afforded that luxury. How to proceed will depend on one’s circumstances.
If, for example, one is hiring in a seasonal business where turnover is 100 percent at the end of the season (that is, within six months), these results suggest that GMA be emphasised in the hiring process. However, in an organisation whose employees have relatively long tenure, the potential benefits of seeking out conscientious employees increase. In this restaurant sample, where tenure averaged two years, GMA and conscientiousness should be weighted nearly equally in a selection decision. For frontline staff whose tenure is expected to exceed two years, conscientiousness may be given the greater emphasis.
Tracey, J. B., Sturman, M. C. & Tews, M. J. (2007). Ability versus personality: factors that predict employee job performance. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48, 313-322.