Hire people on merit and half your problems are gone

Memory NGuwi

“IF YOU want Singapore to succeed…you must have a system that enables the best man and the most suitable to go into the job that needs them…” This is what Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew said.

He was right; countries that recruit and select people on merit to fill in public service positions tend to do well economically. Government initiated reforms that tend to be driven by this cream of professional staff. Without such capable staff, even well-intentioned reforms will fail largely because incompetent people resist change. They are afraid new changes will make them worse redundant. New systems will expose their incompetence even more. They will fight well-intentioned government reform agenda. Selecting employees on merit is even more important than looking for financial resources to support the government agenda. It is a tough call but this is where reforms must start.

Research evidence shows that countries that use meritocracy in hiring staff tend to have better economic growth and less corruption. When meritocracy has taken root in our institutions economic reforms are easy to implement. Given decades of economic decline and corruption, most organisations need a cleansing process targeting the recruitment and selection process. This will ensure they start getting the best person available for each job. Remember a system that is not driven by meritocracy promote incompetent people into roles. Roughly if 15% or more of your key roles are occupied by incompetent people you can try whatever reform you want, it will take ages to even record marginal impact and eventually it will fail.

One of the human resources areas where corruption is rampant is the area of the recruitment and selection of people for jobs. People want their colleagues and relatives to get jobs in return for favour and other benefits.

This is prevalent in both the private and public sector, but more pronounced in organisations that lack proper governance structures. A cursory look at recruitment practices in this country shows that recruitment and selection corruption is prevalent in organisations that have weak recruitment and selection policies. Such policies are dominated by unscientific methods for selecting people.

In these organisations, more weight is put on qualification and experience of candidates when shortlisting candidates despite ample scientific evidence showing the two parameters have a very weak relationship with actual job performance. Such organisations dislike more scientific methods (testing for cognitive ability, personality, and integrity through psychometric tests) of selecting employees as it denies them the opportunity to bring in relatives and colleagues.

Organisations that use better recruitment and selection methods get the best talent. The organisation, stakeholders, and individuals all benefit in the process as the organisation will deliver better quality products and services to clients/customers.

Recruitment and selection of people lead to a better organisations performance. According to research by McKinsey(2007) in conjunction with Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Partners from Stanford and Harvard universities (2007) better managed firms report higher productivity and resilience to negative economic swings. In the same study, they note that multinationals across all countries studied tend to be more productive than local firms.
The reason is that they select people on merit and they have superior know-how and technology. According to the same study, countries with more multinationals tend to perform better than those without. It is noted that the competition that multinationals bring to the market” forces domestic players to improve their productivity – driving down prices, increasing demand and creating more choices for customers.”

The biggest threat to meritocracy is patronage. A recruitment process anchored on political patronage will bring incompetent people into the organisation. The cost is huge for the organisation. Due to corruption, most of the recruitment process in organisations with poor governance structures are based on patronage. The worrying part is that even for lower-level positions patronage has taken route.

I want to argue that the reason most of the poorly governed organisations are struggling is not due to lack of funding but a result of the use of a patronage system in hiring staff. This has resulted in organisations being staffed by incompetent people who are less innovative. Just reflect on any organisation that is not doing well, you will note that the major reason is low staff capacity of the people who were elevated into roles for which they have no capacity.

Zimbabwe as a country needs to embrace meritocracy in hiring people if we are to dream of economic transformation. All the countries that have implemented well known and documented economic transformations anchored such transformation on meritocracy in every part of their society including the hiring of staff. Once that has been done, the impact will be massive on the socio-economic front. This is not an easy task as incompetent managers prefer “incompetent” methods of hiring people.

Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and HR consulting firm. https://www.linkedin.com/in/memorynguwi/ Phone +263 24 248 1 946-48/ 2290 0276, cell number +263 772 356 361 or e-mail:
mnguwi@ipcconsultants.com or visit ipcconsultants.com.