Technologies that screen potential employees, such as interactive telephone questionnaires and computer-assisted interviewing modules, are simplifying, speeding and standardizing the hiring process for many retailers and wholesalers.In addition, such systems' ability to quickly identify the best prospects within a large group of applicants has the potential to raise standards in "mass hire" situations,

Technologies that screen potential employees, such as interactive telephone questionnaires and computer-assisted interviewing modules, are simplifying, speeding and standardizing the hiring process for many retailers and wholesalers.

In addition, such systems' ability to quickly identify the best prospects within a large group of applicants has the potential to raise standards in "mass hire" situations, such as new store openings and seasonal employment.

Long-time users of screening technologies report that they are a factor in reducing employee turnover. Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., has used computer-assisted interviewing since late 1992, and currently uses it in all 1,185 of its stores, said Mickey Clerc, vice president of public relations.

"It allows us a standardized, structured interview, and has generally helped us reduce turnover," said Clerc. "We use it in all retail hiring chainwide."

In addition, the use of such technology can reveal information about applicants that a human interviewer might have difficulty uncovering.

Use of a computer-assisted interviewing system, for example, lets a retailer ask "all the questions human interviewers don't want to ask, about things like attendance and substance abuse," said Heather Kochem, computer-assisted interviewing project manager at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.

"In addition, research has shown that an individual is likely to tell a computer the honest truth more often than they would tell a human interviewer, because computers don't judge them," Kochem added.

Price Chopper began a three-month test of screening technologies early last month, said Kochem. The retailer is using both an interactive telephone questionnaire and a CAI module for hiring part-time employees at 12 stores.

The phone interview is the applicant's initial contact with the retailer, Kochem explained. "They call a toll-free number and are asked approximately 30 questions, both general employment questions and those specific to the supermarket industry," she said.

If the applicant qualifies, the system schedules a CAI interview at a Price Chopper store. Applicants who don't qualify can try again two more times if, for example, their availability for work changes, said Kochem.

The telephone system asks applicants their zip code and generates a list of stores in a 15- to 20-mile radius, helping funnel people to stores they could easily reach if hired.

Qualifying applicants come into a store for a CAI interview on a PC, which lasts 45 to 60 minutes and consists of as many as 100 questions. Applicants are graded in three areas: job analysis, behavioral dimension analysis and position analysis.

"Behavioral dimension analysis helps us understand what's necessary, from a behavioral standpoint, on a particular job," said Kochem. In order to identify these traits, Price Chopper and the CAI supplier surveyed current "solid performers" among the chain's cashiers, perishables and nonperishables associates, said Kochem.

Cashiers, for example, might need "everything from attention to detail, to frustration tolerance, to memory, to teamwork, to stress tolerance," she said. "If you can't deal with stress, how does that reflect on your ability to provide quality customer service?"

"When screening potential candidates, an employer wants to know if they possess the right kind of competencies for the job," said John Jarvis, director of human resources at Lowes Food Stores, Winston-Salem, N.C. "But when you're interviewing somebody, you only get the little part of the iceberg that's on top of the water. You don't get into the underlying stuff, and that's where the competencies come in."

While Lowes doesn't currently use technology-based screening methods, the 99-store chain will be piloting a pen-and-paper applicant test in one market early next year, said Jarvis. Lowes' use of computer-based training, which has helped reduce cashier training costs by about 50% while maintaining productivity levels, has established an infrastructure for its potential use of CAI technology. The screening test "will be designed so it can be incorporated into an electronic solution," Jarvis said.

The standardization of both CBT and screening technology appeals to Jarvis. "When a company is dispersed geographically as we are, these types of systems provide consistency," he said. "If you have 99 stores, you have 99 interviewers and 99 trainers. The main reason we adopted CBT was for consistency of instruction."

Technology is also helping retailers and wholesalers screen out unqualified applicants early in the process, saving time in mass hire or other high-volume situations.

Minneapolis-based Supervalu's customer-service center in Aurora, Colo., has been operating for just over a year, and has used a telephone screening technology both for its initial staffing and its continuing needs, said Beth Sheldahl, human resources manager.

The center has 110 employees and needs to bring on as many as 20 new associates every six weeks, Sheldahl said.

Use of the telephone screening system, which provides Supervalu with a brief profile of qualified applicants, has "saved us a lot of time and allowed us to operate without so much paper."

Another part of Supervalu's interviewing process is to show applicants videos of typical customer-service situations and ask them how they would react. Sheldahl believes the combination of telephone and in-person screening methods is one factor that has helped the center keep its turnover to 29% for its first year of operation.

"Customer-service call center environments typically have turnover of 80% to 90% or more," she explained.

Use of a sophisticated telephone interviewing system has helped Stew Leonard's Dairy Store, Norwalk, Conn., raise the level of seasonally hired employees at its gift center, which processes orders for items such as fruit and cheese baskets.

This mail-order operation does the vast majority of its business from Nov. 1 to Jan. 1, according to Jim Bertoluzzi, vice president of human resources.

"In years past, we would use temporary agencies to get people for data input, customer service and customer relations jobs," he said. "It was unsuccessful because we couldn't find the appropriate people and we had high turnover even in that short period of time."

The retailer began a pilot program this year to hire its seasonal gift center employees in-house, using a telephone screening system. Initial results are so promising that Bertoluzzi plans to expand its use to all departments of the retailer's Norwalk store by the end of this month, rather than in January 1998 as originally planned.

"The success so far has been that the gift center's operations manager says she's getting a higher-quality employee than she ever had before," said Bertoluzzi. "Because of that high quality, the training is happening quicker and sticking faster.

"If you get the right person in the job the first time, you don't have as much turnover, and they're doing the job correctly," he added.

The telephone screening process has several levels. Its initial tier consists of pre-employment questions, such as applicants' eligibility to work in the United States, willingness to adhere to Stew Leonard's grooming policy and to take a drug test if they are offered a job.

Any incorrect response in this initial part of the process terminates the interview, said Bertoluzzi. The next tier identifies the jobs that are open and allows applicants to choose which one they want to apply for.

"The interview is specific for each type of job," Bertoluzzi explained. "For example, we ask people, with a voice prompt, to tell us what they think great customer service looks like," Bertoluzzi added. "It's not that we're so interested in their response, but we want to hear what their voice sounds like. We need to know if a person can be clear, concise and able to communicate over the phone."

In September alone, the system fielded calls from 226 applicants. Only 99 made it past the first tier, and of those 99, Bertoluzzi was able to schedule in-person interviews with the group that had the greatest opportunity for success based on their responses.

This ability to pluck potentially excellent employees from a large group is the system's strongest asset, said Bertoluzzi.

"Typically, if an employer has an opening for 20 people, the first 20 that look good will be hired," said Bertoluzzi. "But the best people may have been in the last group. This way we can select the best 20 from all 226, but we could never have brought in all 226 people to talk to them.