STAR SEARCH

Good help has always been hard to find. But with unemployment at rock-bottom levels, some human resource departments have turned to the next generation of hiring and training tools to catch and keep good staffers.Decision-support systems, used in conjunction with well-stocked databases, are traditionally used by retailers and wholesalers for functions ranging from merchandising and category management

Good help has always been hard to find. But with unemployment at rock-bottom levels, some human resource departments have turned to the next generation of hiring and training tools to catch and keep good staffers.

Decision-support systems, used in conjunction with well-stocked databases, are traditionally used by retailers and wholesalers for functions ranging from merchandising and category management to pricing and promotion decisions.

A few companies, however, are extending decision support's benefits to the human resources area, with prescreening software that evaluates personality traits, and interactive training systems that can find future "stars," track employees' development, limit turnover and reduce the retailer's exposure to liability.

An automated telephone prescreening process, for example, helped Shop 'N Save, St. Louis, eliminate 3,775 unnecessary job interviews during a three-month period.

Dick's Supermarket, Platteville, Wis., uses internally developed software that tracks employees' training and areas of interest to help find appropriate candidates for new job openings. In addition, retailers such as Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, and Furr's Supermarkets, Albuquerque, N.M., are evaluating the use of automated systems for hiring and training functions.

Psychological assessments have emerged as the darling of companies in many industries in search of the perfect employee. The latest Job Skill Testing and Psychological Management survey from the American Management Association International (AMA), New York, found that respondents' use of psychological testing to assess individual abilities and predict future behavior rose by almost 10 percentage points, to 48.1% in 1998.

Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents now include personality measurements as part of their psychological evaluation, up from 19.3% in 1997.

Wholesalers and retailers lead the pack in the combined use of psychological measurements; 58.5% of these respondents assessed cognitive abilities, interest inventories, managerial assessments, personality measurements and physical ability in 1998, while only 39.2% did so in 1997.

"In a tight labor market, a good person is harder to find," explained Eric Greenberg, director of management studies at the AMA. "You want to give yourselves an edge, and human resource managers think this is the way to do it. You want to increase the chances of making the right hire the first time."

Hiring the wrong person for the job can be costly. Along with the immediate costs of re-interviewing candidates, having the wrong person in a slot -- or no one at all -- can leave a lasting, negative impression on customers.

And the wrong person gets the job all too often. A 1993 survey conducted by the AMA for The Wall Street Journal found that 22% of respondents had fired a newly hired professional or manager within the first three months of that individual's employment.

"Retail employers are definitely looking into examining competency models -- knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors -- and trying to link them to their human resource practices," said Stacey Kaplan, practice leader at the Human Resources Strategies Group, ABC Consulting Practice of the Michigan practice of Deloitte & Touche.

"There are a number of software products out there to help them do this, and they're getting more popular all the time," she added.

The automated prescreening process used by Shop 'N Save, which saved the retailer nearly 1,000 man-hours of interviewing time during a three-month period, gave applicants a 24-hour toll-free number to apply for positions as cashiers, grocery and perishables clerks in one of the chain's 33 stores. Using a touch-tone phone, callers answered a two-tiered series of questions by pressing "one" to answer Yes, or "two" to answer No. The first tier of questions asked applicants questions typically found in employment applications regarding experience and availability. If they satisfied the retailer's eligibility standards, a second set of questions sought out candidates that best matched the client's culture, and assessed personality characteristics necessary to do particular jobs in a productive manner. All applicants were asked the same questions, all of which were job-related, to eliminate the possibility of unintended bias on the part of a local manager.

Callers who met the retailer's criteria were passed on to human resources by the third-party prescreening company. Shop 'N Save ultimately had to interview only 1,500 applicants, said John Dougherty, the retailer's vice president of human resources. These new hires, he said, more closely matched the retailer's profile of the ideal worker. "The quality is much better," he noted.

Dick's Supermarket, operated by Brodbeck Enterprises, has used internally written software to supplement traditional methods of assessment to place employees since the 1970s, said Barry Brodbeck, vice president of human resources.

Databases keep track of which training classes an employee has taken as well as interest inventories. So, for example, when a position opens up for a product manager, Dick's human resources department can query the database for individuals who fit the bill.

"It helps with the decision-making," Brodbeck said. "It really streamlines the process." More than 1,000 employees work at Dick's eight stores.

Hannaford Bros. is currently evaluating different decision-support systems for its human resources department, said Barbara Metivier, manager of human resources and payroll systems. A decision is expected by the end of the year.

"Some of the systems available have a great amount of analytical capabilities," she said.

Furr's Supermarkets, Albuquerque, N.M., also may examine the feasibility of a decision-support system next year. "We could use this to find out who is more likely to fit into a certain type of job," said John Granger, vice president of management information systems at Furr's. "Some personalities work better in different environments. You want to ferret out the ones that don't fit."

Although Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., has elaborate decision-support systems in place for merchandising and advertising, no similar systems are in place for hiring and training, said Paul Nicholson, vice president of finance and management information systems.

Even if the company did, Nicholson said, he's not sure such tools would be helpful right now. "The [labor] market is awfully tight," he said. "We don't have the luxury of having a profile for an ideal employee."