Focus on merit when employing the president

By Phil Grant, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 20, 2013, at 1:28 p.m.

This past election reminded me of the powerful Civil Rights Act, legislated in the early 1960s, which contained a transformative protocol on equal employment opportunity, or EEO. This law affected nearly all labor practices in American organizations.

Basically the EEO law, as amended a number of times since the original version, says that a company cannot use race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, familial status, age or disability as criteria in hiring, firing, promotion decisions, work assignment decisions and most other phases of employment. The basis for any employment decision must be merit — performance, or expected performance, of a particular job. That is, employment decisions must be job related.

EEO law implies that nonperformance related criteria of any kind should not be used in employment decisions. Personality traits, dress and personal behaviors at work should not affect an employment decision unless a case can clearly be made that the factor is job related.

This law has proven worthy for substantially reducing organizations’ discrimination, or bias, in employment processes. It has also proved very valuable as an aid to businesses, helping them be more profitable. This is because the law motivates business to focus on the only thing, with respect to employees, that really affects the bottom line anyway — their performance.

However, it strikes me how little attention we pay to the EEO concept, or its benefits to society, when selecting a president or, for that matter, when selecting any other elected official. Of course, we do not have any EEO law related to presidential selection and perhaps shouldn’t. But would it not be wise for us voters to think in terms of EEO law and its emphasis on performance, or expected performance, when choosing a president?

As is the case in business, would we not improve our selection, generally picking a better person for president, if we based our candidate choice on performance, or expected performance, of the job of president? Wouldn’t our selection of a president lead to greater success for our nation if we picked the person most likely to succeed at the job of president?

Perhaps we should include this EEO, job-related, performance-based focus in our education of citizens. We could teach the importance of this concept in helping assure the best choice; we could teach in high school civics classes some of the mechanics of how each citizen can apply performance-based criteria when thinking about candidate selection.

What really startled me is how often exit interviews with voters revealed they had made a choice for president using a very limited number of nonperformance-based criteria — or at least some criteria that would be questionable in relation to the nature of the job or performance on the job. Almost always the criteria mentioned were far short of representing the total job and, therefore, were insufficiently performance-based.

People frequently said such things as, “my choice for president was based on demeanor during the debates” or on “oratorical skills.” Other reasons included the following: support for Israel, likability, apparent trustworthiness, the university graduated from, personal appearance, quality of family, financial status, genuineness of smile or ethnic background. Many of these criteria do not have a whole lot to do with performance, or expected performance, on the job. Any few of them used together would not come close to representing the whole job.

The EEO law helps avoid bias and helps ensure a quality decision as to who will be successful on the job by encouraging you to use quality predictors of performance on the particular job of reference — not general criteria but criteria specific to the unique responsibilities of the job for which you are hiring.

Ability, knowledge or skills possessed by the candidate, pertinent to the job, would generally be appropriate as predictors. Trial employment, such as Barack Obama’s first term, or Mitt Romney’s stint as governor in Massachusetts, would be a good predictor. Any evidence of candidates’ performance of responsibilities, the same or similar to those in the presidential job description, would be job-related, or performance-based. Certainly, at a minimum, we could publish and distribute to all voters a copy of the presidential job description to guide a performance-based decision.

We don’t seem to put performance-based criteria uppermost in our minds when we study the candidates and go into the voting booth. Does this help explain why approximately 50 percent of our citizenry are not particularly happy with the choice of president or why 50 percent or more of the people become quickly disenchanted with the president after election? We really can’t expect high performance from the president if we don’t select the candidate predicted, with sufficient, prioritized job-related criteria, to be the highest performer.

I think EEO law could teach us something about how to acquire better presidents. It may well be undemocratic to legislate how to choose a president, but perhaps we should be giving our citizens, while they are in school, some help understanding the total job of president, the importance of job-related criteria and on how to think in these terms. The whole concept has clearly proved its value for fair employment of our citizens and for the success of American businesses.

Phil Grant is professor emeritus at Husson University and author of 10 books, including “The Mathematics of Human Motivation.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/20/opinion/contributors/focus-on-merit-when-employing-the-president/ printed on August 27, 2014