12th September 2022
We chat with Thomas Ormerod from the University of Sussex about his venture RecruitR, which aims to improve recruitment decision-making. This project is part of the Aspect Research Commercialisation (ARC) Accelerator 2022 Cohort.
Q: What is your academic background and what are you currently working on?
I’m a professor of psychology and I have spent most of my career studying various forms of problem solving, decision-making and expertise. Some of that is related to creativity and insight, some of it is related to work domains like investigative interviewing and critical decision-making. At the moment, I’m working on a computational model of insight problem solving, but the thing that is relevant to ARC is that I’m working on the psychology of recruitment decision-making.
Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this idea?
I did a lot of work over the last 10 years on interviewing in criminal justice contexts, security screening, etc. I realised that recruitment was an interesting domain in which to apply the same materials, because it is estimated that something like 20% of all CVs have misinformation or downright lies on them, and there is no technique out there for training interviewers in effective interviewing for recruitment, particularly to determine whether the account that people give is truthful or not.
So that is what started it, but since then, it has broadened considerably to look less at detecting deception and impression management, and more at the whole process of recruitment decision-making. I have found, to my surprise and almost shock, there was virtually no empirical, published research on the recruitment process. There is a lot of stuff on personality testing and bias, but there is almost nothing on how people make good and bad decisions during recruitment processes, how best to support them, etc.
As a consequence, what I have been finding out during the ARC programme is that a lot of companies are abandoning traditional recruitment processes and outsourcing all their recruitment to agencies that use computer based selection tools. My problem with that is that it just pushes the problem down the pipeline. If you focus purely on recruitment as being a supply problem, you miss out the fact that you have got to work harder to make sure you make the right choices.
Q: What does your venture aim to achieve and how does it tackle the issue?
I have tried to do two main things. The first is to deliver a training intervention to improve recruitment decision-making. My minimum viable product for that is a two hour training on basics of effective recruitment interviewing. I have also got a larger training product based around being an effective interviewer and training for HR managers in how to give guidance and training themselves on interviewing. I’m working on a training package that looks at other areas, like shortlisting, pre-interview testing and the big one, which is post-interview decision-making.
I say it’s the big one, because imagine, for example, a typical academic interview, where you have a panel of four people, who will usually shortlist around four candidates for a single job. They will then call their references, they will give them a pre-interview test, they will interview them and then they will try and make a decision. So that is four panellists, times four interviewees, times four interview performances, times four pre-test performances, times four CVs, times four references per candidate, all to be mapped onto the person specification and job description. Usually, at the end of the day, when they have interviewed everybody, they are tired. As a consequence, it is an almost impossible cognitive activity, even if you are fully alert, and yet, there is no support out there for post-interview decision-making.
My solution involves partly training and putting in place a process. The other main aspect of my venture is to develop software support tools, so software as a service. To that end, I have just secured a bit of pump priming money from my university to build a demonstrator for post-interview decision-making support.
Q: Who would be your ideal customer or user?
I have different offerings for different audiences. Companies with their own HR departments would certainly be amenable to a training and a tool-based support idea. My idea is to ultimately develop a suite of tools that are integrated as one and that take you through all the 12 stages of recruitment – from job specification right through to induction.
Recruitment agencies would be interesting as partners in the venture as they could provide support to develop the software and the training, and make it more widespread. Then there are individual SMEs, who would be orientated towards the training interventions. But in principle, you could provide the services either on a corporate basis or on an individual basis, both are feasible.
Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life?
Well, it is giving me a lot of information I didn’t have and it is structuring my thinking about different aspects that I hadn’t thought about, for example, things like market validation and market research plan. These are really useful stages to think about and the programme is making me more orderly.
I said, rather cheekily, to Chris Fellingham and Roger Frosh in our first catch up, that the ARC Accelerator has been extremely successful in destroying any confidence I had in my business model. I meant it as a compliment, because I had a naive business model, which was that everyone wants to be trained on how to be a good interviewer. But actually, a lot of people that I have spoken to have said that they know interviewing is so bad and we know we cannot do it, so we outsource our recruitment to recruitment agencies. To me, this is just pushing the problem away and down the pipeline. One company’s HR person that I spoke to said how great it is that they have outsourced all their recruitment, but funnily enough, their graduate trainees used to last three years and they last six months now.
Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far?
I think that all the sessions have been useful. I haven’t been able to attend absolutely all of them, but they have all been useful. Probably the most useful have actually been the catch up sessions, where I have had one-on-one attention. I have found those very, very useful, for example my meetings with Roger Fosh, Tony Walker and Morven Fraser-Walther. I found those have really put me on the spot, focused me and given me lots of thoughts and ideas. I suppose what I would say is that I gained most from the mentoring aspects of the programme.
Commercialisation is new to me. I mean, I have tried in the past and failed miserably. I tried to commercialise my aviation security screening training and it was basically just stolen by a couple of airlines, so I had my fingers horribly burned on that. At ARC, I have learned a lot about market validation and, as I have already referred to, about realising that my understanding of what I had to offer was not necessarily the same thing as my potential clients’ understanding of what they want. Part of the problem is that they don’t really know that they need what I am offering, but then why should they. So I have gone from a focus on choosing the right candidate and detecting that they are genuine in what they are offering to focusing on being able to select candidates with values and integrity that match the organisation. This is the really tough bit as you can test knowledge, skills and experience, but it’s much harder to test values and integrity. So, focusing my pitch less on recruiting the candidate, and more on things like meeting EDI goals for a company.
Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your work or research?
I’m a bit of an oddity in this way, because I’m a normal professor, I have research, teaching and admin responsibilities, but my admin responsibility is specifically to set up a thing called the Applied Behavioural Science Unit in the School of Psychology at Sussex, where my job is to provide a set of services based around our psychological research to non-academic organisations. I’m learning a lot from the ARC Accelerator programme about how to do that more effectively, so it is actually quite explicitly relevant to my general job.
Q: Where can we go to learn more?
You can get in touch via the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
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