Values-Based Talent Acquisition at NYSE Euronext

During the last week or so the news has been dominated with tales of so-called “toxic” firms, so let’s turn our focus in a more positive direction and talk about some of the good guys: the New York Stock Exchange. The NYSE? Say what? Yes, in this age of “Occupy Wall Street,” NYSE Euronext, the parent of the New York Stock Exchange, is committed to creating a workplace where human values and character strengths are recognized and rewarded. We should all be so lucky to work in such a place.

People in business sometimes get uncomfortable when talk turns to things like “values” and “virtues,” confusing them with moral judgments or religious preferences. Their discomfort is misplaced. Values are simply those things each of us hold to be important in our lives, and virtues are our strengths of character and personality. As an individual, when you align them with your job tasks, you’ve got a formula for workplace happiness and engagement.

Lisa Dzintars-Pahwul is a managing director in human resources at NYSE  Euronext who is leading a pilot project to assess applicants (in part) on character strengths that don’t always show up during a skills-based interview – things like truth, honesty, collegiality and respect for others. The belief is that by considering the right “soft skills” in addition to technical and business skills during the hiring process, they will end up with more engaged and productive employees.  “We subscribe to the principle that engaged, trusting and collaborative employees are happier, more productive employees,” Dzintars-Pahwul said. “And when our employees are happy, our customers are happy, and our customers are our highest priority.”

Easy to say, but hard to measure and put into action, right? Our grandmother told us to work with people who shared our values, but until recently there was little or no emphasis placed upon identifying such traits in the workplace. Perhaps because there was little hard proof.

This is changing rapidly, with new academic disciplines such as positive organizational scholarship and positive psychology generating valid and reliable empirical evidence that happy employees are indeed better ones. Concurrently, the Gallup organization has been revealing findings from its treasure trove of survey data showing that employees are most engaged when they use their strengths at work.  Just recently the Harvard Business Review devoted its cover to workplace happiness.

To suggest that happiness and a strengths-focus has taken corporate America by storm is a gross overstatement, however. The majority of companies seem to be still consumed by a deficit-focused mindset (had a performance review lately? Let’s find the bad stuff, right?). That is why it is so refreshing to hear about one of the most visible symbols of capitalism embracing a strengths and values-based approach to talent acquisition.

“We know that employees are happiest when they can use their personality and character strengths – whatever they are – in their jobs,”  said Dzintars-Pahwul, who holds a master’s in organizational psychology from Columbia. “Our managers are experts in business and technology, and with that in mind, they are able to interview candidates on those skills.”  The challenge, however, is to provide line management at the NYSE with specific tools to screen and identify candidates with the “soft skills” they need for specific positions.

To do so, Dzintars-Pahwul has partnered with a start-up company called EmployInsight, which created an online tool (based upon the research of famed psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson) to measure character strengths and virtues. During the pilot, a list of specific traits and attributes desired for each open position is identified with the input of line managers. After that, applicants complete an online self-evaluation of their character strengths which becomes part of an interview toolkit for hiring managers.

“Traditionally, our managers do a great job in assessing the technical and business capabilities of a candidate, but struggle a bit in evaluating their soft skills during the interview. Now, by combining a scientifically based traits assessment with a customized behavioral interview guide that we can include in our managers’  tool kit, we are able to to make better, more informed hiring decisions,” Dzintars-Pahwul said.

OK, another HR tool. We have all been there, done that, only to have it gather dust on some warehouse shelf once we HR folks go back to the home office.

Not this one, according to Dzintars-Pahwul. “It’s a home run, particularly the interview guide. Because the tool is based in science and the inputs are from both the hiring managers and the candidates, it is highly credible all around. And don’t forget – managers want to be engaged, too. Just by going through a process like this they learn more how to use their strengths and personality more effectively at work.”

The point of all this is not to suggest some new software product has revolutionized hiring or that NYSE Euronext has figured out the “one and only true way” to engage employees. There are other initiatives based upon strengths and values in the workplace and we at Talent Management want to hear about them. The point is that a critical mass of research science, computational sophistication and intrepid HR professionals such as Dzintars-Pahwul is forming, and it is changing the face of HR. We need to pay attention.