In the struggle to recruit and retain good staff, we should all be a bit more thoughtful …
I was on a plane recently and I found myself sitting next to the managing director of a large company. We started to talk about how psychology can improve the way in which people are managed, or, to be more precise, what psychology can do to ginger up the selection and development process, and how this feeds through into strategic planning. The MD said he knew exactly what sort of people he needed to grow the business. He looked for those who were open to change, who were willing to work as part of a team, who wanted to learn new skills, and who, above all, wanted to engage with his vision of the future.

The MD, in his own way, was endorsing the view that the promotion of things like commitment, motivation and the desire to learn have a direct link to the bottom line – in short, that good business psychology makes good business sense.

Now, as a business psychologist, I can tell you that this guy is not unusual. But he would be, if he worked in many companies in the construction and engineering sector. I can say this because I have been around the block with a number of the UK's largest companies, advising on finding, developing and keeping key players. And, by the way, business psychologists do exist. What makes us different from plain psychologists – or for that matter most management consultants – is that we bring together the practical bits of psychology, the bits that work, with a first-hand understanding of what makes businesses tick.

Let me paint you a picture. The personnel or human resources department generally deals with people matters, but over the years it has become the dumping ground for all sorts of problems, or as they are often called, initiatives. These days the harrassed HR professional is mired in the minutiae of company car policy (why is your car bigger than mine?), the delivery of "Investors in People" status and other badge-worthy wheezes, and generally smoothing feathers every which way. Meanwhile, bubbling away in the background, there are succession planning issues, severe recruitment problems and multiple unfilled vacancies. Many organisations resemble not so much well-oiled machines as Swiss cheeses. And this begs the question: why doesn't construction learn lessons from other industries?

Here's an example. I am currently working with a construction company that requires a large number of graduate engineers and quantity surveyors. These are difficult people to find, especially if you don't start looking early. And by early, I mean way before someone graduates. In other sectors of the economy firms build up a pool of prospective employees by using a progressive communications programme. Put simply, they go out of their way not only to sponsor students but to "warm up" all potential employees using direct mail, email and so forth.

Working people into the ground and being totally inflexible will clear the desks nicely

Why doesn't the industry sponsor more students? It's a lot more cost effective in the long run. And if you can't find enough quantity surveyors, for example, why not recruit from other disciplines and convert? Let's face it, there are enough graduates from business courses to stretch to the moon and back. Why not take some of these commercially minded folk and turn them into surveyors?

And another example.

A while ago I was involved with a big housebuilding firm that put a great deal of effort into finding and selecting the right sort of people but then abandoned them, more of less, to their own devices. I know what this feels like. I once got a job where on the first day I was pointed at a desk and told to get on with it. Get on with what? Unfortunately, this induction technique is still alive and well. Even more unfortunately, a "sink or swim" approach usually leads to people quitting, especially today's enlightened graduates. Likewise, working people into the ground, being totally inflexible and treating training as an inconvenience will clear the decks quite nicely.