The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined, who went to see the elephant though all of them were blind.

Everyone remembers this poem, right? Each of the men touched a different part of the elephant, then described how he thought the animal looked. One man said the elephant is very much like a rope, another man said it’s like a tree, a third man said the elephant is like a wall. Six men described the elephant in six different ways.

In Los Angeles, managers in budgetary departments are responsible for hiring employees. They are, of course, expected to follow the rules. But the way they bungle this duty makes one think they, like the men in the poem, may be blind.

Consider, for example, that the Department of Animal Services hires all its 311 employees on a one-size-fits-all, trait-rating form. It uses that form to record the fitness of Veterinarians, Accountants, Management Analysts, Animal Control Officers, Public Relations Specialists, and 216 other employees in 20 different job classifications. Like most City departments, Animal Services tramples the rule that, to be legally defensible, selection practices must be clearly job-related.

And consider the Los Angeles City Zoo. It hires 212 employees from 61 separate eligible lists. It uses a phony working test to document the fitness of Zoo Curators, Custodians, Park Services Attendants, Light Equipment Operators, and Painters. It uses that same phony test to document the fitness of all its other employees in 56 different job categories. Zoo management seems to forget that employees in 61 separate classifications perform a bewildering array of tasks. Their individual job performance cannot be measured with a single, trait-based rating form.

But no City department can match the Police Department’s massive attack on common-sense selection practices. The Department currently maintains a civilian workforce of 3,328 employees. It’s a safe bet that virtually all of them were hired on the basis of a meaningless, trait-based rating. If that is the case, it means those 3,328 civilian employees passed probation, achieved career status, and gained property rights to their jobs without having been fully tested.

In City Service, department heads don’t take employment decisions as seriously as they should. They don’t, for example, consider what an appointment might ultimately cost the people of Los Angeles. An authoritative book, Accountability in Human Resource Management, cites a study which found that, given a 30-year career, an employee could cost the employer 160 times his/her starting salary.

If that finding is valid for City Service, an employee who gets a starting salary of $20,000 a year, and who stays with the City for 30 years, could ultimately cost the taxpayers $3,200,000! And even if that figure is somewhat exaggerated, it gives appointing authorities throughout the City organization a reason to base every hiring decision — not on a phony trait list — but on a job-related working test.

Send your questions and comments to samuelmsperling@yahoo.com.