The Germanwings crash that killed 150 people as a psychotic co-pilot hurled the plane against a mountain underlines how important it is to have a thorough psychological assessment of job candidates, and of the potentially tragic consequences of overlooking your Human Resources Department’s advice on managing people issues.

Jim Collins (in his bestseller “From Good to Great”) told us to leave the strategy issue aside for a moment and focus on “getting the right people on the bus”, to begin with. If you have the right people, he argued, they will design the right strategy, execute it in the best way and deliver top performance.

Putting the right people in the right place has been the summary of people management for decades, and it all begins with choosing whom we are going to hire for our company. Yet, in practice, when I look at how companies recruit and select the people that they will hire, the situation is terrible, about as bad as it can get.

Everywhere I turn, I see companies using mediocre people to do their recruiting and selection. They put junior, inexperienced people to do this, not realizing that choosing the people you are taking into your organization is something of strategic importance; and in some cases, as we have tragically witnessed, it may be a matter of life and death.

Even within the HR function itself, R&S (Recruiting and Selection) is widely considered to be a “second rate” function. Compare R&S to Learning & Development or to the Reward function: usually you have the least experienced professionals doing R&S. It is usually regarded as a starting point for a career in HR; people start there and then “evolve” to more senior functions within Human Resources Management. Look at the compensation levels of HR professionals, and any survey will show that an R&S professional earns less money than his/her colleagues in other HR functions. “That’s just how the market is”, I often hear.

Yet I insist that choosing who you are going to hire is something of crucial importance: it will affect your organizational culture, your public reputation and your company’s performance for years to come. How can this be so undervalued?

Most companies treat R&S as a burden, something unpleasant that needs to be done, but few people enjoy doing. “It’s too subjective”, they say, so many companies treat it mechanically and require candidates to endure hours of psychometric testing. This, of course, is a great mistake. No amount of testing will remove the subjectivity of the selection process. What you do need is some very good, well-paid, professional interviewers; they will give you better results than any test ever will.

Tests are far from being foolproof; they are only as good as the people who design them, administer them and interpret their results. If you have idiots back to front in that process, what you get is a lousy outcome disguised as science.

When culture gets in the way

The Germanwings co-pilot who decided to take his own life and also the lives of 150 people was clearly psychotic, by definition, when he did that terrible deed. When he applied for a job, years earlier, his psychological problems were already apparent, as records show. At one point, during his training, he was deemed “unfit to fly” and directed to have psychiatric treatment. However, in circumstances not yet known, after a few months he was considered fit again and resumed his training. What went wrong in the process?

Perhaps the truth will never come out. This is one of those details that do not interest the general public, who also tend to disregard the importance of R&S. As a matter of fact, the general public tends to identify themselves with the role of a job candidate, an individual desperately seeking employment, who suddenly gets turned down by some evil HR person.

I’ve known some rather senior and educated individuals who still criticize R&S professionals, questioning “how can some psychologist decide on whether a person is fit or not for a job, when they don’t really know the person, or the industry?” Usually, of course, that sort of remark comes from someone who has experienced that kind of rejection and simply has not recovered from it.

Well, there are good reasons for psychologists to reject certain candidates. Of course, there are good and bad psychologists, like in any professions, just as you can have good and bad doctors and good or bad engineers. A psychologist is a trained professional that has been educated to assess people; if, on top of that, he or she is a sensitive and skilled professional, they can certainly assess people with accuracy. Do not underrate the importance of their advice.

In the case of the young German co-pilot there is another important aspect, which relates to a darker side of individualistic cultures. These are cultures in which individual responsibility is considered more important than belonging to a group; in which individual freedom is very valued and respect for individual privacy is also of primary importance. In most individualistic cultures, there is also present a certain level of egalitarianism (what is called a “low Power Distance”). This means that organizations have more of a “flat” structure, with less hierarchy. Typical examples of individualistic and egalitarian cultures are the Germanic cultures, the Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavian and the Dutch.

So, what’s wrong with egalitarian cultures that value individual freedom, responsibility and privacy? Well, all cultures have a bright side and a dark side to them, no culture is really better than another (forget what the media tells you). The dark side of these cultures is that abnormal behavior, as in signs of mental illness, or even behavior leading to criminal actions, easily goes by unnoticed.

It is no coincidence that we’ve recently seen cases in which children have lived captive in basements or back yard huts for decades and the neighbors simply did not see what was going on. They were minding their own business, concerned with their own individual responsibility; and they were respecting other people’s privacy. “We sometimes hear screaming and shouting coming from that house, yet there is only one person living there by himself? It’s none of our business. The neighbor’s children haven’t been seen in the past two years? None of our business. The kids stopped going to school? We should not be concerned with what is going on next door.”

In some of these cases the police was called to investigate. However, the “investigating” was limited to knocking on the front door and asking a few questions on the porch. The police are keen to avoid invading a person’s privacy, avoid abusing their own authority. And because of that, criminal activities continue undetected, mentally ill people continue unassisted, tortured by their inner monsters, suffering alone without outside help.

In individualistic cultures you also see a much higher frequency of individuals going totally crazy, having a psychotic surge and taking guns in their hands and shooting everybody at random, before killing themselves. If you look at the statistics of similar crimes in collectivistic cultures (most of Latin America, Africa and Asia), the proportion is over 10 to 1 towards such crimes being committed in individualistic cultures.

In collectivistic cultures people are more “in tune” with other members of the groups that they belong to; relationships take precedence over individual privacy; maintaining group harmony is more important than individual freedom. Therefore, communities spot deviant behavior more easily; they offer help more readily to their neighbors; they take steps towards caring for people who are mentally disturbed.

In the Germanwings case, it is most tragic to see that there were numerous warning signals present throughout the co-pilots whole life and career. He was suffering tremendously, yet assistance was very limited. His behavior was considered “normal” by many. “He’s a quiet guy, he keeps to himself”. In a collectivistic society, this would be read as “this person has a serious problem”. In an individualistic society, this is read simply as “the guy just wants to be left alone, we must respect his privacy”.

On the eve of the terrible crash, a doctor gave him a note stating that he was unfit to fly. Perhaps the doctor’s assumption was that this was enough for him to take the individual responsibility of resigning, or asking for a leave of absence. The key here is that the doctor gave HIM that responsibility! What a terrible mistake! This is like telling a psychotic individual “you are seriously ill, you should commit yourself to a hospital” and then letting him walk out of the doctor’s office with a machine gun in his hands…

In a hierarchical culture, the doctor should immediately communicate with this individual’s family and with his employer, ensuring that he would not be allowed to fly a plane and that he would resume his psychiatric treatment at once. Rather than respecting the patient’s privacy, the welfare of the community would take precedence. Rather than giving the patient responsibility, the doctor would take responsibility for ensuring that this patient would do no harm to himself or to others around him.

And even before that tragic day, where was the Human Resources department of the company, who did nothing to help the poor guy? Where was his superior officer, who did not spot the problem in spite of the signals that were being repeatedly sent out? Where were his family, friends and neighbors?

Every culture needs to realize that there is something to learn from other cultures. No culture is perfect; no culture is better than others. We do need to start looking at the dark side of our cultures and begin discussing what might be done to avoid the different kinds of tragedies that they breed. Sometimes this may be a matter of life and death.