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Why We Should Banish Job Descriptions and Resumes

by Mar 6, 2013, 1:16 am ET

As most of you know, I think the continued use of traditional skills-infested job descriptions prevents companies from hiring the best talent available. By default they wind up hiring the best person who applies. That’s the same reason I’m against the indiscriminate use of assessment tests. While these tests are good confirming indicators of on-the-job performance, they’re poor predictors of it (square the correlation coefficient to get a sense of any test’s predictive value). Worse, they filter out everyone who isn’t willing to apply without first talking with someone about the worthiness of the position.

I was blathering on like this recently, when I not only advocated for the scuttling of traditional job descriptions and pre-assessment tests but also made the claim that traditional skills-intensive resumes were equally dangerous, since they also filter out some really good people who might be more competent, but possess a slightly different mix of skills. If the best person who applies for a job is equal to the best person who is available, this is not a problem. However, you need to consider the 80% of fully qualified passive candidates who didn’t apply, diverse candidates of different shapes and sizes, returning military vets, and high-potential candidates who are light on the skills listed when making this quality of hire assessment.

As many of you know (since you attended a recent webcast) as part of my new book I asked a senior attorney at Littler Mendelson (the top U.S. labor law firm) to validate the legal implications of using performance-based job descriptions instead of traditional skills-infested job descriptions. He documented his views in a white paper stating that performance profiles were far superior from an objectivity standpoint, and more than fully compliant.

Of course, if we banish both job descriptions, pre-assessment tests and resumes, what are we left with? Which even I consider a fair question. For the answer, I’ll go back to the first time I proposed the idea to a client more than 30 years ago.

The hiring manager was the VP/Controller of a Los Angeles-based public company. He had given me the search assignment to find a GM for one of its electronic parts distribution divisions. Preparing the performance-based job description was easy, since I have always prepared these for every search I conducted. I just got the hiring team together and asked “what does success look like?” For this position, it was increase gross margins in their core business by 20%, lead the upgrade of the distribution technology, rebuild the national sales team, and set the company up on a course to grow at least 15-20% per year for the next few years.

Then I asked the hiring team for some relief on the “10-15 years direct industry experience, at least five years of direct P&L responsibility, an MBA, deep knowledge of electronics at the component level, strong leadership skills, deep values, strong verbal and written skills, and great interpersonal skills,” if I could find someone who could meet all of the performance objectives. They tepidly agreed, but asked a fair question: how would I assess the person if we didn’t use a resume? I responded that, of course, we’ll use a resume, but we need to read between the lines, focusing more on what the person accomplished with their skills and experiences rather than the absolute level of them.

I then put five S’s on the whiteboard standing for Scope, Scale, Sophistication, Systems, and Staff. The idea was that if a person’s accomplishments were comparable on these five measures then he or she was a viable candidate. The person ultimately hired had managed a team of 200 people, was using state-of-the-art technology to manage his business, was working for a well-known manufacturing and distribution company, and had full P&L responsibility for a profitable and growing business, although a little smaller, but one he turned around. The person didn’t have 10-15 years of direct industry experience, didn’t have an MBA, had limited knowledge of electronics, and I don’t have a clue if his written communications were any better than C+.

The person was extremely successful, and after a few years become the Group VP/GM. None of this would have happened if we used a traditional job description and screened the resume on a list of skills and experience that filter out the best people. This is pretty much the same story on the subsequent 1,000 or so placements my firm made in the next 20 years.

Matching skills and experience written in a poorly thought-out job description to what’s written on a resume never seemed like a great way to start the talent acquisition process. Adding some type of pre-assessment test to further weed out the weak in an attempt to add some level of legitimacy to a flawed process seemed even more incomprehensible. Since we promote people based on their performance, why don’t we hire them the same way? That’s why we should ban descriptions, pre-assessment tests, and resumes whenever the supply of top talent is less than the demand. Which just might be always.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Tony Hogeveen

    One way to look at this is that if the responsibilities and goals of the position are well defined, there is no need at all for a list of “requirements.” Anyone that can prove that they can fulfill the responsibilities and meet the goals and performance objectives in a timely and efficient manner is an obvious good fit for the position.

  • http://www.parsonssc.com Tracey Parsons

    Lou, you and I have clearly been singing the same song for years now. The amount of waste in terms of time and dollars that can be tied to two broken documents is staggering. I like your approach and hope many others will get on board as new technologies begin to emerge to finally banish these broken documents to the waste bin.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Lou. I think that you’re operating under the belief that the a company wants to hire the objectively best person for the job, when:
    1) “Objectively” the best may mean different things to different hiring stakeholders.

    2) I think that in most occasions it isn’t who objectively IS best that’s hired, it’s who the hiring manager/team (quite subjectively with many inherent biases) thinks is the best FOR him/her.

    3) It presumes that as Tony said: “the responsibilities and goals of the position are well defined” both as they are now, and as they may be in the future. Even if the first is true, the second (with all the forethought and best intentions in the world) may not be.

    In summary: if you get buy-in to carefully consider what is really needed as opposed to what is wanted, and you have hiring managers who are willing to have you “look between the lines” for what someone is capable of as opposed to what they’ve done, then I think this is a valuable and viable alternative to the conventional JD & resume. (If you have this type of hiring environment, many alternatives are probably open to you.)
    The problem is, most hiring managers are very stuck in their conventional ways, and this may not be the battle we choose to fight for….

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • http://tryecruit.com Evan Rose

    Lou,

    This is a very interesting perspective to take. I’m focused on the entry level market which is an entirely different game than lateral. However, I’m working on a tech implementation of a very similar approach (break down the ‘between the lines’ insights in a resume rather than simple keyword search).

    One obstacle we’ve overcome is that ‘performance’ for college students isn’t as concrete as it is for someone who has been on the workforce for a while.

  • http://www.steedsgroup.com Gary Steeds

    Lou —- Good article

    Most of my candidates (Professional Engineers) PE’s, mostly passive , would scoff at doing a Pre – Assessment test for a position especially prior to speaking to someone or before the interviewing process really even starts. Talk about a quick way to foul up a developed relationship with a great passive candidate.

    As far as Job Descriptions 25 years experience has left me and Job Descriptions at distinct odds. I cannot begin to tell you how many qualified candidates have been lost to the “must have” phrase. Case in point “Must have ten years experience in Long Span Bridge Design” just lost a good client a great 9 year Long Span Bridge Designer because I had to submit a job Description to the candidate “as written”. After all that job description was written by a so-called outside professional who writes Job Descriptions as part of his HR Career functions or his claim to fame.

    Gary Steeds

  • Lou Adler

    Another take on this issue: companies are spending too much time, energy and resources at getting better at hiring the 10-15% of the fully-employed professional rather than finding and attracting the other 85-90%. This should be the difference maker for third-party recruiters. However, the process used to attract, assess and hire this bigger group is fundamentally different than the 10-15% group. For one, you can’t use skills-infested job descriptions, pre-assessment test no matter how valid (Wendell earlier makes great points on this part), and hiring managers must be fully-engaged.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Lou: You hit it right on the head “attracting”. A large number of passive candidates in pleasant functional environments are really hard to move, particularly in today’s climate where client companies display an entitlement mentality (without anything special to offer), and in today’s jobs market if it doesn’t work out there aren’t as many options as there were during the Dot.com Era. However, that’s the main role I see for excellent 3PRs: getting candidates who’d never consider talking to you to talk to you, and accept offers from you they’d never consider accepting.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • Darren Thurston

    Thanks Lou, very useful additional thoughts on your recently published Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired. It would be really useful to have the work prepared by Littler Mendelson translated to reflect the legal view of using performance-based job descriptions instead of traditional skills-infested job descriptions in other jurisdictions. As a UK-based reader having such a resource would help me convince resistors to change.
    Cheers
    Darren

  • Richard Araujo

    “I then put five S’s on the whiteboard standing for Scope, Scale, Sophistication, Systems, and Staff.”

    Never saw you mention this before, that’s a nice framework to use when evaluating people. I’ve been doing something similar but this is a nice way to formalize it for presentation and training so other people here can do it without me.

  • Lou Adler

    Darren – excellent point! Who are the primary labor law firms in the UK? Also, I’ll be at Talent Connect Europe in October to present their findings. Thanks for the idea –

    Richard – I can’t give everything away. However, in this case I actually forgot about the 5S model for comparing accomplishments. It used to be the 6S model, but I can’t remember the “S” for complexity. Regardless of how it’s spelled, the idea of comparing accomplishments from different industries is an important issue.

  • Darren Thurston

    Lou – there are a few I’d name (Clifford Chance, DAC Beechcroft, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Eversheds). I note that Littler Mendelson have international law experience and a number of contacts with UK law firms – perhaps they can recommend a firm that has a similar robust and practical view on the law that they have. I’ll keep a look-out for the Talent Connect Europe event – it would be good to hear their findings.

  • Kristen Fife

    I can certainly see the merit in changing our hiring requirements to a performance-based profile model. But you mention doing away with resumes in the title of your article, then turn around and tell us that of course you used a resume to evaluate candidates.

    Until we can learn to satisfy OFCCP, USCIS, and SOX compliance issues I don’t see the resume going away anytime soon.

  • Lou Adler

    @Kristen – if you’ve read my last post on this subject you know that David Goldstein of Littler Mendelson (#1 labor law firm in the US) has provided validation for this process including OFCCP, etc. Here’s a link to the white paper and a webcast I did with him on the topic – http://budurl.com/Littlerform

    Re: resumes – screening on skills is the problem rather than on performance. So I advocate a performance-based resume.

  • Lou Adler

    @Darren – thanks for the points!

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Lou: I think performance-based approaches amay be best when the performance is easily quantified. As an example: Let’s say you’re trying to “performance-base” teaching. If you don’t go by the level of test-scores (which many regard as being simplistic at best), how would you performance-base it? Let’s go back to your example:
    For this position,
    1) it was increase gross margins in their core business by 20%- easy to measure
    2) lead the upgrade of the distribution technology- hard to measure: What does “upgrade” mean in this context?
    3) rebuild the national sales team- hard to measure what “rebuilding” means
    4) set the company up on a course to grow at least 15-20% per year for the next few years.- easy to measure…

    It just occurred to me that performance based resumes is like the application of the old business concept of “Management By Objectives” (MBO)applied to the hiring process, not so much of the recruiters but of the candidates….

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • Lou Adler

    Keith – that’s what we get the big bucks for – going from the concept in the article to the actual job and the actual measures. For project-type work the approach is different than process type. In the latter we benchmark the top performers in the job class. The former – like it’s described in the article.

    None of it’s hard to measure, e.g., upgrade could be implement the six sigma OE process by YE and have trained 50% of the user group. Rebuild sales could be – ensure 90% of the team is at quota within six months

    There’s not one job we haven’t been able to prepare a performance-based job description for including 100,000 YMCA camp counselors or a PhD architecting chips for 2015 mobile devices.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Thanks, Lou. “What do you mean ‘we’ White Man?” as the old joke goes. But yes, it does seem you that you can come up with quantitative measures for most positions for the “if it ain’t got a number, it’ll make me slumber”- types of clients.

    Cheers,

    Keith “Keep Makin’ the Big Bucks and Show Me How, Too” Halperin

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