Easy In, Easy Out: Keeping Recruiting Simple

Jul 8, 2010

How much should we let chance and circumstances define who we hire, rather than continue to invest time in tough screening and many interviews?

In the simplest terms, should (and maybe even does?) randomness play a large role in selection? Is it better to have a loose, easy-in and easy-out hiring practice than a much tighter and thorough upfront screening process?

Many of us have read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell where he postulates that chance and “gut feel” may play a bigger role in our decision-making than we imagine. Another book, older and more rigorously researched, entitled Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb also takes a similar position.

It may be that candidates who meet certain basic criteria for a job are potentially able to perform that job equally well and, once those basic skills are determined, the only remaining need is to determine how well the candidate fits in with the hiring manager and, to a lesser degree, with the organization.

What would happen if an organization made a lot of hires quickly and then let on-the-job performance determine who should be kept and who should not?

When I think back much of the 20th century, recruiting was fairly straightforward. Most jobs were filled quickly from a large pool. The demand for credentials and specific experience were closely correlated with the type of work, and it was not hard to see why a specific skill or experience level was needed. Most jobs were filled after a brief interview with a hiring manager, who made his decision based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics. Most jobs could be learned quickly, and it was quite easy to see whether a job was being done well or not. It was easy to get rid of poor performers and plenty got fired right away. However, a lot didn’t.

There were many things wrong with this approach, but the most obvious was that it blatantly discriminated against anyone who did not fit the stereotype of the hiring manager. Greater awareness of discrimination and new legislation drove the growth of the recruiting profession and removed much of the potential injustice this system perpetuated.

But the recruiting practices had one virtue — they were simple and were built on a belief that attitude and performance were what really counted. Many engineers, doctors, and lawyers were trained in what amounts to an apprentice system right up until World War II. Formal skills training only gradually gained acceptance after the war, when thousands of GIs went back to school on the GI bill.

As we moved into the 1950s and 1960s, these more casual hiring practices were replaced by the development of job requirements: things like minimum levels of education or years of experience before a person would be considered for a position. This was seen as fairer and served as a screen against hundreds of people potentially applying for the same job.

The problem with this approach is that it is very hard to see how the defined requirements connect to actual performance. There was a presumption of fairness because the new requirements eliminated or reduced the ability to screen people out arbitrarily because of race or sex. However, we have learned over the past 40 years that people who qualify for jobs based on their education or experience alone are not necessarily good performers.

We now know that simply selecting people by generic measures like education and experience don’t work very well and discriminate against those with the real skills who do not have the required credentials. How many good performers are being denied jobs today because they lack a college degree, for example?

In a world with high unemployment and yet with a need for skilled talent, managers and recruiters are confused as to what is essential in a candidate. Is it better to go with a person who lacks a specific credential or skill, but has the right attitude? Is it best to have broad-based recruiting criteria or more and more specific ones?

So, what will we do?

Three rules seem to be forming around defining new positions as well as for redefining the more traditional ones.

Rule #1: Keep criteria simple

How much do you want to invest in perfection? Define a basic level of competence that most positions require, add on whatever minimum specific skills, experience, or education are really necessary to perform the job, and then decide based on attitude or cultural fit.

Design screening processes to be simple and flexible. Listen to your gut.

Rule #2: Be competency-flexible and teach hiring managers that development is part of recruiting.

Managers will be forced to accept that they will not be able to find candidates with 100% of what they want. Managers and HR will learn that development is a core function of the firm in the 21st century. IBM put in place a development-centered in the 1960s when they began hiring and developing new college grads because there were no people with the skills they needed. Remember there were no programmers when the first mainframes were produced, and so IBM had to develop them. Many companies have used development as a strategic edge; when you have people with skills and others don’t, you tend to win. Finding and developing current employees who have some, but perhaps not all, of the skills needed for a job will also become more common.

Rule #3: Have robust performance management systems in place.

By hiring people using broad competency descriptions, as I am advocating, you may hire some poor performers. And that’s okay. What is not okay is ignoring that and allowing them to stay in your organization. A good performance management system, based on whether people achieve realistic goals and meet the requirements of their position, is essential to success.

The hallmark of the best 21st-century organizations will be their approach to defining the people they need. Traditional measures of education, experience, attitude, and cultural fit may play a small part, but what will be significantly different is a quick, flexible approach to defining competencies combined with efficient performance management systems. This will result in more fluid and less well-defined jobs, but broader and more multi-skilled employees.

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