On the Importance of Taming Hiring Managers

Apr 30, 2010

In an earlier life, and at a relatively young age, I was running a business group with more than 300 people for a Fortune 500 company. Primarily out of greed, I became a recruiter, and quickly did far better than working for a living. Things fell apart when I started taking on assignments I knew little about. I’ve summarized these trials and tribulations in Hire With Your Head. An alternative title could have been How to Tame Hiring Managers, but this would have limited the audience. Regardless, that’s what the book is about.

The idea behind it was to get hiring managers to do the right thing, which conceptually is easy, less so in practice. With this perspective, here’s the short list of how hiring managers mess up the hiring process and why they need some tough love to get it right:

  1. They complain they don’t have time to describe real job needs. Of course, it takes extra effort to hire a top-notch person, and no effort to fill a seat with a sub-par person. So take your choice.
  2. They haven’t thought through real job needs and instead rely on skills-infested job descriptions to screen candidates. Their counter to this is that they’ll know the person when they see him, so this is okay. My counter to their counter is top people want to know what they’ll be doing before they agree to meet, so you need to think through the job ahead of time and tell the recruiter why the job is a step-up, not lateral.
  3. They knowingly let candidates accept offers without giving the candidate the true story about the job, about their management style, what the culture is actually like, and how they’ll be judged. In my mind this is unconscionable. For example, being responsible for developing the material selection for an advanced product line is not the same as conducting an exhaustive evaluation of different metals 45 days after starting, with no budget, when it normally requires six months and a fully staffed research lab to do this properly.
  4. They exclude good people for superficial reasons based on flawed assessment techniques, rather than their inability to consistently deliver the results required for on-the-job success. In my mind hiring top people should not a game of chance.
  5. They hire underperformers for superficial reasons, like strong handshakes, strong communications, strong academics, strong first impression, affability, etc., rather than their ability to meet the results required for on-the-job success.
  6. They narrowly focus on the wrong stuff. It takes more than technical brilliance, affability, strong communication skills, and a great personality to consistently deliver high-quality results. While these are often necessary, they’re certainly not sufficient. Worse, even if they are necessary, you can’t assess them properly in 30 minutes.

Now sometimes hiring managers don’t have enough time. If not, they’re in a Catch-22 of being forced to make short-term decisions just to get the spot filled. More often than not, it is lack of good managerial ability and the use of traditional job descriptions to screen and select candidates. The problem with this is that the best people, even if they have the skills, are rarely looking for lateral transfers, so they never apply. The best people with fewer of the skills listed, or a different mix of them, who might see the job as a career move, won’t apply since the job spec indicates they’re not qualified. Collectively, this makes no sense if a company wants to hire better people.

With this in mind here are some ideas on how to tame your hiring managers and in the process see and hire more top performers.

  1. Implement a raising the talent bar committee. Don’t let managers who aren’t able to hire people stronger than themselves make the decision alone. Either include the manager’s boss, or create a raising-the-talent-bar team, with one member involved in every hiring decision to ensure talent standards are always met.
  2. Give managers quality-of-hire objectives. Make hiring top people part of the manager’s performance objectives and review process. Some of the metrics as part of this must include team turnover and job satisfaction and performance reviews.
  3. Use a performance management process to write job descriptions. Have your company require all managers to provide new hires their performance objectives on the day they start. Use these as the screening and selection criteria, instead of job descriptions. Most managers are weak at clarifying expectations, so this logical step eliminates this problem in the bud.
  4. Create the employee value proposition before starting the search. If the person is not looking, and/or has multiple offers before starting the search, ask managers why a top person would want this job. Generic statements are not acceptable. It must describe what the person can learn, will be doing, and could become, if successful. To highlight the importance of the position, tie it to the company strategy or a major project.
  5. Conduct exploratory interviews before the in-person interview. Don’t let managers talk with the candidate in-person first. Ever. More mistakes are made in the first 30 minutes of the interview than any other time. An exploratory interview over the phone starts as a two-way dialogue among equals. It allows candidates to evaluate the job from a career-move perspective before deciding to be seriously considered a candidate. Adding online video minimizes the impact of first impressions, so there’s a double-benefit with this type of exploratory interview. (We’re now launching a beta test combining an exploratory interview with video, so email me if you’d like to consider participating. We’ll be taming hiring managers in the process.)
  6. Control the first 30 minutes of the in-person interview. I worry that managers will become distracted during the critical first 30 minutes when they meet the candidate in-person. To minimize the impact of first-impression-related errors, I ask the candidate to write a quick summary of two major accomplishments related to actual job needs. I then ask hiring managers to review these right after conducting a quick work history review. As part of this, I highlight things in the candidate’s resume I want them to focus on. This allows me to know what goes on behind closed doors without actually being there.
  7. Conduct more panel interviews. With hiring managers I’m really worried about, I lead the first interview between the candidate and the hiring manager. The way I can be sure biases are held in check and we both can focus on the candidate’s ability to deliver consistent results. Interestingly, this is always a second evaluation interview for me, and frequently my assessments of the candidates changes dramatically — some getting better, some worse. As a result, I always suggest hiring managers meet with their final candidates at least two separate times alone, and once in a panel interview.
  8. Formal debriefing program. Under no circumstances add up a bunch of yes/no votes to decide whom to hire. This is akin to a popularity contest. Instead, use some time of formal talent scorecard system covering a broad range of factors. Assign different interviewers different factors and make them share and justify their rankings using evidence, not feelings. (Email me if you’d like to review the scoring system I describe in Hire With Your Head.)

Hiring is too important to leave to chance, yet most companies do just that by letting unsophisticated hiring managers run wild in a scarce population of in-demand top performers. A end-to-end companywide hiring process based on the needs of top people is one way to tame your hiring managers. Not only will you increase your share of the best talent available, but you’ll also turn your hiring managers into your best friends.

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