Jul 29, 2013
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Recruiting is full of practices that seem to last forever. Unfortunately, many practices endure for years despite the fact that they add no value to the hiring process. I call these well-established practices “sacred cows” because many lon-gtime recruiters and hiring managers vigorously defend them even though both company and academic data shows that they should be discarded.

The need to identify and then kill these sacred cows was reinforced recently by some compelling research data revealed by Google’s head of HR, Laszlo Bock. For example, extensive data from Google demonstrated that five extremely common recruiting practices (brainteaser interview questions, unstructured interviews, student GPAs or test scores, and conducting more than four interviews) all had zero or minimal value for successfully predicting the on-the-job performance of candidates. But despite this hard data, practices like brainteaser interview questions will likely continue for years.

Recruiting Has a Long, Checkered History of Silliness

If you are new to recruiting you probably don’t realize how many silly or discriminatory recruiting practices existed for decades without any data supporting their value. For most of the last century in fact it was quite common for recruiting to openly use practices that would be laughed at today. Can you think of a valid justification for any of the following long-term “sacred cow” recruiting practices?

  • Requiring a picture on applications and resumes
  • Requiring decisions based on a lie detector test
  • Requiring IQ, Myers-Briggs, and personality tests
  • Refusing to hire based on pregnancy or the chance of becoming pregnant
  • Automatically refusing to hire relatives citing nepotism
  • Refusing to hire based on sexual orientation
  • Refusing to hire someone because of their physical appearance (overweight, long hair, tattoos, or body piercings)
  • Requiring every applicant to pass a drug test
  • Classifying certain jobs as “women’s jobs” and only hiring women in them

Recruiting Is a History of Asking About the Silly Things on Job Applications

For decades ,it was quite common to ask candidates on application forms or during interviews about the following factors and to use the answers in hiring decisions. My questions are, “What were they thinking?” and “How did they survive so long?”

  • The name, job title, and place of employment of your spouse as well as your father and mother
  • Your sex, marital status, and the number of children you have
  • Your age
  • Your race
  • Your religion
  • If you own a car or a home and how much you are in debt
  • Your height and weight
  • Your handicaps
  • Your hobbies
  • Your arrest record
  • If you have received worker’s compensation
  • Whether you were ever a communist
  • Whether you had a dishonorable military discharge
  • A history of job jumping
  • Your zodiac sign or blood type

Each of these nearly century-old employment inquiries were based on unproven generalizations (for example: your hobbies predict your work capabilities). And unfortunately, these sacred cows died slowly because they were quite common as recently as the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, many are still used outside of the USA.

15 Current “Sacred Cow” Recruiting Practices That Need to Change

Unfortunately, almost every existing practice in recruiting exists without data to support it. Occasionally, recruiting adds new practices as a result of fads (i.e. social media) but we seldom have hard data to prove effectiveness of these new approaches either. Taken together this means that there are still a large number of widely popular “sacred cow practices” in recruiting that should be jettisoned. I have listed some of the worst below.

  1. Unstructured interviews — Google reinforced years of existing academic data and articles by authors by showing the scores from their typical unstructured interviews had a zero value in predicting hiring success. The assumption that certain hiring managers, HR professionals, and recruiters are great at using interviews to select the very best simply wasn’t supported by their data.
  2. Relying on resumes to screen applicants — nearly everyone relies on resumes to assess and sort talent, even though over 50 percent of resumes contain untruths, and almost all resumes completely omit negative items. There is no data to show that candidates with the best resumes turn out to be the best hires. Eventually something like a LinkedIn profile with standardized content and continuous public visibility (and the scrutiny) will prove to be a superior replacement.
  3. Relying on college degrees — there is plenty of evidence to show that the college you attended, your grades, your test scores, and even your major are not very accurate predictors of your on-the-job success. In fact, the success of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the founders of Tumblr, Twitter, etc. demonstrate that a degree itself may be unnecessary for innovation and leadership.
  4. Face-to-face interviews — many hiring managers and recruiters still insist on hard-to-schedule, face-to-face interviews but there is no evidence that they produce superior results. Most should be replaced with telephone and live video interviews over smart phones.
  5. Assessing corporate fit — corporate fit is a poorly defined and almost impossible-to-measure factor. It damages hiring because it can inadvertently screen out many innovators and the very diversity and new ways of thinking that are required to help change and improvement organizations.
  6. Focusing on cost rather than quality of hire — spending hours calculating the transactional cost of hiring is silly … especially when it detracts from measuring more important results like the quality of hire (the on-the-job performance/retention rate of new hires) produced by each individual recruiter and hiring manager. An equally important measure that should be added is calculating the dollar impact differential between hiring a weak, average, or top-performing so that executives know the exact revenue impact of great recruiting.
  7. Take your time hiring — it is a commonly held belief among hiring managers that because hiring decisions are so important, they should be made slowly. This assumption results in the all-too-common practice of requiring an excessive number of interviews, requiring multiple visits for these interviews, stretching out the interview schedule, and making slow final hiring decisions. Unfortunately this too slow approach not only results in a horrible candidate experience but the unnecessary delays causes top quality candidates to drop out, resulting in a measurably lower quality of hire.
  8. Reference checking — it might seem logical to avoid hiring anyone with weak references. However, the standard reference-checking process at most corporations is so flawed that surprisingly, there is no corporate data to prove that high reference scores correlate with on-the-job success.
  9. Credit checking — there is also absolutely no corporate data to prove that one’s credit scores accurately predict on-the-job success. Also, a bad credit score may be caused by others in the family.
  10. Assuming that referrals have a negative diversity impact — the premise that referrals hurt diversity is an antiquated notion. There is plenty of evidence to show that well-designed employee referral programs can actually increase diversity hiring. There should be a focus on employer referrals because corporate quality-of-hire metrics routinely show that employee referrals produce the highest volume, as well as the best quality candidates and hires.
  11. Corporate career websites — most corporate website content is influenced by PR and lawyers, so most websites provide only general information. Individuals who want to know “authentic” and credible information about the firm have learned to use their social media contacts and sites like There are now so many other sites where prospects can now directly apply for a job at your firm that even your website’s role as “the place” to apply is fading.
  12. Treating all jobs the same — the standard recruiting practice of treating all requisitions equally runs counter to standard business practices. Open jobs need to be prioritized based on their business impact. The most recruiting resources, the best recruiters, and the most-effective recruiting approaches need to be focused on the highest-priority open jobs.
  13. Trusting hiring managers — the standard assumption in most corporations is that just because you are a manager, you know how to hire. Unfortunately, the data shows that many hiring managers are shortsighted in their hiring, while others routinely produce low-quality hires. Google found that the problem with managers is so pervasive that they took the hiring decision out of the hands of their managers and placed it with a hiring committee.
  14. Job descriptions — most job descriptions don’t reflect the actual job, and almost all are so dull that they do nothing to sell prospects. Rather than being an afterthought, the current job description approach needs to shift so that it becomes a powerful recruitment marketing tool.
  15. Behavioral interviews — currently it is a standard practice to use behavioral interviews, where you verbally ask candidates to describe how they acted in the past. However, as technology advances, it will become increasingly easier and more predictive to instead put candidates in a job specific virtual reality simulation where they can show how they would handle a current problem within your corporate culture and environment.

Final Thoughts

It might be logical to assume that after reading the long list of historical silly practices that have finally been dropped from recruiting, few other weak practices could still remain. Unfortunately, that would be a bad assumption because the recent Google revelations show that three still widely used assessment factors like grades, test scores, and brainteaser interview questions add no value, so they should be dropped. Recruiting is still a “soft” function where most common practices are not supported by data. That means that most of the 15 weak “sacred cow” practices outlined above will endure for a long time because no one will take the time to collect the data to invalidate them. If you don’t believe me, read the vociferous emotional defenses of these sacred cow practices that will surely appear in the comments section following this article.

If you would like to nominate additional “sacred cow practices” that need to be skewered, add them in the comments section immediately following this article on ERE.Net.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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