Stop Staffing Your Organization With Stepford Hires

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Jun 9, 2020

COVID-19 has pushed U.S. unemployment to its highest levels since the Great Depression. In April, 20.5 million people lost their jobs, putting the latest unemployment rate at an astounding 13.3%.

However, given the robust strength of the pre-pandemic economy, things will turn around. And when they do, talent acquisition professionals will have the opportunity to usher in a new normal that eschews traditional views about who is best qualified for a job — a new normal that is open to “alternative” candidates. 

But there’s no need to wait. We can stem the tide of our current downward spiral right now by transforming how we assess talent.

Go Beyond Stepford Hires

The way most organizations currently source talent resembles a Hollywood movie casting call. They look for people who fit a particular mold. If candidates don’t check off all of the boxes, they don’t get the call. Such typecasting fails to consider very talented individuals who may be well-suited for a job, even though they are missing something from the list.

So instead of slavishly seeking Stepford Hires, we should be looking for unicorns. The unicorn search will necessitate changing methodologies and adjusting mindsets; yet it can produce satisfying results on multiple levels. 

The starting point is to reframe what we have previously conceived of as the right qualifications for a job. Aside from specific training for technical positions, most job requirements are fungible.

Among the elements that are of greater importance than where people went to school or what specific jobs they have held are their success factors — that is, both their key characteristics (as opposed to specific experiences) and previous accomplishments. Articulating what it takes to succeed in a role, then looking for those characteristics, is the first step toward shifting mindsets.

Methodologically, we would then seek to identify transferable skills, which are often overlooked. Someone who has had past successes — perhaps as a result of overcoming certain obstacles — knows how to succeed. These individuals are inherently capable of doing what it takes to prevail and can apply their learning to new related situations. Their learned behavior is replicable.

Focus on Behaviors

Consider Penelope Prendergast. She has a bachelor’s in accounting and is a certified payroll practitioner (CPP). She has 14 years of experience, six years with one company and eight with another. During this time, she has successfully upgraded her company’s payroll system. She has managed upwards of eight team members and processed pay for upwards of 5,000 workers in multi-state jurisdictions. All of her experience has been with construction companies and, unfortunately, due to the pandemic, her last company folded and she was laid off.

Penelope meets all of your qualifications for a payroll manager, with the exception of industry experience — in that you work in the banking industry, and your hiring manager insists on having someone with industry knowledge.

Or take David Dubrovnik. His dedication to family inspired him to study hotel and restaurant management in order to take over a thriving family-owned hotel in a beautiful resort area off a coastal region. The family business has been his life’s work. During good times, he kept the hotel running very profitably. But the village where it is located has been decimated by COVID-19 deaths, which forced the hotel’s closure. David has since applied for a leadership position with the major Hilton property down the road. Despite having run a profitable enterprise, including successfully competing with the Hilton, the hiring manager is skeptical about David’s ability to make the leap to a major corporation.

As a TA professional, you see the value in both candidates’ past experiences and would advocate for their consideration. However, you can embolden your advocacy by eliciting their readiness for jobs by conducting behavioral interviews (based on the notion that past behaviors are the best predictors of future performance).

In Harvard Business Review’s “Your Approach to Hiring Is All Wrong,” Wharton Professor of Management Peter Cappelli asserts that “neither college grades nor unstructured sequential interviews (hopping from office to office) are a good predictor [of job success], whereas past performance is.” He goes on to state that “interviewers should stick to questions that predict good hires — mainly about past behavior or performance that’s relevant to the tasks of the job.”

Using the above technique with our two hypothetical candidates, we could design interview questions to help us learn if Penny could pivot to the banking industry, or if David could deliver with a major hotel franchise.

What This Looks Like in Practice

So how do you go about combining a search for key characteristics with a consideration of transferable skills for maximum impact? What does this look like in practical terms? I had the opportunity to design a targeted application for a previous employer.

I was working for a firm that was resolute about recruiting attorneys from only the top schools, and hiring only those with top academic credentials. Given the firm’s prestige, they had no problem attracting candidates of this ilk. However, without fail, these individuals could not cut it in one of the firm’s exclusive niche practices.

With this in mind, I asked the practice group to reorient their thinking. Instead of looking for someone who satisfied certain educational criteria — but whose key job qualifications were otherwise ill-defined — I asked them to look for someone who possessed the characteristics that others who had been successful in the practice group demonstrated, regardless of law school pedigree. In doing so, I developed “Profiles of Success,” which reflected the characteristics of the firm’s success stories. These in turn formed the basis for future searches. When the practice group accepted this approach, and honed in on these key characteristics, it started to enjoy not only better performances from their new hires but also improved retention.

Thus, I was able to compel a recalcitrant group of attorneys to take a different approach. It was a breakthrough, albeit it on a small scale, but I believe this approach can be replicated and scaled.

Diversity Benefits

The added benefit of searching for unicorns is that it enhances opportunities for diversity. Your search will necessarily cast a wider net. It therefore will be more likely to catch underrepresented candidates who would have previously been on the periphery.

Not only can you uncover these hidden talents but also, given implications that diverse teams provide organizations with a competitive advantage, eradicate groupthink, which can keep you beholden to old views that aren’t serving your company well. 

McKinsey & Company conducted a study on the organizational impact of diversity. When it comes to gender, for instance, findings revealed that companies “with more than 30% women on their executive teams are significantly more likely to outperform those with between 10% and 30% women, and these companies in turn are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women executives. As a result, there is a substantial performance differential — 48% — between the most and least gender-diverse companies.” Likewise, when looking at ethnic and cultural diversity, companies in the top quartile outperformed those in the fourth by 36% in terms of profitability.

These statistics should motivate any organization to adopt a more inclusive approach to hiring. But at this moment in time, equally as important as the benefits derived from improved diversity, is the act of recovering people from the unemployment rolls and restoring them to the workforce. What could be nobler?

Many talented individuals will have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and will never get them back. The fact that their profiles are not perfectly aligned with preconceived notions of a “good fit” doesn’t mean that they can’t make valuable contributions. Hiring managers tend to resist considering “alternative” candidates. But as TA professionals, we now have a wider societal imperative to compel hiring managers to look beyond the status quo.

Why can’t “alternative” candidates become the new normal? This may take hiring managers outside of their comfort zones, but imposing minor discomforts in this context is well worth it. Let’s not squander this crisis. Let’s assert our expertise to usher in a new normal.

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