The Challenges With Hiring Slow

Sep 21, 2010

In an upcoming Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership I talk about the perils of “hiring slow” and “firing fast.” As I’ve been doing, I wanted to give you just a taste of the “hiring slow” part here.

A company can hire slow for two major reasons: because they know exactly who they’re looking for and are willing to wait for the right people to apply, or because they don’t know who they’re looking for and believe they’ll know when the right person applies.

The first is more useful. If you’ve done your homework and figured out the characteristics of the employees you’re looking for, and if you’ve trained your interviewers to recognize those people, then by all means hire slow. Take your time and wait for the right people or, better yet, go out and attract them to the company.

Seeking Top Performers

This is a worthy goal, no question about it. The problem lies not just in identifying who will be a top performer, but who will be a top performer at your company. This is where your corporate culture plays a major role: if your culture is one of aggressive individualism, then team players are less likely to thrive; conversely, if you’re working to build high-performance teams, then someone who has never cooperated with their team in the past isn’t likely to change just for you.

Identifying the intersection between top performers and your cultural values takes more than listing buzzwords on a job ad and then hoping for the best. It requires taking an honest look at your company and how you’re doing business; it requires paying attention to the things that you normally take for granted: those are the elements that a new person is most likely to notice.

Fun to Work With

I am frequently told that the goal of the interviewing process is to find people who are fun to work with.

The problem with looking for people who are fun to work with is something that I’ve dubbed the “hydrangea effect,” after the Russian spies recently arrested by the FBI. The neighbor of one of the spies was quoted as saying something to the effect that, “She couldn’t be a spy. Look what she did with the hydrangeas!”

Planting hydrangeas is so far outside the image of a Russian spy that this simple act created a very powerful illusion. After all, who would imagine James Bond planting hydrangeas? This, of course, is exactly why he would plant them! (And, being Bond, probably knows detailed information about seven different cultivars.)

By the same token, many interviewees learn early on how to conduct themselves in an interview. In fact, most candidates probably have more experience being interviewed and more knowledge about how to evoke the hydrangea effect than the interviewers have about how to interview. The worst prima donnas are generally extremely charming and friendly. It’s only when you’ve worked with them for a while that the problems emerge. Perhaps even more disturbing is that psychopaths, in the clinical sense of people who do not feel remorse for actions that hurt others or the company, are particularly charismatic, are generally skilled communicators, and are extremely good at masquerading as effective leaders. No, that’s not a joke or an exaggeration.

Fun to work with is a not a particularly good metric. Not only does it get you the wrong people, it can easily get you the wrong people who are the best at masquerading as the right people. More broadly, gut instinct, positive or negative, is easily fooled. It takes a lot of training to develop a smart gut, and, even then, it’ll be wrong more often than we like to admit.

Not Threatening

This is an odd statement. What does it mean to be looking for someone who is “not threatening?” After all, as long as the candidate didn’t show up for the interview armed to the teeth, one might assume that they are “not threatening.”

When I’ve asked people what they meant, the answers were as varied as the people asked: “won’t disrupt the way we work,” “good team player,” “respects others,” “isn’t a know-it-all,” “will be loyal,” and so forth. A common element, though, was a key element of the corporate culture: employees at organizations with highly competitive “fire fast” cultures were more likely to view strong candidates as “threatening” than employees at organizations where people were not pitted against one another. Quite simply, if the company takes the attitude that the poorest performers will be fired, then many people will instinctively respond by making sure not to hire anyone more qualified than they are! While I’ve had managers tell me that such an attitude is highly unprofessional, it’s also highly intelligent self-preservation. I’ve observed that most people would rather feel smart and unprofessional than stupid and professional, especially if the former lets them keep their job and the latter does not!

Not threatening also comes into play in organizations that have a culture that does not tolerate mistakes. The less tolerance there is for mistakes, the less willing people are to make decisions.

Wouldn’t Damage the Culture

Another popular explanation for hiring slowly is to “not damage the corporate culture.” This might be a real concern … if the company is extremely small, as in tiny, or if you’re hiring someone into a very senior leadership position. Organizational culture is one of the most powerful, most immovable forces in any business. Culture is extremely resilient and does not change easily. Now, if you’re hiring a new CEO, then a cultural fit is very important. If you have a cultural mismatch between a CEO and the organization, then one or both are going to be extremely unhappy: a culture mismatch produces a culture immune response.

If you are hiring for less lofty positions, though, there are couple of things to recognize: first, if someone really doesn’t mesh with the culture, they probably won’t stay; and second, if you haven’t done a great deal of homework, you probably can’t tell in advance anyway. Because most people focus only on the surface trappings of organizational culture, it’s easy to be misled by cultural artifacts. To be fair, it does take a fair bit of effort and training to identify the “why’s” of culture that underlie the “what we do around here.”

A hiring process that lets you correctly identify the right people most of the time may not always be quick, but the slowest part should be getting the right people to apply. If you really know how to recognize them, the process should be clear and transparent to the applicant. Of course, if you don’t know how to identify the right people, then it’s really just a question of how quickly you’re getting lost.

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