What LeBron James Can Teach Us About Hiring

Jul 14, 2014
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 9.17.23 PMI’m amused when sports analysts state their predictions with near certainty. Take for example ESPN’s David Thorpe saying on July 10 that the chances of NBA superstar LeBron James returning to the Miami Heat next season were 99 percent. The following day, James announced he would play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

We hiring managers and recruiters know you can’t guarantee human performance. The best you can do is conduct pre-employment tests, ask candidates insightful interview questions, gather gobs of important data about them, and then play the percentages based on your analysis of the data.

For example, if Candidate A has a track record of switching jobs every six to nine months and Candidate B has reached 10 years of tenure for her two previous employers, who should you reasonably bet will remain with your company five years from now? There’s no guarantee if you select Candidate B they will stay with your organization a long time, but the odds are in your favor.

Which brings me back to LeBron and to an important hiring rule of thumb. (A Rule of Thumb is a principle whose broad application is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable in every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximating a determination.)

Offer jobs to candidates whose family or whose spouse’s family lives in or near the city where the work will be performed. If you ignore this Rule of Thumb, odds are you’ll lose employees who move back to their hometown for a variety of reasons, typically upon the birth of their children or due to homesickness or parents’ or in-laws’ infirmity.

In James’ essay announcing his decision to return to Northeast Ohio, where he grew up and played professionally until age 25, the basketball star wrote: “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart.”

It’s also where James’ family and friends hail from. The guy has all the money in the world — Forbes lists him as the second-highest earning athlete at $72 million this year — but you can’t buy a replacement for your hometown and your family’s roots.

You might still be furrowing your brow over this Rule of Thumb, wondering if it’s wise or even legal to consider family in a hiring decision. This principle is meant to be intellectually inflammatory and challenge the hiring manager to fully understand a candidate. A candidate’s family situation is perhaps the most important factor in longevity at your company.

Here are some examples that involve non-famous people:

  • A manufacturing company in a rural area 25 miles from my hometown lost at least 10 executives as a result of ignoring this rule of thumb for several years. It was difficult to find executive-level candidates locally, so this company recruited candidates from all over the country. The candidates loved the new company and the bump to their pay, and their spouses promised to love the new town (even if the nearest shopping mall was 35 minutes away and the town’s annual snowfall averaged 88 inches). But less than two years after accepting the job, every executive resigned because of a family situation — an ill parent, a homesick spouse, grandparents missing the kids, etc.

This company should have invested time and money training junior executives with local roots.

  • Before I joined Jameson Publishing (my employer), our owners hired a guy they envisioned becoming company president someday. He and his wife were from out of town, which was a major focus during the interview process. The candidate swore up and down that he’d never, ever, in a million years quit to move back home. He came on board and did an outstanding job. But guess what happened after the birth of his first child? He resigned to move nearer to family. So even if the non-local candidate sincerely expects to stay with your company for a long time, this rule of thumb predicts that the odds are against it.
  • When my company was planning to grow by opening an office in Pittsburgh, two hours south of our Erie, Pennsylvania, headquarters, a dozen employees initially said, “I’ll move!” When we opened the office a year later, guess how many actually moved? Just four. The other eight wanted to stay close to extended family. And guess what each of the four who moved had in common? A spouse or significant other who grew up in the Pittsburgh area.

Don’t overextend this rule of thumb to automatically eliminate a candidate who is not from your area. We hired Carin as an operations manager even though she grew up seven hours away, in Philadelphia, and her parents still lived there. We learned in our interview process that her husband was the second-generation owner of a local manufacturing company. If Carin wanted to move back home, her husband would have to sell the company and work for somebody else. Carin did a wonderful job for us. She left our company after about a half-decade of service, but she still lives in the area.

Happy hiring!

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