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Why Do We Love Hiring Shenanigans?

Feb 27, 2008

Have you ever asked candidates to come in for six, eight, or even 10 interviews? Does your culture demand that candidates answer weird and irrelevant questions like those infamous ones Microsoft used to ask about why manhole covers are round or how many eggs it takes to fill up a school bus?

These were so well-known that in 2003, William Poundstone published a book about them called How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle – How the World’s Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers.

And in 2005, Vicky Oliver published a book called 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions to help interviewees reply to the increasingly bizarre and unrelated questions that recruiters like to throw at them. Some of these questions are more useful as interrogations techniques than as legitimate interview questions that should have some direct relevance to the position.

Some organizations require candidates to participate in stressful group activities, dinners, or social events. Others apply rigorous selection criteria to acceptable candidates such as having attended a particular school, achieved a certain grade point average, or worked for a specific company.

These practices are based on two beliefs. The first is that by subjecting a candidate to a stressful or unexpected environment, a recruiter or hiring manager can determine the creativity or adaptability of a candidate. The second is that attendance at a particular school or the achievement of a high grade point average means that the candidate is smarter or more creative.

There is little in the psychological literature that supports these beliefs. A paper written by Robert D. Bretz, Jr., entitled “College Grade Point Average as a Predictor of Adult Success” published in Public Personnel Management Journal (Vol. 18, No 1 Spring 1989) states, “. . .empirical analysis . . . suggests that college GPA is generally a poor predictor of adult work-related achievement.” He goes on to say that “GPA . . . should not be assumed to be a measure of general intelligence.” And we all know employees whose GPA or academic performance was sub-standard but who are strong performers. We also know that thousands of employees who contribute at high levels did not have stellar GPAs in college, and in many cases, may not have even completed college.

In addition to whether or not you are chosen has little long-term impact on a person’s success. Many of the candidates interviewed by Microsoft and not chosen have gone on to other organizations and have been highly successful and productive. We also know that many who have made it through the tough processes at Microsoft, Google, and other companies that practice elitism in their selection processes do not necessarily fare any better or produce better work than those chosen by more traditional means.

Here are four good and bad things about practicing this elitist approach to hiring, and some reasons why it is so hard to not practice it:

  1. Acceptance rates go up. If you want your candidate acceptance rates to go up, make getting accepted really hard and stressful. We all like to believe that we are special, gifted, or better than others. If we are asked to take some sort of test or go through an initiation process that supposedly selects the best, those who get accepted feel superior to those who do not. This belief, even when not supported by facts, is a motivator for people to accept an offer from you. The more exclusive the choice seems to be, the more rigorous the selection process (regardless of its rationality), the more likely a potential hire is to say yes to your offer. A recent book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts carefully and clearly relates story after story about the power of belief in superiority. They conclude the section with these words: “The results are always the same. Severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group.”
  2. Short-term retention may go up, but longer-term retention may go down. While I have no empirical evidence to support this claim, I do believe that being part of an exclusive group of similar people at first makes life easier and fun. Social patterns, likes and dislikes, language, and academic experiences will be similar and compatible. Organizations that select employees with rigid criteria tend to have little diversity. Over time this can become a limitation. As an employee grows more mature and finds that she is competing against similar people with similar advantages or not progressing as rapidly as she would like, she may leverage the exclusivity and desirability that belonging to the organization has bestowed on her to get another position at the competition or to start her own business.
  3. Hiring managers like it because it validates their superiority. Hiring managers are usually enamored of tough interviewing processes and rigorous selection criteria because it supports and underlines their own skill, insight, and wisdom. They can boast that they have chosen the most talented or gifted team of employees. It can also provide a sense of security: If I have the best people working with me, we must be making the right decisions. This is one of the problems that Enron encountered. They had so many smart people that no one believed they could make bad decisions. When selection is based to a significant degree on suspect interview criteria and unverified reactions to events, it is very hard to account for success or failure.
  4. It provides a way to discriminate. Unfortunately, rather than creating workplaces full of contradictions and differences where creativity thrives, the practices described above create a workforce made up of similar people in thought, attitude, background, education, and belief in their own superiority. All real creativity occurs at the edge, at the juxtaposition of opposite ideas and experiences. The healthiest and most creative workforces are those where people are assembled almost at random. The creativity of Silicon Valley, for example, has been correlated to the influx of diverse people and ideas from all over the world. It was the coming together of these people that created the integrated circuit, the Apple computer, and computer games. Organizations should embrace diversity as a means to creativity and innovation.

In the end, good selection is based on matching candidates’ competencies and skills to the particular set of activities an organization needs to have completed or outcomes that need to be achieved. These competencies can be identified with a variety of objective tests and properly constructed behavioral interviews.

Whether someone can answer the manhole question, has a 4.0 GPA, or has gone to Harvard makes no difference at all to potential performance.

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