Best Practices Are for Suckers

When I say something is a “best practice,” what do you think I mean?

Taken on its face, the term suggests a set of tasks and rules that lead to an optimal outcome. It sounds like the hard-earned wisdom of a hundred failed attempts and the lessons passed along over time. And that kind of perception is what gives the term so much power. 

Ask any content marketing professional and they will tell you that few ideas grab clicks by the bucket than a headline like “The Best Practices of ABC You Didn’t Know!” It’s a magical combination of FOMO plus a promise of actually learning something, that at the end of the article, you will have discovered some secrets to do a better job at work tomorrow.

Those of us in the recruiting space are particularly susceptible to these kinds of claims. As we often aren’t born into marketing worlds and haven’t cut our teeth on hundred-post editorial calendars where our jobs were based on how well things performed, we look for shortcuts to optimize our work, to help us download entire industries of knowledge in five easy-to-follow rules like we’re Neo learning Kung Fu.

So allow me to pop your little bubble and show you that best practices — loose and often undocumented (or unproven) rules for “doing it right” — are, at best, ways to be mediocre. And at worst, roadmaps to failure.

At ERE Digital, Sept 23-24, I’ll be delivering a presentation called, “The Best Employer Branding Practices = The Worst Ways to Engage Talent.” I hope you’ll join me at the event. In the meantime, here’s a bit of a preview of what I’ll be talking about.

The Path to Mediocrity

If you look at common best practices — be they in social media, content creation, job-description writing, video editing, whatever — you see a few commonalities.

  • Weird use of numbers, as if a number makes things real
  • Some element of “proof,” but almost only anecdotal and rarely backed up with data
  • A lack of context

Here’s a great example from your sales teams: If you call your prospect before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m., you will be more likely to directly reach your target. 

This “best practice” is so common in sales, I still see books reference it and conferences teach it. But the practice comes from the days when prospects had these things called “secretaries.” You know, in the 1960s. When’s the last time you met a secretary? But because someone had success and turned it into a story they sold others, it is now seen as a best practice.

Additionally, Google “best practices in recruiting” and you’ll see things like this:

  • Shorten your job applications as much as possible!
  • Use Instagram because it’s got 1 billion users!
  • Always write job postings so they attract the most interest!
  • The best time to post on LinkedIn is between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.! (And never on a Sunday!)
  • Use your prospect’s name at least three times on the first phone call!
  • Always keep your first InMail/outreach super brief!
  • Content marketing is always the best way to attract a candidate!
  • If you post a video on LinkedIn, make it less than a minute long!

These are all…good enough ideas. The problem is that they are presented as gospel like they were carved into stone tablets and brought down a mountain. “Lo, thou shalt never offer the first salary number before the candidate lest you bear the wrath of comp and ben…”

None of these practices or ideas is always true. I can come up with a dozen scenarios in which any one of them is a horrible idea. 

For example?

All videos should be super-short on social media. Sure, if you don’t have much interesting to say, and don’t present it well, when all you have is a gimmick and that gimmick gets old in 10 seconds, then yeah, I guess you better get to the point double-quick. 

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But if you have something interesting to say, why wouldn’t someone watch it for a minute. Or two. Or five? In fact, if someone watches my video for five minutes, I know I am talking to someone who really likes what I have to say, and isn’t someone who seems to press the “apply” button for the sheer joy of uploading a resume. 

In fact, I might suggest that I don’t want every Tom, Sue, and Nilesh watching my videos all the way through. Perhaps I want to warn bad candidates away from my jobs that they will never be happy in. (This thinking is similar to why “always have a super-positive and smooth white-glove candidate experience” isn’t always the right choice, either.)

Most best practices are the children of marketing hacks, where the goal is always more: more leads, more eyeballs, more share of voice, more shelf space, more subscribers, and more impressions.

But we’re not in the “more” business. We’re all in the “better” business. We are hunting for quality, not quantity. We want needles, not haystacks.

Best Practices = Blending In

There’s one more issue with best practices to concern yourself with: everyone already knows them. And if everyone knows the hack, the hack stops being the shortcut to success and becomes the standard way everyone does things. Because of this, best practices are actually the fastest path to staying with the pack, not to blaze a new trial.

Best practices are what you do when you don’t have a strategy. Best practices are how you let others think for you.

You see, you can and should defy best practices if you understand why they exist and you have a good reason to break them. If you have a strategy of how to attract and engage appropriate candidates and what they need to know before they join your company, follow your strategy, not the best practices that say “do what everyone else is doing.”

So stop blindly following best practices. Design a strategy that suits your needs, your situation, your resources, and follow it. Not the crowd.


Want more insights from James? Join him and other presenters from leading organizations like Uber, Marriott, Boeing, and Best Buy at ERE Digital, Sept 23-24, the premiere practitioner-led event for talent acquisition professionals. Learn more and register at www.ererecruitingconference.com

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