How to Defend Your Candidates from Stupid Decisions

In recent articles, I made the case that fundamental shifts in decision-making and perspective had to take place in order for a company to see any sustained improvement in its hiring results. Furthermore, it’s my contention that unless these changes are made, a company’s ability to consistently hire top people will not improve — regardless of what new tools or techniques it implements. To validate this, consider how well your own company has done in improving its ability to consistently hire top people over the past few years. With so much competition for top talent, unless your company is an employer of choice, it’s probably just as hard to hire top people now as it was a few years back. And this is despite all of the training and all of the investment in new tools and technology. The shifts I’m suggesting will allow all companies to compete for top talent even if they are not employers of choice.

Push Candidates to the Top

The first of these shifts has to do with rearranging the underlying hierarchical relationship that now exists among the recruiter, candidate, and hiring team. In most companies, the hiring team sits at the top, with recruiters a rung below and candidates at the bottom. Pushing candidates to the top and making recruiters partners is the first change needed if a company wants to hire more top people. The second shift requires the implementation of an evidence-based hiring decision-making process, replacing one based largely on emotions, biases, intuition or a too-narrow range of technical skills and competencies. Too many good people get excluded for the wrong reasons when evidence is not used to justify the selection. Too many average people with great interviewing skills get hired when feelings, prejudices, and intuition override judgment. Making these changes throughout an organization requires executive-level involvement. In most companies, this won’t happen.

But there are things that the individual recruiter can do to begin the process immediately. As a result, the recruiter will become more productive, become more satisfied with the job, and help his or her clients to hire better people. The key is to know how to defend your candidates from bad decision-making. It starts by becoming a partner with your hiring manager clients. Becoming a partner is the first step in rearranging the natural hierarchy. In most companies, the hiring manager and the hiring team believe they have the wisdom, insight, and judgment to accurately assess candidate competency and recruit top people.

As a result, most put their recruiters in a subordinate position. Rarely is the recruiter a true and respected member of a cross-functional team. His or her advice is not sought, time is not freely given, and the recruiter’s assessment of candidate competency is assigned little value. Even worse, for a variety of reasons, recruiters and managers — aggravated by company policy, the comp group, and common practice — put candidates in a role subordinate to both recruiters and managers. The observable result is a lack of respect throughout the process — until the person becomes a finalist. This is evidenced by jobs that are hard to find, an application process that requires too much upfront commitment, demeaning job descriptions written to exclude the worst, not attract the best, and a “don’t call us” mentality at all but the final stage. To counteract this, a market-driven “candidate as customer” mentality should be applied to every process and practice involved in hiring. How top people look and decide should drive this re-engineering process, not how less qualified or overly zealous applicants look for work. By becoming partners with their hiring-manager clients, recruiters can use their influence to better defend their candidates from dumb decisions and poorly designed practices and policies. The key to the defense requires intervening at each step of the assessment and selection process, fighting soft emotions with hard evidence. Here are some things you can do to get started:

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  1. Know the job. Before you start looking for candidates, ask the hiring manager what the person needs to do to be considered successful. Have the manager define the key projects and challenges the person is expected to handle. Then ask the manager to describe how better people handle these same tasks compared to average people. I call these types of documents performance profiles. Prepare a preliminary performance profile ahead of time by talking to the best people you’ve placed in similar positions and find out what they did differently than the average performer. This way, you can ask the hiring manager to modify your preliminary performance profile rather than starting from scratch. Doing most of the work to prepare a performance profile ahead of time demonstrates solid job knowledge and will earn you some partnership potential points.
  2. Become a good interviewer. You’ll need to be a better interviewer than your hiring-manager clients if you expect to defend your candidates from superficial or narrow assessments. One way to do this is to get detailed examples of major accomplishments related to those described in the performance profile. If you spend at least 10 minutes (each) digging into the candidate’s biggest team, job-related, and individual accomplishments, you’ll have plenty of evidence to overcome generalizations and flawed assessments. On the tech side, too many interviewers dig into areas unrelated to real job needs, so be sure to challenge your candidate’s apparent lack of technical depth by relating it directly to the real job requirements.
  3. Use more outside evidence. Don’t defend your candidates half-armed. Use test results, in-depth references, and multiple examples of recognition which the candidate received for doing outstanding work. Point to early promotions, special bonuses, awards, and raises as evidence of exceptional performance.
  4. Don’t take no for an answer. This is the recruiter’s mantra. Too many people make decisions without all the available evidence. A recruiter needs to fight the tendency to judge competency too soon, based on minimal information. Unless the hiring team has enough hard and fast evidence to make a good decision, you’ll need to continue fighting for your candidate if you believe the person is being judged unfairly.
  5. Use the “close upon an objection” sales technique. Even if you don’t have ready proof to defend your candidate, use the promise of getting it as a way of keeping the hiring manager open-minded. “If I could present further evidence that the candidate is far stronger than your initial assessment, would you at least reconsider it and postpone your judgment for a few days?” Of course, you then better get the proof.
  6. Lead more panel interviews. If you’re a good interviewer, why not lead a panel interview? This way, everyone hears the same information. By digging deep and getting examples of major accomplishments, the other interviewers learn more about the candidate then they would have on their own. The key is to have one person lead the interview session, with the other panel members just asking for clarification and examples.
  7. Coach your managers to interview properly. If you can teach your managers how to improve their interviewing skills, you’re instantly recognized as an expert in your field and an invaluable member of the hiring team. You might want to consider using the performance-based interviewing process I recommend as part of this.
  8. Lead the debriefing session. To ensure that superficial information is not used to eliminate (or hire) a person, the recruiter should be present during the debriefing session. The collective judgment of the group is a valid means to assess competency if everyone involved presents hard evidence. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Usually the dominant person’s opinion prevails or the concerns of one or two people overshadow the positive judgment of others. To prevent this, the recruiter should lead the debriefing session to ensure that all the evidence is considered in an objective manner.

I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to interview some true leaders over the past few months. Some were just starting their careers; others were seasoned pros. What stood out the most among them is that they take on responsibility to change things, typically without being asked and often without permission. That’s what leaders do. And they don’t just talk about it: They push their viewpoint and achieve real results. When you’re interviewing your candidates, look for these leadership qualities among their major accomplishments. Then use this information when you’re leading the debriefing session. In the process, you’ll become a leader yourself. That’s how you defend your candidates from stupidity, and how you become a true partner in the process.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).