The Emperor Has No Clothes

Are our hiring processes built upon a pillar of salt? I was thinking about this while stuck in L.A. traffic recently, and it became clear to me that we’re solving the wrong hiring problem.

Consider this: At their core, hiring systems

are designed to eliminate weak candidates from a large pool of mostly unqualified people who have applied. We then work really hard to find the few decent candidates remaining. By and large, we’re disappointed.

Applicant tracking systems came along to allow us to do this faster and better. But essentially, all applicant tracking systems did was to automate a flawed process. The bottom line: We spend more time eliminating bad candidates than we do finding better candidates. This seems backwards. Some additional ideas to consider (it was a long drive):

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  • The basic problem: we use job boards to post ads. We then spend too much time eliminating the candidates we don’t want.
  • We buy an ATS to manage the resume flow from ads, and then wonder why we’re not hiring any better people. The underlying design premise of an ATS is to manage the requisition process, the posting of ads, and the management of resumes. This seems inherently wrong. Why aren’t applicant tracking systems designed around the needs of recruiters who don’t have enough time, and who need to find and influence top people and hiring managers quickly and efficiently? ATSs were designed to solve the wrong problem, and in the process became part of that problem.
  • We add filtering and resume screening functionality to separate the best from the least best, and wonder why there are so many least best people. If our systems were designed to only see better people, we wouldn’t need all of the screening and filtering technology. Too much time is spent figuring out the best way to filter out the weak people, rather than finding better people.
  • Shouldn’t job descriptions define the real job? Traditional job descriptions describe people, not jobs. The list of skills, experience, education, behaviors, competencies, and personality traits are not job descriptions — they’re people descriptions. Job descriptions should describe what the person in the job needs to do to be successful. Once everyone on the hiring team agrees to what the person needs to do to be successful, all you then have to do is to find people who can and want to do the job. This will minimize the “moving job spec” syndrome.
  • We complain we’re not seeing or hiring enough top people. It seems our hiring systems are designed to find and hire top candidates (good resume, good first impression, good communication skills, affable, prepared, on time) rather than top employees (hard-working, talented, cooperative, solve problems, improve things). This is another problem caused by our reliance on job boards.
  • We use metrics to report how well we’re doing, and we argue whether time to fill or cost per hire are the correct metrics, or even if they are metrics. At best, we get incremental improvement to an inherently flawed process. This seems totally wrong. If we design the hiring process to hire top people rather than not hiring weak people, metrics would quickly show 50-100% improvements. We’d get another 50-100% if we started hiring top employees rather than top candidates.
  • We use metrics to report how we did a week, a month, or a quarter after we did it. This seems inherently wrong. It’s like waiting until the end of the month to turn off a machine that’s producing bad parts, because the accounting department finally told us costs increased. Information like this needs to be monitored in real time. This is what Six Sigma processing is all about.
  • We use behavioral interviewing to assess competency, and wonder why it isn’t accurate. Getting examples of behaviors seems backwards. Instead, why don’t we get examples of accomplishments and see what behaviors were used? If the accomplishments are comparable to the real job needs, then interviewing accuracy and job performance will soar.
  • We wonder why the best people aren’t happy with their offers when comp and benefits are involved. This is what you get when you target your comp programs around the needs of top candidates, rather than top employees. For top employees, motivation is a result of clear expectations, an opportunity to grow and develop, and the chance to work with, and for, some other top people. Maybe we should stop making the hiring process a transaction based on compensation, and instead offer top people a comprehensive career solution.
  • We’re doing pretty much the same thing we were doing when I started life as a hiring manager 30 years ago. Only employers of choice, a few dedicated HR executives, and some strong-willed managers and CEOs seem to be able to consistently overcome the inherent flaws in the hiring process. It seems that employers of choice can safely ignore the problems rather than solve them, since they have so many good candidates to choose from. Everyone else needs to work extremely hard to overcome the inertia of a flawed system.
  • The only improvement I’ve seen from the great Internet investment in hiring is that we’re now hiring more average people faster. Using metrics, a person could take credit, and get promoted, for this.
  • Why can’t we design the hiring process to hire top people, rather than not hire weak ones?
  • Why can’t we design the hiring process to address the needs of top employees, rather than top candidates?

Job boards are designed to find candidates, not employees. Everything else we do is a reaction to just too many active candidates to wade through. For one thing, we purchase an ATS to help solve a problem we shouldn’t even have allowed to develop in the first place. Before you know it, we get caught up in the whirlwind of day-to-day activities caused by the required care and feeding of the job board-ATS axis of evil. Soon, we lose sight of the real objective: hiring top people. Don’t despair. Short- and long-term help is on its way. Here are some short-term ideas to start with:

  1. Invest more in your recruiting team than in your ATS and other hiring systems. Unless you’re an employer of choice, the quality of your recruiting team will directly affect the quality of the people you hire. The best people need to be recruited, not hired. If you don’t strengthen your recruiting team, the next three great points are meaningless.
  2. Only target candidates who are fully qualified, ready to move, and considering just a few other situations. The series of articles I wrote on sourcing semi-active and semi-passive addresses how to do this. While it works, it could be much more efficient if the concept were better supported by job boards, applicant tracking systems, and related HR systems and policies.
  3. Use batch processing instead of reading all resumes. This means once you have four to six reasonable resumes, stop looking at any more resumes. Instead, call these people and get them interviewed. You must turbo-charge your ATS to rank-order resumes every day (call or email me if you’d like to know who does this best or how to improve yours). Then, without fail, call the first 10 people on the list the first thing you do every day. If you can’t find enough good people in the first or second batch, then you’ll need to improve your sourcing, not waste time looking at more bad resumes.
  4. Use real-time metrics. If the hiring manager and recruiting can’t agree on candidate quality, don’t send in any more candidates. Stop the process and first define the real job. Then improve interviewing skills. Keep on doing this until the manager and recruiter agree on their assessments. If you still can’t find someone worth hiring then, you’ll need to improve sourcing, but at least you’ve solved one problem.

A longer-term solution is emerging. We’re now working with a few ATS and recruiting vendors who want to jumpstart the next hiring revolution. Email me ( if you’d like to be a revolutionary. Become a catalyst for making hiring top talent a systematic Six Sigma business process. For now, spend more of your time hiring top people rather than eliminating weak people. Note: As many of you know we host a series of online conferences on semi-sourcing, Six Sigma hiring, and metrics. This are core issues involved in hiring the best. Our programs are co-sponsored by ERE. We’re also getting ready to launch our worldwide tour, so I hope to meet many of you revolutionaries in person. You can find the tour schedule and signup info at our Adler Group website.

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).