Trying Harder Doesn’t Cut it

There’s a trainers’ game called “try harder.” It has two learning points: 1) trying is not the same as doing; and 2) telling someone to “try harder” seldom helps them get the job done. The “try harder” game is played out time after time in recruiting and is a major reason why it does not get the respect it craves.

The High Cost of Trying

As pointed out by many authors, poor hires are exceedingly expensive. Estimates range from 20% of base annual payroll to 300% of annual salary. With that kind of money on the line, simply “trying” is not an option.

So what kind of advice circulates among recruiting and hiring managers?

  • Get a clear idea of job requirements by meeting with HR, the recruiter, and the hiring manager.
  • Do a better job evaluating the applicant by making fewer assumptions.
  • Move quickly.
  • Always remember that hiring is also a selling activity.

Yes, you got it. No new ideas. No new methods. No new processes. Just “try harder.”

I won’t go into the last two pieces of advice because that’s not my field of expertise. Instead, I’ll focus on the core of why the job really exists: clearly identify job skills and accurately measure candidate abilities.

Looking in All the Wrong Places

Who knows more about what it takes to do your job: you or your manager?

If you’re like most people, you’ll say, “I do! Management sees the results, but I do the work.” So the next obvious question is, “Why is the jobholder – the person who knows the job best – often ignored?” Does anyone really believe an HR representative, recruiter or hiring manager – people who are all one step removed from the job – knows more about a job than the person who does it? Think about it…

Jobholder: “Well. I don’t really know what I do each day. I just show up and things happen. Why don’t you ask my manager and HR? They know more than me.”

In my experience studying jobs, the jobholder is an invaluable source of information because they hold about 80% or more of the information about the job. They tell me what the job is like – what it involves each day. They share the real and unreal expectations and often give a ground-level perspective on job requirements. It’s not unusual to learn that the same job that managers describe as “challenging and opportunity-filled” is considered by jobholders as “frustrating and dead-ended” (this seems like an important thing to know if someone evaluates job applicants or promotion candidates).

Here’s an interesting game to prove my point. Ask any jobholder to list his or her 10 most important activities in order of their priority. Then ask their manager to make the same list. Compare lists. Take a break and enjoy a strong drink.

Now, as you might suspect, questioning jobholders and managers is not as easy as it sounds. People seldom use the same definitions or even the same words to define their activities. I consistently hear a lot of “should’s”, “they’s”, and “ought to’s,” as well as indefinable terms such as “leadership,” “teamwork,” and “fire-in-the belly.”

Taking this list at face value can lead one to falsely assume that the organization is looking for a strong, yet wishy-washy, leader who suffers from chronic indigestion (Probably not). Jobholder and manager stories require artful translation before they become meaningful.

Some Key Points

Here are a few key points to remember when setting job requirements:

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  • Jobholders tell us about day-to-day activities. Managers tell us about expectations. And senior managers tell us about future job changes. Any recruiter needs to integrate all three views to know what to look for in a candidate.
  • The recruiter must be able to translate conversational stories into meaningful information. Evaluating things like leadership, tough-mindedness, and determination are as useful as asking someone to measure a shrubbery, furniture, or transportation. They are too abstract and loosely defined to be useful.
  • We only have a short time to evaluate candidates. Critical job behaviors have to be realistic, observable, measurable, and time-related.
  • Not all job titles need be examined in detail. Jobs with similar requirements can be combined into families. Even the largest organization only has about 15 to 20 job families. Job families, once defined, make job requirements much easier because, once built, they only need tweaking.
  • Most people would not even think about removing their own appendix. Being a surgeon takes practice, experience, and is both an art form and a science: so does measuring competencies. I’ve seen highly experienced consultants measure a single performance dimension five or six times because they thought the behavior was different. Find an expert to do the heavy lifting. Then go back to what you do best.
  • Avoid using definitions that sound like they came out of a training workshop. A “hiring competency” is a behavior that leads to accomplishing a goal. It is not the goal, itself. Don’t be tempted to reinvent the wheel by defining a competency as “strategic orientation,” “quality focus,” or “results-orientation.” Think of a “hiring competency” as “raw” ability, such as one’s ability to problem solve, to organize, or to question. Otherwise, prepare for years of frustration, confusion, and lost credibility.

Out-foxing the Foxes

If you’re not going to take the time to clearly define job requirements as I described above, then stop here. Otherwise, check out these interview tips posted on the web by a global director of recruitment for a major consulting firm:

Get the job you want by first gathering background information about the organization, anticipate questions you will get, practice interviewing in front of a mirror, dress appropriately, have prepared questions for the interviewer, act confident, and smile.

Maybe it’s just me, but where in this sage advice is, “be prepared to demonstrate the skills necessary to perform the job successfully?” Do we just take that for granted?

Does it come as any surprise that interviews are poor predictors of raw ability? Can we trust every interviewer to be thorough and highly objective or every applicant to be honest? Sure, structured interviews offer some accuracy, but they are still self-reported information and suffer from the same problems as other interviews.

The industry has a major blind spot in this area. On one hand, hiring managers and recruiters often admit that no one critically evaluated their skills when they were being interviewed. They also agree that applicants will say or do almost anything to get a job.

Added proof of error is seen every day in the broad performance difference between current employees (who all looked good in the interview). In spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, interviewers insist they’re still excellent judges of applicant skills. Is it just me, or would being a “good judge” of applicants lead to consistently high-performing employees?

This is a great example of why “trying harder” falls short of “doing”…Doing something to improve employee skills that start with reading and understanding:

  • The 1978 Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures: This document outlines best practices and is often used as the basis for legal challenge. Sorry, professional recruiters are NOT exempt. And shortcuts lead to hiring and promotion mistakes.
  • The 1999 Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing: This document outlines test development standards, qualifications, validations, and use. Tests are defined as anything used to evaluate applicants. This includes application forms, resumes, and interviews. Again, shortcuts lead to hiring and promotion mistakes.
  • The appropriate laws of your locale.

More Key Points

Just as defining job requirements is not a walk in the park, neither is evaluating applicants. You can try harder using the same skills, but that’s not the same as doing. Doing takes more hard work and study. Here are a few key points to remember about evaluating applicants:

  • If you don’t thoroughly understand the job, evaluation defaults to a “get-to-know-you exercise” in which likable applicants are hired and all others are rejected.
  • Unless the job requires few abilities, being likeable is only one small part of job success. Accurate hiring depends on knowing clearly the nature and level of all critical skills required.
  • Using just one tool such as an interview or a specific test is error-filled. Researchers at all major universities have already searched under every rock looking for single-method solutions. They don’t exist.
  • Professional psychometricians always recommend measuring all skills using multiple tests. This is called multi-trait-multi-method evaluation, and it delivers the most accuracy.
  • Balance evaluation against hiring risk. If the applicant will fill a low-level unskilled job, then use a few basic techniques to see if he or she will show up on time. If the applicant will fill an important job such as customer contact, management, technical professional, or the like, then throw at them everything but the kitchen sink.
  • The closer the test is to the job, the more accurate it is likely to be. Simulations that require the candidate to demonstrate on-the-job skills are going to be much more predictive than a conversational interview.
  • Recognize that the best employee can be ruined by a bad manager. Managers should be selected and promoted very carefully.
  • Don’t expect training to fix a “broken” or unskilled employee. Training improves skills that are already there. Someone once said it is easier to train a squirrel to climb a tree than to train a chicken to climb. The skills you test for are generally the ones you get.
  • Evaluation is also both an art form and a science. I’ve seen people use an entirely wrong test battery because it was either the only one they knew, the only one they sold, or the cheapest. Again, find an expert to do the heavy lifting. Then go back to what you do best.

All the information above can be found in any good university library, well-researched books on personnel selection, or in the professional documents located here:

“Trying” to do a better job won’t work in today’s marketplace…you have to “do” something different.