What Are They Thinking?

As the resident ERE contrarian, I often find myself at odds regarding best practices (i.e., fair and effective ways) to hire employees. Past readers might even say that “quiet and unassuming” is not one of my virtues. However, several recent articles have advocated very bad advice; in effect, unilaterally tossing 50 years of hiring science out the window because a few authors and vocal recruiters disagree with it. I guess you could call this the “I never heard of it, and because I don’t know about it, it must be wrong” syndrome (or “INHOIABIDKAIIMBW,” for short).


Although some authors may not be aware, there are approximately 6,000 members of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and 235 graduate schools that read and conduct research on best hiring practices. In addition, there are hundreds of independent organizations staffed by I/O psychologists working in this field throughout the world (including the U.S. Department of Labor and the EEOC). All of these folks agree on a few facts about selection and placement:

  • It should be based on a professionally conducted job analysis to identify competencies associated with job performance (i.e., ones based on job requirements and business necessity). The careful reader might notice that there are few or no references to job descriptions, top-grading, or reliance on company-wide competencies developed by the HR department.
  • It should only use tools that have been shown through professional studies to actually predict job performance. Criterion-, construct-, or content-related validity studies are recommended. Again, the astute reader might notice that the exclusive use of interviews is left unmentioned.
  • Any impact on protected groups should be consistently monitored and new tools evaluated for less-adverse impact.

Every reader and recruiting author can read these guidelines for themselves. Nasty-Grams Every time we have the audacity to recommend best practices, we get a slew of Nasty-Grams that go something like this, “You are a foolish person, your Grandma has excess facial hair, and you are politically incorrect!” Other comments are actually wrong-headed:

  • Because they are supported by the American Psychological Association, the guidelines are only intended for the mentally ill.
  • The guidelines are not actually laws, so we don’t have to follow them. (Although, this is technically correct, I find it a strange argument for not following best practices.)
  • Few organizations get sued because they ignore the guidelines.
  • The only time to follow the guidelines is when minorities are affected.
  • If I follow the guidelines, I’ll end up with clones who all look alike.
  • And, my all-time favorite: You are only pushing a sales agenda.

Which part of “best practices” don’t these folks get? Read a Decent Book As for hiring literature: It represents years of controlled hiring studies; each published article is reviewed by a panel of peer experts; and it is good enough to be accepted into the mainstream of academic knowledge. We can learn much from this research, for example:

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  • Interviewing a broad range of jobholders and managers to fully understand job requirements is better than reading a job description prepared by HR.
  • Although there is an entire world of academic hiring research freely available to anyone interested in reading it, many in the recruiting profession treat it like day-old sushi.
  • Unresearched personal opinion represents irresponsible advice.
  • Hiring is not a learn-as-you-earn occupation any more than is medicine, law, criminal investigation, or accounting.
  • Regardless of what some folks personally believe, interviews are tests. What else would a reasonable person call a desire to measure specific job skills, asking questions, and scoring answers?
  • Ignoring the impact of best-hiring practices on an organization is akin to refusing to believe in the laws of physics.

How can anyone argue that job descriptions and interviews are the most accurate hiring and placement tools when the majority of applicants readily admit they will say or do anything to get a job?

If Not Competencies, Then What? The big deal about competencies is that they (if carefully crafted and truly understood) form the foundation for hiring, training, and managing.

  • Competencies are building blocks of performing a job. For example, what is more trustworthy: testing a bus driver’s eyesight, operator skills, reaction speed, aggressiveness, and driving ability (building blocks); or looking exclusively at accident records (job descriptions)? Building blocks tend to be basic and straightforward (like physical skills), while job descriptions tend to be complicated and involved (like accident records).
  • Regardless of arguments to the contrary, competencies always precede performance, just as being able to see oncoming cars helps avoid driving accidents.
  • Competencies precede outcomes, not the other way around. Can we tell more about how a player performs by watching a game, or by only knowing the statistics?
  • Competencies fail when they are ill-designed; that is, when someone either uses them to describe outcomes or they are applied company-wide across all jobs. Competency-based systems succeed when they are job-explicit.
  • Competencies also only succeed when they can be identified and evaluated in a trustworthy and consistent manner.
  • Competency-based hiring does not minimize diversity of people; however, it does minimize diversity of job performance. Why? Because it is not based on personal opinion.

Concluding Comments

  • Stop believing personal-opinion nonsense; it will only lead to bad hires and bad treatment of qualified candidates.
  • Doing recruiting differently is often uncomfortable and actively resisted.
  • Go to the library and study any good book on personnel psychology.
  • Stop looking for confirmation that job descriptions and interviews are the best way to select candidates. They are as elusive as the magic “eat-all-you-want” diet pill.
  • Want to hire better people? Gather the courage to meticulously follow up on every skill. For example, if the job needs planning, and the candidate says he can plan, then follow up to verify that he can plan.
  • I’ll grant that professional recruiters usually do a better job sourcing candidates; but, has anyone ever wondered why professionals are often afflicted with the same turnover and productivity problems as the companies they serve?
  • Poor hiring practices are expensive! Experts usually estimate that 20-50% of annual payroll can be traced to hiring unskilled people, e.g., ones with the wrong job competencies.
  • Who among us wants to admit being even partially responsible for losing millions of dollars each year?