The hiring process seems familiar to most managers. Everyone has been through the process. It seems like hiring should be simple—everyone involved wants the same thing. Executives want to hire the best people. Candidates want a job where they can be successful. Everyone wants a recruiting process that accurately predicts performance on the job…and yet hiring is often disappointing.
Hiring is the single most important yet single most difficult task for executives. Few responsibilities are so potentially destructive, so hard to predict, or fraught with so much ambiguity and uncertainty. Even in the best organizations, hiring failures wreak havoc on business plans. When positions are left vacant for months on end, productivity plunges and budgeting becomes an exercise in futility. Meanwhile recruiting costs continue to mount.
What is it exactly that makes hiring so vexing?
The problem is that in hiring, there is no right answer. New employees often fail. Or they might start slow but then unexpectedly hit their stride and go on to high levels of achievement. Even among current employees, one researcher found that past job performance was a terrible predictor of future job performance. Hiring from competitors is also risky: top performers in one environment frequently fail in another situation. Even when the people hired do a perfectly fine job, managers still wonder if they could have hired someone even better.
No wonder managers struggle.
Hiring does not need to be risky, or uncertain, or ambiguous. If you understand one simple thing, you can hire with confidence and certainty:
In hiring, it's easy to see what's in front of you, but hard to see what's not.
Typical hiring practices head down a familiar path—one that places far too much attention on immediately obvious factors, and far too little attention on more important but less obvious elements of the hiring decision. The obvious distracts you from the important.
Reducing risk means understanding that the path to hiring is paved with five types of dangerous cobblestones:
1. It's risky to not look beyond the obvious candidate profile laid out by the hiring manager.
The Risk: Most hiring managers can describe their ideal candidate. But relying on this description is risky—because no hiring manager knows the full range of people in the market. Any firm and fixed profile will ignore far too many well-qualified candidates. The only useful definition of an ideal candidate (or top performer) is, “someone who is demonstrably better than their peers at achieving the business results you require, while working in an environment similar to your own.” This definition requires that you understand who else is doing similar work, and few managers can do this.
Avoiding the Risk: The hiring process must look beyond the candidate profile defined by the hiring manager and also consider people who took a different path to job competency. Finding highly qualified people for an open job requires:
1. Knowledge of who is in the job market
2. Clearly understanding how your opportunity compares to your competitor's options
Hiring managers are experts on the work being done…but are rarely experts on the job market. When you stop relying on managers to also be job market experts, you reduce hiring risk.
2. It's risky to only consider the people who respond to your job advertising.
The Risk: No single recruiting approach (such as job ads or employee referrals) provides a representative sample of the available candidates in a job market. Relying on one single approach to recruiting overlooks most of your potential candidates. This is the most common way employers fall into the trap of sampling bias, or selection bias. (If 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Trident sugarless gum, is that claim true of all dentists? Not if you only surveyed dentists walking past the Trident booth at a convention.)
Avoiding the risk: Diversify your recruiting outreach strategy.
3. It's risky to only consider the candidates with the best resumes.
The Risk: This risk factor is perhaps most deadly to a strong hiring process because it’s the most devilishly tempting shortcut.
Many hiring managers limit the interview pool to only candidates with good looking resumes (based on their ideal candidate profile from #1). This increases hiring risk because a rigorous selection process has strikingly little to do with the factors found on a resume. Degrees from elite universities or work experience at prestigious firms seem like impressive qualifications. But these factors are only correlated with success on the job. They do not cause someone's success. The factors that translate into success cannot be discerned from any resume alone. (If they did, why even bother to have interviews?)
Avoiding the Risk: If your hiring process does not include phone screening, start. Consider people who may be on target, but you need more than the resume reveals to know for sure. The only way to discover who does great work is to speak with at twenty well-qualified people who want your job—which likely means opening up the competition to candidates you wouldn’t normally consider.
4. It's risky to demand that candidates display passion and commitment early in the interview process.
The Risk: There is a chronic misunderstanding from hiring managers of when people should become passionate about a position. Passion and commitment are not factors you will easily observe in resumes, cover letters, or even in a typical first interview—it’s not an attribute people carry around with them like a coffee mug.
Candidates do not like to jump through unnecessary hoops designed to “weed out the uncommitted.” Application hurdles—such as extensive application processes, uploading a resume and copy/pasting a plain-text version, requiring a cover letter, etc.—all of these are not effective for displaying passion. But they are very effective at making highly qualified people invisible to you (hint: because they choose not to apply). This tilts your candidate pool toward the more desperate people who are willing to put up with the difficulty of the process.
And managers who are looking for passion are often deceived in interviews by the charms of extroverts, mistaking enthusiasm for passion. But passion has staying power—enthusiasm quickly fades.
Avoiding the Risk: To discern true passion, focus on the harder-to-identify attributes: resilience, persistence, and determination. Truly passionate employees are the ones who show grit. What allows passion and commitment to flourish? Research shows that passion grows over time.
Also, create a work environment that allows people to do the best work of their lives. Otherwise, no matter how enthusiastic someone might have seemed in the interview, their commitment will decay, not grow.
5. It's risky to rely on face-to-face interviews as your key assessment/evaluation tool.
The Risk: The important information you need is not seen in an interview, and much of what is observable in an interview is unimportant.
For example: many hiring managers mistake confidence for competence, or conflate style—when a candidate “looks the part”—with substance. These are risky because they're examples of “appearance discrimination” or “lookism.” Like any discriminatory behavior, the unconscious mind often has a hard time reconciling that confidence or style have nothing to do with competence or ability.
Avoiding the Risk: It can help to think that you are not just hiring people, you are hiring their capabilities. Instinct and opinion should never be used when data and a structured process can provide the answer. (Instinct and opinion are prone to bias.)
Start the process with a blind audition/blind interview scenario, like on The Voice. A carefully structured telephone interview reduces the impact of appearance bias, so that first impressions are on what each candidate has achieved, not how they look.
Likewise, supplementing the interview process with work sample testing reduces risk, because it tests candidate competence by having them do actual work on the job.
As Mark Twain said:
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
It's entirely possible to reduce hiring risk, but it demands that you reassess your hiring practices. The problem with hiring is not the candidates or even the job market. The cause of most hiring failure is the hiring process itself. The typical hiring process is a flawed relic from the past, relying on gut instinct and personality instead of market research.
Download our Consistent Hiring guides: Supporting the Hiring Decision and Recruiting Top Performers and learn:
- How typical hiring processes accidentally eliminate highly qualified candidates
- How to structure your hiring process to make better hiring decisions
- How market research leads to smarter hiring decisions
- How to know when more recruiting would be a waste of your time
- The magic number of interviews that makes hiring a statistical certainty