Don’t Let the Bureaucrats Win

There is a conspiracy preventing companies from hiring top people. The bureaucrats are behind it. We’ve been fighting the war for talent for a long time and nobody has won. Odd. Despite all the talk about “Hiring is #1” and the desire to win the war for talent, from what I can see it’s just lip service. The bureaucrats are the enemy, and they have won. If you want to hire top people and win the talent war, the bureaucrats must be defeated at all costs. To start, a face needs to be put on the enemy. Look in the mirror first. It could be you. If not… Here is my top 10 list of the bureaucrats and bureaucratic things preventing companies from hiring top people:

  1. Most lawyers. Lawyers aren’t too creative. If they’re honest, they try to keep their clients out of trouble by telling them how to best follow the rules. If they’re not so honest, they do things to increase their billings. If they’re very good, they understand their clients’ business objectives and make sure that they don’t just follow the rules without considering every possible alternative. Some lawyers are crooks, too ó but that’s not what we’re discussing here.
  2. The people in comp and benefits and related corporate bureaucrats. Too many corporate bureaucrats enforce the rules blindly because they don’t know any better. Some do it to maintain their power or to increase their influence and control. Even if rigid job descriptions and inflexible pay scales can seem like the right thing to do, they can be counterproductive when the bigger goal is to hire top people. This lack of higher-level thinking is called sub-optimization. It’s very common in most overhead and administrative functions.
  3. All PhDs except for John Sullivan. I’ve seen and read a lot of nonsense put out by the so-called experts. Don’t listen to their bureaucratic mumble jumble. If they have not been in the trenches, either as a line manager or a successful recruiter, treat their advice as suspect. If they live in the ivory towers, ignore or avoid their advice altogether. John Sullivan has at least seen the trenches and has smelled the taste of war, so his instincts are right on. For all others, make them prove their advice before following it.
  4. The government. In many ways, the government acts like the not-so-honest lawyer who wants to maximize his or her billings. Those who govern do whatever it takes to stay in government, not doing what’s right. Even the honest ones get caught up in the vicious cycle of lots of activity with little progress. I guess that’s the definition of bureaucracy.
  5. The OFCCP and related labor laws. These laws are important to prevent discrimination, so I applaud their intent. The problem I have is how they’re implemented. Actually, the OFCCP ruling on defining an Internet applicant is pretty good if you don’t follow your corporate lawyer’s advice. Since you only need to report on legitimate applicants, make sure your lawyers help you define legitimate applicants. Rob Bekken suggests you set up programs to eliminate the unqualified people before they become legitimate applicants. It’s these unqualified people who become legitimate but unqualified applicants who represent potential lawsuits. Minimizing unnecessary reporting and preventing frivolous lawsuits seems like a better strategy than reporting on everyone and being good at trials (see point 1, above.)
  6. Company policy, standard operating procedure, and culture. As companies get bigger, they become more conservative and risk averse. Thinking becomes stale; fitting in the culture becomes the goal; and a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality dominates the decision-making process. A recent MSNBC article based on an Emory University study on political bias offers much insight into how hiring decisions are made. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
  7. Technology vendors (except for the few who get it). In general, most applicant tracking system and related technology vendors have not made their products easier to use. They certainly have not made it easier for top people to evaluate opportunities before applying. Nor have recruiters become more productive or better recruiters as a result of using this technology. Instead, these vendors have simply automated their clients’ existing bureaucracy. Worse, as these tech vendors have become bigger, they have become bureaucratic and inflexible themselves. I’ve been tracking hiring technology since the mid 1990s, and have not seen companies making better hiring decisions as a result of using technology. At best, technology can now better handle high volumes of data more efficiently ó but I’m not sure this was the primary problem that needed solving.
  8. The corporate police. These are the enforcers of the bad rules, strutting about terrorizing their victims and wearing their ill-gotten “Can’t Do It!” badges for all to see. Sometimes they’re the enforcers of the corporate image who tell you that you can’t write creative ads. Sometimes they’re the compensation and benefits team who say you must post boring jobs descriptions. Sometimes they’re the organizational department that says you must use some half-baked competency model that drives away the best. Don’t worry about getting a few tickets. They’ll be waived if you hire some top people.
  9. Bureaucratic thinking. It’s also known as non-thinking. It’s practiced by all of those people in your company who just follow the rules because it’s safe, PC, they won’t get in trouble, or some bureaucrat says it’s company policy or that we’ve always done it that way. Don’t fall into this trap. It prevents progress. I suspect if a brain scan could be conducted on your corporate bureaucracy comparable to the Emory study it would show little activity.
  10. Hiring managers who think they know how to hire top people. In my book Hire With Your Head (Wiley, 2002) I included this quote: “It ain’t so much the things you don’t know that get you in trouble. It’s the things you know that just ain’t so” (Artimus Ward, 1834-1867.) Worse, not only do most managers think they know how to hire good people ó they all do it differently. Not only is consensus impossible to achieve this way, it forces companies to waste time and valuable resources seeking the perfect candidate. It never happens, so we compromise our standards when desperation becomes more important than talent. I refer to this condition as bureaucratic anarchy or the hidden bureaucracy.

Here are some strategies and tactics you can use to defeat the enemies within. (More will come in future “Don’t Let the Bureaucrats Win” articles.)

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  • Ally yourself with your hiring manager clients. Recruiters and hiring managers must unite to fight the bureaucrats. Collectively, line managers have the power to change things. Of course, you’ll need to get them to agree on some logical hiring decision-making process before moving forward.
  • Implement a sound hiring decision-making process. Classical behavioral interviewing is not it. This is for bureaucrats who want more control and more bureaucracy, not for recruiters who want to hire more top talent. Consider performance-based hiring instead.
  • Get evidence. Get creative. Get proof. The only way you’ll be able to change bureaucracy and biased thinking is with proof that there are better ways to hire top talent.
  • Become market-driven. Reverse engineer the way top people look for work. Start by conducting focus groups and interviewing those who you have recently hired. Next, design your processes to map to their process — not to some bureaucrat’s idea of how it should be done. Compare the differences to what you’re doing today. This is your gap analysis.
  • Get executive commitment. Functional VPs and C-level officers can make things happen. Don’t let some administrative bureaucrat get in your way. Get some allies and proof before you make your pitch. Proving the ROI is easy. Hiring a few outstanding people is all it takes to justify a new strategy.

Don’t let the bureaucrats win. They have inertia, human nature and the status quo on their side. So the battle is not easily won. Start the change process one search at a time. Get hiring manager allies along the way. Don’t take no for an answer. Prove and improve your processes. This takes leadership, persistence and courage. Hiring top people is tough work, but it’s worth it. You can’t let the bureaucrats win, or the war for talent will never end.

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).


6 Comments on “Don’t Let the Bureaucrats Win

  1. Lou, I enjoyed your article – it proves that the real truth is in the pudding! Leadership, persistence and courage are all hard to come by nowadays in our blame-others society. The ‘don’t do it’ league have nothing to lose but their own souls.

    ‘In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled.’ ~ Paul Eldridge

  2. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

    Some times finding the answer to that question in interviewing candidates becomes more important than what is right in front of you.

    Unfortunately many hiring authorities end up not being able to see the forest for the trees.

    Does the person have demonstrated success and un-rivaled abilities in the position you look to hire?

    Should I hire former Dallas Cowboy’s wide receiver Michael Irvin to handle NFL game analysis or the brodcast journalism major that has a couple fantasy football teams? Michael Irvin has some past baggage and the brodcast major was a straight 4.0 student and has a great track record at a major network.

    Your answer to that question determines if you are safe or smart. Many qualified and exceptional candidates deserve a second chance even if the red-tape and background screening is a little less than favorable.

    Of course serial killers need not apply, but sometimes the best hires ‘seem’ to be riskiest.

  3. I am with Jeremy, this is truly one of the best I have seen in a While.

    Once in a While one does have to push the envelope and to make it successful it is in the knowing the who, when and how.

    Strong Research, knowing facts and details does not have to make one paranoid, not does it Prevent Creativity in Recruiting. And the Handcuffs can be golden with a lot of flexibility, rather than disabling.

    Knowledge does allow one the chance NOT to completely have to disregard protocol when pushing the envelope..

    Totally alienating yourself from others or the powers that be Can be dangerous, especially if you love your job.
    Sometimes it also helps to remember that it is a small industry and word does get around.

    Being Unprepared can get really lonely when you are out there standing on your own and the stuff starts flowing downhill onto Your shoulders.

    Information however DOES allow one the ability to have a stronger leg to stand on; Allow one to be aware of the hesitations and negativity that will come from wanting changes in advance and give you the opportunity to present a more persuasive argument.

    Knowing your industry provides more answers and yes EVEN flexibility when trying to become creative when recruiting.

    Lou is right – be careful who you listen to -some individuals are selling products, some are really uninformed of the Changes in Today’s recruiting society and aren’t aware of new issues that face us each day. Some may just have Ulterior Motives.

    Find Mentors – Ask others who are currently and SUCCESSFULY implementing these tools in their work in Today’s Society. And MORE Importantly have been doing it for a LONG time with Positive Results.

    If you know someone who lost their job due to these issues (and we all do) – find out what they did wrong, and learn how they could have done it better to avoid it from happening to You!

  4. Lou,

    I read this article and I am speachless. Whether you are in sales, engineering, recruiting, there are rules within an organization that define the playing field for which a game is to be played.

    While I agree the items you listed can and in some cases do impact the hiring process – pointing fingers does not help our profession.

    First, as a recruiting professional, use this list to better understand the organization for which you are entering. Then ask yourself, do the parameters in place allow me to do my best work? Furthermore, does the recruiting leadership in place understand the parameters in place? Have they solutioned their efforts to work with not against those parameters?

    Secondly, unless the impact can be identified and measured – it cannot be solved. Technology is getting more sophisticated. Companies such as Cognos, have toolsets that can allow a company to measure what trends are actually going on inside their entire organization. As recruiting professionals we need to begin and embrace skills from other professions (i.e. product development, technology development, project management). We need to be able to identify and document our requirements and communicate a solid business case to drive change.

    Our profession is not unique to business challenges and rules that impact productivity. This exists everywhere and for everyone. Instead, we need to learn, teach and problem solve – because the items you listed in your article are real, and they will never fully go away.


  5. Tracey – I’m speechless, you’re speechless.

    Bureaucrats are preventing companies from hiring top people. They establish rules that are ill-conceived and detrimental. Recruiters owe it to their companies to challenges this mis-guided thinking.

    Recruiters have the obligation to present and get hired the best people possible. If silly, poorly-conceived, and bad rules prevent this from happening they should take a leadership role in geting the bad rules changed.

    In my opinion, living with bureaucratic rules allows bureacracy to perpetuate itself.

    But that’s just my opinion.

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