Easy In, Easy Out: Keeping Recruiting Simple

How much should we let chance and circumstances define who we hire, rather than continue to invest time in tough screening and many interviews?

In the simplest terms, should (and maybe even does?) randomness play a large role in selection? Is it better to have a loose, easy-in and easy-out hiring practice than a much tighter and thorough upfront screening process?

Many of us have read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell where he postulates that chance and “gut feel” may play a bigger role in our decision-making than we imagine. Another book, older and more rigorously researched, entitled Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb also takes a similar position.

It may be that candidates who meet certain basic criteria for a job are potentially able to perform that job equally well and, once those basic skills are determined, the only remaining need is to determine how well the candidate fits in with the hiring manager and, to a lesser degree, with the organization.

What would happen if an organization made a lot of hires quickly and then let on-the-job performance determine who should be kept and who should not?

When I think back much of the 20th century, recruiting was fairly straightforward. Most jobs were filled quickly from a large pool. The demand for credentials and specific experience were closely correlated with the type of work, and it was not hard to see why a specific skill or experience level was needed. Most jobs were filled after a brief interview with a hiring manager, who made his decision based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics. Most jobs could be learned quickly, and it was quite easy to see whether a job was being done well or not. It was easy to get rid of poor performers and plenty got fired right away. However, a lot didn’t.

There were many things wrong with this approach, but the most obvious was that it blatantly discriminated against anyone who did not fit the stereotype of the hiring manager. Greater awareness of discrimination and new legislation drove the growth of the recruiting profession and removed much of the potential injustice this system perpetuated.

But the recruiting practices had one virtue — they were simple and were built on a belief that attitude and performance were what really counted. Many engineers, doctors, and lawyers were trained in what amounts to an apprentice system right up until World War II. Formal skills training only gradually gained acceptance after the war, when thousands of GIs went back to school on the GI bill.

As we moved into the 1950s and 1960s, these more casual hiring practices were replaced by the development of job requirements: things like minimum levels of education or years of experience before a person would be considered for a position. This was seen as fairer and served as a screen against hundreds of people potentially applying for the same job.

The problem with this approach is that it is very hard to see how the defined requirements connect to actual performance. There was a presumption of fairness because the new requirements eliminated or reduced the ability to screen people out arbitrarily because of race or sex. However, we have learned over the past 40 years that people who qualify for jobs based on their education or experience alone are not necessarily good performers.

We now know that simply selecting people by generic measures like education and experience don’t work very well and discriminate against those with the real skills who do not have the required credentials. How many good performers are being denied jobs today because they lack a college degree, for example?

In a world with high unemployment and yet with a need for skilled talent, managers and recruiters are confused as to what is essential in a candidate. Is it better to go with a person who lacks a specific credential or skill, but has the right attitude? Is it best to have broad-based recruiting criteria or more and more specific ones?

So, what will we do?

Three rules seem to be forming around defining new positions as well as for redefining the more traditional ones.

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Rule #1: Keep criteria simple

How much do you want to invest in perfection? Define a basic level of competence that most positions require, add on whatever minimum specific skills, experience, or education are really necessary to perform the job, and then decide based on attitude or cultural fit.

Design screening processes to be simple and flexible. Listen to your gut.

Rule #2: Be competency-flexible and teach hiring managers that development is part of recruiting.

Managers will be forced to accept that they will not be able to find candidates with 100% of what they want. Managers and HR will learn that development is a core function of the firm in the 21st century. IBM put in place a development-centered in the 1960s when they began hiring and developing new college grads because there were no people with the skills they needed. Remember there were no programmers when the first mainframes were produced, and so IBM had to develop them. Many companies have used development as a strategic edge; when you have people with skills and others don’t, you tend to win. Finding and developing current employees who have some, but perhaps not all, of the skills needed for a job will also become more common.

Rule #3: Have robust performance management systems in place.

By hiring people using broad competency descriptions, as I am advocating, you may hire some poor performers. And that’s okay. What is not okay is ignoring that and allowing them to stay in your organization. A good performance management system, based on whether people achieve realistic goals and meet the requirements of their position, is essential to success.

The hallmark of the best 21st-century organizations will be their approach to defining the people they need. Traditional measures of education, experience, attitude, and cultural fit may play a small part, but what will be significantly different is a quick, flexible approach to defining competencies combined with efficient performance management systems. This will result in more fluid and less well-defined jobs, but broader and more multi-skilled employees.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


6 Comments on “Easy In, Easy Out: Keeping Recruiting Simple

  1. Kevin,

    Another great article, perfectly pinpointing the conundrum facing managers today. It is complicated further in large organizations by state or federal mandated requirements.

    Having successfully placed numerous sales professionals, I’ve yet to see how the requirement of a college degree in business correlates with already-developed sales skills, yet it is a requirement (or “highly desired”) in virtually every search I’ve done in the past 5 years. Yes, I know… the company believes that a degreed individual will be better equipped to excel at higher levels they may get promoted into. That doesn’t stand up to any test I know of.

    More often than not, employers fail to quickly dismiss new employees who do not have the skills they were thought to have, choosing instead to believe that the person will somehow develop themselves into what the company thought they were hiring. This impacts productivity, morale, and profits probably more than any single issue in business.

    Your recommendations are sensible, and doable. But, how many companies have managers with sufficient evaluation skills, strength of convictions, and the support of upper management when a tough decision has to be made? Not many, I am afraid.

  2. Thank you, Kevin. You implicitly pointed out something rather disturbing: we’re well into the 21st Century and we either don’t know, can’t agree on, or won’t accept the facts of what is necessary to hire competent employees most of the time.

    What are your thoughts as to why this is the case?



  3. Kevin, thank you penning the article.

    While I agree conceptually with your article, the fact many managers decide on “gut” is the reason for our current hiring/retention indigestion. Managers are usually not equipped with the right tools to consistently make good selections and are not held accountable for bad hiring decisions. They need to be empowered at the critical decision point of interview (i.e. Lou’s Interview lessons or predictive tools from someone like Modern Survey) and accountable for the results.

    I’ve witnessed several sales organizations that ended up as gaping black holes for years because the leadership went largely on gut for key positions responsible for hiring/leading others. One bad decision cascades into more bad hiring decisions – which eventually sours entire sales regions.

    Your third item, manage performance for the “easy out” is also beyond achievement in most environments, especially outside the US where hiring represents a major commitment.

    I completely agree we need to “Keep It Simple,” but the reality of the “Easy In, Easy Out” is unachieveable in a world where unions, works councils, rampant litigation and managers are ill equipped to be held accountable for bad decisions.

  4. I’m all for keeping it simple in a complex world; gut feel may not be legal or the best method but it tracks right into cultural fit and an opinion about whether the candidate has what it takes to be HAPPY on the job. Since this is totally subjective, I suggest adding Rule #4 being the use of behavioral assessment tools that benchmark high achievers in a given job and adding those traits to the definition of the job requirements. This offers a nice balance between skills, cultural fit, and likelihood of retention.

  5. A dimension that we have added is an assessment that is given to the final candidates being considered for a search, it is not a make or break, it is a tool to help management make good decesions based on the candidates they have seen, it also suggests a plan for managing going forward that can be incorported into the perfomance review very nicely.

    Our clients have appeciated the information, we share the results with the candidates. It’s all over a very good added dimension.


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