HR is Dead! Yes? No? Maybe? (Hint: It’s up to you)

Politicians claim they never let a good crisis go to waste. Reacting to crises is how people take advantage of opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked. But, have you ever thought about how that applies to HR? Or, maybe you have not kept up with the trend to eliminate internal recruiters.

Professional recruiters are citing an increasing number of independent studies claiming there is no difference in employee quality between internal and external recruiters; so, they argue, why should organizations hire full-time internal recruiters when external ones deliver the same results … cheaper? If I were an executive looking for ways to reduce costs, that argument would resonate with me. So, if you have anything to do with recruiting in your organization, how you react to this crisis could make a big difference to your career.

Same Old Same Old

Recruiters (both inside and outside) are like frogs swimming in a pot of cold water. Experiencing slowly rising temperatures, they are totally unaware they are about to be cooked. (Actually, I never boiled a frog, so I’m taking this story at face value). In fact, the last recruiting conference I attended was utterly packed with sourcing candidates and noticeably shy on evaluating them. When I buttonholed both recruiters and sourcers about the importance of qualifying candidates, their eyes would literally glaze over. They either knew it all … or cared less. I emphasize this story because I have not yet met a line manager who thinks recruiting is doing a good job qualifying candidates. And, guess who controls the money?

Aside from sourcing, the traditional method of hiring is to screen a pile of resumes, run applicants through interviews, and do background checks. We all know it’s easy to fake interviews, and results are mostly personal opinion. Furthermore, you don’t need research to know about half of new hires fail to meet expectations. Just look around. Is it any wonder HR outsourcing is a growing industry?

Nuts and Bolts

I did not invent best-practice hiring tools. They evolved from many years of research that, in my experience at least, most recruiters blow off as being too much work. Best practice starts with knowing critical skills associated with each job, then measuring them with hard-to-fake behavioral interviews, tests, simulations, and exercises. Does this process ensure 100% perfect hires? That would be nice, but no. There are simply too many factors that affect the future. Best practices significantly reduce the number of hiring mistakes. However, one fewer hiring mistake means one additional highly productive employee. Put another way, we know in a typical organization that 20% of the people produce 80% of the results. So, imagine what it would be like if that number was reversed to where 80% of the people were top-notch.

The reasons for poor performance are seldom the employee’s problem. He or she was coached to say anything to get a job; job competencies were unclear; and interviews were easy to fake. Imagine that!

Best practice hiring tools are different: they are considerably more accurate than traditional interviews, highly focused, and hard to fake. If you want management to consider recruiting or HR an invaluable department, I suggest ignoring job titles, organizing jobs into families (i.e., jobs with similar competencies), studying each family to identify job-critical competencies (i.e., ones that can be measured), developing reliable and trustworthy measurement tools, setting professional cut-points, and training your people how to use them.

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Still need to use a professional recruiter from time to time? Professional recruiters usually have access to impressive networks or are able to screen high volumes of candidates. Let them know, however, that you will require each submitted candidate to successfully pass your best-practice screen. Don’t be surprised of instead of the usual 2-3 candidates, you have to test about seven to find the right-skilled person. Will the recruiters complain? Probably. But they don’t have to live with the consequences of a bad hiring decision.

Piece of Cake…Not!

You might not have the expertise in-house to set up a best-practice system. In that case, consider hiring a psychometric expert to get you started. I’m not referring to freelance salespeople who market out-of-the-box tests. They are probably well-intentioned, but limited in their range of tools, and totally unaware of limitations (e.g., if the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail). Professionals can be identified by career and academic credentials, professional memberships, time spent interviewing people doing the job, use of different tools, professional validation processes, documentation, knowledge of the DOL Uniform Guidelines, and use of tests specifically developed for predicting job performance.

The entire investment of a best-practice hiring system is often recovered in 60-90 days. Isn’t it worth it to cut-through the sales-pitch and get the employee you actually thought you were getting?

Dead or Alive?

Is HR dead? That depends. Keep up the same-old practices, and the answer is probably, “Yes.” Move into the 21st century and master best practices, and I predict you will become managements’ new BFF.


16 Comments on “HR is Dead! Yes? No? Maybe? (Hint: It’s up to you)

  1. I rarely find myself wanting to post a comment saying: excellent, this is true and important – but that is exactly what I want to say now. Well done, Wendell.

    The thing is, the observations and counsel embedded in Wendell’s article shouldn’t be surprising or even, ideally, necessary to say. But of course they are both. Best practice recruiting uses what we know – which is a lot – about performance predictors. It doesn’t need expert opinion. It is Moneyball for recruitment. If you know that story, you know that baseball “experts” didn’t invent it or accept the truth and validity of fact-based player selection. But it works, as it does in recruitment. Recruiters should be users of science, appliers of fact-based methods. How many are?

  2. The general point of this article is all well and good if you are recruiting from a large pool of active job seekers within an abundant and readily available skill set or experience. In the UK apparently we have far more law graduates than places available at law firms, to that end I’m sure they are all willing and able to jump through as many hoops as you the employer wish to design and implement.

    However, imagine the scenario we are currently in as a result of economic concern. As a company you require a Regional Marketing Manager with fluency in German and French, resident in the UK who has a solid academic degree in marketing and has a broad mix of marketing skills with experience across the EMEA region.

    As a recruiter you manage to search and headhunt 2 possible candidates, both passive, both love their current employer and neither really want to relocate. You present an opportunity however that may enhance their skillset, add kudos to their experience and professional profile and wiil also (this should never be a deal breaker) offer some increase in remuneration. Target candidates say “Oh okay then…”

    You then tell the candidates that they will have to meet you for a face to face interview, followed by meeting the employer for a 1st interview, followed by a 2nd Panel Interview, followed by a series of hoops (Best Practice Hiring Tools) and then a final interview.

    Guess what the target candidate says?

    “Ah ya know what, I really don’t have the time, inclination or enough desire for all this bullsh*t, maybe I’ll just stay where I am”!

    Now okay, that may be an extreme example. But trust me, in the current market place many people who are good, great or fantastic at their jobs are staying right where they are, companies know they are good and ensuring that they retain their key staff. Extracting them is tough. Momentum, clarity and straight forward process is critical to gaining movement for specialist, hard to find talent. Introducing hurdles and challenges to proven professionals just means that your business will stagnate as it splashes around trying to make do with talent it needs but can’t secure.

    The last thing the business World needs right now is more complexity, red tape and fees to achieve the same or better result.

    Oh, and as for comment about quality of hire / employee external versus internal recruiter. Exactly where has this data been compiled and who by?

  3. Darren makes a point …good or bad depends on how much risk you are willing to take…For example, if your requirements are inflexible, the candidate is in control and you take all the financial risk. If you can separate-out things that can be learned on the job, you can get a larger applicant pool and pick the most qualified applicant. If you are willing to accept a risk of 6-9 months salary on a smarty-pants applicant, then it’s your money. If your only focus is on making the guarantee period, a thorough vetting process is not for you. If you care about employee performance, there is no better solution…

    As for sources…do a Google search on recruiting outsouring trends.

  4. Let’s start with answering the article’s headline question. No, HR is not dead. I would encourage the same amount of time spent Googling HR outsourcing to be spent Googling the number of great/famous/top business CEOs and minds who’ve all bluntly stated that HR success is key to their success. Most say HR championship and direction must come from the CEO and top business leaders paired closely with HR leadership and teams capable of pairing HR practices with business practices.

    Now, to some of the other points. Many companies are outsourcing recruiting because of it’s cost. I don’t think that’s going to prove effective in the long run. Google searches won’t reveal much about companies who’ve made a successful go of recruitment outsourcing without maintaining complete control and input over the process and outcomes. That’s simply transferring headcount – not outsourcing. PC makers outsource the manufacturing of parts, yet they maintain control over what parts get put into their PCs. The same works for recruiting when outsourced. Only the degrees and manners of control matter; but virtually no one actually outsources the whole process.

    Recruitment now is very different from recruitment of just a few years ago and it’s not just the HR recruiter that needs to adapt – it’s the entire organization. You see, managers have always relied on HR to “present a slate of qualified candidates” so manager time away from “the business” is limited. In a time when hiring fewer has more impact on the organization, the organization mindset of recruiting being pawned off on HR at the early stages doesn’t hold. Networked candidates can find out about the companies, leadership, and even direct managers long before anyone’s ever contacted them. Even further, I’ve had good candidates ask up front for names and examples of people that have held the open position and how it’s benefit their careers and development paths, including what the present direct manager and leadership team has contributed. No assessment tool is ever going to address that.

    Now to what needs to change and why:

    Assessment tools do need to explore how and why people adapt to challenges and unknowns, including how they interact and facilitate getting things done with and through other people. If there’s a test out there that pulls that out, great. Not many people know about it though.

    The recruitment process itself needs a complete overhaul more than it needs to be outsourced. When you outsource recruiting, you outsource internal knowledge that is critical when engaging and interacting with potential candidates.

    There are too many changes I can think of to shake things up, but here are three I’d start with:

    1) Separate recruitment into “traditional” entry-level and quick-demand recruitment with separate teams to manage that process. I once worked in a situation of first-level positions where HR knew the business and did all the hiring for first-line supervisors. It seems counterintuitive, but you’d be surprised how effective managers and supervisors got at assessing needs and communicating relevant business info and facts to their assigned recruiters. The sense of ownership of results and effectiveness went up dramatically, as did actual performance in time-to-fill at lower cost.

    2) Extend assessments (through networking questions and interactions) to candidates at the point of contact. Companies shouldn’t fear candidates finding out about deep-probe questions. In fact, they should encourage recruitment to get those questions going from the start. It’s only going to reveal the information you really need. If a company wants to pay to have questions developed – so be it. But the most important part of the assessment process it how it’s used. I’ve done and seen many very capable behavioral-based assessment processes get completely mis-applied to the point where people lost faith in the assessment and the assessors. In EVERY case, it was that somewhere along the way, the rigor and discipline of properly using the tool had been inappropriately changed, omitted completely, or done at the wrong time.

    3) Take a long, hard look at how recruitment is actually viewed at a company. Any Google search and countless CEO surveys from organizations all over the world reveal that business leaders worry about whether they have the right people in the right jobs at the right times. And they’re even more worried about how quickly they can get off track due to the pace of change. Then compare that to how companies invest in their recruitment and you will see a need to completely re-evaluate how HR, namely, recruiting is viewed and done inside organizations. Recruitment is one of the fundamental R&D of organizational people strategy. The best organizations simply have to figure out the right ways to improve their investment. I hardly think the recent and current fad of reducing costs by shifting them outside the organization is going to work long-term.

    I’ll know when there’s really a change in mindset when organizations allow internal recruiters to actively recruit people inside an organization. So few allow that because they’re worried about the pain of internal competitiveness. There is no such thing as internal competitiveness – it’s either good for the company and employee or not.

    I propose this question to anytone stuck in what to do about recruitment situations — “If I told you the best recruitment process would have allow recruiters to openly and freely recruit from within and outside your organization, would you let them with zero or minimal restrictions?” I usually get tepid but ultimately no answers. And then I ask them exactly what do they think external recruiters are doing – they’re recruiting inside and outside your organization, outside of your control, without your knowledge or permission, and barely in the best interest of your company (unless it’s a small, single-client recruitment arrangement, which likely doesn’t exist these days). By the way, most external recruiters also do all that without burdensome assessments.

    If HR’s guilty of one thing throughout this, it’s that it hasn’t pushed the envelope of possibilities in recruitment nearly far enough to help. That uncomfortability’s not likely to come for those who aren’t capable of making the “Little Bets” that drive innovation and success that Peter Sims referred to in his so titled book.

  5. More good points..I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of organizations over the years. What is common to most is they: 1)promote managers without knowing whether they will have the skills or not (e.g. usually not); 2) seldom, if ever, use best hiring practices (e.g., job analyses, validated tools, and so forth); 3) complain about the work involved to accurately identify and evaluate candidate job skills; 4) want an off-the-shelf magic test to solve all their hiring and promotion problems; 5) totally ignore the last 50 years of test and assessment knowledge (available from any good university); 6) and, are quick to angrily attack best-practices that have been on the DOL recommended list since 1978.

    So why should anyone care?

    On the job mistakes, turnover, empty seats, unproductive employees, recruiting costs, and so forth annually waste 10-50% of base payroll. Sorry, unless HR is already followng best-practices for using tests, hiring and promotion, there is no way it can make a valuable contribution to the bottom line.

    Why do pro-sports teams hire players based on tryouts instead of interviews? Tryouts let them observe player skills before hiring. As soon as organizations take that practice to heart, the better their employees will be and the fewer they will need to do the same work.

  6. A fine, stimulating article.
    A couple of points:
    1) What to “keep” vs what to “give away”?:
    Eliminate automate, or outsource for $11/hr or less those recruiting functions you’re not prepared to pay $50/hr or more to have done inhouse.

    2) Best practices:
    Almost everyone SAYS they believe in “best practices”- either consciously or unconsciously believing that the BPs will justify THEIR way of doing things as determined by the “GAFI Principles” of Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance. When is the last time you heard a sr. recruiting executive say: “If the BPs say we should radically change the way the billionaire founder has had us do it for over 10 years, well by golly, we’ll radically change it!”



  7. Sports and business aren’t always so easy to compare. Tryouts for sports teams are usually done by marginal players – not proven veterans and superstars. In sports, tryouts are usually to confirm a hunch. Players with injuries are tested for physical abilities. Despite these physical tests, sports teams still fail at assessing the mental makeup of players. The NFL and some businesses use the Wonderlic test, but Wonderlic doesn’t get at drive because it’s about IQ measurement through reasoning. It also has too many outliers for me to be comfortable beyond a certain point so I can’t see it being used beyond another piece of evidence about a candidate – a piece that I might use to break a tie but not make a decision.

    Here are some things sports teams think and do that companies don’t that would make a difference:

    1) Accept that you have to recruit the best talent available – period. Sports teams can adjust the number of picks they have in yearly drafts and the number of trades and free agent signings they do, but sports teams develop and follow a talent system they believe and follow. Sports teams have to accept reality. Billy Bean’s moneyball approach was a result of him being in a good mid-market organization. It never would have gotten off the ground with the NY Yankees. And though many teams use the principles, it also works best only when it meshes up with available talent. Bean’s team likely would have been very unsuccessful if it didn’t have young pitchers to base it around. Similarly in that vein, companies need to change to their own version of how to recruit and develop talent in a way that they can do it well over the long haul.

    2) Start with what you really want to measure first. I’m still looking for the organization that specifically states it wants to find 50-75% of it’s next generation of leaders and it’s local workforce by X factors in recruiting. Sports teams pretty much commit to building through recruitment and supplementing through signings. Companies really don’t approach recruitment with the same level of discipline and organization. I’m not saying cost/hire or time/fill aren’t important, but they’re not drivers of recruitment success. To do that takes re-imagining recruitment and assembling it as a whole, not just the staffing/interviewing/hiring process.

    3) Hold business managers accountable for first overhiring, then underleading/undermanaging. I don’t mean hiring too many people – I mean hiring too many good people. Rare is the business manager who’ll actually try to hire several people with potential to replace him-/herself.

    4) Automate as much processing and non-decisionmaking as possible out of the recruitment process. Technologically is possible for companies and recruiters to maintain followers and potential candidates now more than ever, but most companies simply haven’t made that investment. If your recruiters can’t unexpectedly meet someone at a social event and begin developing a CRM-style history on them, then you’re not really recruiting. I see much more in common with CRM software than traditional HR recruitment software; but I rarely hear of CRM organizations helping design and deliver the type of potent software good recruiters could leverage.

    Again, HR isn’t dead. It might need some sparks in imagination and willingness to create new mindsets and practices. That spark best comes from or is certainly fully supported in all ways by the top executive(s) in the organization.

    PS: Since I’ve used baseball (via Bean’s moneyball concept), I’d like to add that HR’s role is really more like Bean’s in Oakland. What Bean really did was challenge how the organization built talent. He broke through the gaps and myths model of scout-centric testimonial recruiting. He didn’t eliminate scouts – he just changed what he expected of them. He expected them to present players who’s potential could be backed up with data and statistically. Decisions still had to be made – they just eliminated wasting time on resources and players the organization couldn’t afford (big-name, huge contract superstars).

  8. I liked “Moneyball” both the movie and the concept. However, it seemed to be a temporary advantage- what if all mid-level clubs like Oakland did the same? Likewise for an approach such as you mentioned Darryl- it seems it would be an advantage that would be easily copied.
    You wisely mentioned “it also works best only when it meshes up with available talent.” How would an average company get much better hires than it would otherwise be able to afford, what would “overlooked” candidates look like, and would managers be willing to hire them? As in sports the GAFI Principles of greed, arrogance, fear, and ignorance are very powerful in business.


  9. True, it can be argued sports analogies are not exactly on point…but superstars are seldom super when they are hired… they arise out of a mass of seemingly skilled players. So, one-off examples of why tryouts are not important are, well, not important.

    Business tryouts are important to identify whether people have job skills…unfortunately, if HR is committed to using interviews and/or junk-science tests, they will never be able to screen out enough unqualified applicants to contribute to the bottom line.

    Business tryouts reduce unqualified employees to a realistic minimum…from about 50% for traditional processes to about 10%. Incidentally, “tryout” is my personal shorthand for following recommended process outlined in The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. In my experience recruiters hate them, but the Guidelines are still the gold-standard for hiring the most competent employees.

    The Guidelines include carefully studying the job by interviewing both workers and managers; separating out critical competencies (note: these are what the person carries around from job to job… NOT performance expectations); choosing an professional assortment of tests, work samples and behavioral interview questions; validating everything to ensure it works; and, running each candidate through the process.

    For example, suppose planning, learning, and negotiating are important competencies…One would measure planning skills (go/no-go), learning ability (go/no-go); negotiating (go/no-go); and the motivation to do all three (go/no-go). If the candidate can pass all four, you will know if they can-do..and will-do. That substantially reduces the risk and cost of making a bad hire.

    BTW..I always chuckle when external recruiters who crow about their skills, corner me to ask what they can do to identify skilled people for their own business…Go figure.

  10. Keith,

    Now we’re getting to what matters.

    Most mid-level clubs in sports fall into the copy-them trap as well. The problem is, it’s hard to copy and generate the same level of success of others because conditions change and what they do behind the scenes is never fully known. Failure usually comes from trying to be too faithful to the original when copying instead of using the principles to develop what you can do best. I also cannot overstate that I believe Moneyball would have been deeply criticized had it not been based on the fact that Oakland had a few young pitchers and hitters in it’s farm system that made it possible to change the way it competed in the major league.

    That said, I believe there are some practical steps that can be taken, such as:

    1) Hire and develop at more realistic levels if that’s what you really can do. I’ve worked at companies who simply couldn’t accept that their size and reputation was that it was a great place to start and grow to a certain level in your career but that there were too many obstacles to senior leader positions. Namely, that senior leaders at that company don’t leave. What that company failed to do is embrace and build it’s reputation as a place for movers and shakers and to get better at keeping track of people once they left – for years if necessary. The business and HR leaders failed to understand that the value was in the connection we could have made with the people even though they left. Even if they wouldn’t or couldn’t come back, they were in the small circle of talent that could refer people who would be available and perhaps a bit more affordable. That’s recruiting, and most companies won’t invest in it.

    2) While it may not be possible to get “better” hires for less or the same money, you can get better or best by rethinking what you want. Moneyball principles guided the club to identify the best overall talent available and decide how they could apply it. As critically, it involved looking at excess talent or overpriced talent that it could afford to lose, and then built around not just how to get the best trade value for them but how to get the player (who often have no-trade clauses) to accept trades by actively shopping them in places that would be in the player’s interest as well. There wasn’t a flood of Oakland players going to Cleveland. They were going to markets where they had a chance to win or a chance to increase/maintain the overall income/value. You could call them overlooked, but many of them moved on and did respectably if not better than they would had they remained.

    3) Know your own people is somethat developed from moneyball principles. Scouts and coaches used to look at players purely for traditional stats such as batting average. Now players are evaluated by how they hit with or without good hitters around them. Businesses could stand to look at how they evaluate employees based on both their individual contributions and how they facilitate and enhance others to perform better.

    I have a strong suspicion that managers will start hiring and developing more talented people when their bosses started asking who, for what, how are we helping/monitoring/correcting their progress or ending our ties with people who don’t want to grow and contribute.

    GAFI exists everywhere, but most fear is trumped by self-preservation. When leaders and systems design self-preservation into the process by setting up concrete measures that identify success, things change. I don’t propose anything will get rid of GAFI, but I do think it can be turned into a more productive set a fears and paranoia.

    When I consult with or work with companies, I usually tell them you cannot copy someone else’s success but you can learn from it and develop your own winning principles.

  11. Carol,

    Your article is as timely today as it was when written. Management’s 100+ year fascination with machinery (and complementary disregard for human nature) has most companies virtually locked into a race to efficiency without effectiveness. As you imply within your article, this inability to tap the potential of people is best demonstrated with management’t unquestioned application of the normal curve distribution for rating it’s organization’s people (i.e., a curve that is suitable when people are selected randomly), versus the pareto curve that fits any group of carefully selected high performers.

    The questions you outline in our article, if taken seriously, could lead executives to recognize how suboptimization guides many current decisions regarding people. Then again, we also know about human nature that when people are feeling the “glow” that things seem to be working (or at least we feel in control), there’s not going to be much interest in calculating the financial waste of the last two year’s hiring errors.

    Like you I have witnessed companies with 80%+ of the employees performing at A level, and approaching optimization. Most executives simply cannot imagine this, except of course that everyone on their personal staff is above average. (:-o) We might blame this on too many statistics courses and two few social psychology courses, I don’t know. What I do know is that your article is on target, and that the untapped potential for both upside human performance and reduced organizational waste are just waiting in most companies for pioneering people who are eager to make a difference.

    Dr. James Pepitone, Research Director – Early Access Field Trials, Humaneering Institute –

  12. I have been in recruitment and HR for over 25 years, serving in an internal and external capacity for companies large and small. I thought twice about writing a comment, but finally felt the need to get my feelings off my chest.

    Some of the more confident and ultimately effective hiring decisions made over my quarter century of hiring have definitely been supported by role specific processes such as behavioural interviews through assessment centres drawing on a mix of tools such as role play, presentations, group discussions, in-tray exercises and so on.

    The larger the company the more they are likely to be investing in the use of more complex and thorough processes. Given the luxury of time, budget and support from the top, it is self-evident that creating and consistently applying an acccredited process will generate better quality long term results.

    Dr Williams makes pertinent and trenchant observations herein on why this is the case and what the ramifications can be for being less than thorough. The proposal for all companies to seriously consider the impact of better recruiting processes and tools is a worthy aspiration for any firm seeking a means of indirectly improving their bottom line.

    A shame, then, that all this inherent worth is devalued by the tone taken to describe and denigrate recruiters, whether internal or external, as in;

    “I have not yet met a line manager who thinks recruiting is doing a good job qualifying candidates….He or she was coached to say anything to get a job….They either knew it all … or cared less….most recruiters blow off as being too much work…Will the recruiters complain? Probably.”

    Further, the tone of the responses to heartfelt and clearly sincere comments is infected by a defensive and superior undercurrent; “Darren makes a point …good or bad depends on how much risk you are willing to take…I always chuckle when external recruiters who crow about their skills….Well, I guess you guys need to write up your opinions, publish a study, and show the 10,000-plus hiring scientists, the DOL, and the EEOC how they have all been misdirected for the last 50 years.”

    It is sad that someone of Dr Williams’s education should feel the need to descend to sweeping generalisation, sniping and defensive recrimination to support a fine and noble initial argument.

    Frankly, it comes across as defending a position (selling assessment systems) rather than what it could have been, a clean and well-reasoned call for applying sound business sense for sound business reasons.

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