Is Recruiting an Art or a Science?

The recruiting industry has come a long way in the last five years. Companies have shifted from, “Should we recruit online?” to, “How do we use technology to gain a strategic advantage for talent?” And now we stand ready to take the next steps. As scientific selection, online assessment testing and skills screening gain critical mass, we must ask ourselves the question, is recruiting an art or a science? Why Recruiting Is an Art Many recruiters say that recruiting is really a visceral reaction. “Are this person’s competencies and behaviors consistent with what I am looking for? Do I think this person will fit in and contribute? Do I identify with this person?” These are the primary questions that the interview process tries to answer. Anyone who has ever plowed through a stack of resumes or interviewed a group of candidates knows that there are several times when you have to “connect the dots” to find the needle in the haystack. For instance, there are a million ways to write a resume that contains virtually the same experience. Candidates also have multiple versions of their resumes in which they hide some types of information and show others, depending on the job they are applying for or even the company to which they are applying. Job titles can vary from one company to another. Despite our best efforts to make profiles skills-based, you are usually still comparing apples to oranges. In the interview process, probing questions lead us to answers that often surprise us. Experiences or unknown skills emerge during this process that set one candidate above the rest. This cannot be driven by science or automation ó this is pure human interaction at work. Those who argue for recruiting as an art point out also that leadership, creativity, innovation, and adaptability are the watchwords of the new generation of successful knowledge-driven companies ó and there is no formula that shows us who will motivate or even inspire a group of individuals at your company. Many in this group will admit that, in customer service and sales roles ó which are high volume, easily quantifiable, and standardized ó scientific selection has its merits. But take one look at the College Dropouts Alumni Association, and the list below, and you’re reminded of the legalese that accompanies investment opportunities: “past performance is not always an indication of future success.” Some notable “connect the dots” candidates any organization would love to have:

  • Einstein (a patent clerk)
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  • Bill Gates (college dropout)
  • The Wright Brothers (never went to college)
  • Tom Brokaw (college dropout)
  • Peter Jennings (high school dropout)

Why Recruiting Is a Science Hold the phone, science-lovers everywhere will say. Humans are far too susceptible to errors in judgment (if you’ve ever seen Gigli, you’ll understand what I’m saying). We cannot rely on gut instinct alone to inform our decisions on who to hire. Why not? For starters, one gut is different from another is different from another. If none of these guts are the same, then none of the hiring decisions will be the same, leading to inconsistent results at best. Where does this leave you? With the job itself as the proving ground, creating an empirical experiment just waiting to blow up the laboratory. After all, we can prove to you that science works. Just look at Company X, which, by applying the principles of scientific selection, has reduced turnover by 25%, increased productivity by 75%, and decreased ramp-up time by 15% by using scientific selection and online assessment tools. We have shown no adverse impact. We can and do actually predict performance within a reasonable level of certainty. Admittedly, companies have chosen to use scientific selection primarily in areas that are the most easily quantifiable and most standardized, like customer service and sales. It is more difficult in an environment that is lower volume and has a diversity of job titles and job skills. But the lessons we’ve learned in this area can be applied to any discipline, and interviewers should be armed with the information that will help them conduct a more thorough interview and make a more educated gut decision. Is the Answer Scientific Selection? As you can see, there are definitely arguments for recruiting as art and science. Scientific selection tools and practices hold promise and can drive real returns on investment outside of the fairly narrow scope they’ve been assigned, but no one wants to screen out Einstein in the process. The implications on the recruiting industry are indeed fascinating. Will screening technologies be set up to do a lot of the work that is now assigned to recruiters, i.e. narrowing down large candidate pools and coaching hiring managers on the interview process? Will recruiters become active sourcing, candidate mining, and networking dynamos instead of resume screeners and paper pushers? Scientific screening and selection is well on its way to becoming a more integral part of the recruiting process. How we can use these technologies to our advantage to aid in selecting the best candidates and making more informed hiring decisions ó without screening out the many anomalies that exist and will exist ó now that will truly be an art.

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.


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