Sacred Cows and Silly Practices Die Slowly in Recruiting

Recruiting is full of practices that seem to last forever. Unfortunately, many practices endure for years despite the fact that they add no value to the hiring process. I call these well-established practices “sacred cows” because many lon-gtime recruiters and hiring managers vigorously defend them even though both company and academic data shows that they should be discarded.

The need to identify and then kill these sacred cows was reinforced recently by some compelling research data revealed by Google’s head of HR, Laszlo Bock. For example, extensive data from Google demonstrated that five extremely common recruiting practices (brainteaser interview questions, unstructured interviews, student GPAs or test scores, and conducting more than four interviews) all had zero or minimal value for successfully predicting the on-the-job performance of candidates. But despite this hard data, practices like brainteaser interview questions will likely continue for years.

Recruiting Has a Long, Checkered History of Silliness

If you are new to recruiting you probably don’t realize how many silly or discriminatory recruiting practices existed for decades without any data supporting their value. For most of the last century in fact it was quite common for recruiting to openly use practices that would be laughed at today. Can you think of a valid justification for any of the following long-term “sacred cow” recruiting practices?

  • Requiring a picture on applications and resumes
  • Requiring decisions based on a lie detector test
  • Requiring IQ, Myers-Briggs, and personality tests
  • Refusing to hire based on pregnancy or the chance of becoming pregnant
  • Automatically refusing to hire relatives citing nepotism
  • Refusing to hire based on sexual orientation
  • Refusing to hire someone because of their physical appearance (overweight, long hair, tattoos, or body piercings)
  • Requiring every applicant to pass a drug test
  • Classifying certain jobs as “women’s jobs” and only hiring women in them

Recruiting Is a History of Asking About the Silly Things on Job Applications

For decades ,it was quite common to ask candidates on application forms or during interviews about the following factors and to use the answers in hiring decisions. My questions are, “What were they thinking?” and “How did they survive so long?”

  • The name, job title, and place of employment of your spouse as well as your father and mother
  • Your sex, marital status, and the number of children you have
  • Your age
  • Your race
  • Your religion
  • If you own a car or a home and how much you are in debt
  • Your height and weight
  • Your handicaps
  • Your hobbies
  • Your arrest record
  • If you have received worker’s compensation
  • Whether you were ever a communist
  • Whether you had a dishonorable military discharge
  • A history of job jumping
  • Your zodiac sign or blood type

Each of these nearly century-old employment inquiries were based on unproven generalizations (for example: your hobbies predict your work capabilities). And unfortunately, these sacred cows died slowly because they were quite common as recently as the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, many are still used outside of the USA.

Article Continues Below

15 Current “Sacred Cow” Recruiting Practices That Need to Change

Unfortunately, almost every existing practice in recruiting exists without data to support it. Occasionally, recruiting adds new practices as a result of fads (i.e. social media) but we seldom have hard data to prove effectiveness of these new approaches either. Taken together this means that there are still a large number of widely popular “sacred cow practices” in recruiting that should be jettisoned. I have listed some of the worst below.

  1. Unstructured interviews — Google reinforced years of existing academic data and articles by authors by showing the scores from their typical unstructured interviews had a zero value in predicting hiring success. The assumption that certain hiring managers, HR professionals, and recruiters are great at using interviews to select the very best simply wasn’t supported by their data.
  2. Relying on resumes to screen applicants — nearly everyone relies on resumes to assess and sort talent, even though over 50 percent of resumes contain untruths, and almost all resumes completely omit negative items. There is no data to show that candidates with the best resumes turn out to be the best hires. Eventually something like a LinkedIn profile with standardized content and continuous public visibility (and the scrutiny) will prove to be a superior replacement.
  3. Relying on college degrees — there is plenty of evidence to show that the college you attended, your grades, your test scores, and even your major are not very accurate predictors of your on-the-job success. In fact, the success of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the founders of Tumblr, Twitter, etc. demonstrate that a degree itself may be unnecessary for innovation and leadership.
  4. Face-to-face interviews — many hiring managers and recruiters still insist on hard-to-schedule, face-to-face interviews but there is no evidence that they produce superior results. Most should be replaced with telephone and live video interviews over smart phones.
  5. Assessing corporate fit — corporate fit is a poorly defined and almost impossible-to-measure factor. It damages hiring because it can inadvertently screen out many innovators and the very diversity and new ways of thinking that are required to help change and improvement organizations.
  6. Focusing on cost rather than quality of hire — spending hours calculating the transactional cost of hiring is silly … especially when it detracts from measuring more important results like the quality of hire (the on-the-job performance/retention rate of new hires) produced by each individual recruiter and hiring manager. An equally important measure that should be added is calculating the dollar impact differential between hiring a weak, average, or top-performing so that executives know the exact revenue impact of great recruiting.
  7. Take your time hiring — it is a commonly held belief among hiring managers that because hiring decisions are so important, they should be made slowly. This assumption results in the all-too-common practice of requiring an excessive number of interviews, requiring multiple visits for these interviews, stretching out the interview schedule, and making slow final hiring decisions. Unfortunately this too slow approach not only results in a horrible candidate experience but the unnecessary delays causes top quality candidates to drop out, resulting in a measurably lower quality of hire.
  8. Reference checking — it might seem logical to avoid hiring anyone with weak references. However, the standard reference-checking process at most corporations is so flawed that surprisingly, there is no corporate data to prove that high reference scores correlate with on-the-job success.
  9. Credit checking — there is also absolutely no corporate data to prove that one’s credit scores accurately predict on-the-job success. Also, a bad credit score may be caused by others in the family.
  10. Assuming that referrals have a negative diversity impact — the premise that referrals hurt diversity is an antiquated notion. There is plenty of evidence to show that well-designed employee referral programs can actually increase diversity hiring. There should be a focus on employer referrals because corporate quality-of-hire metrics routinely show that employee referrals produce the highest volume, as well as the best quality candidates and hires.
  11. Corporate career websites — most corporate website content is influenced by PR and lawyers, so most websites provide only general information. Individuals who want to know “authentic” and credible information about the firm have learned to use their social media contacts and sites like There are now so many other sites where prospects can now directly apply for a job at your firm that even your website’s role as “the place” to apply is fading.
  12. Treating all jobs the same — the standard recruiting practice of treating all requisitions equally runs counter to standard business practices. Open jobs need to be prioritized based on their business impact. The most recruiting resources, the best recruiters, and the most-effective recruiting approaches need to be focused on the highest-priority open jobs.
  13. Trusting hiring managers — the standard assumption in most corporations is that just because you are a manager, you know how to hire. Unfortunately, the data shows that many hiring managers are shortsighted in their hiring, while others routinely produce low-quality hires. Google found that the problem with managers is so pervasive that they took the hiring decision out of the hands of their managers and placed it with a hiring committee.
  14. Job descriptions — most job descriptions don’t reflect the actual job, and almost all are so dull that they do nothing to sell prospects. Rather than being an afterthought, the current job description approach needs to shift so that it becomes a powerful recruitment marketing tool.
  15. Behavioral interviews — currently it is a standard practice to use behavioral interviews, where you verbally ask candidates to describe how they acted in the past. However, as technology advances, it will become increasingly easier and more predictive to instead put candidates in a job specific virtual reality simulation where they can show how they would handle a current problem within your corporate culture and environment.

Final Thoughts

It might be logical to assume that after reading the long list of historical silly practices that have finally been dropped from recruiting, few other weak practices could still remain. Unfortunately, that would be a bad assumption because the recent Google revelations show that three still widely used assessment factors like grades, test scores, and brainteaser interview questions add no value, so they should be dropped. Recruiting is still a “soft” function where most common practices are not supported by data. That means that most of the 15 weak “sacred cow” practices outlined above will endure for a long time because no one will take the time to collect the data to invalidate them. If you don’t believe me, read the vociferous emotional defenses of these sacred cow practices that will surely appear in the comments section following this article.

If you would like to nominate additional “sacred cow practices” that need to be skewered, add them in the comments section immediately following this article on ERE.Net.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



14 Comments on “Sacred Cows and Silly Practices Die Slowly in Recruiting

  1. Hi John

    I can accept the fragility of all the above methods of recruitment. But we do have to use some measure of candidate assessment (while understanding the flaws of our chosen method).
    Having explained what Google now no longer use or find effective, what methods have they settled on that produce better quality hires?



  2. Hi John,

    I struggle with moving away from onsite interviews – primarily because accepting an offer without experiencing one seems odd. Like agreeing to marry without ever meeting the person live. Thoughts on the candidate’s perspective on virtual only interviewing?

  3. I really enjoyed this article, specifically pertaining to the historic recruiting questions/practices. There are certainly some practices in today’s recruiting world that seem almost entirely useless (like credit checks, unstructured interviews, taking too long with the process overall, and neglecting referrals).

    I’m curious if there is becoming a new sacred cow practice of ignoring applications to job postings completely in favor of the coveted passive candidate working with a competitor (or similar business). Some recruiters I’ve spoken with have stated they disregard active candidates with the thought in mind that active candidates are “active for a reason” and come with negative connotation. Personally, I recruit based on match – regardless if the candidate came to me or if I reached out first.

  4. I agree that all of these “sacred cows” need to be excised from recruiting. But my experience has been that many of them linger because some hiring managers and recruiters are on a power trip. Back in the Dot Com Bubble, I was selling a SaaS site that enabled online behavioral descriptive interviewing. I had all of the data that showed the efficacy of the technique and its superiority over unstructured interviews. The feedback I got from HR was that the hiring managers did not want a tool that could conceivably eliminate their friends or favored prospects. Sadly, objective facts meant little in the face of ego.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. This is very useful and I think you have many good points here. I found it particularly interesting that a number of the practices which you call “silly” (and which I call “wrong”) were being practiced by at least one company whose recruiting practices you repeatedly and strongly praised, at least as far back as 2007. These “silly practices” included “relying on college degrees” and “take your time hiring”. You mentioned in an article at that time that this company was working on an algorithm to minimize dependence on relying on college degrees, but they continued doing this degree-reliance until recently. Could it be that this company stuck with their “silly” practices because they were too arrogant to face facts, as Mark H. mentioned that some companies are? It took them 15 years to admit they were mistaken. (I’m still curious how they will rectify this mistake for the tens- or hundreds of thousands of applicants they erroneously excluded.) In the meantime, you continued to heartily praise this company in many articles for a number of years for its overall hiring policies, even while it continued with these “silly practices”. How do we know that some of what is now considered “smart” isn’t in fact just as “silly” as what they were doing before- particularly the assertion of “(Not) Trusting hiring managers”? From the experience of many of my recruiting friends at this company- this is a very “silly” assumption indeed: that it makes sense to have large number of skilled recruiters turned into glorified copy editors reviewing hiring packets to be presented to the hiring committee, like humble supplicants readying petitions before a king. What evidence is there that a group of executives in completely different areas know more about the needs of a particular area than the manager of that area does? It smacks of the arrogance similar to saying that those outside of a recruiting organization typically know more how to improve a given recruiting job than the people who actually do it day-in and day-out.

    If I were heartily praising a company for its hiring practices, and subsequently found out that some of these practices were “silly,” I would admit that my praise may have been too uncritical, and in fact I may have been wrong to unconditionally praise this company for so long. It might be appropriate in the future for me to test my assertions against fact-driven, objective studies for both effectiveness and practicality, or if this weren’t feasible, to admit my assertions are opinions, probably derived from communications with high-level individuals quite removed from the realities of day-to-day recruiting. It would be appropriate for me to admit my fallibility, because if I were wrong before about what I believed/said and wouldn’t admit it, why should anyone believe I am right NOW, and why should anyone continue to listen to me? Of course, that’s just what an ordinary recruiter would do…



  6. I would add another one – using HR departments to screen applications. Unfortunately many HR departments are staffed by 25-35 year old graduates often with limited life experience and careers knowledge who often try to recruit someone like themselves. Hiring Managers need to take responsibility for this themselves.

  7. Keep it up Doc. Your writing insights critical thinking on what undoubtedly are tired practices handed down by the tribal Witchdoctors. I wonder if there is a secret handshake to get in the club?


  8. Kidding aside, I do want to make a few notes. Dr. Sullivan has long been my favorite author/expert with regard to Talent Management. That said, I can say that I don’t fully agree with everything.

    F2F Interviews: Seeing how someone reacts in person is far different from seeing them over the phone. Yes, video interviewing is becoming more and more possible, but 1 complaint I do hear from candidates is that choosing a career is becoming less and less human. So there should be a balance of technology and human interaction.

    Using Resumes to Screen: If 200 people apply to a job and you state we shouldn’t use assessments… then how do we get through them? I have a rule at my firm. Every resume gets looked at – everyone gets a fair shake. Of course, we can delve into the person after the initial screening, but a resume/LI profile is the starting point.

    Assessing Corporate Fit: Of course “fit” shouldn’t be everything, but it should certainly be part of the equation. If everyone in a company is nerdy, then you don’t need to hire only nerds. Rather, you hire someone that is comfortable in that environment with the goal of long term, successful employment.

  9. @ Scott: “…candidates is that choosing a career is becoming less and less human. ”

    Your candidates are HUMAN? What positions do you recruit for?



  10. Dear John, regarding Silly 14. Job Descriptions I agree totally. But how easy and how fast is it for recruiters to update online job descriptions should criteria change since the previous posting? Do you think that Job descriptions should follow the layout and form of applicant Profile like those found in LinkedIn which you find “superior”. This would in fact expand the consistency of Content, would it not?

  11. I wonder how all those race/religion/sexual orientation questions could have coexisted with American legislation. I mean, it’s obvious that those questions are contrary to laws. As for hobby-related questions, I won’t argue that they are irrelevant, but they can be helpful in defining candidate’s soft skills, can’t they?

  12. Stephanie McDonald: “I struggle with moving away from onsite interviews – primarily because accepting an offer without experiencing one seems odd. Like agreeing to marry without ever meeting the person live. Thoughts on the candidate’s perspective on virtual only interviewing?”

    Well, you don’t marry somebody solely by asking questions, face to face or not, right? The only sure way is to actually spend some time living with each other and see whether both sides fit.

    That is also exactly why the interview itself is inherently flawed. It’s too entrenched into everybody that nobody even bothers to objective look at its validity or think outside it, except to “improve” it by “better questions” like fixing holes in a sinking ship. Every company thinks it is a powerful tool for hiring when they end with a successful hire, and when it doesn’t, oh wait that never happens because it always work right? *sarcasm*

    Besides you can’t test something like cultural fit in an interview. That is impossible. Why not have paid trials for candidates doing actual work so employers can objectively judge whether they are suitable or not? What, too expensive? Hey, YOU were the ones complaining bad hires cost you tons of money, right? Too time consuming? Says the men who are taking their own sweet time wasting months on interviews. Even if there are 100 equally competent candidates for 100 equal job openings, just think of how much man-hours get wasted with the traditional hiring process if this case happened in reality.

    So am I the only one with common sense here, or am I in a mental hospital typing randomly with monkeys on the keyboard?

  13. “Paid trials” WJ????
    Are you assuming that all job candidates are unemployed with oodles of time on their hands?
    Would you seriously ask a candidate to take days off work so they can trial for another job? Like to hear the excuse they give to their boss to take a few days off again as they keep going for job trials!
    Would you ask a $300k exec I am headhunting to do the same? I know what his/her answer would be.
    I think your definition of common sense and mine must be quite different WJ. Or we’re in different wards.

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