So Who Is Hiring The Other 90%?

I have no problem with “hype.” If you are in sales, hype is an essential part of your life. On a day when the phone is not ringing unless it is bad news, or the candidates are canceling their interviews, or the companies are stalling their hiring decisions, man-oh-man, self-motivational techniques (AKA: Hype) can be the only thing keeping you dialing for dollars. When I was in the Marine Corps, we lived, ate, and breathed hype. We performed at levels that exceeded our own expectations because we believed we were the best, and so to some extent we were the best. Whether it was the concept of self-actualization and realization, belief in the self-fulfilling prophecy, or the concept that perception enhances reality, hype made us better than we actually were. However, if a 5’8″, 140 lb. Marine runs into a 6’6″, 220 lb. stevedore with oak trees for forceps, then believing too much of your own hype can get you killed. In business, too much hype can cost you money, and that is serious! One of the oldest hypes in staffing is: “We only hire, represent, or recruit the top 10%.” It sounds good, but if you actually start believing it, or convince other people you really mean it, it can be a real burden to bear. So let us look at this myth from a slightly different perspective. I call it “reality.” Who are the top ten percent? Well, the chief of cardio-vascular research at John Hopkins is certainly in the top ten percent, if you are looking for doctors. But if you want a really good IT person who can support 275 users using a mix of NT, Windows, and some UNIX for the engineering workstations, this MD is probably not a resident of the top ten percentile. Should the person responsible for the mailroom have a Rhodes scholarship on their resume? Does that make them a top ten “percenter”? How about two years previous experience working in the mailroom of another company? So it is reasonable to conclude that the job description, and the subsequent match between your candidate and that description, is the first step in deciding if a candidate is comfortable amongst the “top ten percent.” Do you think you already know what constitutes a top ten ?percenter? before you talk to your client? One of the common mistakes in “over hype” is to spread it on real thick before you know what it is truly made of. In one company I worked at, the CEO was an Ivy League Alumni. If you did not go to a school with two-hundred-year-old bathrooms, you were not of the “top ten percent.” Another boss worked his way through a state school as a fulltime student and fulltime fast food worker. His GPA suffered, but he was convinced that the overall experience more than compensated him for his low grades. In his world, 4.0s and “Magna Cums” whose parents paid their tuition were not of the top ten percent. So we can further deduce that membership in the “top ten percent” club is driven not so much by you the recruiter, but by the person making the final decision. Your perception of a top candidate may be that person’s vision of a waste of good paper. In which case, as corporate recruiters, consultants/contractors, or third party agency recruiters, how can a candidate be of the top tier if the client is not interested or not buying? Is the focus on the candidate?s subjective personality and behavioral traits, or their skills? What determines their assigned fractional placement? In listening to our hiring managers and business partners, all too often we validate their perception of a “top ten percent” candidate by not challenging their perception in the first staffing meeting. “Yes, I agree an eager and intelligent candidate is a plus. In addition, if I find one who does whitewater rafting on weekends and hunts with a bow, I’ll make sure you see that resume first. But, should they not also have three to fours years experience with NT?” If the concept of a “top ten percent” candidate is ultimately a perception based on “cloning” or a hiring manager’s concocted formula of what it takes to work within his or her team, maybe you need to control it sooner in the process. (“Hey, if everybody does whitewater rafting, your team may all drown!) Urgency is a factor in factoring. When my managers are looking to replace a position within their group during a slow period of development, when there are few deadlines and little urgency, I am convinced they start looking for top one percenters. Then the next release comes along and the sense of urgency makes the yardstick of excellence seem less important than the yardstick of a pulse.

If everybody is of the ?top ten percenter,? why do our managers terminate people? All too often, management teams doing poor interviews based on weak position descriptions and half-hazard searches are the ones who create the “top ten percent” myth. They believe, or try to believe, that the terminated employee was not the victim of a poor selection process or poorly supported or trained. The employee failed because they were a nasty eleven percenter who sneaked by them. (Unclean, unclean, the lower 90%’s are at the gates, unclean, unclean.) So, to fix this problem, the hiring managers believe they merely have to apply their “hocus pocus” fiction of excellence more severely against the next candidates and insure that they are in fact a true top ten percenter. (“He does not know beans about operating systems, but he did go to MIT. Training-shmaining, those kinds of people learn on the run.”) There is no such thing as positive prejudice. Pre-judging is pre-judging. When you go out into the world with a perceived formula of what constitutes the top ten percent, you also enter that recruiting world with a formula that assigns others to lesser roles. That not only makes your basic humanity suspect, it makes you a bad staffing professional. “Profiling” is a bad habit to get into without first determining if the candidate is a match for the position in question. Their value is not as a top ten percent person, but as a candidate who most closely matches the need of the hiring manager or client. Do you want to be able to only market 10% of your candidates? Once you raise the bar, you better have meant it and you better be able to justify it. Once you convince your clients of your pre-search criteria, you will have to be willing to delete that “perfect fit” candidate from the process because he or she did not meet the pre-existing conditions of a top ten percenter. (“Too bad that while winning the Nobel Prize you did not find time to play field hockey. The boss says it enhances intelligence.”) The bottom line is that I agree that you should always choose your ultimate hire from the top ten percent of available candidates. But it is also important that you never forget that you are not judging the candidate, you are judging their match to the job description. You are assigning them a value based on what they can do, not based on who they are or the path they chose to get there. In essence everybody has the potential to be one of the top ten percent. The mathematical realities are cancelled in this equation, for in every 100 potential candidates, there are 100 potential top ten percenters. After all, it is not the aesthetic quality of the person being considered for the position that determines their value, it is the match between their skills, their goals, and their track record compared to the company needs, career paths, and corporate direction that determine the “%” placement of the candidate. We all use past experiences and past practices to help us evaluate and estimate the quality of the candidate who sits before us on any given day. We try and insure that our knowledge gained over the years of practicing our art is used to help us prevent past errors from occurring in the future. But the past was yesterday and the future is tomorrow. The interview is occurring in the present. That candidate sitting in front of you is a top ten percenter, you just need to find them the right job. So that begs the question, is it possible for a good candidate to be missed by a myopic recruiter looking for the pre-ordained top ten percenters? (Obviously a self-serving rhetorical question.) Have a great day recruiting! (Hope to see all of you at the ERE Annual Conference, in San Diego!) <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Article Continues Below

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *