When a Plus Is Also a Minus

Sometimes we make a big deal out of little things.

Sometimes we make too little out of big things.

Sometimes we make nothing a plus.

Sometimes we make a plus a minus. The “plus” to which I refer is the ever popular added skill factor we so often see in the last sentence of a job description. To wit:

The appropriate candidate will have at least ten years of progressive human resources and recruiting experience with increasing scope, dimension, and decision-making responsibility. The preferred candidate will have extensive knowledge of and experience with automated human resource management systems and online recruiting tools, and be conversant in benefits and compensation. Previous experience conducting informal training is required. Previous experience reading Elizabethan poetry at tea parties is a plus.

I am guilty of exaggerating to prove a point, but this is not the first time. I am a firm believer in complete, detailed, and accurate job descriptions. I have always been a proponent of putting the extra effort into the initial phase of developing a real-world position description based on a detailed position skills requirements list, rather than wasting weeks prescreening and forwarding resumes doomed to fail. I also recognize that one of the ways to ensure that hiring managers are not engaged in inappropriate hiring is to ensure that all the requirements used to consider candidates for employment constitute either knowledge, skill, or the ability required to perform the job function successfully. So what is a plus, and why do so many companies use it in their descriptions? And if they do, what is the harm? Well, is the plus a needed job skill critical to the position, or is it superfluous? If it is required, state it as such. If it is superfluous, why use it? Here are some of the less-than-great reasons that so many use the plus:

  • A manager has not succeeded in bringing a particular skill or function into his or her group, and therefore uses the “plus” approach to try to compensate in every and any position, even when not part of the job responsibility: “At least somebody around here will know how to fix the copier!”
  • HR/staffing felt the job description was flat and needed something catchy to pump up the appeal: “Previous experience owning a Lexus a plus!”
  • HR/staffing thinks it will make the number of requirements seem less daunting to candidates: “Hey, six requirements are way too many. How about four requirements and two pluses? That seems less intimidating!”
  • Someone in the staffing process thinks this particular plus is some sort of litmus test for the truly clever or sophisticated: “Hey man, anybody who has done this is totally cool and should be hired.”
  • It seems like an easy way to “screen out” candidates without working too hard: “Okay, so even if they have ten years of HRIS, we are all agreed that knowledge of semaphore will be a plus.”
  • It compensates for a known deficiency that has not yet been admitted publicly: “I really am not that good at using automated compiling software, but it is one of the things I am supposed to do. But if I make it a ‘plus’ for my assistant position, I can palm it off on them and nobody will figure it out.”
  • A childlike belief that a position description is not unlike a child’s wish list for their birthday: “I want a train set, a new ball glove, a tennis racket, and a pony would be a plus.”
  • Sometimes when we fail to convince the team that something should be required, we get them to concede that it would be worthy as a “plus,” and thereby we get the requirement into the requirement mix through the back door: “So, we are agreed, even though the job does not require fluency in Latin, listing it as a plus will do no harm.”
  • We merely wanted to put our name into the process and blurted out the first stupid thing that came into our heads: “Hey, do we have enough people here with VAX/VMS experience? What if it comes back?”

But the biggest and most damaging reason that the plus is used:

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  • HR/staffing has failed to create a truly effective job requirement development program that can clearly, consistently, and precisely measure critical success components and enforce them through the core competency mapping process.

The reasons why so many use the concept of a plus are bad enough, the potential effect on a truly world-class recruiting process are even worse. The plus can and often does become the true center of gravity of the recruiting effort. For example, based on your core competency requirements you currently have 25 top candidates, ranked 1-25, under consideration for screening. So, what many recruiters will do at this point is “activate the plus” and seek the candidates with that something extra we like so much. For the sake of argument let us say that of the 25, five candidates also posses the plus. Here are some issues:

  • If the number one and two candidates lack the plus, but the number three candidate has the plus, do you knock out numbers one and two in favor of three?
  • When you described the plus in the job description, did you consider skill levels within the plus dimension? Does it matter if someone has extensive experience (“plus-plus”), only occasional experience (“minus-plus”), or some experience many years ago and then some minor experience only recently in a limited role (“once-plus then minus-plus now semi-plus”)?
  • Are you checking for prescreening decisions where the plus factor is only used on occasion and not consistently across all candidates? For example, if all Caucasian candidates under 40 years of age never seem to have the “plus” taken into account, but all minority candidates over forty consistently are screened out for a senior CPA position for lacking early Egyptian pottery experience.

It is inevitable that the plus factor will often take over the process. The core skill component, in practice becomes your pre-screening tool, and the plus becomes the de-facto selection tool.

  • Why use a plus? If you require a skill in a position, then require it and enforce its use as a selection criteria, uniformly and consistently, in considering all candidates. A “plus” masquerading as a skill requirement and it’s use in prescreening candidates is not regulated or managed, therefore there is a very real chance you may find yourself being deposed by the attorney representing the plaintiff in United States versus XYZ Corp. for engaging in unfair and discriminatory hiring practices.
  • Stick to the real skills. If a skill is a component of the position, list it. But keep hobbies and “wouldn’t it be nice if…” off the position description. In balancing your own personal prejudices and basis (unless you live in a bubble you have them) the use of the “plus” concept is just one more chance for your objectivity to be broached by your subjective instincts.
  • Little issues can indicate bigger issues. Tom Peters, in his book, In Search of Excellence, tells us that a dirty fold-down tray on an airplane is an indicator of bad engine maintenance. Why? Because a company that is committed to excellence translates the same effort down though an effective management team to all levels of effort. A plus indicates a job development process that never quite finished the task of deciding what is truly needed and what is not. The plus always indicates a “loose nut” in the job development process, to my way of thinking.
  • Clearly it’s an effort to engage in “hiring on the cheap.” Often the “plus” is a signal on the part of the employer that even though they claim that core skills are the most important, they really do not like training new employees. So, as XYZ Corp. currently uses recruitment automation tools, they want to hire people with the specific family of tools used at XYZ Corp. already in place. The irony is that they probably purchased “Soft-Test-Hire’em-Fast” due to its uniformity and its reputation for being a quick study. So, as predicted earlier in this piece, a highly qualified recruiter candidate with irreplaceable core skills is rejected for a candidate with lesser core skills but who has the “plus” of previous experience using Soft-Test-Hire’em-Fast ó an advantage that would have been negated within two weeks if the latter candidate was hired, but how long for the lesser candidate to come up to speed on the core requirements?

You see, when you have a plus as a wild card, it will inevitability draw down your attention from the core requirements. If you have your doubts, try this simple test:

  1. Send 25 resumes to your recruiters with a position description listing four critical skills. Ask them to select the best 10 candidates and rank them in order of match. Also ask them rank in descending order the 15 they did not choose.
  2. Resubmit the same resumes with the same position description, only add on the traditional plus you see most often in your own position descriptions. Ask them select the best 10 candidates.

If your recruiting team understands the concept of core skill components, the list should not be altered between the two examples. If, on the other hand, none of your team are from the planet Vulcan or have ever studied under the Dali Lama, it would be a statistical anomaly for them not to allow the presence of a plus to pull them away from the emphasis they should exclusively place on the core competencies versus the ability to tap dance while writing code. So stick to the real skills needed to perform successfully in the positions you work to fill for your business partners or clients. Ignore the components that are not truly part of the success formula for potential candidates. In the very beginning of recruiting for candidates you should be armed with a solid commitment from the hiring team of what they are looking for in a truly successful candidate. The process should not allow any ifs, ands, or buts in deciding what skills a candidates must have to be considered potentially successful. That would be, after all, a “plus” for your process. Have a great day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) 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, Monster.com, 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.


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