Why Do We Love Hiring Shenanigans?

Have you ever asked candidates to come in for six, eight, or even 10 interviews? Does your culture demand that candidates answer weird and irrelevant questions like those infamous ones Microsoft used to ask about why manhole covers are round or how many eggs it takes to fill up a school bus?

These were so well-known that in 2003, William Poundstone published a book about them called How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle – How the World’s Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers.

And in 2005, Vicky Oliver published a book called 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions to help interviewees reply to the increasingly bizarre and unrelated questions that recruiters like to throw at them. Some of these questions are more useful as interrogations techniques than as legitimate interview questions that should have some direct relevance to the position.

Some organizations require candidates to participate in stressful group activities, dinners, or social events. Others apply rigorous selection criteria to acceptable candidates such as having attended a particular school, achieved a certain grade point average, or worked for a specific company.

These practices are based on two beliefs. The first is that by subjecting a candidate to a stressful or unexpected environment, a recruiter or hiring manager can determine the creativity or adaptability of a candidate. The second is that attendance at a particular school or the achievement of a high grade point average means that the candidate is smarter or more creative.

There is little in the psychological literature that supports these beliefs. A paper written by Robert D. Bretz, Jr., entitled “College Grade Point Average as a Predictor of Adult Success” published in Public Personnel Management Journal (Vol. 18, No 1 Spring 1989) states, “. . .empirical analysis . . . suggests that college GPA is generally a poor predictor of adult work-related achievement.” He goes on to say that “GPA . . . should not be assumed to be a measure of general intelligence.” And we all know employees whose GPA or academic performance was sub-standard but who are strong performers. We also know that thousands of employees who contribute at high levels did not have stellar GPAs in college, and in many cases, may not have even completed college.

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In addition to whether or not you are chosen has little long-term impact on a person’s success. Many of the candidates interviewed by Microsoft and not chosen have gone on to other organizations and have been highly successful and productive. We also know that many who have made it through the tough processes at Microsoft, Google, and other companies that practice elitism in their selection processes do not necessarily fare any better or produce better work than those chosen by more traditional means.

Here are four good and bad things about practicing this elitist approach to hiring, and some reasons why it is so hard to not practice it:

  1. Acceptance rates go up. If you want your candidate acceptance rates to go up, make getting accepted really hard and stressful. We all like to believe that we are special, gifted, or better than others. If we are asked to take some sort of test or go through an initiation process that supposedly selects the best, those who get accepted feel superior to those who do not. This belief, even when not supported by facts, is a motivator for people to accept an offer from you. The more exclusive the choice seems to be, the more rigorous the selection process (regardless of its rationality), the more likely a potential hire is to say yes to your offer. A recent book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts carefully and clearly relates story after story about the power of belief in superiority. They conclude the section with these words: “The results are always the same. Severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group.”
  2. Short-term retention may go up, but longer-term retention may go down. While I have no empirical evidence to support this claim, I do believe that being part of an exclusive group of similar people at first makes life easier and fun. Social patterns, likes and dislikes, language, and academic experiences will be similar and compatible. Organizations that select employees with rigid criteria tend to have little diversity. Over time this can become a limitation. As an employee grows more mature and finds that she is competing against similar people with similar advantages or not progressing as rapidly as she would like, she may leverage the exclusivity and desirability that belonging to the organization has bestowed on her to get another position at the competition or to start her own business.
  3. Hiring managers like it because it validates their superiority. Hiring managers are usually enamored of tough interviewing processes and rigorous selection criteria because it supports and underlines their own skill, insight, and wisdom. They can boast that they have chosen the most talented or gifted team of employees. It can also provide a sense of security: If I have the best people working with me, we must be making the right decisions. This is one of the problems that Enron encountered. They had so many smart people that no one believed they could make bad decisions. When selection is based to a significant degree on suspect interview criteria and unverified reactions to events, it is very hard to account for success or failure.
  4. It provides a way to discriminate. Unfortunately, rather than creating workplaces full of contradictions and differences where creativity thrives, the practices described above create a workforce made up of similar people in thought, attitude, background, education, and belief in their own superiority. All real creativity occurs at the edge, at the juxtaposition of opposite ideas and experiences. The healthiest and most creative workforces are those where people are assembled almost at random. The creativity of Silicon Valley, for example, has been correlated to the influx of diverse people and ideas from all over the world. It was the coming together of these people that created the integrated circuit, the Apple computer, and computer games. Organizations should embrace diversity as a means to creativity and innovation.

In the end, good selection is based on matching candidates’ competencies and skills to the particular set of activities an organization needs to have completed or outcomes that need to be achieved. These competencies can be identified with a variety of objective tests and properly constructed behavioral interviews.

Whether someone can answer the manhole question, has a 4.0 GPA, or has gone to Harvard makes no difference at all to potential performance.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


9 Comments on “Why Do We Love Hiring Shenanigans?

  1. The best research evidence on the relationship between GPA and job performance is probably Roth et al.’s 1996 piece in the Journal of Applied Psychology: http://content.apa.org/journals/apl/81/5/548

    Also see Dr. Aamodt’s piece in ACN:

    In brief, GPA can predict performance, but it’s a very blunt instrument compared to what else is out there and depends on the type of degree and type of job. But consider other factors such as the adverse impact that may happen in large applicant pools, and the impact this practice has on your organization’s reputation.

  2. Kevin –

    Thanks for pointing the light back on some of the inane hiring practices. I only wish people involved with selection and hiring were as creative about managing and developing people’s talents.

    What predicts performance best – a history of performance and understanding one’s development and impact in her/his accomplishments. So when someone is sharing that history, it’s most appropriate with direct hiring managers and a small number of knowledge-specific interviewers. Any hiring process that forces a candidate to discuss her/his experience to the point where no new information is revealed is inefficient and/or ineffective.

  3. Takes me way back to college. Hazing. Hell week. Greek initiation. I guess we haven’t evolved so far after all?

    You make some great points, Kevin.

  4. Good one, Kevin. It’s hard to believe that some organizations still persist with the type of nonsense described in the article. It’s more akin to superstition that anything to do with predicting on-the-job performance.

  5. Excellent points Kevin. Let’s stop all this game-playing and trying to figure out new shenanigans to hire people. I applaud your encouragement to just get to work, define the skills needed to do the job and then probe people’s skills and experience to determine if the person is a match. I’m not saying you can’t have a little fun in the process, but it’s called work and finding the best talent is a job. Thanks for injecting your usual clarity.

  6. >?by subjecting a candidate to a stressful or unexpected environment, a recruiter or hiring manager can determine the creativity or adaptability of a candidate? attendance at a particular school or the achievement of a high grade point average means that the candidate is smarter or more creative.< Yes, and neither approach is a good predictor of job success but we should not be too hard on the managers who use these approaches. How did the managers get to the point of using such methods? Where are the internal experts and what are they doing about it? Income protection may be the problem--few of us want to risk our jobs to prevent our employers from making an obvious mistake. Going along to get along is a much safer practice for most employees. Employees who speak out are often labeled 'not good team players? which is the kiss of death in many organizations. Since 1992 countless hiring managers have told me that hiring successful employees is at best a random event--it can't be done on purpose. They say ?we hire and fire until we find a good employee?. Sometimes they will try something new but all too often they reject anything new. Hiring managers often believe that their turnover rate is good because their industry's average is 1 or more percentage points higher. Hiring for talent can cut the turnover rate in half within a year and half yet managers prefer to suffer with high turnover. If CEOs knew the total cost, including lower morale and productivity, of high turnover, perhaps they would direct their hiring managers to try something new. >In the end, good selection is based on matching candidates’ competencies and skills to the particular set of activities an organization needs to have completed or outcomes that need to be achieved.< What about talent? Our clients were and are very good at matching candidates' competencies and skills to the job but they were ineffective at identifying which qualified to be hired job applicants also had the talent for job success. Once they learned to measure talent their hiring success increased. >These competencies can be identified with a variety of objective tests and properly constructed behavioral interviews.< Talent is assessed in about an hour of the applicant's time. >Whether someone can answer the manhole question, has a 4.0 GPA, or has gone to Harvard makes no difference at all to potential performance.< I agree but who gets in trouble for hiring a 4.0 GPA candidate or a graduate of a top school? Without new tools managers will continue to hire the old way and will continue to suffer from the same turnover rate and poor job performance of too many new hires. FYI Manhole covers are round so they can't fall into the manhole while being removed or replaced. Manhole covers weigh 100+ pounds so we don't want to have to lift them from the bottom of a manhole especially the really deep ones. gately@csi.com

  7. This was a great article with many salient points.

    You may be interested in some related research. A 20 year study of 360,000 individuals across many different industries and occupations reported some interesting findings (Herbert M. Greenberg and Jeanne Greenberg, ?Job Matching for Better Sales Performance,? Harvard Business Review, Vol. 58, No. 5.)
    The researchers found that success on the job is not related to prior work experience, education, technical skill or other commonly accepted criteria. What they did find was that success on the job hinges on fit with ?intangible qualities? such as thinking and communication skills, occupational interests and personality. Differences in success rates were even more dramatic when comparisons were made between low and high turnover industries.

    As mentioned in the article, matching candidate competencies (including intangible qualities) to the requirements of the job can be achieved through objective tests and behavioral interviews. The Department of Labor has produced a useful guide to selecting and using tests and assessments.

  8. Kevin –

    You make excellent points and I couldn’t help thinking about how the process of practicing elitist hiring methods mirrored almost every dictatorship throughout history. I absolutely agree that the companies that will grow will be made up of a diverse group of individuals who bring a myriad of ideas to the table.

    Thanks for a well written article!

  9. I like your article a lot. It makes some very good points. I am reminded of a story of how one recruiter would take a candidate to a exclusive restaurant and then promise the waiter a large tip if he would ‘accidently’ spill water on the candidate. The reactions were quite varied. It was assumed that this would indicate how the candidate would treat subordinates in times of stress. The idea has, what may be termed, face validity or ‘looks good on the surface.’ After reading your article, now I’m not so sure.

    Dale Paulson, Ph.D.

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