Why You Must Hire Top Employees, Not Top Candidates

[Note: Someone sent me a note recently with the observation that there are frequently two themes in my articles ó one obvious and one hidden. This person also suggested that I should reveal the hidden theme, so people would get more out of the articles. As a test, I’ve decided to reveal the second idea in this article at the end. You might want to read this article with that in mind, and see if you can guess the second theme before completing the article. To make it even more interesting, I’ve added a third, less obvious theme in this article ó tied to a contest. If you’d like to win a free autographed copy of my book and two guest passes for any of our upcoming public workshops, just send in your ideas, with some justification, to info@adlerconcepts.com or post a review in the ER Forum. I hope this makes the article more interesting. ó Lou Adler] If you do things better, you’ll get a nice raise, a pat on the back, some recognition, maybe even a promotion. If you do better things, you’ll become famous. While I believe strongly in Six Sigma process improvements, one thing I’ve noticed of late is the relentless focus on doing things better, rather than on doing better things. For example, if you reduce the time it takes to review resumes, automate interview scheduling, and interview six to eight candidates, you can improve recruiter productivity by 20% to 30%, maybe even 50%. But if you cut the number of candidates seen in half while increasing their quality, you can increase team (i.e. sourcer, recruiter, manager, other interviewers) productivity by 200% to 300%, while at the same time improving company performance. One of the best ways I’ve seen to achieve these macro-level changes (doing better things) rather than the more typical micro-improvements (doing things better) is to understand the difference between top employees and top candidates. As you’ll soon discover, this shift in perspective will force you to question everything you’re now doing. Imagine that a top candidate comes in for a interview, and within five minutes you know you have a star sitting across the desk from you. What are the “wow!” factors that excited you? (Pause and reflect before reading further.) Aside from a good resume, they probably include many of these traits: positive first impression, great appearance, articulate, enthusiastic, affable, prepared, on-time, assertive, inquisitive, poised, and confident, with a strong handshake and great eye contact. What did you do next? If you’re like most interviewers (especially hiring managers), you relaxed a bit, believing this would be an enjoyable interview, and gave yourself a mental high-five, knowing you’ll get a pat on the back from your client. You probably became less discriminating, and unknowingly started over-talking, under-listening, and maybe doing a little too much selling. Now, fast-forward six months and you’re giving your new employee his or her first review. It’s not necessarily the person described above, but a truly outstanding person most likely found through some great networking technique or proactive employee referral program. What traits does this person possess if they really are a top performer? (Pause and reflect before reading further.) Most likely the person has many of these traits: extremely competent and highly motivated to do the work required; extremely effective working with, motivating, and managing other people; courageous enough to take initiative and implement change; strong in the face of adversity and tough challenges; great at problem solving and decision making; committed to goals and deadlines; great growth potential; and a balanced ego. With these two people in mind, who would you rather hire ó a top employee or a top candidate? The right answer is the top employee. Now consider this: Are all top candidates also top employees? My direct personal experience in over 1,000 different hiring situations (and many more indirectly with my clients), and in reading Peter Drucker (The Essential Drucker) and too many Hunter and Schmidt research articles in the Journal of Psychology, clearly indicates that top candidates are not the same as top employees. Top candidates make great presentations, yet great presentations don’t correlate with top performance (even for salespeople). On the other hand, great employees are frequently not great candidates. The overlap is about a third of the time. So if you hire based on presentation, two-thirds of the time you’ll be wrong. While hiring errors caused by undervaluing performance and overvaluing presentation are a significant issue (indications of this problem include hiring people who are competent but unmotivated, or hiring people who talk a good game), this is really just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that the hiring processes at most companies are designed to find and hire top candidates, not top employees. So even if you to want to hire top employees, you won’t be successful if you assume top employees and top candidates look for and accept jobs the same way. Top employees, for example, are more discriminating. They want more information. They won’t waste their time. They want a better job, not another job. They decide with others, and they don’t want to be sold during the interview. They want a chance to be heard and challenged. If your hiring processes aren’t designed to cater to the needs of these top employees, you’ll never be able to consistently hire them. For validation, consider some of the really top people you’ve recently hired. How many needed some special hand-holding, extra consideration, or went outside of your company’s normal hiring practices in some way? For more proof, consider how many top employees now apply for your current openings. If you’re not seeing enough top people, you might want to redesign your hiring processes to meet their needs rather than the needs of top candidates. This is what is meant by doing better things, not doing things better. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Make it as easy as possible to apply. This means no upfront questions, no application process ó just a cut-and-paste resume, at most. You must use technology to determine if the person is strong rather than a questionnaire.
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  3. Make your job titles more descriptive, visible, and compelling in order to attract the attention of top people. Ask your most creative marketing people for help with this. For example, “Become Our Next Rookie of the Year” will attract more top salespeople than “Sales Rep – Eastern Ohio.” Then, in the first paragraph of the job description, talk about the opportunity in the job rather than list the requirements. In fact, the first two sentences of the first paragraph are the most important. Make every job unique, tying each job in some way to the company strategy. This is what is meant by job branding. It will take a lot of time to change every one of your job descriptions, but it will instantly change the caliber of the people applying. Try this just a few times to see how effective it is.
  4. Develop sourcing strategies designed around the needs of your target audience. This should be a combination of great online advertising, a robust career website, and advanced networking leveraging using your top current employees and related connections (alumni, associations, vendors).
  5. Set up systems to identify and call these top people within hours after applying. Make sure that your best recruiters make these calls to ensure that the person doesn’t opt out for the wrong reasons. Then, even if the person is not appropriate for the current job, use proactive networking to obtain three or four more names of other top people from them.
  6. Evaluate how your recruiters and managers interview these candidates. Top employees don’t want to be sold, nor do they want to discuss their behaviors. They want a chance to describe their accomplishments and find out about the challenges in the new job. This is how you use the interview to both recruit the candidate and assess their competency and motivation.
  7. Evaluate everything else you do in your hiring process from the perspective of a top employee, not a top candidate. Have the courage to challenge everything and everybody. Don’t let company policy, culture, or some PhD or lawyer stand in your way. This is actually the hardest part of the whole process.

Doing better things can have a far more significant impact than doing things better. But it takes a top employee to make it happen. These are people who will challenge conventional wisdom, have the courage to take personal risks, and who keep on pushing despite the challenges. Not only do you want to hire more top employees, you must become one yourself. And of course, that is the real point of this article. There are a few more hidden lessons here as well, but I’ll leave those up to you to find. Email me at info@adlerconcepts.com to enter your suggestions, or post an ER Forum review.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).

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3 Comments on “Why You Must Hire Top Employees, Not Top Candidates

  1. One answer to Lou’s ‘hidden theme’ is that by creating a contest as a way to attract recruiters to read the whole article and respond, he is showing by analogy and example that contests and challenges are also a creative way to attract the best applicants. (This is the one exception to Lou’s rule about making it as easy for candidates to apply: If you want top programmers, for example, it’s been shown that promoting a contest on your website that requires solving a true programming challenge as part of the application process will unearth a healthy number of determined and skilled candidates!)

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  2. Another insightful article by Lou. If recruiters are rewarded for finding the best candidates, shouldn’t we expect them to find the best candidates?

    Lou wrote ‘Top candidates make great presentations, yet great presentations don’t correlate with top performance’ conforms with my experience as well.

    Lou continued ‘On the other hand, great employees are frequently not great candidates. The overlap is about a third of the time. So if you hire based on presentation, two-thirds of the time you’ll be wrong.’ After our clients begin hiring the best employees rather than the best candidates they often remark that they realize that they were not making the best hiring decision about 80% of the time. Yes, they were hiring great candidates who were competent but they were not hiring the best employees.

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