Would Your Recruiting Process Screen Out Thomas Edison?

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not all that far away: Recruiter: “Ah, Mr. Edison, sorry I missed your other calls and messages. We’ve been having issues with the phone system. I also have been backed up here with all the hiring we are currently doing. But just by coincidence, I was just about to call you and there you were calling me!” Thomas Edison: “Yeah, what a coincidence. I was merely trying to see if you received my resume for the Research Scientist position you listed?” Recruiter: “Well yes, we did receive it and it went through our screening process. I am afraid it was determined that you are not a fit and there is no need for further qualification. You will be receiving a letter to that effect soon.” Edison: “Don’t I get a chance to state my case?” Recruiter: “Mr. Edison, we are a company committed to creating leading-edge devices in the field of artificial illumination. We are an industry leader, and must keep our standards high to achieve consistent excellence and creativity in our products. That means a lot of resumes to screen. We cannot talk to everybody!” Edison: “I realize that, but didn’t you see some of my inventions listed on my resume?” Recruiter: “Yes, but in the field of artificial illumination, I hardly see the relevance of inventing a stocking ticker or a phony graph.” Edison: “That’s a stock ticker and phonograph!” Recruiter: “Oh, yes, that’s right. However, we specifically screened all our applicants for artificial illumination experience. I also see that not only do you lack the required college degree in an appropriate discipline, but as a matter of fact, you seem to have not even completed high school. We also programmed our screening process to take prerequisite education requirements into account.” Edison: “I did a lot of self-teaching and reading on my own time. But, by age 16 I had already developed improvements to the telegraph key.” Recruiter: “But again, what does that have to do with artificial illumination? I am sorry, but here at the Empire Candle and Wax Company, we feel that you have no future in the field of artificial illumination.” Edison: “I see, well, thanks for your time.” Recruiter: “No problem, I am truly sorry we cannot make a fit for you. By the way, on the letterhead of your cover letter were the letters “GE”, what is that?” Edison: “Oh nothing, just a company name I am toying with for the future. Well, despite this setback, I intend to pursue my ideas regarding artificial illumination and someday ‘bring good things to light’!” Recruiter: “Well, I suggest you work on that slogan. By the way, we are having trouble filling a technical position in the phone room, do you know anything about telephones?” Edison: “No, but you might try calling Alexander Graham Bell.” Recruiter: “Who?” Edison: (sigh) “Never mind!” What’s the moral of this story? Efficient and effective recruiting is a delicate balance between:

  • Investing excessive time engaged in a program of detailed one-on-one prescreening practices of a significant percentage of resumes received or collected
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  • Reducing one-on-one with strict guidelines or automated prescreening tools, increasing production, but risking the loss of potential non-traditional matches

But in our efforts to automate and make our jobs more efficient, we must constantly ask ourselves, “Would our process screen out Thomas Edison?” In any process, there is a point where the advantage gained is outweighed by the monetary cost or effectiveness lost in achieving the next rung. For example, 50,000 people a year die in automobile accidents. The efforts to make the current line of automobiles and trucks achieve a level of safety limiting fatalities to that figure, over the last twenty years, has doubled the cost of manufacturing, but it has also made the average vehicle 4 times safer than its predecessors of two decades ago. To make the next generation sufficiently safe to render the fatality statistic insignificant would require increasing the cost of cars and trucks tenfold. So we have learned to live with a margin of danger to keep “big wheels” in the driveway. In HR/staffing we face a similar decision: how many potential “Edisons” can we afford to lose in our efforts to increase production? What is an “Edison?” If you are a real recruiting professional, you remember each and every “Edison” hire of your career. He or she was that special hire that you instinctively knew – on meeting or speaking with – had that rare combination of intelligence and creativity. Their resume was not their best friend. We all know eccentrics in our lives who “excel on their feet, but not in their seat.” They just cannot get their act together when it comes to writing resumes or filling out forms, but they have the intellectual potential to change the world. Or, people who have not had a traditional career path, but achieved the right destination anyway. The “odd ball” that you knew would perform beyond expectations if placed in the right environment with the right opportunity. Edison had no prior experience working with light bulbs. Bell had no previous experience working with telephones. Einstein had no prior experience scooping out the basic matter and energy principles of the universe and he also failed math in college (no magna cum laude for ole flyaway hair). If these guys had approached the average HR/staffing organization, they probably would have been told, “We will gladly keep your resume on file in the event a more suitable opportunity develops.” Can you measure the cost of not hiring an Edison? “Cookie cutter” hiring is the inevitable result of consistently screening and hiring against a rigid model developed to allow screening tools – automated or manual – to ease work by enhancing flow. But if all prerequisites align your candidates against fairly common and easily recognized parameters, then your intellectual talent will be “a mile wide, but only an inch deep.” The rule of thumb in my professional experience is that it is usually the “mavericks” who came up with the best “what if” ideas in development groups, brainstorming sessions, and team meetings. Unaffected by a precut mold, they truly think “outside of the box.” But what is the cost of not a having a few “Edisons” scattered about your organization? How do you calculate the cost of there never having been a General Electric? Think of it this way: while everybody else was trying to make whale oil lamps and candles more efficient, a non-degreed person, with no artificial illumination industry experience, was the first one to say, “I think I may have another idea!” Does every company and every job require an Edison? Of course not. Imagine what kind of world it would be if every person in every job you came into contact with had the intelligence, creativity, commitment, and overall common sense of an Edison. But with a limited supply, it would be a waste to hire an Edison to man the windows of your average fast food restaurant drive thru window. (Would you like any electrically stimulated tungsten filament encased in a vacuum in a glass chamber with those fires?) Edisons are like gold, a rare substance that should not be wasted. (Anybody want any gold on their hamburgers?”) But don’t try giving a “tin ring” for a 25th anniversary present. As HR/staffing professionals, we need to determine those positions that require an Edison and be willing to invest the time, effort, and capital into recruiting them effectively. One of your considerations should also be that you may well need to develop some of your own Edisons with a strategic plan that inserts “pre-Edisons” throughout your organization with a planned program of internal training, external education and, based on performance, a pre-planned career pathway leading to positions and levels where an Edison can truly make a difference. Maybe having an “Edison” in the mailroom appears to be a waste, unless of course it is an indicator of the ample supply of Edisons your recruiting program is generating. What does an Edison look like? I am hoping this question is viewed by the reader as rhetorical! As an internal or external recruiter, you should have developed a sense that the true qualities and needs of your business partners are beyond buzzword matching, electronic application analysis, or your mastery of Boolean logic. Any mechanic can do that! I hope as a recruiter you aspire to a level of impact beyond that of a “Mr. Goodwrench.” Recruiting is both a science and an art. A mechanic can construct searches based on objective criteria. But it requires a true artist to manipulate those tangible elements against the subjective criteria and ability to predict potential to elevate a recruiting program above subsistence hiring and “recruiting by cloning” mindset. To identify an Edison you first must truly understand your business partners’ needs, as well as the history and needs of your industry. Financial services, retail, high technology, customer service, manufacturing or any other Edison for that matter will not always look the same. There are entry-level and executive-level Edisons, and exempt and non-exempt as well. Identifying them, finding them, hiring them: now that’s recruiting. It is a process that requires experience and a desire to do it. Why should you make an effort to be an Edison recruiter? Well, that’s an easy one if you think about it. If every company needs a percentage of “Edisons” at every level, then certainly HR/staffing is one of those areas. What better way to identify yourself as an Edison than by demonstrating you can recruit them, in numbers large enough to prove it was not accidental? After all, “birds of a feather flock together.” If you demonstrate that your recruiting talent is limited to running a fully automated, sit-in-your-office-staring-at-the-screen, “cookie-cutter” recruiting program, consistently turning out the same buzzword-qualified “didn’t need me to impact the process” recruiting program, how long do you think it will be before your business partners wonder why everyone else is getting Edisons and they are not? Now, before you start pounding the keys responding to the perceived notion that I am dismissing the importance of emerging recruiting technology, no, I am not a “counter revolutionary” or an old dinosaur caught in the quagmire of new technology refusing to recognize that the time for “my kind” has passed. I embrace and rejoice in the new tools that technology has given me to better achieve my goals and improve my craft. I consider myself an accomplished student and user of all recruiting technologies. I have watched, and in some cases participated in, the triumph of new ideas, products, and tools. I also have observed the failure of what ultimately turned out to be well-funded but bad ideas. But like the surgeon holding a new laser scalpel, I have never forgotten who the doctor is in this operation. I am no mechanic, and you should not allow yourself to become one either. Good recruiting is a mixture of science, psychology and good guessing – combined with good luck. A good recruiter never forgets the golden rule, “You cannot find what you are not looking for in the first place.” If you do not look for Edisons, you will not find them. Remember this: automate to enhance and improve cost and performance, absolutely, but never stop recruiting at a level where you are not open to finding the next Edison. Need proof? I am writing this on a laptop that is a descendent of the original PCs of the 1980s. Did you ever read any of the resumes of the founders of Apple? Poor buzzword matches, but great Edisons. 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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