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The 5 Biggest Reasons the Wrong People Get Hired

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Based on thousands of candidate interviews and leading training programs with more than ten thousand recruiters and hiring managers, there is no doubt the wrong person, not the best person, is often the one hired. Here’s why:

Managers define the person before defining the job. Here’s a typical job description posted by a fine company. It’s representative of how most job postings are written. Other than the generic responsibilities, the requirements define what the person hired needs to have in terms of skills and experiences. These postings are misnamed – they’re not job descriptions, they’re “person descriptions.” Since clarifying job expectations has repeatedly been shown to be the number one driver of performance, it seems commonsensical to have managers define the work that needs to be done before defining the person doing the work. Then define what the best people do differently doing this same work than everyone else. A list of the 5-6 most important performance objectives is a true job description. Here’s an example of a good one and the instruction manual on how to prepare them for any job

Getting the job is not the same as doing the job. We are now in the midst of the 2014 primary season. Has there ever been a politician elected based on the ability to do the job versus how he or she got elected to the job? As voters we overvalue the candidate’s presentation skills, not their ability to do the work. We do the same with job candidates. We overvalue first impressions, affability, and communication skills. We instantly exclude those who are “different” in some way, even those who are temporarily nervous, not the best looking, or those who are not polished interviewers. With candidates, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have weaker presentations skills, and I’m more cynical of those who are too polished. This is probably good advice for politicians, too.

Strangers are treated differently than acquaintances and referrals. In a recent post, I contended that people who are connected to the interviewer in some way – even loosely – are evaluated differently and more fairly than a complete stranger. Strangers are assumed unqualified to start. Under this premise they are judged largely on the depth of their skills, level of direct experience, personality and first impression. These are terrible predictors of performance and fit. The connected person begins with a significant advantage: they’re assumed competent. The subsequent assessment is slower and based on the person’s track record of past performance and ability to learn new skills. Here’s a simple way to assess everyone the same way.

Managers ask irrelevant questions and assess people on meaningless facts. Brain teasers were proved not too smart long ago, although it took a huge study by Google before these questions were shown to be useless. I just read on Flipboard that one CEO predicts team skills based on whether the candidate cleans up the coffee cups left in the interviewing room. In this case, Steve Jobs would never have been hired. I had a GM client who related strong organizing and planning skills with an orderly desk, and wanted to visit every candidate’s office as part of the assessment. This past year I had a client who assumed people who cancel interviews at the last minute due to a family crisis lack a strong work ethic. A panel interview can minimize many of these problems.

The process is too transactional. Filling jobs with those who are the most skilled is much different than hiring the strongest person possible. The former is largely a box-checking exercise with the price determined by supply and demand. The latter involves a series of two-way discussions to develop a true understanding of the person’s capabilities, interests and fit with the job. There’s more give-and-take in the negotiation process as both sides balance their long- and short-term needs.

There are a lot of great people who don’t get hired because they don’t fit some misguided stereotype of success. And it’s not because these people are different or odd. It’s that the traditional approaches for hiring are flawed. When these flawed approaches are combined with some wacky thinking, it’s unlikely the best person for the job will actually be hired, or elected.