Talent Management

Hiring Mistake #3: Inappropriate Prerequisites

Hiring top talent is not the same as ordering through the drive-through line at your favorite fast food restaurant.

In many companies, the hiring process is a comprised of picking items off a short list. “I’ll take a cheeseburger, no onions, fries, and a medium vanilla shake.” What does this sound like outside of our fast-food metaphor: “I’ll take a CPA with an MBA, 12 years of experience, previous supervision of at least 14 accountants, and good international accounting experience.”

Once you fall victim to using this fast food approach of defining work, checking boxes, ordering off the menu – then your entire hiring process of how you write the ad, where you place the ad, the interview questions you ask, how you measure a candidate’s real motivation, and what you do with the person after you hire them – is focused on attracting candidates who best fit the tribal box-checking approach. Most job ads contain a long list of prerequisites, such as 12 years of industry experience, an MBA, a CPA, or this skill or that certification. As the resumes come in and hiring managers begin the screening process, they check off those boxes one by one as if they were ordering items from a fast-food menu.

If this is the heart of your hiring process, you have just committed hiring mistake #3 — placing too much emphasis on specific education, technical skills and industry experience as necessary requirements for the job. This emphasis is what we term “Inappropriate Prerequisites.”

The problem with this approach is that it excludes a lot of good candidates early in the process because they don’t get checks in all the boxes. With competition for top talent getting tougher than ever, you can’t afford to screen out the best candidates before they even show up at your door.

Why do most CEOs, Key Executives, and Managers use inappropriate prerequisites for hiring?

Most executives and managers don’t know how to define the outcomes, deliverables and expectations for a specific job, so they fall back on the old tribal and traditional standbys of knowledge, skills and experience. Plus, relying on standard prerequisites allows them to practice the “CYA” method of hiring.

Suppose I hire someone, they fall flat on their face, and the boss tells me I’m a bad manager because I made a hiring mistake. I can say to the boss that I did not make a mistake because we agreed on the prerequisites for the job and I checked them all off. If the person failed on the job, it wasn’t my fault.

False Predictors of Success

Why don’t knowledge, skills and experience lead to good hiring decisions? Because they are not proven predictors of job success.

Just because someone has a certain skill doesn’t mean they can apply that skill in the way you need it. For example, suppose your ad lists ‘strong computer skills’ as a requirement. You get a resume that indicates the applicant has experience using Microsoft Office tools, so you check off the box because you want someone with good computer skills.

But what you’re really looking for is someone who can use Microsoft Access to enter data about clients and then create complex merge Word files for a bi-weekly newsletter. You need a specific application of a skill versus the more generic ‘good computer skills.’ Unless you ask, you have no way of knowing whether the applicant can deliver that specific application.

The same concept applies to experience.

Typically, hiring managers will say something like, ‘I need someone with 12 years’ experience”. However, what is experience? Does it mean the candidate has done the same thing for 12 years? Or have they developed new and higher-level skills on the job? Does it mean the applicant achieved certain results? Or did they just show up and punch the clock every day for the past 12 years?

For all you know, the applicant could have 12 years of producing lousy results, and a person with six years of producing good results could be a much better candidate. When your hiring criteria depend on elements that have nothing to do with success, all you can do is guess.

How do you overcome the innate tendency to look at the wrong criteria? You overcome it by focusing on outcomes and results rather than knowledge, skills and experience.

The first step in hiring top talent is to get very clear about the outcomes and deliverables you need from the job, so that you can measure someone’s ability to get results. The effort of defining the outcomes and deliverables needs to happen before you start screening resumes, doing phone interviews or meeting people for the first time. If you don’t first define success, you eliminate a lot of good candidates who don’t have checks in all the boxes but know how to get the job done.

Inappropriate Prerequisites Screen Out Top Talent

The quickest and most impactful way to improve your hiring process is to teach your managers how to define success on the job. That involves going beyond the traditional job description and creating a Success Factor Snapshot, which breaks down a position in terms of specific, measurable deliverables, benchmarks and timetables. Once you define the job in terms of outcomes and results, it doesn’t matter whether someone has two years of experience or 20. All you care about is whether they can deliver the outcomes you need.

To avoid eliminating top talent in the finding or sourcing phase of the hiring process, stop using job descriptions full of inappropriate prerequisites that are masquerading as advertisements. Most companies post the entire job description (or an abbreviated version of it) in their online ads. We refer to this silly and useless approach as “drill sergeant” advertising, because it barks at the candidate. It says, “You must have this knowledge, skill or experience or don’t bother applying!”

Drill sergeant advertising not only reinforces the wrong criteria; it actually drives away the best candidates. When top talent sees job ads full of inappropriate prerequisites, they get turned off by the description of the job and screen themselves out before you even get a chance to talk with them.

A better approach to attract top talent is to create a Compelling Marketing Statement which describes the outcomes and results you’re looking for, along with some of the challenges inherent in the job. Position the job as an opportunity to achieve at a high level and make a real difference in your company. You’ll get more candidates from the top 25 percent of the talent pool, and because you’re looking for outcomes rather than experience, you won’t screen them out them before learning whether they can produce the results you need.

Is the heart of your hiring process – writing ads, defining work, asking interview questions – based on using inappropriate prerequisites?

Should you be training all your managers how to define real outcomes and deliverables rather than relying on outdated and tribal approaches to hiring?

Share in a comment to this blog post your experience of hiring using inappropriate prerequisites.

Category: Talent Management

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About the Author: Barry Deutsch

Barry Deutsch has been a popular Vistage Speaker for over a decade in the areas of hiring and retention. In recognition of the value of his presentations, Vistage has given him the prestigious IMPACT Speaker of the Year Award. He is a co-aut…

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  1. Frank Schnierow

    December 16, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    Before you even think of hiring a middle manager or above, review your organization plan for the next 5+ years and determine if now there should be any major changes, now is the time to consider that. Then determine ALL the characteristics of the PERFECT person to fill the position. You will not find that person but at least you will know where they to not fill the prerfect spot.

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