Why the wrong people get hired and how to turn this to your advantage

By Neil Patrick

There are a lot of very average people that get hired simply because they fit a template. 

It’s not because these people are special. It’s because archaic approaches to selection have proved to be astonishingly persistent in many organisations. If you don't believe me, I think you'll change your mind, when you read some of the examples below, at least some of which I am sure you'll have personal experience of.

When these flawed approaches are combined with some bizarre thinking, it’s unlikely the best person for the job will be selected.

You cannot change this fact, but if you know what the process flaws are, you can use this knowledge to your advantage.

I’ve been talking to several recruiters recently about their businesses and how they and their clients go about the process of selection. And it’s clear the best person for a job is often not the one that ends up getting hired.

How can it be, when this is such an important decision and so much time, money and effort is invested in it, that so many poor decisions are made?

Well my conversations revealed that the supposed science of selection is frequently distorted and corrupted by a whole range of instinctive, almost primitive beliefs and practices.

1. Managers define the person rather than the job

Most job descriptions are written so that the desired person’s personal characteristics are much more specifically defined than the characteristics of the job requirements. These personal requirements presuppose what the person hired ought to have in terms of background, skills and experiences. Such profiles not are not job descriptions, they’re ‘person descriptions’.

Since clear definitions of work success have repeatedly been shown to be the main driver of personal performance, it seems obvious that managers should carefully define the work that needs to be done before defining the person they think can do the work.

Specific, key performance objectives should be the main part of a true job description. Not vague and generic characteristics like, “good communication skills”, “self-motivated”, or “results-orientated”

2. Getting the job requires a whole different skillset to doing the job

In an election, when deciding who to vote for, we often judge and choose based on our perception of the candidate’s presentation skills, not their ability to do the job.

Managers do the same with job candidates. They overvalue first impressions, likeability, and communication skills. They instinctively exclude those who are “different” in some way, temporarily nervous, or those who are not slick and polished interviewees.
3. People with personal connections are treated differently

People who are connected to the interviewer in some way are evaluated more fairly than a complete stranger. Strangers are assumed unqualified from the outset.

Ordinary candidates are assessed on the depth of their skills, level of direct experience, personality and first impression. These have been proven by research to be useless as predictors of future performance and fit.

The connected person has an automatic advantage – it’s assumed that they will fit with the team and culture of the organisation. Those who are unknown are not given this approval. They have to prove it and that can be difficult.

4. Managers ask irrelevant questions and assess people on meaningless facts

Brain teasers were proved to be of no value in selection processes long ago, but they remain a persistent feature of numerous interview and selection processes.

I heard of one CEO who predicted team skills based on whether or not the candidate picked up the coffee cups before leaving the interview room. I worked with a senior manager who co-related strong organizational and planning skills with a tidy desk, and would regularly carry out desk ‘inspections’, in the belief this would help him know who was performing and who wasn’t.

More recently, I heard about a manager who assumed that any person that could not keep to the appointed interview time for any reason at all lacked a strong work ethic.

5. The decision process is based on candidate features not benefits

Filling jobs with those who tick the largest number of boxes is a poor but common substitute for hiring the best person possible. The latter involves a dialogue aimed at acquiring an in-depth understanding of a person’s capabilities, aspirations and fit. There’s more give-and-take in the negotiation process. Both sides balance their long and short-term needs.

So, I have no doubt that the hiring processes in many, many cases are flawed and that the best candidates are often not the ones that get hired.

What can you do about this? Yes it’s unfair and counter-productive for everyone involved. But you have to face facts and ignore the things you cannot change, and focus instead on the things you can.

1. Pay close attention to the job description, however flawed it may be.

If the JD has been thrown together without due care and attention to detail, play them at their own game. Make sure that you include every clichéd key word from the JD in your resume AND then verify that you have that qualification, by means of providing an example of how you have delivered that result, or shown that capability in your previous job(s).

2. Recognise that the job interview will place undue importance on how well you present yourself, probably much more than how well you can do the job.

Approach the interview not so much as an exercise in showing what you know, more as an opportunity to seduce the interviewers. This is why you should pay close attention to every detail of your dress and personal presentation.

Understand that if you show an interest in the organisation and the job by asking appropriate questions, you’ll actually make the interviewers like you more and they will thus rate you more highly.

3. Adjust your target jobs to prioritise those where you may have a connection to the person hiring

This is where long-term investment in building a good personal network can really pay off. The bigger your network, the more chances you will have of finding vacancies where someone you know personally can come into play…whether it’s by giving you a confidential inside track, or in the best situations, actually putting you forward for consideration.

4. Don’t lose self-confidence following a rejection where you were the best candidate but still didn’t get hired.

I know this is easy to say and hard to do. But if you spotted any of the above process weaknesses I described above in your selection process, you can take heart from the knowledge that: 
  • It was poor process by the hiring firm not your unsuitability that meant you didn’t get hired. 
  • If the firm can’t get this key process right, maybe, it wasn’t such a great firm to join after all. 

For all the talk in HR circles about process quality and selection science, the sad fact is that the process flaws I describe above will probably never be banished completely. But at least if you know what they are, you have a chance to counter them.

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