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Can’t Find Talent. What? Like It’s Hard?

Blog three in the “HR as the Killer App” series

By Diane Bock

Diane Bock Many years ago, my feisty, but oh-so-charming then 92-year-old grandpa asked me to describe the work of my company, DDI. Odd request, I thought, as it was he who typically took the floor to enthrall us with his amazing stories. His near deafness made him-talking-and-me-listening a more suitable arrangement.

But more challenging than his hearing impairment were our age and life experience differences. He had been a gold miner and a farmer between 1920 and 1970. I knew that phrases like “Talent Management” and “Human Resources” were nowhere in his vocabulary.

GrandpaBut I ventured in with my better-than-adequate shouting skills. I bellowed just one simple example, “WE HELP COMPANIES TO KNOW HOW TO HIRE THE RIGHT PEOPLE.”  His chuckling retort was, “Why don’t they just hire people who already know how to do the job?!”

It reminded me of that line from the movie Legally Blonde. The ex-boyfriend of Reese Witherspoon’s character expresses doubt that she has been accepted into Harvard Law School. With a coy tilt of her head she responds, “What? Like it’s hard?”

With millions of jobs going unfilled in the U.S. and the European Union during a period of higher than normal unemployment, there must really be something hard about hiring the right people.

To be sure, as technology changes rapidly, there may be too few people with the needed knowledge or skills. But many experts challenge or debunk the so-called “skills gap” problem as the complete explanation for so many unfilled positions. They say that in many cases organizations have themselves to blame for:

  • Paying too little
  • Over-zealous recruiting software screening out qualified candidates
  • Lacking a sourcing strategy
  • Refusing to invest in developing employees
  • Having a company culture that is not attractive to job candidates

I would like to suggest an additional culprit. With increasing pressure to do more with less and stakes for every decision getting higher, hiring managers and their HR partners look to mitigate risk by searching for “perfect” candidates who have years of experience in doing the exact same job.

Hey! It’s the same mid-20th century thinking of my grandfather.

And that alone should make the practice suspect!

Yes, experience is frequently part of what makes a person successful in a job. But it is not a guarantee. Saying experience makes a candidate the right choice is like saying butter makes a dinner tasty. Certainly, almost everything tastes better with butter, but to know if a dinner is tasty you also have to account for the quality of the bread, the taste and temperature of the other menu items, the type and amount of seasonings and spices, and whether or not there is dessert.

Many organizations hire by looking only for the butter. In trying to find the perfect candidate, they give too much weight to knowledge and experience.

So if it is more important than ever for organizations to avoid making hiring mistakes, then there is a much better way to approach hiring. There is science that can bring strong, predictive power to every hiring decision.

Hiring should use a success profile, that is, a holistic definition of what will make a person successful in the job. In addition to knowledge and experience, the candidate should also possess the competencies and personal attributes that make him or her a good fit for the job and the company culture. This excellent white paper details the effectiveness of success profiling and evaluating the whole person.

But wait, you say. Doesn’t adding more hiring criteria just make it that much harder to find the perfect person? Good question. I’m not suggesting that you look for candidates who’ve already done the job AND have ALL the competencies and appropriate personal attributes. And let’s not aim for “perfect.”

Once you have a holistic success profile, you can weight what’s most important and predictive of good performance. And you can determine what can be developed on the job.

For a call center position, past experience in a call center might not be nearly as predictive of success as customer service orientation. In positions where conditions change constantly and there is a steady stream of new products, adaptability and the ability to learn might be a lot more important than experience.

And as you get into Big Data or talent analytics, you can track the success of employees to determine the best predictors of success, and revise your profiles accordingly. For example, if you monitored new hires and found those with past call center experience performed no better (or even worse) than hires without call center experience, you could drop the requirement altogether.

The same is true with education. You might find that the performance of those who graduated from the most prestigious universities is not correlated with better performance. Google and their famous people analytics found this to be the case, and they adjusted their hiring practices accordingly.

If you have open positions that go unfilled for far too long, it might be time to ditch or lower the requirements for past experience and look for competencies and attributes that suggest the person will have the horsepower and motivation to master the role over time and fit with your culture.

Hiring based on success profiles is better science that reduces the risk of making bad hiring decisions. It also has the effect of broadening your talent pool, which leads to filling positions more quickly. As an HR or talent practitioner, it can only be good news for you and your organization when you can help hiring managers find more candidates and make better hiring decisions, more quickly.

Don’t follow the outdated advice of my grandpa…unless it's about how to tell a good story.

Diane Bock is a senior consultant for DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group and is passionate about helping organizations drive business results through people.

Posted: 03 Dec, 2014,
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