Friday, October 7, 2011

Nine Ways Employers Screw Up Hiring

Honesty tests, "Must know Excel," "Where do you see yourself in five years?" and all the other nonsense that bedevils the hiring process.
When it comes to the people side of a business, what's more important than hiring? If you don't have the right men and women on board, a great strategy won't get executed. But the hiring process in most organizations is anything but a well-oiled machine. In some companies, hiring people is such an afterthought that the only discussion of the hiring topic is an announcement at a staff meeting from time to time, such as, "I've got someone new starting on Monday—Sally Mason."

In other organizations, the system is so overwrought and hidebound that only the most patient, pliable, and long-suffering souls on the planet can survive the process. These employers delude themselves into thinking that the people who make it through their endless gates and sieves are the cream of the crop. More likely, they're the candidates with the fewest competing opportunities for their time and talents.

It has become obvious over the past few years that almost every employer (in the U.S., at least) makes a mess of its hiring processes, to the detriment of its bottom line and reputation.

The list of complaints from hiring managers and job seekers is long: The hiring process takes forever. Hiring managers wait for talent while job seekers wait for any word at all. The process is too cumbersome and mechanical.

We'll never hire great people to move our businesses forward by searching for keywords on a résumé. That way, interviewers aren't prepared for interviews. They haven't really even read the résumés. Their questions are off topic.

Here's our list of the top 10 ways employers drop the ball in bringing talent onto their teams. Any of these sound familiar from your own place of work?:

1. They don't know what they want
Jobs become open when the workload is too great for the team or when someone leaves the department. We're so quick to scribble out a job ad and post it that we often don't take the time to look at the team and the engine and say, "What's the most intelligent way to use a new person on our team?" We start the interview process before all the players agree on what the ideal candidate should do, much less what he or she should bring by way of background. The earliest stage of the hiring process, called job creation (creating a job opening and job description), is one of the biggest problems for employers. How to fix it? A good job-creation process asks a would-be hiring manager to begin by describing what isn't working now, in the absence of the hoped-for new employee. What does that person's absence do to the department, and what is that open seat costing us? That analysis will help us zero in on the cost of the vacancy (and determine the salary range for the job opportunity) while developing the list of qualifications, too.

2. They write bad job ads
Have you read a job ad lately? Most of them are atrocious. They give one boilerplate sentence on the company and the role, and then dive into an endless list of required ("must-have") and preferred job qualifications. That's no way to entice talent. We need to use our job ads to say more about why a smart person would want to work for our companies. Describe a day on the job and let readers of our job ads know how working with us will enhance their careers. In other words, we need to be marketers.

3. They ignore their networks
If you needed a plumber or a nanny, you'd tell your friends, right? Employers forget that they have friends and networks, and they post their job ads on mega-career-sites before tapping into the talent pools all around them. They either don't alert current employees to new job openings at all, or they do it in a desultory way (like sending out the same link week after week to the employees, showing them where they can learn about new job openings—but only by searching through tedious layers of the job-application site to find their own city). Past employees and people who interviewed for jobs unsuccessfully aren't even on the radar screen. We should be using these channels actively, before we ever post a cattle-call job ad on, et al. Our employees, past employees, vendors, and clients make the world's greatest referral sources, and most employers horrendously underuse these powerful marketing channels.

4. They let excellent candidates slip through the cracks
It is easy for a hiring manager or human resource person to receive a stack of résumés (physically or virtually) and conclude that the worst of the hiring process is already behind them. They forget that a big pile of résumés doesn't guarantee a successful hiring process. Many of the best-looking résumés may be attached to people who sound good on paper, but don't live up to it when you meet them in person. Some promising candidates have already accepted other jobs by the time you call. The longer it takes for contenders to get to a live person after responding to an ad, the more talent you're going to let slip through your fingers. The more paperwork, the more steps, and the more insults we fling at candidates ("Thank you for completing that English test. Next, you'll receive an honesty test, which must be completed in 20 minutes …") the more awesome, capable people we'll drive into our competitors' arms.

5. They put up stupid gates
Stupid gates are hiring-process steps that exclude candidates for bad reasons. Here's an example. An HR person said to me, "I only want people who really want to work for our company. So as soon as I begin a phone interview, I ask candidates why they want to work for us in particular, and if they don't have a really good reason, they're out." "Why is that important?" I asked. "They need to know exactly why they want to work here, vs. another company," said the HR manager. "But why? If they simply like the landscaping on your front lawn and think you guys might be worth meeting, are they necessarily bad employees?" I countered. "That's just my rule," said the HR manager. This manager isn't hiring for brains or pluck or creativity or tenacity or vision. She's weeding out people for a reason that may have no correlation with job performance.

6. They neglect to design smart gates
Not all gates in the hiring process are bad. Some of them are brilliant. As HR staffers and hiring managers, we could save ourselves and the candidates much time by using simple, well-designed, logical gates to move job seekers from one stage in the hiring process to the next. Here's an example.

I wrote a job ad for an editor I was trying to hire. It said, "Read our latest newsletter at this link. I don't need your résumé or a cover letter, but I'd love to see a short explanation of how our newsletter could be stronger, in your view." That was the gate. I got 60 responses to my ad, and 50 of them didn't mention my newsletter at all. That was perfect—I had only to send a canned no-thank-you note to those 50 candidates. That allowed me to focus my time on the 10 people who read the ad and followed the instructions in it. Some of them had generic feedback on my newsletter. Those people got no-thank-you notes, also. Other editors had fantastic advice, and they got interviews.

7. They elevate "skills" over judgment and brains
In my pencil drawer, I keep a yellowed slip of paper from the Chicago Tribune. It's a job ad from a Sunday edition of the Trib back in the early 1990s. I hold onto that scrap because it reminds me of the inanity of the hiring process so many employers use. The ad says, "Administrative Assistant Needed. Word Perfect 5.0." That's all they wanted, a certain version of a software program that a reasonable person could learn in two hours. Not brains, not a lovely phone voice, not a sense of humor. Not a personality or empathy or the ability to think fast in a crisis. We're doing our hiring upside down and backward—emphasizing "skills" over the fundamental, human attributes that will make our teams and organizations successful.

8. They interview ineffectively
Every course on interviewing says to the manager, "Don't do all the talking." Yet managers get nervous, they get distracted, and pretty soon they're motor-mouthing their way to the end of the interview without learning squat about the person sitting in front of them. They ask horrendous questions, such as "Where do you see yourself in five years?" (who cares?) and "Of all the talented people in this process, why should we hire you?" They don't prepare; they've never seen the candidate's résumé and have no questions ready to ask about it. They ramble. They forget and can't distinguish one candidate from the other. On the other extreme, they line up five people to fire questions at an applicant and then wonder why they gained so little insight.

9. They don't understand candidates' needs
To compete in the 21st century, we can't hire drones. Talented people need to be sold, just like customers. Giving job seekers higher and higher hurdles to clear won't upgrade the quality of hires in our shops. Marketing and selling our opportunities to the talented people in our networks very well could. When we bring a job seeker through our selection process, we can't just be looking at whether this person is good enough for us. We have to know the candidate's needs and motivations, too.

For example: We have two candidates for our sales manager job. Since we've spent every second of our interview time asking them about their experience in skills areas A, B, and C, we know almost nothing about these two folks' interests, motivations, or goals. We don't know why they're interested in us or what they hope to learn by taking this job if it's offered. We don't know their long-term career aspirations. One of them might have a year less of experience but be passionate about working in a company like ours (for the international exposure, or the chance to mentor people virtually, or some other reason), and the other candidate may be looking at our opportunity principally because it's 10 minutes from his house. If we dug into our candidates' needs, eventually our trust instincts would tell us, "Candidate B has no mojo for this job, but Candidate A has tons of it." Salespeople continue to sell prospects while they're qualifying them, and we can do the same with job candidates, vetting and wooing at the same time.

Here is the crux: If we aren't selling opportunities because we believe we don't need to (believing, for instance, that employees should be lucky to work for us), we are aiming too low for talent. We can make our hiring a competitive advantage, but only if we transform it into a shared leadership goal to find the sharpest people in our industries and reel them in. That's a new mindset. Can your organization get good at it—in time?

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

Thanks to Liz Ryan / Bloomberg L.P.


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