In Harvard Business Review: Stop Eliminating Perfectly Good Candidates

75% of perfectly qualified candidates don’t make it through the main screening tool used by corporations.

This post originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

I could tell right away from the tone of his voice that the VP of Engineering wasn’t happy. He practically growled at me. He had just finished interviewing a job candidate named Anand, who I had directed his way, and was calling me to say he was going to pass.

Just a few minutes earlier, Anand had called and raved about how well the interview had gone. He had interviewed for nearly a full day, meeting with different leaders across the organization, including, at the end of the day, the VP of Engineering. I had helped this company build out a new “platform” strategy, which is why I was trying to identify the right candidates to work on it, and I thought Anand would be a great fit.

But the VP and Anand had strikingly different reports about their meeting. Anand said that he had asked far more questions than he usually did, asking for detailed and specific information on the strategy that helped him understand the complexity of the challenge the company was facing. He felt like he had engaging, insightful conversations with everyone he met.

In contrast, the VP told me that he found Anand’s questions “super annoying” and was therefore thinking he was a “bad fit”.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a leader say that a perfectly qualified candidate is a “bad fit.” Candidates are too often screened out because they don’t fit a particular pattern – one recent survey went thru the main platform most corporations use (the Applicant Tracking Systems) and found that 75% of the resumes that could have served that role were screened out. This newly published (fall, 2018) data doesn’t shock any HR or talent person, but it will likely shock most hiring leaders. Most leaders think they are seeing the best people, but what they’re seeing are those resumes that best pattern match rather than seeing the best talent available.

As I discussed the issue further with the VP, I learned that he thought that Anand had the right skills and experience but that he found Anand’s questions annoying. He said: “He asked us a ton of questions that the team didn’t have the answers to.” His assessment that Anand was a “bad fit” was actually coded language for “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable.”

Innovation requires not knowing long enough to learn new things. How can you build something new, if you aren’t okay with not already knowing the answer? The future is not created; it’s co-created. Leaders need to build teams that can both define the right questions, and then discover new answers.

Instead of being annoyed by Anand’s questions, the VP should’ve welcomed them — and asked Anand questions in return. That is, of course, the value of an interview. An employer seeks to learn about the candidate’s skills and relevant experiences. And a good candidate uses questions to learn about the role, the boss, and the company to assess whether it’s the right job. Here are some types of questions the VP might’ve asked — and the ones you should ask — to avoid screening out a perfectly good candidate based on the wrong criteria.

Questions that uncover capabilities, not just experience. Are you asking questions that get to someone’s capabilities or are you seeking confirming data that someone has done exactly what you have already scoped? Several years ago, a colleague asked if I’d review their job description for a social media “expert.” Twitter had been around for maybe a year at this point and when I looked at the description, I just started laughing. The first line read “10 years of experience.” Quite often, we use useless metrics to scope a job to do what has already been done. The upside of asking for years of experience is we get someone who has done what we need. The downside is we risk limiting what we can create next by doing what has already worked. Instead of asking, “Have you done x or y or z?” you want to ask, “How would you approach doing x or y or z?” This shift in question lets you learn someone’s capacity to think with you.

Unfortunately, right now, an estimated 77% of all jobs (60% in the U.S. and 80% worldwide) require little to no creativity, decision-making, or independent judgment. But if you are working on innovation, you need someone who can think with you. And by focusing on capability over experience, you increase the chances you find that person.

Questions that assess whether they can co-create on a team. When I ask the teams I’ve worked within the last 10 years why their last major strategic effort failed, they rarely mention that the team didn’t get along. But they do say that there were cracks in the team — a gap in understanding that wasn’t being filled, “an air sandwich”  — and no one was able to step in to fill them. Because the world changes quickly, the work does too and teams can’t stay in their predetermined roles. Teams need to figure out new terrain together. You might ask candidates, “How would you handle a situation where it’s become clear that there is a gap on your team?” Interviewees are often told to use “I” to get credit for work done, but “we” is probably a more realistic depiction of how work gets done. Then follow up to learn how they felt about the situation: Were they proud of catching the gap? Concerned that it existed in the first place? This will help you see if you are dealing with a team player or a know-it-all. You want to find people who can play together, filling in the gaps between predefined roles to get the work done.

Questions that uncover the kinds of things they love to work on. If you’re hiring for innovation, you need to ask what this person authentically brings to work. Ideas, after all, are not invented and grown in a vacuum; they grow and evolve by connecting previously separate elements. Figuring out what people genuinely care about lets you put people together who don’t have the same approaches but who want to reach the same goal. It’s that connection where innovation happens. But people need to be united around a shared purpose and focused on something that has meaning to them. Ask candidates, “What did you find meaningful about that project? What does that particular success say about what matters to you?” People want to match their purpose to the organizations they work for. And it’s your job as the leader to align that purpose so that seemingly disparate people can come together into an “us” headed in the same direction.

Too often, leaders screen out perfectly good candidates because they don’t understand how to hire people for co-creative problem-solving. It’s easy to forget that the job of a leader isn’t to know all the answers but to create the conditions by which the entire team gets to learn and innovate.

In the end, the VP did hire Anand, and together they’ve realized the goals they set out to achieve.

5 Responses:

  1. Dave Arnold. March 29, 2019 at 9:17 am  

    So much unconscious bias in the hiring process, almost impossible to overcome. I could write a book! Thanks for you blog you raise important and useful advice for hiring executives. Dave

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 29, 2019 at 9:26 am  

      That means a lot coming from you, and given what you do. So many people have reached out to say, yep this new data affirms what we know to be (anecdotally) true. And while this article gives advice on what to do different, a big part of me (and likey you) knows nothing is going to change. HR is stuck, bias is now baked into the tech and most hiring leaders think they see plenty of good candidates, so they don’t know what they don’t know. Or maybe it’s that they accept things as they are.

      Reply
  2. Poornima Vijayashanker. March 29, 2019 at 9:34 am  

    Great post! Wish more hiring managers would think this way. Another issue I see come up a lot is not having a clear set of goals or expectations for the role, especially ones where there is a lot creativity and variance in skills e.g. product management, design, and marketing.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 29, 2019 at 9:45 am  

      There was a piece of research I read a while back that made me think that maybe we shouldn’t have clear goals but maybe just a “we’re going here, what can you contribute” approach. It was related to the role of diversity. That most diversity efforts ask you to come in, sit down and do things the way they’ve always been done. But another approach could be changing what we do based on who is on the team. It’s a still underdeveloped thought which is why I haven’t written on it yet but I want to just add it here, to say sometimes having a clear set of expectations for a person isn’t helpful to the person or to the work.

      Reply
  3. Tanisha. March 29, 2019 at 10:45 am  

    I love that your brought this component of hiring talent to the forefront and provided insightful questions for leaders to ask to navigate this type of engagement. I truly appreciate your posts as I am in the Mortgage Lending industry and we’re experiencing this exact issue. We are having to confront the ego behind many of our traditional roles and confront the gap where sales commissions meet new performance metrics along with recognizing how we as an industry have to find broader ways to serve our community. All this is a big pot of “how?” And your article highlighted the huge talent pool available to help us “co-create” that journey together. You are appreciated Nilofer. Enjoy your weekend.

    Reply

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