Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, was the first speaker at the May 2008 New Yorker Conference. “Stories from the near future” was the theme of the two-day conference. Albeit condensed, here are his words and my comments from his talk regarding the “challenge of hiring in the modern world.”
All aspects of our society are undergoing a kind of collective crisis when it comes to hiring. That relates to something I call the “mismatch problem.” So what is the mismatch problem? It is when the criteria we use to prepare to assess someone’s ability to do a job are radically out-of-step with the actual demands of the job itself.
Turns out, there are mismatch problems wherever you look these days in the professions. Let’s start with the biggest and most serious case – teachers. What is the best way to ensure that teachers are of top quality? You want to ensure that they are top quality. You want to get the best-educated, smartest, most experienced people possible into the classroom.
We raise the bar, really dramatically on a number of academic levels because we felt that was the surest way to ensure that we had better quality teachers in the classroom. What is the relationship between those kinds of credentials and teacher quality? There isn’t any. So why do mismatch problems exist?
There are two reasons. One has to do with our desire for certainty. All of the things that we do in scouting combines - and with certification for teachers - and test scores for law students - they all have the same thing in common. They are the hard, objective, reliable standardized predictors of performance. But the truth is, in all of those cases, if you want to know how good someone is, those kinds of hard objective, seemingly useful statistics are not useful at all.
All you can do when it comes to lawyers and teachers and professional quarterbacks, if you want to know how good they are, is to wait until they actually do the job. Analyze them when they are on their job and use your own subjective evaluation.
It is a case in which we are drawn to these kinds these objective standardized measures. We have a desire to impose certainty on something that is inherently uncertain. And that is why we get these mismatches.
Gladwell highlights a typical hiring strategy - “You want to get the best-educated, smartest, most experienced people possible” to “ensure that we had better quality teachers in the classroom.” On the surface, the three criteria (best-educated, how smart they are, their experience level) seem plausible for candidate screening. But let’s look deeper.
Education is a valid consideration, and any position will have an established threshold. However, our education only underscores what we know. A teacher’s education will not predict how they will organize a lecture, convey information, our how they connect, engage and motivate a student – all tenants of an effective educator.
How smart we are is a weak predictor. Studies have shown that our IQ contributes only about 10% to 15% towards our success. While our social and emotional intelligence has a much stronger proven correlation to our success, our IQ is one of the least likely predictors. This is a big surprise to hiring managers.
Experience is also a tricky one. We all know mediocre engineers, analysts, car mechanics and leaders that have 10 or 15 years experience. But do they have necessary job competencies like Initiative, Integrity, and Organizational Commitment? Probably not. Many companies have “rookie” awards. They focus on results and not tenure. In the 90’s, I filled in one semester at Texas Christian University, while they were completing their search for a full-time professor. At the end of the semester, students had the opportunity to grade the instructor in 17 areas. For my first teaching gig, I was pleased to receive higher scores in 15 areas that compared my effectiveness to other instructors on campus. Enthusiasm and a deep desire to develop others rendered neutral my experience deficit.
Gladwell states that “we raise the bar, really dramatically on a number of academic levels because we felt that was the surest way to ensure that we had better quality teachers in the classroom.” So, why do institutions of learning engage in such misguided missions? Why do all those really smart educated people do such really dumb things? The answer highlights the inherent difficulty of the hiring process and underscores a universal mistake most companies fall prey to in their hiring decisions. Hiring decisions are made on assumptions not fully vetted in the interview. This increases the risk of hiring a “mismatch.” To mitigate risk and save time, a shortcut strategy is used.
• An internal referral of a candidate is one of the most popular ways to reduce risk. Referral cuts the hiring risk by 40%.
• They have 8 years of industry experience. Reduced training and quicker ramp up time reduced the hiring risk by 15%
• They have worked for a reputable competitor for 4 years. The competitor is known for its tough standards. Competitor experience reduces the hiring risk by another 15%.
• They have recent certification in a highly desired skill and belong to a local user group. The certification and local user group reduces the hiring risk by 10%.
• The candidate graduated from the same university as the hiring manager and had the same Marketing professor. This is good karma and must count for something. Let’s give them a 5% risk reduction.
• We didn’t talk to a reference, but their letter of recommendation was glowing. How about another 5% reduction?
Our risk reducing strategy has reduced our chances of hiring a “mismatch” by a whopping 90%. We are betting on the risk reduction strategy as the “surest way to ensure” the right person is hired. While the internal referral, industry experience with the competitor and certification should be factored into the hiring decision (maybe 25% to 30%) a more complete picture of the candidate is required. Our candidate has a lot going for them, but upon critical analysis the only thing we are 90% sure of is that the candidate can do the job. Like Gladwell’s teacher example, we have only uncovered their credentials. We do not yet have evidence the candidate will do their tasks exceedingly well. We still might be hiring a dud.
We need to discover the candidate’s most likely pattern of behavior to support our decision. Uncovering behavior is typically done through a formal behavioral interview, which is sometimes augmented by third-party assessments. A behavioral interview draws from the past to uncover a candidate’s actions. A candidate might be asked to share a particularly stressful situation. What actions did they take and what were the results? The answers could provide insight into how they handle stress, their style of teamwork and cooperation, their ability to persuade others, or their analytical thinking. Through a series of probing questions we start to get a better picture of how the candidate might behave in our environment.
The more we know about what drives the success of our current employees, the better we can craft interview questions to determine if there is a match or mismatch of candidates in the hiring process. Over time, we will develop a rich understanding of the “hard, objective, reliable standardized predictors of performance” required for our company’s success.
Mitch Byers, author of InterviewRX and SalaryNegotiationsRX