Are Hiring Practices Fundamentally Flawed?

Harvard professor says search for ‘above average’ candidates is waste of time

By Lou Adler Feb 22, 2016
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Hiring managers who use tests, assessments and behavioral interviewing to find the best candidates may be looking at the wrong things, according to new research from Harvard professor Todd Rose. None of those tools takes into account what makes each candidate unique—and successful.

In his new book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness (HarperOne, 2016), Rose claims that an overreliance on statistics, prescreening, competency models, behavioral interviewing, and skills-laden and experience-based job descriptions are inappropriate, ineffective and counterproductive.

And that’s just a start.

Rose specializes in the study of individual performance. He is the co-founder and president of the nonprofit Center for Individual Opportunity, and is also a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he teaches educational neuroscience.

Rose argues that the assumption that people who rank above average on popular hiring assessments are the best hires is flawed. Equally flawed is the idea that not hiring people who rank below average will prevent poor performance—and this is because, Rose argues, no one is average.

Rose offers three core principles to explain his “no one is average” concept: 

Jaggedness cannot be ignored. Rose discovered wide variation on many multi-factor assessments of performance. No one candidate is good at all of them. For example, a good engineer might be brilliant when it comes to system-level thinking and high-level architecture but weak at the design level. From a hiring standpoint, this means the job must be “jagged,” too: so identify and prioritize the critical needs for each job.

Context is critical. When hiring to fill a position, the actual job, the hiring manager’s style, the true culture of the company, the depth of the resources, the structure of the company and its values, and the team the person will work with all matter. Rose contends that all of this must be understood by the employer before the person is assessed during the interview.

Speed of learning is not important. Rose found that a candidate’s speed of learning is not an indicator of ability or performance. How one learns and the circumstances involved are what matters most. As long as there is time to learn, this principle means that companies can hire people from different industries and backgrounds by providing more customized training and support.

Prior Research Confirms the Theory

Early last year, Rose asked me how I developed the principles behind my work on performance-based hiring, since they closely match his research. As a result of our conversations, he added some examples into his book of companies now using performance-based hiring to eliminate many common problems with the hiring process.

During our talks, I told him I conducted a series of short experiments in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to understand how the most talented people changed jobs and how these techniques could be used to improve the hiring process. While they didn’t break down cleanly among Rose’s three principles, here’s what I discovered:

Clarifying expectations matters. The best candidates—active or passive—always wanted to know the specifics about the work, the manager’s style and the opportunity before they became too interested in a job. To address this, I began asking hiring managers to define their jobs as a series of performance objectives rather than a laundry list of skills, prior experiences and competencies. For example, for an accounting position it was better to say, “Set up a weekly internal management reporting system highlighting the six to eight most important factors driving company performance,” rather than “Must have five to eight years of accounting experience with a midsize manufacturing company, a B.S. in accounting and a CPA preferred.” After a few years, I discovered the bulk of every job could be described with five to six performance objectives like these.

Even the best people’s performance is very situational. In addition to doing work that was intrinsically motivating, the person’s long-term success depended greatly on the fit between the manager’s style and how the person wanted to be managed. These situational factors—including the actual job, the environment, the company culture and the hiring manager’s leadership style—are so important, in fact, that they represent the tipping point between great success and underperformance.

Psychometric assessment tests don’t predict ability or fit. The problem is that assessment tests paint with too broad a brush to be useful; a result that indicates above average or below average doesn’t track with performance. After a few years of using these tests and following people’s performance, it was clear that at best these tests confirm ability, but they certainly don’t predict it. Worse, there were so many false negatives (good people being excluded) and false positives (weak people being considered) that the tests shouldn’t be used for screening. More importantly, it turned out the best people could adapt their core styles to meet the needs of the situation. This critical point—that style is fluid and changeable—is never evaluated in these tests.

Behavioral interviewing and competency models do not improve quality of hire. In fact, academic research over the past 30 years clearly demonstrates that behavioral interviewing in conjunction with a comprehensive job analysis is only 12 percent superior to flipping a coin when deciding which candidate to hire. Since most companies fail to conduct a thorough job analysis, such as by preparing a performance-based job description, the hiring results are worse than a coin flip. According to Rose, ignoring the context of the job is at the core of every bad hiring decision. 

While these concepts have been refined over the years, the big idea is that people are unique and an effective hiring process needs to address that uniqueness. When these concepts are ignored and good people are hired for ill-defined jobs, emphasizing short-term rewards rather than long-term satisfaction, companies are setting themselves up for underperformance and unnecessary turnover.

While it’s not possible to customize every job for every person, it is possible to stop forcing people into poorly defined jobs designed to fit above-average people. Thus, embracing “the end of average” is the essential first step for redesigning a hiring process that works for everyone.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm based in Irvine, Calif., that helps companies upgrade their talent acquisition programs. Adler is the author of the Amazon top 10 best-seller, Hire with Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 2007), and The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench Media, 2013).

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