A few months ago I had an interesting experience with an organization who’d reached out to me for a role that was extremely exciting. I was then eliminated because my professional pedigree was – apparently – too akin to that of the backwoods locals in the movie Deliverance to be a fit for their brand. I wish I could say I stoically digested that feedback and haven’t obsessed about why I was contacted and presented as a candidate if pedigree was the singular criteria that identified the “winner” of that job opportunity. So, as things usually do for me, this kooky obsession has led to some research and big questions as to why organizations still don’t truly understand exactly who they are looking for and how the role fits into the business vision and strategy.
Being a candidate for a job opportunity immerses one into the organization’s ecosystem where we are forced to compete for status and visibility. That competition and experience eventually effects how we see ourselves and – let’s face it – it’s where we learn how the world sees us – worthy or unworthy.
I have always had a massive interest in stratification, the unbalanced interpretation of a level playing field, and the profound absence of common sense and humanity in most businesses. It’s fascinating how people get sorted into groups or categorized to determine their ‘fit” or lack thereof. I began working when I was 16 years old. The instant I started working I recognized this odd inclination but lacked clear understanding as to why. It was both bizarre and compelling to my 16 year-old self..many years later it is still as compelling and mysterious to me. However, it has since taken on a new and detestable form with the crass adoption of technology and poor hiring decisions that place senior and executive level leaders in roles they are not courageous enough to reinvent or boldly redefine.
Today companies frequently communicate how they are seeking a “unicorn” or the “best and the brightest” to join their “team”. But in lieu of defining “merit” that is linked to performance|accomplishment; and/or the ability to produce examples of extraordinary ambition; and/or how the candidate can make your job easier; and/or their unique ability to solve issues for the company…mundane “executives” assign merit to surface amenities that closely presume “sophistication” or a safe and aligned pedigree to their brand. Put bluntly, candidates without chic credentials [even if they can articulate true accomplishment] or other evidence of a covetable façade – tend to have slim chances of moving forward as a candidate. Even organizations that claim to be highly evolved fail at possessing a mature enough talent strategy when assessing candidates against the impulsive criteria or whims of one or more executives.
The definition of “merit” as related to hiring for many of the high-status positions is influenced deeply by cultural and structural elements, not based exclusively on objective measures of individual ambition and talent.
The Truth About Candidate Bias
Candidate “Pipelines” and False Opportunities: A few proactive organizations invest in a pipeline made up, almost exclusively, of candidates from the most desirable background(s) that are placid copies of every other employee in the organization. Very frequently I am finding that companies are increasingly biased toward sourcing “cookie cutter” candidates instead of finding a legitimately diverse and unique assortment of talent and their candidate pool reflects this disproportion. Ironically, while these companies convey a public image of wanting to diversify hiring and elevate inclusiveness, access remains limited for truly diverse and extraordinary candidates from ‘non-target’ sources. As I have stated before, most companies are still stuck requiring institutional or traditional stamps of approval for employment consideration – They just simply haven’t evolved their concept or understanding what real talent or potential looks like today. This creates false opportunities for most enthusiastic and one-of-a-kind candidates because the emphasis is firmly focused on hiring to a safe and predictable pedigree.
Mirrored Merit: Ineffective interviewer training and a profound lack of understanding of what type of talent the position requires means first level interviewers or recruiters eliminate or pass candidates to the next level of hiring manager based largely on subjective perceptions of candidate quality. Interviewers look for a sense of personal connection|camaraderie, often seeking potential ‘friends’ rather than those with the best actual accomplishments or job-relevant skills. In my circle we refer to this as the “Island Assessment”: this means that a lot of interviewers support candidates with whom they believe they would enjoy being stranded on a deserted island with. Most interviewers define merit intuitively in a way that validates their own and most precious traits and experience [i.e.,extroverts seek extroverts, ambitious seeks ambition, and affluent interviewers prefer candidates with a similar personal pedigree], whether they admit it [or realize it] or not.
Creative Storytelling Trumps Actual Experience|Talent: Many recruiters and hiring managers prefer candidates who tell stories that feature the candidate as the tenacious champion, with ability to tell stories emphasizing personal decisions over fortuitous circumstance. This is preferred, regardless of their ability to translate this great story into actual results and action in the position. The best candidate(s) should be able to display BOTH approaches.
Compensatory Credentials: On a rare occasion we can interact with someone who “gets” us and who finds value in what makes us unique and a likely asset. It’s extremely rare – but sometimes serendipity plays a role in our interactions and we find someone who sees what others would take for granted and brush off as insignificant and they see whatever we possess as a beneficial cultural resource that could support growth in the company and they will champion your candidacy. These career advocates are – in fact – so extremely rare, I can say I haven’t met anyone in the last ten years who truly does anything other than “cast a large net” to collect the safest and most parochial candidates.
And A Fiercely Protected Status Quo
I have – for two years – been speaking to the dangers of functioning within and protecting the status quo in today’s business environments. Surfacing the topic of how counterproductive professional pedigree and elitist requirements are for employment in some companies, I hope to – at least – be the catalyst for dialogs around the inherent problems with the current “talent” system most organizations employ. The current hiring system and candidate journey is extremely costly for both the company and especially the candidate and does not necessarily identify the best potential employee(s) nor is it giving candidates the comfort of believing that the organizational culture is strong or that it values anything other than conformity and monotony.
According to Gallup, 82% of hiring processes don’t pick the right talent
Most people I speak with desire to see a change to the system, whether by targeting a broader, more inclusive, criteria for a stronger pool of talent, involving HR|Talent Acquisition|Hiring Manager’s more deeply in the hiring process and understanding how the open role fits into the vision and strategy of the business, putting less weight on a list of previous employers, and developing more systematic and evidence-based processes for assessing skills, values, and competencies during the hiring process. Passivity and fear of innovation [challenging the status quo] is one barrier; the lack of counterexamples is another. People don’t want to risk failure or a stain to their reputation so – they wait for others to innovate and then attempt to plagiarize [and subsequently bastardize] a new and potentially successful program. Most companies tend to think their hiring practices have worked “okay” so far, so there’s nothing really to fix. It will take tremendous courage on someone’s part to try something different.