Friday, February 23, 2018

Today's HR Hires Mediocrity

Have you ever heard of an exceptional employee who stayed at the same job for ten years? How about for five years? No, remarkable performers shine above the rest and quickly take on bigger challenges. So, why then is it that today's human resource (HR) departments prefer job applicants who have sat at the same desk for long? Why do they display a bias towards mediocrity?
Let's agree on the following: just as performance everywhere can be illustrated with a bell curve, so does performance at work. In a bell curve we see that most participants saturate the middle of the curve. While it isn't nice to call those in the middle "mediocre", the term 'medius' comes from Latin and means middle. In other words, mediocrity is what people in the middle do.
Then, as performance increases to the right of the bell curve, we see very few participants. The higher individual performance is, the smaller the number of participants. Finally, to the left of the middle, we find the opposite. As performance drops, we see that there are fewer and fewer participants.
This matches my empirical experience. As an executive, I found that most people wanted to do a good job at work but couldn't for a reason. I saw that their performance was average when compared to the pool of available workers. Most displayed mediocrity.
If we now ask the proverbial monkey to select employees by flipping coins, we'd find that the company's workforce will display the same characteristics as that of the pool of available workers; the same bell curve with equal performance levels. After years of solving problems at many companies, I have concluded that performance standards are generally equal everywhere. While every company seems to have a couple of great performers, these usually carry the weight for a couple of underperformers. In the meantime, the rest of the employees are not bad, but not good either. The bell curve is similar in most companies. So, being that this is the case, why should organizations have an HR department at all? When HR's performance is no better than chance, why pay for anyone who claims to be specialized on the art of identifying special talent?
There are two main reasons why employees don't perform better. Either they do not have the knowledge or they don't want to use it. It's that simple.
While looking for the knowledge part, most hiring managers place way too much emphasis on identical job experience. They think that the only way to test for the needed technical insight is by matching the posting's title to the candidate's previous job titles. This is the wrong presumption. There are uniquely exceptional candidates who may presently lack some of the necessary knowledge who, as long as they have sufficient brain power, will have no difficulty with any technical aspect of the job. In no time, they will be up and running.
I have often told customer service agents in highly technical industries not to worry about being stumped with difficult inquiries. I assure them that, after a single day of thirty to forty tough calls, they will become experts. Therefore, hiring managers should look for evidence of either the technical insight needed for the position and industry or the brain power to get it. Thus, limiting the search to only those with the same title short-changes the company's chances at placing exceptional performers at every desk in the office. Moreover, looking for resumes sporting the same job title for many years is a sure way to identify candidates who performed at average levels. It certifies that their superiors didn't see any additional potential in them. While this is not the case for all everyone, this is surely the statistical problem with most of them. Yes, some employees worked for bad bosses who could not identify the employee's superior performance levels, but why did the employees stay there if the company didn't match their standards? Where was the fire in the belly they now claim to have?
As for identifying candidates who are willing to use their knowledge on their quest to the land of exceptional performance, the issue requires looking for signs of engagement-with-integrity, with emphasis on integrity. Let me tell you: you get smart people with very low integrity or ethical standards in your company and they will clean the company's bank account. Looking for brain power isn't enough. Any person who fails to have the qualities of engagement and integrity represents an eminent risk to the company. The least they can do is to sit on their hands when asked to take on additional responsibilities. Unfortunately, this is very common in all organizations. Still, it isn't as bad as it could be. Under the worst case scenario, the employee could absolutely sabotage the company. From corporate espionage, to destroying the relationship with key customers, to utter theft, are all possibilities.
Now I ask you, the HR expert, where in a resume or on your online application form do you have a way to identify exceptional candidates? Why is it that your application-filtering process takes the chance of getting rid of the many fantastic candidates who happen to fail some not relevant trait or experience? Yes, I am suggesting that you start by questioning the use of the job posting software you are currently using until you find a way to discern a candidate's technical knowledge, the need brain power and their engagement-with-integrity level. Don't be surprised if your hiring software of choice is letting you down. That would just be as expected; it would be mediocre.
Is it possible to get great employees at every single position? Yes. Read the book Money Ball by Michael Lewis. The book shows how a systemic approach, one not based on luck, can be used to build an exceptionally performing team. Moreover, the book demonstrates that paying more for better talent isn't necessary when the right system is in place. These facts also match with my experience. If I would have let database algorithms pick employees for me, my professional career would have been much less fun. Instead, I looked for those with high brain power and just enough technical insight to get started. I focused on gauging their will to commit while maintaining high integrity at all times. 
But guess what? Following this method is not easy. It requires work. It also forces hiring managers to make better decisions all the time.
No one has ever been fired for hiring an identical match to the job description. That's the safe thing to do. On the other hand, hiring a person from a different industry is scary to many. Not all people are up for the extra work or the pressure to make better decisions. Hiring managers, after all, are no different than the rest. Most are statistically mediocre.

No comments:

Post a Comment