The Back And Forth: What’s wrong with recruiting in 2017?

Here’s the deal with this: James Ellis (here’s his LinkedIn page) and I got together to discuss recruiting and hiring. It was ideally “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” but it admittedly became a bit more about the latter two concepts. You can find me here, and James at the above link or here on Twitter. This convo happened over email because James is in Chicago and I’m in Texas.

Ted (i.e. me): What do you think is the single-biggest atrocity that modern recruiting seems to allow/permit?

James: The ATS. Besides the fact that most of them look like they were coded in FORTAN in the 1960’s. Besides the fact that they ask you to upload a resume and then ask you to retype the whole thing. Besides the fact that they are generally closed systems that don’t integrate with other HR systems (like, oh, I don’t know, metrics?). Besides the fact that they act like the internet stopped learning new tricks in 2003 (smart forms? AJAX? CSS?).

ATSs are the root of all that sucks in talent acquisition. They calcify thinking around hard-to-change systems. I can imagine the day a company got their first ATS and the recruiters all spent six months looking at it and figuring out what exact processes were needed to leverage it’s power. What were all the steps in hiring and what where all the codes associated to each? Who was responsible for each step? How got access to the system? How much access could they get. They built what they assumed to be a perfect system that reflected their process. But their process changed (as they all do). It was too expensive to re-think from the ground up, so they glommed things onto the existing structure. And then they did it again. And again. It became a the world’s biggest ball of rubber bands, impossible to move or extricate one’s self from. So companies double down and get more embedded in the old ways of thinking.

This is why it takes roughly 18-24 months for an enterprise to switch their ATS. Too much is connected on the back end (and since the prospects don’t get a vote even though they are the primary user), so they never change. That is why when other departments think of HR/TA, the word that comes to mind is “stagnation.” TA is too invested in a core system that never changes and are incentivized to ignore that stagnation. 

Want to see what a modern ATS could look like? See any modern CRM (Salesforce, Zoho, Karma, InStream, or dozens others) and it will look like a spaceship compared to the Model T all TA departments have used as their primary system.

Ted: “The prospects don’t get a vote even though they are the primary user.” That sentence nails it. Imagine if you treated potential customers like we treat candidates. Imagine if we knew the abandonment rate was super-high and did nothing on the customer front. Heads would flippin’ roll. But because it’s a “HR thing,” people tend to care less. Unfortunate, and kind of makes the whole “war for talent” deal you hear CEOs meow about at conferences seem like lip service.

Semi-related: I’d say a major thing is the “hiring manager shuffle.” The hiring manager claims they need someone ASAP, to the point of legitimately bellowing in people’s ears about it. Once they get the headcount, though, they can’t be bothered to do anything that would make the headcount process more effective, including updating the job description, talking to HR about what they want from the role, sketching out where the role could evolve to, etc. It creates an ecosystem where people enter to fill “immediate need” and, seven months later, are twiddling their thumbs. By Month 13, they’re gone. It is a cost — a legit, bottom-line cost — but because it’s hard to see on conventional financial metric scorecards, execs tend to gloss it over. Plus, a lot of the guys who come to run companies believe their product/service is sacrosanct, and anyone could do the work behind it, because the product is so great and elevated above all. 

So I’d say there’s an element of psychology on top of the tech flaws around the ATS. And now let’s volley on another question: for years we’ve overrated hard skills like GPA, even though I’m sure we both know hundreds of people with 3.8s who are utter morons and/or would be bad at a host of different jobs. If we’re overrating traditional metrics and stuff like competence, what should we be evaluating for — and can we measure “soft skills?”

James: Right! In large companies, HR tends to be a way station between other positions. Execs hoping to one day be CMO will spend a year or two in talent acquisition to “learn the ropes.” But that means making a few high-visibility changes to show “progress” and a quick exit before the bill comes due. 

But I agree. Companies have a tendency to over-index on things that can be measured rather than the things that matter. You’ve heard the story of the guy on his hands and knees under a street light. His friend walks past and asked, “What’s going on?” “I lost my house keys.” “You lost them here?” “No, but the light is better over here.”

There are a million reasons why GPA is dumb. How smart were you in college or high school? Didn’t you learn so much about what it means to take work/life seriously once you left? To judge someone’s ability or aptitude by who they were as a 20-year-old makes as much sense as looking at a child’s hand-eye coordination and judging it’s ability to drive a car. They haven’t learned enough yet!

This is all fear-driven. Hiring managers aren’t trained how to hire (or how to evaluate people properly), so they play it safe. Rather than pick the person who seems a little “quirky” who might be able to reinvent the team, they’ll pick the “obvious” choice. They know that one day, there’s a chance that their pick doesn’t work out and the blame falls on them. Without a rigorous training process, they pick the safe one. What they should do is spend time establishing some kind of metric or KPI for what someone who could be successful in the role would look like. In a group interview setting, all the incentives push towards the middle and you get the safe choice every time.

Can you take the fear out of hiring?

Ted: Man, I’d love to see that day. What’s interesting is that for generations, the idea was “The candidate is lying.” Now we live in the supposed Post-Truth Era and the idea is “Maybe the company is lying too.” When there’s falsehoods on both sides, the fear is also everywhere. And on the corporate side, a hiring manager has tons of fear. If they get the wrong employee and KPIs aren’t met, will their ass be on the line?

One thing that kind of irritates me in these discussions on the thought leader side is the so-called Glassdoor Effect. I like Glassdoor and I’ve praised (and flamed!) previous employers on there, for sure. But do I think the concept is “at scale” with a lot of people? No. I don’t know their monthly traffic but I know I’ve run into many a world-builder executive (and/or middle manager) who have no idea that site exists and people are evaluating their workforce (and them!) on that site. So, I’m not sure “The Glassdoor Effect” is as meaningful as we want to believe, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

I guess we should talk about metrics and “analytics” — dare I say “big data?” — around hiring. Ostensibly, more data would make it better, or at least make execs care more about the people side. That said, with the amount of people screeching from the rooftops these days about People Analytics, how far off are we from it? Do we need Boomers and their gut-trusting to retire off before it can really start to escalate?

James: The day before Newton “discovered” gravity, apples were falling to earth at the same speed as they were the day after. Just because an exec doesn’t know Glassdoor is there and what’s happening (and if that’s the case, shame on their talent team for not bringing it up) doesn’t mean the effect isn’t real. Companies with higher reviews have lower hiring costs and generally make a higher return. Assuming we ignore correlation/causation issues, there’s something to the idea that companies in which the employees feel connected to the mission and embrace the companies goals, where they aren’t expected to be a cog 8 hours a day, where they feel like their work is taken seriously, they tend to be better companies over all.

I didn’t want to be the first person to bring up “big data,” so thanks for doing it first. To the idea that metrics can determine that person A is a better hire than person B is crazy. The amount of work to define the role, to structure the relevant data, to build an algorithm that can weigh all the different elements and make a call is science fiction. I mean, what system would suggest that an LSD-taking dropout would be a perfect person to run a company? And if it did, would you listen to it?

I think the issue (especially from the exec side) is that for all the talk about the war for talent, there will never be a true talent drought, at least one big enough for execs to take seriously. Need analysts and you can’t find any? Train them. It will never be hard to find someone with a little math aptitude who will be willing to take a job where they double their market value through education. And until something has a direct impact on the bottom line, until it is clear as day that talent drives the company, you will continue to see those “‘What if we train them and they leave?’ ‘What if we don’t and they stay'” and “Someone who feels appreciated will always do more than is what is expected” graphics littering LinkedIn like passive aggressive cries for help.

Or do you think a day will comes when all those DiSC and Meyers-Briggs assessments can determine if I would be an excellent CEO (I wouldn’t, by the way)?

Ted: Alright, we’ll wrap it up now and see if anything resonates with the world at large, or at least those who troll LinkedIn for various “solutions” to “talent management issues.” The talent drought thing is a true point. If you post any random job opening, it feels like 187 applicants stream in within the first six hours. So clearly there’s not any “talent drought,” even though … well, even though we allow middle managers to consistently yelp about “the skills gap” (not true, as most jobs in a Knowledge Economy based on tech tools can be trained up).

Talent drought is largely a myth. We allow ourselves to discuss it because it feels good (I think), but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t exist. There might be a situation where someone doesn’t know marketing automation, five classical languages, and once worked as a porn star (some job descriptions do sound like this), but they can be trained up — well, at least on the automation and classical languages front. I think the bigger thing we’re both discussing is that work maybe isn’t that hard and if we have more of a commitment to training and development instead of putting people in boxes, we can solve some of the issues we’ve created. Right?

See y’all next time!

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