Four Counterintuitive Rules For Making Smarter Hires In 2017

Time to stop reviewing resumes? One expert explains why past performance is a bad predictor of success.

Four Counterintuitive Rules For Making Smarter Hires In 2017
[Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]

In theory, hiring new people should be exciting. In practice, it rarely is. As you kick off the new year, there may be some open positions you’re looking to fill. In an ideal world, the hires you’ll make in 2017 will upgrade your talent pool, inject fresh blood and new energy to your team, and address a skills gap in your organization. More likely, you’ll settle for someone capable but not outstanding, or possibly a second- or third-choice candidate–that is, unless you do something about it.


Here are a few ways to change up your approach and make smarter, more effective hires in the year ahead.

1. Hire Slow (And More Scientifically), Fire Fast

A recent industry report suggested that even the most successful companies in the world are dissatisfied with their talent identification processes.

This is unfortunate. If you can’t get the right people into the right roles, it will be harder to motivate them, more expensive to train them, and a challenge to retain them–not to mention tough to get rid of them if you need to. The lesson is therefore clear: Bad hires are costly, so you should take recruitment seriously. Hire slow and fire fast, not the other way around.

While the science of personnel selection is robust and well established, it’s rarely applied. Most companies play it by ear or follow untested recipes, or even methods that are known to be inadequate. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the typical job interview, which tends to be unstructured and is therefore a poor indicator of potential. Likewise, resumes and recommendation letters are only weakly related to future job performance, particularly when the role or organizational culture changes.

Many recruiters and hiring managers are reluctant to adopt more scientific methods, imagining their roles involve as least as much art as science. But the body of research has been growing for decades, and tools like reliable psychometric tests or well-designed structured interviews can be powerful predictors of future performance. Still, they’re rarely deployed in the selection process.

2. Focus On Potential, Not Performance

It’s tempting to evaluate people based on their past achievements, but performance often doesn’t always let hiring managers generalize from one context to another.


Unfortunately, people are often hired because of their resumes, yet what matters most isn’t what a candidate has already accomplished but the qualities that have led to those accomplishments–particularly when they’re likely to drive high levels of performance in the future. What people have done in the past may be the closest-to-hand evidence for what they can do in the present, but it’s probably less reliable than you might imagine.

This is especially true when it comes to assessing young candidates whose past job experience is limited. Moreover, if you’re looking to invest in someone who can become a future leader–who will ultimately build and maintain a high-performing team–their individual performance is of limited use. Many candidates will be great individual contributors but fail to do well as managers or leaders. By the same token, some people may be average individual contributors but excellent managers, thanks to their ability to engage and develop others.

All this means it’s crucial in the year ahead for hiring managers to de-emphasize past performance and look for some new ways to test current competencies.

3. Pare Down Your Criteria

Smart people working in large organizations have a phenomenal capacity for making simple things complex, especially in their hiring practices.

Big companies tend to spend a great deal of time and money coming up with extensive “competency models,” highlighting the key attributes they look for in new employees. These models are rarely original–a camel is a horse designed by a committee–and they’re often too complex to be adopted by most hiring managers, who need a simple but solid guideline.

To paraphrase Karl Popper, models can be accurate or useful, but they’re rarely both. As my own firm’s scientific review of the hiring field has shown, the raw ingredients of potential always come down to three things: ability, likability, and drive. Everything else is window-dressing.


So whether you’re hiring sales reps or software developers, you want them to have curiosity and a decently high IQ, high emotional intelligence, and ambition. Of course, the level of each will vary according to the job, and so does the importance of each of these three components from one role to another. But the basic puzzle pieces are the same everywhere.

That means there’s really no need to complicate things further. When a candidate gets high marks in all three categories, they will almost certainly perform well. With two out of three, they will probably be about average. With one out of three, there’s likely to be some sort of liability, or else you’ll just end up spending a lot of money to develop them. Because when selection falls short, training and development costs invariably follow.

4. Look Past Strengths

HR professionals have largely bought into the idea that someone’s potential rests on their innate strengths. But this feel-good suggestion isn’t just misguided; some researchers suggest it’s likely to harm your organization. Even the most talented and productive people have downsides to their personalities, and ignoring these less-desirable elements can get them and others into trouble.

Regardless of how talented someone is, they can only develop new strengths by identifying their weaknesses, a word that’s rarely used in mainstream HR circles, where flaws are often referred to as “developmental opportunities.” The truth is we all have both strengths and weaknesses, and when you’re vetting a job candidate you need to screen for both. Otherwise you’ll end up with only an incomplete picture of who they are.

In other words, talking about someone’s “potential” is too often a lopsided conversation, overly focused on their potential to do good, rather than their potential to do harm. In reality, potential has a bright side and a dark side, and the best hires will simply have more of the former than the latter. So don’t just explore the relative drawbacks to hiring a certain candidate, or ask, “What do you consider your biggest weakness?” in an interview and leave it at that. Try to get a good handle on the negative elements on of a candidate’s personality–the things that can’t exactly be “developed”–and make sure you can work well with those, too.

Here’s the thing, by way of closing: None of these suggestions are all that new. But as 2017 gets underway, there are still plenty of organizations that haven’t even begun to consider taking them on board. The costs of that are pretty clear, and the businesses that wise up first will gain the biggest leads over competitors in the ever-tightening race for talent.