03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Hiring, Don't Let Perfect Drive Out Good (and Innovative)

As the jobless recovery recedes, and more and more jobs need to be filled, what is your organization's risk tolerance?

In a Jan. 10 interview with The New York Times, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh said that at his company, "We really recognize and celebrate each person's individuality, and we want their true personalities to shine in the workplace environment."

Bravo, Tony.

Too often in the past few years, companies have been less and less willing to take risks in hiring profiles. Many executives believe all successful candidates will have scored above a certain threshold on their SATs, attended one small set of top notch schools, earned degrees in one or two select majors, and worked in one of a few pedigreed companies in one relevant industry for at least a certain number of years.

Talk about a loss of imagination.

As a result of failing to take risks in hiring profiles, too many companies - abetted by compliant HR business partners and recruiting staff - have stopped even looking at interesting or innovative candidates, let alone hiring them.

The problem is that hiring profiles that attempt to replicate what was successful in the past don't necessarily provide the skills and qualities needed for the future.

Have you looked at your hiring specs recently? Have you reviewed how many attractive candidates were ignored because their resumes didn't check all the boxes? Is your organization missing candidates whose resumes don't meet all qualifications, but offer other qualities and experiences that potentially bring something special, different or interesting to the mix?

Earlier this week I led a workshop for the leadership team of a large global technology based service organization. The focus of our discussion was identification of the company's "talent brand" - the skills and qualities necessary to consistently satisfy customer needs and attract great new talent to the organization.

As part of our deliberations, I asked, "How many of you wouldn't have been hired by the company today given the hiring specs?" Over half the team raised their hand, including the CEO.

I had a similar experience last year with the leadership team of a large integrated energy company. As with the technology company, the CEO, who is well-respected internally and by the energy community, was one of many executives who acknowledged he probably wouldn't be hired today with the qualifications he presented as a young professional.

Both cases suggest there is something excessively risk averse in hiring practices when a company's best and brightest wouldn't be considered. So, here's another approach.

  1. Don't focus on schools, courses of study, grades or years of experience at pedigreed organizations. They are a bad proxy for the real issue - does this individual has what you need and want. Instead of relying on easy measures, look for the robust indicators of competence and future contribution.
  2. Identify the real qualities required. Many organizational have competency models, but few convert these into clear and specific behavioral indicators. If you are looking for evidence of innovation, say so and be open to a broader range of examples, thus enfranchising a broader application pool.
  3. Break more eggs. Invite a wider range. For example, Wall Street is finding that a good place to look for future stock traders is online poker players. Some management observers are suggesting that programs in anthropology and industrial design are as robust a talent pool for business as the traditional MBA degree. JP Morgan has a program to attract PhD's in math, physics and astronomy. In short, decide that identifying that unexpected star is worth the additional effort.
  4. Build support for casting a larger net. Remind hiring managers and recruiters that some of the best employees and high potentials didn't fit the mold. Ask them to dig deeper to identify the skills, experiences and qualities that they are really looking for.
  5. Finally, think through the talent brand of the company, division or unit. What is the consistent experience you want customers (and/or stakeholders) to have whenever they deal with you, and what does that require in the qualities and skills of employees?

My next post will talk more about talent brands and branding. Meanwhile, is your organization courageous - and open - or cowardly in its hiring practices? Write and let us know your experience.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.