08/13/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

The Job Search Risk Factor

Where does risk figure in the search for work? In hiring?

Do a Google search for "Why wasn't I hired?" and you'll get back 96,700,000 hits. What percentage of all those reasons for NOT being hired do you suppose could be traced back to risk? Now take your own personal situation. Whether you are hiring or looking to be hired. What if you had better managed risk? Would something have changed?

Risk isn't talked about much among job seekers or career development professionals. There are no best selling books titled, "Reduce Risk & Get Hired." But risk is like an underground river connecting all those who search for an answer to "why wasn't I hired?" Along the shores of that river might be road signs that say: ageism, sexism, racism, too much or too little experience. But the name of the river is Risk.

From a hiring perspective, the way risk is managed can vary tremendously. Top performing search and talent professionals manage risk with a deft hand. Getting at the sources behind the risk, balancing the risk with applicant talent and "fit" for the role. Presenting a pool of candidates to the hiring manager with varying degrees of risk and reward potential. Less sophisticated hiring operations, often feeling the pressures of time or volume, might resort to more blunt measures like listing a maximum number of years of required experience as a criteria. Perhaps to guard against overqualified applicants? Or is the real reason to eliminate an older worker? The lack of clarity allows for either rationale. But the issue is risk.

A larger institutional risk might also play a part in a hiring decision. For example, a client I was working with to help land a job at a prestigious global firm was evaluated by a seasoned retained search consultant as being a potential fit for the role. The search consultant made the decision that because the talent and fit for the role was so strong, he'd pass along my client's name as part of the pool to the internal HR group even though my client did not have the graduate degree called for in the job spec.

The judgment of the internal HR group was that even speaking with a client who did not have the graduate degree was too risky. Talent and fit were trumped by risk.

So with risk playing a role for the job seeker, the hiring authority and the institution, what's the proper course for managing risk? Certainly a 'one size fits all' cheap answer won't work. Not with risk peeking its little head out of so very many of those 97 million plus reasons why someone, maybe even the right person, isn't getting hired. Risk can't be easily tossed into buckets of GOOD or EVIL. So you can't just say, More Risk! Or Less Risk!

Perhaps the place to start is to make risk part of the conversation.

For the job applicant suspecting, for example, ageism, the helpful questions might be, "Am I seen as a risk? And what can I do about that?"

To support that applicant, career coaches could go beyond the mechanics of self presentation and bring the topic of risk into their coaching conversations.

For the talent manager or search professional, the self reflection comes with the very simple, yet perhaps not often considered question, "How and where do I prioritize risk when I do a search?" The first answer to that will likely be, "depends of the client." But the deeper question is, " What's my tolerance for risk?

Institutional risk will encompass the entire culture of the company. A much longer conversation. So applying a wide angle lens across the full spectrum of an organization needs a place to start. One such place is the distinction between a transaction and a transformation . Every operation is built on transactions. Be they sales closed, apps developed, or hires completed. Transactional thinking is disciplined, efficient, and absolutely essential to what happens every day in every organization. The challenge is that transformational thinking also has a rightful seat at the organizational table. Transformational thinking is marked by the question, "How do we do something better, faster or cheaper?"

In terms of hiring, inherent in that tension between what happens every day and what could happen is the simple question, "Just how much risk do we want to take when we hire?" We might think we want bold, new innovative people. But do we really?

Bold and innovative sounds good. But it also sounds risky. Which is why that conversation on risk is so essential.

So whether you are looking for work, coaching the job applicant, hiring or leading the company, you have one common question. A question to start your conversation on The Job Search Risk Factor.

What does risk mean to me?