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The Danger of Playing it Safe When Hiring

Posted by Bob Corlett on March 15, 2010

Hiring can be made more predictable, but it cannot be made safe. Sooner or later you will make a hiring mistake.  You will. You simply cannot avoid it, mistakes happen.   But here is the problem: most managers work far harder to avoid making a hiring mistake than they work to ensure they hire top performers.

A phrase in US News & World Report struck me:  "Einstein, Churchill, and Edison would not make it past Personnel."  They are not bashing HR here, they are simply pointing out that managers are far more likely to make a safe hire than an inspired one.

In a turbulent world, when every new hire counts, when there are no salary dollars to spare, why are so many managers still playing it safe? The evidence has been clear for many years, top performers are a much better value than average employees - even when you pay them more.   Yet most managers still play to avoid losing rather than playing to win. Why?

As Peter Drucker observed: "Culture eats strategy for lunch."

How your organizational culture undermines your efforts to hire top performers

  • Managers know it's really embarrassing to take a risk and hire someone who publicly fails. It might damage their own career, so they soon learn that safe, mediocre hires will not usually make them look bad (unless they build a whole team of them ... but even then, they could perversely appear to be MORE valuable because "nobody here can replace them.")
  • Smart mangers often spread around risk: When you play it safe and only consider nice, "normal" resumes, your boss will usually go along with your nice safe hiring decision, so you feel like you have "political cover" if things don't work out later ("Hey, we both agreed we should hire him.")   But to hire an "out of the box" high-potential employee, managers have to go out on a limb and justify it to their boss. Few people want to stick their neck out like that - they would rather leave a job vacant, and spend another month or so to see "who else is out there." Managers know that if they make a risky hiring decision, the risk of failing is definitely all theirs (see #1), but it's much less clear who gets the credit for the new hire's success. Taking a risk is simply not an attractive bet.
  • Nobody wants to rock the (salary) boat: When you have to stretch your salary budget to afford a top performer, you take another kind of risk. ("Ughh, we have to look at the budget again?  Really?" ) Besides, what will other people say? Doesn't "fairness" dictate that everyone be paid about the same? (Actually no, but that's another matter entirely). The pressure to hire to fit the budget is so overwhelming that few people have the energy to fight it.
  • The risk of success: The "problem" with top performers is that they quickly deliver a lot of results. The savvy manager quickly realizes that  they might have just hired their replacement ... before they wanted to be replaced. Nice, safe, non-threatening hires help managers avoid this "danger." I know from experience that the phrase "That candidate could do my job" is not what managers say when they are about to hire, it's what they say just before they reject someone.

I could go on, but it's depressing. And besides, there is really only one way to keep these internal cultural pressures from driving you to make mediocre hires.

Put. Results. First.

You have to hire people based upon the outcome you want to achieve.

No, I'm not saying you should hire the (somewhat random) list of skills specified in the job description ... far from it.  I call that "copy and paste" hiring - and it's always a bad idea.

No, if you want to hire top performers, you must first understand the specific results you need your new hire to achieve during their first year on the job - you need a Results Description, not a Job Description. Your internal pressures and politics will take a backseat when you hire people based upon their ability to achieve tangible, concrete results within a specific timeframe.

If achieving your goal will require a few more budget dollars, or if achieving your goal will requires that you hire an out-of-the-box candidate, or if some other consideration stands in the way of achieving your goal, well now you can start to negotiate from strength. The manager is no longer a "troublemaker" they are simply surfacing the issues which must be resolved on the path to achieving the goal.   And the manager can claim credit for the success of the initiative.  And that results-based approach to hiring drives fear and mediocrity right out of your hiring process.

Consistent Hiring: Supporting the Hiring Decision and Recruiting Top Performers

Topics: Hiring Process, Top Performer