An increasingly heard complaint in the business world today is the “tightness” of the talent pool. Organizations are routinely reporting they simply cannot find job candidates with the appropriate skills to fill the jobs they have. Although I have no data to counter this assessment, I do suspect the way businesses select and hire employees is a more significant factor to their belief that “the right people aren’t out there”. Not only that, but these same biases are also likely a factor in the lack of diversity within many roles in corporate America. Let me explain . . .
Job Posting Bias
The most significant factor contributing to the belief that there is a lack of talent, is the innate bias in the hiring process starting with the job posting. By this, I mean organizations go to great lengths to detail and explicate the exact skills, knowledge, and experience they require to even be considered for a position. However, this list of requirements can be flawed in a number of ways.
First, the list of skills believed to be necessary to fulfill the role are normally based, not on explicit job-task analysis or empirical study, but the beliefs and assumptions of those already in the job. Although these “experts” are likely to have valuable insights, they are biased in several ways. First, and foremost, experts are notoriously unable to accurately identify the characteristics necessary for their own success, let alone someone else’s. Expertise is derived through the application of tacit knowledge, which by its very definition cannot be articulated. Second, successful practitioners may be biased towards the skills that helped them be successful, while discounting skills and knowledge they do not have. Finally, this list of skills often becomes an ultimate “wish list”, rather than minimum requirements presenting a list of capabilities far beyond what many people would achieve in a lifetime. This has been shown to be a barrier for applicants, particularly for women and minorities who are less cavalier in representing or exaggerating their past experience compared to white males. In other words, the jobs being posted are often skewed towards maintaining the status quo, leading to another job posting bias.
The second bias in job postings is they are almost always created for the job as it always has been, rather than for the job the company really needs; it is based on status quo, rather than for the future. This is particularly dangerous in a time when organizations are going through significant change, from organizational models all the way down to basic business models; and, this doesn’t even begin to account for the significant changes in society or employment patterns. The skills and knowledge required to adjust to new ways of doing business, new social standards, and new technologies are unlikely to be the same as those needed previously. Even the velocity of change in today’s business environment necessitates new perspectives on organizational culture, risk tolerance, and business strategy. Hiring new talent based on the old models, rather than looking for the new skills and knowledge needed, not only limits the candidate pool (both in size, and in diversity), it is also detrimental to the business in the long-run.
From the get-go, the hiring process can be significantly biased, creating the illusion that candidates simply don’t exist when there are plenty of talented people simply not being engaged with.
The Hiring Bias
During the hiring process, these same biases continue to pervade. While many applicants have already been dissuaded from even applying, those that do apply are either rejected because they don’t meet the staid job requirements, or because biases are prevalent within the actual hiring process. These biases come from many angles, from misconceptions to the inability to accurately evaluate subjective experience.
One common bias is the persistent belief that “management” and “leadership” are not actual jobs, but personal capabilities or characteristics. A seasoned engineer, with no management experience or education, is often hired to manage other engineers because it is believed the engineering capability is more important than the management/leadership capability; yet, it is also well known that expertise in one domain is not directly transferable to another. Being an expert engineer has no more effect on being a competent leader, than being a competent leader makes you an expert engineer; they are two unique and differing roles. Yes, research does suggest that managers are more effective when they understand the work of the people they manage, but experienced and effective leaders are adept at overcoming these challenges and would likely be a better choice regardless of where their experience came from. These misconceptions, based on instinct rather than actual evidence, further constrain the perceived talent pool.
While expertise in one domain may not be directly transferable to another, unrelated domain, there can also be a bias towards believing that no experiential knowledge is transferable between domains. This often arises when organizations have significant indifference to skills/knowledge obtained outside the specific industry or context. For instance, research suggest great similarity in process between highly technical troubleshooting capability and retail customer support capability; while both processes differ in context and discrete knowledge, the basic process of assessment, identification, and resolution of issues is nearly identical. Thus, while not completely transferable, the underlying capabilities are not without value. This hidden value is not only true for many basic capabilities, but can also be a great source of innovation giving new perspectives.
There are also subjective evaluation biases. A common one here often plays out in terms of organizational titles. Someone who currently has a title of “Sr. Director” is more likely to get an interview for a VP role, than someone with simply a “Director” title; and, certainly more likely than someone with a “Manager” title. While these roles are often viewed as quantitative rankings, organizational titles and promotion requirements are rarely equated universally across organizations making them more subjective in nature. As a result, without context, organizational titles can be arbitrary and reflect less about the title owner’s actual capability than they do about the environment in which the title was achieved. This has been empirically demonstrated with GPA rankings, promotion decision making, etc. Furthermore, since it has been shown that even expert evaluators are subject to these biases, it is unlikely that HR recruiters and/or hiring managers are any less susceptible to falling prey to them.
Again, not only do these biases create artificial limits on the “talent pool”, they perpetuate the existing biases of other organizations and their hiring, promotion, and recognition practices.
The Versatilist Perspective
As a practitioner of strategy and innovation, it would be reckless to suggest the continued investment in developing and growing the talent pool is without merit. Since knowledge/skill is the single greatest organizational asset, it is absolutely imperative we continue to find new ways to expand and develop our workforce in every possible way. At the same time, until the board-rooms, executive offices, management ranks, and rank-in-file positions in our organizations reflect the same diversity as the society from which we hire them, it is also reasonable to suggest we may have a problem in our recruitment and hiring practices. Until every employee is utilized to their fullest potential, we cannot simply suggest there isn’t enough “talent” to go around.
Instead of evaluating prospective hires based on what required skills they might not possess, we should also evaluate them based on the skills they do possess that could bring great value to the organization. Does the candidate who has spent years working in social services bring valuable perspective to a technology company? What about the candidate who has worked in retail for 20 years; might they not have value to a digital transformation initiative? Is it easier to teach basic finance skills and understanding or is it easier to teach leadership skills? Perhaps a seasoned leader, without years of finance experience, could bring new ideas to a finance leadership role. Perhaps someone who has spent multiple years in various roles like engineering, sales, marketing, and product management might be more valuable in a leadership role in any of those areas (or an entirely different one) than someone who has simply spent an entire career in one alone.
Let’s do an exercise; a thought experiment if you will. Would you hire me? What would you hire me for? I am not suggesting that I should be hired for any particular role, but the point of this exercise is to start looking beyond the way we do things today in an effort to find the hidden talent that might be sitting right in front of us.
Look at the various jobs available in your organization and ask yourself if you would reasonably consider me for those positions (feel free to check out my LinkedIn profile). If not, I challenge you to ask yourself “why not?” Do I not have the specific experience required? Do I not have the educational requirements? List specifically the reasons I would not be a good fit.
Then I challenge you to do a little thought experiment and look beyond the specific accomplishments and roles, and try to imagine how any of these experiences could bring new insight and value to those roles. Would my technical background bring new insight to the roll? Would social media, marketing, or product management experience be a boon to that job responsibility? What about leadership, personnel development, assessment, data science, strategic innovation? I challenge you to look for the reasons you would hire me in that role rather than not. Look for the positives, instead of the negatives and then compare the two lists.
Now, go back to those job postings and, whether you are the hiring manager or not, think about the people you work with, both internally as well as externally. Think about the people you know socially. If you are the hiring manager, go back to the prospective candidate resumes (all of them, not just the ones curated by recruiting) and look through them again. How many of those people have knowledge, skills, abilities, or experience that could bring interesting value to those jobs? Does their potential value exceed the missing requirements? Are you potentially missing great employees?
As long as we keep throwing away the stones that don’t have gold in them, we will never realize how many of them contained diamonds, or platinum (a precious metal that was once simply discarded). Maybe you are looking for gold, but that doesn’t diminish the value of everything else; value that might exceed what you were looking for in the first place. We don’t lack for talent or diversity in our candidates; we lack the ability to identify and see them for what they are.