I was reading this article by Harvard professor Todd Rose on Fast Company, "How Job Descriptions Undermine the Hiring Process." Rose is the author of the new bestseller, The End of Average. He contends skills-based job descriptions don't predict ability, motivation, or performance because the context of the job is not considered. Rose defines context as the underlying circumstances of the job, which includes the critical performance objectives, culture of the company, resources available, and the hiring manager's leadership style.

Rose believes the continued use of these skills and experience-based job descriptions by most companies is misguided and suggests they create an artificial barrier to entry for the best people. The best people are those who can actually do the real work in the real situation but who have a different mix of skills and experiences.

Of course, I personally love Rose's solution: performance-based hiring. This is the approach I've been advocating for more than 30 years. The key: Define the work you need done before defining the skills and experiences a person needs to have to do the work. Skills and experiences are variable -- some people need more, some less. However, as long as you can prove the person is both competent and intrinsically motivated to do the work as described in the context of the actual situation, you will hire a top performer. Just as important, the person's level of skills and experience, whatever they are, will be exactly right.

About a year ago Rose contacted me to discuss this idea, so while I was surprised to find the article on Fast Company, I wasn't surprised about his conclusions. He told me he wanted to describe the impact performance-based hiring can have on hiring stronger people in The End of Average. In the book he demonstrates that society is accelerating its shift to more customized products and services and away from the outdated one-size-fits-all mentality of the 20th century. The shift is evident in fields as diverse as automobile design, education, medicine, TV, shopping, and how your phone and watch can be personalized to meet your whims. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. However, as Rose points out, HR is nowhere to be seen, and in the case of hiring, is still using prehistoric thinking to hire people in the modern age.

In his book and article Rose provides an overview of how performance-based hiring can be a game changer for hiring stronger people. Here's the quick summary:

Rather than describe the person you want, describe the job you want done. When opening a new requisition, define what the person must achieve in terms of performance in order to be considered successful. One example cited in the book is how Callum Negus-Fancey, the CEO of Let's Go Holding in the U.K. (a brand marketing firm), hired an HR leader by defining success as, "implement an HR system from scratch that could meet the needs of a bunch of highly creative out-of-control marketing types." In the article you'll discover how and why he hired a pharmacist for the job.

Convert behaviors, skills, and competencies into outcomes. During our first conversation Rose asked me how I define universal competencies like good communication skills as a performance objective. I suggested that any competency should be defined by determining how it's used in the context of the job. For a customer service rep, good communication skills mean listening to the customer's needs and figuring out a course of action. For an engineer, it's working with product marketing and explaining how design specs need to be modified to meet customer requirements. If you don't have this context, assessing a person's communication skills is based on the interviewer's perceptions and biases. That's how bad hiring decisions are made.

Focus on thinking skills and comparable performance, not identical experience. As part of the interview, it's important to get an example of a comparable accomplishment for each performance objective. To handle any gaps, I also ask candidates how they'd address work they haven't done before, to understand the person's problem-solving, thinking, and planning skills. I refer to this as the Anchor and Visualization questioning pattern, which is a great technique for evaluating leadership and potential.

At the end of our conversation, Rose asked me if I thought the current shortage of talent is attributed to a national skills gaps. "No," I responded, "we have a thinking gap, and we'll continue to have one as long as people are force-fitted into ill-defined jobs." Thank you, Todd, for proving it.

Published on: Jan 26, 2016
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