The Good and the Bad of Rigorous Selection
Why Do We Love Hiring Shenanigans?
Have you ever asked candidates to come in for six, eight, or even ten interviews? Does your culture demand that candidates go through a trial by fire by answering weird questions like those infamous ones Microsoft used to ask about why manhole covers are round or how many eggs it takes to fill up a school bus? These were so well-known that in 2003 William Poundstone published a book about them: “How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle - How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers.” And in 2005, Vicky Oliver published a book called 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions to help interviewees reply to the increasingly bizarre and unrelated questions that recruiters like to throw at them.
Some organizations apply rigorous selection criteria, such as selecting only those who have attended a particular school, achieved a certain grade point average, or worked for a specific company.
And before the pandemic, some organizations required candidates to participate in stressful group activities, dinners, or social events.
Fortunately, many of these methods are no longer practiced as we have learned they do not differentiate the great candidates from the just clever ones nor do they predict performance.
These practices are based on two core beliefs. The first is that by subjecting a candidate to a stressful or unexpected environment, a recruiter or hiring manager can determine the creativity or adaptability of a candidate. The second is that attendance at a particular school or achieving a high grade point average equals someone more intelligent or creative than those who did not.
There is little in the psychological literature that supports these beliefs. A paper written by Robert D. Bretz, Jr. entitled “College Grade Point Average as a Predictor of Adult Success” published in Public Personnel Management Journal (Vol. 18, No 1 Spring 1989) states, “. . .empirical analysis . . . suggests that college GPA is generally a poor predictor of adult work-related achievement.” He goes on to say that, “GPA . . . should not be assumed to be a measure of general intelligence.” And we all know employees whose GPA or academic performance was substandard but who are strong performers. We also know that thousands of employees contribute at high levels that did not have stellar GPAs in college and in many cases may not have even completed college.
Google and many other forms no longer use GPA or school attended as selection criteria. Their own evidence-based research has shown that these do not predict performance or tenure.
Here are four good and bad things about practicing an elitist approach and some reasons why it is so hard not to practice it.
#1: Acceptance rates go up
If you want your candidate acceptance rates to go up, make getting accepted really hard and stressful. We all like to believe that we are special, gifted, or better than others. If we are asked to take some sort of test or go through an initiation process that supposedly selects the best, those who get accepted feel superior to those who do not. This belief, even when not supported by facts, is a motivator for people to accept an offer from you. The more exclusive the choice seems to be, the more rigorous the selection process (regardless of its rationality), the more likely a potential hire is to say yes to your offer.
A book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts carefully and clearly relates story after story about the power of belief in superiority. They conclude the section with these words, “The results are always the same. Severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group.”
#2: Short-term retention may go up, but longer-term retention may go down
Hiring only those with similar social lives, likes and dislikes, language, and academic experience reduces diversity but increases intergroup harmony. But, over time this becomes a limitation. As an employee grows more mature and competes internally against similar people with similar backgrounds, they may feel that their carers are stagnating and decide to move to another organization or start their own business. having a more diverse workforce encourages learning, competition, and internal mobility.
#3: Hiring managers like it because it validates their superiority
Hiring managers are usually enamored of tough interviewing processes and rigorous selection criteria because it supports and underlines their own prejudices and egos. They can boast that they have chosen the most talented or gifted team of employees. Having a rigorous selection process provides a sense of security: If I have the best people working with me, we must be making the right decisions.
#4: Provides a way to discriminate
All real creativity occurs at the edge, at the juxtaposition of opposite ideas and experiences. Unfortunately, rather than creating workplaces full of contradictions and differences where creativity thrives, these practices create a workforce of similar people in thought, attitude, background, education, and belief in their superiority. It seems that the healthiest and most creative workforces would be those where people are assembled almost randomly. In the earliest days of Silicon Valley, for example, the influx of people with widely diverse backgrounds and ideas from all over the world built the semiconductor business and its related businesses.
Ultimately, the best selection is based on clearly defining the problems that need to be solved and the skills and attributes that will most likely solve them. Matching candidates’ competencies and skills to the particular set of activities you need to complete or outcomes that you want to be accomplished is critical.
We can identify these competencies with objective tests, evidence-based research, and properly constructed behavioral interviews.
Whether someone can answer the manhole question, has a GPA of 4.0, or has gone to Harvard makes no difference to potential performance.
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