Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has a lot to teach when it comes to hiring the right employees.


Even if you're not in total agreement, most of us heard about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in Psychology 101 class. In a 1943 paper, Abraham Maslow suggested that people make fundamental and predictable decisions based on different behavioral needs. These needs range from primitive, e.g., requiring water or food, to being completely fulfilled. He separated these states into five distinct levels and referred to them collectively as a hierarchy of needs.

According to Maslow's hierarchy, a person couldn't move to a higher level unless the needs of the lower level were satisfied first.


When it comes to hiring, the theory suggests that job candidates jobs are likely motivated to work to fulfill one of three core needs: economic, social or achievement. The problem is that while companies all want to hire those with the need to achieve, they only consider those who first have an economic need to apply, and second, those among this group who possess some arbitrary list of skills,  experiences and personality traits.

It seems to me that this bottoms-up process is why companies can't hire stronger people.

Consider that a person who is unemployed or underemployed seeks a new job primarily for monetary reasons, with the actual work less important. This is the economic need in action. The second motivating need is team-driven. Many people leave companies due to lack of a supportive manager or an inability to develop personal relationships with co-workers. They also accept jobs for these very same reasons. The third job-seeking driver is career growth. Those with an achievement need leave when this is missing and won't accept another job without it.

Knowing what underlying need is driving your candidate to look for another job is essential if you want to find and hire the right people for the right reasons. For example, a passive candidate who is not looking might be enticed to explore a situation if it offered significant upside potential and growth. On the other hand, if the candidate is driven by a short-term economic need, the person will likely be less discriminating and take a position primarily for the salary and benefits.

The problem is  that once these lower order economic needs are filled, dissatisfaction with the work itself will quickly follow.

To get yourself out of this self-defeating dilemma, you'll need to redesign your hiring process from a top-down Maslow perspective. Here's how to get started:

1. Stop using skills-infested job descriptions for advertising, screening and selection.

Recognize that a list of skills, experiences and academic requirements is not a job description, it's a person description. Using traditional job descriptions eliminates all of the good people who can do the work exceptionally well, but have a different mix of skills and experiences. It even eliminates all of the best people who have the skills, but don't want to take a lateral transfer.

2. Prepare performance-based job descriptions to replace traditional job descriptions.

Clarify the performance expectations of the job by defining what a person would need to do to be considered a top performer, not what a person needs to have in terms of skills. Here's a full description of how to implement this critical step. This is the information achievement-motivated people need to know before they'll even engage in a serious career discussion. Here's a sample job posting emphasizing performance over skills. The response was overwhelming.

3. Offer career opportunities, not lateral transfers.

The difference between what you need done and what the person has already accomplished represents a career move. If the gap is too wide, the person is too light. And if the difference is not wide enough, the person is too strong. You can use the "most significant accomplishment" question to make sure the gap is just right.

4. Learn to slow dance.

If your hiring processes are designed to fill positions as quickly as possible with the best person who applies, you won't find many people with an achievement need. People with an achievement need require more time to fully evaluate the career potential of any job switch. That's why slow dancing is so important. Here are the basic steps.

5. Close on career growth, not compensation maximization.

Before negotiating an offer, I ignore the compensation and ask the potential hire if they really want the job. If the answer is yes, I then ask why. If they can't convince me they fully appreciate the career value of the job, they won't be able to convince anyone else either. These are the people who are likely to take counter-offers or be lured by the biggest comp increase.

While the logic of all this can't be disputed, some naysayers in your HR department will claim non-compliance. In this case, send them this white paper by one of the top labor attorneys in the U.S. It's part of the validation study we prepared for The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired. Bottom line, if you want to see and hire more people driven by the achievement need, don't try to attract them with lateral transfers or screen them out on their economic need and the possession of skills and experience that don't predict performance.

You don't need to invoke Maslow to reach this logical conclusion, but it might help.