Why We Should Banish Job Descriptions and Resumes

As most of you know, I think the continued use of traditional skills-infested job descriptions prevents companies from hiring the best talent available. By default they wind up hiring the best person who applies. That’s the same reason I’m against the indiscriminate use of assessment tests. While these tests are good confirming indicators of on-the-job performance, they’re poor predictors of it (square the correlation coefficient to get a sense of any test’s predictive value). Worse, they filter out everyone who isn’t willing to apply without first talking with someone about the worthiness of the position.

I was blathering on like this recently, when I not only advocated for the scuttling of traditional job descriptions and pre-assessment tests but also made the claim that traditional skills-intensive resumes were equally dangerous, since they also filter out some really good people who might be more competent, but possess a slightly different mix of skills. If the best person who applies for a job is equal to the best person who is available, this is not a problem. However, you need to consider the 80% of fully qualified passive candidates who didn’t apply, diverse candidates of different shapes and sizes, returning military vets, and high-potential candidates who are light on the skills listed when making this quality of hire assessment.

As many of you know (since you attended a recent webcast) as part of my new book I asked a senior attorney at Littler Mendelson (the top U.S. labor law firm) to validate the legal implications of using performance-based job descriptions instead of traditional skills-infested job descriptions. He documented his views in a white paper stating that performance profiles were far superior from an objectivity standpoint, and more than fully compliant.

Of course, if we banish both job descriptions, pre-assessment tests and resumes, what are we left with? Which even I consider a fair question. For the answer, I’ll go back to the first time I proposed the idea to a client more than 30 years ago.

The hiring manager was the VP/Controller of a Los Angeles-based public company. He had given me the search assignment to find a GM for one of its electronic parts distribution divisions. Preparing the performance-based job description was easy, since I have always prepared these for every search I conducted. I just got the hiring team together and asked “what does success look like?” For this position, it was increase gross margins in their core business by 20%, lead the upgrade of the distribution technology, rebuild the national sales team, and set the company up on a course to grow at least 15-20% per year for the next few years.

Then I asked the hiring team for some relief on the “10-15 years direct industry experience, at least five years of direct P&L responsibility, an MBA, deep knowledge of electronics at the component level, strong leadership skills, deep values, strong verbal and written skills, and great interpersonal skills,” if I could find someone who could meet all of the performance objectives. They tepidly agreed, but asked a fair question: how would I assess the person if we didn’t use a resume? I responded that, of course, we’ll use a resume, but we need to read between the lines, focusing more on what the person accomplished with their skills and experiences rather than the absolute level of them.

I then put five S’s on the whiteboard standing for Scope, Scale, Sophistication, Systems, and Staff. The idea was that if a person’s accomplishments were comparable on these five measures then he or she was a viable candidate. The person ultimately hired had managed a team of 200 people, was using state-of-the-art technology to manage his business, was working for a well-known manufacturing and distribution company, and had full P&L responsibility for a profitable and growing business, although a little smaller, but one he turned around. The person didn’t have 10-15 years of direct industry experience, didn’t have an MBA, had limited knowledge of electronics, and I don’t have a clue if his written communications were any better than C+.

The person was extremely successful, and after a few years become the Group VP/GM. None of this would have happened if we used a traditional job description and screened the resume on a list of skills and experience that filter out the best people. This is pretty much the same story on the subsequent 1,000 or so placements my firm made in the next 20 years.

Matching skills and experience written in a poorly thought-out job description to what’s written on a resume never seemed like a great way to start the talent acquisition process. Adding some type of pre-assessment test to further weed out the weak in an attempt to add some level of legitimacy to a flawed process seemed even more incomprehensible. Since we promote people based on their performance, why don’t we hire them the same way? That’s why we should ban descriptions, pre-assessment tests, and resumes whenever the supply of top talent is less than the demand. Which just might be always.

Ban Job Descriptions and Hire Better People

For the past 30 years I’ve been on a kick to ban traditional skills- and experience-based job descriptions. The prime reason: they’re anti-talent and anti-diversity, aside from being terrible predictors of future success.

Some naysayers use the legal angle as their excuse for maintaining the status quo.

To debunk this, I engaged David Goldstein, a preeminent legal authority from Littler Mendelson (the largest U.S. labor law firm) to compare the idea of using a performance-based job description to the traditional job description.

David has agreed to present his findings in a webcast on February 19. (I’ve included a summary of his white paper in one of my recent publications, and we’ll be happy to review his complete white paper upon request.)

A performance-based job description (aka performance profile) describes the work that a person needs to successfully accomplish during the first year on the job. Most jobs can be fully described in 6-8 performance objectives. These are in the form of “complete the detailed project plan for the new automated warehouse in 120 days.” This compares to the more traditional: “Must have 5+ years of logistics and supply chain management experience in high-volume consumer durables, plus 3 years of supervisory experience.”

This comparison alone should be enough to demonstrate to any recruiter the fallacy of using traditional job descriptions for finding and assessing talent. There are about 100+ other articles I’ve written for ERE over the last 10 years describing job descriptions as fundamentally flawed and counterproductive. Here’s are my top six (out of about 20) reasons why:

  1. While some level of skills is important, the “amount” written on a job description is arbitrary, misleading, and capricious. Certainly none were developed via a detailed job analysis. From a commonsense standpoint, it’s obvious if a person can do the work described in the performance profile they have exactly the level of skills needed. It’s what a person does with his or her skills that determines ability, not their absolute level. In fact, a person with the least amount of years of experience and the ability to learn quickly are the top performers who everyone wants to hire. Why would anyone in their right mind want to exclude this people from consideration?
  2. A performance objective that describes the work including the measures of success is equally as objective as some absolute level of skills and experiences. This is the legal aspect David will cover during the webcast. He’ll point out that performance profiles are not only more objective and better predictors of success, but they are also non-discriminatory.
  3. A recruiter who doesn’t know the real job requirements is quickly branded as a gatekeeper by any talented candidate. Knowing the job is essential for a recruiter, at least if they want to find, recruit, assess, and close passive candidates. Hiring managers also treat recruiters without real job knowledge as vendors, box-checkers, and paper-pushers. As a result these recruiters have little influence on who is actually interviewed and ultimately hired.
  4. Traditional job descriptions prevent diversity candidates, high-potential lighter candidates, returning military veterans, and highly qualified people with different but comparable results from being considered. All of these problems are eliminated using performance profiles.
  5. Attitude, cultural fit, team work, organizational skills, drive, and consistency are easy to assess using performance profiles. Measuring these without consideration of the performance requirements for the job and the underlying environment (manager’s style, resources, constraints, challenges, and pace) is an exercise in futility. For proof, consider why all of the competent people who have been hired later underperform.
  6. Top active and passive candidates are not looking for lateral transfers. This is exactly what a list of “must haves” implies. The only differentiator then becomes the compensation package. Using performance profiles as a benchmark, the interview can be used to demonstrate the “opportunity gap” between the candidate’s background and real job needs. This opportunity gap can then be used as a tradeoff for a big compensation increase.

This should be enough to convince anyone why traditional job descriptions should be banned if a company wants to hire more top people, expand their diversity hiring programs, hire some great people who bring a different mix of skills and experiences to the job, and implement a robust military veteran hiring initiative.

Recruiters Must Demand Their Hiring Managers Prepare performance-based Job Descriptions

Since we promote people based on their performance, why don’t we hire them the same way?

My new book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, available as an eBook at Amazon.com, is written for everyone involved in hiring: recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates. This story, and many others like it, inspired me to write the book and articles on ERE, and elsewhere. The technique described as part of the intake meeting helped my win the hearts of my clients and make more placements than I could ever have imagined. It might help you the same way.

Public admission: So there’s no ambiguity, I think the use of skills-infested job descriptions prevent companies from hiring the best people possible. Worse, they prevent good people with the so-called “wrong” mix of skills and experiences from getting the jobs they deserve. I refuse to use them, and in my 25+ years as a full-time recruiter, I never have, and never will. So if you’re doing the hiring, a recruiter helping someone do the hiring, or the one being hired, this story will give you some ideas on how to break free from the misguided and confining reliance on traditional job descriptions.

I was driving up First Street in San Jose just before the holidays and drove past the building of a client from long ago. This was when I was a full-time recruiter and the client was a fast-growing Internet hardware company riding in Cisco’s wake. While Cisco is still around, the client and the recruiter are long gone, but the story is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.

I was introduced to the president through the Chairman, whom I had worked with previously. He believed that our process of creating performance-based job descriptions might be useful for helping the company clarify the role of the new VP of Marketing. The President was none too happy upon my arrival and within a few minutes was letting me have it with both barrels:

What do you know about Internet hardware?

How many VP Marketing positions have you placed in our industry?

Do you even know what you’re doing here?

Then I asked him to tell me a little about the job. This launched another barrage of expletives, and as best as I can remember, said something similar to the following:

I need a BSEE from a top university. In fact, the person should have an MSEE, too. In addition, the person should have at least 5-10 years in the industry plus an MBA from a top school like Stanford, Cal, or Harvard, but not from UCLA (ouch, this hurt, since I got mine there in the John Wooden days).

He ranted on like this for at least another 10 minutes, although it seemed like an hour, describing more “must haves.” Then he threw me another missile. Can you find someone just like this, and how many times have you found people in our industry just like this?” Of course, the answer was no and none, but before answering he burst in again with “I don’t even understand why John wanted me to meet with you.”

Then I calmly suggested that what he was describing was the description of a person, not the description of a job. This drew a momentary pause and with the temporary opening I asked, what’s the most important thing the person you’re hiring for this position needs to do in order for you and the Board to unanimously agree you’ve hired a great person? He hesitated at first, and repeated the list of requirements, but I pushed him again with the same question, suggesting he put the person description in the parking lot and first define on-the-job success.

The president hesitated again, and after a few minutes said something like, “well now that’s a really good question.” And then said:

The person in this role needs to put together a dynamic three-year product road map addressing all product opportunities we have in significant detail. As part of this the person must understand our industry trends, especially what Cisco is doing, and put us in a position to stop playing catch-up. We have about 80 engineers and we want to tap into their expertise, so this product map needs to address what we can develop most efficiently without a heavy investment in new people and new technologies unless absolutely necessary. A rough plan needs to be presented to the Board within 4-6 months.

He then described a few more typical VP Marketing performance objectives to add to the list.

I then asked, if I could find someone who could do this extremely well if they’ve done something reasonably similar in the past, would you at least talk to the person, even though they didn’t have all of the skills and background just described? The President looked at me as if I just landed from another planet, and calmly said, Of course, that’s what I just said.

The moral of this tale: focus on what people need to do, not what they need to have. That’s how you convert a job into a career. Even better: you’ll see and hire more great people!

Epilogue: we placed about eight executives with this firm over the following years until the Internet bubble exploded. Each search started by defining success as described and what the person needed to do. Not surprisingly, if you can prove the person has accomplished something comparable, you’ll discover that the person has the exact level of skills and experiences needed to be successful.

If you’re a person being interviewed for a job, ask everyone you meet the same question: what does the person in this role need to actually do and accomplish in order to be considered successful?

If you’re a recruiter taking the assignment, you must ask the same question before starting every search and follow it up with — would you at least see the person if they had accomplished something similar?

And if you’re the hiring manager, you must know the answer before the question is even asked, at least if you want to hire someone who is actually competent and motivated to do what you need done.

Should You Replace the Incumbent? - Using Performance Profiles for Performance Reviews

I was talking to an old client of mine the other day. He was the CEO of a fast growing manufacturing company in the ‘90s, and now he’s on the board of seven mid-sized companies in Southern California. My firm placed about 10 people on his management team in the company’s heyday. While I don’t do much real executive search anymore, he asked me if I had the script we used then to convert traditional skills-based job descriptions into performance profiles, aka performance-based job descriptions. Many of his companies now need to replace some of their senior executives and he wanted to make sure their CEOs totally understood where the incumbents were falling short, and why they need to hire a new person. He believed this type of weak vs. strong performance comparison would get the hiring executives to move more quickly.

Following is roughly how the discussion went for a CFO position. You can use the same approach to better understand how work should be defined for any type of job, and if the current office holder is performing adequately.

1)    Start by ignoring the job description. Instead, write down 3-4 short action-oriented statements representing what the person actually does on the job. For sales people these are things like: sell industrial components to buyers at OEM manufacturers, and make 20 onsite presentations per month. For a software engineer it could be: write code in HTML5 and Ruby to develop new user interface. For the CFO is was:

      • Upgrade the internal financial reporting focusing on product line profitability
      • Lead the installation of the new SAP ERP system
      • Conduct the investment analysis for two acquisition opportunities

2)    Next review the job description and highlight the essential skills and experience requirements. For the CFO job these were having a CPA and multiple years of financial reporting and budgeting experience. For the highlighted items describe how these skills are actually used on the job starting with an action verb and a description of the task. For the CFO a CPA was needed to coordinate closely with their outside CPA firm from a tax planning standpoint. The budgeting experience was needed to develop real-time financial performance reporting systems. Now add these to the master list of performance objectives developed in the previous step.

3)    Add any sub-tasks, specific problems or challenges, and anything that needs improvement to the master list. You want to make sure all of the critical performance objectives are covered, short- and long-term. Sometimes these are things that need to be done right away, sometimes they’re long-term changes that escape initial notice. For the CFO they were completing the year-end reports, rebuilding the accounting team, and putting together a long-term capital expansion plan.

4)    Take all of the tasks developed above, put them in priority order, and make them more understandable and measurable. Select the most important 5-6 of the performance objectives from the master list. Clarify these key tasks so that they are more specific and measurable. You’ll use these to see how well the incumbent has performed, and if replaced, to see if any potential new hire has the right stuff. In this step you want to capture how long it should take to complete the task, some measure of quality, and attach it to a specific deliverable if possible. For the financial reporting task the performance objective became: within six months prepare in-depth monthly reports highlighting the company’s performance to forecast and plan with specific emphasis on margin problems by product line.

5)    Describe the environment. As part of putting together a performance profile, you’ll want to include some overriding statement describing the company culture, critical business challenges or pressures, resource limitations, and potential managerial or team interface problems. The big ones for the CFO spot were the CEO’s lack of financial insight, the rapid growth of the company, a less than stellar team, and weak systems.

A performance profile prepared this way provides the hiring manager a view of what on-the-job success looks like. With it, it’s a simple matter to rank any incumbent’s current performance against the objectives listed. If an incumbent is found wanting on this comparison, the same performance profile can be used to assess a possible replacement. The key is to ask the candidates to provide specific examples of their accomplishments that are most comparable to each of those listed. Hire With Your Head, and my new book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, provide all the details on how to do this. In addition, my company also offers specific training for hiring managers and recruiters to work together on this process.

It’s pretty obvious you’d never use a skills- and experience-based job description to measure an incumbent’s performance, so why would you use it for a new hire? The idea behind a performance profile is pretty simple – clarify performance expectations upfront and measure a person’s past performance against this same standard. When you do, don’t be surprised that the new people you hire are both competent and motivated to do the actual work required. Even better, they’ll ace their first performance review.

How to Achieve the Recruiting Performance Trifecta of Quality, Cost, and Time

Let me start with three basic points:

Point 1: active candidate recruiting leaves a lot to chance, primarily quality-of-hire and time-to-fill, primarily since hiring managers will procrastinate as long as possible to find their “ideal” candidate. This waiting time is random, unless the supply of top people is greater than the demand, or the manager becomes pressured to decide. Of course, the longer the wait the more the cost.

Point 2: The lack of a correct and agreed upon definition of pre-hire quality adds more randomness, time, wasted effort, and cost to the process. No one uses the job description for measuring quality and we’ve all had hiring managers confidently say “I’ll know the person when I see him.” This is a problem with passive candidate recruiting, too, but it’s more like playing the lottery when you’re only sourcing active candidates.

Point 3: passive candidate recruiting emphasizing direct networking techniques, i.e., calling pre-qualified referred prospects, reduces the time to find prospects to a few days.

How to Achieve the Recruiting Performance Trifecta

With this as background, here’s a basic passive candidate recruiting process that will maximize quality of hire, minimize time to fill, and reduce cost per hire:

1) Get agreement on quality of hire by everyone involved before you start the search. In my search practice, I define it along these three dimensions:

  • The prospect possesses the “achiever” pattern. This indicates the person is in the top-third of his/her job class. While these are different for each job there are many obvious clues on the person’s resume or LinkedIn profile. Some clues include a series of industry or company awards and honors, a work-study fellowship, rapid progressions, special leadership roles, patents, whitepapers, or industry conference speaker.
  • Define on-the-job success up front. We work with managers before starting a search, defining what the person must do to be considered successful. As part of this, convert every competency or “must have” into some measurable task. Prospects then must have a track record of accomplishments comparable to what’s described in these performance profiles.
  • Skills, academics, industry, and experience are subordinated to the above two factors, with the only proviso being that the prospect has “enough” of these to accomplish the tasks listed in the performance profile.

2) Get the hiring manager to agree to have an exploratory phone conversation with every prospect the recruiter recommends. During this 30-40 minute session the hiring manager has three objectives. First, review the prospect’s profile and biggest accomplishments in comparison to the performance profile. Second, describe the job and its importance. Three, if appropriate, offer the prospect an opportunity to interview onsite. The recruiter might need to support this later effort.

These two prerequisites are essential. They put some critical control parameters around quality and time. The exploratory meeting also passes “ownership” of the prospect to the hiring manager. Even more important, when the prospect and hiring manager meet for the first time after the phone call, the impact of first impressions is minimized. Collectively, this reduces time spent on meeting weaker candidates and increases the likelihood good people won’t be eliminated due to improper assessments

In my Golden Rule article on these pages a few weeks ago, I described how to produce a slate of highly-qualified passive prospects in 72 hours using LinkedIn Recruiter, so I won’t repeat them here. However there are some big points worth highlighting again.

  1. While it’s easy to identify possible prospects, this isn’t the objective. With LinkedIn Recruiter this can be done in 30 minutes. Instead, the recruiter must personally contact these people, qualify the person, and get the prospect to agree to the exploratory call.
  2. The only way you’ll make the 72-hour target is if 80% of your outbound calls are to pre-qualified warm leads. This means that most of your 72 hours (i.e., three working days) must be networking calls, not cold calls. There is not a single researcher or sourcer who ever worked in my search firm for more than three months who didn’t become exceptional at this. The Golden Rule article describes how to do this using LinkedIn Recruiter.
  3. Recruiting leaders need to track some metrics to ensure every recruiter/sourcer is hitting their targets. Specifically: warm referrals per call, warm call to cold call ratio, quality-of-prospect per call, hiring manager conversion from exploratory call to onsite interview. These metrics have to be in real time (daily tracking) in order to implement the necessary training and follow-up to ensure the metrics are achieved.

Managing the top of the sourcing-recruiting-hiring funnel this way will go a long way toward achieving the recruiting performance trifecta of maximum quality, minimum time to fill and lowest cost. In future articles I’ll describe how to complete the task of getting these high-quality prospects hired at reasonable compensation levels.

In my mind the key message here is that by engaging hiring managers in the process and defining pre-hire quality, you force hiring managers into a decision-making process, rather than allowing them to endlessly wait for their “ideal” candidate to show up. Shortening the time to fill this way by defining quality also reduces cost, so all of the big three metrics are optimized using the same approach. Recruiters are not let off the hook here, though. Networking is the key to passive candidate recruiting. Calling pre-qualified warm leads is the only way to take the randomness out of the active candidate “post-and-pray” sourcing approach or the “dial for dollars” passive candidate technique used by most corporate recruiters.

From an intellectual standpoint, the real reason all of this works is that you’ve made quality and time the primary drivers of the process, rather than secondary results of other process changes. Too many companies start with reducing cost as their primary emphasis hoping quality and time will improve as a result. This is comparable to a dog chasing its tail. Maybe it’s time to switch dogs.

This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange (www.ere.net). Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.