Following are the core principles of the Theory of Hiring. It summarizes how human nature often causes people to make bad career decisions:

  • When the negatives of any job outweigh the positives, people start looking.
  • The magnitude of these differences determines how active people look for new jobs.
  • People accept jobs when the positives outweigh the negatives.
  • Most people overvalue the short-term positives and negatives when changing jobs and, as a result, take jobs for the wrong reasons.
  • Companies reinforce this wrong choice by screening candidates on the wrong criteria, emphasizing the short-term positives and force-fitting people into ill-defined jobs.
  • Few hiring managers fully understand real job needs exacerbating the problem.
  • Few hiring managers want to invest the time necessary to do it right, exacerbating the problem.
  • This collectively leads to the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction, underperformance and turnover.

I’m still blown away by the Gallup Group’s report last month that 68% of the U.S. labor force is disengaged. Since the U.S. private labor force is roughly 160 million people, it means that 108 million people are underperforming. That is pretty shocking.

I’m equally shocked that 95% of the 5 million open jobs in January 2015 still emphasize skills, experiences and personality traits. I contend this is the root cause of why we have 108 million people in the U.S. who are disengaged and another 10-20 million people either unemployed or workforce dropouts.

The Theory of Hiring in a Graphical Nutshell

Last year I wrote a post introducing the job seeker’s 2x2 decision grid shown in the graphic. Simply stated: People leave jobs for the reasons shown in the bottom half of the grid and accept them for those on top. Unfortunately, when comparing and accepting jobs, too many people focus on the short-term extrinsic reasons, both positive and negative shown on the left, instead of the long-term intrinsic reasons shown on the right. More unfortunate, companies set up transactional hiring practices that first filter candidates based on their level of skills and then emphasize the short-term positives (Getting - Day 1) as the criteria for negotiating offers. Since little is known about the real job (Doing – Year 1) and the long-term career opportunity or what motivates the person to excel, the process sets up the “vicious cycle” of disengagement, dissatisfaction and underperformance leading to “Going Nowhere” careers. This is shown by the dotted red line in the graphic as the process repeats itself over and over again until people just give up trying.

To break this cycle, companies need to screen and hire people based on their performance and results, not their skills and experiences, emphasizing what the person will be learning, doing and becoming. This is the “Doing – Year 1” intrinsic positive motivators shown in the upper right quadrant of the grid.

For example, I’m now working with a company helping them rebuild their sales hiring process. The current job description requires 8+ years direct industry experience, excellent communication skills and an aggressive “can do” attitude. On a “Doing – Year 1” basis, this converted to, “Over the course of the first year build a sustainable $2 million annual portfolio of business among 6-8 customers.” Being aggressive is part of this but when I asked where the focus of this “aggressiveness” should be, it took a while for the team to agree on, “Total focus on building a balanced pipeline of enough leads and proposals to generate $500 thousand in quarterly sales.”

Every job can be defined as a series of 6-8 performance objectives like these. By creating these types of performance-based job descriptions it’s possible to hire more highly engaged employees by screening and assessing people based on their past performance and motivation to perform the "Doing – Year 1" work required. Clarifying expectations upfront in this manner has been shown to be the number one driver of employee engagement in Gallup’s Q12 work and in Google’s Project Oxygen study on the characteristics of their strongest managers.

Given this concept, here are some ideas you can try out to minimize the impact of the Theory of Hiring and in the process build a stronger and more highly engaged workforce.

Hiring managers can break the cycle by defining the "Doing – Year 1" actual job, not the person taking the job. For each skill, “must-have” and trait on the job description ask, “What does this look like on the job?” As a minimum start with an action verb, describe the outcome or deliverable and include a rough timeframe. Then pick the top 6-8 and put them in priority order.

Recruiters can increase their mix of passive candidates by engaging in long-term career discussions. Too many recruiters fall into the trap of filtering candidates on skills and selling their open positions with boilerplate, hyperbole and compensation. This is all of the "Getting – Day 1" stuff. Instead it’s better to slow down and sell an exploratory career discussion. As part of this look for differences between the person’s current role and the career growth opportunity inherent in the "Doing – Year 1" job description. The size of this difference, referred to as the opportunity gap, should be the reason for continuing the career discussion.

Job seekers can find better jobs in the hidden job market. For any job seeker who isn’t a perfect fit on skills and experience, I suggest entering through the back door. In the hidden job market people are evaluated on their past performance and future potential. Even better: jobs tend to be adjusted to better meet their "Doing – Year 1" career needs.

I don’t know if the Theory of Hiring will ever be broken, especially the continuing and misguided emphasis on skills, experience and "Getting - Day 1" criteria. Regardless, to break the vicious cycle it's certainly worth an attempt. You might even discover it works.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. His new video programprovides job seekers inside secrets on what it takes to get a job in the hidden job market.