Kicking It Old School

There is an email that occasionally makes the circuit in the HR community.  The content of this email is an amusing excerpt from a transportation magazine article in the 1940’s entitled Guide to Hiring Women. But the point of this forwarded email isn’t about how atrocious the recruiting practices of women were in the 1940’s, but rather to challenge its readers (recruiters, HR professionals) to think about the current practices in our teams and departments that will be reviewed 50 years later by our 3rd generation successors and will cause them to blurb, “you did what?”  What practices today are generally prescribed as standard practice (albeit not necessarily best practice) that will be looked at in the future as a great you-sh*ting-be-kidding-me story from the past.

Well a reflection of our profession in my head yielded and immediate and passionate response – STAFFING.  Yep, the way we recruit and select people who work in our companies.  After all, how much has this process really changed aside from the slight modifications in the questions that either can’t be asked legally or those questions that are now asked in intriguing new ways? (check out behavioral interviewing techniques and brain teaser questions for some of the latest twists on how to gain revealing insight from applicants.)

The recruitment practices of today are destined to be the obvious dinosaurs of HR in 50 years.  Heck, maybe even in 10 years.  Why, you say?  Let me start by exaggerating slightly the current practice employed by most companies large and small, simple and complex, global or local.

  1. We post a job – how and where you do this has changed since the 40’s the essence of this step is exactly the same.  Hey, we want to hire someone with these skills and attributes.
  2. We collect and sort the applicants – into the have and have not based on their skills.  Oh, and this analysis is enabled via a one or two page piece of paper authored by the applicant, for the applicant, for the sole purpose of obtaining employment. We said we wanted someone with strong technical and interpersonal skills and miraculously most applicants have stated on their resume that they have that.  Whew, that’s a relief.
  3. We interview – bringing the best candidates in to confirm these skills and attributes via what we call an interview.  The interview isn’t actual indicative of the actual job they will be doing, it’s just a person or persons asking questions to the applicant for an hour or two.  Do you know how to design hydraulic pumps?  “Yes”, well ok then.  And if the company is really sophisticated then this interview process is reinforced by utilizing multiple professionals who ask questions, rather than just one or two.   And surely they will use behaviorally-based questions like “tell me about a time when you … and how you dealt with that”.  Oh, and these questions are the same regardless of position applied for and the right answers are freely available to anyone who has access to the internet.
  4. We ask for references – References are three people who the applicant knows that can vouch for their success and accomplishments.  Generally they need to have actually worked with the applicant, but this isn’t a mandate.  And guess what – when we contact these people they tell us how good this person really is and that they would love to work with them again.  So we ensure that the applicant has at least three friends.  Interpersonally savvy?  Check.

Then we hire them.  It’s that simple.

So you hire a programmer without actually making them do any programming?  Yep.

You hire a sales person without actually seeing if they can sell?  Yes, that’s right.

And that marketing professional you have to handle your company communications and branding, you hired them without seeing any of their actual work? Bingo.

Did you hear the snickering and roar of laughter from those in the working world in 2060?  I did.  Now I’m exaggerating to make a point.  But not too much.

As HR leaders we need to be challenging ourselves by challenging our applicants to show us real job related skills.  Have them present on a real work challenge they will face in the role, create a probationary period so you can see how they actually perform, or at least come up with some pre-employment assessments that are legal and more predictive of success in our key roles.  And I’m not suggesting we quit interviewing.  I’m just suggesting it should be a data point in the process, not THE process.  In short, build a portfolio of more sophisticated selection tools that will evolve and improve our selection success percentages.

We all know what recruiting costs.  And we all know the cost of a vacant position.  The best recruiter in the world employing the age-old techniques above will make the right hire what percent of the time?  80%, 90%? That’s pretty good, but it could be a lot better.

That is, if we aren’t giving him the recruitment equivalent of a buggy whip to make the horses in his Ford run faster.

FOT Background Check

Guest: Ed Baldwin
Ed Baldwin is a career HR front man who’s advised and consulted with business owners and the C-suite on developing great cultures and inspiring work environments since the profession was called "personnel." Yeah, that makes him seasoned but also pretty quick to call out the fluffy HR theoretical crap from HR strategies that actually work – so don’t even bring that here. His versatility has taken him all over the world continually acquiring knowledge of how to build a great company through great HR practice, learning mostly from real world experience and his own mistakes. Reach out to him at


  1. KD says:


    “So you hire a programmer without actually making them do any programming? Yep. You hire a sales person without actually seeing if they can sell? Yes, that’s right. And that marketing professional you have to handle your company communications and branding, you hired them without seeing any of their actual work? Bingo.”

    One of the best practices I’ve every heard but most are afraid to ask for in a finalist is to pay them to do work for you to verify. Not sure why we wouldn’t spend a couple hundred bucks to do that with a finalist.

    Nice post Ed –


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  2. Ben Martinez says:

    Good stuff Ed.

    It starts with recruiters (internal or external). Does anyone understand recruiter behavior? I don’t, but I know they love to close deals. That’s how they get paid OR how they get work off their plate. I agree we should not quit interviewing. Instead just place less emphasis on it.

    KD–I like the idea of paying them for work to verify it, but many already do this via temp to hires…

    I would like to see more emphasis placed on the recommendations part, but let’s not turn it into political country club bullshit games. Once a candidate gives you a name of a reference, go meet the reference. Find out if they are any good. Find out WHY they want to recommend their colleauge. Birds in a feather flock together…

    Another problem with “the reference check” is that it’s done by some 3rd party admin who does not care about the hire. Have the hiring manager or recruiter go meet these people who recommend them. Maybe Yahoo should have done more of this with their ex-CEO.

    Lastly, the problem with the suggestions above (i.e., sample of work & reference checks) is that it will slow down the process, but improve the quality. Go slow. Get better hires. Go fast. Risk getting bad hires. Which option does your client want?

  3. Ed says:

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    One of my struggles with the selection processes most of us are tied to is the formality we insist on, and how this dilutes the selection process’ effectiveness. If you are going to do references, dig deeper and call prior supervisors or others you know from past employers, not just the names the applicant provides.

    The “test drive” that KD mentions also deserves a revival, but needs to be customized to the role and job the applicant will actually be doing. Going beyond the formality of the selection process takes work and may slow the process down slightly (most of the slowdowns I’ve observed can be attributed to inaction rather than customization) but my experience would suggest the pros of doing so significantly outweigh the cons.

    Oh, and if you do the formal stuff well you won’t end up with a con-vict either!

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