This is an open letter to HR professionals in Germany. It was first published in German language on the prestigious persoblogger website.
Summer 2013. My fellow students looked intently at the photos of the two men that I had projected onto the screen. I had to prepare a short presentation for a term paper. I decided to do a little experiment instead.
I explained the task to my fellow students:
You are asked to interview a candidate for the position of Finance Director. But you can only choose one of the two. Which one are you inviting and why?”
Three quarters of my classmates chose the gentleman with white hair – and white skin. Only a quarter voted for the man with black hair and “southern complexion”.
The dark-skinned man was Carlos Slim, then the richest man in the world. The white man was the fraudster Bernard L. Madoff.
Is there unconscious racism here? Yes, of course. But that’s not what I’m about now. Is there a sad lack of general education? Yes, also. (None of my fellow students recognized the two gentlemen). But that is not relevant here either.
I have another point to make first. Did you notice?
Not a single one of my classmates questioned the basis of this experiment. Photos are not a suitable selection criterion for a hiring decision. Still, nobody said: “I can’t make a decision like this – what further information can you give me?”
And it is precisely this lack of interest in the quality of one’s own work that makes me so angry at HR managers. For eleven years, highly qualified international professionals have been paying me to help them find work in Germany. My clients even include graduates from Ivy League universities. These people give me money because you are an incompetent recruiter. And that’s a shame. I’d rather be unemployed because you finally do your job right. I can always find something else to do.
Even the symptoms of this incompetence trigger “Fremdschämen” (being ashamed of the actions of others) with me: HR professionals who insist on eight years of experience in software that has only been on the market for three years. Career pages (of not-so-small companies), where all positions from accountant to sales manager contain exactly the same requirements. The head of a human resources department who rejects my client with the words: “I cannot rate this foreign qualification” – my client had a master’s degree from Cambridge University. Recruiters who greet my clients at the interview with the words: “We have no intention of hiring anyone. We just wanted to get to know you.” And my client took the train for eight hours. And even in this day and age: The HR manager of a large housing cooperative, who tells me over a glass of wine that she can tell from the application photo who she is inviting and who not.
I don’t have to tell you this. You know enough examples of unprofessional behaviour yourself. Some of you only need to open your last sent email to find another example.
You notice: I don’t like HR. To be more precise: I just don’t like unprofessional HR managers, but unfortunately I hardly ever experience others.
I want to talk to you about how recruiters can make better decisions, while being fairer to qualified candidates and at the same time infuse their own careers with new life.
There is a common root for all of the above embarrassments: recruiters don’t know why they are doing something.
I’ve spoken to well over a thousand recruiters over the years. Only a handful could answer these simple questions for me:
In each position there is a whole set of outcomes that need to be achieved. But not all are equally important.
- What is the most important result that a new employee in this position must achieve?
- Why is this result so important?
- What percentage (estimated) does this result contribute to the overall success?
- What is the most important problem that the new colleague should solve for you?
- Why is this issue so important?
If you think back to colleagues who have previously worked in this position: who was the best in this position? What did she/he do differently than the others? (She must have done something differently or she wouldn’t be the best.)
These questions are fundamental. Only when these have been answered is it worth thinking about qualifications, level of experience and the like. What goal does the head of department want to achieve with this position?
Those who answer these questions usually recognize a few simple truths:
First: 80% of success is decided on just two or three essential points.
Second, the ability to achieve these concrete successes depends on skills that can also be found in other professions or industries.
Third, the remaining 20% comes from skills that can either be compensated for or left out in a pinch. (No candidate is ever “perfect”. There always has to be a compromise somewhere.)
If you understand the desired results, you can search for candidates in a completely different way. Just explain to candidates what exactly the goal is and why it is important. And leave it to the candidate to describe exactly how s/he has achieved such a goal for other employers in the past. Insist that candidates describe specifically how they achieved those results. You will soon notice: bullshitters unmask themselves in no time with vague formulations and generalities. Professionals describe concretely and specifically. Then you will have the wonderful experience that your pool of candidates is much larger than you initially thought.
People from other industries, young people, older people or (God forbid!) women of childbearing age prove through their concrete professional experiences that they are able to deliver the desired results. The results that account for 80 percent of success. And yes: You can also invite candidates to interview in English, if they explain plausibly how they achieve the two or three most important goals while learning German.
I would like to hammer this point into your brain: Two or three points account for 80 percent of success. This is the case with almost every position. If a candidate can achieve these goals, then it is worth interviewing. And then I hope I won’t see a HR manager reject my coaching client, who is a French B2B sales professional, on the assumption that fluent German is necessary in order to sell tires to companies in France in “cold calls”. (The company where this lady headed HR later went bankrupt.)
Unfortunately, this important first step does not take place. You don’t even know what you’re looking for. But since you still have to decide who gets interviewed and who doesn’t, you try to hire an exact clone of the last person to hold that position. And when in doubt, that was a white German man in his mid-30s.
And yes: I know the excuses. You have 30 or 40 positions to fill. The department heads don’t want to invest any time and constantly brush you off.
Can I ask you a question? How do you see your own position? Are you a professional – or a handyman?
Professionals analyse the required result and then, based on their training and experience, select the appropriate means to achieve the desired goal safely and efficiently. Professionals know exactly what resources are needed – and if they don’t get them then they raise hell! They are not afraid of confrontation with others where necessary. Because your good reputation depends on the quality of your work.
Then there is another group of workers. The ones who just do what they’re told. They don’t care if the job is done well, bad or done at all.. These are the people who carry the stones on the construction site.
What do you want to be?
A handyman or a professional?