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Learn the benefits of a data driven recruitment strategy

Discussing 'hiring for attitude' recently with a newspaper editor, she said the best journalists she had worked with during 27 years in the business were several high-school dropouts, a banker, a philosopher, a biologist, a lawyer, a barmaid and an ex-convict.

Only a handful of people with journalism degrees over the years had ever passed muster and during a recruitment cycle a couple of years ago, nine graduates with various PhDs had failed a simple news writing task they were set following their interviews. Could they get to the crux of a story from a jumble of facts and string it together in a coherent sentence? Apparently not.  

Tired of wasting precious hours she would never get back, the next time there was a vacancy, the paper put out an ad specifying the exact nature of the job and the skill-set needed, without asking for any qualifications. From 100 or so candidates in the previous recruitment drive, this time there was not a single applicant.

It was an eye-opening experiment as the ad was carefully structured and so specific that it could only have attracted someone who was truly interested in the job, who felt they could do it and who would fit the particular workplace culture, no qualifications needed. The editor's response to the lack of interest was that in addition to saving a lot of time and effort: 'in this business, it's better to hire no one, than the wrong someone'. Would that everyone had that luxury.

Undoubtedly this was a fairly familiar tale albeit on a miniscule scale compared with organisations that must filter thousands of applicants. But this lofty approach would be of no use to an organisation in a desperate do-or-die situation if their business depended on it. At that point it's a matter of putting bums on seats as quickly, efficiently and as cheaply as possible.

For this, automation is a godsend, especially where qualifications are an absolute must. Automated recruitment systems are the only way to knock off unqualified applicants as a flying start. But there are also hundreds of roles that people might be great at that don't necessarily need specific qualifications and where the right attitude might be worth far more with a little skills training on the job.

These days having a degree is not nearly as special as it used to be, yet is a prerequisite for almost everything. There are successful people who never went to university in professions that today they could not enter because their resumes would end up in a computer’s recycle bin or even a real bin if glanced at by a busy recruiter, just because the qualifications box was blank. Yet, with two clicks you can find a dozen billionaires online who are high-school dropouts. Our non-qualified newspaper editor, when she was chief reporter, for years watched her then boss throw away the resumes of people without degrees, often thought how he would never have hired her had he been there at the time, and now has his job.

So how do you prevent potential bright sparks falling through the cracks just because 'computer says no'? The bottom line is you can't, at least until AI recruitment systems utilising people analytics are further developed to see beyond the requisite keywords by sweeping social media and the web for data patterns based on online activity and that can predict future behaviour from past behaviours... and that's not all that far off. A computer programme is really only as good as what it is programmed to do, and it's worth bearing in mind that right now many candidates know the 'in words' to use to get picked up by an ATS while other good applicants may not. 

A senior manager who was watching his daughter apply for a holiday job in McDonald's using an online application form, decided to have a go himself just for laughs. He was rejected. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic for McDonalds' online recruitment system, but it was vice versa for the particular applicant.

A word of caution however on the buzz surrounding the current 'hiring for attitude' mania. There are millions of pleasant friendly characters out there but that doesn't mean every smiley candidate with or without qualifications can do the job either. Case in point. During a guilty-pleasure binge watch of that airport TV show about easyJet, I was struck by the impressive can-do attitude of a particular customer-service job applicant, as was the airline. But she completely flopped in the field during training.

With all these different factors at play, recruiters have their work cut out for them at a time when they are under pressure to hire faster, cut costs and come up with the perfect hire.

Logically what's needed to start any recruitment drive is a carefully crafted job ad that spells out not just qualifications, but skills and personal attributes, plus expectations. Be specific and avoid industry jargon. Ads should include some details about workplace culture and if a job involves unsociable hours occasionally, say so. For starters, clockwatchers will run a mile. Leaving out such prerequisites at the start is a recipe for more candidates resulting longer screening time, and possibly a bad hire that will end up costing more in the long run.

The more information a candidate has, the more they can see whether they could do the job or whether the culture would suit them, or indeed whether they want either. That’s only fair for both sides. Being realistic about expectations can help whittle down the number of applicants, preferably not to zero like our newspaper editor but certainly sweeping generalisations will only bring in more unsuitable candidates to begin with. A smaller pool of quality applicants is better than an ocean of minnows.

What recruiters need is to follow the middle way, a balance of qualifications, and soft skills. Define what you want in a candidate. Perhaps look within to spot who is successful in the organisation in a similar role and why that is and take it from there, making sure the qualifications, attributes and skills are programmed into the system as key searches.

Once 'computer says yes', further screening can be done using automated personality or skill tests. Not everyone will opt for them which means more weeding out of half-hearted candidates. Asking candidates to submit a sample project related to the job is also an emerging practice to see how they might approach the work, or you could set them a job-related problem to solve.

Another increasingly popular way to use technology to automate recruitment to a new level pre-interview, is asking candidates to submit a short video of themselves, who they are, why they want to work for your organisation. This gives you an idea of what kind of person they are and how innovative they might be in their presentation of themselves without having to spend a lot of time arranging interviews. Some companies are even using face-reading technologies on such videos to help determine personality traits.

Cover letters, though they might be seen as a little old-fashioned are also a good way to gauge someone for originality, intelligence, literacy and the X factor. It shows good manners and an interest in the job when they are submitted without being asked for. But there is nothing worse than seeing a cover letter full of cliches that scream mediocrity or that looks as if a candidate has spent hours on thesaurus.com.

All of these steps don't take recruiters all the way to the perfect hire but they, along with automated reply systems, ease a lot of the pain and consume less time and resources. One issue to bear in mind is of course that making the process too long and complicated can turn candidates off. But even after an interview and if considering a particular candidate, it can also be useful as part of that last-stage process, to get them to spend an hour or two on a task before extending an offer. In a real-life case a candidate asked to do a small task relating to her proposed new job sat at a desk for half an hour, suddenly stood up and said: "I can't do this" and walked out.

A study done in the US on federal hiring practices found that automated hiring systems can be beneficial to both agencies and job applicants, "when used wisely". These systems can help agencies streamline the application process, assess applicants fairly and thoroughly, and reduce hiring time. However, it warned that automated systems were tools, not solutions.

To use an analogy, a chef’s knife is merely a tool; its use does not guarantee good cooking. The quality of the cooking ultimately depends on other factors, such as the quality of the ingredients and the chef’s competence. Similarly, the use of an automated hiring system does not guarantee an easy-to-use application process, high-quality referrals, fast hiring, or increased efficiency... at least not yet.

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