The mistakes employers make when selecting candidates for a job

By Ben Fletcher

Ben is Professor of Personal & Organizational Development at the University of Hertfordshire 

Appearances (of all kinds) can be deceptive.

It is a surprising fact. Organizations spend considerable amounts of money recruiting staff. They then continue to spend money on training and paying for people they should not have taken on. Strange but true. In about one-third of new jobs, the selected incumbents can be considered as wrong decisions by the client company.

This state of affairs is not the fault of the recruitment firm. On the contrary, companies that use recruitment services are much LESS likely to make these kinds of mistakes because the client is required to clarify what they really want when giving the brief, and the successful candidate will be more suitable.

Employers make all sorts of mistakes when selecting candidates for a job. These mistakes fall into different areas:

Inadequate specification of needs

It is often the case that the company has a vacancy because someone has left, or alternatively a new job has been created. In both cases, it is not uncommon for the client to be unsure about what needs they really have. This is not just because people do not work to job descriptions in the real world, but also because the operational managers (as opposed to the HR professionals) cannot communicate their real needs. They know what they want done, but not what might do the job. Alternatively, they might have a constrained view of who could fill the job or what skills they need. It almost always pays to spend time (and possibly money) on getting a clear job/person spec. And to do it properly. It is cheaper than years of employing the wrong people.

Believing that you do not need the professionals

Professional recruitment companies do more than you might think. The best ones attract the best candidates, they can talk their language (and make sure you do), they know the markets and the options, they can assist throughout the entire process. Don't forget their job is recruitment even if you only hire new staff occasionally. Doubtless you could do it. Doubtless, at more long term cost.

Internal company politics

Unfortunately, people interfere in the recruitment process in ways they should not. It might be that a boss has a particular axe to grind or a way of doing things. It might be that the last job incumbent messed up and that some incidental and irrelevant characteristic has been blamed for it. Unfortunately, humans are prone to believing in the causal significance of completely irrelevant coincidences. This is true of bosses too!

Wanting the impossible or the very unlikely

Another common problem is the employer who does not know the candidate pool well, so they want a person with a particular experience mix, or qualifications that are unusual. Perhaps the last person they had in the job was the one in a million whose skills profile they had taken for granted. It is a fundamental law that the rarer it is the more expensive it is, or the more difficult to get. It is better to be flexible as an employer, too. People can soon grow into roles and niches they did not fit exactly before. You might even find they bring something innovative that you had not thought of.

Not staying focused on need

It goes without saying, but people get sidetracked easily in the selection process. There are a number of ways this can happen. It might be the problem of 'seduction'. Perhaps one candidate has skills that - although not important for the particular job - would be useful in a different role. Or perhaps they come from a competitor and might have useful information. Keep to the agenda unless there are compelling reasons to deviate. Even then, remember that a different job spec would have attracted a different set of candidates.

Poor selection from amongst the possible

There are many reasons companies fail to choose the best candidate put before them. These range from poor methods such as unstructured or unprofessional interviewing, taking too much notice of the irrelevant or allowing prejudices to cloud judgment. Some companies cannot even be persuaded to see the best candidates.

Hiring what you know, not the best

Another fundamental law is that people like the predictability and certainty of choosing people that are 'like them'. This is a group identity need. Often people like the job to be done with a style and in a certain way for no other reason than that is the way they do it or are used to seeing it done. This is not efficient. Indeed, this Comfort Zone is a dangerous place indeed for performance and responsiveness and innovation in business. Take professional advice. Look at what you don't know - it might prove better.

There is no panacea for these problems, but awareness of them is a starting point. As a single piece of advice I would say try to survey the territory from another tree.


(c) Professor Ben (C) Fletcher, 2002.

This is a series on 'The HOW, WHAT & WHY of Business and Management?' written by Professor Ben (C) Fletcher.

Ben is Professor of Personal & Organizational Development at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the founder of FIT Science which has taken over 20 years to develop. He is an Oxford doctorate, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, a Chartered Health Psychologist, and was previously Dean (Director) of one of the larger UK University Business Schools for 6 years. He is on the Board of several companies, including being a founder director of The FIT Corporation Ltd. - the commercial arm of FIT Science. He is a member of the IOD. He has published extensively and lectured worldwide.

Ben can be contacted at bcf@fitcorporation.ac.uk, or at the company at bcf@fitcorporation.com.


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