4 Proxies for Talent You Should Stop Using

Orin Davis
4 min readJan 17, 2017

Hiring is a real pain when a company posts a job and gets deluged with more applications than it can reasonably review in depth. In the name of expedience, companies start looking for certain signals that may indicate that someone is talented and use those proxies for talent to separate the wheat from the chaff. While this isn’t necessarily a bad idea (though writing a good job description is a far better one!), there are a number of proxies I’ve seen in use lately that are really bad ideas. Here are the four most egregious on that list.

1) Alma Mater

Want to know where to find some of the best and most talented college grads in America?


Think about it: most of the “elite” universities are also incredibly expensive, and many do not provide sufficient financial aid to a wide array of matriculants. State schools, however, readily give scholarships (often full rides) to these top-flight students, and often have an honors program to go with it. In fact, many of these students on full scholarships at state schools do not come from privileged backgrounds, and worked their rears off to get where they got. Many of them even started working in college, if not high school, which means they are graduating debt-free, from an elite program, with work experience.

Makes you wonder why so many companies foolishly require that job applicants attended an “elite” school, or only recruit from the handful of schools that everyone else is recruiting from, too.

One thing I definitely learned very quickly in the work world is that someone’s alma mater is not an indicator of their talent. It tells me nothing about:

a) what they actually know (or how much)

b) how quickly they learn

c) their skill set

d) how good their work ethic is

e) how creative they are

About the only thing it does tell me is something about their personality, as many universities have a “type” or a culture (for instance, anyone who knows Brandeis readily [and correctly] identifies me as a likely alum). Since that has nothing to do with job performance, it’s time to jettison the silly notion that college attended is a proxy for talent.

2) Years of Experience

Years of experience is another knee-slapper, such as when tech companies want someone with 10 years of Hadoop experience (Hadoop came out five years ago). More seriously, listing the required experience with a temporal metric is what happens when hiring managers don’t take the time to specify exactly what they want the new hire to be able to do.

People erroneously figure that, if people have had enough years of experience, they must have seen enough to handle anything within a certain range. The trouble is, that range is almost always undefined, and usually amounts to “seen it all.” Obviously, few have seen it all, and although there is a correlation between how long someone has worked in a field/area and how much (s)he has seen, people can have very dull and simple jobs despite having dazzling titles and job descriptions.

A more certain way of knowing what the candidate has seen is to put a list in the job ad. Ask around and write down what kinds of scenarios the new hire should have dealt with in a prior position, divvy it up into must-haves and wants, and put that in the job ad. If you have a long list, indicate which experience should be indicated in the cover letter and resume, and which will be discussed during a job interview. That way, candidates can talk about their experiences in a way that matches your priorities.

3) Degree

Take it from a college professor: having a degree guarantees only that you paid a lot of money to sit in a chair. Don’t get me wrong: a great many decidedly deserve all of the recognition that a degree implies, but treating a degree-holder as having achieved a level of something-or-other is a mistake. College isn’t for everyone, and colleges sometimes fail to give students struggling with life issues the support and resources necessary to cross the finish line (I’ve seen several strong students that you would love to hire forced to drop out because of such issues).

Looking even to masters and doctoral programs, it’s hard to say exactly which skills, ideas, or capabilities are extant in anyone with such a degree. Even a concentration or major is hard to pin down — for instance, I constantly surprise people with the fact that, despite having a doctorate in psychology, I never studied psychopathology/abnormal psych (though I’ve picked up more than a layperson just by osmosis). Come to think of it, psychology is a sufficiently broad field that it’s unlikely to find anyone who has covered all of the main areas in any reasonable depth. That’s true for most major fields, actually. Even the presumption of critical thinking skills, writing ability, and the like no longer come with degrees at any level unless deliberately developed. Granted: many people with higher level degrees most likely have higher skill levels than those in the same field with a lower degree (that is, a newly-minted doctoral-level chemist is probably better in the lab and has better critical thinking skills than a newly-minted baccalaureate). But, none of this is a guarantee. To work under my grandfather as an architect, one generally needed a master’s degree, even though my grandfather never finished college.

Here, too, the trick is to generate a list of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed, and decide very carefully before making a degree a proxy for them. Even if you do, make clear that anyone who can demonstrate the necessary items is welcome to apply. It is crucial to remember that experience can be an amazing teacher, that interest can be a powerful motivator, and that absolutely nothing is a proxy for a good work ethic.

4) Demographics

Need I say more?



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.