Screen Resumes for What Matters

I think the most frequent phrase I say to hiring managers that I advise is:

This is a human being you’re looking for, right?

From the look of what they are trying to post as a job ad, I think they are searching for a unicorn, an android, or perhaps a chameleon, but certainly not a person. And let’s not even discuss the paltry salary they expect this wizard-of-all-trades to accept! Even when companies are willing to be reasonable about what they expect, sometimes the requirements for the position are overly and/or unnecessarily specific, which can make it hard to fill the position expediently. This can include things like college attended, college major, number of years of experience, and the like.

Most of these “requirements” actually don’t matter, if only because the primary attributes that do matter are attitude, metaskills, and depth of experience.

Regardless of someone’s college major, or how many years (s)he held a position, what matters is whether (s)he has experiences that are relevant to what the new hire will need to be able to do. I’ve seen people get incredible chops in a mere six months, and others go years while still thinking and acting like a rookie. As the saying goes, “a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.” Someone who has been through some rough rides, and maybe even got terminated a couple of times, is more of a veteran than someone who boasts a lot of mileage on straight, paved highways.

Looking at someone’s track record also gives you a sense of someone’s attitude and work ethic. Look for answers to these questions:

  • Did (s)he take initiative?
  • Did (s)he handle tough problems with a smile?
  • Did (s)he bounce back from failure?
  • Did (s)he take criticism in stride and adapt?
  • Did (s)he figure out what to do and/or show good judgment in a range of ambiguous situations?

Evidence of these attributes and experiences will tell you far more about a candidate than whether (s)he, say, went to a top college. The answers to those questions (and these) will tell you far more about the potential for a candidate than any personality test, [so-called] aptitude/attitude games, or proxies for intelligence tests.

Rather than looking at specific skills and task-related capabilities, the better question is whether the candidate can learn what needs to be learned in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes the best people aren’t an exact, ready-made, out-of-the-box match. Maybe (s)he doesn’t know the exact software that your company uses but has a ton of applicable experience with related programs and can get up to scratch quickly (ask during the interview/screening if that’s a realistic possibility). Maybe the candidate doesn’t have the exact experiences you’re looking for, but did enough relevant work in enough depth that filling in the gaps should be easy. In many cases, what you’re looking for are not so much the skills or experiences themselves, but the metaskills that enable them to learn new skills efficiently (my take on this).

While you’re hiring, it might be worthwhile to ask whether you actually want talented people and show it in your recruitment materials. Most good candidates don’t fit a given mold, and trying to pound them into one is a waste of time, money, and effort. Instead, figure out how to hire someone whose strengths, experiences, attitudes, and metaskills can be capitalized upon to help your company create the bespoke value for which it is known.

Hire people, not unicorns!

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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.