hiring by proxy?

A huge challenge we face whenever hiring someone is that we can never have perfect information. No matter how big of a rock star a candidate was in their last position, we have no idea what the future holds or if their skills, interests, and personality will mesh with the job, co-workers, and the company. And that’s assuming that we know they were great. Most often we don’t.

What if they were a diamond in the rough in a past job, just held back by a lousy boss, poor job match, or personal issues they’ve since gotten past? What if they were so bad that their boss and co-workers give them glowing references just to get rid of them? [Yes, it happens. I even once had a team supervisor tell me that whenever they got a bad general manager, everyone would pull together and work hard to make the GM look great so the GM would get promoted and transferred. Apparently, getting a terrible boss promoted was easier than getting them fired.]

Not only will we never truly know what they were like in the past, there are few jobs where we can try them out. Sometimes we can do job simulations, but those can be tricky and still not provide good information. So, we end up using proxy measures where we measure one attribute in the hope and belief that it provides us information about another characteristic.

Assessments are proxy measures. We measure general cognitive ability in the belief that higher scores equates better performance. We assess personality because we think it gives us some sort of insight into their character and cultural fit. We test integrity hoping that there is a good enough correlation between what people say on paper and how they behave in real life. We do drug tests in the thought that if they are straight and sober today they will always be that way.

Past experiences are proxy measures. And dangerous ones because they are heavily influenced by our own biases. We give too much weight to people being just like us (because we rock, so anyone like us should too) or just like our best employees. For example, some managers want the candidates to have a college degree even if it’s unrelated to the job because of what the manager thinks attaining a degree demonstrates. Or they want someone who played high school sports because of what they think it demonstrates. Or, they want someone who comes to the interview dressed to the nines. Or, they think any employment gaps are inexcusable. Or, or, or… Yes, these might demonstrate a person’s commitment, drive, determination, ability to work with others, set and achieve goals, etc. Or it might just demonstrate that they were able to survive off their parent’s money and binge drink for four years. Or that their parents required them to play sports and they loathed every minute of it and only finished because of their parents constant pressure. Or that they are all flash and no substance. Or that they took advantage of being young and unencumbered and traveled (and are far more mature and focused because of it). Or not. It could mean lots of things and we run the risk of overemphasising it’s significance.

As philosopher Alan Watts noted, “the map is not the territory.” The measure of the attribute is not the attribute itself. Proxy measures are useful because it’s often the best that we can do, but it’s important to remember that: 1) it might be measuring something other than what we think it measures; 2) it’s easy to forget that it’s a substitute for the real thing and just an approximation; 3) it can be heavily influenced by our own biases and prejudices. In other words, a candidate who excels on the proxy measures could still be a lousy employee and the candidate who does poorly could still be a superstar waiting to be discovered.

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