How not to recruit: the trap of ‘essential’ attributes

Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes writes: Here’s a problem we see a lot. An employer who wishes to hire writes a specification of the type of employee they want. Included in the specification is a list of ‘essential’ attributes (I’ll use the word ‘attribute’ here, even though sometimes other words — such as ‘skills’ — are used, because it’s the ‘essential’ part of the phrase I want to focus on).

So far, so good. But there’s a danger here that the list of ‘essentials’ will prove excessively long — something that can have disastrous consequences when it comes to appointing.

How the problem arises

It’s natural to feel pride in one’s place of work and want only high-quality employees to work there. But when it comes to drafting a list of essential attributes, this can lead to a rather macho ‘raising the bar’ attitude: ‘Right, well we definitely need people who can do X; if someone wants to work here they’re going to need to convince us that they can do Y; if they can’t do Z, there’s no point them applying’.

The problem can be compounded by asking other people in the office to review and amend the list. It’s good to be consultative: but the danger is that while colleagues tend not to remove attributes from the list, they may well add items according to their own view or what would make their lives easier. So the list grows.

Why does this matter?

If you end up with a long list of attributes, the chances of finding someone who ticks all the boxes diminishes. What do you do then? There are two options:

  1. you can go to market again: but that requires more time and, in any case, may produce the same result;
  2. you can recognise that you’re going to have to make do with someone who doesn’t tick all the boxes.

But, in that case, how do you decide between candidates? Do you give more weight to some attributes than others? (Which ones? And who decides?) Or does the process just become fuzzy as you dispense with the list of attributes and rely on a general sense of impressiveness?

Two specific risks arise here. Bias can creep in as firm criteria are abandoned; or, even if bias doesn’t creep in, it will become much more difficult to prove that.

What’s the solution?

If you face this problem, consider using more than one category of attribute. For example, you can have ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ attributes — and perhaps a third category (‘In addition, any of the following attributes would be welcome…’)

Winnow the list of essentials by asking yourself which of the supposedly ‘essential’ attributes can be moved into the ‘desirable’ category. For each attribute, see whether you can visualise someone without the attribute performing the role. The question here is not ‘What do we want?’ but, rather, ‘What do we need?’

Bear in mind that, once you’ve hired someone, you can seek to develop them in role.

How many ‘essential’ attributes is too many? It’s impossible to answer that with a single number: circumstances vary. But consider two anecdotes:

  1. An associate of mine was applying for a role as a postdoctoral researcher at a university. I’ll repeat that: a postdoctoral researcher (salary c. £35k) — not head of state or CEO of a multi-billion corporation. In the job details, which had clearly been cobbled together by committee, there was a list of essential attributes, numbering over twenty. Madness.
  2. In an appointment we made to our own company, FJWilson Talent Services, we drafted a list of essential attributes and found the list came to eight — so we reviewed the list and reduced the number of ‘essentials’ to four. The remaining four became ‘desirables’. When it came to appointing, we found this resulted in  a streamlined, prioritised, list that proved clarifying. At no point did we wish to revert to a longer list.

Which is certainly not to say that four is the magic number: as I said, circumstances vary.

How can talent agencies help?

A good talent agency should be able to review a draft specification with a sense of realism in the light of their knowledge of (a) specifications for similar roles elsewhere and (b) the nature of the likely field (especially relative to the remuneration package on offer).

In our markets — professional membership organisations, awarding bodies, and learning providers — we like to add value by critically reviewing specifications, before they go out to potential candidates, and making recommendations for revising them where necessary.


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