I’m still relatively new to the recruitment world. I started my career in banking, then followed the entrepreneurial path by founding and building a VC-backed travel tech start-up.
While growing my own company, I discovered a passion for all things talent and hiring. So like many, I came to this sector more by chance than by design… and I’ve never been happier in my professional life.
With a finance and digital background, I naturally embrace the benefits that technology brings to the business world. Better tools and improved access to information allow us to make better decisions, both as companies and as consumers. A multitude of ambitious tech-driven companies fighting for our patronage and credit card details means more solutions to choose from, and downward pressure on their costs.
My default opinion about the impact of innovation on the world of recruitment has been the same: that new tools mean new opportunities, so the more we use technology to our advantage, the better we will perform as talent and recruitment specialists. This view, however, is one I find I am increasingly questioning, not least when I consider how the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis might affect how we recruit.
My nagging feeling that technology and innovation may not be a recruiter’s best friend has something to do with a concept known as the ‘paradox of choice’, a term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in the early 2000s (it’s well worth checking out his excellent and highly entertaining TED talk from back in 2004 about this). Simply put, Schwartz’s idea is that, paradoxically, more choice is often worse for us, not better. It seems counter-intuitive: we like to be in control, we like to have things exactly our way, and more choice means more freedom – so the more options the better, right?
Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, Schwartz argues – and plenty of scientific studies have since shown – that an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the number of options out there can be overwhelming. Smartphones and social media have made the problem exponentially worse since Schwartz first spoke of this issue.
"An abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time."
Let’s have a quick look at the three main setbacks of excessive choice:
1 | Analysis paralysis: Too much choice can lead to paralysing indecisiveness, not liberation, as we try in vain to sort through options and make the “best” decision. In hiring, this can lead you down to a path of potentially missing out on what you wanted in the first place – ie. losing a great candidate due to delayed action.
2 | FOMO: Too much choice leaves us less satisfied with our decision (when we’re actually able to make one) because we’re confronted with a bewildering array of opportunity costs in the paths-not-taken. This can leave us feeling that we’d have probably been happier if we’d chosen one of the many other options (ie. we experience a fear-of-missing-out on other, better things).
3 | Wrong choice: Too much choice sometimes leads us to make objectively worse decisions, because our brains grasp onto faulty heuristics to guide us through all the options in front of us (more on this one in a bit).
Let's play a game
You can test this concept out in a fun way with a friend or a family member. Tell them the following:
“We’re going to play a little game. You have 10 seconds to list as many things as possible, anywhere in the universe… that are white”.
Then see how many they come up with. Immediately after that, tell them this:
“Now, you have 10 seconds to list as many things as possible that are white… and that you might typically find in someone’s fridge”.
More likely than not, they’ll be able to mention more things from the fridge, despite them having been free to come up with literally anything in the world after the first part.
That’s the paralysing effect of the paradox of choice in action.
What about hiring?
Let’s remind ourselves how much the talent marketplace has changed in the last 20-25 years. At the end of the 1990s, job ads existed mostly in newspapers, and a recruitment agency’s network was limited to the relatively small number of candidates who were in their (genuinely proprietary) database. I applied to my first role in banking in 2001 in response to an ad in a local Swiss newspaper (yes, a printed one which I had bought at a kiosk).
LinkedIn would only launch two years after that, and it would still be several years before the first job ad aggregators would launch. Fast-forward to today’s online job market – with its “one-click apply” buttons, subscription job alerts, social sharing, dizzying array of ATSs and ERPs and CRMs, LinkedIn’s 600+ million users, not to mention all the solutions using artificial intelligence / machine learning / big data being rolled out – and employers can easily generate both active and passive candidate pools well into the thousands.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a recruiter’s dream. But the truth is that a digital marketplace of human talent is much different than one selling airplane tickets or hotel rooms: there is no reasonable way to commoditise talent, so these huge pools of options cannot be sorted by price or star-rating. Furthermore, hiring decisions directly impact people’s lives and a business’s bottom line; such choices cannot be made lightly, and those who make them must be accountable for them. As a result, when we’re faced with an endless succession of mostly similar candidate profiles, it is a scientific reality that this will almost certainly lead to a sense of paralysis, dissatisfaction, and suboptimal decision-making.
The third point above – about too much choice leading to verifiably worse decisions – is a critical one. When an in-house recruiter is confronted with 300 resumes, or a search consultant with an almost limitless pool of passive candidate profiles, she must figure out a strategy to quickly screen. The most common such strategy is to look for markers of familiarity: “Do I recognize the school name? Do I like the company names? Does this person seem like one of ‘us’?” Unfortunately, such biases – which often operate implicitly, not consciously – lead us to value pedigree over ability and entrench hiring for likeness, rather than diversity. Decisions that emerge as outcomes of sloppy processes like these are invariably worse.
"There is no reasonable way to commoditise talent..."
COVID-19 comes into the equation when we consider how the recruitment world might look when the crisis is finally behind us. Most will agree that a likely outcome of the lockdown will be that more employers will be open to having their teams work from home – at least for part of the week. It’s only a small leap from there to 100% work-from-home teams, and then from there to hiring fully remote team members. And when you hire remotely, there’s of course nothing stopping you from hiring candidates from far, far beyond your commuter catchment area.
The rise of remote
According to a recent study by Flexjobs, just 3.4% of the US working population was working remotely in February 2020. This means that the vast majority of open roles are still being filled with candidates who live within commuting range of a company’s office. And while the percentage of remote workers is still small, the growth in remote work over the last 12 years has been 159%.
The current crisis will, without doubt, accelerate this growth rate, to the extent that remote work may well soon be a “new normal” for many companies (keep in mind though: hiring remotely doesn’t mean a company has to give up its office; plenty of companies will adopt a hybrid approach, whereby certain teams will continue to work from a central office or from one of a number of global offices, while certain roles or job families will be filled with individuals who work remotely).
To try and gauge the prevalence of remote hiring within more traditional circles, this past week I undertook one of the world’s smallest surveys and asked eight of my recruiter friends (a mix of internal and external, working in a range of sectors) if they had ever hired or placed a remote worker. Not a single one had.
You’ll see where I’m going with this: even with all the modern tools and data and databases, and the extensive – not to mention excessive – choice these generate, up until now the candidate pools for the overwhelming majority of roles a recruiter fills are limited by their physical location. When you know you can only hire from what is essentially a tiny fraction of the planet, the physical limits of your selection process are already very well defined. In other words, geography has always been the fridge.
Coping with even more choice
As technological change continues apace, the fast rise in location-independent roles has the potential to further accelerate shifts in how, and of course where, many recruiters focus their attention. For this reason, it is more critical than ever that hiring processes be as disciplined as they are efficient. The key to making the right hiring decisions is to use increased choice sensibly and follow hiring processes that are designed to prevent paralysis. As recruiters, we must be mindful not to translate choice into a quest for that all too elusive ‘perfect candidate’. And we should be cautious of timing (this is the factor that so often derails the benefits of choice!), acting with speed and not letting delays become the reason for our hiring headaches.
"... this exercise gives the client the opportunity to build their own fridge from the outset."
At 6 Group, we have developed our own solution to this challenge. Our approach to candidate identification and assessment involves a highly disciplined 7-step process, the first of which is for the client to complete a comprehensive “Job Analysis Questionnaire” (JAQ). This is a critical step that lays a strong foundation for the rest of the recruitment process. Although this first stage can sometimes feel time-consuming for hiring managers (completing the JAQ takes approx. 20 mins), carrying it through in a disciplined way helps to save time and avoid choice paralysis later in the process.
The objective of the JAQ is to identify and prioritise the key behavioural competence areas that are most important to effective performance in the role in question. We work with 11 distinct competencies, examples being: “builds common vision”, “maximizes opportunities”, and “motivates and coaches”. The JAQ requires the hiring manager to rank, in relative order of importance, five different statements within a number of different statements blocks. The output of this process is the identification of the three most important behavioural competencies that will help guide the search process and against which all candidates will be assessed. In essence, this exercise gives the client the opportunity to build their own fridge from the outset.
Along with the core functional skills to be used in the candidate assessment process (which we also work with the client to identify at the beginning of the search) and other pre-agreed selection criteria, this approach provides a robust framework for ensuring that all candidates are evaluated in a fair and efficient manner. The evaluation process itself happens mostly during the competency-based interviews (step 5 of 7), when we objectively rank longlisted candidates to generate a shortlist of the four most qualified candidates to be presented to the client.
A full fridge approach
The benefits of such a structured and diligent process are that (i) we consistently avoid any sense of paralysis, (ii) we confidently work towards the verifiably best outcome, and (iii) we free the client’s internal talent function from any potentially overwhelming uncertainty or indecisiveness (which will likely become only more problematic in the future if geographical boundaries will be removed on a large scale). By presenting a shortlist of qualified candidates to the client, we allow them to make a decision without the stress of excessive optionality.
It goes without saying that such predefined steps are only one part of what allows for a successful hiring process; effective candidate sourcing and engagement are equally important, as they ensure that the fridge is full – i.e. that within your predefined assessment parameters, you are reaching as many qualified candidates as possible. Indeed, when it comes to search, the ability to identify, engage and convert passive candidates is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
6 Group’s tried-and-tested recruitment process is still managed by intelligent humans, rather than intelligent machines. We make only limited use of technology as we help companies to achieve their talent and hiring goals. For now, at least, we believe that is the best way to provide clients with the greatest amount of assurance and comfort in their hiring decisions. I for one remain curious about how this will change in the future, about the part the COVID-19 crisis might play in catalysing change, and about whether any major tech-driven innovations we do see in recruitment will end up being more paralysing or liberating.