How HR Is Killing The Corporate Gene Pool And What To Do About It

Posted by & filed under .

The Setup

GOSSIP GIRL sucked this week so I decided to write an article on one of my many pet peeves, Human Resources. In case you don’t know, I have a corporate consultancy as well (SLI Advisors), and I’ve watched as the hiring arm of Human Resources, aka “Recruitment,” has slowly but surely drained all life from the companies they ostensibly service. It’s not as if the people in HR are somehow fools or anything like that. Rather, they’re trapped, the way much of corporate America is trapped, by a system that claims to want outside-the-box thinkers while simultaneously being very clear that the only way to remain blameless and unpunished oneself is to do things EXACTLY the way they’ve always been done.

This can all best be seen in HR’s current, ubiquitous, and total failure of a recruitment strategy, the computer. Much like it doesn’t work in online dating (a subject covered elsewhere on this site (my Online Dating Guide, Dating Nancy P)), the computer doesn’t work in job placement either. Why some people think a computer is better suited to understand a human than a human is beyond me, but recruiters seem to love them.  In any event, I think it’s worth understanding how the hiring system became this calcified so if you’re someone looking for a job you can work it better and if you’re in HR or running a company you can get some ideas for changing it.

What HR Says

We’re hiring the best and most qualified people for the job! For real!

Back Up And Tell It Right

Let’s time travel a little bit here back to the gogo years of the early ‘00s when online applications, emailed resumes, and the like first started becoming prevalent, when HR people could dream of a future where, while the total number of overall applicants, many unqualified, would increase due to the ease of clicking “send,” the upside would be a maximization of both recruiter time and candidate quality, since the computer would do the tedious sorting and filtering and only deliver the most-qualified candidates to the recruiters.  The best!  The brightest!  And all so easy!

[insert sound of record scratch here]

The thesis that computers would reduce recruiter workload and increase recruiter efficiency was not only untested but, as it turned out for reasons described below, incorrect. Additionally, even if that first thesis proved to be true, the staffing mission of HR has nothing to do with making recruiters’ lives easier but rather with finding the best candidate for a particular job, and the computer, as you’ll see, has actually served to undermine HR’s mission rather than enhance it. Even worse, the problems that have always been present in online staffing have been magnified in today’s world due to the sheer number of people looking for work.

The goal of recruitment isn’t to eliminate people; it’s to find them, yet the computer has ensured that the system is significantly better at keeping people out than letting them in.  This happens in two basic ways.


The first place the computer is used for staffing, generally with mid-sized to smaller companies that don’t use online apps, is with a catchall email address for job inquiries. While in a thinner job market, this might have been an efficient way of receiving resumes (and even then it’s a maybe), in this job market, the HR catchall has essentially become a dumping-ground, a vast landscape of undifferentiated and ultimately unexamined resumes. Who has time to read all those things?  And even if you are reading them, are you really thinking about what’s best for the job or just trying to find the most dead-center-of-the-box fit so you can be done with the process already?

Really, though, the computer is at its worst in the second and most common way companies use it: the online app.


Here’s a simplistic example of how computers kill staffing:

Imagine a marketing job. The requirements are that a candidate must have 5 years experience and must currently be a VP or higher; the work environment is high-volume with a lot of working on one’s own and is described as “fast-paced” with “independent work” in the job description. Two candidates apply. Because the computer can’t screen based on the work environment, that – incredibly important! – component is ignored in the online application, leaving only the candidates’ computer-friendly qualifications to filter on. Candidate A has 7 years experience and is a VP; Candidate B has 3 years and is a Director. The computer automatically eliminates Candidate B and sends Candidate A onto the recruiter.

Now imagine the same candidates for the same job only it’s the 1970s and there’s no computer involved, just an interview, likely with feathered hair. Candidate A is a shoo-in. Candidate B writes a compelling letter to the HR department (which the recruiter actually reads because there’s no computer to filter on keywords), and, figuring at worst Candidate B would be good to have on file, gives both candidates an initial interview.

During Candidate A’s interview, Candidate A reveals that, at Candidate A’s current company, “fast-paced” translates to a high volume of projects but with very long timeframes and, the recruiter discovers and that “independent” to Candidate A actually means people in Candidate A’s current work do things themselves but report everything into the team twice a week. Candidate B, the recruiter finds, began as the jack-of-all-trades at a very tiny startup that exploded a few years prior, going from 5 employees to 10 to 250. Candidate B did all the marketing, and the CEO had promised Candidate B the SVP of marketing position only, a year ago, the CEO’s sister got laid off from her job, and the CEO gave her the position and title despite her total lack of experience. Even though Candidate B is literally running the marketing department, the CEO refuses to give Candidate B the promised title. Because of the nature of Candidate B’s company, Candidate B has actually done twice the number of campaigns as Candidate A.

Granted, the example’s kind of dumb, but every CEO I’ve worked with would want Candidate B… and which candidate do you think modern-day HR brings to the table? Here’s the deal: the inability of a computer to understand the complexity and nuances of human interactions results in companies losing potentially great candidates in favor of people who fit a narrow computer-friendly description – or, even worse, getting a candidate who is absolutely ill-suited to a particular department no matter how qualified in the application. In the example above, a computer can understand “5 years”; what it can’t understand is “a few high-level years regardless of title is better than 7 high-title years with repetitive experience” or “a self-starter means figuring things out on one’s own and not relying on a team” or more complex personality-oriented issues such as “Mary who runs the department is a total cow so thick-skinned candidates fare better there.” And it’s understanding those nuances, those grey areas, that make for the most effective staffing.

So what to do?


The goal of staffing at any level is to get the best person for the job with the staffing resources allotted. A computer is simply a tool, and the downsides of that tool need to be balanced against its upsides. Here are some ways to get the most out of computerized rigidity without allowing it to dominate the entire staffing process.

1. For those who use an email catchall: Food scientist Brian Wansink has conducted experiments showing that if you have candy in a bowl on your desk, you’ll eat it all day whereas if it’s in a bowl six feet away, you won’t. That small effort of getting up gives you enough time to think about whether or not you really want the candy and stop yourself if you don’t. In the same way, so will a barrier to entry give pause to many unqualified job-seekers and reduce the number of resumes sent while knock wood increasing their quality.

So instead of providing a catchall email address for applicants – the equivalent of candy on the desk – provide them only with a mailing address. Forcing people to write and print a cover letter and resume, address an envelope, get a stamp, and mail it, is the equivalent of making someone walk a few steps for that bowl of candy, i.e. it’s enough to stop most applicants unless they’re qualified or very passionate about the work, either of which is a better for the company. Asking for paper by the way doesn’t mean giving up the benefits of electronic filing since, if you like whatever a candidate snailmailed you, you can simply ask them to email you a PDF version for your files later. In other words, open the door but make people shove a little to get in.

2. Always allow a bypass. Especially in today’s world, where many people are taking on extra work not in their job descriptions or doing random freelance work, allowing a candidate to bypass online app filters and make his or her case to a recruiter takes on extra importance. If you’re worried that everyone will try to make a “special circumstances” case, add a barrier to entry (see above).

3. Translate requirements into skills. This is a key pre-recruitment step. For example, instead of “5 years experience,” ask the executive who’s looking to fill the position what “5 years” means to them – does it really mean “100 industry contacts and 10 major campaigns”? Does “VP or above” really mean “someone who has led teams regardless of what they were called”? And what does a title even mean these days?  (I worked in Hollywood for many years where people were called “VP” even though they had absolutely no one reporting to them.)  Maybe in the 1950s titles meant something, but today?  Not so much.  It’s critical that HR dig deeper to find the meaning beneath the requirements, because here is where the computer can be a huge boon to staffing: filtering based on real, core requirements rather than on top-level generic – and often meaningless – requirements. Knowing those deeper requirements allows you to ask questions that will get you much closer to the best-suited candidate, e.g. “How many industry contacts do you have?” “How many campaigns have you run?” “What was the average budget on those campaigns?” “Have you ever led teams?” “Of what size?” “How often?” Etc.

4. Eliminate lingo. What if the perfect candidate for your “Deployment Project Manager, Content Management Culture” job simply refers to his or her prior work as “management consulting”? That candidate won’t think they’re qualified and, even if they do, your computer will eliminate them. Get the gibberish out of the job description and look at skills and attributes instead.

5. Skip the non-requirement “requirements.” For example “salary requirement.” From the point of view of the candidates, what does “salary requirement” mean? Should they put down the high salary they’d like to have? Or should they try to guess what they think the company is willing to pay and pick something in the middle? Or should they negotiate against themselves by going low? What if their prior work was hourly or per-project or contract – what should they come up with then? Also, work is about more than just money; it’s about other tangibles – like benefits, workload, vacation days, parking, a gym – and intangibles – like work environment, office tone, job satisfaction. Without having a sense of those other components, a candidate realistically couldn’t have a “requirement.” And from the company’s point of view, how does knowing a salary requirement upfront even help as that “requirement” often goes right out the window in the face of an actual job offer?

Don’t clutter your job descriptions and online applications with qualities that don’t really matter, like “proficiency in Microsoft Office” (what does that even mean?!?! – and who’s not “proficient” enough these days to use Outlook and Word?), “responds to client requests on a timely basis,” “effective communicator,” and other non-requirements the sole purpose of which seems to be to fill up lots and lots of space on a Craigslist job posting. Focus on the few characteristics that truly matter and save the rest for later.


Despite it being HR’s mission to find the best candidate for a particular job, the computer has made it impossible for anyone not fitting the narrow confines of an online application to get through to anyone in HR, either because HR has barricaded itself from the barrage of applicants (ever try to phone anyone in HR recently?) or because the catchall email has made it so difficult for a recruiter to sort through all the candidates or because the online application filters the candidate out before they even start.

And, right up there with the elimination of outside-the-box thinkers, is the secondary problem that HR’s reliance on the computer actually winds up devaluing the work the HR does – after all, a company might think, if a computer can do it, why not fire all the recruiters? In reality computers aren’t effective staffers because computers are incapable of understanding the human-interactive components that are the key to successful staffing.

Putting it in the cutesiest way possible, maybe it’s time to put the H back in HR…