Why the hiring process is broken

Hiring Process is Broken

My last couple of years have been pretty awkward in terms of hiring process. I worked at PBS from 2011 to 2012, then decided to go to graduate school. That kinda sorta turned out OK, but it took me a long time to get a job once I got my Masters. Then I moved down to Texas for that job, right? And … 17 months later, I got fired. I don’t really look for work right now — I do a lot of freelance — and while part of that is because I’m not sure how great I am with hierarchy and office jobs, part of it is because the hiring process is completely broken in America.

How broken is it? Let’s explore.

Hiring Process Flaw No. 1: The foundation

Imagine a genie came to you with this deal: you spend a bunch of money, and the reason for spending the money is that you’re going to gain all this knowledge and learn so much. OK, got that part? Now once you’ve spent the money and theoretically gained the knowledge, another genie is going to come along. When you ask that genie for a wish, he’s gonna spit in your face and say “Nope, we only want people who have done this exact set of things beforehand.” You’d probably be pretty pissed off at the second genie, since the promise of the first genie was that money —> knowledge would make you more well-rounded, yea?

Genies don’t exist, but this shit happens every single day in America. Kids come out of school, or grad school, or community college, or whatever else … and they went to that school partially on the assumption that increased levels of education would make them attractive to employers. But the hiring process isn’t rooted in that. It’s rooted in “Here’s a checklist of shit we think this job should be able to do. If you have the entire checklist, maybe you can advance.”

Never understood this: if business “moves faster than ever” and is “so complex” — all shit you’ll hear executives say in any interview — then wouldn’t we want someone with diverse knowledge, as opposed to someone with an extremely specific set of skills that’s basically done the exact same shit before? This same prioritization of task work over knowledge and growth will someday kill Silicon Valley, as an aside.

Soooo … the entire foundation on which the hiring process typically rests is a giant fucking turd. Nice. Can it get worse?

Hiring Process Flaw No. 2: The cover your ass move

Here’s how the hiring process stage of ‘moving on an open position’ typically unfolds at most orgs:

  • Someone quits or leaves or is canned, and ‘open headcount’ is created (or, the company’s making some money and they create a position)
  • Since most managers are admittedly not great at understanding organizational priorities, any headcount process can become pretty fraught: it’s ultimately more about politics (who yelps the loudest, or who’s closer to the power core) than it is about who really needs help in their department
  • At this point, the entire charade collapses — because it’s the hiring manager who needs the help, but they fully pass the buck to HR

This is where you should align a shotgun at your scrotum and yank back the trigger. Why would a marketing manager who needs to hire someone pass the buck to HR? What does that HR lady toting the “Coffee is my spirit animal” bag into work every morning know about marketing and its needs? Or the composition of the existing team? The answer: nothing.


Here’s what happens: the hiring manager has 1 or 2 poorly-contextualized conversations with the HR lady, who’s probably awash in her own compliance tasks. The hiring manager has no respect for HR — “Everyone knows marketing drives this ship, baby!” — and basically just keeps applying pressure to her about how quickly he needs to fill this slot. A job description is hastily updated and slapped online. Applicants start to roll in.

Now you’ve got a HR person with literally no context or knowledge for what this position needs or the team already in place — aside from their personnel files — screening 100 applicants down to 5 the hiring manager can talk to. It’s a joke. 95 percent of your pipeline just died in the flood because of a woman who has 17 Pinterest tabs open as she responds to Chinese fire drills from an exec trying to force out a lieutenant. You think all 95 who got dropped in the initial hiring process were bad fits? Nope. Probably many were, but I bet 2-3 who got dropped were the best candidate.

Now, a shithead middle manager would read the above and bark back:

“HR owns recruiting! They have the functional knowledge!”

Asinine and lies. It’s a cover your ass move. We don’t empower Human Resources to do anything. We kick it all the shit and CYA projects we can think of, and bury it in process. Some other exec just bellowed:

“It’s not a revenue center! We’re up here slaying dragons!”

Fuck it all. Here’s the deal: there’s no “functional knowledge” around screening a resume dropped into an Applicant Tracking System and/or talking to someone for 10 minutes on the phone. Those are basic human skills: information-scanning and conversation. The marketing hiring manager could do all of it, but he doesn’t because he’s on the cross over at The Temple of Busy and ain’t got no time for that shit. That’s a HR thing, baby!

Hiring Process Flaw No. 3: The technology side of it

Won’t go too deep into this except to say that … well … technology killed recruiting. If you were to make a list of the worst things in human history, you’d only be about 27 items past Hitler when someone would mention applicant tracking systems.

Here’s a cool idea: let’s take a qualified, interesting person who could be a real asset to our company, OK? We’ll start there. So we’ll ask for his resume and a link to his LinkedIn profile. Still with me? OK, so then let’s ask that person to fill out about 12 screens of data that essentially will provide all the same information as the resume did. Wait, what?

Imagine if you were chasing a client, or a “lead” in your “lead generation” program — which is probably held together by toothpicks and lies anyway, but that’s a totally different topic. So let’s say you get this client over to your site, right? You ask him for his e-mail in exchange for some white paper — again, held together with duct tape and incoherent buzzwords — and then a second screen appears. Now the client has to fill out 72 forms of data about themselves.

You think that client is sticking around as a “lead?” Fuck no. They’re bouncing from that site instantly.

Liz Ryan brought up this disconnect between “how we treat clients” and “how we treat job seekers” recently too:

E-commerce marketers know this figure well. It’s called the Abandonment Rate, and it’s a critical metric to watch. The higher the abandonment rate for an online shopping cart, the more frustrated buyers are becoming as they try to buy from your online store. What a tragedy — someone was ready to spend money with you, and then you made it too difficult for them!

We desperately want to know our e-commerce shopping cart abandonment rate, but most ATS (applicant tracking system) vendors don’t make it easy for recruiting managers to determine what percentage of candidates, or how many applicants total, are dropping out of their online job applications in disgust.

This all happens for logical reasons — poor priority management, lack of clarity around what the job needs, lack of discussion around impactful hiring process strategies, and a rush to throw tech solutions at problems rather than actually figuring out what the problem really is. It’s all logical and sad and most businesses face this issue at least once, if not 278 times, per day. It still sucks, though.

And it sucks that technology — which should be a force for making things easier and better — has basically punched the hiring process right in the dong.

Hiring Process Flaw No. 4: The interviews

Most are generic, usually both sides are somewhat lying, and everything’s ultimately a sale. The ’10 most common job interview questions’ — essentially a backbone of the entire hiring process — are so comically generic and/or easy to flip around that they make no impact whatsoever.

Hiring Process sucks

Look at these excited millennials! Their spirit will soon be crushed by the hiring process.

When I was coming out of graduate school, I interviewed with this company in Tampa, OK? I had five interviews over the course of two months, with five different people. The hiring process was really stretching out. All of the interviews were exactly the same. They were different people at different levels, but they all asked me the same shit and did it in this general order:

  • Small talk
  • “So, tell me a little about yourself” (essentially more small talk)
  • “Why do you want to work here?”
  • “This is why our culture is so great”
  • “Here’s a question I believe to be vaguely challenging”
  • “Here’s some more sunshine up the ass of the people that pay me”
  • “Any questions for me?”
  • “I have no clue on a timetable, no. Isn’t that HR’s job?”

By the fourth of these interviews, I wanted to self-immolate every time I got on another one. But I needed a job, you know? Capitalism: it’s a cruel mistress.

Hiring Process Flaw No. 5: The lack of science

Business is all about what’s measured. That’s what executives care about — which is amazingly ironic because most executives have no clue how to analyze data towards decision-making and would rather throw a $400,000 salary at some “crack data scientist” — and that’s why concepts like “employee engagement” have no real traction. In short, it’s hard to measure them — so execs ignore them, and that ignoring trickles down the chain. Rank-and-files don’t think it matters because it’s not getting mentioned at all-hands meetings, so let’s move on to something else.

The hiring process is a big fucking deal. Your talent is probably your greatest strategic advantage over a competitor — although again, most executives would yelp about how it’s “our Q2 margin strategy!” — and who you hire represents the biggest chunk of money going out.

So we design a hiring process around absolutely no scientific ideas, variables, concepts, tracking, metrics, etc? Rather, it’s some HR lady asking you your three biggest strengths? An executive bellowing to shareholders about how “innovative” and “forward-thinking” his company is about to become … is going to get innovative people from a process essentially rooted in nothing? That’s a stretch.

There’s a way we could get closer to “HR getting a seat at the table” via this idea of People Analytics, but … psychologically speaking, we’re very, very far off on People Analytics right now. (It would require long-tenured processes to drop off, and removes “the gut feel” aspect of HR pros and senior leaders.)

Hiring Process Flaw No. 6: Once we make the hire

There will probably be a few awkward convos about salary — no one understands what salary even represents — and then an offer is accepted and the new hire arrives to “hit the ground running.” What happens then? A total unscientific onboarding process that’s mostly based on transactional elements — paperwork, passwords, protocols — as opposed to transformative elements, such as “What’s the culture here?” and/or “Who actually does what?” Onboarding programs can be fixed, but again — they’re seen as the domain of HR, and HR is the cover-your-ass department, not the dragon-riding crew that sales or marketing or finance is.

So, there we go … six major flaws in the hiring process — and heck, I’m sure I missed a few things. What else you got for me?

Ted Bauer


  1. Man, I loved this piece.

    “But the hiring process isn’t rooted in that. It’s rooted in ‘Here’s a checklist of shit we think this job should be able to do. If you have the entire checklist, maybe you can advance.'”

    100% that, and I’d add “…but even if you check every box on our list, you still need to pass our ‘Do we like you as a person?’ test, which is completely arbitrary and subject to our personal biases and whims”.

    The hiring process at most companies is FUBAR. I loved how you broke down each component of the process to expose its deficiencies. There isn’t one element of the process that works, really.

    A broken hiring system is a shitty enough reality to deal with on its own; what’s even more odious about the whole affair are the “thought leaders” out there who arrogantly defend the hiring process status quo.

    Shit like:

    – making “job hopping” an issue: Yes, turnover is bad for the bottom line. We get it. However, turning down qualified job applicants because you aren’t comfortable with their resume and won’t take the time to understand the context behind why they left their jobs is myopic and fairly childish. It doesn’t address the root issue of why people leave jobs. Expect turnover to continue to be an issue at your company if this is what you believe.

    – the insane belief that those who already have jobs are more employable: The analogy that’s often used to defend this is “well, it’s like when you’re single, no one wants to date you, but when you’re in a relationship, people want to be with you”, a completely misused and misunderstood maxim. Yeah, I get it, maybe there are psychological studies that indicate this, but merely barfing out the conclusion without evaluating the methodology kinda just makes you a human parrot. Additionally, even if the idea holds true in dating, the dating and job-seeking processes ARE NOT (and certainly should not be) 1:1 COMPATIBLE.

    – complete and utter nonsense like the “skills gap”. “Durr, I’m a brainless hiring manager who read some hack’s marketing copy on a staffing firm’s whitepaper about being able to help ‘narrow my company’s skills gap’ and didn’t take the time to think critically about whether that’s an actual problem here.”

    We could take a huge step forward in fixing these issues by simply admitting that we’re bad at hiring – self-honesty is a great first step in repairing a broken system – but some of us feel the need to defend our awful choices without taking into consideration that we might be wrong.

    As always, Ted, thanks for keeping it real and offering thoughtful analysis of business issues. And sorry for the ranty nature of this comment. I hope it wasn’t too YouTube-grade.

  2. I’d disagree on a few points.

    With regard to Flaw 2, no one has the functional knowledge, or very few do. The hiring manager is the best person to determine what they need, but there is very little guarantee that they will be able to determine if any given person they interview can deliver that, because almost all people such at interviewing. On the off chance that they do get personally involved at the start of the process, they go in with the I’ll Know It When I See It attitude, when in reality they’re just bringing a whole boatload of biases and bullshit to the table. It’s hiring managers who are the source of such idiotic standards as requiring a specific school, or a specific job title, in order to even consider someone for a position. For the most part, neither HR nor hiring managers have a clue how to interview, and even if they do, interviewing is largely useless as it lacks much if any predictive value. In reality, intelligence tests, skills tests, and integrity tests usually produce the best results, because they provide objective results that can be measured and tailored for specific jobs. How does an IT manager know if candidate A can adjust the fan speed on X server? Make him do it, plain and simple.

    With regard to the abandonment rate, the reason companies don’t consider this for the most part, is because they think they’re entitled to a workforce. For two main reasons, economic and social, employees are ALWAYS assumed to be in the inferior position, and thus they should be begging for jobs and thankful for having the chance to spend an hour or so retyping their resume multiple times. Employment, in the US at least, is viewed as some form of favor or altruistic act on the part of the employer. Which is complete horseshit, but that’s how it is viewed, and as a result they barely value their employees, and candidates or potential employees can go get fucked, is the attitude of most companies.

    With regard to interviews, structured is best, but if I had the choice myself no interviews would be done unless they were done by a trained IO Psych. Most people don’t know how to interview and produce absolutely nothing of value from an interview.

    You’re absolutely right with regard to the hiring process and science, there is none involved, and that’s the way most people want it. Science means accountability. It means the hiring manager with the idiotic and arbitrary ideas about what makes his or her people successful will have their bullshit challenged. It means the HR department will become a profit center and be accountable, like everyone else. It means the fuckwit CEO who spends all day running around screaming at people will have to face the fact that higher turnover and the costs associated with it are largely his fault. It means managers with high political cache but zero actual skill will be exposed as useless, and fired.

    Also, and crucially, it means recruiting agencies who make ridiculous amounts of money churning out resumes and interviews will have to be held to objective standards. Those agencies are by and large controlled by uber SALES! types, and nothing pisses off a salesman more than bringing up objective standards and reality, like quotas and how far short they’ve fallen, or how their product actually measures up against the competition, etc. The common refrain you hear in the industry nonstop is Recruiting Is Sales! No, it isn’t. Why is it sales, because you occasionally have to convince someone of something? Well, you do that in engineering too, so I guess engineering is sales, as is every other job on the planet… This incessant desire of Sales! types to demand that anything and everything IS SALES! is a big part of the problem, because when they say Sales! they just mean low or no standard bullshit artistry. They mean the ability to BS your way through something is more valuable than actually being able to do it, that convincing is as good as actually doing. Sales people love their fields because with little to no qualifications you can get a good income based on charm and looks, and that’s the primary reason so many ‘recruiters’ are young, good looking women, and a significant portion of the rest are young guys with flashy but ill fitting suits, way too much hair gel, and driving low end BMWs their parents bought for them. Because in Sales! that’s all you need.

    Basically when it comes to hiring and the business world, people calling for science, rationality, measurement, and accountability in the process are Galileo Galilei, and the existing business infrastructure and culture is the church, and their priesthood are the Sales! recruiters doggedly insisting the Earth is the center of all things when it plainly isn’t.

    Eventually this field will be disrupted. There are already anecdotal accounts of some companies disregarding bullshit standards and just trying to figure out what actually works in reality vis a vis hiring. I think SAP recently created a fully automated process to spit out entry level people, it might not even involve any interviewing, just go through the tests and if you make it, you’re hired. So there is hope, but a true large scale change is a long way off.

  3. Great and enjoyable piece. There are some approaches that fix parts of the narrative. you know, some of the tests and metric approaches that get thrown in but basically these are already sorting through the people left after the filter has removed the ‘non-compliant to the spec’ people. This is one of the reasons Tom Peters exhortation to hire ‘crazies’ never stood a cat in hells chance.’ Diversity? You must be joking.

    It also reminds me of the approach to tendering. Most companies specify the parameters of the solution they have already decided on and the game is not coming up with the best solution to a problem but guessing what the company has already thought from the clues in the scoring system and spec for the tender.

    Sound familiar?

  4. Hey Ted,

    Love the article! I love what you talked about in your first step. I strongly believe that if you have a good strong candidate, they can learn what the job entails. I also agree with step 3. I sometime leave interviews thinking to myself that I don’t know this person any better then before the interview.

    -Brian Fidelibus

  5. Ted Bauer, my God, WHERE do I start? Are you married? JOKES, JUST JOKES! But congrats to her if you are. You have it right. Well wait. You have it 75% right and the other 25% could be construed as right depending on whether we’re looking at inside or outside hires AND depending on whether we’re looking at direct hires or agency hires (and then within that mishogas (sp?), are we talking flat rate contract hires or pay per hire? Because that can throw some definite wrenches in certain aspects of the argument, but again, they’re all very different animals. I was a recruiter for the last ten years and I remember when ATS wasn’t an acronym. And I’ve also seen it convince sales people at large organizations that the company, and therefore it’s people, have the technology to do anything and find anyone. And let me tell you, I COULD find anyone. But I colored with a different box of crayons than the avg. 26 year old that’s running a $1M+ recruiting campaign because she majored in English and rocks a pair of stilettos at work. I was passed over for every possible opportunity that came down the pike and I think it was actually a selfish compliment in a way bc they DID need my hidden expertise (aka, age, specifically older, age) but also bc I didn’t look good in a pencil skirt so I wasn’t part of the sales teams bait. Now, however, I can rock any pencil skirt, I just happened to have left recruiting. And not bc I don’t agree with the direction it’s headed (although I don’t), it was totally unrelated. But now I have to ask myself, do I go back? And I don’t think my hearts in this new system of hiring. I like the old school methodology. It takes longer but it’s more effective. For everyone involved. I would love to get everyone in this thread on a call and see if we can’t fix it. We seem to be the only ones that have what it takes to recruit properly. And that’s passion. And it’s not on my resume. What say you? Tear it down to build it up? If nothing else, I bet we’d have a great chat. I’m in. Let me know. ~Cat K (ps: I loathe email follow ups. Text & phone are my preferred methods of contact. I haven’t finished building my WordPress page either, so in the interim you can try my email or my direct line is 773~621~1875. I look forward to hearing from you.)

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