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The Challenge of Skills-Based Hiring

By Mary Faulkner

When you trace the history of hiring after the Industrial Revolution, you don’t have to go back very far to realize that a lot of it was tied to who you knew and how you presented yourself. It was all too easy to fabricate a backstory that looked good on paper. Sprinkle in a few fraudulent references and it was remarkably simple to get a good paying job.

With no real background-check process, the recruiter or hiring manager made a judgment call about the person sitting before them: Is the candidate believable? If their gut said yes, the individual was hired and ultimately the person’s on-the-job performance determined whether the worker stayed, unless outright fraud was reported (see Frank Abagnale, Jr.).

Examining the Role of Background Checks Fast-forward to the present, where background checks dig into education, employment history, and possible criminal records. Now, keep in mind that background checks didn’t emerge to ensure that companies could hire the best-qualified candidates for roles. They emerged to protect employers from risk in the event of harm from negligent hiring.

The use of background checks to “validate” (read: “weed out undesirable”) candidates was a perk to avoiding getting sued because someone got a co-worker killed as a result of not knowing what they were doing.

Of course, some will make the argument that background checks help you find well-qualified candidates because someone is verifying the candidate’s stated skill set based on experience and education. Indeed, 96% of US employers use pre-employment screening — which does not stop candidates from trying to game the system. Consider the following statistics:

  • 53% of job applications contain inaccurate information (SHRM).

  • 49% of managers polled said they caught an applicant fabricating some part of their resume (CareerBuilder).

  • 34% of applications contain outright lies about experience, education, and skills (Wall Street Journal).

Because background checks are conducted in the U.S. after the offer of employment, that’s an awful lot of candidates betting that hiring managers are willing to look the other way once they’ve won them over.

What Does This Have to Do With Skills-Based Hiring? The continued challenge of fabricated resumes and applications has given credence to those who argue that resumes are a waste of time and that all we need is to hire based on skills. Certifications, degrees, employment experience are all just words; what matters is whether someone can actually do the job.

I love the idea of looking past pieces of paper to assess people on what they can do…and what they can learn. However, the reality is that you can’t ask every single person to work for three weeks to show you that (nor should you ask them to do free work for an interview process), so recruiters and hiring managers need to rely a little bit on some sort of documentation of a person’s experience and training.

But the resume/CV/application is just the starting point for the evaluation. Beyond the potential for resume-padding lies the fact that there are very few industries that have robust, validated credentialing processes. (And please don’t come at me with SHRM or HRCI. You pass a test and you’re certified. That doesn’t guarantee that you have any idea how to navigate an organization.) Look at LinkedIn endorsements — just because your buddy says you’re amazing at project management because you organized a potluck doesn’t mean you’re ready for the big time.

A Guide to Skills-Based Hiring Given all the above, here are some ways to improve efforts to hire for skills:

Set realistic expectations. There’s a prevailing belief that every job has a perfect candidate, someone with that special blend of very specific experience, certifications, degrees, and je ne sais quoi — and the hiring manager simply won’t settle for less. Between the constant innovation in technology, evolving state of work, and the fact that most job descriptions are written by Googling a few samples and adding some company-specific bullet points, it’s likely that organizations don’t really know what they need. Or they know, but the talent pool can’t supply a 100% match. So it’s OK to identify two to three non-negotiables and label everything else “nice to have.”

Assessment tools can be your friend. When people see the word “assessment,” they often think SAT bubble sheets…or is that just me? Anyway, my point is assessments tend to be synonymous with “tests” for a lot of people. And while there are many assessments that are more like formal tests (think Watson-Glaser, Hogan, Wonderlic), there are a plethora that are designed to suss out whether someone can actually do the job. These can include full-blown assessment centers, where the candidate role-plays a specific work scenario in a simulated environment. They can also include simple demonstrations in an interview, such as conducting short training for a facilitator, working collaboratively on building a network from scratch, or demonstrating a spot and arc weld if you’re looking for a fabricator. Ultimately, there is a way to non-invasively ask candidates to prove they have the goods, no matter what their resumes might say.

Don’t be afraid of realistic job previews. I love a good realistic job preview, whether it’s a video that candidates can watch during the application process, a more detailed video during the interview process, or including a manager-free conversation with peers as part of the mutual evaluation.

Such efforts can ensure that candidates get a more complete picture of what the day-to-day looks and feels like. They can also self-select out. Additionally, you can also use these elements as jumping-off points for scenario-based conversations around “what would you do if…” questions, which can be beneficial.

Consider hiring a diamond in the rough. Companies have gotten too focused on finding people who are currently doing the job and trying to lure them to take a lateral move. This might work if candidates are in toxic situations or if employers are willing to give them a substantial raise. But it also means you’re potentially overlooking a lot of candidates who are almost there and just need a chance to grow into the role.

Some of my best hires have been those who had a good foundation but didn’t have every single skill for the role. Why did they work out? Because I used all the evaluation tools described above at my disposal and I invested in developing them in their roles. It’s this development piece that is missing for most organizations, which is a shame because as skill-based everything becomes the norm, the companies that solve the re-skilling puzzle will be the ones to survive and thrive. So why not start practicing now?


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