They Are Better than We Are!

Contributor:  Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted:  08/29/2011  12:00:00 AM EDT
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A new phenomenon: candidates are often superior to those hiring them. It is embarrassing, even demoralizing. Applicants who are smarter, savier, more credentialed, possess a wider range of work experience, etc.  Wow—no wonder so many hiring teams feel outclassed, ready to throw in the towel, and conclude if they had any integrity they would all resign and turn over their jobs to the applicants.

But where are these candidates coming from? and how are we typically handling the challenge? At least three sources account for the expanded pool of competent candidates.

1. Numbers

Downsizing, layoffs, an unfriendly economy and new graduates have swelled the ranks of the unemployed, unemployable and underemployed. But they have not taken it lying down or been idle or passive. Some have gone back for an advanced degree, especially online. Others have signed up for webinars, especially if they are free. Almost all have sharpened their research skills and spent hours on the Internet, becoming more knowledgeable and marketable. In other words, this a far more formidable, job hungry, tough, and resourceful work force now than when they were let go.

They also have virtually no illusions that anyone owes them a job or that it will last. All they ask is to be given the opportunity to prove their worth, and they will take care of the rest. They may be the best pool of applicants we have ever had. 

2. Suspicious, and Even a Little Cynical

But many have come to some sad conclusions.  The most obvious is that there is no such thing as company loyalty. When push comes to shove, you are out the door. Jobs were just not left unfilled; they have been eliminated, disappeared, not just now but perhaps forever. You could wake up one morning and find that your job category and field has virtually vanished or been reduced to token proportions.

They also have discovered that reduction or retention has almost nothing (or very little) to do with performance. You are a financial pawn, stripped of any identity, whose value (or lack thereof) is determined by what you contribute to the bottom line. The much vaunted global economy is a game in which your wage differential made you expendable and replaceable. In short, the clock is always ticking, you never know if you will be next, and your CV is always current.

3. Unexpected Job Growth

Of course, the amazing and unexpected development was that productivity did not drop, minimally held steady, and in some cases even increased. Given all of the above, how did that happen?

Even more surprising why was such achievement taken for granted, assumed it would just go on and continue on its own forever? No one wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth and inquire why it occurred in the first place.

The new mantra was to do whatever it takes to get the job done. And because that was also the way to keep your job, motivation was strong. But it was a lot to overcome: unfilled jobs and gaps, lack and loss of skill sets, supervisors spread very thin, and your overseas counterpart invisibly working beside you.  And again surprisingly no one protested or objected, “That is not in my job description!” Or if they did, they were redirected to read the famous last line: “…and all other duties as required.”

Gradually what began to become clear was that a shift in work goals was accompanied by a shift in work roles. Traditional goals as articulated in job descriptions were matched with appropriate titles. They were of a piece. But the new goals exceeded their old roles. In addition, these new goals were stretch goals, constantly changing. The average worker not only had to accomplish his traditional, but also his growth goal. He not only had to do his job but also manage it— and to align both. Similarly, supervisors not only had to manage, but also lead. Teams not only had to play a supportive function, but also had to become critical operations instruments collectively, independently and effectively running companies.

The only way all this could happen was to take over roles that now matched the new amorphous goals. All not only stepped up to the plate, but also took the next step up. Everyone promoted himself, not because they were presumptuous or were in a state of revolt, but because the new alignment between stretch goals and stretch roles required it.

The net result was a training experience in scale and scope beyond what was contemplated or even could be offered by any standard program array. It was a company-wide and across the board self-growth on a scale that produced a unique can-do work ethic in the US. And many of these players are ready to jump ship and become part of that new, challenging work force bedeviling recruiters.

If we turn now to how this challenge has been handled, the results are not happy. There are at least three major disappointments. 

1. The CEO

The one who knows the least and should know the most is the CEO.

Although generally kept in the dark, sometimes it breaks into the open when a highly touted recruit is fired and the CEO, who incidentally was the last to interview Mr. or Ms. Right, demands to know whether that was the best we could come up with. If he accepts the token answers, the problem becomes muted or buried. But if he presses further and harder, the truth will come out.

Why is it important that the CEO should be involved in the first place? Because it is a very high priority for certain CEOs— especially those who come through HR or are persuaded that the quality of the workforce provides a competitive advantage. If, in addition, he is knowledgeable about why productivity and morale are high, he has much to sell to his customers and stockholders. But the most important reason he should be involved is that it gives him the rare opportunity for changing the company culture—for bringing on board the best and the brightest.

2. Policy

Most companies have not formulated any policy or issued any guideline for handling this unprecedented embarrassment of riches. Indeed, unless directly involved in recent hirings, most employees do not know anything about it. Because different recruiting groups from different units generally do not talk to each other, each unit encounters the surprise without warning and thus fails to build up the kind of critical mass that generates an official response.

Imagine the shock of a hiring team, especially composed of a number of veterans who have been around the block a number of times, leafing through resumes—and each resume superior to the one before it. What a devil of a time with ranking! A short list that includes nearly everyone?  What bewilderment! What do they do?

3. Overqualified

Inevitably, the favorite non-solution is to invoke the category of the overqualified. Instead of the traditional ranking by incompetence, now the range measures excessive competence. Moved to the side and beyond consideration are a host of stars many supervisors would give their proverbial eye teeth for. But once dubbed as overqualified, the onus passes to the candidate.

He is not really interested in the job. He would be bored in a week. He only wants to get his foot in the door. He won’t stay. He is, in effect, a full-time temp. The moment a better match comes up, he will be gone. Meanwhile, things may be unpleasant. He may regularly second-guess his supervisor, breed some discontent about the ways many things are done, be a know-it-all at meetings. And who needs that?  Besides, no one is claiming he is not outstanding. He is just overqualified— at the wrong place at the wrong time—and in another place and time, he would be welcomed with open arms.

And so the center is moved to the side, the problem is “solved” by creating a lesser pool of choices, the status quo is kept intact and peace reigns.

A postscript: Imagine two rejected overqualified candidates having the following conversation after their interviews.

 “Well what do you think?”

 “They are in over their heads and out of their depth.”

 “But I always thought they were an outstanding company.”

 “Based on this experience, they are second rate.”

And that is your company they are talking about! What could have been a win-win turns out to be loss-loss.  
Irving Buchen, Ph.D Contributor:   Irving Buchen, Ph.D

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