Job requirements: often counterproductive

My friend Rikki Endsley shared an article from Quartz entitled “job requirements are mostly fiction and you should ignore them“. Based on how quickly my friends re-shared the post, it seems to have resonated with many people. The article is targeted at job applicants and the TL;DR is “apply for the job you want, even if you don’t think you’re qualified. Job postings are written to describe ideal candidates, even if they’re not realistic, and most hiring managers would gladly take someone who meets some of the requirements. When a characteristic is listed under “requirements” instead of “preferred”, potential applicants assume that they shouldn’t bother applying.

This isn’t true in all cases, of course. In some places, the requirements are well-written and the hiring manager doesn’t consider any applications that don’t meet the requirements. Other times, the initial evaluation is done by the human resources department and they apply the requirements strictly (as an anecdote, I know I’ve been rejected for more than one position because my degree was in the wrong field. This despite that I had experience in the position and the hiring manager asking HR for my resume specifically). In many cases, though, the “requirements” are a high bar. The Internet is full of (possibly apocryphal) stories of job postings wanting 7 years of experience in a 5 year old programming language.

Hiring managers aren’t addressed directly in the article, but there’s a lesson here for you: be careful when writing job requirements. Apart from scaring away people you might have otherwise ended up hiring (especially women, who are more likely to pass on jobs where they don’t meet all of the qualifications), you’re robbing yourself of a good way to weed out the truly unqualified. Especially when someone else is pre-screening applicants, I prefer to craft job postings as broadly as possible. I would much rather spend extra time reviewing applicants than miss out on someone who would have been a great hire. It’s a low-risk, high-reward decision.

It’s not cheap to hire people. Especially in small organizations, you don’t want to risk hiring someone who you’ll have to get rid of in six months. But turnover isn’t cheap, either. I haven’t studied this, but speaking from my own experience, I’m much more likely to leave a position when I feel like I’ve stopped growing. By hiring someone who is 80-90% of the way there instead of 100%, you buy yourself more time with this person, reducing turnover. Sure, you get less productivity initially, but allowing an employee to grow is a cheap way to keep them interested in their work.

Likewise, I don’t want to apply¬†for a job where I could step in on day one and do everything. If I wanted a job that I could do easily, I’d still be in my first job. I bet I’d be¬†really good at it by now, but my skills wouldn’t have expanded. As a friend-of-a-friend said “I don’t think I’ve ever applied for a job that I was qualified for.” If employers can write job requirements aspirationally, then potential applicants should be aspirational in job applications.

Humans as investments, not resources

As I last week, two tweets on Sunday morning lead me to a lengthy pontification about HR and how organizations treat employees. In part two, I focus on an article shared by Mrs. Y in which we find that the longer you stay in your position, the more money you’re robbing from your future self. I’m approaching the eight year anniversary of the start of my first professional job and just passed the one year anniversary of the start of my fourth. I just ran the numbers: assuming a 2% annual raise (which is probably generous), I’m making nearly 60% more than I would had I stayed in that first job.

Money isn’t everything, of course. I’ve never left a job because I wanted more money (though I’ve never complained about getting more money). Every time I left a job, it’s because I ran out of room to grow my skills and responsibilities or because I was dissatisfied with the organization. In those cases, throwing more money at me would have been at best a short-term inducement to stay. Still, it has been my experience that the best way to get what you want is to leave and go get it elsewhere. This is fundamentally broken. How much productivity does an organization lose when years of experience walk out the door? How much frustration does a person gain when they have to re-learn a new job, a new employer, and often a new city?

The basic issue is that all too often, organizations treat employees as resources to extract value from. Viewed properly, employees are investments that will help the organization grow. I’ve heard managers say “why should I send you to that training? You’ll probably end up leaving.” Of course, the manager is sure he’s right when the employee does leave. But maybe they’d have stayed if the organization was willing to invest.

When an employer gives a big raise or other consideration to an employee, it tends to be in reaction to the employee receiving an offer from somewhere else. “If I give you more money, will you stay?” is a losing proposition. At that point, the employee is already heading for the door. It’s far better to keep the good employees sufficiently happy such that they don’t get those offers in the first place. Of course, some people will always leave, and there’s no stopping that. Prolonging the period of mutual benefit is the best possible outcome.

The notion of loyalty to an employer strikes me as being misplaced. When an employer won’t take proactive steps to aid the development of an employee, why does the employee owe any loyalty? There are good organizations out there that really do try to keep employees on an upward trajectory when it comes to pay and skills. Those that don’t aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not doing themselves any favors.

Of course, the blame isn’t entirely on the shoulders of the employer. Employees have to understand that their bosses aren’t mind readers. My major regret from my last job is the fact that I wasn’t more vocal about what I wanted from the position along the way. Maybe something could have been done that would have made me want to say “no thanks” when I was offered my current job. Or maybe not. But at least then I would have had to choose.

Organizational silos in the 21st century

My friend Joanna shared an interesting Harvard Business Review article yesterday morning entitled “It’s Time to Split HR“. Along with another link article that was shared by someone else a few minutes later, I found myself making a rather lengthy pontification about how organizations treat employees, particularly with respect to pay. Originally, I was going to focus on that, but the more I thought about it, the more I think there are two separate-but-related posts. So in this one, I’ll focus on the HBR article.

Ram Charan lays out an interesting argument for bifurcating the traditional Human Resources department into administration (e.g. compensation, hiring, etc.) and leadership (e.g. personnel development) roles. It’s certainly a proposal worth considering. As commenter Jonathan Magid pointed out, the two roles of HR are essentially to protect the organization from its employees and to develop those same employees. HR effectively has to serve two masters. In most cases where there’s a conflict of interest, HR will side with the organization. That makes sense, since the organization is the one writing the pay checks.

Charan, however, doesn’t really address this. His main concern seems to be the lack of strategic understanding within the ranks of HR leadership. Chief Human Resources Offices (CHROs), he writes, are too specialized in HR functional areas and lack understanding of the larger organization. This is true of all areas, though. Especially those that are not core to the business. Too often, IT leadership is painted (appropriately) with the same brush. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the area needs to go away.

The best employees are familiar with other areas of the business, not just those under their direct purview. This is true of all functional areas and at all levels. In a previous job, we frequently lamented that HR wasn’t as helpful as they could be in vetting resumes because they didn’t understand technology. Go on any forum where technical people gather and eventually you’ll find disparaging remarks and advice to game keywords because that’s all HR will understand. In my experience, the issue isn’t that HR staff are terrible human beings, it’s that they’re just too siloed.

Everyone “knows” that silos are bad. Bureaucratic fiefdoms tend to be self-reenforcing and lead to reactionary, defensive tactics like information hoarding in order to keep justifying their existence. What I find so interesting is that organizations can’t seem to avoid forming silos. Siloization is like an organizational version of entropy: left alone, it will increase over time.

There are certainly benefits to silos. They make the organization easier to understand. They allow for deep specialization. Knowledge transfer is simplified. But they’re a losing prospect in the longer term.

A good friend of mine directs the IT support organization for a large academic unit within a large midwestern university. This group is notable because it provides excellent customer service (according to their internal measures, the opinions of the customers, and their reputation on campus) and actively suppresses silo formation. He told me that silo suppression is “extremely expensive, and very difficult to explain/justify to people.”

Silo suppression is expensive because it’s a long-term investment in the organization. Rotating senior personnel through phone duty is expensive as compared to putting the newest, cheapest hire on that task all day. Requiring all knowledge to be shared among at least one colleague requires a larger staff. Hiring and retaining people who buy into the organizational philosophy is a slower and more expensive process. All of this looks terrible in a short-term view.

Where silo suppression pays off is in the long term. Vacations, illnesses, and employee turnover are less disruptive because the knowledge is retained. Someone else in the organization can pick up dropped issues without a long spin-up time. Employees develop a broader view of their work and can make useful suggestions for areas outside of their main expertise.

There are undoubtedly psychological and sociological reasons that we gravitate toward developing silos. Organizational leaders must be aware of this tendency and actively work to counter it. The problem with HR isn’t that the people or the functions are bad. The problem is that HR is not out “among the people.” Embedding HR representatives within other functional areas of an organization is almost certain to improve HR’s understanding of the larger business. In addition, it may help make HR more approachable and better understood by the rest of the organization, allowing employees to make the best use of the HR resources available.

Organizational silos are interesting. We know that they’re bad, but we always end up reverting to them over time. Maybe just we need better silos. Silos built around projects that can easily be torn down and put up somewhere else may give us the best of both worlds.