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Exploring the trickier aspects of hiring: What kills an applicant’s chances?

A few questions to consider about the hiring process: Is it the most rewarding aspect of an HR professional’s job? Is it a thorny task fraught with legal risk? Is it an exercise in frustration, frequently yielding undesirable candidates? For many HR pros, the answer to all three questions is likely yes.

The economic downturn of recent years has resulted in an unusual number of people out of work and therefore seeking new jobs. Yet surveys show that employers who are hiring often have a hard time filling key positions.

Staffing and HR firm ManpowerGroup released its 2012 Talent Shortage Survey in May that showed nearly half (49 percent) of U.S. employers claim difficulty in filling mission-critical positions. That’s down slightly from 52 percent in the 2011 survey.

Mastering HR Report: Hiring

Why so hard?
With all the job seekers in the market, employers wonder why the candidates they see aren’t the candidates they need. Often the applicant pool’s lack of skill is cited. “This skills mismatch has major ramifications on employment and business success in the U.S. and around the globe,” Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup president of the Americas, said in a statement accompanying the survey.

Some employers are finding ways around the problem, though. “Wise corporate leaders are doing something about it,” Prising said, “and we increasingly see that they’re developing workforce strategies and partnerships with local educational institutions to train their next generation of workers.”

Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, calls the oft-cited skills gap a myth. He is the author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It, which was released in June.

In a June 4 article on Time magazine’s Time Business website, Cappelli wrote that too often employers insist on hiring candidates who can hit the ground running with no training.

And sometimes it’s the job description. “Employers further complicated the hiring process by piling on more and more job requirements, expecting that in a down market a perfect candidate will turn up if they just keep looking,” he wrote.

Cappelli told of a job seeker who had tried for a job that had been open for almost a year in which the employer was “asking the candidate to not only be the human resources expert but the marketing, publishing, project manager, accounting and finance expert.” He said when he asked the employer if the job was hard to fill, “the response was ‘yes but we want the right fit.'”

In the article, Cappelli also faults software “that screens out all but the theoretically perfect candidate.” He told of a manager seeking candidates for a standard engineering job. The manager got 25,000 applicants, but not one filled the bill. “How could that be?” Cappelli asked in the article. “Just put in enough of these yes/no requirements and it becomes mathematically unlikely that anyone will get through.”

HR Guide to Employment Law

From the trenches
Although some candidates end up victims of impossible job descriptions and overzealous software programming, others kill their chances by making unwise mistakes during the face-to-face interview stage. A recent question posted to Employers Forum, an online discussion board that’s part of the website, sought reasons why certain candidates were rejected.

One of the respondants listed common mistakes including “bashing your current company/boss, playing with their cell phone . . . , not answering the question, . . . being too forthcoming about personal matters (boyfriend troubles, legal troubles, depression, medical stuff, partying).”

Appearance and hygiene also were cited as major red flags. “If they are dressed in a nice suit, but it looks like they picked it up off the floor and they reek of sweat or stale booze, then the odds are I’m not going to consider them. Or if they come in for an interview at a bank wearing sweats and flip flops, same deal,” one Forum poster said.

That responder also said eye contact and a solid handshake are important. “I hate it when people assume that a woman is going to shake hands like a wimp so they just barely grasp the tips of my fingers. I have a very firm handshake myself and I appreciate it in others also.”

One of the Forum responders said, “For us, it’s culture fit. We have such a strong culture at our company that if someone isn’t going to fit in, it’s really not worth pursuing them, despite any technical qualifications.”

Forum responders also said that unqualified candidates often make it to the interview stage. “I’m currently looking for an IT person and have gotten a resume from someone who only has experience in retail,” one responder said. Another said, “We had one applicant for an IT position some years back who had never even touched a computer before in her life!”

So what’s the secret to finding a strong applicant pool? One responder said the posting is key. “Simply posting the job description in an online ad isn’t going to attract the type of person we’re looking for, so we create fun ads that represent our company’s culture and sense of humor, hoping to draw similarly minded people.”