HR: Getting Back to (First) Principles

Image Credit: Radachynskyi Serhil/

Process should support outcomes, not de-rail them.

In part one of this blog series I recounted some discussions where I faced an uncomfortable truth about HR. I saw the impacts of HR memes and processes, and possibly HR ambition, dominating and overcoming the actual value that could otherwise have been brought to business issues.

And it forced me to look into a mirror and wonder how often I’d fallen into similar traps.

Reflecting further on what I’ve observed over a 30+ year HR career, it does seem one of HR’s apparent greatest strengths (best practice process) can also turn into a real point weakness. Thinking about recruitment, I can recall a couple of examples I’ve seen where process overshadowed merit somewhere along the way.

Once I was called in to a dispute about a recruitment outcome. It was following a bulk recruitment of executive assistant roles for a particular part of the organisation. The recruitment approach – uniformly and therefore fairly applied for all applicants – was:

1. Shortlisting for interview on basis of relative merits/experience from resume, with a default that all internal applicants who had acted in the role went to interview
2. Interviews held
3. Referees sought only for those applicants considered suitable/competitive on the basis of the interview

This is a common enough approach. It’s applied consistently and is quick. But it runs a very real risk of biasing merit towards those good at interviews. That’s probably fine if the nature of the role greatly resembles the experience of being in an interview. But if it doesn’t, then meritorious applicants – who aren’t interview stars but very possibly stars in their actual jobs – can easily get overlooked, making their potential claims largely invisible.

Most of you will have read the numerous studies about the risks of bias towards extroverts in assessment centres and the steps taken to try to re-balance that. I think the risk is similar for interview-focussed merit decisions.

In this case, all the ‘successful’ internal interviewees had used the same referee, but when that referee saw that one particular applicant wasn’t being progressed to reference checking – and the referee viewed in their opinion (and that of their peers) that the overlooked one was actually the best performer in the role – the efficacy of the recruitment came into question.

Certainly, the approach taken was fair – all applicants were treated equally. But somehow – unless the referee and their peers got it wrong somehow – it had resulted in a clearly meritorious candidate not getting through to reference stage.

This reminded me of an interesting blog post and string of comments I read a few years ago by a recruiter from an overseas recruitment company who boasted that he could tell in a 20 second resume review whether someone was worthy of progressing. He listed a range of things he would look for, but was then challenged – and with great fervour and intellect – by many commenters about the potential blind spots of his approach.

His argument then switched to how it didn’t matter if some good ones fell through the cracks as he still had lots of ones to put forward. When someone pointed out that wouldn’t necessarily give his client the best applicants he finally conceded that, but said he’d never claimed to find the best. But if you scrolled up to the headline of his blog, it claimed he would ‘find the best talent’ – not ‘I can find a list of people who are at least credible for you to consider’.

So much for truth in advertising….

Yet he could probably argue, just like the earlier case, that nothing in his process was personal, and so it treated everyone ‘fairly’, And that’s important. But fairness on its own isn’t always enough.

It seems to me both processes were based on the wrong first principle. The first one valued equity in recruitment experience above comprehensiveness in scrutiny. The second one valued speed to outcome over quality of outcome.

But shouldn’t recruitment’s first principle be to find the best person for the job? And then – given we all know there is no absolutely full proof way of ensuring that – what combination of elements (all applied equally/fairly) would give the best likelihood of achieving that for a particular type of role? And if it takes a bit longer, or has a few more steps, is that a deal-breaker? Should it ever be?

Sometimes we get lost in process and lose sight of the outcomes. But if we go back to first principles about what we are intending to achieve, and constantly review our processes in light of that, doesn’t it follow we are likely to get better outcomes and processes?

Someone might tell you they employ a process similar to my examples and that overall it is quick, efficient, and gets great people. But what about the great people who fell through the net? What if they would have been better? Is speed everything, is simplicity the ultimate goal?

Or should it be something else?

2 thoughts on “HR: Getting Back to (First) Principles

  1. This discussion has been around for a long time.
    Being treated the same or equally is based on an assumption that we are all the same and have similar experiences. Equal or the same is not the same as equitable.
    Equitable is finding an assessment method that identifies who can bring the best to the role. It is a challenge for us all as we consider our rational approaches based on our internal bias and assumptions about what makes the best candidate.
    Thanks for raising this again Helen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joan – very succinctly put – I agree, it’s a long standing issue and a complex one to solve. I like the way you’ve contextualised equitable in this sense – it is about the role and how/what methods are best to find the most suitable person.


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