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Should I recruit based on skills, or take a punt?

Employers, recruiters & HR

09:00 Tuesday, 13 April 2021

UK Cyber Security Council

Recruiting is tedious, expensive and sometimes difficult. I live in the Channel Islands, which makes it even harder than I found it when I worked in London, as over here you’re fishing in a very small pond of candidates. But even on the mainland, getting the right people isn’t easy.

Over the years I’ve recruited quite a lot of people, and in some cases the right candidate has landed in my lap: I recall one client whom I helped build a development team, where three CVs jumped out at me screaming “perfect”. This has been very much the exception, though, not the rule.

Part of the problem with recruiting is an innate desire to recruit someone who fits the job description. In principle this is obviously the right thing to do – you’ve gone to great lengths to define the skills and experience you think the job needs – but in fact it’s the wrong approach, at least in part.

The issue is that when a candidate rocks up for interview, you will (if you’re any good) find out things about them that weren’t mentioned on the CV. And you should be considering these new discoveries even if they don’t align with your painstakingly constructed job description.

(A note about CVs at this point: we need to stop judging people based on their ability to write a CV. There’s no “right way” to write one, and anyway the recruitment agent has probably had a hack at it before sending it to us so it’s not even the candidate’s own work we’re judging.)

Let’s take an example. A company I was working with in the retail industry had completed the installation of a big new system, and it was looking like one of the test team’s job was about to be redundant; this chap had previously worked in one of the company’s shops prior to moving onto the project as a tester. The IT service desk was looking for support staff, and I suggested that he might give that a go – he’d never done tech support before but as a shop guy he had communication skills oozing from every pore. We took a punt, he loved it, and he was brilliant at it.

Similarly in London, many years ago, I took on a newly minted computer science graduate to help me in my role as IT manager. At the same time, we needed some help with an office move, and we engaged the brother of one of my colleagues for a few weeks to help out. The latter was in his early 40s and was the classic “tinkerer” – he fiddled with technology in his spare time because he enjoyed it – and from time to time he would assist with user support if things got busy. And the users loved him: his mature years delivered immense experience of dealing with people, his user interface was spectacularly good, he never over-promised, and he was never afraid to say he didn’t know something and ask for help. Eventually he became my full-time IT support guy, even though he was some way short of having the qualifications the job description asked for. If we’d recruited him the “traditional” way… well, we wouldn’t have recruited him.

I’m not saying, of course, that we should simply recruit by attempting to jam round pegs into square holes: that would be daft. I guess people who like buzzwords would tell me that I’m saying we should consider transferable skills and so-called “soft skills” as part of the recruiting process, and to an extent I think they’d be right. But every so often I think it’s right to take it a step further than that. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve met someone for the first time and, after chatting for a while, something has just “clicked”. Perhaps we then head down a tangent and discover something new and interesting, or perhaps we just deviate from the script and chat generally to find out about each other.

And sometimes what you find out, or even just what you feel, about the person is more important than what you brain-dumped into the job description. And if so, it could well be time to take a punt.