Hiring, Algorithms, and Criteria

A lot of businesses are pretty desperate to fill open positions.  Pay rates are being increased, and hiring bonuses are being offered.  Yet at the same time, the software that frequently intermediates between candidate and company is often structured and configured in a way that does nobody any favors. (except, perhaps, the vendors of such software)

Over-specification of job requirements is a  frequent problem…some hospitals, for example,  have scanned the resumes of nurses for ‘computer programming’ skills when what they really wanted was someone with data entry experience.  Years ago, the WSJ ran an article on overspecification, featuring the quote “Companies are looking for a five-pound butterfly. Not finding them doesn’t mean there is a shortage of butterflies.”  As an example, it mentioned a company that makes automobile bumper parts and was looking for a factory shift supervisor. They eliminated all candidates who didn’t have a BS degree, even though many had relevant experience, and also insisted on experience with the specific manufacturing software that was in use at the plant. It took six months to fill this job (during which time the position was being filled by someone who wouldn’t ultimately be chosen for it.) Another company, Wabtec, which makes components for railcars and buses, insisted on knowledge of a specific version of the computer-aided design system it uses, even though the differences between that version and the earlier version were not all that great.

It’s a basic reality of life that you can’t optimize everything at once. So, if you insist on a perfect fit for certain things, you are probably getting less of some other attributes–and these may be ones that matter more. I’d personally rather have a salesman who has demonstrated (for example) skill at managing the customer politics in a large and complex sale than one who has specific experience with the Snarkolator CRM system. It’s a lot easier to train for the second than for the first.

Similarly, if a newly-hired mechanical engineer doesn’t work out, the cause will probably not be his lack of experience with the latest version of a CAD system. More likely, it will be a lack of good design intuition…or poor interpersonal skills…or an inability to integrate mechanical design with electrical and electronics aspects of the same product…or fit with the cultural style of the organization. Maybe he comes from an environment where he was closely supervised, and the new environment is more open and requires more self-starting…or vice versa. These things are not easily represented in “checklist” form, as is knowledge of a specific software package and version, but they matter a lot.

But…in addition to the overspecification problem…I think it’s a fallacy to believe that an algorithm, at the current state of the art, can reliably look at someone’s resume to decide whether or not  they have a good shot at meeting the needs of the job. (Some programs are even looking at the applicant’s photograph, which opens the door to all kinds of problems.)  It’s hard enough for a sharp HR person (some of them do exist) to understand the needs of the hiring manager well enough to screen resumes appropriately, let alone expecting an algorithm to do so.

Someone I know recently applied for a job for which she seems to be an excellent fit.  The hiring software used by the organization sucked in her resume, formatted it to meet that software’s standards, and displayed the result.  It didn’t really communicate what she wanted communicated…she had published several articles that were very relevant to the potential employer, but whoever wrote the software had apparently never thought about ‘published articles’ as a potential hiring factor, and she had to wrestle with the software for some time to get them included.

Once a resume passes initial screening, there are also some malign trends related to the interview process itself.  In an seemingly-increasing number of cases, companies are requiring candidates to be interviewed by an unreasonable number of people…as many as 8 or 10, apparently.  Still worse, there are companies which will reject a candidate if any of the interviewers disapproves of them.  This is a guaranteed way to enshrine mediocrity and groupthink.

Employers do indeed have a real problem in dealing with the absolute flood of resumes that they get for just about any position–but need to be careful not to throw the babies out with the bathwater.  Hiring decisions are absolutely critical in any organization–‘personnel is policy’–and have huge impacts on productivity, innovation, and growth.

49 thoughts on “Hiring, Algorithms, and Criteria”

  1. My middle daughter was interviewed by about 6 or 8 people at Apple for a design job. The chief designer finally interviewed her and then they decided to hire someone in house. She was actually relieved as she had been worrying about where she would live if they hired her,.

  2. No surprise. The vast majority of HR types are “Grievance Studies” majors with zero knowledge of the real world. They do have, however, lots of ‘Participation Trophies’.

  3. It’s not HR people, though, who on their own can edict something like the “8 people must interview all candidates, and any of those 8 can veto.” That is either a top management decision…or a failure of executive-level management to push back against a bad HR idea.

  4. Even when you’re trying to hire for something that is supposed to have a well defined skill set, like “nurse” or “electrician”, it’s impossible to tell in an interview the difference between a good one or a bad one. You’ll never get a meaningful reference unless you’re personally connected some way and can do so off the record. The policy where I work is to verify dates of employment, period.

    Hiring for something like a designer or engineer, which are intensely ill defined, is a little like trying to hire someone to become a chess master. Whatever their skills, their success will depend on how they can apply them to challenges you haven’t even seen yet. In the golden olden days, companies like GE and Western Electric mostly grew their own. Now, managers consider employees easier to dispose of than excess property and not worth any real investment. When the next project comes up, they’ll just hire a new crew and be surprised when it takes longer and costs more than expected, if it doesn’t implode completely.

  5. I work for a small company that has a terrible mess of a management structure, doing reorgs every few months, but our hiring process is pretty streamlined and rationale, though the outcomes aren’t always good…
    Since we do some government business, I don’t know if the Biden EO will soon have me looking for a new position, since I have no intention of getting poked, but nothing’s been said at all thus far. I work fully remote anyway…

  6. Stating the obvious but “Our HR software rejected that resume” is a better defense against a discrimination complaint than “We didn’t think they would be a good fit at our company”.

    If I was cynical I’d say overspecification is deliberate so that only people with inside information about the little white lies to put on their resume make it through the screen, along with occasional unicorn and five-pound butterfly.

  7. We here at XYZ megacorp consider our people to be our most important resource. So important that we have delegated selecting job candidates to whatever bot the the site we use to post openings on uses rather than waste the time of actual people. This development has been devastating to the suppliers of fancy resume paper.

    Google was notorious for using puzzles in their hiring process before they announced that when they actually measured outcomes the puzzles didn’t do anything. Present evidence is that it was a surefire repellent of normal, sane people.

    A hospital has already announced that the vaccine mandate will cause them to close.

  8. It’s hard enough for a sharp HR person (some of them do exist) to understand the needs of the hiring manager well enough to screen resumes appropriately,

    There’s a big part of the problem, right there

  9. In a properly functioning world, this issue would be a major part of why bigger companies stagnate and die. Of course, our system is so corrupt that the behemoths have rigged the game so they can still crush small companies, who may be able to hire better (in theory, of course, not as a universal rule), but can’t defeat all the roadblocks that paid-off politicians throw in their way…

  10. “A hospital has already announced that the vaccine mandate will cause them to close.”
    If I were a conspiracy theorist I’d say that it’s almost like They want the hospital system to be overwhelmed over the winter…

  11. A fair number of acquisitions by larger companies are effectively about hiring…’we’ve got to get into the ‘Turbo Encabulator market quickly, and we can do that a lot faster by buying that startup with a lot of Encabulator experts than we can by hiring such experts ourselves and taking time for them to develop a product’. It’s an expensive approach, though, companies are paying a lot of money to get product that they could have developed themselves for 1/10 the amount, if they had started earlier.

    Larger companies are able to grow their own to a much greater extent than are startups; it is in principle easier to pick good people for an important job if they’re people you already have and know…how often this works out in practice, given the realities of politics, is an interesting question.

  12. Often a description for the candidate sought actually describes the abilities of the departing (departed) incumbent. My favorite HR guy described the 19th century dairy that wanted to buy a new horse for the milk wagon. The previous horse had “retired” from steeple-chasing, and over the years pulling a milk wagon had apparently memorized the stops along the delivery route. So, (the story went) the horse buyers were instructed to go find another dray horse which had (1) racing experience and (2) excellent memory. What they actually needed was equine ability to haul the weight of the wagon up the steepest slope of the route…

  13. Eight to ten people interviewing a candidate isn’t unreasonable if most of the interviewers are would-be peers of the potential new hire. I hired hundred of factory operation positions from line worker through product engineer and always had the majority of folks who would be working with the new hire on a daily basis participate in the interview. There’d always be an HR person or supervisor/manager in the in the three or four person interviews to stave off EEOC problems. The process usually worked pretty well. We’d all get together afterwards and say yay/nay, and no one interviewer could nuke a candidate.

  14. 8-10 seems high to me, I’ve typically done more like 2-5, depending on the job. For one thing, if people are very busy it can add scheduling delays to have a lot of people in the loop.

    Group interviews…I heard about a manager who decided to have his subordinates conduct a group interview of a secretarial candidate to serve the group. It apparently did not go well and left her with hurt feelings. I’ve also known software managers who liked to conduct group interviews of a candidate, who would be invited to step up to the whiteboard and write some code to perform a particular task. The hiring quality was pretty good, judging by the group’s output and responsiveness, but I imaging there were some potentially-excellent candidates who couldn’t do well in a real-time environment with an audience.

  15. One small addition to my story of Apple interviewing my daughter. She did not apply for the job. They reached out to her. Then after months of interviews, decided to promote in-house.

  16. I can’t speak to the corporate world (my only serious venture in the private sector being two years in real estate) but academe is an absolute nightmare when it comes to hiring.

    Leave aside the inherent cluelessness of HR, here’s how time and money are wasted on most campuses I know of.

    As a faculty librarian, by the last five years of my career (retired 2015) I spent at least 30% of my time chairing or serving on hiring committees for peers and subordinates. The processes were unbelievably cumbersome–we had to document every step of the process, from publicizing the job availability and description in the right places, to evaluating the initial pool (often scores of qualified people), selecting from the pool, formulating questions to be asked of ALL applicants at ALL stages, gathering five or six busy people to conduct initial long distance interviews, narrowing the field to three to five for the next round, inviting faculty applicants to campus for in person interviews and meetings that generally took a day and a half. (I repeat, we had to keep a record of all interviews and retain all written notes made in interviews or deliberations.)

    Final selections of the committees were of course advisory only, and at times the dean or higher authority would reject a committee recommendation–and the whole thing would start over. The normal expectation was that it would take 12-16 weeks for a professional (MLS) slot and 8-10 for most staff positions.

    The kicker is that in each instance (as in so much more) the process is said to be best practice according to corporate HR theory, and used the latest miracle software, which replaced the previous miracle software every 2-3 years.

    BION most university administrators like to be thought of as hardnosed up-to-the-minute executives, however much they disdain business in reality–and are well aware of the B-School and B-School donors who they have to keep happy.

  17. David’s acquire instead of hire is very common. Nearly as common is that a mediocre larger company buys an outstanding smaller company and six months later, none of the people that made the outstanding company outstanding are still there.

  18. It seems to me that the left has attempted to arrange it so that the HR department is roughly like the commissars of the Soviet Army. That is, they exist to punish political disloyalty and ensure only the politically loyal get hired or promoted. Should disloyalty appear, then an HR violation of some sort can be quickly discovered to facilitate termination.

    This is a facet of politics, not management, hiring, or business. The modern HR department owes its existence to the requirement to comply with a long list of edicts from the federal government that wouldn’t exist in a free country.

    If only we lived in one of those…

  19. No surprises, here. Most companies use a chinese menu of specifications, which essentially narrows the potential candidates down to ex-employees.

    The first problem is the obvious one: If they are EX employees, then they’re sick of your shit or you were sick of their shit. So chances are, one of you has no interest in re-establishing the relationship.

    The second one is that it massively ignores potential employees, because most of the time there is a lot — a whopping great big lot — of overall skillset overlap.

    As a trivial example, insisting someone have considerable expertise in exactly one version of Word.

    I have news for you — I’ve been working with computers for more than 4 decades, now, and have used so many different word processors in that time that I have a pretty clear idea of anything that word processor can do… even if I’ve never touched “Word” in my life… Which is decidedly incorrect.

    The real issue is the presumption that someone cannot LEARN to use whatever the heck tools are needed. “Oh, we don’t want to pay for training” — well, then, you clearly really don’t need an employee after all, because you’re going to spend 3x as much time waiting for your purple unicorn as it would take you to train anyone in whatever minor short-falls their resume entails.

  20. }}} who would be invited to step up to the whiteboard and write some code to perform a particular task.

    BWAAAAhahahhahahaaa… I know about 30 different computer languages, some with as many as a dozen dialects or more (BASIC is an obvious example, but also Fortran and all the different variants of “c”). Keeping any one of them straight any more when I’m not actively using them is far from trivial.

    I think in concepts, not languages — “loop this, examine that, validate the other…”. My first draft code, though, is generally better than most peoples’ third draft… it might contain typos and sign flips and even some “wrong language” coding (same concept, but wrong computer language keyword), but the overall logical structure and layout will be spot on and not needing significant revision.

    Ask me how i approach a problem, how I would break it down — THAT is a much more critical skill in coding OR software testing than how to write a given code bit in 30 lines or less.

  21. We probably all have some tales about the idiocy of HR hiring practices. One of mine concerns the time I was working in one of the far-flung foreign outposts of a major European company.

    During one of those crunch periods at work, we brought in some temps with minimal screening. (Breathing? Available? Get to work!). When that particular crunch was over, we found some excuses to hold on to one of the temps — a young lady who had performed very well: reliable, intelligent, hard-working, and personable. She became a valued member of the team.

    Weeks turned into months, and eventually word came down that we would have to give up our temp. The only way to keep this productive individual was to offer her a full time job. However, the major Euro company had a policy that all prospective hires had to take a series of written tests which had been designed to identify good performers who would fit in with the company culture. She failed.

    Fortunately, thanks to an executive putting his foot down, in this case the test results were ignored in favor of the many months of proven performance, and this particular lady became a regular employee. But it did leave me wondering how reliable those expensively developed & administered tests were at identifying good candidates. How many good people had not been hired because of those tests?

  22. @Gavin,

    And you wonder why I’m so disdainful of the IQ testing regimes we use everywhere.

    It’s all part of the same systemic problem–Academizing everything such that we’ve reduced the world to a funhouse-mirror image, and then wonder why the hell the people we select and train to put in charge of things are so screwed up.

    When the metric is bad, the result is unavoidably bad. You think you’re testing for compatibility with the company and work ethic, ‘cos all them smart people told you so… Then, you discover that the people you’re hiring because of that are a bunch of conformist twits who can’t perform and whose ability to adapt to change is nil.

    I have to wonder if that “major European company” ever bothered to, y’know… Validate those wunnerful, wunnerful tests they no doubt spent big money with consultants on. My guess? Never validated in the real world, and they got taken to the cleaners in more ways than one.

    Part of the problem in Europe is that hiring is a lot harder because they can’t fire people. You have to get it right, the first time–Because, if you get it wrong, you’re never, ever getting rid of that employee until they’re caught with a dead girl or a live boy in their hotel room. And, even then? With European law and attitudes, even that doesn’t matter.

    All this crap represents cruft in the system, lint and sand built up in the gears of things. Until something comes along to kick it free, it accumulates until it gums up everything. This is what killed Imperial China, and if we let it, it will be what kills us–Drowned in a sea of red tape and incompetent jobsworthies.

    My personal take on all this is well known–This is a function of humanity’s fundamental inability to manage hierarchy and institution on a long time-scale. Every institution, every organization, every single one, eventually falls to the corrupt and the incompetent, who seek them out and colonize them. It’s like that disease where muscle slowly turns to bone, ossifying the victim in an immovable shell of calcium. The only way you can fix the problem is not to have the large-scale permanent hierarchies and institutions in the first damn place. We need to replace “bureaucracy” with “ad-hocracy”, and enforce the idea that any organizational entity has a finite life, defined by the problem it is meant to address. If it’s an institution that you always need, then it should have a lifespan–The FBI, for example? It should have had a finite date established–And, we should have said something like “This enabling legislation has a span of 75 years; at 25, 50, and 75 years, we will evaluate the work product of this entity, and determine if it is actually doing the damn job it was meant to… As well, anything that worked well will be noted and copied for later use…”.

    Frankly, the entire Federal government structure should be a deal where the States second personnel to do the work; the FBI ought to be made up of police officers identified and sent there from each state, with finite terms as Federal agents. There should be no separate “Federal” law enforcement agency–It all ought to be under the control of state governments that are tasked to provide X number of agents and supervisors to the Feds, and there is no such thing as a permanent slot there. The rest of the Federal structure ought to be exactly like that, with the function being Federal, but the manpower being beholden to State governments throughout the nation, with no single state dominating.

    We screwed up, big time, when we established the Feds as a totally separate thing. The Executive branch should never have been allowed to have permanent employees–All of them should have been “borrowed” from states.

  23. As to “over-specification,” I remember in 1996 reading a help-wanted ad looking for someone with “10 years experience” developing the Internet.

    I think that applied to about 20 people still alive on the whole planet.

  24. Well, I’m sure that Tim Berners-Lee was no doubt at liberty to take that job… They must have been head-hunting.

    Most HR people are complete idiots with no background in the industry or company they’re supposedly working for. Good friend of mine put it like this: “When they establish an HR section of the company, it’s time to leave…”. It ain’t the death knell, but it is damn sure a harbinger.

  25. Somewhat similar case with a temporary employee…she was hired as a secretary, did fine for a couple of months, and when we wanted to bring her on full-time, she had to to take a typing test. Which she failed, despite, having typed just fine, day after day. I overrode these results and hired her anyhow.

    Not unreasonable to give an outside applicant a typing test, if their job is going to involve a lot of typing, but for someone who has already demonstrated their ability, the proven performance should override the test results.

  26. “As to “over-specification,” I remember in 1996 reading a help-wanted ad looking for someone with “10 years experience” developing the Internet.”

    “I think that applied to about 20 people still alive on the whole planet.”

    And I seriously doubt that they could have hired one of them. Worked with one of them in the mid to late 1980s (including a failed attempt to port TCP/IP to run over X.25, at a time when it only ran over IMPs). He only worked as a consultant, and never as an employee. Even then, he could bill whatever he wanted, and do whatever work he wanted. He wanted freedom to work on interesting projects, and to live where he wanted to, in the CO mountains. Talk about a prima dona. He was high maintenance, but worth it. I learned an awful lot about data communications protocols from him.

    I sometimes wonder if I went in the wrong direction when I left data communications software design, and moved to patent law in 1990. But I was running into the same sort of thing that OBloodyHell described with programming languages, and many others here have described. HR departments were looking at my resume with a checklist, with no concept of what it meant. By then, I had been designing data communications protocols and then the protocol stacks to process them for most of the decade, and TCP/IP was one of the simplest that we had dealt with (we were mostly concerned, at that time, with the federal government’s impending OSI mandate, orders of magnitude more complex, which ultimately led to its failure, and ultimate replacement by the much simpler TCP/IP).

  27. By no means all of the bad hiring practices are the fault of HR organizations. A specification that an engineer must be experienced with a particular version of a particular CAD system, or that a salesman must be experienced with a particular CRM system, did not come from HR…they probably don’t even know what those pieces of software *are*. The overspecification almost certainly comes from the hiring manager (the person who the new hire will actually report to) who is just not thinking very well about what he really needs.

  28. }}} And, even then? With European law and attitudes, even that doesn’t matter.

    If you’re a liberal, well, it’s getting closer and closer to the same.

  29. }}} the proven performance should override the test results.

    You fool! The metric has all the answers!!
    – Catbert, HR Expert

  30. Part of the problem in Europe is that hiring is a lot harder because they can’t fire people. You have to get it right, the first time–Because, if you get it wrong, you’re never, ever getting rid of that employee … All this crap represents cruft in the system, lint and sand built up in the gears of things. Until something comes along to kick it free, it accumulates until it gums up everything.

    Ahh… Now I can perceive a reason why the brahmins of the “Expert” -ocracy are all-in on the Wokeism and cancel culture. It is not only that it gives them distinct language and ritual (The cult of Apollo Racisma) opaque to hoi polloi. Not only that it provides an easy template for divide-and-conquer to manage ambitious clerks…

    It also makes it possible to kick free large chunks of grit when needed without having to rebuild the established order.

    What ever we call it: political correctness in the 80s, multiculturalism in the 90s, and on up to DIE now, it is clearly to useful to go away. Not unless we can replace the jobs its doing.

  31. }}} TCP/IP was one of the simplest that we had dealt with


    I remember looking through a manual on TCP/IP back in the mid-late 90s, and going, “Oh, THAT.” I remembered a seminar in college in the late 70s, offered by AT&T (pre-breakup), where they were promoting the adoption of the “NAPLIPS” protocol variation (“North American Presentation-Level Protocol Suite”). It was a variant flavor they were trying to get adopted, before the standards were locked in. I had to get some details out of the manual, but the whole working was pretty freaking obvious once I knew what I was dealing with.

    I was working at a place at the time that was just moving from individual machines, with files on floppies, to a library-network system. We needed an arrangement to check out files, so I wrote one. I was concerned with inadvertent simultaneous accesses checking out from two places at once, and the docs on the network were less than spectacular (it was the 90s), so I just created an algorithm that I figured would prevent it.

    I found out about 5 years later that I’d self-engineered the ethernet protocol. The algorithm I developed was the same one that ethernet uses [or used, then, at least] to decide who gets to talk on the network at any given time. How the hell does that get put onto a resume? “Invented Ethernet” seems a bit arrogant. :-D

    Yet that and several other things I’ve done are reflective of far more ability than almost anything else I’ve got on my resume… even now, 20y later. I’ve chased down a stack overflow bug in someone else’s BINARY code (an RS-232 package), using a software debugger (Borland Turbo C). Most people had no capacity for doing that even back when people still wrote and debugged machine code. But that’s hard to get across in a way that any HR flack could ever understand.

    The biggest problem with getting a job any more is getting past the HR Flappers, in the Swiftian sense.

  32. I applied for a new position that was created. It covered the job I had been doing for six years. It was essentially a promotion. I created a resume and had it reviewed by my manager. Then I sent it to a company that screens our hiring applications.

    The application never made it past the algorithm. My manager and VP had to complain to HR to get to get so they could consider me for the position. Then they were required interview at least two outside candidates.

    This year they’re adding a new step redacting names and addresses of people who apply.

  33. Kirk’s proposals remind me of an idea . . .it’s on the tip of my tongue . . . wait . . . yes!

    Federalism. Or something like it. I think the original USC was about as good a plan for a growing country at the edge of a continent as could be devised, and worked well overall.

    Despite some special pleading that still goes on, the expansion of the Federal power has usually been as much or more a result of provocation and emergency than plot or plan.
    The secessionists (Dems of course) used corrupt innovations(“because it’s an emergency”) in the various slave states to procure the results they wanted–final result, a complete reordering of the American economic and political system. (And the end of a degenerate practice that held the whole country back.)

    I know US participation in the World Wars tends to be viewed here as something between voluntary doltishness and outright treason, but it can’t be denied that they both–in particular the Big One– federalized the country as never before, especially the South and SW, especially African-Americans as the biggest and most visible minority.

    Since 1945 we’ve been more or less on a permanent war footing. The garrison state mentality has spawned, as it always does, paranoia and surveillance.

    Not sure what the point was– something like, Kirk’s ideas are fine variations on an American theme. The proposals fit with the idea of distributing the departments and agencies out of DC.

    But it will take a revolution or war for any of that to happen, IMO, and revolutions and wars are iffy things.


    My favorite campus HR story involved a job in the acquisitions department of the library.
    A firm was hired to conduct a review of job descriptions across the campus, and help HR update their processes.

    Months later, after a lot of forms filled out, statistics amassed, interviews conducted etc etc we got a batch of new library job description drafts. The one that stood out was the acquisitions department receiving clerk, a staff position requiring only a high-school diploma (though most positions ‘preferred’ and got college graduates).

    The biggest change in that case was the insertion of forklift qualifications. The comment of the guy who had the job at the time was, “I flew a chopper in ‘Nam, I’m sure I can learn to operate a forklift!”

  34. As well, the “manager” probably got that job in the first place because he couldn’t actually do the job–The productive sorts will still be down “on the floor” doing things that make money.

  35. Reading the comments that accrued while I was dealing with real life, I note a continuing theme, along the lines of what I’ve been saying for years: Hierarchy. We’re doing it wrong.

    Build a structure, put power into it, and it will attract the wrong people, the ones whose sole interest is in that power. Not all of the people will be like that, but a sufficiency will be, and they’ll be the ones who bring it all down through ossification and petty empire-building.

    My take on things is that you need to have open lines of communication, and your organization structure ought to be as flat as possible. The guy out on the floor of the factory ought to be able to say “YO!! There’s a problem here, and I see a way to solve it…”, with the idea that he ought to be empowered to do so himself. Alternatively, the guy on the floor, in the fight, ought to be able to say that there’s a problem that he can’t solve, and that should attract the attention of others who might be able to…

    If your organization is so moribund and structured that it can’t react properly to someone down on the sales floor saying “Yeah, we’re losing sales because…”, and get action taken? You have a problem; that’s what killed Sears, along with a whole host of other issues. Believe me, people down at the base of the pyramid knew what was killing Sears, but nobody above them cared or would listen.

    Which is why “management by walking around” is so damn important to most companies organized on a traditional format. The boss is only going to get a glimpse of reality by doing so, but that’s often enough to keep things on an even keel. However, comma… He shouldn’t have to do so. The fact that he does indicates that there’s an inherent flaw to the whole paradigm of how we structure and build organizations. Morning Star Farms in California is an example of how we might do it better, and a valuable case study in terms of demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be the way we’re doing it at all. There’s an interesting article that highlights just what makes Morning Star so different here:


    I think that’s a waypoint on the way towards fixing a lot of this crap. The cruft that inevitably builds up in an organization is exacerbated by the HR departments, and as such, an indicator that they ought to go. A manager ought to be the one hiring and firing, as they please–And, evaluated solely on their work-product. Manager does well, choosing and motivating his people? Good; promote him. Doesn’t? Get rid of him.

  36. I should be fair and mention that after the forklift incident, and similar excreta across the organization, the consulting firm was fired and the entire episode was only ever to be mentioned in hushed and whispered tones.

    That last part isn’t true. All us smurfs could see from the start that the outsider experts (in our case, specific to state geography, “WOFTE” — Wise Ones From The East) hadn’t time or expertise to understand large academic library operations. We’re special.

    They screwed up other things of course, not just us.

  37. @Cousin Eddie,

    Thing that has struck me, every time I hear about “consultants” and “experts” being hired to do things for a firm or agency… When it works, everything they advise could have been learned simply by going down and talking to the actual current employees, and getting their input. Everything that doesn’t work? It’s always something that the current employees could tell you wouldn’t work, if you ran it past them.

    Yet… Management persists in hiring these outside “experts” rather than empower and consult with their own people. Which makes you wonder at the disconnect in their heads.

    This syndrome is more grist to my mill of “These people don’t understand how their own organization works, or how to do things within it…”.

    I think my favorite one was the local company that was run by the sons of the founder–Or, so they thought. One of the first things they did was fire Dad’s old secretary, ‘cos she “kept getting in the way”. Turns out, she was the actual lynchpin of the company, and by firing her, they disconnected everything. Company flew apart like an exploding engine, pieces going everywhere. Took them two years, but they ran through decades of good will, and a hell of a lot of money learning that Miss Janes (name changed to protect the innocent) was the corporate memory and switchboard, as well as its center of gravity. The big-titted bimbo they hired to answer the phones for them was a lot more decorative, but far less useful.

    The funny thing was, they never realized what they’d done. They had no idea that dear old Dad’s “secretary” was actually the one running the company, there at the end, and she was making a lot of the decisions about what jobs to take and who to hire, simply by culling the messages that she let through to a man dying of cancer. I heard all the stories from one of the last employees they had, and he was quite educational.

    There are two things you need to keep track of, to be a successful businessman: First, what are you actually selling, and second, how things actually work inside your company. It is easy enough, when you’re a one-man shop, but…? Above that? You’d better understand who talks to who to get things done, and who are the impediments to progress…

  38. There are two things you need to keep track of, to be a successful businessman: First, what are you actually selling, and second, how things actually work inside your company.

    Peter Drucker, a pretty successful consultant, asked a question of each client. “What business are you in?” Maybe that is why he was worth $10,000 a day. I tried to hire him for the medical association back in the 80s and that was his price for an hour or a day. I’m not sure he could have predicted what has happened.

  39. The secretary story is a familiar one. Every organization used to have an old timer who knew how things worked, even if they didn’t run the place.

    On a personal level, I learned early in life to NEVER piss off the secretary of someone you need to interact with regularly, regardless of personal feelings.

    We had inside and outside consultants. One earned his pay, and my respect, after studying a proposed merger of the libraries and IT and telling the honchoes that you don’t create one strong unit by combining two weak ones.

    I think our campus was typical of the breed–constantly adopting corporate models and ideas from the business world, just as businesses are moving on to something else.

  40. Doc K cites a Druckerism, which reminds me of a story about (IIRC!) Clausewitz. MIght have been Old Moltke.

    He was asked to devise a plan of war for use against France. He said, “Easy. Just tell me what the war is about.”

  41. A recent article in Financial Times–“Let’s keep humans at the heart of the hiring process”–discussed the harm done by bad resume-screening software and the outsourcing of such screening to firms that may not have any real grasp of what the job being filled is all about. The article also cites investment analyst and fund manager Vitaliy Katsenelson on a seemingly-rational hiring screen he tried…what kind of ratings does the individual get from Uber drivers?

    “If you treat strangers with respect then you will treat customers and co-workers well too,” he reasoned. He tried the approach when sourcing a new operations manager…

    But Katsenelson quickly discovered his Uber plan was flawed. Women told him their scores had dropped after they spurned Uber drivers’ advances. Men who lived in rough neighborhoods suffered a similar fate after trying to get dropped off nearer their front doors than reluctant drivers wanted to venture. To his shock, he found that his assistant, Barbara, had the lowest score he had ever seen…yet she was, in his words, an incredibly kind, wonderful person. “I wish I had a whole company of Barbaras”. Turned out that she hardly ever took Ubers, and her bad score was based on one driver who slammed her after she didn’t show up owing to some confusion.

  42. “Determined to find someone who really cared about investment research, not just money”, the approach Vitaliy finaally devised for hiring analysts asked candidates to list all the books they had read in the past 12 months; talk about the three books — and two people — who had influenced them most; provide a stock idea analysis and write a cover letter to say why not hiring them would be a massive mistake.

    Got 50 replies, 12 of whom had answered all the questions, and the successful candidate has worked out very well.

  43. Well I suppose I know where not to apply. I suspect he would find my reading list particularly unimpressive with a lot of Nero Wolf and SF with an occasional biography or history. Now my PDF viewer might have a couple of thousand pages loaded at any one time of all sorts of things but not much of literary merit.

    Personally, I’d want to know how a prospective job candidate rated the Uber drivers. That would tell me a lot more about how they interacted with strangers than the other way around. I’d be very leery of anyone that rated more than one or two drivers poorly because, if they can’t manage a few minutes with someone that might be having a bad day without trying to make it worse, I probably wouldn’t want them in my shop.

    Anybody that’s looked through a few Amazon reviews will lose any confidence they might have with “crowd sourcing”. When I do, I immediately jump to the 1-star reviews. When I see the usual preponderance of people that didn’t know what they were buying, couldn’t be bothered to follow setup directions or are pissed delivery took too long, I add it to the cart without a second thought. The only thing that gives me pause is a lot of DOA’s. I’m old school enough that I don’t go into raptures just because something actually works as specified and don’t spend much time giving reviews and just sort of assume most people are the same.

  44. This could be understood as a problem of technocracy, and trying to match unmeasureable things to a static model of something that isn’t predictable.

    Finding someone for a slot is preparing to the future by matching to a present model coming from a limited knowledge of the past. That it works at all is an artifact of a lot of people being broadly able and adaptable, and to guesswork that is sometimes mostly correct.

    There’s always at least a small shift in an organization from folks forgetting about rare events, and changing their behavior in small ways. If your time scales are short, and people have been effective at noticing, recording, sharing, and remembering the important things, then you are maybe sound enough on theory of the job to fill it according to theory before business conditions change the theoretical model.

    You will never have a closed form theoretical model of a process for hiring that fills every position according to the theory of the position. People in an organization are, at best, always going to be reinventing the organization to overcome the rot of the organization, but some folk really need to pretend that this isn’t happening. Whether from training or aptitude, they can’t handle the understanding and awareness of all that churn, they need to pretend that they are working in a static environment. There are types of work where you want the lack of that awareness, want people who are not constantly trying to change everything. There are other types of work, where you really want people to be enthusiastically inventive in tackling enormous future uncertainties.

    These descriptions sound different, but real situations, with real people, are not anywhere near as neat. You might have a brilliant researcher in some weird academic specialty, who lacks the awareness of the physical world to do experimentation with how they move through space. Conversely, you might have someone so uninterested in academics that they haven’t even heard of more than a few fields, and if you ask them to do any physical thing, they will inevitably figure out the best way to do it.

    It’s this idea of hiring from everywhere, without discriminating, that makes these kludges so much more dysfunctional. We have the latest deeply insane academic models of what non-discrimination looks like, we have disputes resolved through the legal system, and we have sorting problems with would be employees searching for employers, and employers searching for employees. At n=7 billion, an employer’s sorting algorithm will be broken. Everyone uses narrower search criteria, in practice, and it is the narrower criteria that are giving search results in times that are finite compared to time scales. If each employer was using a selection of about a half dozen narrow searches, maybe no one would get over looked, and maybe searches would more rapidly find potential fits. But, the academics and the lawyers are telling us that we must have processes that fit the criteria for non-discriminatory . Leaving aside the madness of academia, the lawyers are basically claiming that the hiring process should fit a statistical test, without understanding how to test processes, the assumptions they are making in the target statistical model, or how the theoretical whole fits together.

    A lot of stats is based in assuming ergodicity. Humans use their intelligence to make choices about how they spend time. As opposed to randomly changing occupation from moment to moment. People with long term stable employment would thus seem not to be ergoditic. In which case, we should not expect that employment surveys matching one metric of humans to another metric of humans should always match a random distribution. Furthermore, the lack of concern by DIE types about pushing white males out of this or that type of employment shows that they are not pursuing a distribution where all positions are evenly distributed. (They will be angry if their efforts to fit folks into the very rigid organizations of the present winds up forcing white males into more innovative occupations, and if this then results in white males taking a big share of the wealth that we currently don’t see how to generate.)

    Townhead’s Up The Organization argues for a maximum employer size of around two hundred employees. That number is still large enough that you can’t trust to people working out disputes on their own, and having a mechanism for disputes pushes people towards the formal legal system.

    Legal system is concerned about disparate impact, at least nominally. Legal system has many people in it who are stupid when it comes to avoiding the appearance that they will collude to screw the rest of us over. (My usual raving about the January 12th letter here.) Fundamentally, rarely will an employer be able to offer a lawyer enough to persuade that lawyer to serve the employer at the cost of being blacklisted the other lawyers, and the judges. This could explain a lot of the unwieldy mess of employment law.

  45. “Townhead’s Up The Organization argues for a maximum employer size of around two hundred employees”…can’t run a railroad with 200 people…not much of an airline, either, or an auto manufacturer.

    This is why organization design is so important. Mushy talk about ‘teams’ and ‘boundary-less-ness’ is not a substitute.

    Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

    “The first rule of organizational design is that all organizational designs are bad. With any design, you will optimize communication among some parts of the organization at the expense of other parts. For example, if you put product management in the engineering organization, you will optimize communication between product management and engineering at the expense of product management and marketing. As a result, as soon as you roll out the new organization, people will find fault with it, and they will be right…Think of the organizational design as the communications architecture for your company. If you want people to communicate, the best way to accomplish that is to make them report to the same manager. By contrast, the further away people are on the organizational chart, the less they will communicate. The organizational design is also the template for how the company communicates with the outside world.”

  46. Also Horowitz, on what you did wrong if you hired someone who didn’t work out. On his list of reasons:

    “You hired for lack of weakness rather than for strengths. This is especially common when you run a consensus-based hiring process. The group will often find the candidate’s weaknesses, but they won’t place a high enough value on the areas where you need the executive to be a world-class performer. As a result, you hire an executive with no sharp weakness, but who is mediocre where you need her to be great.”

  47. The entire (God, I hate this word…) paradigm of organization very badly needs a complete rethinking and total rework. What we’ve got is a set of reflexive rules about such things that are utterly useless and abominable, because they’re counter to our human nature.

    If you think about it, a huge part of our problem in modern life is the lack of connection, the anomie. We are not meant to be solitary types, at all–We evolved socially as members of small bands, roaming the landscape, doing their own thing under conditions of free-floating chaos. Don’t like what the big guy who’s kinda-sorta running your band? Wander off, find a new one. That’s the sort of thing we evolved to do, and when we set up these huge reef structures of organization and hierarchy that would be better suited to ants, well… Naturally, we’re kinda unhappy living like that.

    What we need is a more natural structure, one more in tune with human nature. The ant model ain’t us.

    My vote, for something to at least try, is to go to a system where you have band-sized work-groups that fall in on tasks as needed, on an ad-hoc basis, and when the task is complete, find something else to do. Such groups would specialize; or, maybe not. It would be useful, I think, to get rid of the anomie we’ve built into things, and go from there in an attempt to find a more effective and congenial way of doing this stuff.

    Looking back on it, the best times of my life were spent in specific small primary groups, ones that our idiotic and utterly chaotic military system rapidly destroyed through individual replacement. The satisfaction you got, working within a team format? Amazing. And, it led to such job satisfaction that I went years between such experiences, looking for another hit on the joint of job satisfaction–Which, really, wasn’t the job so much as it was the people I worked with.

    It would be a hell of a lot smarter to focus on building these groups, keeping them together, and then “growing” them up through the framework of necessities to get things done. There should be a way of doing it, because when you look at society through a certain specific viewpoint, we spend an awful lot of time seeking these bonds out, when we really ought to be getting them as a part of our daily work routine. What are gangs, if not attempts to satisfy social needs that society is failing to provide? What are the attractions for gang life, if not the camaraderie and “us against the world” feeling that taking part in one gives the participants? It’s hardly accidental that gangs, infantry squads, and football teams all use very similar techniques to facilitate group bonding and loyalty.

    I think that there’s a fundamental void at the base of a lot of our problems. Even when you look at the executive end of things, we erroneously think that it is the one “big guy” who’s getting shit done; reality is, of course, that they’re usually the outward-looking face of a small team that works behind the scenes, and who that individual has carried along with him for years as aides and helpmates.

    Most of our structure in society is set up in contravention of these things, and I would suggest that it might be wise to take a deep breath, back up, and at least consider that maybe we ought to be doing things differently. My vote is for building a concept of polyvalent small work groups, ones that work together as small teams, rather than groups of individuals. Hiring ought to look at the team; not the individual. Need a shipping department? Hire one, one that’s already built and used to working together, who do their own internal management and hiring themselves.

    Couldn’t be any worse than what we’re doing now.

  48. Organizational theory is not my bailiwick, but I have managed a few thoughts about it.

    That 150-200 threshold is found, if I’m not mistaken, to be the number of people most people can remember names for, the “ideal” size of an infantry company, basically the standard “primary group” among humans. (I don’t like quarantining terms with ” ” overmuch, but I’m simplifying here.)

    Academe of course is both source and victim of a lot of nonsense, and several things struck me before I retired.

    For a time, it seemed like the honchoes wanted every campus employee to have served on a committee, team, group, or taskforce with every other campus employee. Almost like an urge to replicate in physical form the contact we had (in theory) through our electronic networks.

    On a more global scale, the debate raged ceaselessly about hos best to prepare young people for The Future. I was senior enough and tenured enough to say loudly and often that it was sheer pretention on the part of us academics that we had any idea what The Future will demand.

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