EngagementDiversity & InclusionThe Lie of ‘The Best Person for the Job’

The Lie of 'The Best Person for the Job'

Wendy Dailey, Talent Acquisition Expert and HRD Thought Leader, reveals how the 'best' person for the job might not be the right person for the job.

Anyone in the talent acquisition space knows the phrase “Best Person for the Job.” We’ve been asked to find this person. We’ve heard this phrase as a reason to keep the search open. We’ve also used this phrase when turning other candidates down. We laugh at all those hiring managers searching for their purple squirrel candidates. You know the one: with the experience of a 50-year-old, the education of a 40-year-old, the drive of a 30-year-old and the salary expectations of a 20-year-old, who can hit the ground running.

We push back, sometimes, when we can “get away with it.” But, when we consider the hiring manager our customer and say the customer is always right, talent acquisition is merely an order-taker and needs to “do their job” or “listen better.” So, our push back becomes a gentle-prodding, we ask a few more, deeper questions so we can update the posting, ask better pre-screening questions to find that purple squirrel. We try to cast a wider net. A narrower net. We send the hiring manager every application so they know we aren’t hiding anyone from them. We try to figure out that elusive key thing that the hiring manager just hasn’t been able to articulate to help us find the “best person for the job.”

So maybe we need to just stop. Let’s stop looking for the best. Scary? I hope not, but it’s not going to be easy to say “we’re not going to look for the best anymore.” It doesn’t mean that we are now looking for the worst. It just means we aren’t going to use this as our excuses. Our excuses to not hire those who can do the job because we think there’s someone better out there. We think it’s a good thing to look for the best because the best will make us better. But in reality, our focus on perfection prevents us from better.

And this is the big lie of the phrase. There is a belief that this person actually exists. Maybe they do. If we can define it. I took the question to Twitter and was not disappointed (see all responses here). Dr. Melanie Peacock shared this is the “person who has the right skills, abilities, competencies & motivation to excel in the role. Someone who will be fulfilled by and engaged in the work.” Kate Bischoff wrote that this person is “someone who can do the job & creatively see it into the future while adding to our workplace.” They aren’t wrong. We want to believe that we can find this person, that the one single person who fits this is out there and wants to work for us. When in reality, there are likely many people who fit this description, especially if we are clear in our expectations.

Unfortunately, what typically happens is the phrase becomes a code. It might be as benign as “I hired who I got along with the best regardless if there were better candidates,” as Jon Burgard put it. Too often, we talk about diversity but end up hiring someone who we get along with, who looks like us and has a similar path. As Steve Browne shared “it’s smoke and mirrors.” This phrase is used all to often to keep our organizations looking the same.

The most disheartening part of this phrase is its use around increasing diversity in the hiring pool. I recently read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo [highly recommend reading for everyone, but especially white people]. I had a light bulb moment she brought up Affirmative Action and the illusion that an affirmative action hire is somehow less qualified. But that’s the story, isn’t it? I know it’s the unspoken story I grew up with and one I believed for far too long. I know I’ve learned a lot since then.  Affirmative Action was never about forcing a company to choose an unqualified person, but that is the tale many, otherwise qualified white people have told themselves if they find a minority candidate was selected. I’ve even heard this recently: someone was relieved that a qualified white man was hired rather than the department being “forced” to select a minority candidate. I love how Stephanie Ghoston Paul summed it up:

“I mostly hear this as a response to changes that need to be made to the hiring process in order to make it more equitable and inclusive. In that context, it’s assuming “diverse” candidates are automatically less qualified and that the hiring requirements need to be “lowered” which is explicitly biased and racist (among other forms of isms). The call for diversity without shifting org culture is BS anyway so they’re guaranteeing they’ll “try” to hire a “diverse” candidate, then end up with the white cis-het [wo]man and say we went with the “best” person.”

We can and must be better. We need to stop letting this search for the best person get in the way of finding the person who can do the job and will be a value add to our department and company. We need to bring in people who look and think differently than we do. We can use our search for the “best” person to change who we are as an organization, what our organization looks like. Representation matters. We need to change the narrative that representation isn’t a one and done. As Minda Harts says in her book “The Memo”: “Representation isn’t some charitable act; it’s an intentional action that has the power to shape our mindsets and even the thinking of generations.”

Change the narrative. Choose better over best.

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