How to hire employees

By Philip Brewer on 30 January 2008 (Updated 2 May 2008) 7 comments
Photo: jsorbieus

I worked one place that was much, much better than anyplace else I ever worked. The guy who ran it told me that the secret was in how to hire people. Most managers do it the wrong way: they hire people who can do the work. So, what's the right way? Hire people that you want to work with.

With an exception here and there, "people that you want to work with" tends to be transitive--people that you want to work with also want to work with you and with each other. If you do it well, you produce a community of people who wake up every morning thinking, "Wow! I get to go to work today! I get to go work with all my cool coworkers!"

It's possible to do this wrong. "People you want to work with" is not the same set as "People you'd like to hang out with." If you start hiring people in the latter category, you're going to end up with a bunch of people who want to hang out together, and that's not a good way to get work done.

Much more common than that, though is the error of hiring "people who can do the work." Hiring managers are prone to this, because they're worried about their projects being successful. In fact, though, that strategy just leads them astray.

Of course you should hire someone who can do the work--who wants to work with someone who can't do their job? But if you frame the problem in those terms, you're too likely to make your decision on who you think could do the work best. But given the choice between two people who can do the work, you're way ahead of the game if you hire the one you'd like to work with over the one who might be able to do the work better.

The fact is, any bright person who has a demonstrated capability with a related skill set is likely to be able to learn to do any specific task in his or her area. And one who looks forward to coming into work every day will be highly motivated to do so.

I think this is a general rule--I think it applies even to very highly skilled, highly specialized jobs like surgeon or baseball pitcher. The surgeons that other surgeons like to scrub up and cut with are probably the ones you want cutting you. The pitchers who gets the whole team to pull together are probably a better choice than ones that can get a few more strikeouts.

What if you're not a hiring manager? Is there an important lesson here for you? Probably not, if you're just at the point of trying to get a job offer. Most hiring managers are looking for whoever can do the job "best" (whatever they think that means). Convincing them that you're the sort of person they'd like to work with isn't going to hurt, but it will probably only make a difference when everything else seems pretty much equal. On the other hand, if you're trying to decide whether to take an offer, I'd put a considerable amount of weight on the answer to the question, "Do I want to work with these guys?" That's probably even more important than whether or not you want to do the particular job you're being hired for.

You probably can't find the person who's "the best" at some task anyway, and if you could, you couldn't afford them. But if you hire people you want to work with, they'll probably do a fine job--and make all your other employees more productive in the bargain.

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Barbara

Philip, you're spot on with this article, and you make a great point for those of us who aren't in the hiring position: always make sure *you* want to work with *them*. I think it's equally important for a job hunter to interview the hiring manager to make sure the job is the right fit for them.

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Barbara

Haha, and great choice on the picture!

Philip Brewer's picture

I like to use my own photos, but I didn't have anything nearly as good as this.

Huge props to Flickr, the people who invented the creative commons, and the people who license their photos so that people can use them.

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Guest

right on.

My husband's company works like this. The boss' philosophy is to hire the best people (note: people, not subject matter experts), and they'll find a use for them.

Heck, I'd love to work there (except for the overtime - but then, most of them don't even mind that, since there is such great camraderie and energy).

I do wonder how well something like this scales to a large organization. I can definetly see things like harassment or discrimination lawsuits being an issue with a philosophy of hiring productive 'friends'.

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Spencer

While I agree with the premise, I'm also concerned that following this approach makes it easy to fall into discriminatory hiring. Will we mix up "like to work with" with "looks like me", for instance?

I don't know the answer. I'd be interested in hearing how others might deal with this potential problem.

Philip Brewer's picture

In particular, if candidates A and B are roughly equal, but you're uncomfortable with candidate B because of race, religion, or gender, it might make it easier to avoid going through the mental gymnastics necessary to find an excuse based on their qualifications. Avoiding that effort would reduce the chance that someone who's conflicted on the issue to realize that he's discriminating, and that's a bad thing.

On the other hand, if the candidates are roughly equal, it's always possible to find some qualification-based excuse to go with your prejuduce (with a bit of effort), so in cases where the guy isn't already conflicted, I doubt if it's likely to change the result in a negative way.

Still, you're right. It is in precisely those cases where someone realizes that he's conflicted that there's an opportunity to make progress toward becoming comfortable chosing somebody who looks different. I'd be sad if my thinking here were used as an excuse for people to make less progress.

Guest's picture

Ensuring the applicants' record is also important...
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