Tuesday 2 June 2009

How resumes are killing the corporation – (the campaign against CV domination)

Probably way too long to qualify as a blog....but a subject I am passionate about, so here goes...

After ten years as an independent career development consultant I have come to the painful realisation that CVs are the antithesis of virtually every standard they claim to represent. CVs are an oxymoron in that they claim to transmit the job seeker’s most outstanding attributes, to show their unique selling points, and yet they are nothing more than a grey goo of generic clichés and rank exaggeration.

According to Gallup up “80% of Great Britain’s workforce are not engaged by their work”. Having researched the field of ‘fit’ in the workplace all of these years I’d make the bullish claim that 90% of Great Britain’s workers are in the wrong job. And I think the CV has a lot to answer for in this worrying indicator of Britain’s corporate health.

For years I have been a positively enthusiastic ambassador of the perfect CV. Pontificating in ‘CV Development’ workshops around the UK that it has to be on no more than two sides of white paper. The controversy surrounding CVs was exemplified 5 years ago when we put one hundred so-called CV experts in a room and all that they could agree upon were those two characteristics: two pages and white paper. The boiling-over of dissent caused meltdowns in some professional relations that last to this day!

Why on earth do we get so emotional over CVs? I’ve critiqued CVs professionally, and could have caused no greater offence had I suggested that I elope with the subject’s spouse. Why, because we are talking about our lives. CVs claim to be representative of our life story. After all, curriculum vitae translates into ‘course of life’. In my own workshops I would draw upon the metaphor: ‘A CV is a picture, in words, of your life’. But we don’t need to know you were in milk monitor in Year 2!! Believe me, some people do think it is that important.

So why am I so hot and bothered about CVs now? As a freelance Career Consultant I am constantly on the lookout for interim assignments both for my clients and out of personal interest. My clients and I regularly send out curriculum vitaes and they’re plastered all over the virtual worlds of Monster, Jobsite, Jobserve, Executivesontheweb, Totaljobs, Topconsultant and many more websites professing to be the perfect channels to market.

Job matching has become such an imprecise science that it is hardly any wonder that so many employees are in the wrong job. CVs are nothing but a superficial veneer barely representing the competency of who the applicant really is, let alone the reason(s) why they are a good candidate. Yet recruiters are pole-axed without them. Consider for a moment how much weight we place on the curriculum vitae in the application process?

Not that long ago organisations used to call the discipline of organising people in companies the ‘Personnel Department’. Then, and rightly so, business managers imported the management theory indicating that humans are the organisation’s most important asset; leading to the coining of the phrase ‘Human Resources’. HR professionals accrued a gravitas leading to joining forces with the training and development professionals and serious 70,000 members of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development in the UK alone. But what do they all do if so many employees are not engaged by their work, especially as so much hiring is done by recruitment firms these days; and at a massive cost to the bottom-line.

Many managers of other disciplines can be suspicious of the HR manager’s remit. Apart from hiring and recruitment, HR managers are tasked with organising payroll, working out compensation plans, continuous professional development, talent retention and, the increasingly trendy talent management. Managers in other parts of the organisation can be deeply suspicious of their motives and the rigour of their discipline, or lack of. Although it is a heinous generalisation some business managers genuinely feel that managers who couldn’t cut-it, end up in the personnel department; which in itself is a dreadful indictment of how organisations treat people. We hardly place any value on fitting people to roles and pay lip-service to caring how effectively employees are engaged by their work.

Consider the distribution of talent in British organisations (this may apply elsewhere). How many people do you know who can truly claim to have job satisfaction? I have written elsewhere about the Cancer of Potential in British firms. Essentially people who are inspired by their work are discriminated against by the majority of employees who have not yet discovered where their best abilities lie. Let’s face it, we Brits are hooked on perpetuating the status quo and God save anyone who upsets this balance of mediocrity. This is what happens when that truly talented individual finds their perfect role as everyone else has to account for themselves in entirely new terms of reference. The talented minority unbalance the entrenched majority.

Paradoxically many employees hate it when they have colleagues who love their work. Why? Possibly because they make us feel insecure, jealous, unfulfilled, threatened, purposeless, rudderless and isolated.

A phenomenal statistic is that something like 75% of the world’s commodities were not even invented in 1975! Where do all those innovations stem from? They very often come from that misfit in the corner of your office who you have already ostracised from your coffee machine congregation on the basis that they are so fantastically creative, purposeful, enthusiastic and yes – possibly even nerdy. Let’s face it the last thing we want at work when all we really want to do is mark-time is somebody attracting attention to themselves and justifying their paycheque by actually being good at their jobs. The nerve of it!

But where does the value in companies stem from? From that creative genius dovetailed into their perfect job who has the vision to see beyond the narrow confines of their job description. Ironically businesses depend upon originality to differentiate their goods and services from their competitors, they state publicly they encourage talent, yet deep down talent is institutionally loathed and this paradox costs in terms of profit, morale, and competitiveness.

Rather than talent management being a virtuous circle in a benevolent culture it is far from it and frequently causes a vicious circle and an imbalance in the team dynamic based upon rank discrimination. These harsh conditions are perpetuated by the fact that the vast majority of employees don’t like their job. I believe that organisations only perpetuate this cycle by basing their hiring decisions on the superficiality CVs, which, in turn, lead to uninspired interviews.

CVs can seriously damage corporate health because the probability of highlighting the true indicators of future success and the ability to deliver value is unlikely. Furthermore, who screens the CV and filters out the good and the bad candidates? Very often an inexperienced office junior or an ‘external expert’ with little insight into what actually constitutes a good ‘fit’.

But what does constitute a good fit? Because CV sifting is such a binary process we are not able to incorporate the truly exceptional as most firms hire in a bell-curve; by doing so we omit both the weaker and the exceptional candidates in the same sift. Job specifications are highly tangible lists of ingredients that must be easily recognisable if they are to work as accurate search criteria; otherwise the process would be painstaking and costly in terms of time and money. As a result we fall over when it comes to isolating talent in the deluge of data received during the recruitment process. The cost in terms of high turnover of staff is invisible at the time and this process is no more than a short-termist’s false economy.

That positive deviant1 we are really looking for – who’s the one usually coming up with the next big idea - is virtually always filtered out at the first sift because they are exceptional. Truly gifted types rarely conform to established trends by the very virtue that they ARE the original thinkers – the next generation, different to the past generation, who were the novelty thinkers in their day (and inherently change-averse in terms of their own job security).

It is laughable that the hiring process is so hooked on orthodoxy that it can’t recognise talent when it is staring it right in the face! Think about the words that we use to define talent: exceptional, outstanding, unique, extraordinary and non-conventional. By their very definition talented people are outside of the fold and in the minority. And in our increasingly tabloid culture we specialise in tearing down the brilliant and talented.

Maverick / Pioneer
Black sheep / Guru
Heretic / Innovator
Rebel / Activist
Misfit / Prophet
Loner / Entrepreneur
Malcontent / Visionary
Outcast / Genius

Take the table above. If hiring managers are going to truly embrace the essence of talent, they must reconsider their accepted attitudes to what constitutes talent. ‘Thinking-outside-the-box’ is a great example of a corporate buzz-phrase dependent upon unconventional thinking. Yet the stark reality is the majority of corporate cultures shun anyone who strays outside of that very box. Call it the ‘constitution of the institution’. Or, as a very wily and very wealthy venture capitalist friend of mine calls it, the Rule of F.I.F.O.– Fit-In-Or-F-Off! If this remained the outlook on talent no share price would rise as value is forged in the crucible of invention.

If organisations are going to remain competitive in the context of the now famous 'Leitch Report' stating that Great Britain has to ‘run just to stand still’ in terms of global competitiveness and the battle to acquire a skilled labour force. Skills will need to become one of the UK’s strengths in order to deliver value and drive the economy forward.

In terms of ‘sustainability’, yet another buzzword in boardrooms up and down the land, not getting the fit right at the recruitment and pre-recruitment stages (i.e. job design) is squandering resource on an unsustainable scale. In terms of cultivating the right corporate environment we have got to become more effective in:

· first, developing our workers’ career management skills;
· and second, honing that dovetail when they do come into the hiring cycle.

Plainly CVs are not working and until such time as we come up with a more rigorous indicator of ‘fit’ we are going to be wasting talent, time and money. Lastly, culturally we need to be better at recognising talent and embracing it. Let’s eradicate insecurity.

There is of course another sinister dimension to the corruption of the CV; that of the actual validity of the job description – or indeed – whether the job actually exists at all! There are increasing numbers of companies specialising in CV checking because candidates feel compelled to embellish the story to demonstrate that all elusive fit. Hence we have a glut of organisations normally occupied credit checking citizens, they also now investigate the ‘provenance’ of CVs in terms of how truthful the contents are.

In addition, the Hiring Mirage – a baseless trawl for CVs – perpetuates this lack of authenticity in the hiring process. This insincere, and somewhat shady, recruitment strategy is designed to swell recruitment firms CV pools so that they can brag to hiring firms how many ready-made candidates they have on their database. In fact all they really achieve is alienating, and further demotivating, already anxious job searchers.

Finally we need to revisit the rigidified mentalities of many recruiters and hirers who seem incapable of visualising an applicant’s shift of either sector or discipline. In a marketplace starved of talent this is short-sighted, unadventurous and unrealistic. Why should it be so incomprehensible that a talented worker in one sector should excel in another? Yet time and time again I have to counsel my clients who have been rejected by this irrational policy.

I suggest the following might mitigate the risk of poor fit. In terms of employees not fitting into a particular corporate culture, this usually boils down to values and self-awareness on behalf of both the hirer and the hiree. Yet values are seldom, if ever, discussed in the career guidance process and in ten years I have rarely met an adult who has even notionally considered this influential component. And I have never met an employer who pays anything more than lip-service to a mission statement which truly embodies their corporate values.

Furthermore, personality and character traits also form the solid foundations necessary to underpin a solid career decision. Again, very few adults and virtually no school-leavers or fresh graduates have ever stopped to uncover how being introvert, extrovert or otherwise might impact upon their capacity for job satisfaction in a particular vocation. If ever there was one portentous determinant of success then discovering some of the factors of our psychological profile is it. Yet virtually no company in need of instant gratification in their quest for talent stops to ask themselves this key question pre-recruitment.

In parallel, hirers could establish a clearer idea of what they are looking for before they start the hiring process. So often we set the initiative test of being recruited with part of a seen examination paper – the advert – the candidates get to see about ten percent of what they are aiming at and apply accordingly. Then the goal-posts are moved, or it turns out they are not even playing football! To get the right people in post, we need to be clearer about what we are looking for and less random in our approach.

Having researched cultural preference with CIPD, CBI, EOC, Recruitment Society, and what was formerly referred to as the Industrial Society (now Work Foundation), there remains controversy about CVs. Although many organisations remain married to them, there are many more who would opt for a less subjective application format. Frankly, I am surprised there is no more reliably structured route through the recruitment minefield. It is time we had one and we should not be intimidated by asking for one or two dimensions of information. It could save all parties a great deal of time, cost and quality.

As we a approach a deepening economic crisis, let’s put authenticity, integrity and sincerity back into the recruitment model and be wary of a commission-driven process. As with the Ugly Sister’s shoe, it will never fit.

(1. Reference: Jeremy Sternin - Positive deviance is a development approach that is based on the premise that solutions to community problems already exist within the whole of that community.)

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