web analytics

Shitty reasons for choosing an ATS

There are many reasons you might find yourself looking for a new ATS. Speed, efficiency, usability… but how did you end up with the last one? The software you’ve chained yourself to for the length of that hastily agreed contract has become a millstone around your neck. So before you leap head-first into another awkward relationship, stop and think. How did you get here?

1. Because it was there.

Like George Mallory climbing Everest or finding a couch that smells just a little like raccoon on the side of the road and taking it home, “because it was there” seems to be the prime reason for keeping an outdated ATS. It’s been in place so long that no one is responsible for it anymore and people keep using it. Though they will all curse it at every opportunity and keep multiple spreadsheets—because even Excel has usurped it in terms of usability. Using a massively outdated ATS also means you’ll get instant sympathy anywhere that recruiters gather. In certain circles just mentioning you use a particular ATS will either have you marked as worthy of pity or a masochist. At least they’ll probably buy you a commiseration drink.

2. Because you’ve inherited it.

Shakespeare left his wife his “second best bed.” Working in HR, much like being the wife of a 16th century playwright, can make for some lousy inheritance. With average employee tenure being less than the average Mephistophelian sales contract it’s no surprise that there are often a few “leftovers.”

Inheriting software that you had no role in choosing, but that is central to your daily role, can be galling. If an organization divides departments and they aren’t closely aligned, you can quickly end up with some great accountancy software with a free ATS thrown in. While this type of rudimentary workflow software might not cost you much financially, it does tend to snatch a little bit of your recruiter’s souls with each use.

3. Because everyone else doesn’t want it to change.

For some HR and Recruiting departments the relationship they have with their ATS is less a happy codependency and more parasitic.

While the software was once shiny and new, the passage of time has left it needy for resources. In turn, other systems have been built on it and other departments have become dependent on outputs that are in turn dependent on hasty, hacky workarounds that the system was never meant to be used for.

The ATS has become a precarious monolith at the center of a web of dependencies and now becomes untouchable. Talk of removing it is shot down quickly and new members of the team will learn to only mention it again in hushed tones. It’s time to realize you aren’t using the software anymore. The software is using you.

4. Because you’re in charge now, so why not?

So you landed that new job? Got a shiny new title and raise? Time to distance yourself from the last guy and make their achievements ring hollow in comparison to your new glorious reign. Where first to mete out justice in your new kingdom? In the Talent Game of Thrones what better way to lay the ghost of your predecessor than with the Valyrian steel of a new ATS?

It’s often very little time after a newly minted Head of Talent joins a company that the need to change a system arrives. This could be due to a number of factors; the will to replicate previous successes, the will to try a system they weren’t allowed to before (even to get to make the decision for themselves), the will to express control to fill the gap that a little imposter syndrome has made… This is an anti-pattern of behaviour, it gives the buzz of the new without having to assess (or praise) the previous incumbent of your current Iron Throne.

5. Because if you remove it, it will all fall down.

Before the current generation of usable HR and Talent software existed, we often made do with add-ons to ERP systems. They were the offspring of logistics software so naturally they treated candidates like packages to be shipped around. Some thinking that arose around the same time, largely due to hardware constraints, was that having one tool to do everything was better than having finely tuned, purpose built tools to perform the tasks you needed. Like having a massive, expensive, four month deployment plan, sledge-hammer over a perfectly formed set of watchmakers tools each crafted to do their job perfectly.

People liked this for a while and the software manufacturers responded by expanding their offerings into ever increasing silos of the businesses they sold to. Bloatware took over and all the while the cry of “integration” rang out. Some people are still forever chasing a mythical form of “integration” like meditating towards their own enlightenment. Meanwhile, for everyone who’s made the switch already, there’s flexibility, better candidate and user experience and an API.

6. Because you fell in love too fast.

They say “the grass is always greener” but if they were about to make the decision on which ATS to buy they might fall into the trap of thinking there was one particular spot that was even more than green. These are the thankfully few who fall so totally in love with a new feature they’re willing to bet the whole hillside on that one perfect picnic spot.

As buyers of software, we get marketed to a lot, and some of that marketing is bound to hit a particular sweet spot. In these instances it’s easy to get swept up and blinded by something that a salesperson wants to show you. The newer, shiner something gives us a little amnesia for the benefits of the current system. The truth only rearing its head when the contract is signed, we suddenly realize that it now takes 24 clicks to do what previously took three, or that the button marked “Reports” leads only to the upgrade page because you forgot to buy the add-on and now the budget is spent. Tell “them” to keep their adages about grass and be sure to look before you leap.

7. Because you were bribed.

“So did you enjoy the drinks/dinner/golf day/television/big bag of cash? Made a decision on that software yet?” There are sometimes darker reasons that a deal may have been done. It’s fair to say that some reasons are less than above board. If your decision making process comes with a decision on which perk to accept for choosing a particular vendor, chances are the decision making process might not be as lily white as others might have hoped. There are dozens of motivations for making a purchasing decision but if it’s based on the fact that your brother works for the supplier or the software comes with a free helicopter ride it might be a case of the software buying you, not you buying the software.

8. Because they really got me…

In a market with a lot of players there’s pressure for vendors to differentiate themselves and appeal to the current fixations of their buying audiences (in some cases with very little real correlation between marketing claim and product reality.) Company marketing is able to make ideological claims in the hope of garnering both attention and dollars. Talking authoritatively about a current topic is one thing, but shoehorning in some irrelevant product in the hope to convince a readership that their product is beneficial in these areas is at best disingenuous. Vendors might be telling everyone that their “mobile-first one-stop cloud-based marketplace collaboration app for unconscious bias reduction” is the “next big thing” but those claims have to hold up to scrutiny.

This goes beyond technical claims and attempts to be the market leader for a whole area of an audience’s concern, like diversity for example. In these cases buying the mistakenly-marketed tool is seen as doing enough to satisfy the end goal. “Use this tool and your onboarding will be seamless and perfect”, But these claims hide a truth that’s harder to confront. Real change will take more than these tools and believing the hype will mean you end up wondering why the magic wand you purchased doesn’t quite do the trick.

9. Because it was expensive.

So you have an ATS. You made the decision in good faith and can’t understand why the team don’t love it. After all, it was so expensive! This version of the sunk cost fallacy with a little hidden buyer’s remorse thrown in for good measure is remarkably prevalent in HR and Recruitment teams. When faced with a purchasing decision and unable to make a qualified discernment between options, there are a number of ways to get some more insight. Some are rational, “I’ll ask for a customer reference.” Some less rational, “This one is more expensive so it must be better.”

This irrationality may sometimes be credible in the face of a lack of information or other financial or time constraints. Even after the purchase is made, there can still be irrational thinking that is linked to the reputational cost on the behalf of the decision maker. The purchaser of a “not quite as advertised” system is forced into a position of advocacy for the software in order to justify the purchase. This is particularly hard on teams who come under greater scrutiny or even blamed for the poor performance of a new software tool. It’s an uphill struggle for the user of a tool to convince the purchaser (who only ever saw a sales demo) that it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

10. Because you were afraid.

Finally, fear. Fear of being left behind. Fear of missing out. Fear of exposure. There’s an ATS-o-phobia that can creep into the decision to purchase a new system that will both hold responsibility for being the gateway to your business for new staff, and also reflect on you directly. For many people, choosing a new software system will be core to their business. The ATS is almost unique in that it’s rarely confined to one department. Its user base is cross department, and can include the more senior people in an organization. It’s a buying decision that has to be justified repeatedly, surviving the foibles and nit-picking of hiring managers from every angle.

Making the case to buy and implement a new hiring system is big decision—and there’s little doubt that it can be a daunting choice. The key thing to remember is to be aware of the compromises you’ll be making.

A software tool should aid efficiency rather than force the hand of its purchaser. If an ATS is changing the processes you’re currently using, be aware that this is also changing the way a candidate is introduced to your company culture.

A great system won’t just bend you to its will. It should support your current style and have clear areas where it visibly improves both candidate and your own experience. When evaluating systems, a little fear might be a good thing. But better to dial it down to “caution” and keep your guard up.

Your Talent Tech Stack for 2018

We’ve come a long way.  There are increasingly few of us that remember the wilderness years before LinkedIn arrived. There are still fewer who remember writing things down with a pen and paper.  Whilst there are still those who cling to older technology or who will forever sing the praises of “banging the phones” there’s very little doubt that technology has made a big impression on the world of HR and Recruitment.

From slow and steady adoption we seem to have hit a current boom time for HR technology.  There’s a gold rush in full swing and the new prospectors with their cries of “Recruitment is Broken!” are headed west with dreams of HR heroism buoyed up on the promise of VC money.

As HR Tech buyers the future, we are told, will be full of AI and robots doing our jobs for us, freeing us up to do other things.  We haven’t been told what those things are quite yet but rest assured we’re all redundant…maybe.  Though the future is uncertain the present can be just as confusing.  What are the tools people are using now, what will they be using next year? How will we find, assess, hire and manage their people going into 2018?

Luckily, this isn’t one of those futurist prediction posts that will be neatly swept under the rug when it transpires we won’t all be enslaved by HR AI’s (maybe a few years later). I wanted to know what tech people were using now, so I asked them.  This survey of some of the recruiters, HR and general “talent” people at the coalface of hiring is of the practitioners. The respondents here are all members of a hiring community called DBR. A community of practice with over 1000 members in a range of companies ranging from 5 to 166,000 people strong. They represent a vast variety of industries, levels and experience. They are the buyers and, more importantly, the users of the current wild west of HR Tech. These are their answers to questions around tech for sourcing, assessment, interviewing, hiring process and HR. I hope that this will give the reader some insight into the plethora of tools available and which particular tools are used most by the “wise crowd” that DBR represents.

Average respondent’s company size

As I mentioned the makeup of the DBR community is pretty diverse.  It does have a leaning towards tech startups in Europe and as such has a bias towards companies that are hiring at scale or are going through rapid phases of growth and having to adapt to new ways of working at least once a year. Average company size on self reported headcount is 4558 employees.  If we take out the outliers at either end of the scale (that 166,000 and the few single employees in their own companies) average size seems a more believable 756 employees. That’s who answered, but what did they say…


One of the areas of HR Tech that has seen an explosion of new tools and services has attempted to tackle how we find and contact prospective candidates. I divided these into free (or freemium) services and the more fully featured sourcing suites.

There are a wealth of chrome plugins that enable their users to find contact details or enrich the data shown on other sites. These tools rise and fall quickly and those listed here are the survivors of an still ongoing battle for space in a recruiter’s toolbar.

A clear lead for ContactOut.

There are so many of these tools it was impossible to list them all – other tools that the respondents mentioned included OctoHR, RocketReach, Snov.io, Nymeria and Intelligence Search by Shane McCusker.

At the other end of the spectrum there are a number of paid tools that are more fully functional, some feature access to private data sets or offer more intuitive recommendations using AI.
A joint top choice here of Workable’s PeopleSearch tool and the Entelo Platform.

The “other” section here was two free tools that their users had migrated to a paid version of Hiretual and Mahiba, a StepStone product for enriching social profiles.

There are still a number of Sourcers who will have us believe that using tools of this type is in some way inferior.  Indeed, one of the respondents comments ” I don’t use any of them, I feel its a little bit like domesticating a wolf”.  Not to get too caught up in the war of the Sourcers vs. Recruiters we asked if the respondents used boolean.  So whilst many can, the growing number of tools are a path to the same result with less effort. The learning here seems to be that for those organisations who are prepared to pay for sourcing tools those tools replace the need to write complex boolean strings.

One of the biggest technical changes to happen in the world of recruitment has been the rise of LinkedIn. Since it’s launch in 2003 it’s become the foundational tool that recruiters all “have to have” to be able to do their jobs. Despite what seems like a love-hate relationship with the platform people are still buying from the ever diversifying range of licences that LinkedIn sells.  The growth of other tools and the chrome extensions we’ve already seen may well explain the move from “Recruiter” to “Recruiter Lite” licences.  LinkedIn seems to be maintaining a firm hold in some camps though with the “I’ve bought everything!” option including licenses, careers pages, job slots and InMail packages.  People still love their LinkedIn.

Amidst the sourcing tools a new type of souring venue has risen, the “Talent Marketplace” is a disintermediation of the third party agency relationships that a lot of organisations rely on. Here candidates are presented in a searchable format and are contactable for a price.  This “biddable network” is yours for either the price of entry or a pay-per hire basis.  Are people using these marketplaces?
In short, yes. There is benefit here, ease of use and the on-demand nature of the platforms was cited as reason for adoption.  However, these tools suffer from the curse of all marketplaces, that when in their infancy they have to attract both company and candidate (both sides of the market) to their forum.  Respondents reported unease at some of the candidate messaging (“Earn more money” type messages) and disappointment if the platform didn’t have a readily available supply of candidates i.e. they were in the wrong geography.

The outright top pick was Hired.com but there were a whole host of other platforms mentioned – Landing.jobs, Hackajob, Snap.hr, Talent.io and the brilliantly named Underdog.io were all mentioned more than once. Experiences here seemed to vary greatly though, some of the less than favourable feedback included “<company name>, but it sucks“, “not worth it” and “had it for two weeks haven’t used it since“.  Recruiters are a tough crowd.

Despite the rise in the availability of tools and the supposed death of job boards (people have been pronouncing them dead for at least ten years now) it seems that recruiters still advertise their roles rather than relying only on a blend of boolean and telepathy. So where do they advertise? 

Results here are, I think, as expected.  The market dominance of Indeed and LinkedIn remains intact. Though Google’s entry into the market was much vaunted the results haven’t yet been seen at the coalface.

Of course the respondents had a lot of others they use too, they tend to be specific to skill set, experience level or geography and included -StackOverflow Jobs, Prolific North, Thedots.com, weworkremotely.com, Glassdoor, welcometothejungle, AngelList, SaasJobs, linuxjobs , Wired Sussex, Ada’s List, Facebook groups, Behance, Dribble, Mind the Product, Escape the City, boolerang, PR Weekly, Guardian Jobs, Campaign Jobs, Gamasutra, Gamesmith, Charity Jobs, Retail Choice, CTP RightJob, JobTeaser, hungrytechs.com, itsnicethat, Built in NYC, TalentRocket, Stack Overflow, Cv.ee, Stackshare, CodePen, Hacker News, irishjobs.ie , Authenticjobs and Codebar.  So the job board might not be quite dead yet…

The Process

Way back in the depths of history an ATS was a blackhole into which candidates could fall and never be seen again.  The first attempts at a system for applicant tracking was clunky and, as I remember it, full of buttons you weren’t quite sure of what they did.  Luckily, there’s been something of a renaissance in the world of the ATS and there are some standout tools that help rather than hinder the process of contacting and guiding candidates through the process.  It’s this guiding people through the process rather than processing humans that sets apart the old from the new.  The newer a company is the more say an engaged talent person seems to have over which system to use.  That’s reflected in these results.

Clear winner for this group of respondents was Workable.  Followed by Greenhouse and then Lever.  The untold story here though is the number of older systems still in use (potentially because of the expected high costs both time and money) in implementation and also the number of respondents who don’t currently use any system at all.  As with the job boards there are a number of niche suppliers here too – meeting the needs of a limited use case i.e. for the National Health Service or for complex compliance environments.

For those people who use an ATS it can be where they spend the majority of their day.  So is that screen something they’ve come to love or a page they dread to open? We asked the users to rate how much they enjoyed using their particular ATS, some declined to comment, some only had a few users to comment at all, so here are the unscientific results.

For some users the choice of a tool as foundational as an ATS is tied to their philosophy of how hiring should be done. There’s a correlation in the reported enjoyment of a tool and who was responsible for choosing to implement it.  There are some strong feelings about ATS tools.  Some of the more entertaining commentary offered by the respondents included “We are sadly on <company name> (not really used) but migrating to<company name> (heavy sigh) in January. If I had my choice we’d move to <company name> but decision was made before my time!“.  “<company name> – it’s not an ATS but an HRIS with a horrible recruitment bolt-on” and even “<company name> (it’s shit)“.

Other tools? Where else do people invest in HR Tech?

With the increasing number of tools available, the modern tech stack looks more like a watchmakers tool kit than the sledgehammer ERP systems of old.  Using the right tool at the right time can make the recruitment process more agile, can allow access to new pockets of candidates and can even help savvy recruiters make their opportunities seem more attractive that the competition.

There are a growing number of tools to assist at the “top of the funnel” or to provide insight into how a candidate might interact with your careers site before they apply.  So does anyone use these tools?
  Whilst there wasn’t a lot of response to this question (people aren’t using these tools as widely yet) they are continuing to grow.  Tooling that supports the holy grail of “Talent Pipelining” is out there. The “other” section here was dominated by people using sales CRMs and using google analytics to understand their conversion better, still others have this more passive CRM function as a part of their existing ATS. For others the value was yet to be proven “These tools are a luxury, I’ve not got the time to do this when I need people right now. I can’t tell a hiring manager ‘I’ll get you someone in two months when they’re nurtured enough’ “.

Psychometric Assessment 

Another place HR Tech is proving useful is in assessment.  The paper forms of old are quick to be replaced with newer systems with instant results.  Asking people what they use here gave some alarming results…
MYERS BRIGGS!?  Ok, so now I’m over the initial shock and can reference my previous disgust for Myers Briggs here,  we can see that some people are prepared to spend and are using these tests as another datapoint in their recruitment process.  In addition to those above people also mentioned – DISC profiling, Saberr, Plum.io, Scoutible, StrengthScope, McQuiag, Thomas International, OPQ, MTQ48, and the James Bond villain-like named, MindX.

Video Interviewing

For a growing number of organisations video interviewing has proven to be a great differentiator.  Allowing them to arrange interviews faster and assess candidates at a greater volume.  Some of the more advanced video interviewing tools make claims to decrease costs, eliminate bias, and go as far to offer voice stress analysis. Are these tools the essential future of recruiting?

Nope. Not yet. Not if these recruiters have it right.  By far the largest use of video was in the “other” category and here is was mainly asynchronous rather than recorded and repurposing standard (i.e. not recruitment specific tools) like Skype or Google Hangouts.

Engineering Assessment

There are a lot of developer specific hiring tools and in particular those that tread the fine line between judging if a candidate is skilled and not being annoying enough to put off those who are skilled are in demand. Which providers do our sample group use to test developers and software engineers specifically?Out right winner here was Codility, mentioned over 20 times by our respondents.  There were a host of others though HackerRank, CoderPad, Collabedit, Codeassess, Geektastic, Devskiller, and Skillmeter.

However, by far the biggest majority here reported that they have their own in-house tests, often based on their own particular industry or even their own codebase. With developers becoming more in demand in 2018 expect this area to grow further as vendors try to make assessments that are testing for candidates without slowing down an often competitive recruitment process.

After the Hire

Whilst there’s always been a need for background checking companies, technology has given rise to enhanced methods and seen the growth of identity verification as an enhanced service. With these services becoming easier and easier to implement and use the days of a casual telephone reference could be over.Onfido comes out on top in the survey responses and seems to be the go to for the companies that responded. The large “other” response here were taken up by credit checking agencies possibly because of the number of fin-tech companies in the makeup of the respondents.

Special mention for the alarming and potential litigious response “Backchannel referencing from our wider network“. Sinister!


Technology as the great enabler should be a perfect fit for the task-attribution minefield that is employee onboarding. Though there are a number of new entrants to the area the feature creep in the world of the HRIS that means this collection of tools may soon have to fight for position with incumbent products turning their products into another feature of an existing system.
Despite that worry we did find a few users of onboarding software.  A tie in the options between HR Onboard and Walk Me.  With so few selections the “other” section hides a laundry list of options, so honorable mentions to Personably, Sapling and as ever a good old Trello board.


Designed first as a hideous torture device by Torquemada and his Spanish Inquisition the HR system has also undergone a well deserved rethink recently.  From it’s conception as replacement for a filing cabinet to it’s newly evolved form as “the OS for your business” HR systems have moved from necessary evil to necessity, so which one to use?First in the survey was CharlieHR a great tool that offers both a freemium version and paid options, allowing companies to utilise proper HR tools at a time before they’d normally consider them. Second was Workday and then BambooHR. Workday is more of the larger organisation ERP-style solution which some see as having beneficial integration with other departments though increasingly the need for “integration” seems to be going away, especially when that integration comes at the cost of a dependency on one company underlying all your systems.

FMS (Freelancer Management System)

Once you’ve got yourself an ATS, an HRIS and a load of contractors you’ll probably be “OMG! I need an FMS ASAP!” or maybe not. However, a way to manage your relationships with contractors might be beneficial to both your internal systems and HRMC won’t assume you’re trying to evade income tax…
Like all of these questions others were mentioned Kalo gets the honorable mention for being mentioned more than three times along with some companies who prefer to run two instances of their HR System.

Aside from these tools there are other places you can spend money on HR Tech, who wins in these categories?


Software for managing what people are doing and when they do it? Yep!
A lot of votes here for 7Geese the OKR management tool, comments were that it was great for transparency and communicating work done to the rest of the company. That large “other” section again hides repurposed tools like Excel and the comment “We look at who uses slack the most, and match it up with who complains about being over-worked the most“. Most widely used tools here were Trello and Jira but ownership of those tools was in another department e.g. “engineering use Jira“.


Software solutions  for making the arduous process of performance reviews easier? I’m in! But what software does everyone else use? PerformanceHub takes the crown here but again there are so many other options hiding in the “other” section.  Multiple mentions for 15five and Small Improvements.  Still more people are using simpler Google Forms and even email responses.


Employee Engagement used to be just a once a year survey during which people desperately tried to remember what they did in April of the previous year. The application of technology means that the best of these new systems can offer insight into team structure, relationships with peers and management, employee wellbeing and the very best can be used as a predictor of engagement, happiness and world peace… the last one wasn’t true. So which of these wonder tools is worth investing in? 

It’s close but the winner here is Peakon. For a majority of our respondents the “other” section was again a mix of survey software like Survey Monkey and Google Forms.

Internal Communications

There comes a time in the growth of all companies when the CEO just shouting is no longer effective.  What do you do if your employees are spread out too far or there’s too many of them?  Don’t worry! There’s software for that!  Opening up an entire new world of possible social faux pas and productivity drain, what communications tools do our teams use?Slack is the runaway first choice here. I’m guessing not least of all because I asked a bunch of people from a Slack community… but probably also because of it’s free version and it’s “integrate with everything” attitude.

The modern workplace seems to be a list of tools and tech each with their own issues. Coming soon to a workplace near you “Well the notes are in Asana and the docs are in Google and we’re updating on Slack but we also have a management board with Trello and we use FB for Work during the day as well as a private LinkedIn group and some mindfulness tools…”

Other tech?

Surprisingly there are still more places to utilise some more tech in your Talent function.  So what did we miss? Any glaring omissions?
Apparently, yes. Glassdoor – The most named by our respondents in this section. Glassdoor is the original “company review” site. Paying allows you to respond to and reorder reviews.

Other tools that people named were –

  • Google Hire – Currently in invite only beta outside the US
  • Stack Overflow – Primarily a developer community, this site also has a job board, company profiles and a CV library.
  • Brandmentions – A tool for measuring the success of marketing campaigns
  • Sunlight – A curated learning and development tool
  • Lucidchart – Online diagramming software – used here for org charts
  • Survey Monkey – For surveys. That one was easy.
  • Mixmax – A sales tool for email, tracking opens and automating some replies, in a bit of scope creep also has a meeting scheduler and email templating.
  • Textexpander – One of my favourites, set up shortcuts to insert something you type a lot. Check this one out.
  • CareerArc – Employer branding for social media.
  • Social Talent – Learn to be a Recruiter with specific Recruiter L&D.
  • FreeAgent – Accountancy software, use case here is for invoicing and T&E monitoring for contractors.

That’s a whole lot of tech!

There we have it, a snapshot of Talent Tech across a wide variety of companies, industries and stages of growth.  There is definite bias in the selection of respondents.  DBR is UK centric (though it does encompass members form 15 timezones) and it’s members are a very tech savvy bunch, more likely that most to be early adopters.  If you disagree with their choices, well that’s what DBR is all about.  If you’re not a vendor, a third party recruiter or likely to annoy everyone else, you can apply to join here.

As this survey is limited in it’s scope if you’d like to participate and have your tech stack included in an update to this post you can! Just click here to be heard.

Finally I did ask respondents where they heard about new tech.  The overwhelming majority came back with “DBR” and the feedback that being sold to was a turnoff.  Vendors take note, partnering to understand the use case and individual will get you a lot further than selling pipe dreams and silver bullets. The last word to these comments – How do you hear about new tech? “Usually I start with DBR because I like getting honest opinions, then have a nose round pitching events like RecTechFest. Then my head of people will buy whatever her last company used regardless of what anyone else thinks.”




The Thought Leader’s New Clothes

“Thought Leaders” are the celebrities of mundane arts.  Whilst pop stars fill stadia and the Hollywood elite dazzle on the silver screen the world over, there are those that covet a decidedly smaller stage.  Whilst the children of ancient Athens grew up admiring the philosophers of the Agora, and the youth of the Renaissance had their heroes in Humanists, contemporary times leave a multitude of more space amidst the noise to glean slithers of attention to feast upon.

Like most corporate speak the term started out with good intentions, but has experienced a transition into a shorthand for something different. A thought leader used to mean an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognise as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise.  Then time passed and people heard the call of a bandwagon on which to jump.  Now maybe a better definition might be “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognised as such”.  Here’s the wrinkle, the introduction of the potential for profit has attracted a great deal more people and with it a growing set of self-assured presenters ready to step into the wake of those who came before.  Through this process of Chinese whispers, the role and practice of “thought leader” has become codified. Readily available to be consumed and copied for a next generation ready to blog, youtube, and present their way into your consciousness.

It’s now very easy to attain a “Thought Leaderness” without ever having to have a thought worth following.  Imagine a man on stage, a large screen offers some illumination.  He makes a list with his fingers, making us believe there has been a cogent point.  A few numbers on the screen behind him, a pause for effect and we’re done.  An audience is left none the wiser but still offers applause in case everybody else heard the amazing point they might have missed. Beware of anecdotes and anec-data, conversational laughter, meaningless numbers, repeated phrases, changes in tone of voice, and cues to applaud. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at play here.  Those that run events book the speakers and presenters they see at other events and the cycle continues.  The self promotion makes these people even easier to find and most of the signal is eclipsed by increasingly irrelevant noise.  The audiences see the same faces touting a different cure-all each time and the mantle of “expert” means sales pitch masked as expert insight continues the same cycle.

Despite a growing sense of a lack of critical thought in the wholesale acceptance of opinion or sales pitch, there are some telltale patterns to look out for.

A lot of presenters choose to present the ideas of others.  Some don’t immediately offer credit for those ideas but that’s just run of the mill plagiarism.  A more insidious form of is to credit a diluted form of the ideas of many others – and attain some post-hoc reflected glory. There’s a thin, watery glory soup to dispense just from having been the one who introduced people to a new idea or thesis. When it is done well this curation is excellent but without deference it becomes problematic.  It’s all too easy to throw in a graph or two, distill some more impressive research into a soundbite then add a little distance when it comes time to credit the originator.  Beware those who do not credit and if a presentation can be summed up as a “book report” it’s a sure sign that there’s more filler than thought worth following.

Parroting the thoughts of others can get tiring for the aspiring Thought Leader who craves the full glow of attention.  How then to ensure you get more attention and better yet not have to share it.  My favourite device here is to declare that something is dead.  Choose a product, service or well established principle and say it no longer holds worth. The problem here is a naive assumption about how technology works. Those who work in tech long ago discarded the idea that tech was just a series of increasingly “awesomer” things that successively displace each other.  Painting a tidy timeline of the “next and new” allows our Thought pedlar to align themselves with the new.  By mere association with an emerging technology they can assume the mantle of knowledge whilst simultaneously not actually having to have any knowledge to impart.   Whilst they will hint at holding some insider information this will fall away when pressed to provide anything of greater depth than a cursory Google search.  If a presentation looks like a collection of curiosities gleaned from Google search and half understood Wired articles whilst the presenter gropes for the newest and shiniest chances are they’re a Chancer.

Like some strange Harry Potter inspired fantastic beast some Thought Leaders expand to fill the void they find themselves within. The clamour to fill the space for “content” over quality has offered a ubiquity; in that fringe thoughts are elevated to the mainstream.  Opinions we could have previously avoided are drafted in to become headline acts.  The pressure to fill space not only leads to repetition (or worse creation) it also gives rise to prediction.   Whilst seemingly innocuous at first offering up a future perspective on how things might be is, it’s not without the need for the application of critical thought.  Where the wannabe Thoughtmonger falls down here is in the internet’s unique memory.  Like an aged psychic who offers up fifty futures knowing only the “hits” will be remembered life at the bleeding edge of Thought Leadership isn’t so good at forgetting.  Far to often in one search the futuristic prognostications of a presenter can be undone when one finds the same prediction were made the year before…and the year before that.  Worse still is when these Nostradamic tides seem to ebb and flow to the gravitational pull of the purse strings of whoever is sponsoring the current event, flight or junket.

The growing status anxiety of a career predicated by having to exist constantly at the fringe and yet be palatable to the mainstream can have a jarring effect.  For some, the eventual reckoning comes with a stoic acknowledgment that they should return to the world of work and corporate life.  A slow dissolve and fade to black. For others the resentment of their unrecognised genius leads to self-published anger, a Pandora’s Box of bile buried in a Kindle friendly format.  For the majority there is always another stage, and ever present number of new topics to show-and-tell to an increasingly tech savvy audience.  With fading influence there’s a Dunning–Kruger-ish desperation, beware the Thought Leader willing to present on every subject suggested to them. In a world where we have all become uber-impressive avatars of our more boring ordinary selves, it’s increasingly difficult to pinpoint the handful of experts who have a true wisdom to impart. A wisdom gained from education, wide ranging interests and reading in addition to all the practical lessons learned gained over decades of diligent and successful work life. The internet ended true thought leadership: social media, the blogosphere (I’m painfully aware of the irony), YouTube, user-generated nonsense, self-publishing, and terabytes of low-quality content and sensationalist clickbait.

There are still experts though. There are still those worth listening to.  That signal amidst the cacophony is there, we as an audience have to work all the harder to hear it. In a reality where we’re apparently “tired of Experts” perhaps we’re not tired of true expertise just tired of those who have taken their place?

A Model for giving Feedback

I’ve been asked recently about how to implement a more formal process for feedback in a growing organisation.  A lot of the time these processes are reliant only on a few members of staff who value the importance of people management and can be sporadic at best. For those that are uncertain of giving and receiving feedback providing a model can be a great reassurance and help to build confidence.  Below are some simple steps for a model you can use as a  good stepping off point and getting people more comfortable with the idea of constructive feedback. 

Start with asking “Can I give you some feedback?”

We want the feedback to be effective and understood.  Checking if the person you want to give feedback to is in the right frame of mind will make for better feedback.  If they say “No” or that they’d prefer another time schedule some time later.

‘Situation – Behaviour – Impact’ Feedback Tool

This tool allows the receiver to reflect more on their actions whilst understanding precisely what you are commenting on and why, as well as think about what they need to change.

1. Situation

When you’re giving feedback, first define the where and when of the situation you’re referring to. This puts the feedback into context, and gives the other person a specific setting as a reference.

For example:

“During yesterday morning’s team meeting, when you gave your presentation…”

“At the Squad meeting on Monday afternoon…”

2. Behaviour

Your next step is to describe the specific behaviours that you want to address. This is the most challenging part of the process, because you must communicate only the behaviours that you observed directly. Don’t be tempted to give an example that you feel is “always” the case.

You must not make assumptions or subjective judgments about those behaviours. These could be wrong, and this will undermine your feedback.

For example, if you observed that a colleague made mistakes in a presentation, you should not assume that they hadn’t prepared thoroughly. You should simply comment that your colleague made mistakes – and, ideally, you should note what the mistakes were.

Don’t rely on hearsay, as this may contain others’ subjective judgments. Again, this could undermine your feedback and jeopardise your relationship.  Avoid generalising your view as the view of other “people”, phrases like “People say…’ and “everyone says that…” are avoiding ownership of your feedback.

The examples below include a description of behaviour:

“During yesterday morning’s team meeting, when you gave your presentation, you were uncertain about two of the slides, and your calculations were incorrect.”

“At the retrospective on Tuesday, you ensured that the meeting started on time and that everyone had an agenda in advance. The research you had done really showed, and everyone understood the plan”


Aim to use measurable information in your description of the behaviour. This helps to ensure that your comments are objective.

3. Impact

The last step is to use “I” statements to describe how the other person’s action has affected you or others.

For example:

“During yesterday morning’s team meeting, when you gave your presentation, you were uncertain about two of the slides and your calculations were incorrect. I felt embarrassed because of the confusion that this caused. I’m worried that this has affected the reputation of our team.”

“At the retrospective on Tuesday, you ensured that the meeting started on time and that everyone had an agenda in advance. The research you had done really showed, and everyone understood the plan.  I’m proud that you did such an excellent job and put the team in such a good light. I feel confident that everyone has faith in us thanks to your hard work.”

Characteristics of Effective Feedback

The SBI model is just one of many different feedback models that can be used when giving feedback.  It’s a great starting point until you’re more comfortable giving and receiving feedback.  As you do become more comfortable remember that effective feedback must display certain characteristics:

Specific: It should contain specific information rather then generalisations

Accurate: It should be factual and clear

Objective: Feedback should be unbiased and unprejudiced

Timely: It should be given as soon as possible after completion of a task (however, at times it might not be possible and may be delayed to a more appropriate time and place)

Usable: Relate the feedback to goals and strategies so the individual can improve performance

Desired by the receiver: Feedback can still be effective even in those who don’t actively seek it, however those who are seeking feedback will often be more motivated to improve performance

Checked for understanding: Clarify understanding with the individual to ensure they are getting the most out of their feedback

As a company grows making sure we’re effective at giving at receiving feedback will become even more important.  You should aim to use these techniques in performance reviews, 1 to 1’s and when giving interview feedback.  Even better, start using them day to day, it might seem weird at first, but gradually these will become second nature and the you’ll start to see the impact that great feedback can make.

Video – Tech and Talent

Earlier this year I was asked to be on a panel to discuss how Talent teams use tech and how the rise of software has changed the experience for candidates and the companies recruiting them.

It’s a long one, but has some interesting observations from the participants.

Why Job Adverts Suck and What You Can Do About It.

At the start of this year, and many years before it the pundits of HR and Recruitment (yes, they really exist) make predictions for the year ahead.  As well as borrowing heavily from the mantras of Silicon Valley startups promising to be social, mobile and local there is always one persistent prediction that never seems to go away.

The mists in the crystal ball clear and a vision of the future appears, with absolute certainty, our forecasters declare “The Job Description will cease to exist!”.  Then, as if to mock that same prescient certainty, they don’t.

Despite the flaws of the formats on both side of the job seeker chasm things seem to stay the same.  Whilst the prognosticators may lament that their visions haven’t been proven right the world keeps turning, recruiters still want to see your CV and HR departments the world over keep posting banal job descriptions.  As much as recruiters may decry applicants for their terrible CVs or offer advice on how not make CV mistakes there doesn’t seem to be quite the same amount of concern for the job descriptions and adverts that they themselves post supposedly to entice those looking for work.
The average job description is currently a mishmash of an older version of the original specification, some amendments from an enthusiastic new hiring manager and some sexier phrases stolen from various other company’s career pages.  When you stop to consider the amount of work that marketers put into a banner or headline just to make a viewer click it’s mind boggling to think that recruiters expect people to consider making such an enormous change to their lives on the basis of bland copy and trite cliché.
There must be a better way… and there is…

In 1943 Abraham Maslow published his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the Psychological Review. He posited a series of human drivers that worked sequentially, the lowest order of which must be satisfied in order to achieve the next. For example when starving to death we’re unlikely to be concerned with how our peer group thinks of us, until we meet that more basic need.

 Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belonging”, “esteem”, “self-actualization” to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.  If we are using the format of a job advert as a means to motivating an action from a reader, could we borrow from the Maslow model to ensure that we are writing a well rounded and engaging advertisement?  Without too much of a mental stretch it’s easy to see how these stages can be made applicable to pressing on the underlying motivations a person may have when wanting to apply or even moving from casual interest to intention and ultimately action.  At the very least we could use a model to broaden the appeal of a job advert and hit more of the motivational bases that Maslow identified.

The lowest order motivator for a job seeker has to be salary.  Whilst it is foundational and important it can quickly be satisfied and judged accordingly.  Try putting the actual salary range on your job postings and voilà the majority who apply will have some idea of how much you are prepared to pay for the role.  Assuming that your job is not unpaid or a front for slave labour stating a salary is a good idea.  Promising adequate or even fair pay for a candidate’s toil should never be the best motivator you have to play.  Put simply, cash should never be your “ace in the hole”,  if it is it’s time to rethink the role.  Try talking to some other people who already do the job and ask them why they like it. Try to gain a deeper insight into the persona of those who enjoy the job – chances are that their reasons are probably inline with a potential employee’s too.  It tends to be the third party recruiters who’s job postings feature salary as the biggest incentive. “Java Developer $90,000” is a great indicator that the poster hasn’t really understood the real differentiators or their target audience.
For a lot of job posts salary Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 09.50.57is where we stop. There may be other details given about the company doing the recruitment or a technology stack but these will be generic and explanatory e.g. “You will write code and fix bugs” these are statements which would be true of the same role in another organisation.  How can we make this a little more personal? Maslow’s second step in the hierarchy is “Safety”.  For job seekers this may take the form of permanent vs. contract or the security of your company as an entity.  These can be addressed early on, from startups referring to themselves as “VC funded” or larger corporates stating successes “Safety” should be accepted as quickly as the salary stage.  If you don’t meet the needs of the job seeker here i.e. lower than expected salary and indeterminate contract length they will self select out of the process, and that’s a good thing at this stage.  Remember a great job advert isn’t about mass appeal it’s about gaining the interest of the right people.
A growing number of companies are following in the footsteps of the larger technical organisations and offering a bewildering number of perks and free incentives to their employees.  These are the hyperbolic tales of free food, dogs in the workplace, on site masseuses and hot and cold running champagne.  Who wouldn’t want those things? However a lot of job adverts fall at this hurdle.  Promising money and free things are are a great way to have someone make a small change. Switching a bank account or internet service provider maybe but surely not enough to change employers?  Job security should be implied in any job description and the benefits and perks are nice to haves – but don’t be swayed into thinking it’s enough.

Maslow’s third tier was “belonging” or “love”.  For a job advert how can we convey a sense of somewhere a candidate might want to belong?  This is where a lot of job adverts fear to tread. We stop at the inanimate perks and don’t consider the social interactions that having a job will bring.  Belonging in job adverts is best conveyed through the people the candidate will be working with. Humans are (mostly) social creatures and benefit from interaction.  Who really wants to spend eight hours a day treading the same carpet as people you hate? At the other end of the spectrum who would want to work with an ex-colleague or former manager who was an inspirational leader? Who might want to join a team of renowned experts in their field?  If we make a job advert generic and impersonal e.g. “You will work with our team of developers” we risk becoming generic.  Talking about the team is an opportunity to sell successes to a candidate and gain engagement from selling the pedigree of a potential peer group.  In the world of startup it’s normal to see adverts proclaiming founders who are ex-Google or ex-Facebook in this way an employer borrows some of the perceived quality bar of their previous employers.

Another consideration for the “Team” level of a job advert is how the team organise and work together.  A job may be more attractive for a reader if it explicitly states that the team don’t like to hold lengthy meetings, or that they work closely with other parts of the business.  There are some great examples here that would make brilliant recruiting messages like Spotify’s excellent Engineering Culture video. For those who are harbouring frustrations about their current employer’s bureaucracy or lack of insight and innovation, referring to how the prospective employing company gets work done can be revealing and enlightening.  Moreover, talking candidly about these things can help convey authenticity and engender trust in the reader.


For his fourth level Maslow talked about “Esteem”.  This is the need for appreciation and respect.  People need to sense that they are valued and by others and feel that they are making a contribution to the world. When employees become unhappy and disengaged they slowly start to stagnate.  If they feel under appreciated or second best to others this happens all the quicker.  It may seem obvious to mention that  people like to feel valued but in a job advertisement it is wholly appropriate to mention how the role they will play will be important to the rest of the team or company.  It’s a certainty that some of the role you’re advertising will be similar to other roles at other companies – in these cases it’s important to differentiate at a personal level.  It’s a rare candidate that wants to be a cog in machine but still I see companies loudly proclaiming they are hiring “one thousand software developers this year!” the intended message is clearly designed to be one of security, though it’s hard to escape from a different “come and be one of a crowd” vibe.  Remember a good job advert spurs the correct audience into action and acts as a self selection point for those who are not right.  A job advert should not be generic enough to attract all comers – if it does you just ensure that someone will have to wade through the mire of terrible candidates and machine gun applicants that apply to everything.

Knowing that the role you are performing is worthwhile and needed is a far better motivator than the lower level “carrot and stick” incentives of salary and mock “benefits” of legally mandated holiday entitlements.  The better job adverts will mention those truly motivating factors – autonomous working, results driven environments without the reliance of rules and policies.  This further adds authenticity and can be a real differentiator for a reader.


So what’s left?  You have an advert for a new job that tells a candidate they’ll be adequately financially rewarded, they’ll be given a great set of benefits and the company is secure so their job will be too.  You’ve told them about the great team they they get to work with and then you’ve gone on to tell them how they’ll fit into that team and why the work they will do is important and needed.  If you said that was all a job could do it’s still pretty compelling, but Maslow has a further tier on the road to fulfilment.  “Self- actualisation”. This is the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are essentially fulfilled and the “actualisation” of the full personal potential takes place. Research shows that when people live lives that are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match.

In job advertising terms how can we then offer this form of greater fulfilment to a prospective candidate?  A majority of job descriptions fail in the balance of power they portray.  Despite the current market for hires becoming tighter, in far too many posts on job boards there is a weird “you should be thankful that we deign to allow you to read this” holier than thou language choice that only the most spirit crushed drone would find engaging.  However, this has become the accepted convention for weird mash-up of job description cum advert that employers post. Part internal HR document, part external facing “sexed-up” hyperbole.

Instead of using language straight out of the mouths of the mill owners of the Industrial Revolution why not let candidates know what they stand to gain from being an employee.  What are the experiences they will have that will let them grow as individuals.  Will they gain new skills or be trained in new areas?  Will they get to mentor or be mentored by other employees leading to more rewarding interactions? Will they have the scope and the freedom to be truly creative? Are they empowered to innovate? This is the future facing final tier of any great job advert and if you can hint at a brighter future for those who come and work for you it might just be the tipping point for them to hit that big red apply button.

The Next Big (Data) Thing: Awaiting the Robo-Revolution

As the quest for the shiniest silver bullets in recruitment continues the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning and “Big Data” are proving to be a great hunting ground for salesmen and sensationalists alike. To the trained eye these fields are distinct and separate, yet when selling a solution that makes a claim in one of these areas there’s a wealth of content that shows us that our industry is capable of misunderstanding them all equally.  Whilst the misrepresentation of technology by those that are selling it is nothing new in the recruitment industry the coverall terms of A.I and “Big Data” have become imbued with a special power.  Part of this magical thinking has increasingly led to loftier and loftier claims for technology that, though still in their infancy, can be skewed for more clickable headlines.

In journalism there’s an eponymous “Law” for this kind of headline. “Betteridge’s Law of headlines” is an adage that states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”.  It is intended to be humorous but seems to work in the overwhelming majority of examples. “Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young?” Sensible reader: No. “Have We Found the Cure for AIDS?” No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in. “Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace?” Probably not.  I propose a similar adage for content covering technology and its application to recruitment and HR.  Betteridge’s Law still applies in this area for example “Does AI Mean the end of Graduate Recruitment?“. Nope, it doesn’t.  What about those headlines that aren’t posed as questions? For those I propose Ward’s Law “The more often an article about recruitment uses terms associated with A.I., Machine Learning, and ‘Big Data’, the more likely the results of any study quoted will overstate the efficacy of the technology“. In other words, the more often recruitment is thought of as being “solved”, the further that will be from the truth.

Let’s look at an example.  Recently I saw this headline “Big Data research predicts which CV’s will be invited to interview by recruiters”, which sounds fantastic! It continues with “New research has discovered a way of telling which CV’s are most likely to be picked out from a large pile of job applications by recruiters.”  This type of press release has become formulaic. Characterised by a claim to the potency of the algorithm, some slightly spurious statistics that don’t entirely hold up to further research or misrepresent the original intent of the research, make some other claims where the algorithm hasn’t been tested but would be an amazing disruption “…make it possible to predict a candidate’s future performance simply by scanning their uploaded CV..”, and ending with a sooth-saying doomsday quote from someone in the industry – “In the future we’ll all be fed by tubes and robot overlords will tell us what jobs to do”.

In this example we are given the sample size a “staggering 441,769 CV’s” and the percentage accuracy of 70-80% when graded against human recruiters screening the same 441,769 CVs. That means that in 88,354 to 132,531 cases the algorithm disagreed with the human recruiters and rejected the candidate. That’s quite a number of false positives/negatives, even more so for any company that values a candidate’s experience and values how applicants might be treated in their processes.  Where this element of humanity breaks down even further is that when given another source of data – a cover letter – the algorithm performs worse, the strike rate falling to 69%.  How many of those 132,531 the algorithm did not invite to interview went on to be hired? We’re not told.  The other aspect of this any many similar stories to consider is that humans aren’t great at dealing with large numbers.The reason for this is that our sense of number is based upon two innate systems which essentially deal with small numbers accurately or large numbers only approximately.  We don’t often encounter large numbers, so when we do, it can be easy to struggle to know if that number is statistically significant.  LinkedIn boasts 433 million members and Facebook has 1.65 billion monthly active users but at this scale those numbers are almost meaningless when applied to the hiring goals of one company. Our inability to connect large datasets with real people is rampant. Big numbers dehumanise us, and the bigger the numbers, the worse the effect. If these raw numbers alone aren’t enough for a little doubt to be cast we can look to those elements that the decisions are being made upon.

Whenever I read about a potentially revolutionary algorithm I’m always keen to understand how it is arriving at its results. In particular in these screening algorithms, what is the programmer choosing to include, what do they exclude and what weighting are they giving those elements on which they are basing those decisions? In this example experience, workplace and education are all measured. We’re also told that “Contextual factors were also taken into consideration, such as ‘did the candidate apply in time’ and ‘was the candidate already employed by the company?’”.  Then potentially more problematically, as alluded to in the full version of the PhD thesis this press release is taken from, demographic factors like “age, gender, nationality, marital status, and distance from the hiring companies” are also included.

This post is to comment on the representation of emerging technology and its application to recruitment, and it’s not my intention to speculate on a possible future of robots replacing humans, but there’s an algorithmic future that’s being neatly swept under the carpet by those who are “pro-robot”.  Research from Harvard University found that ads for arrest records were significantly more likely to show up on searches for distinctively black names or a historically black fraternity.  Research from the University of Washington found that a Google Images search for “C.E.O.” produced 11 percent women, even though 27 percent of United States chief executives are women. (On a recent search, the first picture of a woman to appear, on the second page, was the C.E.O. Barbie doll.)  Google’s AdWords system showed an ad for high-income jobs to men much more often than it showed the ad to women, a new study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found.  Those who advocate a perfect future will have to confront this research and much more like it.  Whilst it’s often cited by overzealous salespeople that algorithms based on data are free from bias, software is not free of human influence. Algorithms are written and maintained by people, and machine learning algorithms adjust what they do based on people’s behaviour.  All this is even before a well meaning but industry-novice programmer opts to include factors like “age, gender, nationality and marital status” which are explicitly protected in discrimination law. Would an organisation deploying such an algorithm to sift candidates have to expose how the selection was arrived at?  Would candidates still be afforded the same protections?

The problem here is that programmatically applying a simplistic model doesn’t allow for any degree of nuance, and when we’re seeking to measure humans, nuance is everything. Sorting and ranking algorithms for stock in a warehouse have a great advantage over those that seek to catalogue people, and books on a shelf or a can of baked beans in a supermarket don’t have the free will to opt out of the process at any time, but humans do.  Historically, humans have opted out of over-automated processes. I remember a UK bank luring customers back to the fold with the “promise of no automated call centres” and several websites offer the opportunity to “talk to a real person”.  For those companies unwilling to interact at these early stages there may come a time of reckoning when candidates opt instead for a more human process, and not to become a human to be processed.

So how did we get here?  Why is it that the future is either an electric nirvana or a desolate dystopia? Like a lot of science reporting in the media the rise of technology is held up as a scare story, a robo-bogeyman to frighten HR.  Uniquely in the world of HR and recruitment a wealth of the content on the rise of technology is written by those who are selling the products. We have a discourse owned by the vendors, and an audience that doesn’t want to, or hasn’t invested the time to learn about the tech.  It’s no wonder that somewhere in the middle of all this, there is misunderstanding, acceptance and skepticism, and for some money to be made in this new wild west frontier.  For the rest of us there is plenty of content filled with wild claims and spurious statistics, you might not agree with the findings of studies of the claims or the vendors, but I’m sure someone somewhere is ready to tell you that “60% of the time, it works every time”.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 15.18.28



Podcast – Innovation and The Future of Recruitment

Another podcast, and a return to talking with the brilliant Matt Alder.  Matt continues to compile a series of excellent perspectives on recruiting and HR called Recruiting Future, you can listen to the whole series here.

To listen to me try my hand at some futurism and badmouth clumsy attempts to use Snapchat for Recruitment hit play below!

Data and HR – Numbers are Nothing Without Insight

Managing employees and an HR function requires a more holistic approach than exploring issues from the surface.

People use statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination. – E. Houseman (1903)

Our online activity has meant a ubiquitous lens is shone on our lives where the accessibility of data leaves leaders believing every metric can be measured, compared and leveraged, contributing to a curious new world of seemingly ‘crystal clarity’ that was seldom thought possible. The problem, however, arises when data collection occurs without the insight required to take contextual influences into account. Leading the way for deeply consequential misinterpretation and misjudgement to arise. This ubiquitous lens, unless harnessed correctly, stands to confuse as much as it will clarify.

For me, context is the cornerstone of moving from data to insight in a human way, which will clarify, rather than confuse. Nowhere is this more important than in the HR function, where the source of data; humans, operates in a fashion that led author Phillip Lieberman to label us as the “unpredictable species.”

This is best illustrated by highlighting a data source that is predictable, like books in a bookstore. For the bookstore, doing inventory is easy. The metrics needed are things like how many books are on the shelves and how many have been bought. Once a book is bought, there are no external factors influencing its behaviour not to be removed from that shelf. The book doesn’t decide that its commute is too long, or that its wife no longer wants it to work at its company, or that its pay packet isn’t satisfactory. Thus the likelihood of it leaving the bookstore, (unless I am seriously overlooking something) for any reason other than it being bought or stolen is highly unlikely. This is because the external factors surrounding it are predictable.

Humans on the other hand are a different story. Aristotle wrote that we are “rational animals” pursuing knowledge for its own sake. We live by art and reasoning he said. Whilst I’m sure many HR professionals would love to see their employee population be as predictable as books on bookshelves, myself included, the multiple external factors that make humankind human are unlikely to change soon. Which makes producing blanket metrics and chasing large numbers such a dangerous game, because in doing so, the individual is naturally rejected. It’s like saying “we have increased our likes on Facebook which means that we are doing better as a company.”

All that we get from this is a top line number. What do you actually mean by this? What does this equate to? If these questions aren’t followed up, then where does the return on investment come from? Is this useless? This problem becomes even more salient when you consider that HR systems for the most part aren’t built in ways that enable contextual data to be factored in. Nor will a majority HR systems allow data to be exported for further analysis, leaving you stuck analysing the top line, leaving retroactive approaches to remain.

Until contextual factors can be included within HR systems and data analysis, I personally believe HR isn’t critically equipped to have a discussion around data at all. Instead of building a data set from the ground up specifically focussing on important questions we want answers to alongside the external factors that influence them, we tend to take a retroactive approach by attempting to find data to support new questions. The same applies for the big data phenomenon (which by the way, unless you are Facebook or some other such platform are unlikely to truly have a big data set). Gartner’s definition of big data is “high-volume, high-velocity and/or high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing that enable enhanced insight, decision making, and process automation.” Playing with data sets of this nature without taking into account the contextual factors that directly influence decision-making processes as they happen will ultimately lead to skewed results and misinterpretation.

So my advice to those individuals taking the data approach is simple: ensure you keep the human in human resources. I am not ruling out this approach whatsoever, however ensuring HR professionals take a step back is key, especially if we are to glean the results required that are free of bias.

“You’ve got to have an Algorithm!” A Recruiter’s Guide to the A-word

Even if you only have a casual interest in the world of hiring it’s not long before you’ll encounter someone touting a magic bullet, a panacea for the “broken” world of recruitment globally.  Currently riding high on the buzzword bingo cards of these self-styled saviours is the humble “algorithm”.  This isn’t the algorithm you might know from maths or computer science however, the “algorithms” of recruitment are like a sorcerer’s incantations able to transform the world and imbue those that utter the word with sage like prowess and a cloak woven from the finest of Thought Leader hair…

In other disciplines the word algorithm is well defined (a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer), yet despite this there is a shift in understanding when we talk about algorithms for recruitment.  Because the discourse of recruitment is largely owned by those who wish to sell to practitioners the humble algorithm has become the magic in the box that’s too difficult to explain.  Algorithms are the elves who make the shoes whilst the shoemaker sleeps.  It’s because of this lack of understanding that each new tool that’s presented to HR, from personality quizzes based on dubious pseudoscience to true recommendation engines and all touted as having an algorithm with little or no distinction.

For the ease of understanding an algorithm is a set of well-defined instructions for carrying out a particular task. It must be sound and complete. That means it must give you the correct answer and it must work for all cases.  Usually, an algorithm is predictable, deterministic, and not subject to chance. An algorithm tells you how to go from point A to point B with no detours, it doesn’t stop to look at the flowers or to consider other factors outside of it’s available data along the way.

Does that sound like a recruitment process to you?  I’d struggle to find a recruitment process that supplies a “correct” outcome, and the notions of sound and complete aren’t interchangeable between organisations – what makes a developer a great fit for one company might be less relevant for yours. Recruitment processes are subject to chance and to that perfect serendipity of the right person available at the right time.  When a recruitment process is good for both the company and the candidate it bears the unique fingerprint of the culture of the company that created it.

All this must be very disappointing for those fans of buzzwords but fear not! Here’s a new one for you! Whilst I don’t believe in an algorithmic approach outside of tools that aid human efficiency there is a way to describe the recruitment process and still get the reflected glory of using a lovely big word.


heuristic is a technique that helps you look for an answer. Its results are subject to chance because a heuristic tells you only how to look, not what to find. It doesn’t tell you how to get directly from point A to point B; it might not even know where point A and point B are. Heuristics are a practical methodology not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient to accomplish the goals required.  Examples of the use of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, profiling, or common sense.  In effect, a heuristic is an algorithm in a clown suit. It’s less predictable and it’s more fun.

There are many reasons that the application of technology can make recruitment so much better for all involved but the miscalling of the effects of these improvements won’t help the industry or recruitment as a discipline.  The exaggeration of the effects, range and successes of the “algorithms” is hyperbole at best and at worst a thin veneer, attempting to add shine to the same old business practices shunted online.  The majority of recruitment success stories that herald algorithms as earth-shattering go on to describe a single section of the overall recruitment process being automated not the utopian future in which we are awarded jobs by are robot overlords as they seem to suggest.

Remember that a first round online screen or adding an automated stage into an existing process is less advanced and has less effect than the introduction of the water frames and power looms of the Industrial Revolution, despite what the hyperbolic headlines will tell you.

In the blind solutionism of the HR Tech vendors and those who seek to build personal profile for their technical leaps-that-aren’t, there are real dangers.  Not least of all at risk is the candidate experience, the diversity of our organisations and the objectivity to think critically to improve these tools further.  That’s a high price to pay for the acclaim of an attention grabbing headline.

There are a great number of fantastic HR Tech tools and new ones are arriving all the time.  It is the skill of a modern recruiter to know when to utilise which tool, at what time, to have the maximum beneficial effect.  In seeking to replicate the processes of others or glorify ourselves for our own successes we aren’t embracing a bold new technological stance we’re contributing to the “broken” world we look down on.