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.

The Magic of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator – The Technological Panaceas of Hiring that aren’t.

Hiring is scary.

Hiring is a risky process that we all know can do irreparable damage if we get it wrong.  There are countless studies that all make the case that a false positive is more damaging that a false negative.  It’s hard to “undo” a bad hire.  So how do we mitigate against this?

In the world of hiring there is an anti-pattern that the answer to the question of “how to hire?” is always answered better elsewhere.  We tell ourselves there exists a panacea for hiring.  There is a strategy to beat all others.  A technology so advanced that it alone is enabling a rival to mop up all that talent that’s spilling all over the place.  In effect, in making strategic decisions about technology in hiring we have outsourced our facility for critical thought.

We believe the purveyors of these advances because they come with the trappings of authority. They quote statistics in polished powerpoint presentations, wield certificates with pseudo-scientific credentials or a hat.  So much of the decision making for strategy in recruitment has become about copying our competitors.  We assume that if something is working elsewhere it will work for us. Often this is based on information that is outdated and organisations don’t change their processes to fit in with the new thinking.  Take for example the role of those “impossible to answer questions” pioneered by Microsoft and later Google.  It is now industry wide common knowledge that there is no correlation between the ability to answer these brainteaser questions and the ability to perform well in the role you are interviewing for.  Yet how many organisations are still asking them because they think they should be?  When was the last time you ran an audit of the questions asked at interview in your organisation?

Ever since companies have needed to hire people there have been providers offering them magic-bullet future predicting insights into their candidates.  With just a few answers to a test you can predict the suitability of a candidate for your company.  The granddaddy of these magical tests is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The test sorts it’s takers into one of 16 different types each with a description that have now been misappropriated by HR departments to make wide ranging judgments about the suitability of prospective employees.  There have been many more erudite take downs of the lack of use of the MBTI this is a great place to start.

Here, as a primer, are a few reasons why the MBTI shouldn’t be used in decision making when hiring –

  • The test is based on the work of Carl Jung and uses his “types” in a way he said they shouldn’t be used “Every individual is an exception to the rule,” Jung wrote.
  • Jung’s principles were later adapted into a test by Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, who had no formal training in psychology.
  • The test uses false, limited binaries that force the taker into a either/or choice often on measurements where a better representation is that we are all somewhere on a spectrum.  Jung himself wrote “there is no such thing as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”
  • As much as 50 percent of people arrive at a different result the second time they take a test, even if it’s just five weeks later.

Lastly and perhaps the best first step to make when evaluating the claims of any HR holy grail is to look at who stands to benefit from the introduction of any new test, technology or methodology.  More often than not this benefit is either financial or one of prestige.  In the case of the Myers-Briggs there is a self supporting industry of those that pay for the licensing to become testers and then propagate the test’s worth within their organisations thus increasing the need for their own services.  The real winner in the “success” of the MBTI is it’s producer.

This is a truism for any of the latest crazes and bandwagon technologies that present themselves in the hiring space.  If someone stands to benefit then they will tell everyone that it’s the best thing ever and will change the face of recruitment as we know it.  Be wary of that hyperbole for that way lies a trail a misspent dollars.

The hard truth that we all face is of course that there is no one perfect system.  There is no solution that can be purchased that will solve all your hiring ills.  There are organisations that make great strides in their own hiring and those stories have worth.  However, as an industry we shouldn’t seek to become an inferior copy of another’s success.  Instead we should ask ourselves what are those aspects that seem to work for others that we could trial and adopt at our own companies.  Listen to the stories of others but know that the stories themselves are not the path to knowledge. Knowing something requires research.

We should think critically about both the message and the messenger before going ahead with those decisions that will shape our ability to attract and retain talent for years to come (or at least until the next bandwagon we jump on).

So the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator isn’t magic. It’s that magical thinking that is a failure of critical thinking. Not thinking critically about a testing framework that you later use as a reference point to inform your decision making is an act of sabotage against your employer… but then I would say that I’m an ENTJ.

The Talent Hacker’s Manifesto

Nick Marsh of Lostmy.name recently introduced the term Talent Hacking.  His contention was that hiring was broken and there existed a movement towards a new way of thinking.  How did it come to this?  Why is it that the world of recruitment can be called out as broken with no argument to the contrary?Long ago in the mists of time and still the case at some less progressive organisations, recruitment was owned by HR.  From behind the dull-warmth of privacy screens and bloated software that referred to people as resources, recruiters began to stir.Often regarded as the “noisy ones” on the HR floor, recruiters slowly began to emerge and be recognised as having a legitimate skill set.  A skill set that was distinct from their agency counterparts and yet not in keeping with the silo’ed silence of HR departments.   Moreover it was a skill set that was distinct from those of the HR generalists.  Over time the recruiters in more progressive organisations moved further away, diversified further and were allocated distinct budgets.  The dual pressures of speed from the business and for frugality from the finance department meant that in-house recruiters had to adapt the way they worked and began to become introspective – there wasn’t just one skill of recruitment but many.

The role of a recruiter has been split in many organisations and so to reflect this and also to highlight there particular skills there are now many different job titles in use – from Sourcer, Headhunter, through Talent Acquisition Specialist, the Orwellian sounding Staffing Officer to Talent Scout there seems to be a new way to describe yourself each day.  So is “Talent Hacker” doomed to become the next in a long list of buzzword-like titles?

I hope not.

Hopefully we can avoid the pitfalls of buzzwordism if we make a clear distinction as to what a “Talent Hacker” actually is.  Firstly, I don’t believe it’s a job title at all.  Talent Hacking is a methodology.  At best it’s a philosophical stance taken by a recruiter to adapt and experiment and at worst it’s the sharing and usage of a number of disparate tools to expedite hiring.

In Nick’s original article I was quoted as saying that “Hiring is still waterfall in an agile world”.  What I meant by that is that a “traditional” hiring process is slavish in adherence to accepted dogma. A job description is produced, it’s disseminated through advertising channels, resultant applications are pushed through a pre-defined process and those lucky enough to have impressed will be hired.  In this process, there is no feedback, no learning and no space for creativity…worst of all there is no scope to delight the candidates.

With the Agile/Waterfall divide in mind, I propose that the Talent Hacking outlook can be formalised by borrowing (stealing) from the Agile Manifesto.  The Agile Manifesto is a statement of values for software developers, reinforcing those elements that are of greater value when developing software.  Similarly we can list those things that we feel are important when hiring, like this…

 

 
While there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

Hires over Processes
 
Too often in large recruiting organisations the pressure to maintain robust process and measure the performance of recruiters in the organisation means that we lose sight of the reason we’re all there in the first place.  Measuring and rewarding things like number of candidates contacted or the number of contacts who made it to second stage is good practice but if the team isn’t hiring it’s all just “busy work“.  A robust and fair (free of bias) process is important. Processes are ways of doing things that are more efficient – they must make a workload easier to complete or faster, you can think of them as collections of efficiencies.  If they do not add benefit they are no longer of value.  A lot of larger organisations hang on to process as though it was a life raft in a rising ocean of change, once the process is no longer effective (which you should periodically test for) abandon it and find a new more effective process.  A point here on “Best practices”, to paraphrase Mary Poppendieck, author of “Lean Software Development” – Best practices are solutions to other people’s problems that you may not have.  So much of the processes of recruitment are done simply because “it’s how we did it at x company” or worse still “it’s how I’ve read x company do it”.  Process is great to ensure a level playing field and to expedite the flow of a candidate towards being hired – if it isn’t doing either of these things it should be questioned and if found to be lacking changed.
 
Data over Anecdotal Evidence
 
The Talent Hacking approach loves data.   Sourcing, screening and shepherding a candidate towards being hired calls for a lot of decision making.  Decisions are better when supported by data.  Even if you cringe or break out in hives whenever someone says “Big Data” there is little doubt that the digital exhaust trails that people now leave behind them have made them easier to find.  Ask a tame recruiter you know if they can find your email address, I’ll bet they can and it won’t be from anywhere you remember writing it… Data supports a hiring plan, salary benchmarking, advertising response rates, recruiter performance, process improvement – it’s all around us as recruiters.  Building a living breathing data set from which you can answer the future unknown questions will be one of the best investments for success as a recruiter.  Even better, a recruiter’s standing in the business can be improved from the simple provision of the raw data.  The Talent Hacker will go further and provide insight to hiring managers – affecting change and having a direct effect on the success of the business.  It is the data that will enable the wider business, as consumers of the recruitment service, to answer the all important “Why?”.  Why do we value this more than our own anecdotal evidence?  Anecdotal evidence is only ever the outcome of a single case, often it informs a bias or shapes action in a way that may have been right in a prior instance but not for the current one.  A Talent Hacker loves to hear the anecdotes of others because in unpacking them you can ask those questions that reveal what is “true” to an individual. They do have value, but I’ll take the data.
 
Candidate experience over Corporate Responsibility
 
Beyond external marketing and websites, a recruiter is often the first human interaction anyone has with a company.  When they are doing their job well they are exemplars for the brand – impassioned spokespeople it’s their enthusiasm that will bleed through in both their communication and deeds. So many recruiters at large organisations are a product of their environment they hide behind turrets built from template emails, missed phone calls and a fear of feedback.  An in-house recruiter walks a tightrope between advocating for the candidate and for the company at the same time, straying too far in one of these directions will not be beneficial.  A Talent Hacker takes a third position.  We must be aware that the talent war is over and that talent won.  Too many recruiters want to take an aloof position leaning towards the institutional arrogance that permeates some companies – “we don’t have to provide feedback”, “you’re only worth a bland template email”, “we have hundreds of candidates”.  I’m sure this was a perfectly reasonable stance to take…until it wasn’t.  You only have to look at Glassdoor.com to see reviews of interview processes that call out companies for their broken internal communication, ignorant recruiters and interminable, arduous processes.  For the Talent Hacker reading Glassdoor reviews is like a family owned restaurant being reviewed on TripAdvisor, scary as hell and a potential powder keg.  A recruitment process should feel like a personal service, the realisation that organisations are no longer all powerful and that bad reviews will stop people from applying hasn’t fully permeated a lot of companies.  As humans we love to share, and embellish, a juicy story of bad service and this penchant for negativity can be mitigated by a recruiter doing their job well.  Recruiters should protect their employers they do have a duty to them, but if it comes at the neglect of hundreds of individuals whose only crime is to have applied for a job then it might be wiser to limit the damage and stop recruiting altogether.
Responding to change over Following a plan
 
In life there are always events that are outside of our control.  As a recruiter we are often either privy to insider information or at the mercy circumstances outside of our control.  From hiring freezes, through acqui-hires to redundancies there are many business events that impact a recruiter.  The Talent Hacker must be aware of this and work hard to ensure that all parties, hiring managers, team, wider business and candidates are given the information where appropriate.  Working at the coal-face of recruitment often turns up interesting information that could be of great use to other areas of the business, if you don’t forge these feedback loops you are effectively losing out.  It can be simple things like competitor hiring strategy or market rates rising in demand for a particular skill, however it can also be large and impactful learnings that should be used to adapt and change strategy – mass redundancies at a competitor, a new product launch or even rumours of mergers and acquisitions, candidates reveal a lot of information that could be useful – not listening to this let alone not reacting to it is missing out.  Change can be a valuable tool and resistance stemming from traditional models of yearly planning can only leave an organisation exposed to risk.  A company I once worked for lost 32 senior developers within three months – did they stick to a static hiring plan?  Of course not! …but the changes shouldn’t have to be that drastic to trigger a period of re-evaluation.  The Talent Hacker doesn’t seek to control but instead knows that change will happen, they are not wedded to alternate contingencies but rely on experiences to suggest different paths to follow if the need occurs.
 
I like the appreciation of a new wave of recruitment thinking.  There have been pockets of genius in the underbelly of the people hunting game that have been hidden for too long.  From the boolean greats who sift through data to find that one unknown diamond of a candidate to the recruiters who do so much more than their remit, trusted advisors to candidates, hiring, housing and relocating their candidate’s families and pets as they go.  Perhaps the Talent Hacker flag is one we can all unite under,   recruiters and candidates might be all the better off for it.This manifesto is by no means an exhaustive list of what is to be a Talent Hacker and I welcome input to clarify the definition further.  By offering a definition we can at least trigger the debate and hopefully give the label more meaning.

On “Culture” – “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”.

How many job adverts currently advertise a “great culture”, “a start-up culture” or a “Google-like culture”?  It seems as though the only company not shouting about how Google-like their culture is are Google themselves.  It’s a particular bugbear of mine at the moment because it’s not only a trite cliché it’s also meaningless.

“Culture” as it is currently being used in job adverts has come to mean little more than a perk.  “Salary, Bonus, Life Insurance, Great Culture”.  Whilst this doesn’t make the top ten in my all time annoyances with how jobs are advertised it does make the mistake of entirely missing the point.  If the “culture” is a differentiator why wouldn’t you tell a prospective candidate about it in lavish detail?  I think the issue here might be one of misunderstanding of the term.

some culture...So what is culture?  Broadly defined the culture of a company is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular group or society.  These are the building blocks, the elemental stage of what we collectively called culture.  Without description of these ideas, customs and behaviours and why they are good bad or of no interest to a candidate mentioning it is redundant.

So what isn’t culture?  Another facet of a lack of description in a job advert is a description of the wrong things a quick scan of well intentioned descriptions lists “beers in the office”, “foosball” and “free food”.  These things are not culture.  Just like empty pyramids and papyrus scrolls are not the sum total of Ancient Egypt any more so than the Parthenon and Feta cheese are the whole of Greece.  Whilst these things are of cultural significance as parts of a job description without more insight they are little more than window dressing, set up to be dismissed by all but the most earnest of job hunters.  Whilst a recruiter may think that they are choosing the most attractive attributes of a compensation package they must also ask themselves do they really want to attract the candidate who favours a free lunch over a technology choice or a chance for progression?

I think the answer lies in a system of first and second order signifiers when talking about culture.  Those elements you call attention to first should be the most pertinent to your audience.  In the case of a Developer role for example I think we should assume that a candidate would want to know what technologies are involved, how the company writes code, how the teams are organised etc.  I’d hope a great candidate would want to know all of this before hearing about the details of a benefits package…even if they include “onsite barber” and “free laundry”.  These first order signifiers should be discovered when a recruiter qualifies a requisition.  This is the true insider knowledge and where the true indicators of culture lie, for example when saying the company has a flat-structure give the signifiers of this – small functional teams, 360 review process, accessibility to senior management.  If you say a company is innovative, tell the candidate how this is manifest – hackathons, internal discussion forum, cross functional collaboration etc.  Don’t just say those Ancient Egyptians were “Good builders” tell me about the pyramids!  If you don’t you’re missing the best opportunity.  Make the sell of the role more compelling through authenticity, not just spewing the benefits package verbatim – don’t be a perk-ulator.

Those second order signifiers are those items that apply to the general population of an organisation i.e. not role specific but company specific.  These are best used to reinforce the company’s values, attitudes and beliefs.  If possible these should be coupled with assumptions that let the reader know about the thought behind them.  Google’s “20% time” (despite it’s rumoured death) and Zappo’s “$2000 to quit” are great examples of this and offer a great stepping off point for later discussion with candidates.

Remember, the ideal job advert is not only attractive to those people you want to hire but also screens out those you do not.  If you write a generic job advertisement you will get a generic response.  A correctly worded ad to the right audience is a great first filter.  Candidates are not stupid, they will self select if they feel the role suits them and that is what should happen.  If you write a job description that everyone likes, everyone will apply but then of course you don’t want to hire everyone…

On Hiring Technical Women

I believe that even in my lifetime the advances that have been made in technology have been a great leveller.  Technology has enabled so much collaboration across so many different boundaries, across culture, geography, age, race and gender.  Even in my own career I have worked alongside teams from all over the world, on one particular project we had Brazilian, Chinese, and Dutch developers, working with an Australian project manager and a business analyst from Portugal working from a London office for a US based client.  They were a range of ages, races and genders.  I think the software they produced was better for the team’s diversity.  Their range of viewpoints and backgrounds enabled them to better empathise with the eventual users of the software they were building.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate as the employers I’ve worked for not only recognised the importance of diverse teams but were also prepared to invest both the time and sometimes the money that was necessary to source candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.  The industry is already well aware that there is a shortage of technical women.  There are some brilliant initiatives in this area and most importantly some truly inspirational female role models for those entering employment.  I’ve been exceptionally lucky to work with just a few of them.  It seems as though the more forward thinking of employers have woken up to the realisation that a diverse workforce is a boon to productivity and the collective intelligence of teams.  These are leaps forward and while we should keep striving and not become complacent it is in the implementation of these initiatives that I have noticed some actions which are increasingly counter-productive.  Some recruiters, despite the best intentions, are doing more to alienate potential female candidates than encourage them.

I do not know how women feel about the hiring process, nor do I believe they think as a collective hive-mind, so whenever I get the chance I ask them for feedback.  How was the hiring process? What did they enjoy? What could I improve?  Questions I ask of all the candidates I shepherd through their recruitment process.  At a previous employer we had a kind of focus group of female developers and business analysts set to explore one questions “how can we hire more females?”.  Whilst there were lot of ideas in the room there was one recurring theme that often stopped potential ideas in their tracks – no one wanted to feel or make others feel that the bar was being lowered for them.  They didn’t want women only interview days, they didn’t want woman-targeted advertising and they didn’t want to be commoditised with the offer of increased referral bonuses for female candidates.

It is in trying to work against the stereotype of the “programmer” that recruiters often fall into the trap of pandering to an equally divisive stereotype.  Whilst stand-out cases of obvious crassness make news, like the ad posted to the Ruby User group offering female co-workers as a perk or at the other end of the spectrum LinkedIn’s ban of a job ad showing a female web developer because it was “offensive”, it’s apparent that even when the industry thinks it’s doing the right thing often it just gets weird.  Pink adverts, adverts featuring photos of lip stick and high heels (really) there have been some truly odd attempts to attract female candidates when filtered though the lens of a recruiting department.

Recently I met with a representative from a university women’s group. She described a meeting with the Diversity Recruiters at a large investment bank.  They wanted to be involved with the women’s society and wondered what would be the best thing they could do.  The women’s group leader suggested that they might like to sponsor a scholarship for one of the female students.  A relatively modest award would ensure that a student would be “theirs”, branded as such and available for publicity. This would also ensure that the lucky recipient would be relieved of some financial burden, maybe give up a part-time job, devote more time to study, even fair better because of it.  The Diversity Recruiters didn’t agree that this would be the best use of the money, they wanted in their words a greater “return on investment”.  So what was their suggestion?

Afternoon tea in a posh hotel.  The budget? The same as the scholarship.  This is a perfect example of not knowing your audience, of not understanding or at least not empathising.  The twee sensibilities of an HR department woefully out of touch with the audience they were trying to engage.    A true opportunity to help was squandered in favour of cream teas.  It’s exactly the brand of corporatism that sees a company say they do work for the environment because they have a photo of the CEO planting a tree on their website.  It may well be benign but it’s also pointless.  Gender like any diversity characteristic is too often treated as a checkbox item. It’s as though some recruiters are more looking for Pokemon than people…

So how do I hire female developers?

I aim to hire highly-skilled, passionate people.  The adverts I place aren’t for “Ninjas” or “Rockstars” or other “brogrammer” terms,  they are for software engineers, for people who like solving problems and who like having their work make an impact.  So how do I ensure I’m reaching out to technical women too?  I source, a lot.  As women area smaller minority of the greater technical population you have to look through more of that population to find them.  It’s labour intensive but they are there you just have to look.  I have still run women only hackathons, and relied on the advice of organisations like Women in Technology and advertised in media aimed at a female audience, even increased the bounty for the successful referral of a female developer.  However, as a recruiter, first and foremost the thing I try to do is appeal to a passion for technology and find the best people I can.  If I’m looking for highly skilled people who are passionate about technology I know that I’m going to find some females in that group and I’m going to do my best to make sure that when I do talk to them it’s with a relevant and interesting opportunity…but then that’s what I want for every candidate.

Employee Happiness – Throw cash at them right?

Recently I’ve been reading some of the work by psychologist Amos Tversky. Tversky was a cognitive and mathematical psychologist and pioneer in the study of systematic human cognitive bias and how we as humans handle risk. The following scenario is based on research originally completed by him.

Imagine you were offered two jobs. They are the same in terms of working hours, duties location and career prospects – in fact Job A is exactly identical to Job B in every way – except one, the difference between your salary and that of your colleagues. In Job A your annual pay will be £50,000 and your colleagues will earn £30,000. In Job B your annual pay will be £60,000 and your fellow employees will be on £80,000.

Which would you prefer?

Then, which would make you happiest?

Surprisingly when Tversky posed these two questions he got different answers. We’d all prefer to earn more money, but when happiness was introduced respondents felt that this had more to do with their perceived value to the organisation – even to the extent of being paid less at a perceived higher value. This is an interesting problem for those people currently in the job marketplace or in salary negotiation with a prospective employer.

What did you answer to each of the questions? Did you change your mind for happiness?

The Muddy Waters of Salary Transparency

Recently there has been much comment and debate around the issue of salary transparency in organisations. The New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin published an article on this very subject in August. Like many arguments in the world of employment there are pros and cons as you would expect. For those on the pro transparency front the case is a simple one.

1. Salaries will become more fair. The system gets a chance to adjust itself. (This argument is often given a more inclusive flavour with a smattering of diversity thrown in for good measure – “We will be able to see that women are paid fairly” – I’ve not heard this salary/diversity measure argued by any of the women in my organisation, and to me it smacks of validation)

2. It will be easier to retain the best employees because they’re more likely to feel they’re getting a fair salary.

3. The pressure is on the people with the high salaries to earn their keep. Everybody has to pull their weight – the higher the salary, the larger the weight.

4. Secret salaries can create paranoia and mistrust between peers (is he getting paid more than me?)

These are an amalgam of points, by no means exhaustive, taken from internal discussion and the wider blogosphere. I think the majority of the pro-transparency arguments are covered here. They are in no particular order and I hope to expose some of the counter arguments and the mis-thinking behind them.

Putting it right out there in the open I am against salary transparency. I feel there is little to be gained, when an organisation has reached a certain size and covers different geographies, in the widespread disclosure of salary information. The arguments in favour of keeping this information private far outweigh the perceived benefits, and in my opinion too many of the people arguing for the release of this information use equality as a soapbox for their own issues with their personal salary. As you will see, I postulate that this is an example of a very different outward agenda for what is essentially a personal issue.

The first and most important part of the argument against salary transparency is one of privacy. The advent of the Internet has meant that a wealth of information is already freely available to the casual surfer. With one reasonably refined Google search I’m confident you could find my mobile number, home address and probably my now dead pet Gerbil’s name*. Is this a good thing? Some would argue yes however there are some things I might not like to disclose – salary is one of those things. People may say it’s my bourgeois middle-class white upbringing that leads me to think it impolite to discuss salaries but I don’t believe that’s the case – as a recruiter I discuss salaries everyday, constantly and all the time. I am happy to talk about this in exact figures and not to think myself crass for doing so. It’s a taboo I’m happy to break. However I think there are genuine relevant reasons for not disclosing one’s salary. Despite any organisations attempts to maintain a flat structure people function through the constant comparison of themselves with others – in knowing a salary structure of an organisation do you immediately assume that those with a lower salary are less valuable? I’d make the challenge that yes as salary would be the only insight you have into the role played by an individual in that organisation. In my opinion salary is not a measure of value. If I’m bleeding to death I’d wager I’d not be concerned with the salary of the paramedic stemming the tide of blood, but his value at that moment would be priceless. Nurses and Care Givers are paid less than Investment Bankers and Police Officers less than the latest “celebrity” to leave the Big Brother house – value and moreover personal worth should never be measured in pounds, shillings and pence.

The issue of “fairness” is an interesting point and in certain organisations I feel would apply. If we take the example of a manufacturing plant and compare two workers performing the same task on the same line at the same time – then it would be unfair of an employer to make this same role tiered in terms of pay, I’d agree with that – the exact remuneration alters when one or more of these factors changes e.g. a worker on a night shift can expect to be paid more for working anti-social hours, a worker performing a more highly skilled task can expect to earn more and so on. However, within most modern organisations the nature of “role” has to be taken into account. You might have the same overall “function” e.g. both lawyers but for the individuals in question the “role” and responsibilities thereof may differ vastly. There are increasingly issues around this “same-ness” in modern roles, are there really any roles that are exactly comparable? In an organisation like ThoughtWorks where we have transient job titles and with a lack of public sector style concrete grades we are left to consider each individual separately. So how does an organisation decide what aspects of an individual’s performance and role are worth more – taking the world of IT consulting as an obvious example. What do we look for in potential ThoughtWorkers? What do we value? As a few examples I can say those people who are passionate about their jobs, those that commit to open source projects, maintain a blog and partake in the ongoing learning offered by more informal gatherings like our “Geek Nights” and “Ruby Tuesdays”. These are extra points that may add “value” to your employ by the company. However as I mention “value” doesn’t equate to “salary” as an exact transfer.

In the discussion of salary that I have with a potential new hire I always ask two questions. They are, “What is your current salary?” and “What would you like to earn?” The differentiation between these two sums allows me to gauge a candidate’s perception of their own value, in short their own marketability. This is an important consideration. It’s Marx that states that in working or allowing the “exploitation of their labour” an individual in a Capitalist state is in effect selling their labour to their employer. The “price” they accept to take a role is their salary. The scale of difference between the two numbers offered will also give a recruiter insight into their attitude towards the current employer and often their knowledge of the current market. I will be first to admit that anyone wishing for a £20,000 pay hike is going to have to demonstrate effectively what their reasoning is for wanting that large a differentiator, what are the factors for justifying it? For employers salary has a memory. The majority of standard reference requests will ask for a confirmation of a stated salary.

Salary transparency as a means of retention is again a limited argument. The assumption is that as an employee either the primary or ultimately the sole reason an employee stays with an employer is because of salary. We are all hopefully aware that this isn’t the case and that many employers offer a wealth of benefits and concessions to a work life balance that are not quantifiable in the simple measure of basic wage. Looking at those labour markets where salaries are substantially higher e.g. Investment Banking higher salaries are oftentimes referred to as “golden handcuffs” or “gilded cages” effectively these employers are having to buy the loyalty of their skilled staff in the face of the lack of other trade offs like work life balance or flexible working times. Is it the transparency of salaries that keeps employees in these locations happy and working or simply that the salaries are sufficiently inflated to keep them from asking (or giving a damn about the answer)?

ThoughtWorks is a developer of bespoke software solutions and a keep proponent of the Agile and XP methodologies. In designing software we ask our clients to use a standard construction in describing the purpose of a feature for their new software, referred to as a “story”. “As an X, I want to…, So that…” we use this to hold up requests for scrutiny, to evaluate them in isolation removed from the often emotive responses end users may have. So, as an employee of X company, I want to know all my co-workers salaries so that… then I think it all falls down, if there’s no action are you in a better or worse position knowing than not knowing? How does knowing this information inform your actions or your interactions with other employees? It’s my feeling that most people want to know the salary information of their peers to use as a jumping off point into their own discussions around their personal salary. However, the information of peer salary in this discussion is largely irrelevant – instead we should be thinking of the wider labour market in our current geography. To gain salary information as an individual you don’t have to piece together pages from the finance teams shredder or lie in wait in the dumpsters near the office, salary information is freely available on the job boards and advertising available to all. Recently there has been a glut of websites launched aiming to catalogue salary information for casual viewers. Glassdoor.com is a recent newcomer to this space and provides, amongst other things, salary information for staff of major corporations, and yes ThoughtWorks has a presence, although I can confirm that the pay scales are incorrect at present. Provided more people join and enter their information truthfully this scale will normalise over time.

In all of these discussions the culture of transparency is held as the ultimate goal of an organisation and I’d wonder if this is the case. In my opinion it is a culture of trust we should strive for. Employees who feel they are paid fairly, because they have effectively sold the “exploitation of their labour” with full knowledge of the market in which that labour is sold will be better able to realise their own position and not be concerned with how Bob was able to afford that new Corvette, but instead trust they are given a fair salary based on their own personal circumstance and that the company they work for will aid them in their strive to grow and develop as an individual – salary, the nuts and bolts measure of their value, will become secondary.

* For those interested parties the Gerbil in question was named “Nibbles”.

Also for those people disappointed not to find a tribute to McKinley Morganfield a.k.a. “Muddy Waters” of Blues fame I attach a picture by way of apology. Go listen to him here.

The Malleus Maleficarum and the Danger of the Perpetual Interview

The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Hexenhammer” in German) is one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Its main purpose was to challenge all arguments against the existence of witchcraft and to instruct magistrates on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches. The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Despite this, the Malleus Maleficarum became the de-facto handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, it was published thirteen times, and between 1574 to 1669 it was again published sixteen times. The papal bull and endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book contributed to its popularity by giving the illusion that it had been granted approval by Pope Innocent VIII.

So, what’s all this got to do with the world of recruitment? Am I about to advocate the burning of unsuccessful candidates? No. Talking recently to a friend who is an in-house recruiter at a global software company she was saddened by a practise that was seemingly commonplace. After the recruitment process was completed, the tests all squared away, file lovingly placed in labyrinthine databases – her new recruits we’re being force to run an equally nerve racking second “interview” in their daily work. In effect they were having to prove themselves to their coworkers despite having already run the gamut of a lengthy recruitment process.
This is an example of yet another recruiting anti-pattern – The Witch Hunt. In short this is the practise of the re-examination of hires by some or all of the incumbent members of staff, whereupon judgements on suitability, technical ability and overall “fit” will be gleaned from limited interactions (water cooler conversations) and these confirmations distributed to the larger workforce through informal interactions. The outcome of this process is the alienation and damage to the reputation, be it technical or social of the individual involved. The Malleus describes this process as “initiated either at the instance of an accuser, or of an informer actuated by zeal, or by reason of a general outcry and rumour” – suddenly 1486 seems more relevant!
Obviously, I am not accusing a workforce of whipping up the same fervour for brutality that we read of in the middle ages, but the pattern is largely the same and the effects less dangerous but no less debilitating to the victims.
Any organisation that has a mantra of hiring “the best”, “the top 1 percent” or “from the best universities” is fostering a culture of entitlement and arrogance in it’s staff. By the simple fact of going to work each morning is confirmation of their position as “best”. This can have a catastrophic effect on an organisations ability to hire and retain staff. The formation of a dominant,oppressive culture rather than that of collaborative or inclusive can only lead to the atrophication of ideas and kills innovation. New staff hired in these organisations will only ever be “cookie cutter” representations of those persons already present – cultural stagnation awaits.
What then, can recruiters do to stimulate a change in these practises? There are some easy steps that one can make during the process to try and avoid the later Witch Hunt!
1. Make an advocate for your candidate – When interviewing, particularly in the case of technical staff, use a widely respected member of staff. Make this one of your “gurus” or architects and the wider body of technical staff will instead make value assumptions based on their perception of the interviewer, in short “Bob interviewed him? Oh he must be great then”. Of course this does mean that you’ll need to ensure that your candidate is good enough to pass that evaluation.
2. Become an advocate for a new hire yourself – During the recruitment process highlight the achievements and status of the new hire. Bring attention to those points that made them an attractive candidate in the first place – publicise their blog, published articles or accomplishments in the Open Source community. This is also a great “double check” on a candidate – if you can’t think of anything “saleable” about the candidate are they right? Why are you hiring them?
3. Look closely at your onboarding process. Look for elements of over exposure, take care with a new employee that others are aware of their level and set expectations with these parties. Set meeting points and get regular feedback on performance. If a candidate passes the interview process but is seeming to fail in the day to day work look closer at the tasks assigned are any outside of those first detailed in the recruitment process or envisaged in the role description.
4. Assign a sponsor or buddy for your new hire. ThoughtWorks has an effective sponsor programme in operation currently. Sponsees are expected to meet up at least once a month to discuss how things are going and other concerns or problems they may have. These meetings are informal and are often over a lunch or after hours adding to the social aspect.
The hatred and misogyny espoused by the Malleus would eventually come to an end in Europe. In England in 1684, Scotland in 1722 and not until 1782 for the Swiss. So the fervour for alienation and accusation has long been dead… but how much of it lies dormant in your corporate culture? How welcome are your new employees? Is there any Matthew Hopkins spirit in the dark corners of your office?