Monkeys with machine guns.” That’s how international search consultant Claudio Fernández-Aráoz refers to many in the search and recruiting business. Of course that statement is a slight bit inflammatory, so I should quickly follow it up by saying what he means is that hiring managers have power, but not much knowledge or actual training.

So there. Feel better? Probably not much. I only began this piece with that quote to get your attention, not to get you angry with Claudio, though we both presume not many of you are actually armed.

Despite the economic doldrums we find ourselves in today, and despite that first quote, Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser to the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International, frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and author of the highly acclaimed book Great People Decisions is rather optimistic about the hiring business. And he thinks business is going to pick up.

“HR and recruiting and staffing weren’t historically on the moneymaking side of the business, but they are now,” he told an audience at Total Picture Radio recently following the HSM World Business Forum in New York City. “And there’s no better time to build top teams and hire great talent than when times are tough.”

At his business forum speech, Fernández-Aráoz asked for a show of hands among the audience of 4,000 how many had ever received training on “how to hire.”

“Twenty hands came up,” he said. “When it comes to hiring people we’re all experts. It’s a real paradox that we don’t study the most critical factor to our career success.”

Though Fernández-Aráoz does say the hiring process is not an art, but rather a discipline that can in fact be studied and learned, he also says thousands of years of hard wiring doesn’t do us any favors.

“Our brain is a piece of hardware that hasn’t had a major upgrade for 10,000 years, yet the world has changed so much in that time. Think of our ancestors. When they were approached by someone they had to think, ‘Is this person familiar? Do they look like me? Act like me? Am I comfortable with them?’ They made those decisions all the time and they could only be wrong once. We are predisposed to liking and accepting those who are just like us as a result. That doesn’t do much for building diverse teams who aren’t afraid to confront, which is the opposite of comfort.”

Though he has conducted some 20,000 interviews himself, Fernández-Aráoz is not a fan of the traditional job interview.

“The typical interview is a conversation between two liars, in which the interviewer often talks more than the interviewee,” he says.

"The typical interview is a conversation between two liars..."

He also finds fallacy in the three things the interview is supposed to do: assess competencies, “sell” and create organizational consensus.

“No more than three people total should participate in the assessment. There often are too many people involved and that slows down the process to the point where the right candidate might simply opt out due to frustration. The best hiring structure is neither a monarchy nor a democracy, but something in between."

One of the tools he recommends hiring managers use better – and with more frequency – is references. And he’s not talking about contacting a former employer and asking, “What do you think of so and so?”

“Your conversation with references should always be relative to the job you are hiring for. It’s never an open-ended question. You tell the former employer what the duties of the new job are, the scope, parameters and so on. Then you ask specifically, ‘What was the role this person had at your company? What were their competencies? How did they perform?’ Face it, some people don’t tell the truth. We are also all optimists and think we are better than we actually are. So it’s important to talk to someone who has seen that candidate in action.”

In summary, Fernández-Aráoz wants to leave the industry with three main points.

First, the most successful leaders are incredibly focused on people decisions. Second, most of us find these decisions brutally hard. Third, many recruiters and HR pros are quite clueless about the best practices.

“Everything we achieve in our careers will be dependent in one way or another on the people we hire. So nothing is more important.”

Tags: Recruiters, Staffing, Advice, Interviews, Staffing industry, References, Search