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Steering Your Career Beyond HR

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

AThe HR process has become a grave for human talent. Skilled professionals send their resumes to HR, and then wait. And wait.

Occasionally, they get interviewed—itself often an excruciating process with all kinds of trap-door questions, imagined decision situations and simulations in which they get subjected to the all-knowing, unblinking eye of Big Data and Data Analytics.

Hey, stop it!” y ou’re thinking as you wait, “I’m a person, not a pile of data points.”

No matter. Data marches on, crunching everyone’s numbers. It’s become a monster, like the job board says. HR has unleashed an intrusive, often demeaning process in which people become fodder for some company’s talent management software.

“Hey, ” you’ll be thinking, “I’m not a number in an algorithm. I’m out in the world. I’ve got a track record. What about THAT?” Tough, kiddo. Big Data must be served.

To understand what’s going on, we need to look at this from at least two different perspectives. Let’s start with HR’s point of view.

There’s a perfectly good reason why HR makes getting hired so difficult for job seekers. HR knows how it’s perceived. In most companies, HR departments are seen as cost centers, not profit centers. HR is seen not as making money for the company, but as spending its money—on the hiring process, on people it refers to be interviewed, and on its own overhead. And no one knows this better than the people who work in HR. They know that their corporate value is continually under scrutiny, being questioned. So they’re constantly trying to justify their corporate existence.

Caught in this frame of mind, they adopt an attitude to prove to their corporate bosses that, “ Hey, bosses—we’re not wasting your recruiting budget. We don’t hire just anybody. We don’t make it easy for people to get hired here. We put candidates through their paces. We only bring you the best—the survivors.”

But are they the best?

The result, after all, is a hiring process that often chases away talented people and discards anyone who doesn’t want to play along. After all, talented people have the attitude, “Hey—I don’t have to put up with this. I’ll apply somewhere else.” When talent does that, the company loses out, while still pissing-off anyone who manages to survive the process.

Now let’s look at the hiring process from the job seeker’s point of view. If you’re looking for a job, what are you actually looking for? Probably a company that sees who you are and sees the value—not just obedience—you can bring to them.

While I was writing this article, I got a call from a client who told me he’d just been hired as an in-house consultant with the 7-Eleven Corporation, advising its franchise owners. It turns out that 7-Eleven is one of the most innovative firms in the retail industry. It uses a straightforward, pragmatic, down-to-earth hiring process.

This hiring process, John told me, focused on what he actually can do—in the field, in an actual 7-Eleven store—while being observed by one of 7-Eleven’s veteran consultants. He prepped John a little, then visited a few stores, where John talked with several franchise owners. The consultant observed and reported his observations to the corporate HR office. Smart. Simple. Human.

The process worked.

John got hired within days.

Unfortunately, this approach seems to be an exception. Too often, HR instead takes the attitude that, “ I’m Ms. Gatekeeper here. Nobody gets past me—unless I’m satisfied. ” This attitude may show their bosses how tough HR is with job candidates, but it won’t attract many. It just crunches on, “managing” talent without engaging it or creating a relationship with the people who actually have the talent.

Talent. Talent can invent and intuit solution paths by applying its acquired knowledge. And knowledge, by the way, is not the same thing as information. Information exists outside anyone’s nervous system. Recipes in cookbooks are not the actual ability to cook. Information is made up of data points: disembodied information, floating around, waiting for someone to tell it what it means. That’s what Big Data does.

Knowledge is different. Knowledge is alive in its owner’s nervous system. It has been incorporated into what we correctly call a “body of knowledge.” Reading cookbooks doesn’t make anyone a cook. And after a certain point, many cooks don’t bother looking at recipes. They use their hands-on knowledge of cooking to invent their own combinations of flavors and textures. When it’s in your fingertips, it’s not just information any more.

Well—the people who make hiring decisions feel the same way about their ability to size up talent. They don’t need an HR cheat-sheet. They trust themselves.

In most hiring situations, HR’s part of the process isn’t about either talent or knowledge. Instead, it focuses on what HR can learn about you: on the data points it can collect, analyze and report about you. HR winds up gate-keeping candidates away from the company. And it does this because, as Peter Drucker pointed out, in a bureaucratic environment, whoever has any shred of authority will want to use it as often as possible.

In most organizations, people at the low end of the hierarchy are not trusted with the authority to say Yes, Let’s Do This. They can’t green-light projects or go ahead and hire people. They’re only empowered to say, No, You Can’t Do This; and You Can’t Get Past Me To Do It. One day in the Pentagon, a woman told me, in a hushed confidential voice as though this was going to be a big secret, “ Gabriel, tell your clients to sign their 171 forms in blue ink, or green ink, or even in red—but not in black ink .”

I looked at her. “ But most pens write in black ink .”

Yes ,” she replied, “ but in our office we have some over-zealous personnel clerks who, whenever they see a signature in black, will say to each other, ‘You know, I’m not sure that’s really an original signature.’ And sometimes they’ll toss out the application.

There’s a way to make sure this sad fate doesn’t become yours.

In our next column, we’ll see how to make it work.


Gabe Heilig has assisted over 5,300 people in advancing their careers. If you have a question, feel free to ask. Other people may have the same question you do and he may answer your question in print in a future column. You can reach him at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com