Hiring Problem: The Lack Of Specificity In The Hiring Process

Hiring Problem: The Lack Of Specificity In The Hiring Process

I recently came across an interesting situation involving an organization's ad and a potential candidate's resume. In response to a statement on the candidate's resume, “I know how to use Excel," the company asked, "How often did you use MS Office programs, specifically Excel. We use Excel extensively, so I need someone with strong skills." Related:6 Job Search Reality Checks To Begin 2015 This is nothing more than a variation on a classic dilemma.

The company's add requires “Microsoft Office Skills" and many applicants' resumes state, “Experience with Microsoft Office." If there's anything good in this situation, it is the both sides are equally at fault – and guilty of a major error best labeled “lack of specificity." But this error actually pales in comparison to the highly likely result – a mismatch between the candidate and the employer with all the resulting implications for both the employer and the new employee. The employer may end up with someone that is under – or over – qualified. The new employee is dissatisfied because he or she is not qualified or not challenged enough by the tasks. There is another very important factor about this situation. According to a recent study from Burning Glass Technologies, an analysis of “middle-skills jobs" (roles that require high school but not college degrees), 78% of jobs call for fluency with technology. And the most commonly required skills are those involving spreadsheet and word processing (e.g., MS Excel and Word). According to the research, 67% of middle-skill jobs require proficiency with these tools – and the median pay rates are 13% more than jobs that require no digital skills. There's a valid question about individual's desire to learn and enjoy using these skills – but the opportunities should be clearly presented to people.

Typical Reactions

There are two typical reactions to this dilemma of poorly specified skills and equally poorly stated requirements – that while partially applicable in some situations – they are also both seriously flawed. One of the first reactions to this situation – when the candidate is less skilled than the job requires – is the “ease of learning." Often cited are the plethora of learning options, online courses, YouTube videos, and so on for learning how to use “all" the features of the software. But the availability of learning resources does not guarantee the individual will both pursue the learning and enjoy using the advanced skills. My own example is simple: I'm moderately skilled at EXCEL but I have little desire to learn advanced features like “Pivot Tables" and even less desire to work regularly at that level of the tool." A second typical reaction is that it's OK for an “overqualified" applicant to apply or to be selected for a position. Absolutely in some cases. Maybe the company is growing rapidly and the challenges of the position are going to grow quickly to match the candidate's qualifications. Maybe the candidate is looking for a position with less pressure (or greater work/life balance) than a previous position. But what if the candidate is looking for an opportunity to really test and grow their application of the MS Office tools – and this job is not likely to ever present that opportunity. Then the result is dissatisfaction, fast turnover, or “quit and stay." None of these is a good situation.

The Employer Solution

I'll present the employer solution first because I'll argue the employer has the primary responsibility to solve this problem. No employer should ever run an ad or post an opening with “"Experience with MS-Office" or “Need someone with strong EXCEL skills" (or any similar variation with any software). The solution: Be specific! What are the specific “advanced features" of the specific software needed? What does the person “need to do" with the specific software? Some examples:
  • Develop 2-3 MS-PowerPoint presentations monthly, 40-50 slides, with imported graphics, videos, and MS-Excel information. Includes regular development of advance templates working in consultation with presenters.
  • MS-Excel work comprises 45% of this position, regularly developing advanced applications for the organization to include complex macros, Pivot Tables, statistical and financial formulas.
  • A key responsibility of this position is producing an employee newsletter in MS-Word, including imported graphics and MS-Excel data, preparing the newsletter to be distributed electronically to employees in multiple locations internationally.
For employers, if there is a good candidate based on solid information except for this “MS-Office Skills" weakness, the problem should be, and is easiest solved, as part of a pre-screening phone interview, “Your resume states the you have “MS-Office Skills," please tell me a little about your most significant accomplishment using Excel." A 4-5 minute probing (e.g. “Which advanced features did you use?") should provide specific evidence on the level of skill.

The Candidate Solution

The candidate solution is, perhaps, a little simpler. But it starts with similar advice: NEVER put “MS-Office skills" or “Experience with MS-Office" on a resume. In reality, it states absolutely nothing about your skills or experience! HR or the Hiring Manager don't know if this means “you've seen a colleague using MS-Word" or you're an “Advanced Certified MS-Office Technician." First of all, your experience or skill with MS-Office, or any software, should not be listed on your resume just as a “skill." It should be reflected in the specific accomplishments, tied to a position held. “Having the skill" is not what's important. “Doing" something with the skill is the evidence – particularly when it's part of your top 3-4 accomplishments for a position on your resume.
  • Developed and implemented a financial reporting system, based on MS-Excel, using complex macros, Pivot Tables, and financial formulas. Trained employees in five departments on the data entry and printing functions that reduced monthly financial reporting from 10 to 2 days after month end.
  • Introduced automated MS-PowerPoint presentations into multiple trade show kiosks, based on unique templates for each of our 20+ products. Presentations included animations, advanced branching, and interactive (touch-screen) functions.
It's a little bit harder for you as a candidate to discover the real requirements of the job from a potential employer – at least, in most cases, until you get a phone or in-person interview. But then you should have the opportunity to ask questions including, “How much time does the person in this job spend working with…?" and “What are the specific expectations of this job for advanced use of…?" A bolder step in some cases, even before formally applying, might be a phone call to the HR Representative or Hiring Manager asking for additional information on the “MS-Office" requirement.

An Interesting Bonus – Employers

When candidates are selected for interviews based on the higher level of specificity suggested here on both sides, it allows the interview to start at a much higher level than “Tell me about your MS-Office skills." In many cases, it would allow for an excellent application of a “visualize" or true “situational" question. “One of the challenges for the person getting this position is to automate our sales tracking and reporting process. Here are a couple of our sample reports, currently being completed with a simple “fill in the blank" form. How would you go about automating these with Excel?" This would give the interviewer an excellent platform for a real “give and take" discussion that would reveal the candidate's thinking and problem-solving skills.

A Too Common Problem

The “lack of specificity" problem presented here is way too common and occurs in far too many instances on both sides of the hiring process. And it's not just related to MS-Office or software skills. It applies to almost all general skills statements (e.g., “strong interpersonal skills"). Yet the solution is clear: specificity. And remembering, “It's what you do with what you have that counts, not what you have." The benefits to both the employer and the job seeker are clear!

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About the author

Jim Schreier is a management consultant with a focus on management, leadership, including performance-based hiring and interviewing skills. Visit his website at www.farcliffs.com. Disclosure: This post is sponsored by a CAREEREALISM-approved expert.
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