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What Edward Snowden Has Taught Us About Hiring

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Almost lost amid the ongoing saga about former federal contractor Edward Snowden is an important story line with broad implications for executive boards and CEOs across all sectors.

Last week’s Wall Street Journal provides further evidence that some critical elements of Snowden's hiring process -- notably, a background check -- were performed poorly, if at all. Coupled with previous revelations about his background and skill level, a broader picture emerges: Snowden was, at best, a marginal hire for the role he filled. There’s little evidence that he had the ideal technical capability, track record, or behavioral profile for the work he was hired to do.

Let’s be clear: No one set out to make a bad hire. The job specs might have called for a certain level of technical capability, security clearance, and professional and personal behavior, but when push comes to shove a hiring manager needs someone to start work. The job description for an NFL franchise’s quarterback might call for a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but ultimately, when the whistle blows, many teams settle for someone else.

Simply put, for whatever reason -- salary, location, assignment, corporate reputation -- the right candidate wasn’t available for this role, but Edward Snowden was. And in a contracting business where empty chairs are lost revenue, the pressure to find a match is particularly intense.

Not every less-than-ideal hire, assignment or promotion, will result in such catastrophic consequences. But even the more mundane outcomes -- lower productivity, attrition, petty theft or fraud, damage to brands or customer experiences -- are both serious and common. Hiring managers suggest that only 73 percent of the people they bring aboard have the skills to the do the jobs they were hired for. The data are even more extreme for scarce skills or mission-critical roles like the database management position Snowden filled.

More importantly, hiring mistakes are likely to rise, given the state of key labor micro markets. A more robust U.S. labor market is shifting the balance of supply and demand for key talent. In fact, the time to fill nonexecutive positions in the United States has increased from 41 to 61 business days. Not surprising, data from CEB, an industry advisory company, show that the longer a job remains open, the lower the quality of the candidate pool and eventual hire becomes.

Obviously, a single organization can’t rectify mismatches for scarce skills by itself. Managers will always need to trade off between “ideal” profiles and “good enough” profiles with respect to promotions, assignments and hiring. But an organization can take these concrete steps to bring supply and demand into balance:

  • Better link strategic planning to workforce planning. This surfaces key dependencies early and lets leaders reconfigure work design and hiring strategies to avoid near-term crunches. With enough lead time, organizations can train for skills, focus on new talent markets, or redesign work itself to relieve pressure.
  • Use recruiter knowledge of the market to create stronger job profiles. The job of the recruiting team is not merely to attempt to get what a hiring manager wants, but to advise clients and shape roles to reflect market reality.
  • Understand which skills are necessary and relentlessly shape employment branding to attract the best talent. This applies both externally and internally. Great companies understand and deliver work experiences that attract candidates who are uniquely important to their mission.
  • Apply consistent criteria for key talent that are benchmarked and refined over time. This data will not only give human resources chiefs and CEOs more predictive power about who will succeed or fail, but it also will give them warning indicators when managers are trading off key hiring objectives.

Tom Monahan is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CEB, the leading member-based advisory company.

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