The Case for Hiring ‘Under-Qualified’ Employees
“Rule 45: No Unemployed Candidates. Always an Excuse. Too Risky. Top-Rated, Currently Employed Candidates Who Won’t Leave… PERFECT.”
With all due respect for your accomplishments, Josh, I disagree.
Our own company, Fishbowl, is neither public nor for sale, but we’ve achieved record growth (currently more than 70% through the last three tumultuous years), regional and national awards for product and management quality, and negligible turnover (under 2%) since we began in 2001. We’ve done all of this by doing the exact opposite of the strategy our Utah neighbor, Josh James, has described.
Consider the strong case for the traditionally “unqualified” hire. Not every company, particularly in the early stages, can afford to hire an established “superstar.” I maintain that most any company, particularly in the growth phase, is better off by discovering potential stars (we call them Champions) in the making and creating a healthy holding environment that allows and encourages them to grow.
But our approach requires the right core ingredients. I’ve honed my skills in identifying the traits we describe as the 7 Non-Negotiables: Respect, Belief, Loyalty, Commitment, Trust, Courage and Gratitude. I’ve previously written about the “7 NN’s” with my paired leadership partner, Mary Michelle Scott (Fishbowl President) in Forbes and in HBR.
We’re looking for candidates who exhibit these characteristics, and we’re watching the way they interact—their body language, eye contact, whether they are articulate—a good listener—and whether they can express what they feel without feeling nervous. Can they demonstrate strong character traits when asked how they would handle various situations in former jobs or in life? I can sense an individual’s work ethic. We look for someone eager and hungry to learn, which has generally been a good barometer of the individual’s work ethic as well. In 30 minutes, I can judge a prospective hire with pretty much 99% accuracy. Our managers (we call them our “Captains”) have honed these sensibilities as well.
Consider our recent new hire in accounting last week. She came to us from a minimal position at Blimpie’s. She’s a lady who’s smart—highly qualified—was formerly the CFO of a small hospital. But then she got really ill. Then the economy caused her to lose her home. The short sale of her house left her with a little money to work with, but the only job she could obtain was as the manager of a Blimpie’s store for $9 an hour.
I sensed her capabilities from the moment we met. She’d never used QuickBooks (our inventory control software integrates with QuickBooks, and we run our own company on the same products and functionality we sell). Most everything we do (other than our basic financial/accounting principles) was new.
She embraced the challenge. She learned our system (eagerly) and made suggestions that within four days produced the most accurate financial reports in her area of stewardship our company has ever seen. Today she initiated a new process with our Controller that will cause our past due accounts receivable to diminish and possibly disappear. When someone is this eager and excited to excel, and is given the environment to thrive in, miracles transpire.
This is not a rare occurrence for us. Out of 18 developers (yes, our software product developers) only 2 had ever had any serious programming experience before. More typically, these individuals came with prior experience in dealing with inventory. They dealt with playground equipment, electrical or plumbing warehouses and many came from our customer support and training department. They know things about inventory beyond what engineering or even marketing could teach them. The programming skills they were able to learn.
We employ 50 individuals in support who had never worked in customer service before. The majority of our sales people came with little or no prior experience in sales.
Could this approach work for other companies? Consider the following advantages our philosophy gains:
Less-established employees have room for growth. They are fresh and eager, not fatigued or scarred.
They have no bad habits to break; only good habits to learn. You don’t have to un-train them on the paradigms they’ve put in place somewhere else. They can blossom into anything.
They have the right attitude. With attitude, as they say, the aptitude will come.
New blood, whether young or old, can bring fresh ideas and perspectives to old problems. Their enthusiasm can be infectious. Their naiveté is some of the gold that they bring. They’re not afraid to ask, “ Why do you do it this way?” From the most innocent questions, we may go back to our roots and say, “That’s a good point. Why do we do that?” The newest employee may be the one who prompts a positive change.
You can build lifelong relationships. Some of our employees are young; some are older. But when your company is the place an employee has been permitted to blossom and shine, they will love working with you, most likely forever. Thus, turnover is low.
Many companies will argue that the cost of taking someone on with no experience is prohibitive. We disagree. We employ the concept of agile programming through our entire organization. We use paired leadership and paired teamwork. Each new hire has someone to coach and train him or her, and within a few months, or weeks in some cases, they’re fully up to speed and online.
Could this approach work for you? At a minimum, I hope I’ve given you the reason to consider these possibilities as you make your next set of new hires. I maintain there are many all-star/champion employees within every company’s reach. You just need to recognize their potential, and then create and maintain an environment that allows them to be nurtured, developed and then to shine.
Additional reporting for this article was provided by Mary Michelle Scott, Fishbowl President.