Recruiting ugly

We talk a lot of nonsense about recruitment at times, but two recent articles from HRM Online have caught my eye for quite different reasons.

Is it silly season in recruitment? Possibly yes, although it is comforting to see that Google have abandoned their “brainteaser” type interview questions after somebody there had the balls to admit they add no value whatsoever.

In the first article, a dating website called has set up a recruitment site as an add-on for members who only want to employ beautiful people. You know the one, if you are too ugly you get rejected apparently. Is being a member narcissistic? Just a tad.

Managing Director Greg Hodge was quoted as saying “An honest employer will tell you that it pays to hire good-looking staff.” Hodge added, “Attractive people tend to make a better first impression on clients, win more business and earn more.”

An honest employer will tell you that? Well, only if they are in the porn industry perhaps. Anyway, I digress.

Reading the second article, my first thought was that European academics had apparently wasted someone’s time and money in the name of research to show that mediocre candidates work harder than the best candidates because they feel indebted to the hiring manager. They claimed the most qualified candidate might believe they deserved the job and could therefore approach it with a more relaxed attitude.

So apparently it pays to tell your new hire you have reservations about them, they weren’t your first choice and you are giving them a chance because you think they will work harder. But hang on; there just might be something in that.

This all leads me to some brilliant home grown New Zealand research carried out by an excellent chap called Jeff Simpson, or Dr Jeff Simpson to give him his new and much deserved title as a Dr of Philosophy.

Jeff carried out some ground-breaking research with a previous employer of mine (full disclosure here – I was the internal sponsor) where he looked into the narcissistic personality traits of an entire year group of graduate hires. Basically, Jeff wanted to see whether people with narcissistic traits turned out to be strong performers after they entered an organisation or were not so hot.

What Jeff found (which was what he suspected) was that those with narcissistic tendencies often presented, or appeared to be, the strongest at interview. They are very good at creating a strong first impression. However, they were soon found out once working inside the organisation.

As Jeff says, people with narcissistic tendencies tend to think they know it all anyway, “But as a graduate coming into a big firm, there’s so much to learn that you have to be open to new challenges and development – if not, you’ll fall behind really fast. Those who were more self-critical when rating their own performance tended to work harder at getting up to speed with what they didn’t know – it bothered them, so they tended to perform better because of it.”

When tracked over a two year period, the stronger performers in that group tended to be people who hadn’t necessarily stood out in the recruitment process as the future stars. They were more self-critical and self-effacing. They knew what they didn’t know.

So maybe, those European academics are not so wrong after all. If you go with the person you think is the best from the recruitment process, they may not be your best performer. But it could be for reasons other than being more relaxed.

What I’ve learned over the years is that to get the best outcome you should employ the person who has the skills or potential to do the job, will make the most of the opportunity, is a good team and cultural fit personality-wise and who knows what they don’t know. Gut feel doesn’t come into it, neither do looks, book smarts or “interview skills.” You gather as much information as you can and make a considered decision.

Winning ugly is a phrase that has entered sporting parlance in the last few years as a description for a well organised team or individual that grinds out a win or draw from a difficult situation and recognises you can’t always win in spectacular or entertaining style. And so it is with recruitment. The spectacular, speculative hires that seem too good to be true usually are and to get a good result you need to be well organised, recruit to your plan and have all your bases covered.

In Jeff’s view, you can’t test for narcissism which means you have to be a skilled interviewer to spot and confirm it. It’s fascinating stuff and you can read his dissertation here. Perhaps recruiting ugly is the wrong analogy. Either way, it’s about doing it intelligently.

3 thoughts on “Recruiting ugly

  1. angelaatkins says:

    Hi Richard, great post! I remember years ago recruiting a Branch Manager and I was most impressed by the answers from the candidate who came across WORST (she was very nervous and unsure and self critical). We hired her and she was a fantastic Branch Manager. This was a great learning for me that it’s about the examples given and hearing both positive AND negative examples – something the narcissists struggle with although they come across well.

    1. hrmannz says:

      Yes, good example Angela. People with narcissistic traits will always struggle to talk about weaknesses because the tend to feel they don’t have any.

  2. Lesley Hardy says:

    Great article! and so true! I work with a product line, Harrison Assessments. You may have come across them Richard. They measure the Paradox behaviors, desirable against not so desirable so you can see what lies beneath the iceberg to the traits they never tell you about.

    I think its positive in that it identifies good performers even if they are not able to articulate that for themselves, and it weeds out the narcissists.

    I believe KPMG in Wellington use them for development purposes for senior roles. You may have come across them while you were there.

    Now they have products that link to the recruitment process and by eliminating ineligible and unsuitable candidates specific to the job requirements, they seem to do a good job of “cutting out the noise” There may be a way to predict some of these behaviors 🙂 I would be interested in your thoughts some time.

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