How to find good employees: hire for skills, not ‘talent’

Cherone Duggan | |

‘Talent’ is a feel-good word for describing good job candidates. But, framing ‘talent’ as the main recruiting and retention issue for companies does us all a disservice. Trying to find people with ‘talent’ is subjective, bias-laden and imprecise. Successful hiring programs focus on finding employees with measurable skills instead.

Hiring for ‘talent’ is vague

Hiring for ‘talent’ is too vague to be useful. Recruiters and hiring managers alike use ‘talent’ as a buzzword to describe the kind of people they want to hire. But, like other buzzwords, ‘talent’ is a fuzzy concept. Nobody knows what it is or how to measure it. It’s meant to be ‘natural’ and spotting it is meant to be intuitive.

How to Find Good Employees: Talent

But like anything else deemed ‘natural’, the idea of inborn talent greases a slippery slope. For, more often than not, ‘natural’ is just a euphemism for “something I like.” And ‘talent’ is just a euphemism for “someone I like.” Focusing on talent limits employees and employers alike because it glosses over specific skills in favor of intuition and flattery. It also downplays the value of hard work.

How are skills and talent different?

‘Skills’ and ‘talent’ are not synonyms. Talent is general and innate. Skills are specific and learned. If I look for a ‘talented’ writer to join my team, I’ll send myself on a search for a unicorn. But if I look for someone who has taken the time and effort to develop:

  • Solid research skills
  • A good grasp of grammar
  • Strong logical reasoning skills
  • And the skill to accept edits with grace

Then I’ll be able to find a good writer.

How to hire good employees for their skills:

First, run a skills gap analysis

Running a formal skills gap analysis isn’t as trendy as searching for ‘top talent’, but it’s more effective. Conducting a skills gap analysis helps you identify the skills your team needs to meet your business goals. We have a detailed tutorial on how to run one, here. Once you identify the skills you need to scale, you can winnow them down into specific jobs.


Write skills-based job descriptions

Traditional job descriptions focus on proxies for skills, not on skills themselves. Proxies for skills include college degrees, years of experience and specific knowledge of software packages. But, these proxies aren’t necessarily indicative of underlying skills – for example, coding ability has no correlation with fancy or advanced college degrees. Only ask for what you need, not for proxies.

Structure your interview process

Structured interviews are designed to assess job-relevant skills. They are more effective than their unstructured, intuitive counterparts. To structure an interview effectively, hiring managers and recruiters draft a list of job-related skills and craft specific questions to measure each of those skills. For more instruction on how to design a structured interview process, here’s our tutorial and ebook.

Simulate real work tasks with assignments

Assignments are the most effective way to assess job-related skills. As anyone who has screened applicants knows, many people are able to talk about their skills and experience (at length). But, you never really know if they can perform until you ask them to simulate the job you’d like to hire them for. I was reminded of this fact when hiring an editor for my team last year: a lot of people can talk up their editing abilities. But, an editing assignment let the most skilled applicant shine through. When we welcomed her to the team, we hired someone with real skills, not vague promises.

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Cherone Duggan

Cherone is a former content team leader at Workable. She planned, managed and edited Workable's editorial content and she wrote about work culture.

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