Why companies hire unqualified candidates, and how they can stop

Too often, corporate hiring processes reward empty bluster and punish less bombastic competence. Sound familiar?

Donald Trump

Donald Trump in January 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

In November, Americans hired Donald Trump, a man who had never held elected office, to occupy the highest post of their government. They chose him over Hillary Clinton, whose CV overflowed with experience in elected office, diplomatic leadership, activism and private enterprise. Even her detractors implicitly acknowledged she had the chops for the job; a common criticism was that she was too connected and influential in the corridors of power from Washington to Wall Street.

Today, Donald Trump will be ushered in as President of the United States, the most unpopular man ever to swear the oath. The outcry amongst his opponents is more than typical losing-side sour grapes; to many, Trump’s victory feels unfair and personal. It also feels familiar.

For legions of people underrepresented in positions of power—women, yes, though same holds true for visible minorities, immigrants, LGBT people and others—Trump’s win confirmed what we feared all along: that being qualified matters less than simply projecting a confident image. In the highest profile and most globally significant of job interviews, cocky beat capable.

The same scenario plays out daily in businesses everywhere: The skills a candidate needs to get a job tend to differ—sometimes dramatically—from the skills needed to actually do the work. It’s perhaps the most egregious flaw in the hiring process. Employers still gravitate towards the self-assured, smooth-talking candidates. Such traits are rarely a key determinant of strong performance on the job (with the arguable exception of some sales and customer service gigs). Yet confidence remains one of the top three behaviours that recruiters prize, according to a study of 400,000 hires by Swedish HR consultant Universum.

That’s great news for people who have no qualms boasting in a professional context. It’s less great for those who have very good reasons to be uncomfortable doing so. Any woman gunning for a job today has learned—through conditioning, direct experience, observation or a combination of the three—that behaviour that resembles bragging doesn’t pay off.

“Women are seen through a different lens,” Clinton herself said in an interview earlier this year. “I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill.’” Even when women are objectively better equipped to do the work, we hang back: A now-famous Hewlett-Packard report revealed men apply for positions if they have just 60% of the required credentials, while women won’t apply unless they are 100% qualified.

These are generalizations. No one is suggesting that women aren’t capable of, and sometimes prone to, self-promotion. But we’re not conditioned to do it, and it costs us. According to research published last year in Psychology of Women Quarterly, people making hiring decisions—even those who profess to believe in gender equality—overwhelmingly associate qualified female candidates with diminished competence. This stuff runs deep. To borrow a phrase from a man who said it in a very different context: the system is rigged.

It’s time for any organization with more than a perfunctory interest in gender parity to acknowledge the biases—often unconscious—that might be keeping qualified women from positions that ultimately go to men. To start, make sure everyone involved in hiring decisions understands the reasons why amazing candidates might seem less than confident. (Many people are genuinely unaware.) Do whatever you can to appoint recruiters with diverse backgrounds. Build recruiting processes that are based more on showing (simulations, trial projects, job shadowing) and less on telling (standard “I am great, and here is why” interviews).

There are experts who can help you, too. Toronto software company TWG, for example, enlisted advocacy group TechGirls Canada to help it recruit more women and other marginalized groups. By following TechGirls’ advice, TWG increased its number of female employees by 15% in a year, and has a clear plan to further balance its ratios in years ahead.

The U.S. electorate has had its say, and it defaulted to the status quo, gender-wise. If that bothers you, remember: Companies are not democracies. Executives have the power to mandate diversity. And they ought to wield it more.