It’s Time to Look Beyond Individual Achievement in the Recruiting Process

One of the very first things we teach kids is how to play well with others. We teach them that sharing is caring and kind is cool. Later, when they start school, we teach them how to be cooperative, flexible, and patient.

When kids grow up, those same social skills are key to academic and professional success. In a survey of over 5,000 hiring managers, for example, 92% agreed that skills like communication, collaboration, and empathy have just as much (if not more) bearing on an employee’s success as technical skills do.

Despite the value and importance of social skills, they are historically difficult to spot, evaluate, and select for. That same group of hiring managers agreed that assessing those skills during the hiring process is a significant challenge. University admissions officers grapple with similar challenges, too.

As a result, recruiting processes place excessive value on individual achievement and performance. Unfortunately, overlooking social skills has very real consequences: It disproportionately advantages people from affluent backgrounds and lets worthy candidates fall through the cracks.

This makes us wonder: What if we create and implement tools to help us notice social skills earlier? By widening the scope to notice and reward these types of skills during recruitment, we’ll begin to level the playing field, assess candidates in a more dimensional way, and elevate diverse types of talent.

The current set of recruiting tools can’t adequately weigh social skills

During recruiting, our overemphasis on individual achievements (and underemphasis on social skills) is a product of the tools available.

Consider the basic recruitment tools we use to evaluate candidates vying for the attention of employers and universities: standardized testing, GPAs, resumes, etc. In order to make recruitment processes more efficient and scalable, these tools distill each candidate into a snapshot of their relevant talent and potential.

However, they are better at distilling certain aspects of a candidate over others.

We can (more or less accurately) quantify cognitive prowess with standardized aptitude testing. We can also get a snapshot of a person’s past experiences with a resume. But we don’t have a tool that can effectively gauge whether someone is energetic, encouraging, helpful, kind, or respectful, especially at scale.

A candidate can write “people person” at the top of a resume, but that kind of baseless self-reporting lacks substance, particularly when it’s listed next to concrete test results or verifiable job experience.

Personal essays and interviews come closest. They give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate and describe the subjective qualities they bring to the table. But rather than taking a direct look at those qualities, they measure a candidate’s ability to persuasively communicate those qualities in high-pressure formats.

That’s why essay prep and interview coaching is such an appealing option for those who can afford it. Understanding the format and being able to persuade is arguably more important than who you are in day-to-day life.

(Want to read further on this topic? Read my discussion with Sal Khan, in which we talk about the limitations of grades, test scores, and the missing ingredients in the standard recruiting process.)

Social skills are key indicators of workplace success

These social skills might be subjective, but they are far from nonessential.

The demand for soft skills (some call them essential skills) is skyrocketing; some even refer to them as essential skills.   As automation and digital transformation gain momentum, experts predict that traits like teamwork and collaboration will only become more valuable.

But without the ability to screen for those subjective skills during recruiting, businesses make hiring decisions based largely on individual achievement and, at best, a gut check for what the candidate is like to work with. If you’re an employer, this should raise some red flags.

A 2020 study analyzed the on-the-job performance of professionals who graduated from elite universities versus professionals who didn’t. It concluded that graduates from top-tier universities hardly outperformed their colleagues — the difference was quantified as less than 1%. (That 1% stands in stark contrast to their salary demands, which, according to the same source, can be up to 47% higher for entry-level positions.)

Among these prestigious graduates, there was also a patterned lack of social skills. While the graduates excelled at instrumental tasks, they often lacked the social skills necessary to contribute to positive team dynamics. They come bearing egos and a focus on instrumental tasks over interpersonal relationships, and they create an adversarial dynamic.

We don’t work with a walking, talking list of accomplishments; we work with an entire person. No matter how difficult it is to assess someone’s social skills in the recruitment process, the fact remains: Social skills have a significant bearing on the success of a new team member.

Emphasis on individual achievement disproportionately rewards affluence

Prestigious track records and high individual performance are often the product of an affluent background; wealth offers better institutional knowledge, access, and training. However, when we look at performance in group-work contexts, class background makes far less of a difference.

A recent article published on Behavioral Scientist, titled How Focusing on Individual Achievement Favors the Upper Class, explains this phenomenon. It breaks down a series of four studies to demonstrate the link between class context and achievement.

In all four studies, performance among students from working-class backgrounds soared when they could work together. Interestingly, though, affluent student groups saw much less of an improvement. In one of the studies, groups with more working-class students actually scored higher than groups with more affluent students.

These studies don’t necessarily prove that people from working-class backgrounds are better at working in groups than people from affluent backgrounds. But they do suggest that our inability to adequately weigh social skills — teamwork, collaboration, patience, etc. — likely works to the advantage of affluent groups.

By extension, this might help explain the achievement gap in college admissions. When admission decisions hinge on records of individual achievements, students from affluent backgrounds consistently appear more qualified and deserving. If we adjusted how we evaluated students, how might that change?

We must reimagine the recruiting process to discover new skill types

Standardizing the subjective is no simple task, but we’re closer than ever to making it happen. However, the longer we rely on outdated tools, the longer we reward those with wealth and access and create barriers for those without.

That’s the problem we’re working to solve at Hello World.

Our unique approach gives us a fuller picture of each candidate’s unique potential than what grades and standardized test scores alone can tell us.

Since our launch, we’ve connected teens from around the globe to world-class opportunities, many of whom would not have been selected (let alone applied) without Hello World’s unique application tools. We’ve also worked to make the platform a collaborative and unintimidating environment — one where students give feedback and where work is shared publicly throughout the application process.

In order to continue discovering and developing diverse talent, we want to connect with organizations that share our vision, particularly those that can offer development opportunities on the Hello World platform. We love dreaming up ways for organizations of all types and sizes — even those that have never offered these kinds of development opportunities — to help us notice and develop overlooked talent in teens.

If partnering with Hello World appeals to you, I look forward to meeting you. Please, say hello!