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  • Writer's pictureDali Ma

Hiring: Should You Hire Skills or Attitude

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

There have been so many debates on this and some famous quotes like: you hire attitude, and you train skills. I’ve personally experienced and also heard tragic stories on how things don’t work out on both cases. This is not helped by the current marketing trend that you have to be unique to grab attention, which consequently means what you typically see is not what will set you on the right path, but what the algorithms think you’ll interested in (hate or like aside).

I’m gonna say (cliché) that it all depends on the scenario and the position(s) you are trying to fill.

Here are some definitions I’ll be using a lot in this article (these might differ from author to author, so I feel it necessary to define it here)

Right person = person with the right attitude

Right seat = a position that requires the right skills (technical or not)to fill

Position Matters

A lot of factors are overlooked when a hiring decision is being made. This is not surprising since most of the time the hiring manager is the same one supervising the employee, which consequently means the hiring manager do not want to stir the culture and atmosphere of the team, for a good reason.

In this case, many times attitudes are prioritised, sometimes over skills, to make sure we put the “right person” in the “right seat”.

A tragical example I’ve seen recently was when a developer was hired for her attitude, and then failed to perform. Now the entire team not only have to deal with the flaws in the work, but also spend an existing employee on training the new dev on the skills she was hired for and should’ve have possessed already, which at the same time costs the team a big amount of salary, which wasn’t properly assessed or evaluated.

Pretty soon the good attitude from the interview turned sour, due to frustration and not being able to perform well on the job — the “right person” in the “wrong seat”.

What We Have Learned

This is a pretty typical example of hiring based on attitude alone without carefully considering the lack of skills. Prior to the hiring of the dev, the hiring manager was adequately informed on the lack of the skills of the new dev, and was suggested to hire the other candidate who possessed much higher development skills, with no clear attitude problems, but he went ahead with his own decision.

The flaw of hiring based on attitudes, especially for skill-based positions, is simple: skill based positions usually requires years of training, most of which cannot be winged, or learned on the job, which is very different from a process-based position. Most people exemplify good attitudes during interviews, which makes attitudes less of an effective differentiator.

When Attitude (Or The Lack of It) Matters

Here I’m not talking about downright terrible attitude, because we all know it’s toxic and people who possess it should be let go; it’s usually pretty easy to spot (hence the “downright”).

What I’ll be talking about here is the kind of passive-aggressive, or overly-content attitude.

This case was based on a marketing position, which requires some skills that can be acquired within 7 days of on-the-job training. The agent in this case was hired for his fast-learner “skill”, with no perceivable bad attitudes at all during the interview (he actually came about as the positive one out of the bunch).

Overtime, he did get the sufficient skills for the job, which validated the fast-learner part, but he became overly content with what he was doing, exemplified by these two repetitive actions:

  1. Asking for raises in compensation and title, without any observable victories in client acquisition or retention

  2. Creating a culture/group where minor victories (more likes on social)are expected to be celebrated and rewarded

Needless to say neither of the above contributes to the growth of a business, but they both do create an environment where people expect to get raises out of nothing, or even bad performances, otherwise they’ll leave.

What We Have Learned

This is not a single occurrence, but a common one shared by many people I’ve interviewed. It’s a good example of how, for a position that’s not really skill-based, having the “wrong person” in the right seat does not work.

Typically for these kind of positions, there are many people who can fit the “seat”, unlike the first case we talked about in the first half of this article. What makes a difference in these scenarios is exactly the right attitude from the “right person”, assuming this candidate/employee has the necessary mental capacity to be able to perform well on the job (the difference between this and skill based positions is that the skills required in these jobs can be attained within a reasonable amount of time, and do not require a degree or years of training).

Does Experience Matter

Many a time I’ve met candidates with many many years of experience on their resume, but looking for a position that does not (on the surface level) match their experience.

My experiences with these candidates have been half and half:

Some of the candidates became star performers because they really just want a stable job and contribute to the organisation and make money, these are usually candidates for technical, or skill-based positions, like designers, developers. The important thing to bear in mind is that these positions should be filled with qualified people with the right skillsets for the job (a counter example was given in the first half of the article). For these positions/employees, TRUE experience does matter for someone to do a good job and know well enough ways around certain problems.

If it’s for a strategic or less skill-based position, I typically find experience less important, comparatively. More often than not the more daring employees give the most innovative ideas.

One More Thing

I think it’s more fitting to use this title for this quote

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do, We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

This quote has been promoted many times on LinkedIn, and many other networks. Just like pretty much all the quotes, people are taking this out of context, and also focus on the “inspiring” part, rather than the premises and assumptions.

Premises: they have to be truly smart people

Assumption: they really care about the businesses they are working for

And I’ll end my article with those two cents here.

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