Hiring Practices- Setting the Tone for Innovation

The resume is believed to have been first used in 1482 by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. In a letter to a prospective employer, Leo wrote out an impressive list of his accomplishments and skills and sent it off in an effort to secure a position with the Duke of Milan. In the late 1500’s, Englishman Ralph Agas published a list of his skills in several newspaper ads promoting himself – the first use of media to job search.

Since the 1950’s, the resume has been an integral part of the hiring process for most fields – a great resume gets you an interview is the common conception. While the formatting has changed (typewriters & computers make a difference), the substantive content of the resume has remained virtually the same for almost 70 years despite the huge changes in the world, workforce, and needs of organizations. And the key elements of the resume, experience and education, are no longer the most important factors in successfully finding employees who love their work and are dedicated to their agency.

Acknowledging this is more important in public administration than anywhere else. Careers in public administration are based on a desire to help the world, to do good work, and to be a public servant. No resume can tell a recruiter how positive a person is to be around, or how passionate they are about the work they do. Tim Stevens, author of Fairness Is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace, says education and experience are what a company should care about least.

“A person’s skill set and personality–the things behind the resume–are much more important,” he says. “You need to know if a person has an aptitude for leadership, how they deal with failure, how they treat people when they disagree, and if the role you’re hiring for is their passion or a stepping-stone to something else.”

Current hiring practices in PA are focused critically on these two things, eliminating candidates with skills and passion while rewarding experience over all other metrics. This is a recipe for stagnation and waste, as those hired for positions are most often those who have already done the same position, most likely in another agency. The same people, with the same skills, tend to get hired over and over, moving from agency to agency in search of job satisfaction. Each time this ‘experienced’ applicant gets hired, they leave behind a vacancy, which then costs time and money to fill.

When the same person, or the same KIND of person, gets hired over and over there is little impetus for innovation. Indeed, innovation can almost only come from new ideas and new people. Diversity and inclusion are about more than just ticking boxes on EEOC forms – real diversity means diversifying perspective, allowing different people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences into the halls of policy. Current hiring practice belie the principles of inclusion and innovation by focusing on the wrong things when choosing interview candidates.

A single mother, recently divorced and just gone back to school will have very little experience. But she has a perspective and an innate understanding of where public support systems are failing. This person might make an excellent addition to the Department of Early Learning, but chances are she won’t make it into an interview room. A young black artist with a Master’s degree, whose life has focused on creativity and social change might apply for a position with DSHS, but not be talked to because he hasn’t worked in government before. An older person with 25 years in the private sector might decide to change their life and dedicate to social service only to find that their experience in business management gets no traction because it isn’t PUBLIC management.

All these voices are being lost. Those most served by governmental agencies – the underprivileged, the young, and the elderly- are almost never among those hired to serve and advise those same agencies. There can be no reasonable expectation of real innovation and change when the people in the room are always the SAME people.

If public administration is serious about inclusion and innovation, and if there are limited resources for making changes, hiring practices is a strong leverage point. This is the beginning point, the entrance, the gate to public service that sets the tone and standards for behavior and beliefs in our public institutions. Deep structural and procedural changes to hiring practices, like finding an alternative to the ancient and irrelevant resume, can bring in new blood and new ideas that might save our toppling institutions. Hiring for culture, focusing on skills & abilities over experience, and broadening the social origin of applicants can reinvigorate public administration.

Hire the people we need, not the people we already know. Success is more about risk than continuity. With where things are now, what is there to lose?

Setting the Pace of Change

Martin Luther King Jr said it best. ““Tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” 

This is one of many quotes MLK has about the lie of incremental change. And yet today, more than 50 years later, I still hear the words in every government office, in boardrooms and staff meetings, in the halls of academia and the apologetic coffee shop cliques – ‘You can’t make big changes. We are making a difference, little by little’.

The evidence suggests otherwise. We are today living in a world where the gap between rich and poor makes 1963 seem like a dream of equity; where police violence against the citizenry is at an all time high; where for profit prisons churn out checks for big corporations while robbing generations of poor children of their fathers. How’s that incremental change working out?

The truth of the matter is that we CAN make big changes, but we can’t make them and expect those currently reaping the rewards of hegemonic patriarchy to be happy about it. We cannot make them and keep everyone comfortable. We cannot make them POLITIC. But we can make them. Making big changes necessitates being prepared to think deeply and with bravery about what it means to really believe in something. Like equity, or environmental justice.

We make big changes by having big ideas, and by having difficult conversations. When we approach change as the necessary precursor to achieving those things we most idealize, and then commit to the hard work of CHANGING OURSELVES and challenging our own perceptions of what is and what is not possible, we begin to tread a path towards a better world.

It will not be easy. Social and economic systems, like all systems, are full of reinforcing feedback loops that stymie attempts to radically alter the shape and flow of information and power. Success to the successful is perhaps the most powerful: those persons and classes of persons who have traditionally held political and social power tend to shape policies and rules that further entrench their own wealth and status. A young white man born in the Hamptons, for instance, is astronomically more likely to achieve societal ‘success’ than a Latina woman born in South Central Los Angeles. Not because he is smarter, or in any way intrinsically more capable, but because he will be the recipient of the best schools, adequate nutrition, and opportunities that our Latina simply will never see.

Within our organizations, the systems traps are the same. Those who play politic, who do not rock the boat, and who understand the unstated social hierarchies will tend to rise in position, because the WAY they work is understood and accepted by those above them. People who come in and are brimming with radical new ideas, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, often do not ‘play the game’ correctly. Fresh ideas, and differing perspectives, are lost because these people rarely benefit from the social workplace norms that come naturally to those accustomed to the dominant paradigm.

So how to we make big, systemic changes? By knowingly bringing new perspectives into the rooms where decisions are made, by respecting dissent, and by fostering organizational culture that is open to conflict and growth. We get to this place by being more mindful of the unspoken norms which turn away difference and change, and by being intentional in our workplace relationships. Changes in hiring practices, org structures, performance metrics, and management methodologies are all in order – and all come directly from our choices in honoring difference and working together.

Through compassionate, mindful workplaces, we can change the world. TODAY. Before it’s too late.