Looking for strengths is not lowering the bar

Hiring for Tech
October 19, 2020


Looking for strengths is not about lowering the bar. Photo by Frans Vledder on Unsplash

I recently heard someone express the misconception that looking for strengths, instead of weaknesses, is lowering the bar. This type of reaction is extremely common, but it’s completely wrong.

Let’s start by understanding what lowering the bar looks like: a candidate who was not considered qualified for the position before is now accepted into the position. Because there are limited positions and limited time to interview, this could very well mean a less qualified candidate takes the position over a more qualified one. The problem is what I’ve left as implicit, namely what it means to be “qualified” for a position.

Redefining the bar

Most importantly, you need to define the requirements for the position. These are non-negotiable skills necessary to succeed at the role. You would not hire a lawyer for a senior software engineer role just because they are a great lawyer. Their legal training is not, in this job, the primary strength you’re looking for. You still require the ability to deliver high-quality software.

Looking for strengths still means candidates have to meet the requirements for the job.

And yes, in some cases, the bar needs to be adjusted to favor technical skills less. For a junior software engineering role, maybe the combination of legal training and moderate technical skills is extremely valuable in a legal-tech company. This isn’t lowering the bar! It’s re-evaluating what’s valuable to the company.

Determining fit

Suppose you now have a well-defined set of requirements for the position you’re hiring for. Great! But is your interview process actually selecting people who meet those requirements? Or is it selecting those who meet a different set of requirements?

If you need a senior engineer with the ability to deliver high-quality software, but you present them with dynamic programming problems, you’ll reject candidates who are qualified but can’t solve dynamic programming problems on a whiteboard under the pressure of a job interview. If you need a strong team player who can work with others, but you force them to solve every problem on the interview alone, you’ll reject great candidates that work collaboratively.

Compounding this is the antagonistic attitude so many interviewers take. By hazing the candidate, you’re rejecting candidates that work better in a supportive environment than you’ve set up in the interview.

Once you’ve identified the key requirements for the role, looking for strengths comes down to aligning the interview toward those requirements and ensuring those who meet the requirements can show it. The best way to do this is to start with the assumption the candidate is qualified, then give them all the tools they need to demonstrate that fact. If you hire a candidate because they successfully demonstrate their skills, you haven’t lowered the bar at all!

Looking for strengths is not about lowering the bar. Instead, it’s about re-evaluating what the requirements are for the job you’re filling, and ensuring qualified candidates are able to demonstrate they can meet those requirements. This could involve redefining requirements to focus less on technical skills, but only because other, more relevant skills are needed. No matter what, looking for strengths will ensure a larger number of qualified candidates, all of who meet the bar, have a fair shot at the job.

This post was sent out on the October 19, 2020 edition of the Hiring For Tech newsletter. Subscribe to get future editions sent to you by email, once a week.

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