Are biases keeping you from hiring the best candidate?

Even in a recession, Bobbie Wilbur is always trolling for good people to fill IT positions at her tech services firm in Oakland, Calif.

So when a colleague passed on to her a résumé from a 911 dispatcher, Wilbur took the time to review it carefully, even though the applicant had no directly relevant technical experience.

Wilbur, co-director of Social Interest Solutions, a nonprofit organization that builds and hosts software for other nonprofits , thought the applicant’s unique background showed he could think on his feet and focus not just on technology but on using technology to find solutions.

She gave the dispatcher a chance, and she’s glad she did. The new hire, Wilbur says, turned out to be a valuable member of her 70-member staff, 65 of whom hold IT-related positions.

Ten years ago, when she was working at a big consulting firm, Wilbur wouldn’t have considered a résumé like that or a candidate without conventional IT credentials. Now she acknowledges that such a bias would have cost her a great find.

“You don’t want to eliminate somebody who is working their way up differently,” she says.

Wilbur isn’t the only IT manager who has had to push beyond preconceived notions about what makes a great hire for a tech position. Plenty of managers bring their own baggage and professional biases to the hiring process, experienced IT leaders say. And those assumptions could be causing them to overlook great tech workers.

With tech hiring on the rise again, savvy managers are schooling themselves to guard against common preconceptions that simply don’t apply in today’s job market. Here are six to avoid.

Assumption: Good IT workers always have tech-centric backgrounds

As a partner at that large consulting firm, which Wilbur declined to name, she learned to broaden her perspective after recruiting hundreds of people into tech positions. She learned over time that her assumption that good candidates always come up through an established IT pathway didn’t always hold true.

“If your bias is that [candidates] have to have a purely technical background, then you could eliminate a pool of good talent,” she says. “You have to look at your pool differently.”

Wilbur points to the 911 dispatcher as a case in point. She says that even though his experience wasn’t technical, he had been responsible for the successful implementation of an IT system designed to bring efficiencies to the public safety organization where he worked.

“There’s no question that in the past I absolutely would have dismissed him as a candidate,” she says. “But you can’t continue to be so narrow in your approach if you want to find the right person for a job.”

Now that hire works for Wilbur’s firm in a business analyst position, translating clients’ business requirements to developerspeak and making sure projects are completed to clients’ specs.

Assumption: The best hires come from big-name technical schools

Christian Ponce admits that when he first got involved in hiring staff, he and his colleagues looked for candidates who graduated from the top engineering schools — Stanford, MIT, Berkeley and so on. But he learned that those credentials didn’t always land him the best workers.

“They might have gone to the right school, but they didn’t necessarily come in with the drive,” says Ponce, manager of information risk management at VistaPrint NV, a global company providing printed and promotional materials and marketing services.

“The [people] I’ve hired who aren’t from the top schools have been really successful,” he says. “I found that people who didn’t have that ‘right’ name had to work a little harder to get that experience and to get the recognition. They were always out there hustling.”

Ponce still looks for a bachelor’s or master’s degree, depending on the requirements of the open position, but he has moved past his bias for brand-name schooling. He can’t even remember the undergraduate school attended by his most recent hire, someone who came on board this spring.

Rather, Ponce says, during the hiring process he focused on the candidate’s 15 years of military experience, his master’s degree in information assurance, his security know-how and his business acumen.

Ponce says the new hire is proving to be a strong performer, even though “he probably wouldn’t have made it past [some] other people’s cuts because he didn’t go to MIT.”

Assumption: H-1B holders work harder than U.S. residents

Bosses want to hire hard workers. Mike McSally gets that — as vice president of staffing delivery at TEKsystems Inc., an IT staffing firm headquartered in Hanover, Md., it’s his job to connect hiring managers with go-getters. But he says he often has to direct clients to be open-minded in their search for talent.

McSally says many hiring managers ask him upfront if his company works with firms specializing in bringing foreign nationals into the United States to work on H-1B visas (it does, along with placing U.S. nationals).

Most often, McSally says, such managers are looking for tech experts from India. “There’s a belief that if you’re here on a work visa, you’re going to work, and your No. 1 goal is to stay employed,” he explains. “There’s a belief that these folks will work around the clock,” which makes them desirable hires.

McSally says he reminds managers who make those kinds of inquiries that, in his experience, hard workers come from all types of backgrounds — H-1B holders, U.S. citizens, even techies from the “millennial generation,” who are sometimes stereotyped as being free agents looking out only for themselves. All can demonstrate commitment to their employers through hard work and loyalty, he says.

Rather than focusing on any one group of employees, McSally encourages hiring managers to examine candidates’ prior job experience to best determine what they really bring to their work.

Assumption: Clean-cut candidates always make better workers

Many in that millennial generation are much more free-spirited than their elders when it comes to personal expression.

But not all hiring managers are ready to accept tattoos, piercings, expressive jewelry and other creative personal displays, especially on job interviews.

In fact, Robert Half Technology, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based IT staffing firm, found in a survey of 1,400 CIOs that most expect business stylings for interviews. Some 35% said they believe a business suit is the most appropriate attire, while 26% said khakis and a collared shirt are just fine. Another 24% said that tailored separates, such as dress pants and a jacket, work well for interviews too.

Be that as it may, appearances aren’t always indicative of the quality of workers, says Social Interest Solutions’ Wilbur. A contract staffing firm sent her two workers whose appearances stood out, she says. From the start, one generally came dressed in biker gear — a bandana on his head and lots of leather. The other was particularly casual — wrinkled clothes and generally not pulled together.

Wilbur admits that neither would have landed a job with her company had they come in for interviews, but they both proved to be quite talented.

She hired both as employees as soon as she could, and one now leads the organization’s electronic testing team.

“Both are great guys who we love having on staff and who have contributed tons to our team effort,” Wilbur says.

Assumption: Workers with certifications are superior

When Lowell Mercier was hiring help desk workers for Bose Corp. several years ago, he wanted candidates with certain certifications, particularly the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. But frequently those workers wanted higher salaries simply because they had those certifications. Moreover, Mercier says, they tended to stay very briefly in help desk positions, leaving him with high turnover.

“Those are the two things that turned me around,” he says.

Mercier, now service desk manager for IT infrastructure at Dräger Inc.’s Andover, Mass., location, says he no longer requires certifications, which has freed him up to hire capable workers at market pay rates who tend to stay in their positions longer.

“I see that a lot of other [companies] require certifications, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I’ve hired people who had great experience and great skills but no certifications, and they’ve excelled,” he says.

On the downside, culling résumés now takes more time, as he no longer can use a lack of certifications as a rejection criterion. Instead, he takes the time to consider each candidate’s prior experience and responsibilities.

Mercier doesn’t discount certifications; he still takes note of them. But he now views them as one part of a package and less of a sure-fire indicator of a potentially great hire.

Assumption: Deep-dive tech backgrounds are always best

Over his years in the tech sector, Gary Foster has hired more than 100 people, from systems engineers to executive directors of software development.

Foster says that he has learned from experience that workers who know a particular technology very well — for example, someone with expertise only in Unix — aren’t always the best people for IT jobs over the long term.

In the late 1990s, Foster hired a candidate who had all the right credentials, even a Ph.D. Yet despite his deep tech background, Foster says, the employee couldn’t deliver what the business needed.

“He never got aligned around business goals. He was a great person, a great guy, but he wasn’t really interested in outcomes. He was more interested in the nuances of what he was doing,” Foster says.

Foster, now chief technology officer at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the public transportation agency for the Boston region, says he has learned to look beyond what candidates know to see if their résumés indicate that they’re able to learn.

Deep tech knowledge “is only part of the picture. People should look at competencies and behaviors” as well, he says.

“People are focused on what people know, but I find that it’s better to ask, ‘Can they learn? How fast can they figure things out? Do they have the will to do that extra work?’ “

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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