The proxy problem in hiring.

By Luke Shipley on, written on July 17th, 2020

The problem is that in 2020 we still have no idea how well a candidate’s performed in previous jobs. Since we have no way to tell if we’re looking at a top performer or not, we overuse proxies to poor effect. I know this because I got paid to do this for a number of years as a technical recruiter and I carried on doing this when hiring into my own team. But one of the worst hires that I’ve made, had all the positive proxies on paper… This horror story made me sit up and rethink about over-relying on proxies when hiring.

The belief that we share this archetype of what a ‘good candidate’ looks like is some of the most widely-held dogma in hiring. As a recruiter, we accept this hiring hierarchy which says if you’ve worked at a FANG company (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google), or top tier university, you’re considered a top tier candidate—fit for any business. If you’ve worked at a business which has raised a lot of money, or is simply a known brand, or you have a fancy degree, you’re considered a middle-class candidate. For the rest of us mere mortals, regardless of whether you’ve been a top performer, we’re scraping in the mud as lower-class candidates—which is where my CV would sit. This is something which I call the proxy problem in hiring, in which we over-index on proxies which may or may not be relevant. This blog provides some hints for catching your own proxy bias and recognising if it’s genuine, or a false positive…

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