How To Recruit Innovative, Outside-the-Box People

Managers and recruiters often complain that they only see bland candidates. They say they’re desperate to hire innovative people, but that they just can’t seem to find them. I don’t dispute the fact that most firms can’t find them, but there is certainly no shortage of innovative people. The problem occurs with the process many companies use to recruit. In many cases, this process limits the ability to hire those candidates capable of thinking outside the box. If you rethink the hiring process and add elements that identify and encourage innovators, I guarantee you’ll start hiring more of them. Firms end up hiring bland people mostly because their hiring process fails in one of these important areas:

    1. The hiring process is so structured that it literally “punishes” individuals who attempt to be creative and act differently during the process.


  1. The hiring process fails to provide the candidate any real chance to show their innovative or creative side.
  2. The sourcing process fails to use sources that have a reasonable chance of yielding innovators.

Hiring Processes That “Punish” Creativity Many recruiting and hiring processes start out with innovative features. But unfortunately, over time these are frequently watered down or totally eliminated for reasons related to “ease of administration.” It’s easy to understand why time-pressed, resource-stressed recruiters fail to take advantage of opportunities that would identify outside-the-box thinkers. For starters, it’s more difficult and time consuming to assess a portfolio, watch a video, or visit an applicant’s personal website than it is to run a query on the ATS. In fact, few systems incorporate a feature that helps organizations measure creativity or innovation. One of the elements of this paradox is that even though we say we want outside-the-box people, the fact is that our hiring systems often literally punish individuals who attempt to express their creativity. Even though many job descriptions or want ads clearly state that they want innovative people, the process, purposely or not, weeds out anyone who attempts to be innovative or creative during it. Some of the characteristics of a typical hiring process that limit or cancel out a candidate’s ability to be creative include:

  1. Resume Format Problems
    • Resume format. Resume scanning systems require you to adhere to a rigid format. If you use an innovative approach in designing a resume or in presenting your information, either your resume will be rejected outright or the information you provide will not be picked up by the applicant tracking system. The creative use of fonts, images, or formatting is difficult for many applicant tracking systems to handle. For applicants who try to circumvent the standardized cut-and-paste form by submitting a paper resume, the response is almost always non-existent. Many paper-based resumes are rejected because recruiters are afraid to pass along “wacko” resumes, fearing that they will be verbally abused by the hiring manager for allowing them through. Often, it’s simply that they do not want to invest the time to manually cull information from the resume into the ATS.
    • Portfolio resumes. For candidates who present their resume in a portfolio format in order to provide examples of their work and their innovative ideas, the effort in most cases goes unappreciated. In most cases, the portfolio will either be rejected outright or not read by most recruiters due to time constraints. Such resumes require additional handling time and cause complications when recruiters are attempting to make direct comparisons, even though they do allow candidates to express themselves in a creative way.
    • Job summaries. Some applicant tracking systems don’t actually read resumes, instead they use a summary provided by the candidate. If the candidate prepares the summary in a hurry or mistakenly leaves out innovative items or terms, the most basic ability to discern creativity is lost. (Incidentally, if you are ever filling out a summary on a website, spend a great deal of time on it to ensure that it includes all of the appropriate words, or you will significantly lower your chance of getting the results you are looking for.)
  2. Keyword Problems
    • Keywords. Most applicant tracking systems scan for pre-identified keywords in a resume. For candidates who are highly skilled but who developed their skills using a non-traditional path, it is likely that most applicant tracking systems will discount their experience. For example, if a candidate with a phenomenal marketing communications background did not develop their skills through traditional documented channels, then it is likely that the absence of traditional paper “credentials” or degrees would discount the candidate or even screen them out completely from standardized ATS results. This is because most keyword searches are based on the words that relate to a traditional education, training, or experience. For candidates who are self-taught or who don’t have the “appropriate” degree, they are unlikely to be overlooked by most resume sorting systems.
    • Recruiter job knowledge. Most recruiters responsible for the initial screening of applicants in many cases know very little about the professional and technical jobs they are screening for. Often they have done little more than read the job description. As a result, their lack of knowledge forces them to adhere to the technical terms used in the written job description for their keyword search. If for some reason a candidate were to use different terminology or words other than those used by the manager who crafted the description, it is likely that they would appear so low in the search results that their candidacy would never materialize.
    • New approaches mean new names. For candidates who are truly ahead or on the leading edge in their field, it is likely that the terms they use to describe what they are doing and what tools they are using will seem foreign to the recruiter. Unfortunately, many recruiters confront the unknown by ignoring it, which ultimately leads to candidates who may actually be perfect not even being seriously considered.
    • Average job descriptions. When compensation analysts review a job, they examine the “average” expectations that a manager has. As a result, the final job descriptions seldom include any expectations or requirements for “innovation,” because the average worker isn’t expected to innovate. When the expectations for innovation are included, they are generally defined using very vague terms. It’s easy for recruiters to recognize “inside the box” thinkers, but the difference between true innovation and “unworkable” are hard to distinguish for untrained recruiters unless management provides clear definitions.
  3. Other Problems
    • Interview rigidity. If during an interview an applicant complains about the rigid interview format, often required by behavioral interviewing processes, they will most likely have their interview scores significantly lowered for being “uncooperative.” Managers who attempt to modify their interview style to allow a candidate to express their creativity and innovation will likely be chastised and warned by HR cops.
    • References. Those responsible for checking references are often junior people with little knowledge of what is innovative and what is not. Most reference checks follow strict formats that do not include questions that attempt to identify outside-the-box thinking. In fact, the goal of most reference checks is to identify “warning signs,” so the topic of innovation is unlikely to even come up.
    • Managers are conservative. Even though most managers say they want innovative individuals, when they are actually faced with a real choice between a traditional individual and an innovative one, they generally chicken out and choose the traditional one. Their reasons for this change of heart include their fear that, if they should have to get rid of the creative person because they didn’t fit, they might be accused of making a bad hire. Like it or not, in tough economic times most hiring decisions remain conservative.
    • Complainers. Even though managers complain they lack people with the courage and the willingness to criticize ideas and approaches, anyone with the “courage” to criticize the interviewing or hiring process will be punished.

Failing To Let Candidates Showcase Their Creativity We just reviewed some reasons why creative individuals are often screened out or under-evaluated during the hiring process. Here are some missed opportunities, areas where firms often fail to ask the candidate to be innovative or creative:

  • Corporate job sites. Corporate websites only ask you for the resume. The sites never provide candidates with an opportunity to show their innovation because they fail to even ask for examples of creative work. Candidates are never told that it’s okay or even desirable for them to submit portfolios, videos, or evidence of their work on a personal website.
  • The initial interview. Few recruiters ever actually ask candidates for their innovative ideas or approaches. If by chance the candidate does exhibit outside-the-box ideas, recruiters frequently reject them because they are afraid that what they see as innovative, the manager might see as crazy.
  • The regular interview. Most behavioral interviews ask you to describe precisely how you “did” something at another firm. Unfortunately, not all firms allow for innovation, so candidates coming from non-innovative environments may present difficulty in answering this question. If they happen to have worked at a “by the book” firm, they may never have been provided with an opportunity to say how they would have done it if they were given some degree of freedom. If a candidate takes the initiative to suggest during the interview process that they would like the opportunity to express their innovativeness, they almost universally are told that it’s possible but “only if we have sufficient time at the end” ó which unfortunately seldom comes.
  • Testing. Due to fear of discrimination lawsuits, many companies make no attempt to formally measure a candidate’s degree of innovation and creativity using testing mechanisms.
  • Scenarios. Most managers and recruiters are so tied into the rigid behavioral interview format that they are afraid to provide the candidate with any form of simulation or scenario. It is quite legal and even desirable to run the candidate through verbal simulations that reflect their essential job duties. Managers should ask the candidate how they would address a real problem that they would face during the first month or two on the job. Ask them for both innovative and traditional solutions. Real job simulations are by far the best way to identify creative ideas and approaches.
  • Lower offers. If you’re lucky enough to have a process that identifies innovative candidates, it is highly likely that compensation will offer a lower pay rate to the candidate. This might be because the candidate came with nontraditional credentials or because most compensation systems make no attempt to value innovation and creativity (at the time of hire).

Failing To Use Sources That Yield Innovators Sometimes it’s not the screening process that fails the organization. In fact, there are many cases where companies fail because they fail to attract innovators at the start of the process. Here are some examples of where candidate sources could be better used to elicit creative candidates:

  • Want ads. Most corporations put their job ads in the job section of the newspaper. The problem arises because innovative people might not look in this traditional area for a job. Smart recruiters realize that innovative people might read non-traditional newspapers and magazines. They also place job ads in non-traditional sections of “traditional” newspapers (sports, entertainment, arts, film, etc.).
  • Job fairs. Creative people often consider job fairs as too “corporate.” Innovative recruiters seek out innovative people at art shows, trade fairs, and other places where creative people display their work. Rather than sourcing at traditional trade associations, consider looking at artistic and recreational clubs or organizations as sources for candidates. If you want risk-takers, the best place to start might be a rock-climbing club. If you want outside-the-box thinkers, you might consider a modern art society or even non-traditional music organizations.

Conclusion If your managers are constantly saying that they need more innovation and outside-the-box ideas, recruiting can make a major contribution toward reaching that goal. Since most training programs don’t offer classes on becoming “creative or innovative,” the only option that most firms have is to externally hire more innovative people. Recruiting managers should start by revising job descriptions, as well as the application and interview processes, so that they encourage individuals to demonstrate innovativeness. Interested organizations might also revise their job ads and corporate website so that they say that they accept “portfolio resumes,” videos, pictures of work, or other innovative evidence of talent. However, accepting examples of candidates work is not enough; you must also ensure that the screening process allows sufficient time to actually review the material candidates present. Finally, when selecting an applicant tracking system, make sure that it has features that do not punish innovativeness in resumes. If after reading this article, you still do not believe that your current system screens out or discourages innovative people, conduct some focus groups, surveys, or interviews with your recent hires. Ask them for examples of where they had a real opportunity to express their innovativeness during the recruiting and hiring process. Don’t be surprised when you get more negative feedback than you were expecting.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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