I don’t get it: Why are Employers Fixated on Marks.

I have two kids who just graduated from university this year.  As a result, I have been helping some of their friends and classmates with introductions to companies where I think that there is a good fit between the graduating student and the company in terms of culture, values, skills and training.

My request of the companies is simple, “Please make sure their resume gets looked at.” The reason that I frame my request this way is that so many companies are inundated with resumes that they use marks as their sole initial screening criteria.  Consequently, I think they miss interviewing some great candidates.

Recently, I introduced a university grad to a company. I was warned that the competition for jobs at this company was fierce, but my contact ensured me that her resume would be considered.  Her marks are good, not great but her resume also shows many attributes with respect to volunteerism that is attractive to the company because of their values and culture. They have now interviewed her and the first interview went well.

After the interview, my friend told me that her university transcript would not have passed the pre-screening process and that her resume would have been eliminated if she had not endorsed by a trusted referral.

This case is not unique and leads me to wonder, other than being an easy way to reduce an enormous pile of résumés to a manageable set of possible candidates, is using university marks a valid method to pre-screen candidates.  Apparently Google now believes it is not.

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president for people operations said. “Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.”

He goes on to say: “After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different,” he said. “You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently. Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

To me, the conclusion seems obvious. Why would an employer want to entrust selection of top talent to academic institutions that have dramatically different cultures and criteria for success than that of commercial businesses.

To add irony to this discussion, I often speak with very successful senior executives who graduated from prestigious universities, work for top tier firms and publicly admit that based on their academic qualifications, they would never be admitted to those schools today, nor would they qualify for interviews at their company.  I proudly number myself amongst that group.

I graduated high school with an 80.0% average, which included some mercy marks that allowed me to barely qualify as an Ontario Scholar. I was accepted into Systems Design Engineering at University of Waterloo. In those days Waterloo didn’t have the reputation it has now and you could get into engineering with an average in the 60’s. I graduated university with marks ranging from the low 60’s to a very few in the high 80’s and was immediately hired by IBM.  I rose to an executive position at PeopleSoft and currently run my own company, sit of Boards of Directors and advise and coach CEO’s.  I think I did pretty well career-wise, yet am not sure I would pass the resume screening for marks if I was just graduating.

So why are so many companies using marks as the golden recruiting criteria?  It makes no sense considering:

Universities value hard skills; information that can be gained and tested in a quantitative manner. Business values soft skills, especially communications and leadership skills.
Marks are not consistent from one professor to the next, one program to the next or one university to the next. The same course within a university is taught semester to semester by different professors, often with different curriculum and standards. Different provinces use different standards for pass/fail and letter grades.  
Even within the same program, rarely do students take exactly the same courses. So how can marks be used as a comparator between students when each has an individual yardstick.

As businesses, are we really rewarding the behaviour of students who took the easiest courses and got the best marks by giving them interviews?  As businesses, do we want those most skills at memorizing answers and those who perform well on tests? Even universities have figured this out and now look to other criteria such as supplemental information packages before screening student out at undergraduate or graduate levels.

Is there a better way to screen candidates for interviews? I am not sure, but I am pretty convinced that the current system is broken.

© 2013 Meaford Group

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