A Diamond in the Rough

May 23, 2008

Katherine Spencer Lee

Despite the slowdown in the economy, there are still shortages of qualified candidates in many IT specialties. Creative recruiting techniques are one way to uncover strong applicants, but many firms overlook another useful option: identifying diamond-in-the-rough talent.

Sometimes individuals simply don’t impress with their resumes or interviewing techniques, but in the end can be star employees. They just may not have a knack for writing resumes or let nerves get the better of them during interviews. Or they may not meet all of your requirements right now, but could with some training or guidance. Here are some ways to single out those who might make ideal additions to your team with a little on-the-job assistance: ·

Think about your top performers. Start by assessing the qualities that have made your best employees stand out. Is it technical expertise? Perhaps interpersonal or leadership skills? Make a list of their traits that you can use as a guide when evaluating candidates. ·

Don’t go overboard with requirements. Make sure you separate desired characteristics in applicants from essentials. You may want a network engineer with at least seven years of experience and a professional certification, but are these necessary to do the job successfully? If you set the bar too high, you may discourage some people from applying at all and potentially eliminate individuals who would otherwise be qualified for the position. ·

Know what to look for on resumes. While you don’t want to ignore poor grammar, typos or general sloppiness, the resume doesn’t need to have the “wow” factor to move to your “yes” stack. Even if job titles aren’t impressive, for instance, consider the individual’s track record. If the person made the most out of a position, showed initiative and took on greater challenges, these are positive signs. Mentions of completing additional education or training show a commitment to learning. ·

Consider the intangibles. Personality, motivation and being a good fit for the organization can’t be quantified the same way as time spent in an IT management role or years working with AJAX, for instance. But often it’s these “softer” factors that are most critical in an employee. When interviewing, look for individuals who are eager to join your team, have a history of making an impact and continuing to learn (even if it’s in an unrelated field), and have the social skills to easily transition into the group. Remember, you can always train someone in a particular technology, but you can’t create a drive to succeed or force chemistry with coworkers if it doesn’t exist. ·

Take nerves into account. The most polished interviewee isn’t always the best job candidate; he or she simply may be well rehearsed and skilled at interviewing. So, don’t automatically rule out those who talk too fast, give short responses or show other signs of nervousness. To help bring out their best, try to put people at ease with a few easier questions, such as asking about their latest jobs, before moving on to more challenging ones. ·

Use case scenarios. Problem-solving and analytical abilities are critical in IT, so it’s helpful to gain a sense of how people handle difficulties. When interviewing, ask candidates what they would do in particular situations. The goal is not necessarily to identify those who give the right answer, but to evaluate the thought process used. Does the applicant suggest logical steps? Case scenarios can help you filter out those who are just good at interviewing and focus on individuals who possess the qualities that really matter on the job. ·

Gain additional feedback. Also consider getting input from others on your staff before making a final choice about which applicant to hire. Just be sure not to form too large a decision-making group. Otherwise, instead of selecting the best employee, you could end up with the candidate who’s the least objectionable to everyone.

Additionally, be sure to talk to references. They can give you a better sense of an individual’s work style and qualifications, helping you to compare information and make a more informed selection.

Hiring a diamond in the rough may require more up-front cost in terms of training, mentoring and other support, but it may not take long to realize the benefits. The right professional who’s given the resources to succeed may make lasting contributions to the organization and ultimately shine.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and offers online job search services at


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