Recruiting Thirds – and the value of contrarian thinking

This article from the Spectator website was one of the most entertaining yet thought provoking I've read in some time.

In it, Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, the leading advertising firm, explains why he is focusing his firm's graduate recruitment on people who have earned thirds in their University degrees. (That's the lowest grade in the UK system - the bottom 15% perhaps of those who passed).

At first, it looked like just a plea for giving a chance to students with a more rounded, less academic approach to life, but actually Sutherland makes some more profound and interesting points than that.

Firstly, he makes a brilliant contrarian thinking argument that actually points out a trap we can fall into as procurement people in different areas. Because it is the easiest way of sifting applications, more and more firms are using degree class to rule out applicants. So as Sutherland says, every recruiter is fishing in the same pool, whereas he has his own pool all to himself. The parallel trap for us is the temptation to use a supplier simply because everyone else does - the "no-one got fired for hiring IBM" argument.

He also reckons he will see other benefits.

"So my game theoretic instincts suggest that if we confine our recruitment efforts to people in the lower half of the degree ladder we shall have an exclusive appeal to a large body of people no less valuable than anyone else. And such people will be far more loyal hires, since we won’t be competing for their attention with deep-pocketed pimps in investment banking.

The logic is inarguable: the best people to hire (or date) are those undervalued by the market".

We’ll pass quickly on from bringing dating into the equation! But then he extends the argument into some interesting research, which seems to show that class of degree has no discernible link - for many jobs at least - with actual job performance. That demonstrates another point with wider implications; how many of the things we "know" are actually just beliefs, and how many of those stand up to objective scrutiny? Where is the evidence, we should continually ask ourselves when presented with something that everybody just ‘knows’.

So, are people with upper seconds really going to make better procurement executives than those with thirds? As well as the gratitude Sutherland talks about, lower graded individuals may have other skills, or have pursued other interests at University which might actually be more relevant to them performing well in the workplace. Something to consider both in our own recruitment, and remember the value of contrarian thinking when we look at suppliers, markets and business generally.

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Voices (9)

  1. NOne:

    probably the guy is not very smart so he wants to hire people who he thinks have more to do with him, whom he can build a rapport with. and he doesn’t pay well either so how far can he go anyway??

  2. bitter and twisted:

    Dogbert said it best

  3. bitter and twisted:

    My instinct is that random selection is superior to flawed selection.

    1. RJ:

      Back to the old chestnut of throwing half the CVs in the bin because you don’t want to employ unlucky people?

      1. bitter and twisted:

        Dont be silly. The ones that avoid the bin will have used up some of their luck ration.

      2. RJ:

        So… to apply contrarian thinking here: take all of the CVs you receive, put them all in a bag, pull out two and throw them in the bin (they’ve used up part of their luck quotient) and appoint the third one! Probably works just as well as some of the interviews I’ve been through.

  4. Ben Glynn:

    Fascinating debate! I feel a bit sorry for the people with 2.2’s though as they will be completely ignored under this system..

  5. Dan:

    I have a law degree. This entails memorising lots of statutes and cases, then regurgitating it in a exam in essay form.

    How exactly was this supposed to reflect my apptitude in a work environment? How many times am I going to be required to write an essay as part of a job?

    Qualifications are overrated.

    1. RJ:

      … and I have a degree in Modern and Mediaeval Languages with a particular specialism in 16th Century Spanish poetry!

      It’s not just the class of degree that gets sifted now, it’s also the specialism – so many organisations now insist on having a “Business” component in their graduates’ studies. Now while I don’t want to decry the millions of great business students out there (and there are lots), I’d like to think that I learnt a lot from my studies about cultural understanding, the motives and desires of people and a dose of analytical thinking.

      Nowadays I fear that I wouldn’t get past the CV stage in my graduate traineeship application.

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