Welcome to the Lead with Indeed podcast, a series of fireside chats with experts in employer branding, recruiting, HR and more.

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In this episode, Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed, speaks with Atta Tarki, author of Evidence Based Recruiting and the founder and CEO of ECA Partners, a data-driven staffing and executive search firm. Their discussion includes:

  • What defines evidence-based recruiting
  • How hiring managers and recruiters can work together most effectively
  • The most common mistakes employers make when it comes to job interviews

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Liz Lewis: Welcome to Season 2 of the Lead with Indeed podcast, where we chat with the experts about the world of work. Here, authors, researchers and industry leaders share their expertise on the science of talent acquisition, management, the future of work and much, much more.

I'm Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed. On today's show, I'm speaking with Atta Tarki, author of the 2020 book Evidence Based Recruiting.

Atta is also the founder and CEO of ECA Partners, a data-driven staffing and executive search firm. With a background in consulting, a passion for database solutions and a global lens on the world of work, he brings a unique perspective to talent. And today, he's here to share his insights with us. Let's get started.


Liz Lewis: Atta Tarki, thank you for joining us.

Atta Tarki: Thanks for having me. 

Liz: You have a very global lens on work and life. Could you give us a little bit of background to how you ended up where you are today? 

Atta: Yeah, absolutely. So I was born in Iran, the year of the revolution, 1979. And when I was seven, my parents decided to move to Sweden. I thought we were going to go to Switzerland and have a lot of chocolate, but instead we ended up in the most northern city in Sweden. It was minus 40 degrees Celsius. 

Liz: Oh my gosh.

Atta: And growing up in an environment like that, we were not very wealthy. My three brothers and I were sharing a room. I wanted to do something where I felt my work actually had an impact. And later when I went to my university in Stockholm, we did not have a formalized career counseling group or institution. So that was organized by all the students on a volunteer basis. And I was one of those volunteers. Who, within the span of one year, I helped set up 70 different companies coming to our university. And presenting on what we should do when we graduated from our university. 

And me, standing in the back of the room and making sure that the catering was set up correctly — I was very impressed by the story that the management consulting had to tell. So after graduating out of my university in Stockholm, I applied for some jobs. And I got a job in Munich, in Germany, at a strategy consulting firm. Because like a lot of folks in Sweden had picked up German in school. And I wanted to put it to use. And after a few years at the Munich office I had this phenomenal opportunity to come and work in sunny Los Angeles. And as a 20-something year old guy, I thought to myself, who wouldn't take this opportunity. 

And I went down here, and I had been here for about a year when something quite remarkable happened. The store where I would spend Sunday afternoons browsing through the aisles and figuring out which movie I'm going to watch went out of business. Working in strategy consulting in Los Angeles, we worked a lot with media entertainment clients. So it didn't take much for me to help me figure out that this tiny startup came, and within the span of 3 years put them out of business. And the question I kept asking myself is why. And I would come up with different answers. Well, they had a better platform. They had a better customer experience. They had a better strategy. And then I kept asking, but why? Why do they have a better customer experience? Why do they have a better distribution? Why do they have better strategy? And in the end, I kind of like surmised it in one word — they had better talent. That's what allowed them to have better strategy. That's what allowed them to have better distribution. 

And that's when I decided to leave my career in management consulting, and come and start a company in the talent space. Because I felt like if you want to build a successful company, it starts with the talent you have onboard.

Liz: What led you to write the book? 

Atta: When I was starting my firm the main pitch a recruiting firm and executive search firm had was, we have the best and biggest Rolodex of executives in this certain field. And that was their main differentiating factor.

And part of the hypothesis I had when starting the firm was that in this day and era, you can find information if you know where to look for it. It's not about having the best Rolodex of executives. It's about knowing where to find that information, and then how to engage those candidates and how to evaluate those candidates. And try to predict their on-the-job success. I thought well, it would be fun to try to bring all that knowledge together. And publish a book. And help the overall industry progress in that direction. By following the advice in my book, you can figure out what does actually work. And double down on those lists.

What is evidence-based recruiting?

Liz: How do you define evidence-based recruiting? What does this mean? And if all recruiting isn't based on evidence, what is it based on?

Atta: Sure. I think evidence-based recruiting will mean something different to different organizations.

Liz: Okay.

At the core of it, it's a systematic and process based approach to hiring. Now, if you're a larger organization it means that it's an approach for isolating various steps in the hiring process. Testing for best methods in that step. Learning and improving these steps one at a time. I compare evidence-based recruiting to going to a doctor's office. We still want them to try to follow the best practices from other institutions, the university institutions, etc. that conduct all that testing. But you can't do it yourself. 

So if you go to a doctor's office and say, “Hey, doctor, I have back pain.” You don't want the doctor to say, “Liz, that's great. We'll set up a 20-year-long double blinded study with another group of folks to find out why that is.” That would be doing a fully scientific type of recruitment for you. But an evidence-based method is more for the doctor to say, “Okay based on all the evidence, asking you a bunch of clarifying questions, maybe running some tests, it indicates that this is the root cause of your back pain. Let's start with this approach. And if it doesn't work, we'll try something else.”

Liz: In a nutshell, what are employers getting wrong when it comes to recruiting? What are the biggest missteps that you see? 

Atta: The biggest misstep is that they don't create the so-called feedback proof. What I mean by that is that they do something that feels very good or feels like it should be the right thing. But then they never go back and check if it actually works or not. 

Liz: Yeah. 

Atta: But if we actually set up a process where you would measure and say like, well my gut feeling said that this person should be a star, a year later you could go and check, well was my gut feeling correct or not?

Liz: Many employers say they understand the importance of good hires and good hiring practices. But you write that their actions indicate otherwise. How can employers shift their thinking and their processes to improve both? 

Atta: I would say it starts with truly understanding if having the best employees on your team makes a difference or not. And the work strings might change day to day. Situations might change week to week, year to year. There it's extremely important to have adaptable employees who can learn, adapt and produce good results. And in those situations if you can actually go back and see what is the benefit for making better hiring decisions and you truly put a number to it, then you can also start changing your processes in terms of hiring. And just one more point on putting the number to the benefit of better hiring processes. There are of course two sides to that coin. 

One is the cost of making a bad hire. And the other one is the benefit of making a good hire. Human beings are fortunately as diverse as snowflakes. That's what makes us beautiful. But that's also what makes it so complex in terms of hiring.

How hiring managers and recruiters can join forces — and why interviews are so challenging

Liz: When it comes to recruiting, how can hiring managers and recruiters work together most effectively? And along similar lines, what value does a recruiter add that isn't found elsewhere? 

Atta: That is a great question. I would say the main thing hiring managers can do to work more effectively with their recruiters is to define success. 

Liz: Okay. 

Atta: One mistake I've seen in a lot of organizations is that hiring managers don't take ownership of a search and their findings success whether it comes to the search process or the type of candidate they want.

Liz: Okay. 

Atta: In terms of a candidate, they say, well I know it when I see it. And no one's going to be able to read into your mind and understand what that candidate is. And if you do take the time of working with your recruiters and defining that success as clearly as possible, here's where the quantitative pieces come out as quantitatively as possible. What a recruiter can do in terms of finding people and evaluating them based on objective criteria; their resume, their pedigree, their work experience. 

And then when they are speaking to them how can they screen those candidates for more qualitative aspects of the candidates. And if the recruiter has talked to 10 or 20 candidates who all fit your quantitative or objective criteria, and then none of those fit your subjective criteria, the question is, can we make the screening process more efficient in some way? Because if they can't look for a person and screen them for you, then you have a problem. 

Liz: Why are interviews so challenging? And what are some of the most common mistakes that employers make when it comes to job interviews? 

Atta: I believe interviews are so challenging, A) — because it's a very unnatural environment. So you're meeting someone for the first time often times, or you've just met them a couple of times. And then you're supposed to sit there and divulge everything about yourself or ask them everything about that person. It becomes very personal very quickly. And that part of it is unnatural. 

Liz: Okay. 

Atta: B) — it's an imperfect method of trying to assess someone and see if this person's going to be good on the job. So if you want to hire a basketball player, you could either ask them, “Are you good at playing basketball?” That’s what we do in the interview process. You could ask them to give you examples of when they've been good in the past when they played basketball. And everyone can come up with a story when they were the MVP of that game. You could ask them, “How would you try to dribble around Lebron James if he was in front of you?” And that's a situational interview question. You could ask their peers how good is this person or the coaches how good is this person. You could look at their past performance as a basketball player. Unfortunately, oftentimes in the hiring process we don't have that objective data in their past performance like you can track in sports. Or you could watch them play. That becomes kind of like more of an on-the-job assessment if you will, or a job-specific assessment.

What employers can do now to improve their interview skills and processes

Liz: In terms of improving interview processes, what are some things that employers can start doing now to improve their interview processes and also their interviewing skills?

Atta: So let me start with interviewing skills. Going back to that whole awkwardness question around interviewing someone for the first time. It's not just awkward for the interviewee. It's also awkward for the interviewer. And I've worked with a lot of interviewers where I see them asking a question and the candidate doesn’t quite answer what they were asking for. Or the candidate gives an answer that just covers parts of what they were asking for. 

And then the interviewer just nods and moves on to the next question on the list. And I'd say one of the most tangible things an organization can work on is on interviewing skills around digging deeper into questions and into probing questions. How do you probe during an interview to get deeper into an answer or to really understand if it was a good answer or not, or if this person has the skills you want or not. And probing questions can come across a little bit as abrupt, and people don't want to be rude and say, “Liz, that doesn't answer my question. Answer my question.” That would be a little bit kind of like, rude, to say that. What you could do instead is to use softening statements saying something like, “Oh I want to make sure I'm understanding you correctly. I want to make sure that I'm not quoting you incorrectly.” And then it's like, “Can you walk me through this part of the answer one more time? Can you help me understand this piece one more time?” 

And if you practice those probing skills, I've seen interviewers improve tremendously and be able to get much better information out of the interviews. So that's one concrete thing they could work on. And on a broader scale, I would say just applying a little bit more structure to their interviews. A lot of the organizations I work with — they're not very intentional about their interviews. They go into the interviews and they have a free format one or two hour discussion. They come back and they give a candidate the thumbs up or thumbs down. 

I would say if you sit down and think a little bit in advance of the conversation. Like okay, what are we trying to get out of this? What would be good? Define good and define bad. Don't go in there saying like well I know it when I see it. Define good and define bad. And see what questions you could ask to get to good or bad in a candidate. And then divide and conquer a little bit where you say well, “Liz, why don't you take care of all the fit questions. And Atta, you take care of all the technical questions or the other way around.”

Liz: Excellent. That's very helpful. And it seems like it's also a good way to mitigate what you describe as groupthink in the book, right. Where you have a group of people interviewing somebody, maybe they come together and they end up focused more on how charismatic they were or how likable or whoever the loudest voice within the interview panel what they think. And it seems like this is a much more systematic approach that enables people to sort of compare apples to apples as opposed to apples to oranges. You think that's an accurate assessment? 

Atta: That is very accurate. 

Liz: Okay. 

Atta: And I would say the danger with groupthink is that I'll come out of the interview room and then while I'm handing over the candidate's resume to you I give you the thumbs up. You're already biased going into that interview then. There are a number of different factors that creep into bias. And I would say if not wanting to be biased or having good intentions was enough to solve the problem of biases, we've already solved it in large part. 

Liz: Sure. 

Atta: I work with a lot of organizations that say they want diversity. I work with a lot of organizations that say they want to address the biases they have in their interview process. But one of the biggest mistakes I see organizations make today is that in order to also feel like they're good employers and a good organization, they've created a very consensus driven culture. And then they end up having 12 people on their interview panel. 

Liz: Yeah. 

Atta: And I can tell you that even if the bias is hidden and unintentional, and even if it's very small, if you're going to put someone through 12 different interviews and everyone in that interview process has veto power, especially for diverse candidates, there's going to be some level where that diverse candidate is not going to click with someone on the interview panel. And unintentionally they're going to turn that person down. So I would say the first thing I would do in an organization is to try to limit the number of interviews with a candidate.

Liz: That's fascinating. That's great. So my final question. Let's say I'm an employer. I've read your book. I've seen the light. And I've realized it's time to improve my recruiting processes. What are three things I can do starting now to set the wheels in motion toward better hiring? 

Atta: Great question. I'd say the number one thing is understand how much it's worth to you. 

Liz: Okay. 

Atta: Do a quick back-of-envelope calculation and see how much it would be worth to me to have a better hiring process. And the litmus test there is — if you're not willing to spend a fraction of that amount, let's say a third of that amount, to improve your hiring process, you probably don't believe in that number. So redo that exercise until you're willing to invest real dollars behind investing in your hiring process. The second thing you can do is take one of the top 5 people in your organization and assign them to talent acquisition and improving your recruiting processes. And number three is — start measuring today. The sooner you start measuring different aspects of your recruiting and hiring process, the sooner you'll start improving them. Twenty years ago, the saying in marketing used to be that half of my spending is wasted. I just don't know which half. I say that recruiting is now where marketing was 20 years ago.

Liz: I'm speaking with Atta Tarki, author of Evidence Based Recruiting, and founder and CEO of ECA Partners. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. It has been an absolute pleasure.
Atta: Thanks for having me, Liz.


Liz: I'm Liz Lewis. My thanks to our guest, Atta Tarki. And a big thanks to you for listening. 

Today, we learned how to use data and metrics to hire better, smarter and more efficiently. With evidenced based recruiting, employers can gain scientific and actionable insights into their approach to talent and use this knowledge to improve. 

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