Understanding fundamental recruitment error in talent acquisition

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Impressing recruiters and gaining an edge in the job market is no easy feat. However, a new study reveals different priorities between candidates and hiring managers

While talent is often coveted, many believe success stems from a blend of competence and diligence. Cristiano Ronaldo, the renowned Portuguese football player, once emphasised the significance of diligent effort. “Talent without work is nothing,” he said.

Although having high natural talent doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of commitment to hard work, or vice versa, some may see these two attributes as opposing qualities. As a result, individuals may need to make a trade-off between highlighting either innate talent or hard work in their resumes and interviews when seeking employment.

It is common for job seekers to try to predict recruiters’ preferences and adjust their responses accordingly. However, accurate prediction is often challenging, and the mismatch between expectations can lead job seekers allocated to undesirable positions, impacting their productivity and the company.

Job candidates may face trade-offs between choosing either innate talent or hard work to highlight in their job application processes due to practical constraints.

Professor Dai Xianchi

This dilemma then poses questions. Do job candidates and recruiters perceive talent and hard work differently? If so, what are the reasons behind this phenomenon? Dai Xianchi, Associate Professor of the Department of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, and Professor Si Kao of the University of Macau examined these questions in their latest study titled The fundamental recruitment error: Candidate-recruiter discrepancy in their relative valuation of innate talent vs. hard work.

The study found that job candidates are career-minded and recruiters are relatively position-driven. The recruiters also prefer hard work over innate talent, while candidates value the latter as more important. Professor Dai and Professor Si term this phenomenon the “fundamental recruitment error”, where the focus of job candidates and recruiters differs.

“Innate talent and hard work are two qualities regarded by many as the most fundamental sources from which achievement in any domain emanates,” says Professor Dai. “Despite the varying personnel selection criteria, innate talent and orientation toward hard work hold prominent positions in the minds of corporate gatekeepers.”

Hard work or innate talent?

Before coming to the conclusion, Professor Dai and Professor Si conducted a series of experiments with participants from over 100 industries in the US and China. Participants were divided into candidate and recruiter groups. The candidate group was asked to choose between two reference letters for job applications – one praising their innate talent and the other highlighting their hard work. The recruiter group then had to decide which candidate they would prefer.

Getting the right match between job candidates and recruiters is the most essential goal in an efficient job market.

The results indicated that more participants in the candidate group chose to submit the reference letter emphasising their innate talent. In contrast, more participants in the recruiter group preferred the hardworking candidate.

Professor Dai notes that the results provide evidence of the discrepancy between job candidates and recruiters in their valuation of innate talent versus hard work. The misaligned valuations could lead job candidates to use ineffective strategies that reduce their chances of getting suitable jobs.

“Orientation toward hard work has been widely recognised as a key determinant of workers’ career potential and attainment,” says Professor Dai. “It is associated with a handful of closely related personal attributes that are indispensable to an individual’s long-term excellence in the workplace.”

Moreover, Professor Dai adds that hard work and deliberate practice constitute the primary means by which people can circumvent inborn or external constraints to attain high levels of expertise and performance. On the other hand, individuals’ innate talent has been consistently associated with high levels of career potential.

“Many studies have shown that precocious and gifted individuals are far more likely than their peers to become tenured professors of elite universities, distinguished judges and attorneys, and top executives of prestigious organisations,” says Professor Dai.

Career potential vs. current performance

The researchers then aimed to explore participants’ perspectives on the essential qualities associated with career potential and current position performance, which are two crucial dimensions used to evaluate a candidate’s suitability for a job.

Firstly, participants were asked to list three important characteristics for workers to have high career potential and high performance in their current job positions. Two independent graders then rated how they perceived the listed characteristics to be related to workers’ natural talent and inclination towards hard work.

Subsequently, another group of participants were presented with a list of characteristics derived from the previous step. Their task was to classify these characteristics into two categories, whether they are related to career potential or current job performance. The results suggested that people consider innate talent and hard work equally important in predicting individuals’ career potential.

Job seekers prefer innate talent relatively more than recruiters because the quality is associated with high levels of career potential.

Overall, more participants consider hard work more essential for individuals’ current job performance because it is a prominent predictor of output level. Additionally, researchers also found that people prioritised innate talent for career potential and hard work for current job performance when facing a trade-off.

Trying to uncover the reasons behind the different expectations between job candidates and recruiters, participants were again divided into candidate and recruiter groups. Both groups were required to indicate the qualities they preferred to secure a job and choose pieces of assessment between career potential and expected position performance.

Participants in the candidate group tend to prefer talent-related characteristics and select more pieces of assessment information about career potential, while the recruiter group have a relatively stronger focus on current position performance.

“Job candidates may face trade-offs between choosing either innate talent or hard work to highlight in their job application processes due to practical constraints,” says Professor Dai. “They prefer innate talent relatively more than recruiters because the quality is associated with high levels of career potential.”

Getting the right match

The misaligned expectations between job seekers and recruiters can impede the efficient allocation of workers to their best-matched positions, which has adverse effects on productivity. As getting the right match between job candidates and recruiters is the most essential goal in an efficient job market, this study has crucial implications for job candidates and recruiters.

Professor Dai suggests that job candidates should put more effort into demonstrating their orientation toward hard work. For instance, individuals should emphasise and provide evidence of their hardworking personality when writing a cover letter or doing a job interview. Recruiters, who tend to focus more on current job position performance, should also take candidates’ career potential into account.


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“The position-focused approach or mindset of recruiters could cause firms to suffer negative consequences in the long term, such as high turnover, low morale and lack of innovation,” Professor Dai says.

By understanding and addressing the discrepancy between job candidates and recruiters’ expectations, both can improve their chances of finding the right match and foster a productive and fulfilling work environment.