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When the Search for People Skills Backfires

Job ads that specifically seek team players can have the unintended downside of scaring away potential hires with technical rather than collaborative skill sets.

Bottom LineJob ads that specifically seek team players can have the unintended downside of scaring away potential hires with technical rather than collaborative skill sets.

The past several decades have seen a surge in the use of teamwork in business. When employees work together toward mutual goals, the thinking goes, their shared experience and knowledge should make them more comfortable and trusting of the people in the adjacent cubicles — and enhance their firm’s prospects as a result.

But as we’ve previously noted, the value of teamwork isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: Workplace cohesion, for example, can lead to a slackening of employees’ on-the-job efforts — for example, when office buddies prioritize planning the company picnic over meeting project deadlines. Nevertheless, the widespread use of teams seems to be here to stay. In recent years, there has been an increase in job listings that cite the ability to get along with coworkers as one of the key requirements for applicants.

But stressing teamwork in job ads is a bad idea, regardless of whether group cooperation ultimately pays off for the company, according to a new paper by the University of Tuebingen’s Agnes Bäker. Asking for potential hires with team skills appears to cause a significant number of job seekers — specifically, those whose talents lie more in completing tasks than in bonding with coworkers — to decide not to throw their hat into the ring. Indeed, seeking team-oriented employees may cause potential applicants who are lacking in social acumen to self-select out of the hiring process, depriving firms of all the technical skills such applicants might bring to the table before they even get a chance to interview those applicants.

Despite increased general interest in the connections between group functions and corporate performance, previous research has all but ignored this aspect of creating advertisements for vacant jobs. In the first study to explore the issue empirically, Bäker analyzed survey data from more than 1,300 college students about to enter the workforce. (Because recent graduates lack an employment history, they have to be recruited externally. As a result, they provide the ideal lens through which to examine how the content of job advertisements affects the attitudes of prospective employees.)

Bäker asked the participants to evaluate many different job postings that laid out the requirements for applicants’ level of academic achievement, language proficiency, and extent of interaction with coworkers, along with the jobs’ potential performance-based pay. The ads also stated whether employees were expected to possess teamwork skills or be task-oriented self-starters who could work independently of others. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their demographic characteristics, skill sets, outlook on collaboration, and expectations regarding potential teammates.

As predicted, people who positioned themselves as team players were far more likely to apply for positions that required higher levels of group collaboration. But the downside was also clear: Applicants who were proficient in technical and task-related areas were far less willing to apply for jobs requesting social skills, seemingly ready to take themselves out of the running on the basis of that criterion alone.

Of course, Bäker notes, the requirement that employees work well together is so commonplace that some applicants may simply gloss over this information in an ad. Or they could view this as a comparatively negotiable criterion — after all, personality traits and social aptitude are much harder to measure than, say, proficiency in drafting blueprints or adding up accounts. Still, that makes it all the more notable that so many prospective employees appear to balk at that requirement. Perhaps these would-be applicants also realize that firms are increasingly basing their compensation structures on a combination of individual and team-based achievements. That shift makes the collaborative aspect of work far more important.

The finding that ads stressing collegial cooperation are successful at targeting team players is powerful. And companies should include this requirement whenever they feel that a job opening doesn’t require a particularly task-oriented person. But when technical skills or specific talents are needed, firms may want to shy away from advertising for team players.

When technical skills are needed, firms may want to shy away from advertising for team players.

“Given the evidence of a possible downside, it is recommended that firms should never look for team players just because ‘everyone else is doing so,’” Bäker concludes.

Source:The Downside of Looking for Team Players in Job Advertisements,” by Agnes Bäker (University of Tuebingen), Journal of Business Economics, Feb. 2015, vol. 85, no. 2

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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