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Does Your Company Need More Ditch Diggers or Stars

August 30, 2007
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
Quiz time today with the HR Capitalist. Pick the book that is not available on Amazon:

  1. The War for Talent

  2. Secrets for Hiring Top Talent

  3. The World Needs Ditch Diggers Too

  4. Hiring the Best

    If you selected "C," congratulations! The conventional wisdom says we must hire top talent and "only the best," and that thinking has been intensively marketed to HR professionals. As a result, you know The World Needs Ditch Diggers Too is the fake title. Maybe you don’t even like talking about talent in such an earthy way.

    I think I’m going to write the ditch digger book. It’s a little-discussed reality for all organizations that aren’t Google.

    My take is that most of us in the talent sector understand the value of the ditch digger, which I define as a steady, unspectacular performer. We don’t talk about them enough, though. The need for ditch diggers at all levels is never more apparent to me than when I have a big block of vacancies for a specific job.

    In the past year, my company has worked to fill classes of 12 to 15 new hires for two specific professional roles in our organization. Filling a big job order puts me in compare-and-contrast mode, and in those circumstances I always appreciate the steady candidate who may not be a star. Invariably, I find that the hiring manager for a block of professional-grade vacancies is thinking the same thing.

    The rationale goes like this:

  • The candidate has the skills to do the job and can be projected as a "meets" performer (as in "meets expectations").

  • We are in the position of having to get the spots filled quickly.

  • We know that if we hire nothing but stars, we’ll ultimately foster dissatisfaction. Not everyone can move up in an organization. That’s a fact of life.

    Of course, that rationale also assumes you could actually pick and choose stars for all of your positions, which is unrealistic. The market generally won’t allow it, because you don’t have the time or the money to make it happen.

    In my parlance, the ditch digger—also known as the worker bee, the soldier, the steady Eddie or even the "anti-star"—isn’t a questionable employee by any means. The ditch digger is the steady, unspectacular performer who gets the job done, but isn’t necessarily asking for more responsibility or looking for the fast track up the org chart.

    The best way to find this solid contributor in the recruiting process is to focus on the profile created by four things: past career path, past earnings, education level and a behavioral profile around the dimension of "drive."

    The first three components—career, money and education—are fairly easy to find. Look for a steady employee who hasn’t hopped jobs on an annual basis and is paid at a level similar to or below what you would pay for the same position. Add in education that trails what your job description states as required or preferred and—presto!—you have a positive ditch digger profile.

    The last dimension in the profile is the most important one, but also the most difficult to assess. Determining whether your ditch digger candidate is a solid performer or a slacker requires digging into the behavioral dimension called drive.

    Slackers can stay in the same job with earnings and education levels that trail the stars because they aren’t driven professionally. They come to work, do the minimum and leave. The true ditch digger candidates, as identified by my profile, are decidedly not slackers.

    They are people who are well-placed in the roles you’ve slotted for them. When they are in the office, they are driven to meet the objectives you lay out for them. They may not have the capacity, skills or desire to move up to the next level in your company, but they will compete where they are.

    The only way to separate slackers from the solid performers in the ditch digger profile is to go after the dimension of drive in a behavioral interview, looking for real examples of drive/motivation in their past that will project into the role you have for them. Here’s an example of a behavioral question exploring drive: "Tell me about a time when you failed on a project at work. What did you do differently to overcome the obstacles the next time around?"

    Once you understand the positive version of the profile, you have to know when and where to place the ditch digger into your organization. Here are the best spots:

    Anywhere you have five or more employees in the same job title: Booking all stars into a job title with multiple incumbents is a recipe for turnover. They won’t get the stroking they need, and you’ll have to replace them when they go to some other company to get the attention they crave.

    Production roles where innovation and creativity aren’t part of the job description: If a job is mostly a production gig, you need some ditch diggers. Hire stars for these roles, and they’ll dream and scheme while the work sits idle.

    Spots where you don’t need to make it rain: Sales and business-development positions are rainmaker roles and are star-driven. Ditch diggers are often more introverts than extroverts, so non-revenue-producing roles are generally best for them.

    So go ahead and identify, recruit and bring the ditch diggers into your organization. They’ll complement your stars by knocking out the work while not being divas. Be sure to give them a little love at merit time, and they’ll appreciate you forever and never leave. You won’t be able to say that about the stars.

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