Certifications in Hiring, Part 2: Hiring Traps

In Part 1, I discussed the issue of certification vs. experience. One of the problems in using certifications to discriminate for or against people is that some people might have the experience you want, and might not have the certification paper that represents that experience to you.

Here’s an example. I coached a project manager as she was looking for a job several years ago. She had used timeboxes, asked her project teams to develop with small features, and insisted on continuous integration. That allowed the project to show progress every one to three weeks. (She didn’t use timeboxes in the sense that many agile teams do. She helped the teams timebox their daily work, so they could integrate at least every day, not once every two weeks. She had figured out kanban by using stickies for “this week’s work,” and rolling wave deliverable-based planning.) She had discovered a reasonable successful way to shepherd projects to completion. She did not use retrospectives or demos, but she and her teams were close to agile.

She loved her job. The project teams appeared to love her. When we met, she had received 17 or 18 recommendations on LinkedIn. The recommendations actually said words such as, “servant leadership,” “facilitation,” and “coaching.” She was an agile project manager, or if you will, a Scrum Master. Not in the classic sense, but once she read the Scrum Guide, she realized what she was.

Her company merged with another, and she was laid off.

She was having a terrible time getting a job. She did not have a CSM. Her previous job title was “Project Manager.” She was drawn to agile approaches, but she could not prove she was agile. She finally decided to get a CSM, even though she regretted spending the money on the class. (She was unemployed and wanted to keep her money.)

She did learn some things, especially the language. She found that useful. But the hiring managers or HR people who insisted on the agile certification? They were not agile. She said to me, “They wouldn’t know agile if it bit them in the face.”

We developed her questions to ask of the hiring manager. She also developed her target list of companies, so she could find work not based on certification. She started asking some questions during the phone screen.

She found a job and now has the “real” agile experience in addition to her previous “non-agile” experience, which seems pretty agile to me.

The traps hiring managers fell into:

  1. Believing that a certification is the same as experience.
  2. Believing a certification provides you sufficient knowledge to do the job.
  3. Believing you can use a certification to differentiate among candidates.

By now, you can tell I’m not a fan of certifications when used to discriminate against people in hiring. One of the comments on Part 1  said that the hiring manager looked for training—not just the certification—from the same trainers. That’s not useful.

In Part 3, I’ll talk about tips for certification, how you can use the fact that a candidate has a certificate.

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12 Comments

  1. Jim Grey

    I’ve developed a bias over the years as a hiring manager: when I see certifications, I think “mediocrity.”

    It’s not fair. I’ve talked to a few candidates with certifications who really knew what they were doing. But most of the certified just knew how to follow the rules, or got the certification because they lacked experience and wanted to break into the field. So a candidate with certifications actually has to work harder to impress me than one without them.

    So I’m looking forward to Part 3.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Jim, wow, your cynicism is showing. I wish more people held your attitude about the value of certification. I’ve met a number of people who said, “When I want to learn something, I get a certification.” I like the learning part, but there’s no experience there. Too often, you see mediocrity.

      Reply
      • Jim Grey

        Johanna, I’m not proud to be cynical, but it’s where I’ve landed after seeing one too many PMPs who think project management is creating a Gantt chart and then asking “is it done yet,” or CSTEs who are utterly lost testing software unless it has a bulletproof requirements document. It’s been enormously frustrating.

        Reply
        • johanna

          That is frustrating. That’s one of the reasons I dislike certifications. People latch on to what’s easy, not how to think.

          Reply
  2. Dwayne Phillips

    No certificate? No job. Too bad.

    The most important certificate is your birth certificate. If it is too old, too bad. No job.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Dwayne, the ageism we see is horrible. What about the value of maturity, of experience? I guess I’ll have to do a post (or two) on ageism. Thanks for reminding me.

      Reply
  3. David Hubble

    Johanna, keep it coming. Even as one of the old guys, I still enjoy reading your articles. You tend to cut through the crap and state your opinion with back up stories. To me, Agile is not a thing; it’s an adjective to describe an organizations process, behavior and thought patterns. A certification should be the same. As an old school PE one had to work in the industry specific to the certification you wanted before testing. I guess no one has the patience for that any more.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Hi David, thanks! I looked up how a PE gets their designation. (Click the link on PE to see their page.) What I like about the PE is that the candidate apprentices with a PE. (No, I don’t know how the first licenses started.) Then, it’s based on work and exams.

      Notice that the PE is a license, not a certification. A PE is legally liable if a building falls down or a product breaks and the PE has signed design docs, etc.

      Certifications are not licenses, despite what people may think. A certification says, “This person knew enough to pass this exam.” And, maybe has some number of hours of professional experience. But, there is no working as an apprentice. No feedback on work to understand success or problems. A certificate is not a license. We should not treat certificates as licenses.

      Don’t call yourself an old guy. We’re only old when we stop being open to new ideas. I bet you’re open to new ideas!

      Reply
  4. Dave Gordon

    Three relevant facts: Open positions constitute an opportunity cost; turnover rates are rising because average tenure has fallen dramatically; and the unemployment rate for experienced knowledge workers is extremely low. Should an employer who is getting thousands of resumes for their dozens of open positions follow up on every one of them? Well, if they have only text files uploaded to an applicant tracking system, how can they separate those with skills from those with aspirations? How can they quickly narrow the field down to a dozen or so strangers, before some other firm claims the prospects they should have hired?

    Credential requirements are part of a risk management strategy for many employers. If you want to work for a company that doesn’t manage risks, eschew credentials.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Dave, I agree you need a risk management strategy. I prefer to manage risks by changing the kinds of ads I create, based on a job description with real deliverables instead of certifications.

      In my experience (which may not match yours at all), when I provide a real opportunity and ask for examples of experience, I had different people apply for my open positions. They were capable and interested in doing the work I needed. Yes, I still had some bozos apply. They were easy to filter out.

      It’s true, you can try to manage risks by using certifications. You might find some great people. My experience is that the certification is tangential to the work I needed people to complete.

      I do have a post of tips coming. Maybe you will like that one better 🙂

      Reply
      • Dave Gordon

        I liked this series, and will include a link to it in my weekly round-up.

        Hiring managers who carefully craft better job descriptions tend to get more on-point candidates, but few take the time to do so. Consequently, the HR folks who are under pressure to fill open reqs take whatever shortcuts are needed to do their jobs; thus, things like education and credentials become part of the applicant management system Bozo filter. It’s like technical debt, in that a conscious decision is taken to achieve a short-term goal and optimize later. Whether you’re a hiring manager or a job seeker, understanding common manifestations of that debt can help you achieve your goals.

        Reply
        • johanna

          Dave, I like the idea of management debt when managers (or teams in self-organizing companies) don’t take the time to craft better job descriptions. Quite apt. I will use this in my tips. (I’m working on that post, and have the idea of crafting, but not the idea of debt.) Thanks! (And thanks for linking in advance.)

          Reply

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