Mediocre degrees and recreational drugs: best practice hiring?

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In a recent column published in the Spectator, Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy group, down-played the value of first-class degrees and lamented the studiousness of today’s youth. “Whenever I return to my old university, I am always struck by how incredibly focused, purposeful and studious everyone seems to be. It fills me with despair,” he wrote.

A friend explained to him that this was a modern necessity since employers won’t consider candidates unless they have the very highest grades, which got Sutherland thinking. “Recruiting next year’s graduate intake for Ogilvy would be easy. We could simply place ads in student newspapers: ‘Headed for a 2:2 or a third? Finish your joint and come and work for us.’”

Sutherland insisted that there is no evidence to prove that recruits with first-class degrees out-perform recruits without. In fact, he argued that the correlation is an inverse one. “There are some specialised fields which may demand spectacular mathematical ability, say, but these are relatively few,” he added.

As a result, confining recruitment efforts to those with lower grades would give an employer a competitive advantage: they would have a near monopoly since other organisations wouldn’t consider them, and they would benefit from more loyal hires. “The logic is inarguable: the best people to hire (or date) are those undervalued by the market,” he said.

Sutherland warned that using a single measure to define talent would result in dangerous homogenisation, as well as leading to “competitive credentialism”. The latter meaning that only the privileged and “obsessive weirdos” could be successful according to the narrow criteria of first-class degrees.

Another instance of this “competitive credentialism” was the desperate desire to secure prestigious internships. With this in mind, Sutherland offered an exclusive deal to readers of Spectator. “Send me a litre of Tanqueray and I’ll happily confirm that your son or daughter performed a magnificent four-week internship with me. Meanwhile your kids can all go off to Goa and spend the summer smoking drugs on the beach as God intended,” he joked.


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