can I justify hiring someone who needs additional education to do the job?

A reader writes:

How reasonable is it for a firm to develop potential employees at their own expense? For instance, say I run an organization that will need a full time HR person in the future (within a year or two). I know someone who I feel would make a great employee, is smart and would mesh well with the culture, but they would need additional education to be a generalist. Can a company justify spending the money to develop a person they feel would be great? Or are there just too many good HR generalists out there to make the expense worth it?

Well, it depends on what your goals are. Do you care more about hiring people who you know and like, even if they’re not the most qualified, or do you care more about hiring the best-qualified people who are most equipped to get you serious results? I know that sounds like a loaded question, but it’s a genuine one.

But we’ll get back to that in a minute. First I’d want to know why you’re so motivated to hire this particular person without a track record in what you need — and whose education you’d need to pay for — when there are tons of talented people out there who do have a track record of achievement in what you need and who you wouldn’t need to pay to educate.

If it’s because the person is a friend, I’d strongly urge you to resist the temptation to hire friends, particularly if the friend isn’t undeniably the best person for the job. This is because (a) successful hiring isn’t about providing a job-placement service for people you know; it’s about hiring the person who will get the best results on the job, and (b) managing friends — or being managed by a friend — is fraught with problems and complications.

If it’s not that the person is a friend, but rather is because you think this person has a lot of the “soft skills” that would eventually make her a huge success in the position, then you should still weigh her candidacy fairly against that of other people. In other words, you shouldn’t just anoint her — you should go through a full search process and objectively evaluate her against other applicants. At the end of that, if you determine she’s still most likely to do the best job, even adjusting for the costs of training, then great, hire her. But I’m skeptical this would be the outcome in the specific example you pose, since there are tons of experienced, talented HR people who are also smart and would presumably mesh well with your culture.

(The one exception there would be if your culture is something that hardly anyone meshes well with. If, for example, you’re an office of nudists or everyone has to speak Latin and you have trouble building a candidate pool as a result, then you might have an argument for paying to develop the right person.)

Now, getting back to the question of your goals:  If this is a for-profit business that you’re the owner of, ultimately it’s your prerogative to decide that you care more about hiring specific people who you know than you care about hiring the most qualified. There’s nothing that says that every business owner has to have the same goals; if you deliberately decide that you’d rather hire friends/family than get the best results/profits possible, that’s totally up to you. (However, if that’s your philosophy, you should be very, very transparent with prospective employees about that, so they know it up-front. And you should be transparent with yourself too; don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re not making this trade-off.)

However, if you’re (a) hiring at a for-profit business owned by someone else or (b) working at a nonprofit, then you really have a different set of obligations. Particularly at a nonprofit, your obligation to your donors and the constituencies you serve is to hire the best possible people. That means casting a wide net and getting the deepest pool of candidates possible, so that you can ensure you’re hiring the most qualified people. In that context, it’s difficult for me to imagine that you could justify hiring someone who isn’t ready for the job when there are tons of people who are, let alone then shouldering the financial burden of training and educating them. Your donors aren’t donating to the cause of one specific person’s career development; they’re donating because they expect you to use their money to advance your organization’s mission — and no matter how personally fulfilling or kind it may be, a commitment to providing a job for one specific person is contrary to that mission.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. KellyK*

    I think another thing to consider is what you’ll have this person doing in the mean time. If you don’t need a full-time HR person for two more years, but the candidate you have in mind *is* qualified for a need you have right now, it might make perfect sense to hire them for that and train them toward the position you want them in eventually.

    That still doesn’t mean they’re the *best* person for that need, though. It might be better to hire a part-time HR person and move them to full-time when you can, or hire someone unemployed who’s already fully qualified for the HR position and is willing to do whatever other job you have (something administrative, I’m guessing) until the HR position becomes available.

  2. Liz*

    Yay! Thank you for this post – I know it’s really hard for everyone out there right now, but most of my friends have graduate degrees, and I’m hearing many, many stories about “overqualified” being a huge impediment in a job search.

  3. anonymous*

    OK, but if you only ever hire the absolute perfect, no room for growth, candidate then how do the decent, but still have some growing to do, candidates ever grow to their potential?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      They follow a more normal career path, where they work their way up, gaining skills and experience as they go and establishing a track record of achievement as they go. That’s where entry-level positions followed by proving yourself at increasingly greater and greater responsibilities and challenges come in.

      I don’t think it’s ever about hiring “no room for growth” candidates. Everyone has room for growth. But it’s about hiring the person who’s the best equipped to kick ass in a particular role — and even ass-kickers have room to grow.

      1. Jamie*

        I don’t think anyone maxes out their potential – and a good employer will provide opportunities for growth when possible…and understand that people may need to seek these elsewhere if they hit their value apex within the company.

        I agree 100% with the advice to, at the very least, cast a large net to see what your real options are – when it’s an outside hire.

        I can see where a company would want to work with a current employee if they are a star performer and want to move into another role. They are already a tested commodity and everyone should have a better idea how it will shake out.

        For internal people who have all the qualities except some coursework it may very well be more cost effective to pay for the classes.

      2. Anonymous*

        OK, perhaps I did not adequately spell out my concern with your advice, I was on my smart phone and my eyes are not as good as they used to be: If a person has been working for you for a long time, and they have been quite competent at that job, in fact exceeding expectations a fair amount of the time and you have a position opening where that person would have to grow to fill, although they have no track record in the position and would have to be educated on the systems that are in place, according to how I read your advice you would not hire them to that position because they have no track record and you asked “why you’re so motivated to hire this particular person …when there are tons of talented people out there who do have a track record of achievement in what you need and who you wouldn’t need to pay to educate.”. But if you never give your employees a chance to grow into those “best-qualified people who are most equipped to get you serious results”, then how will they ever meet the requirements that you have established as the litmus test for hiring. I absolutely think that you should look outside your organization to see if you can find someone who is capable to do a job, but I think it is even more important that, when you have employees who have a history of exceeding your expectations, you should be willing to give current employees the benefit of the doubt and be willing to invest in them. Even if it means you have to train them for a greater position, you should be willing to hire them, not just right them off because they are not perfect.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I definitely agree, absolutely, when we’re talking about people who are already working for you. But in this case, the OP was asking about hiring someone who isn’t currently working for her.

          1. Anonymous*

            True, but from the OP’er’s comments, I took it that this was more than a casual aquaintance. “I know someone who I feel would make a great employee, is smart and would mesh well with the culture”. Those are words that would make me think that they knew this person in more than a passing way (say a close friend of their child who they have watched grow up and seen the choices- and traits- of the person). If you know someone enough to put faith in them because you have worked with them, and that is OK, then what is not OK with putting faith in someone that you have had enough of a relationship with that you feel confident that they could be the employee you need later. After all, they said they do not need the position yet, and by two years, this person may be great for it with the chance of having gotten to sow into their life.

            On the other hand, two years is far away: how do they know that the person will still be there by the time they need them?

  4. clobbered*

    I have always hired juniors and trained them up. However my situation is far from the HR example given by the OP. First, my people deal with a specialised set of skills that is almost impossible to pre-acquire elsewhere. Secondly, supra-technical skills (the equivalent to the “soft skills” for AaM’s field) are rare *and* extremely important in my field, and are more important than the precise skillset a person might have when they apply to me. Thirdly, for weird organisational reasons I can’t justify, it is easier to promote somebody to a competitive salary than to offer it to a new hire. Fourthly, the skills a junior person needs to learn are best learned by osmosis rather than formal education.

    So, you’d think I’d be totally backing the OP on this one, except actually I agree with AaM. You *should* have a full external recruitment exercise and only if it fails should you look to hiring the unqualified person. It is always best to cast your net wide and see what you catch; you can always “level-up” unqualified employees as a Plan B. Otherwise you could be fooling yourself into thinking that your unqualified person has rare intangible qualities when in fact they do not.

  5. Jamie*

    I laughed so hard at the thought of applying for a job in an office of Latin speaking nudists that it threw me into a coughing fit – lasting long enough for someone to stop in and check on me.

    Talk about using words to paint a picture! Brilliant.

    1. Anonymous*

      If the office is full of Latin speaking nudists, it’s highly likely that the CEO is known as Caligula and the milder performance incentives involve lions. The OP should probably be more concerned about those issues…..

      1. Jamie*

        I would hate to be HR at that company … paperwork is bad enough, but having to clean up after the lions …talk about a messy performance review!

        And kudos for the Caligula reference – I love the comments section on this site.

  6. Joey*

    It doesn’t make sense to hire someone who is unqualified for a job hoping they’ll become qualified in a few years. It’s far smarter to hire them for a job they are qualified for and making it clear that you expect them to gain the skills, education, etc to be promoted quickly. You just don’t put someone in a job they can’t do praying they’ll be able to do it in a few years. That’s giving out the trophy before the game is won.

  7. Charles*

    Something else for the OP to consider:

    After this candidate gets her degree (or whatever), is the employer going to give her a raise to match those new job duties? You know, the job duties that she was being educated for on the employer’s dime. Or is the OP expecting her to do the “extra” work without extra pay because she “owes” you for paying for her education?

    Also, what guarantee is there that this candidate will not leave for something better after she is finished spending the employer’s education money? Maybe she will feel that she got this job with little experience/education and, therefore, that she can now do better with an education on her resume.

    With this considered all I can say is: Boy, this candidate had better be a real rock star! (or a Latin speaking nudist)

  8. jane*

    The reader question is loaded with assumptions:
    – her organization will need a full-time HR generalist in 2 years
    – a particular person will mesh with the culture of the organization now and in 2 years, even though there doesn’t seem to be any past experience with that pe rson
    – it will take just money to develop someone into a particular job role

    None of the above is certain. It’s great when organizations pay for employees’ (or vendors’, customers’, etc..) education, but there is just too much uncertainty in the described scenario for that to make sense here.

  9. a*

    In my experience, employers sometime get stars in their eyes over someone. Some quality about that person just convinces them that the sun rises and sets with this one individual.

    Every time, they end up being hugely disappointed.

  10. Sydney*

    This is probably the first time I rather disagree with you, Alison.

    I’m working at my second “real” job since college. I’d say both times my employers took a chance with me: I was fresh out of school when I got my first job and for this current job (for which I had had no direct prior experience) my employer picked me over others who have been in the field for years. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I feel confident to say that both employers know the risks they took with me paid off big time (within less than 6 months). I’m really grateful for the chances that my employers have given me and when I’m hiring, I value the candidate’s potential and personality more than the on-paper experience and tenor. I have hired people who are new graduates, have had little to no direct experience in the field, but are intelligent, motivated (to always to a better job than last time), honest, and responsible. I did have to spend time training and mentoring them, but these efforts have paid off big time too!

    (Especially if you’re building a team, I strongly believe a team needs to be composed of different skills/personalities. You should have both experienced professionals and fresh, young, eager faces.)

    But everything needs to be considered in context:
    1. What do you need this person to do? If your company has a decent size or is growing fast, and you’re looking for someone to manage and build the entire HR department, you probably want someone with more experience.
    3. 1-2 years is a long time to “invest” in an employee without seeing real returns. Who knows if the employee will still want to work for you in that time? Is the employee willing to work at a reduced salary (knowing that you’re investing in their education)?

    1. Talyssa*

      I think the big difference between the OP’s scenario and your story is that your employers actually did interview a bunch of people, and for what I assume is multiple reasons they liked you best despite your lack of experience.

      In the OP’s scenario, they want to hire someone because they think the person CAN do the job but not because the person is the best person in the hiring pool. It would be like looking at the first resume you get and thinking “this person is probably good enough” and not looking at any of the other resumes. It would probably work out – probably – but why wouldn’t you at least TRY to hire the best person in your talent pool? I think you owe it to your organization to do the best hiring you can.

  11. Kar*

    Its one thing to take a chance on you but did they pay for your education so you would have the knowledge needed to do the job? That is different.

    Also you did a good job for them but how do you know that hiring someone with more experience wouldn’t have done a better job for them? (I’m not saying either way but you can’t know)

  12. Maddy*

    I think you should give them a chance. I agree with anon 6:26. What I think you should do is hire them as part-time or intern, that way they can learn from you and you can train them for the future.

    Sometimes, it is not about how much experience you have, but how passionate you are about the job. Honestly, a lot of the jobs out there anyone can do, but if you don’t have the passion for it you will never excel in it. So if your friend has the qualities you are looking for and the passion, I’d say go for it! If you don’t try, you won’t know.

    However, I also do agree with AAM, becareful when you hire a friend; some end up taking advantage of you.

    Connection is everything now. I hear it all the time, “Oh, I get all of my jobs through my friends”.

    1. Maddy*

      Oh, I forgot to say.. I also agree with AAM- you should at the very least see what this person is fighting against with.

  13. Nichole*

    I vote for the solution of hiring the person the OP likes for a needed role that she IS qualified for, then promoting her when and if the position becomes available if she’s a good candidate. Nothing wrong with grooming a good employee for a future opening…but I wouldn’t pay for the training. I would let her know upon hire “Look, I expect a position to open up in two years that I’d like to see you in, but it will require X, Y, and Z. I wanted to give you a heads up now because I really think you could perform well in that capacity and you have time to get X, Y, and Z happening.” Then it’s her choice. The OP never says explicitly that she wants the HR position, only that OP likes her for it. If she’s driven to get it, she’ll look for training options herself, and it eliminates the issue of what if they pay to train her only to have her leave the company. Plus, even if she’s only done X and Y and is enrolled to do Z by the time the job opens, she’s increased her skills and demonstrated that she’s got what it takes-much less of a gamble for the company than promising it to her now. Personally, if I was offered a chance to try out a company for a few years with a good chance of promotion into a job I really wanted if I followed a path laid out for me in advance (a path that leaves me better off even if the job doesn’t materialize), this would seem pretty win-win, even if I had to find funding for school.

  14. nadjiposao*

    I think you were very presumptuous in the part “In other words, you shouldn’t just anoint her — you should go through a full search process and objectively evaluate her against other applicants. At the end of that, if you determine she’s still most likely to do the best job, even adjusting for the costs of training, then great, hire her.” by implying she is a woman…like only women can get emotional and hire friends..

    but still the goal is legit and i would encourage this sort of deal. growing your own experts is a very new but smart strategy

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Read the rest of the blog. I use “she” and “her” as my default, as I’ve explained previously. I’m sure you’ve never seen this done with “he,” right?

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