What is topgrading interviewing? Our favorite tips

Topgrading interviewing allows you a lot more insight into a candidate, and (importantly) it will enable the candidate better insight into the company.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is topgrading interviewing?

The term topgrading comes from a 1997 article by Bradford D. Smart and his son, Geoffrey, called Topgrading the organization. Their definition is:

“Topgrading simply means proactively seeking out and employing the most talented people available, while redeploying (internally or externally) those of lesser ability or performance. More specifically, we view topgrading as employing only A players.”

But, it’s more than just seeking A players; it’s about structuring interviews and making sure the process is rigorously targeting the right people. The Smarts talk a lot about talent rather than skill or experience, theorizing that the most talented people will bring the most value to your organization.

And to do that, it’s not just about the interview questions; it requires a well-written job description that reflects the company culture and goals and the individual job responsibilities. Without this critical information, you can’t attract the right people for the job.

Typically, when you use topgrading, the candidates face multiple interviewers to find the best people who fill these critical core competencies: Intelligence, vision, leadership, drive, resourcefulness, customer focus, hiring, team-building, track record/experience, integrity, and communication.

This all comes together as part of a 12-step process in hiring.

To keep reading, click here: What is topgrading interviewing? Our favorite tips


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6 thoughts on “What is topgrading interviewing? Our favorite tips

  1. Dear Evil —

    While I appreciate (although absolutely do not endorse) your comments here and the accompanying article about Topgrading, I believe your readers would be well-served by reading a contrary view by Nick Corcodilos, owner of http://www.asktheheadhunter.com.

    His conclusion?

    “I don’t have to drink cynicism to know it’ll poison me. And I think topgrading is as cynical a way to assess job applicants as any job-interview tool you’ll encounter … If you’re a job seeker, and a company tells you it does uses topgrading interviews, I think that should tip you off to find out whether management also practices stacked ranking — openly or surreptitiously. If it does, my advice is, Run. It’s not healthy to work for cynics.”

    You can see the article here: https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/10263/topgrading

  2. I’m coming down as a hard no on making the candidate arrange the reference call. That’s not my job as a candidate. I’m not the hiring manager or HR coordinator. If I didn’t have a good relationship with a former boss, I wouldn’t have put them down as a reference. This strikes me as lazy and gimmicky.

    I’m glad you pointed out the potential for discrimination when soliciting salary information, as well as the importance of looking at growth in subsequent positions. And yeah, this process is a bit much for a lower-level position. You don’t need a rock star; you want someone who is competent, steady, and dependable.

  3. Suzanne,

    I gotta push back on this too. Your stuff is usually pretty good about keeping it real and calling a spade a spade, which I appreciate.

    But this is off the mark. First, highlighting a practice that some states in recent years have determined to be illegal isn’t a good look.

    Second, detailed job descriptions are a no-no. I work in tech, and detailed job descriptions basically describe a purple squirrel. Pretty much nobody will match a laundry list of requirements, and then the recruiters will complain there are no qualified people. OTOH, if the focus is on what people will *do* once on the job, that could be more informative. But this is the shortest bullet in your list, so one cannot infer what you actually meant.

    Five and six shouldn’t be separate steps. Sure, run people through the ringer during the phone screen.

    I’m with Elizabeth — the thing about references is a big fat nope. Not my job. These days, lots of companies put the lid on what kind of references managers are allowed to give. Besides, as time goes on, memories get stale. I stick around jobs longer than most people. I left my last job in 2013. How good is my manager’s memory? And in tech, lots of things change over that kind of time period.

    Finally, you have to be really careful about the hurdles imposed on candidates during the hiring process. I’m good at my job, and I could consider leaving for “the right opportunity”. But I’m far from desperate because I’m good at my job and my employer values me. How much time am I really willing to put into any specific job application? Not much. So this kind of process will screen out many people you want to hire.

    1. I think Topgrading is generally a bad idea and should only be used for senior-level people.

      This wasn’t a persuasive essay, though. It’s an explanation of what Topgrading is.

  4. Hi Suzanne —

    Something’s a little “unusual” here, and I hope it may just be that the “system” hiccupped when nobody was looking. I submitted what I believe was the first comment on this article, which has yet to be posted even though 2 subsequent ones have. I’ve been commenting on your articles for at least 5 years, and have never had one not be posted. Of course, this is your site, and you can post, or not post, anything you want.

    But I want to speak my piece again, simply by referring your readers to this article by Nick Corcodilos where he argues strongly against Topgrading: https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/10263/topgrading

    And now I feel constrained to reply to your 2 comments to Dan:

    1) You say Topgrading should only be used for senior-level people. In my opinion, Topgrading would be the worst possible way to try to recruit/interview senior-level people, and again in my opinion, senior-level people who were worth their salt would not subject themselves to this process.

    2) And I must disagree when you say this wasn’t a “persuasive essay.” When I read the accompanying article that you referred us to, if it was anything, it was a persuasive article.

    Please understand, I’m getting so worked up here, not due to Topgrading per se, but because I respect you and trust you, and to me, this article was way, way out of character for you.

    1. Chris, I appreciate your feedback.

      Your first comment got marked as spam because it had two links. Clearly, spammers use two links instead of one. 🙂

      I don’t find the article persuasive. I find it more explanatory. That was my goal, anyway.

      I’m not a huge fan of topgrading and you’re right that many qualified people won’t subject themselves to it. (Which I point out. “However, there is a caution: you will find great candidates who aren’t willing to jump through your hoops. This is a risk you have to take when you dedicate your process to topgrading.”)

      The conclusion, I thought was quite negative, so I appreciate understanding that it didn’t come through that way!

      Thanks for your feedback and your continued support!


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