Update 8/27: Be sure to check out the comment on this post by Brad Smart (whose book, Topgrading, I reviewed here).

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This week I finished reading Topgrading by Bradford Smart.  Overall I liked the book; that is, once I got past the awkwardly heavy-handed sales pitch that lasted the first 150 pages.  Ordinarily, I find that authors will spend the first part of their book explaining the content of their ideas and then afterward go over the merits, successes and benefits of their work.  Smart takes a little bit of a different approach.  In the first third of the book he lists endless stats about the success of Topgrading, namedrops dozens of organizations, “brands” dozens of terms that don’t require branding, and, at the crescendo of his shameless self-promotion, favorably compares his invention of the Topgrading interview method to the invention of antiseptics by Joseph Lister in the 1800s.

The irony here is that buried within Smart’s intimidating 600-page tome, the core of his idea can be explained quite succinctly.  Below is a quick synopsis:

“Topgrading” is an interviewing technique based on the principle that resumes are filled with embellishments and inaccuracies.  Instead of a resume, Smart advocates that job seekers be evaluated based on a “Topgrading career history form” that requires applicants to thoroughly list every detail of their employment history, all the way back to college.   The career history form is then reviewed with two interviewers in a “4-hour tandem Topgrading interview.”  This interview, which is conducted in addition to separate skill-based and behavioral type interviews, is an unusually thorough interview that walks through the applicant’s full career history in chronological order.  For each past job (going back at least 10-15 years), the applicant must speak to the following in detail:

  • Start dates and end dates for each job
  • Major projects completed
  • Salary (starting and final)
  • Successes and failures
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • The strengths and weaknesses of their boss or supervisor
  • What their boss would say were the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Reasons for leaving

Throughout the Topgrading interview, interviewers are required to evoke what Smart calls the ultimate truth serum: the “TORC technique,” or the “Threat of Reference Check.”  Smart theorizes that applicants will always tell the truth if they know they will be asked to arrange personal reference calls with each of their past bosses at the end of the interview process.  He also points out that TORC helps filter out weak applicants, who know their past bosses won’t endorse them, and that only “A players” will be able to arrange reference calls with all of their past bosses.

That’s pretty much it.  Review all past jobs and call past bosses.

I think there is a lot of merit to Smart’s ideas and reviewing past jobs more thoroughly, but this process requires a ton of trust on the part of the applicant.  Most applicants want to be evaluated based only on their best work – the work they highlight in their resume.  Forcing applicants to painstakingly recount all of their past successes and failures, their best work and their worst work, in a 4-hour interview can be frustrating, not to mention taxing and exhausting.  It begs the question: at what point are you crossing the line and making applicants feel uncomfortable?  Also, most large organizations prohibit employees from giving professional references (for fear of litigation against a reviewer).  What if an applicant is unable to arrange reference calls with their past bosses due to this rule?  Smart refutes this specific point saying, essentially, that “A players” will be able to get their past bosses to break the rules for them – but I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to disqualify an applicant if their old boss is a strict rule-follower.

Overall, I thought that Topgrading was a good read and had some thought-provoking content.  Interviewing is an essential activity for any organization, and hiring the wrong person for a job (something that Smart has found most organizations do 75% of the time) is much more costly than adopting a more thorough interviewing practice.  So long as you can look past Smart’s endless showmanship – the kind that made me think that perhaps “Smart” was originally born to a different name (he was not, so far as I can tell) – you will find some good content here.

The Topgrading Interview Method
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  • Yeah, that method seems dubious to me. It also seems to miss the broader point – but worse, it seems fear based.

    The question this method is asking is: What if this guy is lying to me? Can I know if he’s lying to me?

    But that’s not the same as asking: Can this person do the job? Would I like to work with him? Would the team like to work with him? Do they have growth potential, or are they at the apex of their career – and what do we want?

    I like taking the approach of figuring out what question you’re trying to answer, and formalizing that question. From your description of the method, I’m not sure I like the question.

  • Yeah, like the point about the question. Also, as validation he lists many many companies who have adopted his technique and found success thereafter. Although there were a lot of case studies, it seems to me that many of them suffered from the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (i.e. the improvement in performance in his case study companies may not have been 100% attributable to his technique).

  • Fast reply!

    And I agree with that, but so many “examples” in business seem to fall under the same issue.

    The so-called “Halo Effect” is part of the result.

  • Brad Smart, Author of the book

    Hi Andrew. I’m the author — Brad Smart. Nice summary and review, and you’re not alone in criticizing me for claiming Topgrading is the only (hiring) game on the planet. Guilty as charged.

    But that’s what I am certain of — sorry! No other hiring approach has dozens of CEOs saying Topgrading made the company more successful. http://www.TopgradingCaseStudies says it all. I think you’re a little harsh with your “endless successes” and “name dropping” criticism; don’t testimonials from some of the most respected leaders in the world count?

    Thank you for saying candidates might be exhausted, because they are not. You and others who commented missed an important point: The truth serum washes out C Players so that only sharp candidates are interviewed. And they LOVE the walk down memory lane with more successes than failures and because A Players are so good they admit mistakes and learn from them. And I’ve never heard of an A Player candidate NOT getting a former boss to talk in a “personal,” not “business” reference. Topgrading Interviews are super positive for the A Player interview and would be “fear based” only for C Players … who have already been excluded.

    Topgraders MEASURE hiring success so there is no doubt that better company performance is highly correlated with tripling the number of A Players. There is only a “post hoc” fallacy if the person making the comment really doesn’t think talent matters.

    I met with the #1 HR executives at just the 100 largest companies in the world and they put their success rate at 20%. How pathetic is that? The hiring world is stuck with the same 1950s tools that didn’t work then; there is more technology but still — 75% of hires are mis-hires because C Players can get away with BSing on the resume and in interviews. The Topgraders in the room claimed 75% success using the commonsense methods that are Topgrading: honesty, thoroughness, and verification (in reference calls arranged by the candidate).

    The criticism that Topgrading is “just common sense” is what I’ve always said and that’s the beauty in it. And that’s what my frustration is. Why doesn’t everyone at least try it?

    There are hundreds more case studies and I’ll add them to http://www.TopgradingCaseStudies.com because I don’t know a better way to suggest, “Try it!” I’d be open to suggestions!

  • Brad,

    Thank you very much for reading and commenting here in such a thoughtful way. Over the past four years I have reviewed dozens of books and this is the first time any author has read and responded to me personally. Seeing your comment pop up this evening was quite a rush. I can now imagine what it might feel like to, as an amateur musician, have Justin Timberlake comment on a YouTube video of me singing his latest song. Or, this is probably as close as I’ll get (I’m a lousy singer).

    In my review I was quite critical of different parts of your book (apologies if it came off as harsh), but my critique focused mostly on the non-core sections of the book: the sales and support of Topgrading. I actually think that you may miss out on some of your audience by packing your excellent core ideas into such a long book. Coincidentally enough, the colleague who lent me your book gave it to me without reading it himself because he did not have the time to invest in such a long text. As a note – I did see that you significantly shortened the length from the 2nd to the 3rd edition.

    Although I had a critical tone in my post, let me be clear – I agree that Topgrading is the best method of interviewing that I’ve ever heard of. In the past few weeks, I’ve started practicing and evangelizing some of the elements of your doctrine and have already seen positive results. Although some of my colleagues share my concern about making the interviewee uncomfortable, I personally would be delighted to participate (as an interviewee) in a Topgrading interview. As you state, I actually think it would be quite fun – and it would certainly provide a more accurate reflection of my abilities than questions about how many pizza slices are sold in Manhattan each year, or how much I would charge to wash windows in Seattle (both questions I’ve been asked by interviewers in the past).

    Thanks again for taking the time to visit and comment on my site.

  • George

    I disagree with the Topgrading method for a number of reasons, both as a candidate, and someone who has had to use it to interview others.

    First, it’s completely useless for the engineering and sciences fields. People like that are good at their jobs but not always the best socially. They’re “A Players” at what they do, not how they interact with others. Putting them through a four hour interview, let alone forcing many to be extroverts in the hiring process, means you’re missing out on a lot of talent.

    Second, it discriminates against qualified candidates who may not have the best history. How does a stay at home mom set up an interview with someone from 15 years ago? By design it seems to exclude people who have been in prison, laid off from a job, or lost a job due to discrimination (or any other -isms and -ations). Not to mention if you’ve ever been self-employed, or run your own business, you’re SOL in the Topgrading method.

    Third, it’s incredibly expensive! We use to take four people away from their daily jobs, two HR and two colleagues, to interview candidates for sometimes 10 hours total. That’s a lot of time and money that should have been used elsewhere.

    Fourth, it relies on people having a perfect job history. One of my previous employers imploded and went bankrupt – all 5,000 employees gone. You want me to setup a phone call with my former supervisor? Seriously? One of our top sales executives is an ex-con. Who’re you gonna call, his parole officer?

    Fifth, it’s gameable. Unless a company is willing to do (and pay for) a costly, in depth background check, they only know what the candidate puts on their resume. This means if you’re smart, and using websites like Glassdoor, doing informational interviews, and asking around, you’ll discover if the company is using topgrading. Then you can set about beating the interview by crafting your resume to beat the process ahead of time, study and prepare for the panel interview, and get all of your ducks in a row, showing the company ONLY what you want them to see. Thus making the whole process moot.

    Lastly, it’s more of a popularity game. You’re being judged more on how popular you were/are, how much the interviewers, past employers, and colleagues like you, and your ability to sell a crowd. That means zero when it comes to the actual job. If you can lie, sell, and play the game, you’ll whiz right by. I’m living proof.

    The topgrading system was so costly – and in some cases illegal – that my company, a major manufacturing group, ditched it in favor of straight forward interviews, conversations, and checking references. Nothing trumps due diligence and interacting with the candidate.

  • George,
    Thank you very much for the reply. I think you make a lot of good points here. It will be interesting to see if Brad Smart is still following this message board. If he is – and replies – I’ll feature his reply (and yours) in my next post.

  • Jeremy

    I went through the first stage of the topgrading process for a company last year and did not make it past the first round. I suppose Brad Smart considers me a C Player, despite a a successful 10 year career and an education at two top universities. I personally found the process exhausting and a little insulting. Not everyone who is applying for a new job necessarily hates their current one. In fact, a lot of people these days prefer to keep their options open, and will go on interviews because a. an opportunity seems interesting; b. they want to learn more about what is out there, or c. they simply want to keep their interviewing skills sharp. I think for those people who are simply taking a look elsewhere, a process like this is time-consuming. Employers should hope that employees are busy at their current jobs. Putting barriers around the application process may not mean a crappy hire, but it could deter more candidates whom the company might find interesting

  • I think there’s no doubt that using this method of interviewing narrows your candidate pool. Brad (who i believe is still listening to this comment thread) would argue that you’re better off to narrow your pool because the folks you weed out aren’t the ones you want. While i think there are certainly some poor performers that get weeded out, I do believe that this method weeds out some top performers as well.

    Also depends on the supply/demand situation of the talent market. In the most competitive environments (e.g. Software engineers in new york city) i can see topgrading being a huge turn off for candidates who are used to much more white glove treatment.

  • Candice G

    Hi Andrew. I stumbled upon your article while searching for “Top Grading Software” reviews. The reason I’m looking is that we as a company bought many copies of this book, distributed them out to leadership and then wanted to buy the training videos. The first red flag we had was when we asked them to give us references for the training videos (we were TORC’ing them) – they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide any – red flag! We did purchase them anyway.
    Then we learned that the training videos refer to workbooks and other tools that are a separate purchase. Surprise. More money to spend. Red-flag!
    Now, we actually want to purchase the on-line application software, and we can’t get them to call us back. We want to give these guys money and no call back. It’s getting pretty frustrating and I just told our HR person to tap the brakes. This is feeling scam-ish to me. It’s extremely expensive and for that kind of money, my expectation is MUCH better service and communication. Red-Red Flag!!
    SO I’m not offering anything other than my comments on a horrible experience, and maybe it’ll save someone else some money. I think we can figure out how to reference check and interview without spending thousands of dollars per year.

  • Candice,

    Thanks for sharing your experience here. Sorry to hear your frustration. If i were you, i’d just reach out to Brad Smart directly. His twitter handle is @Topgrading1. Considering he found my blog (and commented above), i would bet he monitors social media pretty aggressively. He seems like an honorable guy and i’m sure he would want to remedy a poor customer experience. Let me know how it goes!