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


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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