Ideal Outcomes

From Quirky to Qualified: The Power of Unconventional Hires

by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

Much has been said about the lingering US skills shortage. While some factors —such as people opting to sit tight in their roles in a recessionary climate—are out of hiring managers’ control, there’s a significant self-imposed obstacle impeding organizations’ success in filling open roles: An overreliance on traditional qualifications and prioritization of prior experience above all else.

This mindset does a disservice to both job seekers and employers who are missing out on high-caliber talent.

The Rise of Squiggly Careers

Why exactly is this inflexible hiring approach no longer fit for purpose? For many people, what used to be a straight line from college to employment is now a non-linear path. A non-linear career path could involve:

  • Switching industries
  • Setting up a freelance gig
  • Going part-time for a while to pursue a passion or hobby

There have never been more ways to earn a living and build a meaningful career than there are today. Many people are no longer interested in climbing a career ladder someone else built.

Pursuing a non-linear career path doesn’t make someone a job-hopper—someone who bounces from role to role indiscriminately and who might be deemed as an unreliable or risky hire. While non-linear career paths are generally more colorful, they’re still intentional and involve thorough planning.

The non-linear employment phenomenon has been dubbed “the squiggly career” by author Helen Tupper (who walked away from a high-pressure job in London to start a podcast, write a book, and found a business to promote greater awareness and acceptance of non-linear careers.)

Times are changing in the recruiting world, and companies need to consider candidates with non-traditional backgrounds in their hiring process, not just qualified candidates with specific experiences. That could include someone who lacks a related degree or direct experience or has some gap in their employment history. In their assessment of trends that will shape the workplace in 2023, Harvard Business Review called out the importance of adopting less rigid hiring practices:

“To fill critical roles in 2023, organizations will need to become more comfortable assessing candidates solely on the skills needed to perform in the role rather than their credentials and prior experience. Organizations will do this by removing formal education and experience requirements from job postings and instead reaching out directly to internal or external candidates from non-traditional backgrounds who may not have access to certain professional opportunities, or even be aware of them.”

Those who pursue a squiggly career path are in good company! Here are two famous entrepreneurs who took a non-linear career path:

  • Andrew Ng is the co-founder of Coursera and the founder of He began his career as a computer science professor before entering corporate roles at Google, Baidu, and AI Fund. He’s considered one of the world’s leading experts in artificial intelligence.
  • Reshma Saujani had become a Wall Street hedge fund corporate lawyer by age 33, achieving a pinnacle her immigrant parents could only have imagined. But she was miserable. Reshma decided to move into politics, running for Congress in 2010. Although she lost, the experience inspired her to create Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology. She’s also the founder of Moms First, which focuses on transforming workplaces, cultures, and government to enable moms to thrive.

Embracing the Power of Unconventional Hires

While many employers see the wisdom in adopting non-traditional practices, there’s still some uncertainty about how to do so. If that sounds like you, here are some steps to getting started:

Practice Skills-based Hiring

Skills-based hiring focuses less on a candidate’s prior experience or qualifications and more on the transferable skills (such as adaptability, communication, organization, teamwork, and leadership) they can bring to a new role. It’s founded on the belief that skills can be taught, but experience can’t. Skills-based hiring is a great way to bring bright and ambitious people looking for a career pivot into your organization.

Review Your Job Descriptions and Recruitment Tools

If you decide to go this route, working with your HR team to reimagine your job descriptions is essential. Some digital recruitment platforms and tools automatically eliminate candidates with non-traditional backgrounds. If so, you’ll need to perform additional analysis or work with your service provider to adjust your tool’s settings.

Be Sensitive to “Softer” Factors

Technology can only do so much, so don’t overlook “softer” factors when seeking out high-caliber non-traditional talent. For example, look for indications that someone is making a personal investment in making a career change, such as taking courses to pick up the skills they need to succeed. Keep an eye out for candidates who go the extra mile to show interest in your organization in some way, perhaps by researching a potential issue you’re known to be facing and coming up with a suggested solution.

Shake Unconscious Biases

Unconscious biases are generalizations, stereotypes, or assumptions about certain groups of people that others make quickly, without realizing they’ve done so. Unconscious biases are influenced by an individual’s personal experiences and cultural background. A skills-based hiring strategy will only succeed if you root out unconscious biases, especially at the hiring manager level, for example, only hiring a specific gender for certain roles. Get everyone aligned on the best ways to establish an equitable hiring process. Standardize your skills-based interview questions and give hiring managers assessment frameworks that help them overcome any inclinations to pre-judge candidates.

Set Everyone Up for Long-term Success

Making non-traditional hires is just the first step. You also need to establish fair promotion and advancement policies for employees with non-traditional backgrounds, for example, by removing degree requirements for more senior roles. If someone demonstrates the skills and competencies required for success, there should be no barriers to them taking on a new role with greater responsibilities.

Make Saying “Yes” to Quirky Hires Part of Your Company Culture

Employers looking to keep up as the job market undergoes seismic changes need to rethink their recruitment efforts and practices. Take a skills-based approach to recruitment. Hire some quirky candidates who’ve stepped off the corporate conveyor belt a few times in their careers. Employ people who openly voice opinions, not just those happy to take orders and carry them out without comment. Cookie-cutter jobseekers won’t help your organization leapfrog to the next level.

Above all, treat your current and future employees as individuals with various priorities and purposes outside of work. Embrace change, and don’t be afraid to take a minute to hit the reset button when it comes to your practices and policies.

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