The Surprising Hiring Lesson Revealed in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

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You are probably familiar with the history of Charlie and the Chocolate Factorybut did you know it also offers an important lesson in attitude?

Who needs a refresher Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a book that has been filmed more than once, follows an eccentric, reclusive chocolate maker who runs a “Golden Ticket” contest and gives five lucky winners a tour of his factory. What the winners of the Golden Ticket contest don’t know is that he plans to use the contest to find a successor to take over his chocolate empire. Five children end up getting the tickets: Charlie Bucket, a kind-hearted, selfless boy from a humble background; Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous, greedy young man; Varuca Salt, a spoiled, demanding young lady; Mike Teavee, a boy addicted to television; and Violet Beauregarde, a crafty, outspoken, bubblegum-obsessed girl.

In a viral tumblr Post a few years ago, a user pleaded for Violet Beauregarde’s position as the winner. And it got me thinking about what the research and scholarship on selection and hiring would actually say about Willy Wonka’s succession planning decisions.

See Also: If You Don’t Hire Upfront, You’re Already Behind

Let’s assume for a second that the premise of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes good business sense (ie passing an entire business to a child around the age of 11 is a reasonable succession plan). Once we’re beyond that, we can consider what the research says is the most effective way to select the best candidate.

Assuming “culturally fit”, the best successor is found

Willy Wonka’s goal is to find a successor to run the factory with the Golden Ticket competition. At the end of the film, his decision is based on which of the children he “likes best” and believes they will run the chocolate factory in the same or similar way as he does.

This is a rookie mistake that many companies and hiring managers still believe will get them the best candidate. While many think that corporate culture attitude is key to corporate success, very little research supports this.

First, it is associated with biased hiring practices that reduce diversity within organizations. While there may be few conflicts since so many similar people work together, a lack of diversity leads to poorer organizational outcomes. For example various companies Outperform less diversified companies by 36%. Second, hiring great minds who all think alike will put the company at risk for groupthink, which is bad news for organizations that need to adapt to change. After all, culture fit has very little to do with actual performance. In terms of predictors of how well a person will do at work, it’s one of the worst.

In the book, Violet shows that on a few occasions she doesn’t conform to Wonka’s way of running the factory. Often it is in a way that would have improved the organization. For example, she brings up safety concerns for the Oompa Loompas when navigating a dark tunnel on a boat. When Wonka confirms they can’t see where they’re going, Charlie’s grandfather is the only adult who supports Wonka’s clearly unsafe working conditions. Instead of viewing her objection as a constructive form of criticism that might improve factory operations, he sees it as an example of Charlie’s cultural fit and Violet’s cultural incongruity.

See also: 4 Ways to Test Cultural Fit During the Hiring Process

Testing candidates in a way that is inconsistent with the actual job

At no point does Wonka realistically test his potential successors for a person running a chocolate factory.

Testing candidates with a realistic work sample is a good way to predict performance (2.5 times better than the culture fit). This interview technique consists of a task in which candidates perform activities similar to those related to the job. Mimicking the work environment as closely as possible can help increase the predictive power of this hiring practice. In general, even in realistic work samples, there is limited gender or race bias. However, implementation can be time-consuming and expensive. It can also be difficult to simulate a work situation.

Ironically, what disqualifies Violet from the competition mimics the closest thing to a realistic job sample. Violet, a chewing gum expert, tries a piece of chewing gum that Wonka himself credits as one of his greatest inventions – a chewing gum that acts like a three-course meal and leaves the chewer feeling full. Unlike Augustus Gloop, who was specifically told not to drink from the Chocolate River because it requires sterile conditions, Wonka simply tells her that the gum isn’t perfect yet – not that it’s not ready for testing. Assuming part of a candy company’s job involves testing products that are about to go public, Violet is ready to demonstrate her expertise in chewing gum. Instead, she is tricked into trying a dangerous piece of gum that turns her into a blueberry.

Hold each candidate to different standards

Every child in the factory is tested differently. Wonka seems to have set up different rooms to test different kids based on their background and preferences. Thinking that each person should be asked a unique set of questions in an interview based on their resume or interests may seem like a good idea when hiring, but it actually won’t get you the best candidate.

In reality, a structured interview is one of the best ways to predict performance. Structured interviews involve a process where each candidate is asked the same questions, modeled after the job requirements, in the exact same order and by the exact same people. Then they are rated on a standardized scale and the candidates are compared. It predicts the performance around four times better than the Kulturfit and is the best way to find a good candidate outside of personality. While some describe the process as cold or dry, there are several benefits. In particular, it has been shown to reduce hiring bias and is also a legally sound hiring process.

If Violet had been asked questions about the position, there is a high probability that she would have done better than any other candidate. Of all the Golden Ticket winners, she’s the only one to have made a career in a field bordering on candy: she’s working to break gum-chewing records.

See also: The Key to Hiring the Best Employees

The setting is difficult and there is no magic way to do it. However, some tactics are better than others – both at predicting performance and reducing bias. While Willy Wonka may not have chosen best hiring practice, we can all learn from his example – and find ourselves as Violet.

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