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The Surprising Hiring Lesson Revealed in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

If Willy Wonka had done research on succession planning, the story could have turned out much differently.

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You're likely familiar with the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but did you know it also offers an important lesson in hiring

For those who need a refresher, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a book that's been made into a movie more than once, follows an eccentric, reclusive chocolateer who creates a "golden ticket" contest, giving five lucky winners a tour of his factory. What the golden-ticket-contest winners don't know is that he's planning on using the competition to find a successor who will take over his chocolate empire. Five children end up getting the tickets: Charlie Bucket, a kind-hearted, selfless boy from humble means; Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous, greedy young man; Varuca Salt, a spoiled, demanding young lady; Mike Teavee, a TV-addicted boy; and Violet Beauregarde, a skilled, blunt, gum-obsessed girl.

In a viral Tumblr post a few years ago, one user made a case for Violet Beauregarde's position as the winner. And it got me thinking about what the research and science on selection and hiring actually would say about Willy Wonka's succession-planning decisions. 

Related: If You're Not Hiring Ahead, You've Already Fallen Behind

For a second, let's assume that the premise of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes business sense (i.e., that passing on an entire business to a child around the age of 11 is a reasonable succession plan). Once we're past that, we can consider what the research says is the most effective way to select the best candidate

Assuming "culture fit" will make the best successor

Willy Wonka's goal with the golden-ticket competition is to find a successor to run the factory. At the end of the movie, his decision is based on which of the children he "likes best" and believes will run the chocolate factory in the same or similar way as him. 

This is a rookie mistake that many organizations and hiring managers still believe will get them the best candidate. While many think that hiring for culture fit is key to organizational success, very little research backs it up. 

First, it's tied to biased hiring practices that reduce the diversity inside organizations. While there may be low conflict since so many similar people are working together, a lack of diversity leads to worse organizational outcomes. For example, diverse companies outperform less diverse companies by 36%. Second, hiring great minds who all think alike will put the company at risk for group think, which is bad news for organizations that need to adapt to change. Finally, culture fit has very little to do with actual performance. In terms of predictors of how well a person will do on the job, it's one of the worst.

In the book, Violet shows that she doesn't conform to Wonka's way of running the factory on a couple of occasions. Often, it's in ways that would have improved the organization. For example, she brings up a safety concern for the Oompa Loompas as they navigate through 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 work conditions. Instead of considering her objection as a constructive form of criticism that could improve factory operations, he sees it as an example of Charlie's culture fit and Violet's cultural incongruence.

Related: 4 Ways to Test 'Cultural Fit' During the Hiring Process

Testing candidates in ways that don't match the actual job

At no point does Wonka test his potential successors in realistic ways 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 culture fit). This interview technique consists of a task where candidates perform activities similar to those related to the job. Mimicking the work environment to the greatest extent possible can help increase the predictive validity of this hiring practice. Generally, there is limited bias based on gender or race for realistic jobs samples too. However, it can be time-consuming and expensive to implement. It also can be tough to simulate a work situation. 

Ironically, what disqualifies Violet from the competition mimicks circumstances closest to a realistic job sample. Violet, an expert in gum, tries a piece of gum that Wonka himself calls one of his greatest inventions — 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 isn't ready for testing. Assuming part of a candy maker's job is to test products that are close to going public, Violet is ready to show her expertise on gum. Instead, she's tricked into trying a hazardous piece of gum that turns her into a blueberry.  

Holding each candidate to different standards

Each kid in the factory is tested differently. Wonka seems to have different rooms set up 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 his or her resume or interests may seem like a good idea in 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 set of questions modeled after the job requirements, in the exact same order, by the exact same people. Then, they're rated on a standardized scale, and candidates are compared. It predicts performance around four times better than culture fit and is the best way to find a good candidate outside of personality. While some may describe the process as cold or dry, there are several benefits. Specifically, it's been shown to reduce bias in hiring, and it's also a legally defensible hiring process. 

Had Violet been asked questions related to the job, there's a high probability that she would have done better than any other candidate. Of all the golden-ticket winners, she is the only one who has made a career in a candy-adjacent field: working on breaking records for gum chewing.

Related: The Key to Hiring the Best Employees

Hiring is hard, and there's no magical 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 the best hiring practice, we can all learn from his example — and find ourselves a Violet.

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