Succession at the Chocolate Factory

Who knew that the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contained an important lesson in hiring according to this Entrepreneur article? The author takes issue with the “golden ticket” contest as the method of finding a successor to take over the chocolate empire including:

  1. Assuming “culture fit” will make the best successor – 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. For instance, 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 constructive criticism that could improve factory operations, he sees it as an example of Charlie’s culture fit and Violet’s cultural incongruence.
  2. 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). Ironically, what disqualifies Violet from the competition mimics 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. Wonka 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.
  3. Holding each candidate to a different standard – Wonka has different rooms set up to test different kids based on their background and preferences. In a structured interview, each candidate is asked the same set of questions modeled after the job requirements, in the exact same order, by the exact same people. 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.

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. Let that be a lesson to all of us!


July 13, 2022