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HR Technology: Terrorizing the candidates

In the August 2, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader shows us how a good employer recruits and hires.

tech-out-of-controlWe recently got a look at machines doing interviews — automated hiring. (New Grads: Send a robo-dog to job interviews!) An electrical engineer wrote to say that, “Fewer companies are doing on-campus interviews,” and expressed dismay at employers who try to recruit by substituting technology for personal, human contact.

Instead of making the kind of personal investment they expect from job seekers, employers are sending robo-drones to probe applicants online and via video. This job hunter found it troubling that human judgment has gone missing from the most important point in the recruiting and selection process — the very beginning, the first contact between the employer and the job seeker.

In this edition, the same engineer shares his experience of landing a job with a company whose managers reach out in person to judge applicants and to make hires. He closes his comments with an interesting observation about how a top university selects its freshman class — and asks whether employers are smarter than this school.

A reader’s story

I recently took on a new job in my town. I have been reading Ask The Headhunter for a long time, and while I have been working on expanding my network, I still applied for jobs the “traditional” way when I saw one I was interested in. (I’m from the school of Do What Works.)

I applied on their website, and soon thereafter got a phone interview. It was with a human, and it was short. Then my current manager interviewed me in person for only an hour. (Also in the interview was an engineer who now does marketing. I like that — a technical person who talks to customers!) I was told right then and there that of the three candidates under consideration, I was the top one.

A week later, I had a phone interview with the manager’s boss, whose office is 2,000 miles away, and HR interviewed me on the phone. During the next two weeks my manager called me twice to let me know what was going on. So when I got an offer within a week of the manager’s last call, I accepted. It took about a month altogether. This was the perfect balance of technology and face-to-face.

Yes, it was very personal.

My previous company tried to counter-offer. Raise!!! Stock!!! I answered: “Sorry, but I’m leaving.” I’m glad I made the change.

You can verify this, but the California Institute of Technology, which gets way more applications for their freshman class than they can admit, actually has every single application read and considered by real, live human beings.

Now, if the highest tech of the high-tech schools does not have an automated system to do this (and they could make a very good one with all that talent), then I can only conclude that they realize there are some tasks best left to human beings.

I love reading your website, and keep up the good work!

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words, but thanks more for your instructive story. We need to hear how good employers hire!

Employers’ biggest mistake today is using technology (algorithms, machine interviews, massive applicant databases) to process far too many applicants, making it more difficult for managers to choose, and turning the process into a months-long embarrassment. By the time HR watches the umpteenth “video interview,” it becomes convinced that watching more will yield a better hire — when all it does is protract an already cumbersome process that terrorizes candidates and pisses off the best ones.

A few decades ago even candidates who were rejected each received a personal note thanking them for applying. Now, in many companies it’s robo-all-the-way and damn the human touch. “We have no time in HR for professional courtesies because there are too many of you responding to our cattle calls!” (See Rude Employers: Slam-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’m.)

Let’s look at the key differences in how this employer treated you — compared to what most companies seem to be doing today. It seems clear from your story that you were enticed and convinced by the personal touch and the timely handling.

8 steps to respectful hiring

  1. The company responded quickly after you applied.
    Most companies seem incapable of prompt action and decisiveness — or of tendering a speedy, polite rejection. In this case, it seems that HR — not the hiring manager — made the first call to you. While I think the manager should make first contact, the fact that HR kept it short tells me the manager pre-selects candidates and HR serves in a support role. (Yes, there are good HR workers out there who know what they’re doing, and how not to interfere when it comes to judging candidates.) After all, the #1 candidate seemed to be one of just three. That’s all it should take to make a hire.
  2. A human called you.
    Most companies waste weeks letting algorithms sort applicants. HR doesn’t realize that the shelf-life of a good candidate in a “talent shortage” is very short. These employers behave like there’s no rush while the best hires go to their more nimble competitors.
  3. The next step was a personal investment by the hiring manager.
    Hiring is important enough that he quickly met you face-to-face, along with another team member. Most employers would have you fill out more applications or take tests online or in the HR office — without a manager’s involvement. You would have been left with a poor impression of the company.
  4. The manager gave you immediate feedback.
    Most of the time, applicants leave interviews with no idea whether the employer is seriously interested in hiring them. And then it’s impossible to get any feedback, much less a response to phone calls or e-mail queries. This manager was smart to ‘fess up that you were #1, and then to follow through. (See Will employers explode if you squeeze them for interview feedback?)
  5. The manager’s boss called you personally.
    Rather than delegate the selection process downward to HR, your new manager escalated it to a higher-level manager in a timely way. It’s important to note that HR was not driving this process — the managers were. They moved in concert quickly — another sign that you’ll be working for good, decisive people.
  6. The manager demonstrated respect.
    He took personal responsibility to call you regularly with updates. Every manager is busy. Most use that as an excuse for dropping the ball when hiring. Most companies have no qualms about radio silence for weeks or months, as if the applicant’s time and peace of mind are immaterial. (“We don’t care about our reputation among job seekers because there are thousands more waiting for a job here!”)
  7. HR stepped in at the end — where it belongs.
    Dotting i’s and crossing t’s is HR’s job. This HR organization did it right: It left the responsibility and authority with the hiring managers, and entered the process after your new boss decided to hire you.
  8. An offer was tendered promptly.
    In the month your new employer took to make a commitment to you, other managers don’t even start interviewing candidates. Their HR staff is busy gorging itself on hundreds of videos, or gagging on thousands of resumes. (Do employers take forever to make you a job offer? See Play Hardball With Slowpoke Employers.)

Noisy Hiring: Managers can’t hear the candidates

Employers reading this should pay close attention to your story about CalTech. You’re absolutely right. While HR departments deploy more and more offensive HR technology between hiring managers and job applicants, CalTech demonstrates the wisdom of decision makers getting as close as possible to applicants immediately.

tech-out-of-control-2In engineering, it’s called a signal-and-noise problem. The point is to identify the signal before noise seeps into the system and obscures it. HR and robo-hiring vendors (“HR technology”) introduce more and more pre-processing into recruiting and hiring — and that adds noise. The best candidates — the signals — get lost or rejected long before any hiring manager gets to judge them properly. Managers can’t hear the best candidates.

Gullible HR executives have turned hiring into a big, noisy system by adding more and more technology to what’s really a simple task. It’s no surprise that an engineer like you — who designs technology — knows what its limits are.

The single best reason for you to take this job is the manager’s integrity and commitment to hiring right. You made a wise choice to reject a counter-offer. You’re going to work with people who realize hiring is a critical task. (See The manager’s #1 job.) This demonstrates their commitment to employees, too.

Kudos to your new boss and employer for how they hire and treat job applicants. It should be a signal to those who are crying they can’t find good hires because they’re too busy terrorizing them with superfluous HR technology.

Do you have any positive experiences to share about how you were hired? No doubt employers are waiting to learn how to do it right — so let’s give them some examples.

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15 Comments
  1. College applications come with an application fee. For colleges with a large number of applicants, application fees are a significant revenue stream for the school.

    It is also a vicious whirlpool; more applicants / lower acceptance rate means the school seems more desirable, which means more applicants, etc. For CalTech, this is about $8.38 million annually, based on the acceptance rate of 8.8%, freshman class of 983, and application fee of $75. A tidy sum, indeed.

    • Jim: It’s an important side topic. I suppose for $8.38 million (assuming that’s accurate) a school can afford to read all the incoming applications. For an employer, the obvious (but never discussed) alternative is to STOP soliciting so many applications, and instead actually RECRUIT more thoughtfully.

  2. Congrats! Sounds like you found a hidden gem!

  3. I recently just experienced something like this, and it was refreshing. There was a posting for a job. They asked for a resume, a brief description of how one’s skills lined with the job requirements, and references. I fired off something (but skipped the references). A couple days later, I got a call asking to schedule a phone screen. The phone screen was with a committee but was very focused on the job. Many of the questions were along the lines of “In this job, it’s important to do A, B, and C. How would you accomplish these things?”

    I don’t know if they’ll go forward with me, but even if they don’t, if anybody ever asks about interviewing there, I’ll tell them I had a very good experience.

    Now contrast that to most places that want to make a candidate fill out ten pages of information on a website and then never even get back to you.

    • “In this job, it’s important to do A, B, and C. How would you accomplish these things?”

      Sheesh. Maybe they’re reading Ask The Headhunter :-). More likely, they’re just smart to begin with.

  4. Nice to hear something postive about hiring managers. I am just a little cog in the HR wheel of a large corporation, but I like to think my hiring techniques are positive and I take pride in hiring the right candidates. I use these Ask the Headhunter articles to remind me of what not to do in the hiring process! Thanks-

  5. Companies spend huge sums of money training employees on how to be ‘great’ with customer service. Imagine if applicants were treated with the same respect and time as a paying customer. What many companies forget is that applicants ARE often paying customers of their products and services and by treating them with the disrespect they are often given, it is no wonder why companies are failing with both hiring and profits.

    • I’m surprised to hear some cos. actually “train”. Good to hear :)

  6. Nick, Love your emails, thank you. I believe the problem lies with both the colleges and the hiring companies. Colleges charge too much for on campus recruiting and companies keep cutting back on budgets regardless of sales and margin improvement caring only about shareholders and owners (private equity). In my company’s case we used to do campus recruiting for entry level sales reps but every year our expense budgets as regional managers are cut by 1-5% which has resulted in cutting of on campus interviewing. Shame on us for being penny wise, pound foolish. However, I truly believe the price of most on campus events is too high, around $500 just to get in the building. I would be happy to participate in on campus recruiting at multiple schools but I don’t have the budget to get in the door. If colleges really want their students to have job offers during their senior year or immediately after graduation they need to help growing companies get in the door. We are a $1.4B revenue company and while not small, we are growing and have many positions available annually because we are promoting within. We have the jobs but not the access due to the gatekeeper charges. Perhaps they think they have enough employers but wouldn’t more be better? At the end of the day a college’s one goal should be to prepare the student AND help them secure that first great job.

    • Hmmmmm….can you create an ambassador program? Similar to Google’s? https://www.google.com/edu/resources/programs/student-ambassador-program/

      It might help you get the word out about your company. Or maybe sponsor some events on campus (through the Student Association, especially during orientation week during the fall or winter)? Or go through a colleges co-op office (if your company is in Canada, it qualifies for a co-op tax credit when you hire a co-op student)?

      A sneaky way to get the talent you need without attending events.

  7. I think rather than fixing their hiring practices and being respectful during the hiring process its easier for companies to whine about talent shortages.

    These are two stories I have seen, from Canada, where employer groups are screaming about talent shortages but no thoughtful analysis is done regarding training practices, compensation, or recruitment.

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/there-should-be-consequences-for-ontario-grads-leaving-canada-ceos/article30597475/

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/why-is-it-easy-to-poach-canadas-talent-yet-hard-to-poach-the-worlds/article31215412/

  8. Looking back I must say that the most productive and enjoyable interviewing experiences have been with small businesses.

    Why?

    There’s a much greater probability of the owner, or his right hand man/woman, being directly involved in the hiring process from the get go.

    “signal-to-noise”?

    Yep, that’s exacly how I’d sum it up. Why let an HR jockey (noise) dump demands on you just because it’s “policy” of their cookie-cutter operation? Cut the noise, get an appointment with the actual hiring manager VERY soon in the process or get what you asked for – the run around.

    “My previous company tried to counter-offer. Raise!!! Stock!!! I answered: ‘Sorry, but I’m leaving.’ I’m glad I made the change.”

    LOL. If they really appreciated you that “raise” and “stock” offering would have occured well before your departure.

    “By the time HR watches the umpteenth ‘video interview,’ it becomes convinced that watching more will yield a better hire…”

    Same thing with the NFL’s video reviews of a “close” play. The technology has actually caused more “hair splitting” and adversity. Sure, video replay as helped clear the air on some plays but more often than not the process degrades to controversy (booing fans and bad blood) which further proves the point that people see what they want to see in said videos. I can just see it, HR “video reviewers” dissecting every little detail at 1/2-speed replay all in an effort to “predict” who might be a “better” hire – complete JOKE.

    “HR and robo-hiring vendors (‘HR technology’) introduce more and more pre-processing into recruiting and hiring — and that adds noise.”

    Exactly. Compare this logic to our food supply. I’d rather have fresh grown food than all the “convenient” packaged and processed garbage that passes as “food” these days.

    Take responsibility for your career and reject the video interview with its dumbing down of the hiring process.

    Be a name, not a robot with serial number stamped on your head.

  9. My first-ever full-time investment position that I took started-out with rejection letter for a position I knew was perfect for me. I turned the initial rejection into a fifteen to thirty minute interview that turned into several hours.

    I stayed in that first position from 1976-1980, went back in 1983 as a new Vice President/Portfolio Manager. Caught in a corporate down-sizing in Spring 1985; switched to the Sell-side of the Investment Business from 1985-1992. Back to the Buy-side in 1992, retired at age fifty in 1995. Started companies 1989, 1997, 2012, 2016.

  10. Forgot the 2006 Law Firm start-up for my daughter. The Law firm was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States October 2006, its first year as a start-up Law Firm in January 2006. The name of the Law Firm? — Westphal Law Office in Mission, Kansas. I did Legal Research for the firm from June 2006 to July 2012. Started a Venture Capital Limited Partnership, July 2012 – July 2019.

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