Go to Menu The Horse's Ass
in The Rear-view Mirror

By Nick Corcodilos

Want to lose a great job candidate to your biggest competitor? Experts are ready to help.

We've heard the old saw, When you assume, you make an ass out of 'u' and 'me' so many times that we forget it's true. But the conventional wisdom spouted by some leading executive search firms can quickly make an ass out of you -- and you'll get to pay handsomely for the privilege.

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It ain't the car, it's the driver
Twenty years ago clothes made the man (and the woman), but Silicon Valley changed all that. We all know about brilliant programmers who wear torn t-shirts and scions of technology who drive beat-up cars. Or do we?

When I earned my first serious money as a headhunter, I walked into a Palo Alto Porsche dealership. A well-dressed saleswoman glided across the floor and suggested that I'd be more comfortable shopping for a car elsewhere. I took a last look around at the lovely Porsches, smirked at the well-coiffed lady and walked out. I was dressed in old sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt, and I had cash burning a hole in my pocket. But I didn't look right, so she didn't want to sell me a car.

This experience gave me pause to reconsider what I really wanted to drive. My newly minted success and self-confidence freed me from looking to find my ego in a Porsche advertising campaign. Instead, I bought the car I always wanted.

A week later, I was in my brand new Regal Mist Datsun 280ZX with the T-top open waiting for a light to change on the El Camino. A guy beside me in a Porsche arched his brow and nodded, gunning his motor. What the hell. The light changed and we were off. A relatively heavy touring car in its 280 incarnation, the Z was no 0-60 demon, but it had something that I knew how to use: a long second gear. Moments later, I smirked back at the Porsche -- in my rear-view mirror. It ain't the car, it's the driver. This simple fact was lost on the guy behind me, and on the lady in the dealership. Trouble is, the corporate world pays big bucks to haughty headhunters for the same advice it could get cheap from that Porsche saleslady.

The Porsche dealer rule
"Dress well for a job interview" may be a good rule for job candidates, but "Judge people by the way they look" can be a disaster for employers.

In an article in The Wall Street Journal's CareerJournal section, Heidrick & Struggles, one of the bastions of high-class headhunting, reveals that it routinely makes an ass out of itself and its clients as a matter of policy. Anne Lim O'Brien, leader of H&S's consumer-products global practice, explains the Porsche dealer rule: "Sometimes, we get someone in front of us who doesn't dress the part. They don't go any further." [Whoops. This article on CareerJournal is gone, so I've removed the link. Seems the CJ doesn't want you to read it any more... maybe they changed their minds... Sorry! You'll have to trust my quotes.]

Hmmm. A top-notch search firm researches a candidate, judges her good enough to interview, and recruits her; but after a face-to-face meeting drops her like a blind date because she's not dressed right. Astonishingly, this display -- unworthy of a kindergartner learning social skills -- is turned into an object lesson for all by The Wall Street Journal.

To hell with who you are, what you can do, what you know, and how you perform. If you don't look like you're supposed to, we'll never let you interview with our client. And we make big bucks teaching employers how to behave like a horse's ass.

The Journal also shares the wisdom of lesser-known authorities who want to parade their highly-honed sixth sense: "Gary Goldstein, president of financial-services recruiter Whitney Group, was flabbergasted when an investment banker showed up sporting a Mickey Mouse tie. Mr. Goldstein urged the man to switch ties for job interviews, then decided against recommending him to the firm's clients."

Yep. Show 'em the door. Don't interview people who don't look right. They're flabbergasting.

I like Tom Peters' advice about hiring: "You get no character without characters. Want zip? Zest? Energy? Then hire and promote zip, zest, energy -- i.e., characters. The slightly cockeyed. The somewhat offbeat. (And, occasionally, the more-than-offbeat.)"

Peters may irritate some, but he's not known for making assumptions. He's known for tearing them up. And he rakes in more bucks than any headhunter I've ever heard of.

The problem here is not that companies hire only white guys in blue suits with carefully combed hair and striped ties. The problem is that these doyens of recruiting who charge big bucks to reject unusual job candidates have become the arbiters of who's worth hiring. The even bigger problem is that otherwise self-respecting job candidates dress and talk like robots because they're afraid to be themselves.

Revealed in the rear-view
A good headhunter will assess a candidate's fit to a company in many ways. But contrary to the superficial pronouncements and advice of self-annointed experts, a good headhunter will not reject a candidate just because she's different. The Wall Street Journal reveals a credibility gap when it offers articles like this to advise job hunters -- and employers -- in the fine points of candidate selection. This is Job-Board Journalism, or the business equivalent of The Shopping Channel.

Yah, I know that appearances count. I'm not telling you to be a slob. If you're interviewing for a job, look your best. But don't look like someone else, because if the company hires you, you'll have to pretend you're someone else for a long time. (And a sanctimonious headhunter won't take the blame; you will.)

If you're a manager and you let your headhunter discard job candidates because they wear funny ties or unusual dress, you're a boob. You may have just yielded a great hire to your biggest competitor, who's smirking at a horse's ass in the rear-view mirror.

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