Third-world farmer: 1

Modern American manager: 0

If American companies want to start hiring like it matters again, it’s time to behave like the third-world country we were in the 18th century. In with common sense. Out with Human Resources bureaucracy.

I’ve been teaching how to do the job to win the job on Ask The Headhunter for 15 years. Reader Chris Hogg is an employment counselor in Columbus, Ohio who works with an interesting clientele. Chris validates the Ask The Headhunter approach in ways I couldn’t dream of. Better yet, he demonstrates that these methods were invented out in the field by managers who have been getting the job done for centuries.

Want to hire more effectively? Here’s how to do assess and hire people, third-world style:

Hi, Nick,

I assist refugees and immigrants new to the U.S. with finding employment.

 One gentleman from a war-torn part of Africa had a large farm and employed workers at various times of the year. No tractors, no machines, just hard physical work and oxen when available.

I asked him how he hired employees throughout the year. He said he’d bring folks in for a day or two and watch them work. Were they honest, did they treat the animals well, did they show up on time, do the work when he wasn’t there, do good work and so on? The ones that did the job to his satisfaction got hired for the month or three that they were needed.

I don’t think he ever read your book, but his approach sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I hear similar stories from the Middle East and various other places.

Many new arrivals to the U.S. are bewildered by our interview process. They are used to showing up, doing the work and being hired long-term if they perform well—and we’re talking a wide range of professions, from farming to IT to engineering to tailoring and more.

I just thought you’d like to know.

Chris Hogg
Columbus, Ohio

In the September 15, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter I discussed the massive disconnect between contemporary corporate hiring and the way people with brains do it. The problem isn’t just in America — it’s around the world. It seems the more sophisticated the operation is, the more cumbersome and idiotic the hiring process is.

UPDATE | I’ve put the 9/15/09 edition online:
Try people out before hiring them: How third-world farmers beat corporate HR

No, I’m not suggesting that computer programmers should stand on a corner and wait to be picked up to do some coding. (Though that might not be a totally kooky idea…) But I am suggesting that employers oughta try people out — and pay them for the time they’re being tested on the job.

A manager can ask a job candidate anything in the world… so why ask the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions, when the manager could ask the candidate to show how she would do the job?

Or, we can keep asking job applicants where they see themselves in five years, what their greatest weakness is, what animal they’d be if they could be any animal, and to describe a problem they dealt with in some other job while a third-world manager puts the best candidates on the job to test them out and puts your company out of business.

HR consultants and corporate lawyers will come up with plenty of obstacles to this approach, but managers need to remind these folks that their job is to enable managers to hire effectively. Have a policy problem? Change the policy. Managers do not exist to support HR policy; HR policy should support managers. And hiring like it matters should be the new policy.

Would you go to work for a manager like Chris Hogg’s farmer? Would you hire like that farmer does if you could?

(Special thanks to Chris Hogg.)


  1. I think in the modern world we call this “contract-to-hire”. It used to be that I was offended by the whole concept. My thinking was “after all, I’m a good programmer – you should hire me straight away!” Well, now that I’ve been a contractor, I see the advantages on both sides to doing contract-to-hire. I’m able to see inside the company and find out all its quirks and dysfunctions, and they’re able to determine whether or not I am who I say I am – a good programmer. So, yes, I’d take up that challenge. Of course, in my field, it would likely take more than a couple of days for the employer to properly evaluate me.

  2. @Jim: No, I’m not talking about contract to hire. I’m talking about the interview process getting to the decision point, and the candidate and manager taking time to work together before either makes a decision. Not free work. Employers must put skin in the game and pay for the time. Likewise, the candidate has to invest time. Not an easy thing. But I don’t mean contracting… this is part of the hiring process. But you raise a good point: how many days would it take? You think more than 2-3. So now step back: What does it mean when a manager hires you without taking ANY time to work with you…? Viewed from the perspective you just created, it sounds insane, no?

  3. Nick,

    I have often thought I would love to be able to show what I could do if given the chance. HR has forgotten that actions can speak louder than words.

    My husband (senior embedded software engineer) just took a new government job where he had no interview except by phone and to be a network engineer. Go figure.

  4. Nick,

    I do agree that this is the best approach. Short story…My father was builing a road up a mountainside in the jungle of the Dominican Republic in the 1960’s. A man showed up one day asking for work, but my father told him they already had all the men he needed and that he could not afford another worker. Naturally he was considering payroll and trying to stay within budget. This man who wanted work was not discouraged; rather, he responded that he would work all week for free, and that he would prove that they could not afford NOT to hire him. You can guess the rest. This man proved he was a good worker and by the third day he was on the payroll.

    Now, I’m a recruiter and the problem with this model is that I work with employed candidates. I do recommend they “do the work” during the interview, but no one can take the time from their current employment to work for another especially within the same industry.

    I emplore my clients to use references to predict performance. Behaviorial interviews have a purpose, but are more often than not, just another road block to finding the right employee. Good, as in complete and accurate, references can take the place of watching the person work…that is if you prove to your clients it will.

  5. Dear Nick,
    I have offered on 2 out of y last 4 interviews to work 1-2 days to see if I can handle the pace of the job, fit in with co-workers, etc. But was told no for the medical office HIPAA privacy issues.

    But the interviewers seemed taken aback by the suggestion.

  6. I like the idea of “contract to hire” as a way to test out a place before committing to working there. I get paid the hours I work which may vary and get to see what the dynamics are really like and not in an artificial way that they could be for a few days which is where while a trial period sounds good, in my field of Web Development, this isn’t that easy to do most of the time. The interview process to get there can vary but sometimes I do like it when the manager is honest about what they want to know and where do I stand in terms of being able to get the job.

    This reminds me of how job interviews can be like first dates. You don’t know each other or what the game will look like yet. I’m sure you’ve heard that kind of comparison about interviews and dates over and over, right Nick?

  7. My experience with contract-to-hire is that the intention is to ‘test out’ the candidate. However, they arrive at the candidate through the old tired system of HR, etc. In addition, most companies do not intend to hire that person in the long term. That would be fine if they just called it consulting.

    On both sides I would prefer to show my stuff or to see the actual work of the person I am hiring. This is a much better way to form a long term working relationship. In addition, recruiters should be looking beyond the already employed pool to those out due to downsizing, etc. Given a chance to prove their work, you will have no problem giving a solid offer to the good ones.

  8. I completely agree with you about this. I am a mid-level tech writer and editor who was hired on many times for my attitude about work [I give 100% effort in my work whether I’m contractor or permanent because while I’m working a job I take responsibility and OWN it.] and held my own or surpassed senior level writers and editors because I put my work ethic where my mouth is…
    All I’ve ever wanted was to be able to prove I can do a job [even when I was a starter, then a junior writer] – and then do it. I have been rejected because ‘you don’t fit the culture of this job’ or other HR related reasons – when I clearly fit the qualifications.

    Talk is cheap. Let me prove I can do your job, and I’ll make sure you and your company never regret hiring me.

  9. @Tracy C: I think “fitting the corporate culture” is a card that’s over-played to employers’ own disadvantage. It’s a rare candidate who just can’t operate well among others. What this boils down to is, “We don’t reall like her” but the employer usually can’t explain why.

    A guy who read my first book many years ago called me from an airport while waiting for his next flight. VP of a huge telecomm company. His job was flying around the world and acquiring other companies. He was all agitated as he introduced himself. “I just read your book and I realized something. We hire people because we like them. What a totally foolish thing to do!”

    Making hiring decisions based on “corporate culture” and “liking someone” is frequently the same thing. It’s a mistake. Unless someone is a total personality disaster, if they can do the job it shouldn’t matter very much whether you like them or not. As long as they are willing to park their bike like everyone else at the company, what matters is being able to do the job.

  10. This is a great idea in theory but hard to actually do in many fields that deal with money or confidential information. IT has a real advantage in that a person’s work (programs, web pages) can be published on the internet so it’s like an artist’s portfolio that can be seen by anyone. People in other fields may be able to think of ways to publish their work on the ‘net so that they can show what they can do.

  11. I’ve worked, on and off, in the news business for decades and I can assure you that no one is hired without a tryout or achieving some major news coup that gets them an offer.
    Think of it as the farm-team system.
    Granted, for the big news outlets, it was difficult even to get a try out. It helped a lot if you had inside info, such as when an opening was likely to occur.
    But still, if you wanted a reporter’s position on a specialty beat, say sports or business, you’d have to take a few days off from your present employer, fly yourself or drive to the try-out venue, and DO THE WORK.
    Even if you did great, there was no guarantee of the job. But you demonstrated your willingness to try, your work ethic and your mastery of the medium. (Works for photographers, graphic designers, etc., etc.)
    Nice? No. But effective.

  12. @Etta Walsh: That’s what I was looking for! One field where doing the job can get you the job, but just talking about it isn’t enough. Thanks for posting!

  13. Nick,
    I found your article on hiring in Africa very good however I don’t know if it could work in corporate America. I was an IT manager and I can tell you that the work was quite complicated. For a person to really show if they were productive sometimes took a few months. How can you hire someone for a day or two to see how they would work out if it takes you at least a week to just explain to someone all the variables that have to be considered to do the job: the technology, the way the business partners (users) do business,etc.? Our company had a policy that all new hires are considered on probation the first 3 months and could be fired without “red tape” during that time. Could that count as trying someone out before fully hiring them?


  14. @Goldie: No argument from me. But now consider: If you can’t make a decision about a candidate after they work with you for a day or two, how do managers do it without ANY time to work together?

    Yet that’s how we operate every day.

    I think the second half of your last sentence starts to address this… Even if you don’t “try them out,” how do you explain all the variables to them during the interview process?

  15. This is great for areas that this can be done. However, many IT jobs simply don’t have that 2-3day project that can be the proving ground. Maybe they could post a 30day project and keep the keepers.

  16. Yesterday, I sent an email to Nick who recommended I post our experiences and frustrations with the US system of interviewing/hiring. Here it is:

    Today’s article titled “Try people out before hiring them” really struck a chord with me and my husband.
    My husband is from Hungary, where school is broken down into a different setup than here in the US. He took 8 years of general education, then chose to go to a technical school, which is an additional 3 years where they learn their trade. He became a welder. The hiring process there usually happens as follows: He meets an independent recruiter in that field who places him with a company. If the company likes his work after a pre-set time like 3 or 6 months, they hire him full-time. Almost no one in the manufacturing trades ever goes to interview with the company itself, because they usually don’t have HR departments. Payroll is usually done in cash and logged in an official employment record that the employee is responsible for keeping. This is very similar to temp agencies here in the US.

    Anyhow, when he arrived in the US and began having to interview with various companies, he became extremely frustrated with most of the interviews because of the inane nature of the questions they asked him. Every time he’d come home, he would be angry with the company and ask why they didn’t give him a welding test, which would be the nature of his assignment anyhow, not having to explain away each situation. I’ve tried to encourage him to be more expressive, but I understand his frustration. Like you say, an interviewee should be able to demonstrate that they can do the job, not just answer questions with beautiful language. His recommendations follow him everywhere and when HR checks his references, they are always floored by the praise surrounding him, but then don’t hire him because he has an accent and can’t talk circles around the interviewers. What frustrates him even more is when he knows they hired someone else he was in the interview pool with, then a couple months later the position reopens and they call him for yet another interview, only to again hire someone who can talk instead of someone who can weld.

  17. I did it…structured it as a “consulting gig” for six weeks (ended up making more $$ with the consulting gig than a fulltimer would have made) and found out I would NEVER have liked working for the company. I spun the idea as a “test-drive; you get to see how I work and think, and I get to see if this is a fit for me”. It worked beautifully and we both ended up deciding to part ways amicably. They’re protected because they’re only hiring a consultant and you don’t have to “quit” a job and can use the experience to build your portfolio of work. Why not?

  18. Way back in the day, I went to interview at a company that was owned by a man from India who did this tryout concept. Two weeks and after that, see if he likes you. I didn’t do it, because I didn’t like his attitude and when replacing the owners son, you know you are getting into more than just office politics. But his is the only company I’ve run into that did this.

    I’ve worked in large companies that claim to do the contract to hire but 1-100 ever get an offer, the rest are just strung along. The idea of trying someone out before hiring, I like, we did similar stuff at small companies that I was at before. Being my marketing, metrics are important but so many marketers don’t know their numbers, so we just gave them a laptop with some simple stuff to do, nothing major just ROI stuff mainly. A lot of people couldn’t do it. Some would fake it (automatic out), some would just leave and some would try and admit they didn’t know, I can work with those people. But some of the best talkers, didn’t know their numbers and more so today, the numbers matter.

    I have an unusual background for a marketer so I prefer the try before you buy approach because it lets me show off my skills in ways HR generally doesn’t get but a smart manager can. Like right now, social media marketing is big and it seems like there are a billion social media marketing experts out there. For a company wanting to get into this area, try before you buy, is the only logical approach to hiring a marketer in this area.

  19. I’m not talking about contract-to-hire at all in my suggestion. I mean making a very brief stint on the job part of the interview/hiring process. No contract. But the company has to pay the candidate for the work. That’s what keeps everyone honest. The candidate puts something up, too — has to find a way to take time off from the other job (if employed). Everyone puts skin in the game. But I’m not talking about weeks or months of contract-to-hire. (That would make it impossible for anyone employed to consider.)

  20. all fine and dandy if you live near the employer…. what if the employer is in another state… then what?

  21. A 2-3 day trial for a decent wage makes sense. It gives the candidate the chance to do the job. Both sides can determine if they like each other and if the work is suitable. Just so long as it doesn’t turn into a temp job, keep it at 2-3 days, definitely no more than a a week. It is not important to delve into every aspect, just representative samples of work.

  22. @Scott: I dunno… the employer comes to the candidate’s house? ;-)

    In that case, I’d expect the candidate would visit for an interview. Perhaps the interview would last a couple of days, to include a day of working together. Perhaps the candidate could be invited to sit in on working meetings with the rest of the team, to see how they work, to contribute in a limited way, so everyone can get a feel for one another outside the confines of the interview. I touch on this here:

  23. I’ve had related discussions with employers regarding 90-day probationary periods. Yes, why not try somebody out for 3 months, see how it goes and then decide? Try-before-you-buy is a common model in other sales situations, why not for employment where you are the product?

    Answer: America itself again, litigation, lawsuit-driven America.

    Far away from offices, I’ve had some heart-to-heart talks with fellow managers. They’d absolutely love to evaluate somebody to see how it goes. They wouldn’t necessarily wait the whole 90 days, just a few weeks to a month would be good enough.

    What stops them then? The rising market of employment lawsuits. Employers are very fearful of wrongful termination lawsuits. Their coping mechanism for some of these is that in order to avoid lawsuits, don’t hire the candidate at all unless you’re 110% sure. (Yes, that’s not a typo, 110%.)

  24. Hey! Thanx for this beautiful place of the Inet!!