Why job interviews suck

And people ask me what’s wrong with America’s Employment System. One of the biggest problems is that most job interviews suck.

There’s a book called 501+ Great Interview Questions for Employers and the Best Answers for Prospective Employees. And just today Cheezhead re-published Monster.com’s “list of 100 interview questions that candidates should always be prepared to answer.”

Might as well give a frustrated, angry, desperate job hunter a loaded gun.

But I also have a kinder, gentler, more pointed perspective. In my interview fantasy, you walk into a job interview. You smile broadly at the interviewer, shake hands, and sit down in the interview chair.

You lean forward and say, “Look, we both know why we’re here. You have questions you want to ask me. And you will judge me based on my answers.”

This is where you drop that baby — that big fat book full of Q&A’s — on the interviewer’s desk.

“So let’s cut the crap. Let’s save one another a whole lot of time.”

Slide that sucker across the manager’s desk. “Here you go. Your questions and my answers.”

Smile again. “You can waste your time and mine. Or do you want to talk about the work you need done and how I can improve your bottom line?”

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Unfair interviews are best

In the previous post, we’re discussing how to commandeer a job interview so you can actually help an employer see how you’ll do the job. If the employer has a brain, you’ll get the job.

On that thread, readers Bonnie and Janet point out an interesting “policy” that many HR departments have. They don’t want you to do anything out of the ordinary in your interview. HR wants you and the hiring manager to stick to the interview script.

Why?

Because that makes the interviews fair for all candidates. Ask the same questions and use numerical scoring to ensure everyone is treated the same. You know — just like you do when you go on a date. Treat everyone the same so they all have an equal chance of getting a marriage proposal from you.

Say what?

This is where HR gets totally idiotic. “People are our most important asset.” My ass. “We celebrate diversity.” My ass. How can a company hire the best people when it treats everyone the same? If you go on a date with a clod, should you invite them on another date — to be fair–, just like you would someone who was absolutely wonderful?

I repeate: This is where HR (and perhaps the law) go goofy.

Five minutes into an interview, I can tell whether a candidate is capable of discussing the work on a much higher plane than other applicants — and you can bet your bootie I’ll take the discussion in that direction. Because the candidate earned it. I’ll ask different questions and I’ll engage more enthusiastically. I will use highly discriminatory judgment. (Remember when “to discriminate” was a good thing? Discriminate: “to make a distinction”, “to use good judgment.” When people ask me, “How can I stand out from my competition?”, I tell them that an employer had better be able to discriminate between high quality and low quality.) I’m celebrating the candidate’s ability to be totally unfair to her competition — because she blows them all away and that’s the candidate I really want to talk to further.

I have no interest in being fair to job applicants once it’s time to judge them. And the purpose of an interview is to judge. I want the best ones and I want to treat them differently. I want them to be totally unfair to their competition by showing me skills, aptitude, attitude and motivation that sets them apart. That makes them stand out.

I’ll change my interview questions as a discussion progresses in an effort to find the very best candidate and in an effort to give that person an edge on getting the job. I think any interviewer who doesn’t is a danged fool running his organization headlong into mediocrity.

I don’t want to recruit or hire fairly. I’m glad to behave differently toward people who demonstrate that they stand out postively from their competition.

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Shoot first, start a war later with HR

I continue to enjoy Mike Urbonas‘s blog because the guy has an eye for bureaucracy masquerading as expertise. Got a problem landing the job you want? It’s probably because you’re listening to bad advice. Got a problem filling a key job in your organization? Make an executive decision, and start a war with the Human Resources department later.

I’ve got a lot of friends in the HR world, and I respect them greatly. Then there are the HR bureaucrats that I refer to as personnel jockeys. And that’s who Mike highlights in his excellent mini-expose Just Ivy Leaguers for these Bush League Recruiters? Briefly, Mike critiques Boston Globe columnist Pattie Hunt Sinacole’s Job Doc column Beyond the Ivies. Sinacole advises a manager and the person the manager wants to hire — and tells them to go convince the HR department that the manager should be allowed to hire the candidate he wants to hire.

Does that sound like a big deal? Yah, it is. Managers should hire who they want to hire, not who HR dictates. Sinacole recommends that the manager might be able to hire who he wants by bending himself into a pretzel and playing games with HR. She suggests the manager’s challenge is “to influence his peers and his HR department.”

Urbonas sees this a little differently: “It raises the question as to the role recruiters should play in the hiring process.” I agree. The manager can solve his problem simply by telling HR to butt out:

  1. Hire the candidate and tell HR to process the paperwork.
  2. Tell HR to stay out of his recruiting and hiring, since he — not HR — is responsible for his department’s success. When HR is willing to take responsibility for the manager’s department, then HR can hire who it wants.

In other words, shoot now (hire the candidate) and start a war with HR later (change the hiring policy and eliminate Stupid Hiring Mistakes). I believe in cooperation between departments in an organization. But I also believe that he who holds the bag should decide what’s going in it — in this case, who the manager is going to hire.

Sinacole is an HR consultant who has worked in the HR world a long time. No surprise that her advice is to appease HR. My advice to the manager: Tell HR to get out of the way and hire who you want. My advice to the person the manager wants to hire: If the manager cowers before HR, head for the hills or soon you, too, will be getting whipped by HR.

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Those lazy-ass women… workin’ in the coal mine?

Thanks to Mike Urbonas for sharing this “… my ass!” moment…

Mike Stankus, sales guru over at STM360, did an informal survey asking, Does work need to be your top priority? It seems Jack Welch thinks it does, and lazy-ass women who don’t give it all up for the corporation deserve what they get.

Stankus quotes Welch: “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” (Jack Welch’s stock is lookin’ more like GE’s…) Then Stankus comments: “He [Welch] was referring to women who take time off to have/raise a family, basically saying that you can’t get to the top if work is not your top priority.”

But the juice in Stankus’s post is a tasty little informal survey he did. Read the results for yourself. The question he posed: “Would you hire someone for a critical sales/sales management position if they told you work was NOT their first priority?”

Yeses outnumbered nos 5 to 1. Are there just a lotta politically correct managers out there who — unlike Welch — would kill off their companies just to be nice to employees?

Shucks, no. I think there are just lots of managers who realize that 20 hour days don’t translate into more success. Cave men worked longer and harder rather than smarter. They still do. Give it all up for Jack, my ass!

We covered a related topic a few years ago in the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter: Maverick Women Fire Back! (One of my favorite oldies but goodies.) The best I can offer Jack’s acolytes is this: Those lazy-ass women are the canaries of the corporate coal mine… they know when it’s starting to get stinky around the old cave-man clubhouse. But these canaries know enough to leave for better company. (There’s consequences!)

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Promotion, raise, bad vibes… How to Say It

In last week’s edition of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complained about getting a promotion but only a meager raise. Her VP admitted that if an external candidate had been hired, the offer would have been higher!

Readers lambasted the cold-hearted employer. Could this be handled better? Absolutely, says I.T. industry guru Bob Lewis. “I’ve been on both sides of this situation, and what’s particularly pathetic about the company’s response is that it had a better one that wouldn’t have cost a dime. Here’s what HR and the VP could have said…”

How to Say It: “You’re right that if we hired someone from the outside with the right credentials we’d have had to pay more. That’s one of the reasons we’re promoting you instead of hiring from the outside. Your proven ability is, of course, another important factor.

“With the economy and profit picture as it is, we’re scraping every dime from the expense line we can. We’ve laid people off, frozen salaries, and cut bonuses. So right now isn’t the time we can give you a raise that would take you to the compensation mid-point for your new title.

“What will happen is that you’ll be in a position with a new compensation range and a higher ceiling. For the same level of performance on your annual reviews you’ll receive a higher raise than you’d receive in your current position. So while you won’t see one big raise that gives you the emotionally satisfying bump you’d like (and that we’d like to give you), you’ll definitely do much better financially over the span of a few years than you’d do in your old position.

“I wish we could do better. As things stand, though, we can’t.”

Of course, an approach like that by the employer requires integrity and follow-through. Those raises had better deliver an overall “bump!” But Bob’s point is much bigger. Companies need to pay attention in times like these. Employees expect more than, “That’s the policy!” when news ain’t too good… They expect and deserve an honest effort by their employer to do the right thing.

Bobs Book!

(Thanks to Bob Lewis for his suggestion! And in a shout-out to Bob, I’d like to remind readers of this blog that Bob is the author of a book that will make you a better employee: Bare Bones Project Management — the project management guide “for the rest of us” who need to keep our work on a leash so it doesn’t eat us up. It ain’t just for project managers…)

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How to Say It: HR should report to PR

While many companies take pride in how they interact with the professional community from which they recruit, others are clueless about the damage human resources (HR) departments inflict on their corporate image and reputation.

Sometimes a reader’s question reveals what’s wrong with Amercia’s employment system. This is one such story. In the June 23, 2009 edition of the newsletter, a reader recounts “phoner torture” at the hands of a personnel jockey — who lays waste to the employer’s credibility during a “phone interview.” And loses the candidate. The candidate wants to know, how should she tell it to the hiring manager? Good question.

But this raises more significant questions. It kinda makes you wonder about the board of directors at this company. After spending enormous sums on public relations (PR) to create a positive corporate image, does the board have any idea that HR is trashing the company’s credibility? Do hiring managers have any idea how HR treats the professional community from which those managers need to recruit people?

My guess is no and no. The board thinks HR is handling human resources, but it’s also in the business of public relations. As an important interface to the company’s professional community, HR’s staffers are in a position to inflict serious damage to the corporate image. Maybe HR should report to PR just so there’s some oversight of HR’s behavior out in the real world.

So the reader asks, How should she tell the hiring manager what just happened?

How to Say It:

“I enjoyed talking with you last week. Thanks for inviting me in for an interview. I was looking forward to meeting so we could discuss the job, but it’s clear that’s not going to happen. Someone from your HR department called me. It was a very disturbing call. I’m sorry to tell you this, but I believe it’s important to be frank. As a result of that call, I’m not sure I’d consider a position with your company. Is your board of directors aware of how your HR staff portrays your company and how it treats job applicants?”

You can read the whole story in the newsletter along with a bit more detailed advice in the How to Say It section.

Is it too risky to take such a strong position? Or is it risky to fool with a company that doesn’t monitor how HR interacts with its professional community?

What should this reader say to the hiring manager?

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H-1B: Offshoring bites back (or just bites?)

So what’s new with offshoring IT work nowadays? Have overseas costs begun to outstrip the value of offshoring? Has the U.S. economy triggered re-thinking the offshore strategy?

I’ve contended for a long time that as technical “stars” start to develop their careers in India and elsewhere, they’re not gonna be very happy staying on the farm… they’re gonna want to go live in the nice American enclaves, with nicer houses, more amenities, more… well, all the great stuff that stars deserve…

Then the whole low-cost-labor strategy flips around… and those stars move to the U.S. and… start their own shops here.

Well, tomorrow seems to be here today. A reader sends along this link from FierceFinanceIT: Time to sell India-based units? Note the controversy about how “Indian firms are up in arms about the Congressional proposal that would prevent companies with more than 50 percent of H-1B or L-1 visas from receiving additional visas.”

Who told you this was gonna blow up in somebody’s face? 4 Indian companies in the U.S. own more H-1B visas than the next 50 American companies have as a group.

Funny the role economics play in upending stupid policies.

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Just how stupid do you think employers are?

Employers hire on a bell curve. Most hires are pretty good, and they fit somewhere with most employees, on the fat part of the curve, doing their jobs, but nothing to brag home about.

Now and then, along comes an exceptional talent with skills and knowledge to put the experts to shame. He’s on the thin leading edge of the curve… maybe off it altogether. A guy with chops that young turks would kill for. Possibly a mentor to your entire company.

What’s a company to do with someone like that? Well… Does he have grey hair?

I’m 61 years old. I have 30 years’ experience, up to the VP level, in four of America’s top 10 ad agencies. My next logical career step is with one of the “Top 100” advertisers. I’ve sent letters to most of them and have never gotten a response, other than directions to go to their career website to view open positions and apply. Maybe this is a polite way to say I’m too old. I’ve mailed letters and an index card with my elevator pitch on one side and a grouping of impressive logos of  firms I’ve done advertising for on the reverse side. I’m out of ideas. Is there a way to get past the gatekeeper (in this case their careers webpage)?

I know my answer. What I want is fresh answers and advice for this reader from you.

He also mentioned in his note to me that over the past three years he applied to 750 companies online. Even if this guy turns out to be less than he suggests… don’t you think a handful of companies would interview him just to see if he’s for real? Just how stupid do you think employers are?

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Gotcha: The Non-compete agreement

Employers have an edge today when they’re hiring. More people are out of work. So employers up the ante and bargain harder. More companies are insisting that people sign non-compete agreements (NCAs) before they’ll hire them. An NCA protects a company from you after you leave because it restricts where you can work, what kind of work you can do, and who you can work for. It protects the company from competition.

Desperate for a job — or just because they’re in a hurry to close a deal –, people sign NCAs without realizing the consequences. An NCA could shatter your career plans by literally restricting you from the jobs you want.

Computerworld‘s article last week, Don’t sign away your future, is one of the best career pieces the mag has done. (The date on the article on the website is April 23, 2009, but it appears in the May 25 edition of the magazine.) It discusses six tips to protect your career. Don’t miss it.

What the article doesn’t discuss is how goofy employers are — and what they get away with. For example, usually only top-level executives get employment contracts that define terms and obligations between the employee and the employer. These agreements protect both parties. Companies won’t give these agreements to lower level workers.

But employers routinely demand that employees at almost any level sign one-sided, restrictive covenants that benefit only the employer. NCA’s are an example. And herein lies the negotiating tactic you should use when an employer asks you to sign a restrictive NCA before giving you a job offer. Your objective is to get compensated for signing an NCA, just like a top-level executive — or to avoid the NCA altogether. Try this: Read more

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Wanted: Big small candidate

What really goes on in the room where job ads are written?

I saw a listing for a security specialist the other day. It listed a  bunch of high-level requirements and looked interesting, though I noticed they also said “heavy attention to detail.” Is that a  realistic expectation for someone who has a more strategic thinking mind?  Can you “pay close attention to detail” and “see the big  picture” on a regular basis? Don’t people tend to have a pull toward one or another?

Maybe I am just a slacker, but as I go on in my career, I am agreeing more and more with the “Strengths” movement that I should focus on my strengths and spend a lot less time wrestling with my weaknesses. While some attention to detail is clearly necessary in any job, I am not convinced that I will ever be as detail focused as someone who thrives on that.

Do you have thoughts on this? Am I wacko or are the job listings?

It’s called the “kitchen sink” approach to job ads. They are usually written by personnel jockeys after they “review” a manager’s requirements and “add” their “insights” about the company’s needs. They throw in everything they think the company “wants.” Big small candidates are perfect because they satisfy two important company goals (in many companies).

Ever go to an interview and realize that the job you read about in the ad has little to do with what the manager wants to talk about?

Bingo. You’re not applying for a job. You’re applying for an ad. Problem is, managers are trying to fill a job. And personnel deparments don’t hire security specialists. They only hire other personnel jockeys. Ooops.

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