Baiting the talent

So a guy chases a woman around the world because he wants to marry her. Invests in air fares, cab rides, hotels, maybe even private investigators to find her. Then, when he catches up to her, he asks for her medical records, inquires about her religious affiliation, and wants to know, does she snore?

Makes perfect sense, because why would you marry someone you don’t know much about? Hey, we’re not stupid, right?

Take a look at Gary Capone’s comment on What is the single best interview question ever? Gary correctly points out that a manager should not give the first degree to someone the company is recruiting. You want to wine and dine them — figuratively or literally — first. You are trying to convince them to work for you; they’re not trying to get you to hire them. They are passive job hunters. You have to work hard to entice them.

So Gary suggests that a manager should wait til later in the process to ask The Bestest Interview Question Ever: “Can you show me how you’d do the job?” And I agree. But it set me to thinking.

Why in tarnation would a manager pursue and recruit a specific individual if the manager didn’t already know the individual could do the job properly? That’s what pursuit implies, right? That you want what you’re chasing? That you know what you’re doing.

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What is the single best interview question ever?

The purpose of any interview is simple: to figure out whether a candidate can do the job profitably. Everything else is ancillary — or fluff.

A smart interview is not an interrogation. It’s not a series of canned questions or a set of scripted tests that have been ginned up by HR. You know the drill: the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions for managers who don’t know how to talk shop. If you could be any animal, what animal would you be? Why are manhole covers round? What’s your greatest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years?

An interview should be a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on working meeting between you and the candidate, where all of the focus is on the job. Think of the interview as the candidate’s first day at work, with the only question that matters being this: “What’s your business plan for doing this job?”

To successfully answer that, the candidate must first demonstrate an understanding of the company’s problems, challenges, and goals — not an easy thing to do. But since you want to make a great hire — and get back to your own job–, why don’t you help the best candidate succeed? Isn’t that what you’d do for any one of your employees after you give them an assignment? You want them to succeed. Why do the dopey interview dance?

A week before the interview, call up the candidate. (If HR warns you not to, remind them who runs your department.) Provide some instructions and advice:

“We want you to show us how you’re going to do this job. That’s going to take a lot of homework. I suggest that you read through these pages on our web site, review these publications from our marketing and investor-relations departments, and speak with these three people on my team. When you’re done, you should have something useful to tell us.”

This will eliminate 9 out of 10 candidates. Yah, tell your HR department to suck rocks. You’re not interested in tons of resumes, lots of candidates, and plenty of interviews. The fewer, the better. This is not a numbers game. Anyone without the motivation to do the job to win the job isn’t worth considering. Only those who really want the job will do the work to research the job. Everyone else is a tire-kicker who’s wasting your time.

In the interview, you should expect (or hope) to hear the most compelling question that any candidate can ask:

“Would you like me to show how your company will profit from hiring me?”

It’s no surprise. It’s the same question you’re asking, if you behave like your own job matters, and that hiring great people matters is a manager’s #1 job. The candidate should be prepared to do the job in the interview. That means walking up to the whiteboard and outlining the steps he or she would take to solve your company’s problems. The numbers might be off, but the candidate should be able to defend them intelligently.

If the candidate reveals an understanding of your culture and competitors — and lays out a plan of attack to solve your problems and add profit to your bottom line — you have some compelling reasons to make the hire.

If you trust only a candidate’s references, credentials, resume, or test results, you won’t know whether the candidate can do the job. Don’t talk around the job; get on it.

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Loopy feedback failure

Do employers owe you feedback after a job interview? Jeez Louise. Could job hunters be more brainwashed? How could anyone even ask that question? You might as well ask, Does a job hunter owe an employer answers during a job interview?

Nah, let’s all just waste one another’s time and agree that our time is worthless and rude behavior is par for the course.

It’s not. And it’s not. An employer owes you candid, detailed feedback after a job interview because it’s the right thing to do. But a well-intentioned reader demonstrates just how pervasive the brainwashing is, and how loopy this feedback failure has become:

I am a subscriber to your e-mail newsletter and I wanted to give you some feedback. I disagree with the recent advice you gave in a column about, “Do I deserve feedback after the interview?”

The person who wrote to you was obsessing because they didn’t get feedback from a single interview. Why? This is par for the course. You advised the job hunter to contact the hiring manager to talk more about the job, and then to casually press for feedback about why he wasn’t hired. Then you suggested he go over the manager’s head to talk to his boss. This may just make the guy appear to be difficult to deal with.

It is much worse when you go on one, two, or even three interviews, spend a day or two, take vacation time off work, and don’t get feedback. From what I’ve heard, companies don’t want any liability surrounding providing feedback after an interview. I have never gotten any such feedback and I have interviewed with lots of companies. It is just part of the competitive interviewing world and people should just accept it.

You do have a point — not getting feedback after a job interview is routine. But look more closely at what you’re saying: “…companies don’t want any liability surrounding providing feedback after an interview.”

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It’s a small town

It’s so obvious, people think it’s corny. Always be nice to people. This reader’s story says it all:

I just found a few moments to read one of your recent newsletters – Do they owe me feedback after an interview?” The situation described reminded me of my own experience.

I needed a job.  And it was before I knew about Ask the Headhunter – though, as you will see, it made be realize how smart you are when I finally did start reading your columns.

Anyway, I was doing the shotgun thing – sending resumes here, there and everywhere, replying to want-ads, calling old co-workers, even people I didn’t really know. I interviewed one morning with a guy at a contracting firm (call him Mr. M.) who had a lot of people at a large manufacturing company in my city. I knew I wasn’t quite qualified, but I also knew I could learn what I needed to fairly quickly.

But, this guy was having none of that. He proceeded to tell my how weak my resumé was and how extremely uninteresting I was to him. To put it mildly, he could have been a lot nicer. But, I had confidence in my worth. I just shrugged it off and kept looking. I found a short-term contracting gig, and eventually made it to Big Bank with a good, permanent job (where I still work).

Some time later, a funny thing happened. We needed to hire a contractor. My boss handed me two resumés to see what I thought. And, wonder of wonders, one of them was Mr. M’s. (Remember him?) I rejected him immediately. He never knew that, of course, but it does illustrate what can happen. It’s a small world – and an even smaller town.

Now, just so you know, I was honest with my boss. I told her that his qualifications were fine. I also told her the story of the interview. And she said that as important as technical qualifications are, she did not want anyone working for her who would treat people that way. A lesson for all of us.

Yah, corny: What goes around, comes around. It’s a small world. We reap what we sow. You never know who you’ll run into again.

Perhaps Mr. M., brusque though he was, had good reasons for not hiring this reader. But, it seems our reader had good reasons for not hiring Mr. M.

Always be nice to people. It’s a small town.

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On the edge of the curve

I’ve chided companies for using mundane recruiting methods and salary scales that result in hiring people on the fat part of the bell curve. Management guru Tom Peters suggests recruiting and hiring weirdos — people on the thin, leading edge of the curve; people who will upset the balance at your company and take you in new directions. Those people cost money — lots of money — because they’re (surprise!) on the leading edge of the curve.

Some companies use headhunters to recruit good people — for whatever reason: their HR department can’t do it well; they like to spend money; they like an outsider’s perspective; they like the networks that good headhunters maintain.

But the same bell-curve problem exists when a company hires a headhunter: You hire the best — out on the edge of the curve — or you use a mediocre headhunter to save money (and time, if you’re too lazy to go find the best). The problem is exactly the same: you’re buying mediocrity. Read more

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Getting your butt kicked?

In an effort to make recruiting and hiring more rational, objective, logical, impartial, non-discriminatory (now, there’s a word that’s been bastardized: it used to mean keen, discerning, judicious), dispassionate, and fair… companies have learned to administer tests…

What’s the deal with these profile tests some companies are using? The ones where they ask the same question several times by changing the wording around. How are they used to determine if a candidate’s profile matches? Are they just a way of weeding out candidates who answer certain questions the wrong way? As a hiring manager, the only way I know of to see if a candidate’s profile matches is to actually talk to the person. Something that HR recruiters seem to want to avoid.

These tests are merely correlational. They don’t predict anything. They are based on responses of a known population, to which a job candidate’s responses are compared. The population is broken into sub-groups, and each sub-group is defined based on its responses and other known characteristics. For example, if a candidate’s responses correlate highly with responses from base subjects who are known to be lazy, for example (I’m exaggerating here), then the candidate is assumed to be lazy. Or, the candidate’s responses might correlate with a sub-group that is defined as architects. If you respond like an architect, then you are considered to be like architects.
 
Is that enough to judge a candidate? Of course not. While certain correlational information can be useful, it is certainly not sufficient to make or break a hiring decision.
 
Like you said, you have to talk to the person. My concern is, HR weeds out candidates based on these tests before a manager ever talks to them. All in an effort to be fair, objective, and impartial — and to avoid talking to people and judging them. How many good candidates are falling through the cracks as a result? It’s scary.

Go talk to people. It still works. The competition is doing it, because the competition isn’t worried about fair, objective, or impartial. It’s thinking only about kicking your company’s butt.

This might help: Employment Tests: Get an edge.

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Roasting the job description

Last time, I talked about Hiring people who will succeed. Of course, this implies that a manager knows how to hire, or it doesn’t matter how good the stream of candidates is, or how well they perform on tests or in interviews. Sorry to insult a few million people, but in general I think most managers suck at interviewing and hiring. It’s not because they’re dopes; it’s because they act like dopes because the process is dopey.

Take a random manager. He or she probably does a pretty good job running their operation and managing their team. They get the product — whatever it is — out the door. Now, cut to the hiring process, and they open The Rules of Hiring Handed Down by the HR Gods. We quickly shift from getting the work done to acquiring the talent. The manager fills out the HR form — the job description. HR massages it. The objective is to find the perfect candidate who fits the specs and can hit the ground running on day #1. Now the job description has less to do with the job, and more to do with who is The Perfect Candidate.

Trouble is, The Perfect Fit, Isn’t. None of them are. Even a headhunter never finds the perfect fit, and we try. So, now the poor manager is left to acquire the talent, as defined in the job description, and the incoming talent is busy trying to slather itself with key words from the job description. Presto! Everyone is now on the spit, the coals are stoked, and we’re all about to get burned.

I wanna roast the job description. Toast it black, because the damned thing is full of words that distract the manager and the candidate from the work. In The Words We Choose, engineer David Hunt skewers seven juicy sacred cows, and delivers a satisfying take-away meal for every manager who wants to avoid Fast Food Hiring with HR Sauce. His essential message: Stop dehumanizing the hiring process and the interview discussion. Respect the candidate. These ain’t flank steaks — they’re people. And dimes to dollars none of them has ever designed a urinary catheter… keep reading…

Hunt borrows from the world of linguistic determinism — the idea that language shapes thought and the words we choose determine our actions. When we’re interviewing “the talent” and “acquiring the human resources”, we get stupid and distracted and we make dopey mistakes. I love the example job description Hunt highlights: “Wanted: Urinary Catheter Design Engineer. Must have at least five years of experience designing urinary catheters.”

Imagine the poor sucker manager who tries to find The Perfect Candidate for that job. We could bring in 50 talented engineers, but we might as well run a job description that says, “Wanted: Cow with five years’ experience being roasted for dinner.”

Filling a job isn’t about the job description. Candidates are not key words. You cannot identify a candidate’s ability to do the job if you’re interviewing for a Perfect Fit. The job description, more often than not, is a fantasy cooked up down in personnel-junkie land. So, let’s play a little game. You’re a manager. Job descriptions are illegal. How do you attract people who can do the work?

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Hiring people who will succeed

My good friend Tom is a software developer. He’s incredibly smart, and he has one dominant criterion for hiring people. They must have a high IQ. A very high IQ. He considers other attributes, but IQ is the first hurdle. Many employers put job candidates through various tests, and make the first cut of applicants that way. Some use skills tests; others go for aptitude; some even start with personality.

I’m not big on tests in the hiring process. I want to spend time with a candidate, and I want to talk to people who know them and to people who have worked with them. (The candidates won’t necessarily know who I’m talking to. I want my own picture. But that’s just me.) Often, I won’t even meet a candidate if I don’t already know all about them. Some managers won’t interview candidates until after they’ve seen test results. (Erica Klein’s excellent article, Employment Tests: Get an edge, is a good start to researching this topic.)

If I had to use a test, I know what it would be. I would give it only after checking after the individual’s reputation (which includes intelligence). It’s the test of optimism that Martin Seligman provides in his outstanding book, Learned Optimism. Read more

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HR’s new dildo: The behavioral interview

Ever hear of the behavioral interview? It’s been all the rage in human resources circles for some time. In fact, the HR community has now grabbed onto the behavioral interview as the right way to have a meaningful interaction with a job candidate. It’s the way to really learn about a job candidate’s actual skills. The idea is simple. Don’t ask candidates about their skills and capabilities, because they’ll tell you what you want to hear. Instead, ask them how they actually handled a particular task or situation in the past. That way you can assess their actual behavior and judge their abilities more accurately. Follow me so far?

The BI lends itself to lots of how-to articles and advice from career experts. You can find all sorts of clever questions to get people to tell you about their behavior. In fact, it has spawned a sub-industry in the career business. That’s why it’s so popular — it’s got legs in the consulting world. It’s easy to sell the method to HR. But, does it work? More important, is the BI what it purports to be — a good way to assess a job candidate’s actual abilities by evaluating their behavior?

I don’t think so. Consider the twist in the monniker. The word “behavioral” seems to lend a great air of credibility to this kind of interview. Why listen to a bunch of talk when you can assess a candidate’s actual behavior? The suggestion is that we’re looking at behavior rather than, as Carole Martin cautions in You Can Survive the Behavioral Interview, the stories that candidates might make up about their skills. Does that give you the logical heebie-jeebies? It should.

There is no behavior in the behavioral interview. It’s talk about the past. I think the BI is a fraud. It’s akin to washing your hands with gloves on. The BI insulates the interviewer from the candidate because it does not accomplish what the name suggests. There is no behavior in the behavioral interview — we never get to see the candidate do anything, least of all anything relating to the job at hand. The BI is HR’s newest dildo. It’s yet another substitute for meaningful interaction with a job candidate.

There is another fundamental problem with the BI. On about.com, career planner Dawn McKay explains that, “The basic premise of the behavioral interview is that past performance is a good predictor of future performance.” Fans of this assessment technique would do well to read an investment prospectus or two, where the cautionary refrain is always, “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.” One of the reasons a prospectus includes such a disclaimer is because numbers can be manipulated to imply something about the future.

Likewise, job candidates can manipulate anything they say in an interview. To demonstrate the great power of the BI, McKay goes on to explain, “When asked simple yes or no questions, a job candidate can easily tell an interviewer what he or she wants to hear… However, if the interviewer asks what you have done in the past to complete a project on a tight deadline, you would have to give a real-life example, detailing how you handled the situation.”

Say what? If I can make up an answer to an interview question, I can certainly make up a scenario and how I dealt with it effectively in the past. (There are books galore to help you. For instance — I love this title — 501+ Great Interview Questions For Employers And The Best Answers For Prospective Employees. Don’t wear the interviewer out.) There is nothing robust about a BI. It does not do what HR expects. The interviewer is still diddling the candidate about the past, rather than assessing what the candidate can do here and now.

Consider: A manager can ask a job candidate anything. So, why do managers and HR folks ask for resumes? Why do they ask about the past? Why do they play games with the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions? (Where do you see yourself in five years? If you could be any animal, what would you be?) It’s simple: The conventional interview (and the BI is as stupidly conventional as HR gets) is designed to be a deductive assessment. HR gathers any data it can, then goes into the back room and uses expensive tools to deduce whether a candidate can do the job. HR is guessing. It’s what the profession gets paid for.

If a manager (let’s forget about HR altogether in this scenario) can ask a job candidate anything, why not ask the candidate to show how he or she would do this job now? Frankly, I don’t care about your past, even though it might help me understand you better. The first thing I need to know is, can you do this job? Show me. Behave. Do. Prove.

The BI is so pervasively accepted as a hiring tool that career experts actually believe talk is behavior. The result is junk interviews. McKay delivers the sales pitch: “Rather then merely telling the interviewer what you would do in a situation, as in a regular interview, in a behavioral interview you must describe, in detail, how you handled a situation in the past. What better way to strut your stuff?”

If you’re a manager and you want to see candidates strut their stuff, put away the rubber gloves and the dildo, and ask them to show you how they would do the job you want done.

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