Overqualified Applicants: We are terrified of you

I don’t know whether the New York Times is trying to shed light on the growing unemployment situation or to poke fun at job hunters and employers. In a story yesterday ($13 an Hour? 500 Sign Up, 1 Wins a Job) the Times tells about a trucking company that ran a job posting on CareerBuilder… and what happened.

Turns out this company is afraid to hire people more skilled than it’s accustomed to — even if the price is right. If this isn’t proof the world has gone nuts, I don’t know what is.

The head of corporate recruiting was apparently stunned at all the resumes she received via CareerBuilder. How’d she decide on the finalists out of the 500 applicants?

She dropped significantly overqualified candidates right away, reasoning that they would leave when the economy improved. Among them was a former I.B.M. business analyst with 18 years experience; a former director of human resources; and someone with a master’s degree and 12 years at Deloitte & Touche, the accounting firm.

Imagine that: The economy has put some incredibly talented and skilled people on the market at a steep discount. These are smart people willing to take less money to do a lower-level job than they’re accustomed to. Buy low. Does this goofus know what that means? No, she’s worried that an “overqualified” hire will leave when the economy gets better.

Yo, Mamma! Anyone you hire is gonna leave for a better opportunity when the economy improves! Time to fire the HR lady.

But it gets better. Trucking companies are not immune to staggering incompetence at any management level — any more than any other industry is. One of the applicants rejected by the HR lady gets passed on to another manager. What does he do to assess this candidate and make a hiring decision?

Mr. Kelsey marched through many of his questions again. Then, trying to gauge her ability to be assertive among truck drivers, he added a new hypothetical: if she were in the stands at a baseball game and a foul ball came her way, would she stand up to try to catch it, or wait in her seat and hope it fell her way?

The other finalist had said she would wait. But Ms. Block said immediately that she would jump up to grab it.

Mr. Kelsey decided he had found his hire.

Managers can ask job candidates anything they want in an interview. Why didn’t Mr. Kelsey ask the applicant what she’d do if, when that foul ball came her way, a truck driver seated beside her elbowed her in the face so he could catch the ball instead? Would she:

  1. Deck him?
  2. Thank him for saving her face from the incoming projectile?
  3. Wipe her bloody nose and scream for a cop?
  4. Ask him whether Mr. Kelsey is hiring?

(Just kidding.)

My compliments to whoever hired that IBM business analyst. You got a bargain. If you treat him well and make good use of his skills (which you’d never get a shot at in a good economy), my guess is he might not even quit when the economy gets better… because you found good ways to capitalize on skills you couldn’t afford in a better economy… and maybe you were astute enough to create something better for him at your company so he’d stay. And even if he leaves, if you were smart you made profitable use of the time he was working for you. Nobody stays at your company forever, assuming your company is still in business in a coupla years…

I’d like a count, please: How many managers or HR people out there would pass on an “overqualified” applicant willing to work for less money because they don’t know how the hell to capitalize on a windfall of unexpectedly superior skills?

(Thanks to Steve Amoia for sending me the NY Times article.)

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The Monster-ous quality of choice

A recent post, Congress to Employers: You’re not proctologists, drew a comment that reveals the dangerous new cracks in our employment system  — and hints at the problem employers need to address if the quality of hiring is to improve.

In a comment on that post, dated October 19, 2009 at 6:52 am, reader Nic says:

This to me is all about people fuelling their new crackpot ideas for business modelling and human resources; and in my view, it is all lunacy. What does this really mean? The quality of employee has declined drastically over the past 20 years. Does this mean a further dumbing down?

I don’t think the quality of the employee has declined. Rather, the quality of the selection process has declined. It has become so automated that it is now counterproductive.

The personal judgment of managers no longer filters the best job candidates into the final interview process. The first cut of candidates is made thoughtlessly using key word searches and is further dumbed down because the pool itself is limited to people who list themselves in data bases. Gone are the candidates a manager seeks out for their rare and relevant qualities.

The Human Resources Soup Kitchen waters down the quality of the hiring process by ladling resumes out of the huge job-board swill pot — and those are the candidates the hiring manager is permitted to choose from. That’s where the “talent shortage” starts. When your head is stuck in the swill pot, all the world is a mediocre candidate — and you always have an excuse for mediocre hiring: We use the latest technology but today’s candidates just suck!

I was recently on Minnesota Public Radio to discuss trends in job hunting and hiring and to take questions from listeners. Joining me was an executive from Monster.com.

A caller who runs a management consulting firm challenged Monster’s Doug Hardy over the “task matching” — or “keyword” — method of scanning resumes for matches to jobs.

Listen to the question and to Hardy’s response: Read more

Congress to Employers: You’re not proctologists

I once applied for a job with a big-time, international consulting firm. I signed off on a background check that included letting them interview everyone back to my kindergarten teacher. I had to get a physical and pee in a cup. They did a credit check. Who knows what they found, because they didn’t hire me. (I have no idea what they found because they wouldn’t share it with me.)

That was lucky, because letting people I didn’t know intrude into areas of my life that were none of their business gnawed at me… and I decided not to accept an offer even if they made it. Go suck rocks. Who wants to turn their life over to goons? And besides, I wanted to know — but no one at the company would tell me — what does the CEO’s credit record look like? Why don’t employers publish their officers’ full records like Subway publishes calorie counts on all its sandwiches?

Why do companies want to know it all? To avoid hiring someone who might go postal some day? Nah, it’s to cover their asses. Personnel jockeys and lawyers apply every available “verification” process just because they can. Because who wants to make a decision and be held accountable for it if there’s one more source of data we can check…? Who wants to hire somebody who missed her last car payment and is struggling to find a job so she can make the next one?

What many people don’t realize is, you can say NO. You are under no obligation to micturate on demand, expose your kindergarten teacher to embarrassing questions, or to take a probe up your credit report or up your ass. You might not get the interview, but all the details of your life are not any employer’s business unless you choose to make them so. (If you consent, consider that what an employer finds may not even be accurate. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group says that about a third of credit reports contain serious errors.)

Many Ask The Headhunter readers tell me they say NO. I learned to say no after I looked at myself in the mirror following the investigation into my life many years ago. I was ashamed of myself. I gave up everything about myself to information goons.

On July 9, 2009 Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee introduced H.R.3149, a bill “to amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to prohibit the use of consumer credit checks against prospective and current employees for the purposes of making adverse employment decisions.”

Cohen says, “At a time when people are struggling to find jobs, credit checks should not be used as a basis to deny employment to otherwise qualified candidates.” The bill has 36 co-sponsors and it is long overdue. It’s time to draw this line.

Nonetheless, the bill “makes exceptions to such prohibition for employment: (1) which requires a national security or Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) clearance; (2) with a state or local government agency which otherwise requires use of a consumer report; or (3) in a supervisory, managerial, professional, or executive position at a financial institution.

You should be aware of these exceptions because this is the best we’re likely to get. Much as I would like to put kindergarten teachers off limits.

Checking people out before you hire them is a smart thing to do. So talk to people that job candidates have worked with and ask smart questions. Check references. Do your diligence. But you’re not an information proctologist. There are places where your hands don’t belong because you don’t acquire rights to anyone’s privacy when you hire them. And it’s time Congress put that in writing.

Kudos to Rep. Steve Cohen. H.R. 3149 has been referred to the House Committee on Financial Services. I’m contacting my legislators and telling them to vote for the bill. I encourage you to do the same.

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Readers’ Forum: How third-world farmers beat corporate HR

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.)

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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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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.

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?

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

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.

Yes, Virginia, offers sometimes get rescinded

This is a very painful experience. Sometimes, though, an employer shows integrity and the job candidate reveals common sense. This reader has been through the mill, but has survived and gained an unexpected benefit…

I just read your article The company rescinded the offer (Ask The Headhunter newsletter, 4/14/09 — too late to get that edition but not too late to become a subscriber — it’s free!) and was astonished to learn this situation is not uncommon.

Back in February I received and signed a written offer. Four days later, I got a call from the COO who delivered the news that we needed to push my start date out from March to April. Since this company is a small start-up, they’re running their business on a month-to-month basis. In between making an offer and pushing out my start date, the company lost two forecasted deals in their pipeline that shook their stability. The following week, one of their customers went into bankruptcy. The COO wanted to remain in contact and we agreed to talk weekly and he kept his promise. We talked every Friday and I got an update on the situation. It became apparent towards the end of March that the April start date wasn’t going to happen either. 

I had a quick thought about contacting an employment lawyer but chose not to. Would you have handled this situation differently, and how? 

(I did go back to the COO when I found a company that might be a potential partner for them. This company also happened to be looking for someone just like me! So I asked the COO to introduce me to the CEO and provide a reference for me. He happily obliged and gave me a wonderful reference. This hasn’t gone anywhere, but I think it speaks to the COO’s values and I was appreciative. And in the meantime, I’m still searching…)

I think the COO has class and good sense, and he used it in difficult circumstances. You made no mistake in foregoing legal action. You have made a valuable friend. Stay in touch with him. He probably has other friends he can refer you to. And don’t be surprised that if his company goes down, and he resurfaces somewhere else, you’re not one of his first hires. Thanks for sharing the story.