Ask The Headhunter®

the insider's edge on job search & hiring™
September 15, 2009
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This week's Q&A

Try people out before hiring them:
How third-world farmers beat corporate HR


The demise of modern hiring

This column is usually a Q&A where we tackle a reader's problem. Today we're going to tackle a problem faced by virtually every manager: How to hire.

There's no way to start this except to call a spade a spade and look at how not to hire—because not hiring the workers they need is what many employers seem to do best.

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Don't understand what I mean? Just turn on your computer and wind up any Human Resources department by submitting your resume for any job in the world. Personnel jockeys malnourished from drinking only from the job-board trough will spend the entire HR recruiting budget buying, downloading, scanning, processing and key-word-checking the resumes of thousands of "applicants" who are summarily rejected while some manager is dying for a daily dose of common sense in recruiting and hiring.

Once upon a time, America was a third-world country. A colony. Once upon a time we used our brains because we were trying to get somewhere. Today, we often leave our brains in the drawer when we whip out over-defined, over-wrought and byzantine systems to do a simple job: Hire people.

Consider the dominant hiring methods human resources departments feed their managers: job descriptions, job postings, job ads, resume-processing software, the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions, employment tests and pages of application forms. All designed to attract anyone who can push an Enter key.

Ignite Your Career!

Do you work in IT (information technology)? Come connect with a panel of experts and with IT pros around the world to talk about your career.

Join me for a special webcast hosted by Microsoft: Ignite Your Career on Thursday, September 24, 2009, 12pm-1pm EST.

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-- Nick     

New York Public Radio:
The Brian Lehrer Show

A special shout-out to Brian's audience for the record numbers of new subscribers to this newsletter since we did the summer series of Ask The Headhunter segments on WNYC radio—and the repeat on Labor Day. Welcome! 

For those interested in hearing all four archived segments, please visit The Blog.

(And if you want to hear more Ask The Headhunter on WNYC radio, please drop Brian a note and let him know!)

Consider the massive cost of filtering millions of inappropriate applicants who are glad to play garbage in, garbage out and apply for any job on the Net just because it's there.

Consider the self-defeating practice of selecting a hire from a pool of people that's limited to only those who show up in the queue. Forget about workers the manager would like to hire. Let's hire from who comes along.

Then there's the method HR swears by: The Behavioral Interview. Drag in someone from a job board and ask him to give you some examples of problems he has dealt with in the past and to tell how he handled them. (I'm still trying to figure out where is the behavior in The Behavioral Interview, if all we're doing is talking.)

Employers are crippled by armchair recruiting and arm's-length decision making when picking hires. Managers can personally go look for the people they want, but they let personnel clerks post ads so they can interview what the cat dragged in. Managers can ask job candidates anything they want—but they make hiring decisions based on answers to questions the legal department says they can ask. (I'd love to meet the legal eagle who signed off on, "If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?")

But recruiting is another topic. I want to talk about judging candidates in order to make a hire. HR has many methods to find needles in a haystack that blew in from the job boards, then asks some magic questions that will indirectly reveal the best candidates. You know the drill: Where do you see yourself in five years? What's your greatest strength? Why are manhole covers round? If you needed to move Mount Fuji, how would you do it?

Why is hiring so complicated? Why do companies need HR consultants to invent hiring practices, interview protocols and selection criteria? The answer seems to be, Because the more complicated we can make it, the more rigorous and valid the process must be.

The solution is much simpler. But it requires managers to tell HR to get its nose out of the hiring business and back to managing internal employee matters. It requires telling the lawyers to stop erecting policies against common sense and to start finding ways to enable managers to hire intelligently and effectively.

The solution is ancient, low-tech, obvious and in violation of the book of HR policy. But if you don't find a way to implement this solution, the competitor who does will eat your lunch while you try to figure out how to fire the ineffective and marginal hires you've made.

How to hire like it matters

Chris Hogg is an employment counselor in Columbus, Ohio who works with an interesting clientele. He teaches the basic approach and methods I've been talking about on Ask The Headhunter for 15 years—but he has validated these methods 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.

Chris dropped me a note recently that distilled the answer every company needs to consider adopting, if only because bureaucratic hiring costs too much.

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

I refer to what Chris is describing as doing the job to win the job. Managers can eliminate waste and cut down on hiring errors by hiring people who prove themselves. Yah, I know that's a corporate sacrilege, and the lawyers, personnel jockeys and HR consultants will have a field day with this. Corcodilos, Hogg and that African farmer are naive looney-tunes.

Try people out before you hire them.

  1. Select your candidates carefully. You don't want to waste two or three days' time working with marginal candidates.
  2. Cancel some HR consultant contracts. Set aside the money you save to pay your on-the-job candidates a reasonable fee for their work even if you don't hire them.
  3. Talk to your insurance company. The money you pay to cover short-term liability (assuming you even need it) to have these folks on-site is a good investment. Think of what you'll save by avoiding hiring errors.

HR consultants and corporate lawyers will come up with plenty of obstacles to this approach, but managers need to remind them 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.

In a time when being nimble and smart can mean the difference between surviving economic pressures and closing the company doors, American employers would do well to consider that they used to hire the same way third-world farmers hire today. Once upon a time in America there was no room for bureaucracy. Anyone want to argue that it isn't killing us today?

Special thanks to Chris Hogg for sharing his experience and common sense.


Nick Corcodilos
Ask The Headhunter®

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I just downloaded How to Work with Headhunters. Excellent! I will recommend that each of our Executive MBAs get this book. It's a very comprehensive treatment of every aspect of recruiting, search firms, career management firms and more. I especially like the Back of the Napkin section at the end. Looks like you thought of everything!

Susan Dearing
· Director, ProMBA Career Management Center
· EMBA Career Coach
UCLA Anderson School of Management 


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Readers' Comments

Too Old to Rock & Roll is the best, and I mean the very best, article that I've ever read on the subject of advice to older job seekers. I'm 62 and have been out of the workforce for a couple of years due to a rather serious health problem, but I am recovered now and do see the need to work to at least 70 years of age. ("It’s the economy, Stupid.")

As a writer/editor, I really must commend you on your excellent writing ability and style. Your articles are always well-organized, and your points are well thought out and expertly written with finesse and humor. I have always found your website content easy to understand, and I will keep coming back to your site for more, even when I am "gainfully employed" in the near future. You are one savvy dude!

Kudos to you and I look forward to your future articles.

Lynn Gardner

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How to Say It

I want to break the ice with a new contact

A reader says: I just attended a professional seminar and I met people from several companies—two are places where I'd really like to work. Your suggestion to "hang out with people I'd like to work with" really works! Now I need to call these people up. I don't want to sound like I'm begging for job leads because I'm not ready to make a move right now. I want to learn more about their companies and get myself in the door. How do I make friends with them? What should I say?

How to Say It: You can break the ice by asking things that have nothing to do with getting in the door. Introduce yourself and remind them where you met. My favorite requests are, "What have you read recently that you've found particularly useful in your work?" and, "What companies in our industry do you respect the most?"

Those questions can lead to lengthy conversation and to follow-up contact. It's up to you to share related, useful information by e-mail and to stay in touch. Later, if you decide to approach someone's company about a job, you can ask for introductions to managers who might give you advice and insight about the jobs. Bingo, you're there. Don't forget to offer introductions if your new friends need them.

How would you say it? That's is the topic in the How to Say It section of The Blog. Click on over and offer your advice on How to Say It!

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Don't know How to Say It? Send me your quandary and we'll try to tackle it! (Please don't confuse this feature with Q&A topics, which are about advice. This is about how to say something.)


Readers' Forum

How to Hire

Do the job to win the job: Today's newsletter will raise some hackles. Bring candidates in to work for 2-3 days before making a hiring decision? You might as well break eggs on the boardroom conference table.

What do you think? Would you agree to work for a few days for a prospective employer if the company paid you to see if you're a fit?

If you're a manager, what do you say? Would your decisions about hires be improved by working with them for a few days? Would you spend a few bucks to find out? 

Forum: This could turn the hiring process upside down. Join us on The Blog and share your thoughts!

Got a topic? Something to get off your chest? Something on which you'd like input from other readers? Send it here. 










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