Edition #900: The single best interview question (and answer)

Edition #900: The single best interview question (and answer)

Ask The Headhunter online began publication a long time ago. The newsletter launched soon after. This Q&A column marks the 900th edition of the newsletter — that’s 900 weeks of free advice inspired by the best questions asked by the Ask The Headhunter community. To mark the occasion, I’m reprinting a column from 2003 about the best interview question ever. It has withstood the test of time, and it could not be more relevant or applicable today. I hope you find it as helpful as many others have.

Question

What is the single best interview question ever — and the best answer?

Nick’s Reply

best interview questionThere used to be a book titled something like 2,800 Interview Questions & Answers. Even today, you can find books that will automate your job interviews with canned repartee. These books feature 701 interview questions (and “best answers), or 201, or 189, 101 — or, How many interview questions you got???

All the interview questions

I’ve always had a fantasy about these books. You walk into the interviewer’s office. You smile broadly and shake hands:

“Glad to meet you! Let’s get down to business and have an interview!”

Then you slide one of those babies across the desk.

“Here are all the questions you’re going to ask me… and the answers! Now you know what they are, and I know what they are, and we don’t need to waste our time. So we can do something useful, and talk about the work you need to have done!”

Instead of teaching job candidates and hiring managers to talk shop —  that is, about the job — career experts outdo themselves regurgitating job-interview scripts.

The silly answers they offer are rehashed and marinated in expired creative juices, and about as satisfying as a bolus coughed up by the last person who interviewed with the manager.

One Interview Question

Then there’s the “one, the only, the best interview question” designed to be so clever that you must think it’s also smart. The trouble is, these click-bait offerings have nothing to do with the job you’re interviewing for!

Lately, these include (on LinkedIn) Lou Adler’sWhat single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far? and (on Inc.com) economist Tyler Cowen’s “What are the open tabs in your browser right now?” (We won’t even get into the perennial “What’s your greatest weakness?” or ” How many golf balls would fit in the Empire State Building?”)

In 2003, the editors of Fast Company magazine put together a cover story titled, “All The Right Moves: A guide for the perplexed exec.” It was a collection of 21 Q&As for managers covering everything from how to be a star at work, how to be an effective leader and how to dress for success.

Editor Bill Breen asked me to write a “memo” to managers about Question #16: What is the single best interview question ever — and the best answer?

The best interview question

Here’s the memo I sent to Breen as it appeared in the July 2003 edition of Fast Company. Almost 20 years later, I’ll still put this question up against any list of interview questions (whether it includes 50, 200, or 2,800), or against any other “best, most important question” anyone has ever come up with. I think proof of its power is that job candidates can — and should — raise the question themselves and answer it to prove they’re worth hiring.


Memo From: Nick Corcodilos
To: Hiring managers everywhere
Re: Reinventing the job interview

The purpose of any interview is simple: to determine whether the candidate can do the job profitably. 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. An interview should be a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on 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 desperately want to make a great hire and get back to work, why don’t you help the best candidate succeed? Two weeks before the interview, call up the candidate and say the following:

“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 10 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. Only those who really want the job will put in the effort to research the job.

At 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?”

The candidate should be prepared to do the job in the interview. That means walking up to the whiteboard and outlining the steps that he or she would take to solve your company’s problems. The numbers don’t have to be right, but the candidate should be able to defend them intelligently. If the candidate demonstrates an understanding of your culture and competitors — and lays out a plan of attack for solving your problems and adding something to your bottom line — you have some awfully compelling reasons to make the hire.

But if you trust only a candidate’s past accomplishments, references, credentials, or test results, you still won’t know whether the candidate can do the job.


Recruiting is still — and always has been — about finding the best candidates. But the best candidate isn’t just the one who can answer that question. The best candidate is the person who brings it up and volunteers to answer it — and is ready to show you how they will do the job profitably.

Do the job in the interview

If you cannot do the job to win the job, then it doesn’t matter what tabs are open on your browser, what animal you’d be if you could be any animal, what your greatest accomplishment was, or where you see yourself in five years. There is certainly more to do in a job interview, and we can have a lot of fun with clever questions and rejoinders. But, if you cannot demonstrate, right there in the meeting, your business plan for how you will do the work, then you will not stand out — and you have no business in that job interview.


How Can I Change Careers? picks up where that Fast Company column leaves off. And it’s not just for career changers. It’s for anyone who wants to stand out in the job interview. The book explains why this “single best interview question ever” for hiring managers is also the single best question for candidates to bring up in the interview — and how to do it. (Fast Company says it’s “chock full of tips for the thorniest of job-hunting problems.”)


You be the judge of what counts in your job interviews: Does anything matter more than showing you can do the job? What are the best and worst questions you’ve asked or been asked?

Thanks to all in the Ask The Headhunter community for assembling here every week, and especially to those who have contributed questions and comments over the years! This website and the newsletter are successful because of the quality of discourse you bring every week! How long have you been a subscriber? If you don’t get the free weekly newsletter, please sign up for edition #901 and share this link with friends!

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Should resume typos cost you the job?

Should resume typos cost you the job?

Why you should hire people who make typos

Source: EvilHRLady
By Suzanne Lucas

typos

The best people for certain jobs may not have perfect résumés. Oh, sure, they’ll have the skills you need, but you might spot a “their” that should be “there” or vice versa. Many hiring managers reject such people on the spot. Research suggests that this may be a bad idea.

Typos are made because we’re so busy trying to convey meaning that we don’t always notice when we’ve made an error. We all know that it’s difficult to catch our own typos, but why is that? It’s because we already know what we mean, so our eyes read one thing but our brain translates it into the meaning that it already knows exists.

Continue reading

Nick’s take

I almost always agree with my buddy Suzanne Lucas, one of my favorite HR people. But not about typos. I’ve discussed why I think illiteracy is a sign of ignorance before. The fact remains that writing is a serial process — you put down one word after another. This permits you to go back and check for accuracy. If the document is an important one, there’s no excuse for errors.

Do you carefully proof your resume? Would typos in a resume lead you to reject a job applicant? Do these kinds of errors tell us anything about a job applicant? Or am I full of baloney? What’s your take?

 

 

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We don’t need any stinking cover letters

We don’t need any stinking cover letters

A reader dreads having to write a cover letter for an employer, and asks what to do in the October 20, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

cover lettersI hate cover letters. I don’t know how to write a decent one, all the online help I’ve seen is banal garbage, and frankly I’d rather chew on broken glass than go through the agony of trying to think up a bunch of “toot-your-own-horn” baloney to spit out in a cover letter. But in the process of applying for jobs, oftentimes a cover letter is required. Any suggestions?

Nick’s Reply

A sales manager I know forbids his sales team from responding to requests for quotation (RFPs). “If all you’re doing is sending out prices for our products, you have no idea what the customer’s problem is, where it hurts. You can’t win by sending out RFPs and playing How-Low-Can-You-Go?”

Likewise, when applying for a job, you can’t win by sending out resumes and cover letters, then expect the employer to figure out whether to interview you or some of the other 2,000 applicants.

What’s better than a cover letter?

Once you hand over your resume or cover letter, you are out of the picture. You cannot defend your cover letter while HR and the hiring manager read it. You cannot assess what the manager really wants and needs — the job description is not enough. When you submit your cover letter, what you’re saying to that employer is, “Here. Read this. Then figure out what to do with me.” Employers stink at that!

Avoid confusing the employer with your entire kitchen sink of credentials and experiences even if they ask for it! To get in the door, you must offer just the two or three skills (from your huge arsenal) that will address the manager’s specific problems — “where it hurts.”

It’s an offer that no other job candidate will make.

Make this offer

Don’t spend hours “crafting” a cover letter based on guesses about what might impress the employer. Instead, offer 10 minutes of your time. Ask the manager to tell you “where it hurts.” Then deliver — yes, on the fly — three ways you can make it better.

“As a rule, I do not submit cover letters because they are a one-way recitation about me. To help you, I need to know a bit more than what’s in the job description — about the problems and challenges you need your new hire to tackle. I’d be happy to invest in a 10-minute call to discuss this. Based on a preliminary study of your business, and on what you tell me during our call, I believe there may be at least three things I can bring to the job that would materially affect the success of your operation. If I can’t demonstrate that during our brief talk, then you should of course not hire me, or even do a full interview. Would you like to schedule 10 minutes to roll up our sleeves and talk shop?”

Is this risky? I think it’s riskier to pretend a cover letter will get you in the door. Think about the best way to communicate this offer. Put it into words you are comfortable with.

You can deliver the above offer in an e-mail but it’s better via a phone call. You can also do this via a third party. Someone the employer trusts can suggest that the manager have this brief discussion with you — one of its employees, consultants, customers, vendors or other friend of the company.

Weed out tire-kickers

By the way, those “three things” you could do? Describe very briefly, but provide no details. If they press you, invoke the 10 minute limit you both agreed to. “I have another commitment so I have to run, but I’d be happy to flesh out the details with you in a proper job interview. When is good for you?”

This is a great way to weed out tire-kickers who want applicants to invest time and effort that they won’t invest themselves. Of course, you will have to do a bit of work in advance to pull this off. Suggesting specific ways you can do the job profitably will not be easy. But if this opportunity isn’t worth your time to do that, then this employer and job are not worth the time and guesswork to write a cover letter.

Remember: While they are judging your compliance with their hiring process, you must judge them, too, on how they pick their candidates. Are they ready to roll up their sleeves and talk shop for a few minutes, or are they too busy eating cover-letter and baloney sandwiches?

Do you need a cover letter to apply for a job? Do you know something better? If you don’t use cover letters, how do you get an employer’s attention?

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Caregiver faces resume gap & reference risk

Caregiver faces resume gap & reference risk

In the January 7, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader takes time to be Mom’s caregiver and worries about a resume gap and references.

Question

caregiverI left my job of 16 years with two weeks’ notice and a cordial thank you to my boss. My boss was bitter that I decided to move on and it was very apparent my last day. I worry that if an employer calls and asks to speak with him he would not give me a good recommendation even after 16 years of service. I had assumed that most companies are just allowed to verify employment. What if they contact my former boss directly?

The next problem is why I left that job: My mother had a stroke and I became her full-time caregiver. This was much harder than any job I’ve ever had. I am adding a simple bullet point on my resume listing this time as “Primary caregiver for ill immediate family member.” Is this how I should account for this time gap?

Nick’s Reply

The very best job applicant can be sunk when employers rely on information that the applicant has no opportunity to explain. If your old boss gives a negative reference and you have no chance to refute it, you’re done. If an employer is troubled by a gap on your resume because you were a caregiver and you’re not there to explain it, you lose. You’ll never know what happened in either case.

The problem here isn’t your old boss or your resume — or that you took time off to be Mom’s caregiver. The problem is that you’re allowing someone (an unexpected reference) or something (your resume) to represent you. Why not be represented to your advantage by someone the employer trusts?

Caregiver resume gap

Explaining work gaps is always iffy – so much depends on the attitude of the employer reading that resume. This is why I advocate not using a resume to introduce yourself to a company. A resume cannot defend you.

A resume that raises questions you are not present to answer can easily hurt you. A gap on your resume might trigger a quick, thoughtless rejection. Situations like yours make it risky to rely on a resume as the way to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know who does not know you.

Reference risk

You need to head off concerns by helping the hiring manager learn about you from a source more reliable than a resume. You need someone to paint you as a desirable job candidate before any questions are raised.

Try to wrangle a personal introduction to the hiring manager through a mutual contact — someone who does know you and who can speak up for you to answer an employer’s concerns about the caregiver gap, and who can parry a negative reference that’s not under your control. Check these ideas from other readers about how to network your way to a great introduction.

Send an advance party

You may have to work hard to find and cultivate that mutual contact – but it’s really the only way to get a hiring manager’s serious attention and to counteract worries about your gap. Send an advance party. In other words, you need someone to tell the hiring manager you’re worth hiring before they find a (silly) reason to reject you. (See How to get to the hiring manager.)

If you must use a resume, I agree that you should probably include a short note about the caregiving. But managers and HR get so many resumes that they look first for a reason to reject an applicant. Don’t give them that reason. A preemptive personal referral or introduction from someone the employer trusts can make all the difference.

The truth about references

It’s improper for an employer to contact your old boss without your permission for a reference. I think most companies honor this. An HR department that’s called for a reference should provide nothing more than verification of past employment. But managers and HR have their own back channels – their own trusted network that will talk to them off the record. So you can never tell what they will learn about you.

For all these reasons, a trusted personal recommendation is the best way to offset any concerns an employer might have about a resume gap or about one poor reference. Don’t wait for problems to arise. Cultivate personal contacts to get you in the door and to preempt objections a resume might trigger. For more about this, please see Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke. I admire you for stepping in to help your mom. I wish you both the best.

Have you ever been hurt by a work gap on your resume? Or by a bitter old boss? How did you explain it? How would you advise this reader?

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Resumectomy: Surgery for job seekers

Resumectomy: Surgery for job seekers

In the November 12, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader proposes resumectomy to save the patient.

resumectomy

Question

Does it occur to anyone that there is something wrong when a very good (flawless) resume or LinkedIn profile returns nothing, no interviews, no jobs — not even a thank you for applying? Why do we use them? I’m looking for an alternative to a resume. Is there an alternative?

Nick’s Reply

People have been asking me about resumes a long time! Let’s try something. This is one of the oldest articles on Ask The Headhunter: Resume Blasphemy. It’s an exercise. It suggests an alternative to resumes. I’d like to ask everyone to please read it — it’s pretty brief. Then come back and continue here.

Have a resume, put it away

Everyone should have a good resume, and it should be clear, concise and easy to read. It should list places you’ve worked, job titles, education and time periods. Brief descriptions of what you did at each job are best.

That’s it. No fluff. No branding. Your resume is not a “marketing piece.” It’s a document that fills in the blanks about you for a hiring manager you have already had substantive contact with. Otherwise it’s just a dumb piece of paper or bucket of bits. Put it away until you talk with the manager.

Don’t use your resume “to get in the door.” Ten million other resumes are ahead of yours. And almost nobody reads them.

The purpose of the Resume Blasphemy article is to nudge people away from resumes as a job-getting tool. There is no such thing. You are the job-getting tool.

Resumectomy

Of course, I get loads of arguments, opinions and  “yes, buts” about my position on resumes. (My favorite is, “I know an algorithm is going to process it, but you can’t win if you don’t play.”) That’s why I’d like to ask you all to strap on a rubber apron and some gloves.

Let’s cut the resume open. Let’s do surgery. Maybe we should just remove most of it, do ya think? A resumectomy. Don’t mind the splatter. It’s all good.

3 Questions

Three questions for everyone:

  1. Do you even use a resume to get a job? If not, then what?
  2. If you do use a resume, what do you put on it that gets you in the door and gets you hired?
  3. What do people put on their resumes that sinks their efforts to get a job?

(If you’re a hiring manager, we’d all love to know how you’d answer those questions from your side of the desk.)

Okay, scalpel.

What’s that in there, in the resume? Is it alive? Is it beating? Or is it just mush? Should we take it out? Is a transplant in order?

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Unemployment 3.7%, slow-down in hiring up 84%

Unemployment 3.7%, slow-down in hiring up 84%

hiring

For a flat fee, an employer that’s hiring can get over 9 million resumes from ZipRecruiter. That’s great news, because with unemployment in the U.S. at record lows (3.7% in July 2019), employers need more job applicants!

Not. Actually, employers are drowning in resumes and job applicants.

News I want you to use

The HCM Technology Report says Indecisive Hiring Managers Cause Employers to Lose Talent. Do ya think???

“In 2018, hiring managers took 33 days to make an offer after interviewing a candidate. That’s an 84 percent increase compared to 2010. The extended timeframe led to a 16 percent reduction in accepted offers.”

What changed in 8 years? An employer can get over 9 million resumes for a few bucks.

And you wonder why hiring managers take forever to decide whether to hire you? More jobs stay vacant longer because HR and hiring managers are so overwhelmed with wrong job applicants that they can’t decide who are the good ones.

What hiring slow-down means to job seekers

  • You need to account for poor management when you interview for a job.
  • You should avoid the cattle call of the job boards.

What this means to employers

HCM says:

“Companies that encourage decisive behavior by hiring managers reduce time-to-fill by 17 percent.”

“Hiring managers should spend more time engaging with candidates. This is critical… because candidates trust hiring managers four times as much as they trust recruiters.”

Maybe HR departments should turn off the fire hose of resumes and teach hiring managers how to hire.

There’s lots more news you can use in the HCM Technology Report.

How long did it take to get hired or rejected by the last employer that interviewed you? Did the hiring manager seem to know what they were doing?

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Want the job? Go around HR

In the March 5, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wastes time begging HR.

Question

Can I re-apply for a job if there are vacancies still open after my application has been turned down?

HRNick’s Reply

Of course you can. But why would you want to? Fool me once, fool me twice — you’ve already learned this company chews up applications and spits them out without even talking to the applicant.

Think about this: The hiring manager probably doesn’t even know you applied! The manager probably has never seen your resume! A personnel clerk with no expertise in the work you do (or in the open job) put a big X on your application.

But there’s a smart alternative: Go around Human Resources (HR). Go around the job application form.

Go around the system

The conventional advice on this problem is that if HR has already rejected you, you shouldn’t waste your time. But that’s like the boy who shows up to a girl’s house to ask her on a date — and the gardener shoos him away, so he gives up.

Personnel jockeys don’t control the jobs, so don’t let their officious posturing convince you that they do. They control the applications — but don’t go that route! Don’t take no for an answer until you hear it straight from the hiring manager.

Go around HR

Get in the door without an application, and without facing the “job application meat grinder software.” Here are the basic steps for going around the system — though they are not for the meek.

1. Throw out your resume.

The average time a manager spends reading a resume is six seconds. It’s not a good way to get in the door. (See Tear your resume in half.) Don’t use a resume.

2. Don’t apply for jobs. Find problems to solve.

You have millions of competitors applying for millions of jobs, so stop competing with them. Don’t submit job applications. Instead, read the business and industry press. Find a handful of companies that have specific, well-publicized problems. Decide how you can help solve those problems. (If you can’t figure that out, then that company or job is not for you.)

3. Find the managers.

HR will tell you you’re not allowed to contact hiring managers directly. That’s the best reason to contact the managers directly! But don’t ask the managers for a job. Talk shop. Explain that you’ve learned about their problem. (See How to get to the hiring manager.)

4. Offer a solution.

Whether in person, by phone or e-mail (in that order of preference) briefly explain to the manager how you can help solve the problem. Outline your solution in 3-5 steps. Don’t give all the details — but your summary had better be good.

5. Ask for a 20-minute meeting, not a job interview.

“If you’ll spend 20 minutes with me, I’ll show you why I’d be a profitable hire. If I can’t prove it to you in those 20 minutes, I will leave.”

That’s no easy task. But if you can’t show in 20 minutes why you’re worth hiring, then you have no business in that meeting. Of course, you will have to present a more detailed “proof” if the manager is impressed.

Everything else is a waste of time, designed to make busy work for HR that looks like productivity. You can and should apply for a job you believe — and can prove — you can do. But don’t waste your time applying on a form to the HR department.

For more about this approach to landing the job you want, please see Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door.

If you want another shot at another job at this company, of course you can try again! But don’t waste your time with the gate keeper. Go talk to the real decision maker!

Now get to work, because doing what I suggest is hard work — as hard as that great job you want. So do the work to prove you can do the job.

I’d like to hear from those who are willing to invest the time and effort to try what I’ve suggested. Any takers? How do you go around HR?

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Job interviews are illegal. What now?

Ask The Headhunter is usually about Q&A, but we’re going to do something different this week. We’re going to eliminate job interviews.

job interviewsI could write this column forever and not run out of material because you give me tons of great questions about job hunting and hiring, and each week I give you advice. But I have no delusion that it’s the best advice because the best advice surfaces in the discussions we have every week about whatever topic we’re covering.

You test everything I tell you, and that’s why I love doing Ask The Headhunter. But I’m going to suggest that you boldly start testing employers and the entire employment system that governs job hunting and hiring.

Question the employment system

What we do here every week is no-holds-barred evaluation and critique of whatever column we’re discussing. I like to think that’s what you come here for — for the candid, honest, respectful dialogue. I don’t think any other online public forum dares to do this.

So it occurred to me, why can’t you test the assumptions and methods employers use to match people to jobs?

  • Why can’t you question the entire recruiting, interviewing and hiring process they subject you to?
  • Why do employers dictate how this is done?
  • Why are there no serious debates about the underpinnings of the employment system that employers and job seekers alike complain doesn’t deliver enough good matches — sometimes no matches at all?

That’s the Question of this edition: What should be done to dramatically change the employment system?

I want to hear about, and discuss, your ideas — because the employment system needs a major overhaul.

What if the employment system were illegal?

To motivate your thinking, I’ll propose a scenario: Resumes, job postings and job interviews are now illegal. They’re off limits.

The iconic emblems of our employment system have been vaporized by fiat. (Just like HR departments vaporize your job applications.) Employers and job seekers cannot use the machine any more — the machine that builds and sells shopping lists of your credentials and skills, that catalogs the “requirements” of jobs (as if jobs remain static once they are filled!), and that regulates the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions that managers rely on to predict whether you can do a job.

In a world where vacant jobs supposedly outnumber unemployed people, where job seekers ghost the employers that used to ghost them (Rude Employers: Slam-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’m), and where none of 10,000 applicants have the necessary education, skills and experience to do an advertised job — we must figure out all over again, How should employers find and hire people?

Has Nick cracked up?

If this sounds like a fool’s errand, a waste of time, or a silly exercise that will change nothing, consider this example.

Several years ago I delivered the keynote at a conference of the National Resume Writers Association. (Yep — they hired a guy who says not to use resumes to give a speech to people who make their money writing resumes.)  In the middle of my talk, I gave over 200 professional resume writers this exercise:

“Break yourselves up into groups of five. You have ten minutes to figure this out. What if resumes were illegal starting today? What would you sell to your clients instead?”

A few in the audience were visibly upset that they were paying to hear a guy tell them resumes were bad. They thought their association president must have cracked up — or that I was cracked for suggesting they stop selling resumes!

The rest of the audience lit up and went to work. They came up with some great ideas.

My favorite: One team suggested a new business model for themselves. They’d organize coffee hours or cocktail parties for groups of their job-seeking clients with hiring managers “to get them out of their business environment and bring them together in a social environment to loosen up a little and talk about their work.”

This group figured people might pay for a service like that. Done right, I think people would.

If a hall full of resume writers can smash their business model, surely we can upend the employment system and come up with good ideas to replace it.

Would you like to audition?

I’ll give you another example of startling ingenuity applied to fixing the employment system. In a comment he posted to a recent column (Weird Tales of Job Offers: The new hire who disappeared), reader Tim Cunningham suggested nobody should take a job without a no-fault audition.

“An employer and employee should have a short opportunity to judge the fit of the new situation for both parties with minimal risk. Just make a one-week mutual audition a part of the job offer.”

That is, an employer shouldn’t hire anyone, and no one should quit (or give notice at) their old job to take a new one, until both have had a try-out. Imagine how profoundly that would change things.

Job interviews are illegal

This is your chance to burn down the house and design a new one. And don’t feel guilty about it. None other than Laszlo Bock, the head of Human Resources at Google, told the New York Times that his company ran a big data analysis:

“We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess…”

Job interviews really should be illegal because Bock says they’re worthless as predictors of job success. Google announced this in 2013, and HR is still paying LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and Indeed to schedule — what do we call them? — job interviews?

So please have at it, folks. Job interviews (and resumes and job postings) are illegal. So, what now?

  • What’s the smartest thing to do to get paid for doing work?
  • What should a manager do to get work done?
  • Do people and work have to be “found?”
  • How should we decide whether it’s a good idea to work together — and that it’s going to pay off?
  • What’s the best way to assess a person’s fit to a job? Does that even really matter?
  • If, as Tim Cunningham suggests, we should do auditions, how would that work?
  • If, as the resume writers suggested, there’s a better way for employers and the talent to dispense with the formalities and get to know one another — what is it?

What should be done to dramatically change the employment system? All comers are welcome: Big ideas, little ideas, seemingly crazy ideas, and especially ideas that work better than the system that doesn’t.

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When to decline an employee referral for a job

In the February 27, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions how meaningful an employee referral is when it’s impersonal.

Question

employee referralA friend at a company I’m interested in working for referred me for a job. I have a phone interview scheduled with a “technical recruiter” later today. I asked if there was any special preparation I could do for the interview. I was told no, that we would be covering my previous experience and projects during the call.

You always recommend using a job interview to demonstrate how the applicant would actually do the job. Since the interview is with a recruiter, not the hiring manager who runs the technical team, I somehow doubt there will be an opportunity to demonstrate I can do the job.

I’m surprised at the way they’re handling this. I already have a strong recommendation from an employee. Why should I talk to a recruiter first? Nobody needs to recruit me — I’ve already been recruited and referred!

[A reader posted a shorter version of this story as a comment on another column. I edited it so it would stand on its own.]

Nick’s Reply

This is a good example of a truly stupid move by an employer. You’re absolutely correct: There is no need for a recruiter to screen you because you’ve already been screened and recruited!

Why do companies even have employee referral programs if they’re going to treat referred job candidates like some unknown applicant?

Employee referral or bureaucratic process?

In fact, the intervention of the recruiter should give people like you pause. This tells you the company’s hiring process is broken. The company can’t tell the difference between random applicants and desirable job candidates — or doesn’t care.

We see another form of such foolishness when a recruiter interviews a random applicant (who was not referred personally), then tells them to go to the company website to fill out a lengthy form about their qualifications. But, what was the point of the interview if not to judge the candidate’s qualifications?

The problem in both cases is that the selection process is thoughtlessly bureaucratic and unduly stretched out after a candidate has already been scrutinized. This redundancy turns off the best candidates and often results in the employer losing them.

The purpose of any recruiting and selection process must be to get good candidates to the hiring manager as quickly and enthusiastically as possible!

(When it doesn’t work that way, it may be prudent to politely decline an employee referral for a job.)

Personal referrals deserve personal attention

I think you’re right to harbor doubts and to question how you’re being treated — and to be concerned that the upcoming interview with the recruiter is not worthy of your time. You won’t be able to show what you can do. Only the hiring manager is qualified to have that kind of exchange with you. Why waste your time?

When an employee makes a personal referral (it should have been made to the actual manager, by the way), the manager should personally jump on it and make the call immediately. The employee, after all, has done the manager a favor, and so have you. The manager should treat this trusted personal referral as a gift. Otherwise, it’s a huge dis to the employee — because why else would they ever make a personal referral again, if it isn’t handled personally by the manager?

Why bother?

We won’t even get into why you’d ever accept a referral from your friend again, if this is how you’re going to be received. The friend has an obligation to make sure the hiring manager welcomes you enthusiastically and gratefully. Unfortunately, employees of companies that have referral programs know they’re usually a bureaucratic nightmare. (For a better way to make a referral, please see Referrals: How to gift someone a job (and why).)

Of course, any job candidate should be thoroughly interviewed and assessed. A personal referral is no guarantee of a job. But it should be a guarantee of the best treatment a company and a manager can offer.

Sheesh, employers are stupid. Then they complain they can’t find good candidates. (See Referrals: How employers waste proven talent.)

My advice is to call your friend the employee and explain you’d be glad to meet with the hiring manager on the friend’s recommendation — “which I really appreciate.” But add that you didn’t apply for the job from off the street, and you’re not going to spend your valuable time getting grilled by a recruiter.

How to Say It:

“Look, I appreciate the personal referral. It was kind of you, and I hope I can return the favor some day. But if the manager isn’t ready to talk with me on your recommendation, then it’s not worth my time, either. I’m glad to invest time to show a manager how I’ll do the technical work properly and profitably. But I don’t have time to chat with a recruiter about my resume. If the manager would like to meet with me, I’m ready for that discussion any time. Thanks again for your faith in me.”

If I were the employee who made the referral, I’d go talk to the manager and suggest the manager make the call promptly. “I’m trying to help you fill a job, but I need you to help preserve the respect this candidate has for me and for our company. I made a personal referral expecting this individual would be treated personally and with care. Is there anything I can do to help move this along?”

Should a personal employee referral be treated personally? What’s your experience been when you’ve been referred for a job? Does your company have an employee referral program? How does it work — and do you participate?

 

The worst job hunting advice ever

In the February 20, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an HR pro warns unsuspecting readers to avoid getting hurt by bad advice on Ask The Headhunter.

Question

adviceI’ve been in Human Resources 12 years and I have to say your article Resume Blasphemy is probably the worst advice I have ever heard anyone give to a job seeker. The best evidence of future performance is past achievement. I need to know where you worked, where you went to school and what you have accomplished. If that is not on the resume, I don’t read it.

I highly recommend you remove that article before you hurt any more unsuspecting job seekers.

Nick’s Reply

I’m hurting job hunters, when you’re the one tossing their resumes, unread, in the trash?

I help unsuspecting job hunters avoid getting hurt by teaching them how to get past personnel jockeys like you altogether.

The best HR people I’ve known don’t rely on resumes any more than I do. But they’re few.

A job hunter is lucky to encounter an HR person who knows how to read between the lines, both literally and figuratively. The best HR folks manage to avoid blinders when recruiting. They don’t approach candidates (or resumes) with preconceived notions. Like I said, these HR people are few, but they know who they are.

You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m glad you’ve shared it. I’m publishing it because job hunters need to see firsthand how some HR representatives deal with resumes. (I stand by the Blasphemous Resume.) You make two statements that prove just how dangerous it can be to blindly send resumes to HR departments.

HR Advice: “The best evidence of future performance is past achievement.”

I’m always astonished at how horribly recruiters are hobbled by such claptrap. Here we have an employer who can ask job applicants for any information he wants. So, what does he ask for? A lame, one-size-fits-all recitation of “past achievements.”

First, what constitutes an achievement is subjective. I’ve met job candidates with achievement awards up the yin-yang from companies where showing up in clean clothes every day earns them a regular promotion and a raise. I’ve also met candidates whose resumes are nothing more than lists of tedious job functions, but who underneath all that are outstanding workers.

Second, a clever resume-writing service can apply “action verbs” to turn the most mundane worker into a seeming powerhouse of a job candidate.

Finally, I’ve known people whose resumes showed they were good performers again and again in their past. Unfortunately, they could not translate their abilities to handle the next job.

It took me only three months to land my dream job. It was advertised absolutely everywhere, so I’m sure they received a boatload of qualified candidates.

In thinking back as to how I grabbed this job, I’m 100% positive it was because I followed your Ask The Headhunter advice and did the job in the interview. That simple maneuver set me apart from all the others vying for the job.

Thank you, Nick. Being a member of this community has literally changed my life.

— Elizabeth Weintraub

But, can you do this job?

The outcomes in all these scenarios are problematic. Good candidates are lost and lousy ones are hired because the best evidence of future performance is not past achievements. (I’d go further and argue that past performance is not sufficiently predictive of future performance, no matter where it is described.)

When an employer can ask for any information he wants, he should ask for a demonstration of a candidate’s ability to do the work at hand. That means the candidate should show, right there in the interview, that she can do the work profitably, or learn to do it in short order. (I offer reader Elizabeth Weintraub’s quote as just one example.)

But it’s impossible for a job candidate to do the job in the interview with an HR representative, because no one in HR is expert in the specific work of any department of a company (other than HR). A job hunter wastes her time when she gets caught in the “HR filter” before she establishes with the hiring manager that there are good reasons to meet and talk.

HR Advice: “If that is not on the resume, I don’t read it.”

“I need to know where you worked, where you went to school and what you have accomplished. If that is not on the resume, I don’t read it.”

This statement is a good tip-off to job hunters: HR doesn’t read all resumes.

Any resume that’s missing what titillates the keyword algorithm gets nixed. And, who’s to say what might or might not stimulate your (that is, a personnel jockey’s) rejection reaction? Pity the poor slob who went to a school that pummeled your alma mater’s football team. Who wants to take that chance?

It’s also important for job hunters to remember that an HR representative is not the hiring manager. I’ve never met a hiring manager who would reject a candidate who provided a detailed plan of how she would do the job profitably. However, many are the managers who’ve said to me, “Just because she did a job at another company doesn’t mean she can do this job here. Our needs are unique.” (Mind you, I’m not arguing that history is irrelevant; only that it’s not the best way to introduce yourself to an employer, and that it’s not an adequate basis for screening candidates. See Tell HR you don’t talk to the hand.)

The rejection question

It seems you refuse to read resumes that you don’t immediately understand, in spite of the fact that you can’t possibly be an expert in all the disciplines that are important to your company. The smart job hunter will thus wonder, What’s on my resume that might get me rejected? and conclude that it might be anything.

The better risk for a job hunter is to deal directly with the hiring manager, who is likely more interested in the value of the candidate than in words on a resume or in the HR department’s (or some algorithm’s) binary judgement. (See HR Technology: Terrorizing the candidates.)

I advise job hunters to skip, avoid, have nothing to do with the HR department until they have talked with the hiring manager.

Resumes: Too much noise?

There is not a single good reason for a filter at the HR level when a company is hiring. A good manager (these are few and far between, too) recruits, interviews and hires on his own. HR’s job is to provide support, not to decide which applicants the manager gets to see.

(The manager who argues that HR is needed to filter the thousands of incoming resumes should consider that he might be better off not relying on ads that generate tons of resumes that need sorting to begin with.)

noiseMy suggestion to most businesses is that they can relieve their HR departments of recruiting, candidate selection and hiring functions without any significant loss. The HR function is Human Resources, not Human Recruiting. (See How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants.) Recruiting is best left to people who have skin in the game: managers and headhunters who specialize in specialized talent markets. (Yah, I know, maybe we should exclude headhunters, too. That’s another debate.)

Blasphemous advice

Your warning confirms that my advice is indeed blasphemous. (Whew. Thanks.)

I contend that resumes include too much noise. Too many good candidates are lost because HR clerks rely on words in resumes to filter them out. Too many inappropriate candidates wind up getting interviewed just because they have the right buzzwords on their resumes. And it’s all just so much noise that hides the signals that truly matter.

I suggest you read Resume Blasphemy again, more carefully. Perhaps your resume-sorting habits have made you so accustomed to blocking things out that you missed something that matters. The point of the article is explicitly stated:

“In fact, once you have produced a Working Resume, you will likely have done the kind of research and made the kinds of contacts that will probably make a resume entirely unnecessary — you will already be ‘in the door’. (That’s the point.)”

No need to rag on HR, but let’s discuss the two assumptions this personnel jockey made. (1) Is past achievement really the best evidence of future performance? (2) What information on your resume does HR really need in order to judge you?

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