This – long – post is a reaction to more than a handful of recent conversations I’ve had with friends or networking friends who have had some sub-optimal experiences lately in various company’s recruitment practices. (Actually, these have been some piss-poor really @#$@#$ experiences. I’m just trying to clean things up a bit.)
What’s the Problem?
There’s some big, obvious reasons you could have trouble recruiting. Maybe your company/brand reputation is lousy. Maybe you’re not paying enough. Maybe you have some crappy managers and one or both online networks and the whisper network knows it. (After all, it’s become a cliche that people often don’t so much leave a job or a company so much as a manager. Not always true of course. But often enough the case.)
There could be a whole lot more reasons you’re having challenges getting the right people in the right seats. But here’s a new pair for you to consider. Horrible initial contact and really bad Application Tracking Systems and Candidate Evaluation Processes. As a hiring manager, you might have limited control over this sort of thing at a larger company where Human Resources is in control of such systems. But if you’re senior enough at your company, you may want to take a peek at these things because they may be hurting you. This blog post was motivated by a couple of my own experiences along with discussions with others who’ve had similar – or worse – experiences. It could be just a statistically random blip with a raft of recent issues of which I just happened to become aware. Or things could be getting worse in some cases. So I’ll just throw these thoughts out there into the world and you can take them as you will.
Alright, this first story isn’t mine. It was recounted to me by a mid-to-senior level person who was being recruited for a strategy position at a fairly well known consumer packaged goods (CPG) company. Now, often such companies have a reasonably well oiled machine for hiring. They’re often big on the marketing MBA types, many of the recruiters are well known to top applicants and so forth.
Here’s what happened in this case. Initial contact was initiated via LinkedIn. Hi, I’m Jane Doe from blah blah and we saw your Profile, blah blah, etc. etc. Great. Phone screen was set up. It turns out, the initial screen was with a super low end junior recruiter type person who neither works for the company, nor even for what you’d typically think of as a retained search firm. The hiring company had actually completely outsourced initial screening to a factory type headhunting agency! I’m not going to say to whom, but… this was bad. (And yes, I suppose you could argue this was a “retained” search, but c’mon… let’s make a distinction between a true professional retained recruiter or firm vs. a meat market headhunter shop and with minimal experience besides.)
Regardless, the point is for this level of position, you’re going to be calling a professional who’s mid-career, somewhat senior, and so on. If you want the newbie junior staff to be doing initial LinkedIn and other searches/screens, fine. But they probably shouldn’t be making the first call. Or even email contact. If they are, it should be clear up front it’s to set up a call with someone else. Someone more senior. There’s maybe a rare exception for a truly professional junior person. Even then, for Director level or above – and certainly for VP or above – someone responsible for decision making should be making the contact.
Anyway, this Candidate easily passed the first screen, but had such a bizarre non-productive screen with this initial contact, (because the person didn’t know #@$@#-all about the job or the company or the industry), they basically said, “Wow. I don’t expect to hear from them, and I don’t really care. If this is their @#$@$# hiring process, what the hell can the company be like!” Within a week, the Candidate got another contact. But this time from someone at the company. This was a much better conversation. It included some chat about the initial contact. The Candidate was not overly critical, because you just really can’t be that way right off the bat, but kind of a hint/question that there was some confusion.
To their credit in this case, the HR person handling this second contact said something like, “Yeah, we had some serious problems with our outsourcing firm and we’re dealing with it. Sorry for any confusion.” Sorry. The person apologized for the crappy treatment. That was appreciated and this candidate moved forward. They almost didn’t. Because this person was on the edge of not even wanting to do the second call because they were so put off by the first. Fortunately for this particular company, the strength of their brand was enough that the Candidate said, “You know, maybe this was just an aberration. Let’s see what happens, just out of curiosity.”
So what’t the point? First contact is important. Really important. It’s maybe ok to have someone junior make an initial reach out. Maybe. But for Director, VP or above? Maybe a really bad idea. The Candidate won’t think you’re at all serious.
Applicant Tracking Systems
Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) have become popular at companies of all sizes, but especially larger ones that get thousands of applications. Why? They do make things easier in terms of internal processes. You can do all kinds of things with fielded data that make life easier during the process. It’s easier to administer the process, comply with EEO monitoring and reporting laws and tons more. At least, this is how ATS companies sell the benefits. They also like to add value with everything from personality tests to who knows what. There’s just a few problems. Or more.
- The User Experience with these things is often lousy, and that’s being kind. Every ATS product company will have it’s own roadmap with things they want to add/fix, etc. (Just like any software business.) But this is a case where your company is being represented to a brand new Candidate by someone else’s software. And they’re being forced to endure it because you require them to fill out the various forms, etc. They’re a captive audience. This doesn’t seem to give the companies that make such software motivation to do better. Yes, they all say easy to use, etc. etc. But there’s really not a lot of pressure on them to do so because the Candidate isn’t their priority. Your company needs are. The problem here is you’re not the only one doing the screening during a recruiting process. Your candidates are screening you as well. Make the process hostile, and maybe that great candidate just exits the process. “Wow, if this is the hiring process, what kind of meat grinder is it to work at the company???” And if your company is putting itself out there as being customer/employee focused or driving innovation? Then you put someone into something like this? It’s actually a pretty big red flag. Or at least yellow. Once again, it’s the ole’ Dirty Bathroom issue. You know, where you’re maybe in a nice restaurant, but the bathroom is a pit and it makes you question everything else about the place. (And rightly so.)
- Forced Choices are often False Choices.
Whether intentional or due to poor questionnaire design, surveys in these types of systems often have choices that don’t reflect what a Candidate might want to answer. We’ve all filled out surveys that don’t have the “not applicable” choice for issues with which we just had no experience. We’ve all had those “Select best answer” questions when none were very good. The question becomes, has your process gotten out of control? These things you’re asking… do you really need to know? Do they really matter? And if they do, is this really the best way to find out?
- Asking for Information you really don’t need is off-putting. Do you really need people to enter their references into an ATS during an early contact? We all know any references are going to generally offer positive comments. That’s fine. It’s a due diligence thing a hiring manager might use later in a process. It’s not something you need early in a process. It’s not something any senior level Candidate is going to offer you on initial contact. References are precious commodities that need to be guarded and used only at the very end of the process. References in particular aren’t the point here. There’s zero need to get this personal upfront. One exception might be for high security type situations. (Once upon a time a project I was involved with required a Dept. of Defense clearance. You haven’t seen a questionnaire or interview situation that’s as deeply personal until you’ve been through one of these! But in this case, the reasons why are clear and obvious.)
- What Kind of Employee are You Recruiting?
Anyone or any position that is a) highly creative/innovative, or b) fairly senior, is likely going to have some percentage of Candidates that just balk at your process right at this level. I wonder, does your system track abandonment within the system and how many candidates end up telling your recruiter something like, “Thanks, but it turns out I just took a position at XYZ or whatever.” This can be due to being so put off by a recruitment process, that they just abandoned the process.
- Hey, you called me, remember? All that’s been said already gets even worse when it’s you or a recruiter reaching out to a target candidate. There’s no good reason for a bad process for anyone, but someone you’re trying to woo to come to you? Think about it. Someone reaches out, does the pitch, and then dumps a Candidate into the maw of The System. Huh? I thought we were just talking here? Let’s have a chat and see if there’s any real fit. If there is, then we can do the whole thing. But I’m not expending the effort, (or giving up all this personal info), to you when I don’t know yet if I want anything to do with you. I mean, it’s only the first or second date, and you want to meet the whole family before any next steps?
The Interview Process
How are people treated during the interview process? Before they even come in, were they given a schedule including names of people with whom they’re meeting? Did they have good directions to the office? Were they told what to do/say to reception? Again, the screen is going both ways here.
I want to tell you another story about a recruitment process. This one is personal. I’ll save the suspense: I didn’t get this job. I lost out to another candidate with more direct subject matter experience in this case. I’ve told this story before because it was a great learning experience for me. Even though I didn’t get this job, it was a lesson for me – as a hiring manager myself – in how to treat people. I thought I had always been doing things generally ok, but this was a new level of class.
First of all, this was for a reasonably high level position. And the retained recruiter was a real, true screen for the company, not just another headhunter. He knew the company and the job well and we did a phone screen and in person lunch prior to anything further. Next came well scheduled multiple calls and finally, an in person interview, which was in another city. The recruiter helped arrange my travel. And when I got to where I was going, in my hotel room was a company notebook with a pen, some snacks and other schwag, as well as a handwritten letter from the hiring manager. It was a very nice note that welcomed me to the city and thanked me for taking the time to visit, etc. Wow. Just wow. Obviously, I was already interested in the job. But now I was also really impressed by the hiring manager. These were simple small things. Not really important. But then again, they were. It was a personal touch. An indication of appreciation and that they cared about both my effort and their company’s brand.
The next day was filled with lots of chats including my required presentations, etc. Lunch with manager. Dinner with team. Etc. etc. I was given clear expectations they had just a couple more people to talk to and it would be a week or so before next steps, if any. Meanwhile, my expenses were reimbursed by the recruiter within two days of my return. Again, wow. What class. A week passed and the recruiter got in touch. They were going in the proverbial different direction. But I got great feedback from them about the reasons why. That is, not the usual brush off, but clear information on why it turned out the other person was a better fit. And they were fair reasons. So, while I was disappointed, I wasn’t confused or annoyed even. If anything, I was appreciative of such openness and candor. And over time, I’ve stayed cordial with the hiring manager and had the occasional productive business exchange or information sharing here or there. Even with the failed outcome – on my part – the overall experience was positive. And most of all, I came away thinking, “This is how to behave. This is the right way to treat people. This is how I want to treat people. I’ve always done ok here, but now I know I can do even better.”
Conversely, (and I won’t go into detail on these negative experiences as this post is already too long), I’ve had a couple of really bad initial phone and interview experiences. And yes, in these cases, I actually exited the process. Maybe the company didn’t care much as perhaps I wasn’t a good fit then anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten the job anyway. The point is, it wasn’t the company’s choice anymore. Again, the impetus for this post wasn’t the relatively few poor experiences I’ve had, it’s been that lately I’ve heard a lot of really bad stories from various networked friends.
Is Your HR Value Add or PITA Blockers?
Ah, Human Resources! They can be a job seekers best buddy or administrative hell. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot to add here. I’ve personally been really lucky with this. The HR folks at the companies where I’ve worked have been great. As a hiring manager I can tell you great HR can be a massive, massive time saver and help to you. And as a Candidate, I’ve had several nice experiences with talented, friendly pros. And that’s even when things haven’t worked out. Perhaps it’s even more important to be dealing with great people when things aren’t right. At a certain point in your career, you’re not really looking for a job per se. You’re looking for a great fit at a place where everyone can be successful. It’s not even about pure skills; it’s about fitting the right puzzle pieces together. Skills, work style, cultural fit, etc. No one wants to go forward if things aren’t right. And great HR working with Candidates and hiring managers can make that discovery process as smooth as possible.
Automated Reference Process
This was new to me.
A former direct report of mine was up for a job at some company or another. That company contracts with a firm to ask for references. I almost said I wouldn’t do this because of the horrible process; which we’ll get to in a moment. But I was curious about the User Experience here, so I went ahead. This one time. I’m not doing something like this again. (Or maybe I would. If people worked well with or for you, I believe you have some degree of ongoing social obligation. But this kind of thing pushes the limits.)
Here’s the deal… I was this person’s former manager. Someone wanted to do a reference check. That’s fine. This has happened a lot. Over the years – in various positions – I’ve had several dozen direct reports or dotted line relationships. So every so often there’s two calls, first the Candidate “Hey, how’ve you been? Great! Can you be a ref for XYZ?” And then the Company, “Hi, so-and-so gave you as a reference, blah blah blah” and the usual conversation happens.
Not this time. This company wanted me to fill out a bunch of my personal information and then answer over 50 questions, (they were quick, but 50?!?), many of which were – in my opinion – bad questionnaire design with poor answer choices that didn’t properly reflect the candidate.
I did my best.
But really? You’re asking a potential reference to do this? Are you insane? That’s too much of an ask. And it’s also completely inappropriate. There are likely plenty of times when a reference just can’t do this because there’s no way they would want themselves in some kind of potential legal trouble for putting something “on paper.” But mostly, it’s a ridiculous and inappropriate way to treat either manager or Candidates. And what’s more, who are managers? Mostly, these are going to be decision makers. The hiring company in this case is a vendor of sorts. Guess what? I’ll never hire them.
My advice to the Candidate? “Hi, Listen, I did the reference thing at this place for you because you’re worth it. But I’m not doing something like this again. And I have to tell you, if this is how they treat the process, I think you should really evaluate the rest of your experience with them to see if you really want to work there. Also, just so you know, not that they’ll care about this, I’m not likely to ever use them. If this is how they treat people during their recruitment process, I’ve got no confidence in how they’d handle Clients.”
There’s likely more issues of which I’m not aware. The main takeaway here is that you could be struggling as a company partly because you’re not getting the best employees. And you might not be getting the best employees because your filters are filtering the wrong things. It’s kind of like the way you might think about some of those standardized tests. Whether filling in the circles with the #2 pencil or taking a more advanced adaptable test via computer, the person who’s gotten good at taking tests isn’t always the best one to actually be doing real work. Or maybe they are. The point is, it’s probably worthwhile to examine a process that may have gotten out of control without your full awareness. Because it might be hurting you in subtle, insidious ways.
Even the Great & Mighty Google figured this out. Once upon a time, I actually interviewed with them. I think we were on round four or five of our chats. Some were in person. Some were video, etc. But at this point, I had another job offer. At that point in my career, I had to do something about work. So I had to exit the process and take the other job. Now, would I have made the cut if I had kept going? Maybe not. That’s not the point. The Company no longer had the option. My understanding is they’ve streamlined things a bit, cut out the nonsensical brain teaser type questions, etc., and have maybe focused more on skills and fit for particular roles rather than engineering prowess for non-engineering jobs. Great. That’s not the point. The point is to illustrate that your hiring process itself could be holding back your whole company from success because you’re creating blockers to getting the kind of people you need to move forward. And you’re putting those blockers right at the front door!
You know where at least some of those Candidates might go? Yup. to your competitors. You know what they’re going to do when they get there? Yup. Kick your #$@#$ teeth in. Maybe mostly by accident because they’re just doing a good job and you become collateral damage. But maybe also with a little snicker because they think you deserve it.
If you’re a hiring manager or in HR, think about some of this from the Candidate’s perspective. If you’re ok, great. If not, you better fix it.