If You Were a Tree …

Keeping Out the Riff-Raff

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In an episode of Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty, the rude and incompetent owner of a small hotel, decides to place an ad for new guests. After describing his hotel in exquisite, if not exaggerated, detail, the ad states – No Riff-Raff.

Hardly the way to increase business. Nor is it a good way to attract high performing job candidates. So you’d imagine my surprise when someone pointed me to the following on an employer’s Web site (and unlike the restaurant I wrote about in my post Wanted – Top Chef http://wp.me/p3ovkQ-t, this is a mid-size organization, not some ma and pa shop). It reads as follows, with only small changes to protect the name of the organization. The comments in italics are my own.

We are not like any other organization you’ve seen, been a part of or applied for in the past.
Just because you aren’t like any other organization, that doesn’t make you better than any other organization.

We are unique.
You are also redundant.

We are radically different.
OK, we get it already. You must not be sure of this if you have to keep saying it over in different ways.

It’s not for the weak. It’s not for the lazy. It’s not for the job seeker. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Damn, I listed weak and lazy as attributes on my resume. Better remove those. Also, I don’t understand the job seeker comment. If I’m not seeking a job, why am I on your Web site?

We are looking for Passion. Care. Tenacity. Creativity. A mind that is open to new ideas, different ways of doing business. Heck, even crazy stuff. And if you have all that, you better have humility, rather than a really big head.
Does crazy stuff include coming into work with all your clothes inside out? Or singing to your customers instead of talking to them like you were in some Wagnerian Opera (complete with spear and magic helmet)? If so, I’m your man.

If you stop at the first answer, or stop when you can’t figure something out, or stop when you do not have a map on the road-trip, we are not going to be a match made in heaven.
Don’t you also want people who know enough to stop and ask for help? By the way, who uses a map anymore? Haven’t you ever heard of GPS?

You need to get up and start running when you hit a bump in the road.
Didn’t you just say this in a much longer way?

You have to be determined.
It’s getting redundant to say you are being redundant.

You have to look for the solution that is not so obvious.
Okay, I get it. Stop already!

You have to have an eagerness to meet new people, understand who they are, and seek a new way to make a difference in their life.
You are a mid-sized organization that hires people for all sorts of positions. Do you want an analyst who is good at making friends, or one who knows how to crunch the numbers?

If you need a formal classroom setting for training, you will not receive it here … we are all about jumping in with hands on learning.
In other words, you aren’t going to train employees to do their jobs, and then be upset when they fail.

We want advocates not just at work … this is a way of life.
Are you also going to make us shave our heads and shake a tambourine at the airport?

Be real and honest about who you are and what you want out of a career and the organization you want to work for.
So, I’m supposed to be real and honest, yet I’m supposed to give myself up to the organization. Sorry, I can’t do both.

We are on a mission to change people’s lives and be the most trusted organization in the world.
Your products are available at a dozen other places. You aren’t feeding the poor or healing the sick or housing the homeless. You sell goods and services for money. Time to get over yourselves.

Besides this being an example of why HR should not write its own copy, the question remains, even if I had everything they wanted, why would I want to go to work for them? Everything here is about what they want (or don’t want) from me. There isn’t anything here about what they will give me in return. Not even the perfunctory and ambiguous line, “we provide competitive pay and benefits”. Recruiting is sales. To find the best possible employees, an employer needs to brand and promote itself as the premier place to work.

About the only credit I can give this organization is that they are honest. I did a little research on this organization, and while you have to be careful of what you hear about organizations (most of it comes from former, disgruntled employees), what I suspected tended to be true. They throw people into their jobs with no direction, no training, no support, and then are surprised when the new hire doesn’t succeed. They care a great deal about their customers, but don’t understand that to serve the customer well, employers need to serve their employees well.

This organization does not value of their employees as assets and certainly doesn’t care about them as people. They put nothing into training or development. They want the employees to put the organization before everything else – family, friends, community. And in return, they’ll give little more than the honor of working for them. Turnover is high. Employee satisfaction is low.

The sad truth is, this organization probably believes that their list of requirements actually attracts candidates. But if you see something like this on an organization’s Web site, click away as fast as you can, delete them from your browser history, and never return.

They’re just trying to keep out the Riff-Raff.

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Testing, Testing, One – Two – Three …

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I was interviewing a candidate for a management position. The interview was going well. She was professional, knowledgable and well qualified. Towards the end of the interview, I said, “One last question, can I feel your head?”

Her mouth dropped. She stared at me wide-eyed. “Excuse me?”

I explained. “As part of our selection process, we use phrenology. We examine the size and shape of your skull to help determine your personality. For that, I need to feel your head.”

The candidate picked up her portfolio and left without another word. At least she didn’t come back and sue me for harassment – thinking I had some crazy head-fetish.

Of course, we don’t use phrenology in our selection process. It is a pseudoscience popular in the 19th century, and completely discredited today. No self-respecting employer would. But plenty of them use other tests that are just as useless.

In France, analyzing job candidates’ handwriting is quiet popular. Some estimates show that it is used by as much as 50 percent of employers, even though there is no evidence that handwriting analysis can accurately predict personality. When more than one analyst is given the same handwriting, for example, each arrives at a different analysis.

It’s easy to scoff at the French, but U.S. employers are almost as bad in their use of one dreaded tool: the personality test.

Most employers use these tests in conjunction with resume evaluations, interviews and other assessment tools in their unending quest to find perfect employees. The EEOC has ruled that this is perfectly acceptable, as long as it is not the sole decider in making the decision, and does not discriminate against a protected class (women, minorities, the disabled, etc.).

The first personality tests were psychological tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The problem with these tests is that they were designed to determine if someone had a psychological disorder, and if so, what it was. They were not designed to determine who would make a good employee. In other words, they worked off the assumption that you were crazy. The question was, what type of crazy were you?

While most employers today do not use these types of tests (although the U.S. government still uses the MMPI for highly sensitive jobs), they continue to use tests that are not designed for hiring. Many still use the Myers-Briggs, for example, even though this was a tool designed to help with training and development. It can be beneficial to customize career paths and development programs once someone is on board, but it doesn’t necessarily help employers identify the best candidates.

That’s one of the problems with most of these tests. They fail to predict who will make a good employee. For example, the test may be able to tell an employer whether the person is an introvert or an extrovert, but that doesn’t tell the employer whether that person would make a good sales person. Other factors, such as experience and attitude, are needed to determine this skill.

Another problem is that employers often don’t know what traits make a good employee in the first place. Many would instinctively say that an extrovert would make a better sales person. However, good sales people tend to be good listeners, and extroverts tend to talk more than listen.

The biggest problem with many of these tests is their reliability. The companies selling the tests will tell you that their test has been designed to ensure 100 percent honesty from the person answering the questions. Even if this is the case, the tests require that the person has an accurate self-perception in the first place. I once provided two dozen managers with a test to determine their management style. Of them, 23 had results that showed them to be participatory. This style encourages employees to voice opinions and empowers them to make decisions. The managers knew that this was the organization’s preferred style, so their answers naturally reflected this. I worked with many of these managers, and knew that their style was not participatory. They were either giving the answers they thought they were supposed to give, or else didn’t understand themselves enough to give the appropriate answers.

I stopped using personality tests in hiring years ago. While they often gave some insight to a person’s personality, they generally only confirmed what we read about the person from conversations and interviews. They added no insight. And even when they did, what might be considered negative traits were often overlooked in favor of other factors and so they did not change our hiring decision. They were also time-consuming and expensive to administer. So we dumped them, and guess what? We saw no decline in our success rate of new hires.

A woman I know had all the qualifications, licensing and certifications for the job she was applying for. She had years of experience and could quantify her success. The last step in the process was a personality test. After taking the test, she was told that it showed she was not a good fit for the profession.

Why do employers use personality tests if they don’t work? I blame my own field of HR. We succumb to the pressure to deliver perfect candidates every time. Personality tests provide the illusion that we are doing just that. On the surface, tests make it appear that we are providing scientific evidence that someone is a successful hire in a process that is anything but scientific.

So the next time an employer wants to use a personality test before hiring you, ask them to feel your head instead.

Unemployed Need Not Apply

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New York City recently passed a law making it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant based on whether or not that applicant is currently employed.

In other words, they passed a law to keep employers from being stupid.

Outright rejecting applicants currently unemployed has existed for years, but the Great Recession brought the issue to the forefront. Suddenly, not only did people find themselves among the unemployed, but among the long-term unemployed. Employers stating on job postings that only currently employed applicants will be considered didn’t help any. They may as well have plastered WHITES ONLY on their postings.

Employers give a variety of reasons for this stupidity. They claim that they have no reason of knowing why an applicant lost his/her last job. They think that if an applicant hasn’t been able to find a job in a while, it must be because they are not hirable. They state that being out of work for a period of time makes an applicant’s skills out of date.

The worst reason, however, is that the employer states that it gets so many resumes that it needs a way to single out the good ones. The employer may as well use criteria such as pet ownership or what type of car a person drives to screen applicants.

These reasons are never backed up with evidence. So I did a little study of my own using my current organization. In the past 16 months, 32 percent of our hires were not employed at the time of hire. I compared their performance to the those who were employed at the time of hire. Surprise! I found no significant difference. In fact, the poorest performers were all ones employed at the time of hire.

So there.

Candidates find themselves out of work for a variety of reasons, many of which are not their fault. They also may find that they miss out on new jobs for reasons not of their own making. Too many hiring managers think, well if so-and-so employer didn’t like this person, there must be something wrong. In making htis assumption, they forget one important fact.

A lot of bosses are idiots.

They ask interview questions like “Pick two celebrities to be your parents”, or “Name three Nobel Prize winners”. They have fired people for being too attractive or for leaving their post to save a carjacking victim. One man in Chicago was even fired for wearing a Green Bay Packers tie (even as a Bear’s fan, I can’t justify that one).

There are those people who have trouble finding and keeping jobs because they are lousy workers. But you can’t tell that from a resume or an online application. Being unemployed shouldn’t keep the person from getting an employer’s full consideration.

I had an employee who was very open about being let go from her last employer during the interview process. When she told me why she was fired, I almost thought she was lying. It’s something I might have given a reprimand for, but it was by no means a firing offense. She worked for me for several years and always did a great job.

High performers are already difficult to find. Why would employers want to rule out an entire pool of potentially great employees?

I could even argue the opposite. Perhaps that person who has been out of work for 18 months is so eager to work, and values a job so much, that they will repay your faith in him/her with loyalty and dedication that you wouldn’t find in someone who believes that they can just go out and get another job if they need one.

So would I state on my job postings, Only the Unemployed Need Apply? Of course not. I don’t have the evidence to back it up.

Should HR Be In the Hiring Business?

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Recently, Nick Corcodilos of http://www.asktheheadhunger.com, answered this question and answered with a resounding “No”. You can read what he had to say here, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/businessdesk/2013/04/ask-the-headhunter-the-talent.html. He provides three reasons for his thinking:

1) HR Professionals (clerks, he calls us) don’t have the knowledge of the jobs for which we are hiring.
2) Hiring is too critical a function for a manager to delegate it to HR.
3) HR has no “skin in the game,” because they are not held accountable for who they hire.

I’m not sure which HR departments Mr. Corcodilos was referring to, but they sure weren’t any of the ones for which I’ve worked. He paints a picture of HR as some monolithic bureaucracy straight out of the movie Brazil, mindless administrators sitting appearing to be busy at our computers. All we’re missing are the vacuum tubes.

If this description is accurate, then Mr. Corcodilos is right – HR has no business hiring. But this doesn’t describe HR – just bad HR. Good HR partners with others in the organization to find the best candidates. They don’t take care of the hiring process from start to finish, without any input from the hiring manager. It’s not as if one day, HR plops a complete stranger into an empty seat and then says to the manager, here you go, he’s all yours.

Good HR works with the hiring manager to help that hiring manager find the best person for the position. In my current workplace, we start by discussing the requirements for the position, and adjusting the job description accordingly. HR then creates a job posting based on this description and coordinate recruiting strategies with the manager. Especially when looking for highly skilled employees, this involves the manager actively recruiting candidates through his or her own network.

The hiring manager sees all resumes. We do not do a keyword search to narrow the field (I agree with Mr. Corcodilos that this is a bad practice, which I discuss in a previous post, From the Great State(s) of Winnesota http://wp.me/p3ovkQ-l). The hiring manager provides HR with a list of candidates to screen.

Mr. Corcodilos believes that the hiring manager should make the first contact. That would be great in an ideal world. However, managers are busy. They may find nine or ten candidates who, judging by their applications and resumes, are worth talking to, but in actuality, are not a fit for the position. We used to have candidates come in and interview with the manager without the HR screening. Too many times, we found that the candidate was not right because, regardless of what the application said, they were not willing to work the hours we needed, wanted too much money, had poor communication or interpersonal skills, or didn’t share the organization’s values. A twenty minute phone screening eliminates these candidates, leaving managers with the three to five candidates who are actually worth an interview. Also, a good HR Professional takes the time to understand the position, at least on a cursory level. I used to go out to job fairs to talk with engineers looking for new positions. After talking to them a few minutes, they would often ask, What type of engineer are you?

I’d give a standard response: I’m not an engineer. I just play one on TV.

The manager conducts the in-person interview in order to determine who is the best candidate. HR trains the managers in how to conduct an interview and write interview questions that will help them make an informed decision. Afterwards, we often act as a sounding board to talk through the final decision with the manager. We also conduct all the necessary background checks and provide guidance on compensation. When making the offer, we make sure that the candidate understands our benefits and pay packages, and answer any questions regarding these issues.

Keep in mind that this process is not always the same. It may change to meet the needs of the hiring manager or the position. We are internal consultants. HR is there to help, not to dictate.

And what if we weren’t involved? Let me give you two examples from previous employers:

1) One of my first days on a job, I was asked to sit in on a round of interviews. Being new, I let the hiring manager run the interviews. After talking to six different candidates, he asked me what I thought. I told him I had no idea. He spent most of the time talking, never asking the candidates a substantial question.

2) When I started another position, I went into New Employee Orientation with five other new hires. After six months, only two of us were still employed with the organization. At that time, HR was only involved in the hiring process to ensure legal compliance. For example, they reviewed interview questions, but only to make sure managers weren’t asking anything inappropriate. Managers were hiring to fill positions, without any training or guidance. A revolving door had been created, costing both time and money.

Mr. Corcodilos last point, that HR is not held accountable for hires, is a problem with organizational structure, not with HR. In my organization, I am measured against factors such as turnover rates, customer satisfaction and sales performance. If I don’t help get the right people in place, those measurements will suffer, and it will show up in my compensation. In addition, if an employee turns out to be a bad hire, who do you think the manager calls to help solve the problem? That’s right, me, HR guy. So it only creates more work for me in the long run.

If you still don’t believe that good HR should be in the hiring business, ask managers. I did. The response was unanimous.

I don’t think I need to tell you what their answer was.

Wanted – Top Chef

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So some restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana posted a Craigslist ad for a line cook. The ad got a lot of press. It’s longer than Raymond Carver’s story “The Little Things”, and has a less happy ending.

It includes 44 requirements. Some highlights:

“You admit when you are wrong, but never point out when others are wrong — especially the chef.”

“You are able to work double shifts for many days without days off.”

And my personal favorite:
“You always show up for work, even if sick as a dog. Let the chef see that you’re really sick and send you home.”
(I don’t know about you, but if a cook has Bird Flu, or the bubonic plague, or even chronic halitosis, I don’t want him anywhere near the kitchen that’s preparing my food).

The want ad has since been taken down, but you can read it here: http://www.happyplace.com/23551/ridiculously-detailed-craigslist-ad-for-restaurant-line-cook

As I read this ad, I could see its author, most likely the chef himself, at his tiny desk in the corner of his kitchen, furiously typing out all the things he didn’t like about the last six people he hired for this job (each of whom probably lasted no more than a week). And while we’ve all had our share of bad hires, a job posting like this one won’t help attract top candidates. It fails on many levels:

1) The employer is showing he’s a demanding control freak. No one wants to work for a jerk. The job of a line cook is hard work for little pay, gruelling even under the best employer.

2) If someone is stupid or insane or desperate enough to apply for the job, the employer has made it easy to ace the interview. Every expectation has been laid out ahead of time. Someone who is a crummy worker, or worse, a lousy cook, could walk in and say everything this employer wants to hear. Sure, the person wouldn’t last long, but in the meantime, the employer would have to deal with the mistake.

3) This employer wants someone who can walk in and do the job even before he’s figured out where his apron is hung. He is not going to take the time to lay out expectations, he’s not going to pair this person up with a peer to learn the ropes, he’s not going to train in any way. Most good candidates take a job for more than money. They want the opportunity to improve and develop. None of that with this job. Do it right, do it now, or you’re out.

4) All 44 items appear to be non-negotiable. Have 35 of the qualities? Not enough. 41? Still no good. It’s all or nothing. Rarely have I hired the perfect candidate. IF I can find someone with 70 percent of what I’m looking for and 20 percent that can be taught, I’ll live without the last 10 percent.

5) It’s obvious that this employer never had to write an ad in the pre-internet days when newspaper want ads were five sections long. Back then, we had to pay for ads by the line or by the word. The longer the ad, the higher the cost. Craigslist is free, so if someone wants to create an ad complete with chapter headings and footnotes, they can go ahead. Although they should be surprised if it’s dubbed TLTR (Too Long Too Read), and most of it gets ignored.

So, Mr. Chef, here is how I’d rewrite your ad:

Line Cook wanted to work in the culinary equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. Boss no other than Beelzebul himself. Must be able to walk on water, and even that won’t get you through the Pearly Gates.

Second Chances

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A colleague of mine has a son with a criminal record. At the age of eighteen, he was arrested for going into someone’s open garage and stealing beer out of a refrigerator. He is in his twenties now, and has kept his nose clean ever since. My colleague wanted my advice on how he should handle this on a job applications.

I told her he should answer any questions about his criminal history openly and honestly. Anyone worth working for isn’t going to care. I know I wouldn’t hold some stupid teenage mistake against someone when making a hiring decision. As I see it, we’ve all done dumb things when we were young. He just happened to get caught. I would have more of a problem with it if he didn’t disclose the information during the hiring process, and it later came out in a background check.

A law currently making its way through the Minnesota legislature would make it illegal for private employers to ask about criminal histories on job applications. Employers would still be able to take criminal histories into consideration during the interview or job offer process. Proponents say that this would ensure that otherwise qualified candidates weren’t rejected outright based on a criminal history.

I’m all for second chances, but I can’t see how this law would make any difference whatsoever.

All it does is ensure that a candidate will get past the first hurdle in the hiring process. An employer can simply ask the criminal history question during a phone screening and get the information before the process goes any further. Perhaps the bill’s sponsors figure that if the candidate can get through the initial application screening and talk to someone, the candidate will be so impressive that criminal history will be overlooked. For those employers who mistakenly use this as a screening tool, however, it won’t matter what the candidate does or says later on in the process. And if lawmakers think they’ll catch employers acting illegally on these grounds, they’ve never hired anyone before. An employer can always think of an alternate excuse not to hire.

Does a criminal history even matter? Some say that we shouldn’t judge someone on the worst thing that person has ever done. I agree, and have always had the practice that a criminal record should not automatically disqualify an applicant. If someone has committed a crime and served their sentence, paid their fine, etc. then they have paid their debt to society, and it should not hang over their head forever. However, future performance can often be predicted by past performance. It can’t be denied that about a third of those who have spent time in prison end up reincarcerated within three years. The question is, do the one-third of non-repeat offenders have to suffer for the sake of repeat offenders?

This depends. A company I worked for once made an offer to a person for a position with a great amount of financial authority, contingent on a background check. Through the criminal background check, we learned he had a fraud conviction while working at a previous employer. He never brought this up during the interview process, and did not check the box provided on his application. We asked him to explain, and while there were extenuating circumstances, we had to rescind our offer. Even if we as employers wanted to hire him, how could we explain to our Board and our Examiners that we had given substantial financial authority to this person? If he committed fraud against us, it would be our jobs on the line.

In this same light, a trucking company would be justified in not hiring a person with a DUI conviction. A daycare center definitely should not hire a person convicted of possessing child pornography. Has the person been rehabilitated? Who knows. Can the employer take that chance. They could be held negligent if they did.

We also have to accept the fact that there are those who have committed heinous crimes, for whom redemption is not possible. With these hardened criminals, we just have to lock them up and throw away the key. I leave it up to experts to determine who those people are and act accordingly.

Still, many deserve a second chance. I’ve hired people with convictions that were in no way job related. Many worked out fine. For those that didn’t, it wasn’t because of their criminal record.

An employer who is doing a blanket ban on hiring those with criminal records is not doing a good job of evaluating candidates to find the best possible person for the position. And if the employer is banning these applicants outright, the proposed law eliminating a check box on an application isn’t going to change that.

If lawmakers truly want to address this issue, they need to invest the resources in order to ensure children receive the proper education, direction and upbringing that will prevent them from becoming convicted felons in the first place. They need to look at our mandatory sentencing laws and stop filling our prisons with people who have committed non-violent, drug related offenses. Then, when someone is incarcerated, they shouldn’t just give up on that person. They should partner with companies that have a shortage of skilled workers, and train them for those positions. Incentives could even be provided for employers who hire these candidates in order to lessen the risks. When compared to the cost to incarcerate people, the benefit of such programs would far outweigh the costs.

Sounds to good to be true? Maybe. Still, it would be worth a try. It is already being done in some places on a limited scale. But legislators would never go for a large-scale program of prisoner education. That is because, to too many law-abiding citizens, this would seem like a reward. Commit a crime, receive free job training. They think that when someone commits a crime, they need to be punished, not helped. But when we consider our overcrowded prisons, our recidivism rates, the cost of our criminal justice system, aren’t we all being punished?