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A Hiring Process Spun Out of Control

An HR veteran went looking for a job, and found a messy maze of competing agendas, shameless territorialism, and unprofessional behavior. He offers advice on how to avoid doing the same thing.

June 20, 2002
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This is a true story and almost stranger than fiction. A nightmare of the first order for the human resources professional for two reasons: For more than twenty years I have been helping companies through large-scale organizational change, mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing.

Consequently, I think I have sensitivity for the financial and legal landmines organizations in transition face. I usually know something is wrong long before it blows up in my face. Secondly, and more importantly, this was my experience; it happened to me and what you can learn from it.

After two months of preliminary interviews with the recruiter and the employer, my wife and I were being flown to the international headquarters of a $500 million well-known company for final interviews. We had no indication anything was amiss. The first clue came when I finally saw the itinerary. I was to be interviewed by nearly two-dozen people in two days. When I inquired as to why so many I was told, "We are a family here. We use consensus management. Everyone has to like you." Sounded more like management by committee to me, but I held my tongue.

On they came -- individuals (some more than once), groups, and conference calls! Because I know people -- even myself -- can have convenient memories, I took copious notes.

Here are a few statistics. Only four people had my resume with them during the interview. Eleven people indicated they had not seen my resume. No one had the job description with them and most had not reviewed it before the interview. One interviewer confided they had no idea why they were interviewing me since they did not get a "vote."

No one from Human Resources was on the schedule, and when I inquired about this, I was simply told they did not need to interview me. Two people on the schedule blew off the interviews and failed to show without explanation. Several times on both days, I had to wander the building alone attempting to find out either where I was supposed to be next, or whom I was supposed to interview with next. The schedule had already changed and a number of the interviewers were working off a schedule I had no copy of. One interviewer expressed outright resentment regarding the intrusion of my interview into their schedule.

However, that is not the worst part. Eight people asked me questions that were either unprofessional or illegal. "How old are you?" "How old is your wife?" "Do you have any children?" "How old are they?" "How old are your grandchildren?" "How did you meet your wife?" "How long have you been married?" "How do you feel about Asians?"

During one interview with a man and a woman, the gentleman mentioned he had just purchased a home in the area. Logically, I asked, "What is the housing market like here?" The woman evidently took silent offense to this but was not so silent in her commentary to others after the interview. What got back to me was, "Why didn't he ask me? Doesn't he think I know anything about the housing market? He must have a problem working with women." This, of course, sparked a few more follow-up questions addressed to me that were equally inappropriate.

Later I heard that some of the interviewers thought I was a little reserved and it was therefore difficult to get a read on my personality. Gee, I wonder why?

The answers I got to my questions were equally revealing. There appeared to be as many expectations for this role as there were interviewers. There was absolutely no consensus on the job description, or at least what was perceived to be the job description. There were almost as many agendas, ranging from shameless territorialism to 'how am I going to fix the problems here' (most of which were outside the purview of the job description in the first place).

Those that this position was subordinate to very clearly wanted to see a breakthrough, doing things differently in the sense of better. Others that support this position or partner with it made it very clear -- don't make waves. Less than five percent of the staff is outsiders, brought in within the last few years. They had introduced a new concept: performance measurements. There was a great deal of unresolved anxiety regarding metrics and measurements, and they asked how I felt about this? Well, I really couldn't answer with any specificity. The finance, business, and marketing jargon I was exposed to were in vogue ten or fifteen years ago, and so was their performance-management system.

Well, we went home disappointed. Competing expectations, multiple agendas, turf-guarding, inappropriate interviewing, an environment characterized by anxiety, and differing job requirements -- if the position was not designed to purposefully remedy these things, who would want to work there? I try not to burn bridges, so I just waited to hear. Four business days after the interviews, I received an unsigned form letter informing me I was no longer a candidate. In the letter they mistakenly cited a position I had not been interviewing for. When I called the recruiter to get clarification, they rushed into an explanation of why they had not heard anything yet and it would take a few more days. I didn't tell them about the letter.

By the tenth working day after the interviews the recruiter did have some third-hand information. I was no longer under consideration. Why? I was "too professional" and evidently intimidated a number of people. I indicated to the recruiter they didn't need to press for more information or a first-hand report. I never told them about the letter either. Incidentally, though the company did pick up the airline tickets, rental car, and hotel, they never offered or provided reimbursement for meals, gas, or parking.

If you want to avoid this kind of nightmare, and the potential lawsuits that go along with it, here are some tips:

  1. Get consensus on the job description. Different interviewers need to have the same end goal in sight. Screen candidates by resume first, then move on to telephone screening interviews to identify a small number of candidates to bring in for further interviews.

  2. Choose the interviewers carefully, including a select group of superiors, peers, and subordinates, usually no more than six to eight, and often less. Multiple interviews are fine. Sometimes a follow-up interview is needed. However, try not to bring anyone back more than once.

  3. Train the interviewers to interview based on the job requirements and the candidate's experience. Give them written guidelines regarding taboo subjects. Provide them sample questions as well. Discourage the "first impression syndrome," have them take notes, and don't gang up on the candidate. In other words, no more than three interviewers at a time if you can help it. A professional interview is an art, not an accident. In much less than an hour, you can determine what this candidate has done, if it is what you are looking for, and what the chances are they can do it for you as well.

  4. Assign someone to manage the candidates' schedules. It is not the candidates' responsibility to find out where they are supposed to be and when. Once they are inside your front door they are your responsibility.

  5. Provide the candidates with any necessary information and forms related to employment, expenses, related company policies, or other pertinent material up front. Usually this will include information about the company itself as well as the job description. Don't assume the recruiter has taken care of this.

  6. Have a plan for the candidates' spouses if they are accompany the candidate. Are they interviewing with anyone? Do they need to take a look at the area? More than one viable candidate has turned down a good offer simply because their spouse was not treated with dignity and respect.

  7. Begin and end with an HR interview; first to brief the candidate on the schedules, personalities, and to conduct your own assessment and obtain any forms you require, and last to debrief the candidate.

  8. Obtain written comments from the other interviewers for your records. Usually, a simple form is helpful. On one hand, you want documentation. On the other, you do not want anecdotal comments out of context that may suggest regulatory compliance problems.

  9. Dig a little deeper with interviewer perceptions that are overly positive or negative and determine if further conversation or clarification with the candidate is warranted.

  10. Ask for and address any concerns the candidate may express.

The employer is virtually unencumbered in the hiring decisions they can make. However, most lose sight of the reality that the employment process, from recruiting to selection to interviewing to actually extending an offer and hiring, is a highly regulated contractual process fraught with legal implications. Look at it this way: You can do anything you want. You just can't do it any way you want to. Do it the right way.

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