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Why Job Applicants Hate HR

August 9, 2002
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Related Topics: The HR Profession, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
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Craig Goudy is a software developer in Denver who, like many other ITprofessionals, was recently laid off. He’s 45, articulate, and passionateabout his work, and he has over 20 years of broad business experience thatincludes stints in finance, marketing, and public relations. You’d think thatfinding a job would be a snap for someone with his experience and enthusiasm,right? It probably would be if he could get HR professionals to listen to him.But during a three-week period in April, Goudy made five cold calls a day to HRpeople in companies he knows are hiring. "I call them not only to give them asense of who I am and what my experience is, but also to find out the best wayto approach their company from an employment perspective."

To date, he’s made about 80 calls, and well over half the HR people hetalked to seemed desperate to get off the phone, and only two took the time tomeet with him in person. "I’m amazed at how short they can be," heexplains. "It’s almost as if a job-seeker like myself is a detriment to whatthey are trying to accomplish."

How times have changed. Two years ago, HR professionals were on their kneeslike beggars at the Vatican, tugging at the pant legs of any qualified jobcandidates. With unemployment at record lows, companies were so humbled by theneed for workers that they were willing to do whatever it took to entice worthyapplicants. Now that the labor market has opened up, the power has shifted, andHR is acting like an arrogant prince stepping around the unwashed masses.Job-seekers are a burden, the flood of résumés a distraction, and cold callsfrom candidates are viewed with as much eagerness as a telemarketer atdinnertime -- at least, that’s the perspective of today’s job-seekers.

"Most HR people know the economy is bad and there are lots of peoplelooking," says Lisa Crispin, the newly hired quality assurance manager atKBkids.com. "Because of this, they feel it’s okay to jerk people around."

This isn’t as much of an overstatement as it may sound. Talk to job-seekerstoday -- especially in heavily downsized industries such as high-tech andtelecommunications -- and you’ll discover they are so fed up with theperceived arrogance, disrespect, and ineffectiveness of HR that they are doingeverything they can to avoid the function altogether. As Bill Stegen, an ERPmanager who lost his job a year ago, explains: "If you want to get work, thetrick is getting around HR."

A recent post on Vault.com’s job-search message board reveals the depths ofthe job-seeker’s despair. "I’m sending résumés out to companies andtrying to avoid sending them into the HR black hole," writes a person lookingfor advice. At last count, the post had drawn 60 passionate responses frompeople who referred to HR professionals as "clueless pinheads who areoverwhelmed," "on power trips," and who "only pass along cookie-cutterrésumés to the hiring manager." One person summarized it this way: "Jobapplicants will always have a better chance of being hired by avoiding HR."

These anonymous message-board complaints are supported by such well-knownconsultants as Peter Drucker, who believes that hiring is one of the leasteffective corporate functions. "By and large, executives make poor promotionand staffing decisions," he writes in The EssentialDrucker, (Harper Business,2001). "By all accounts, their batting average is no better than .333; atmost, one-third of such decisions turn out right, a third are minimallyeffective, and one-third are outright failures."

Lloyd Gottman, CEO of Synergetic Systems, a Littleton, Colorado, company thatdistributes the Profiles International employee assessment, believes the battingaverage is even worse. "A large, well-known, highly respected national companywith many salespeople told me they lose over 80 percent of all new salespeoplewithin the first three years of employment."

To be fair, it’s not that easy to be a recruiter today. Because of thedepressed economy, HR departments are under enormous pressure, and many HRstaffs have been downsized. Thus, at the same time that more people are lookingfor work, there are fewer HR professionals to field résumés and focus on thebest candidates.

Job candidates aren’t making the process any easier, adds Jane Paradiso,recruiting solutions practice leader in the Washington, D.C., office of WatsonWyatt Worldwide, a global HR consultancy. "In the Silicon Valley, whereunemployment is high, a well-known company announced it was hiring and wasoverwhelmed with résumés, 95 percent of which were from people who clearlyweren’t qualified."

Despite these challenges, an HR person who is seeking to become morestrategic would be well advised to understand the job-seeker’s complaints.Why? Because the labor pool, although abundant now, is going to tighten up againin the very near future. In fact, according to research by Watson Wyatt, if theeconomy rebounds with even half the momentum of previous recoveries, the UnitedStates could be looking at full employment again within a year. Simply put, thepeople you scorn today may be the ones you covet tomorrow.

Furthermore, adds Don Weintraub, president and CEO of Boston-based RainmakerAssociates, a job candidate you treat poorly now might eventually become acustomer or a competitor. "If you disrespect people today during the hiringprocess, there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t look for an opportunityto return the favor," he says.

By looking at what’s broken and understanding how to fix it, HR can beginto reinvent the hiring process and, in turn, polish the function’s image.After all, if HR professionals are ever going to be taken seriously as keepersof the corporate culture, they have to begin by getting the right people in thedoor without alienating them in the process.

A plethora of complaints
To find out what life is really like for today’s job-seekers, Workforcespent several days at CareerLab, a Denver-based outplacement and careerconsulting firm, interviewing job-seekers, attending networking events, andeavesdropping on career-counseling sessions. What became clear immediately ishow widespread complaints about the hiring process really are. They come frompeople in a range of industries and employment levels, and run the gamut fromthe ineffectiveness of résumés to a lack of follow-up.

One of the chief complaints is that HR professionals don’t alwaysunderstand the requirements of open positions. "My greatest frustration withHR is that they don’t have a complete understanding of what a successfulcandidate looks like," Weintraub says. "People who do the recruiting forcompanies have never done the job, so it’s an abstraction to them, especiallyin the technology areas."

Weintraub’s view is supported by Stegen, who has been applying forpositions as an IT director for several months. At his last job, Stegen led theimplementation of an ERP software package known as EPCS from start to finish andbrought it in on time, within budget, and got a performance bonus for hisefforts. But when applying for jobs, he has found that companies want peopleexperienced in the implementation of J.D. Edwards software as opposed to EPCSsoftware, even though the programs do essentially the same thing. "Three timesI’ve been told in interviews that since I don’t have the exact experience, Idon’t qualify for the job," he says. "But the functionality of thesoftware is exactly the same, which leads me to believe that HR people don’tknow what they are talking about."

Ron Cutadean, vice president of HR for BoldTech Systems, Inc., a Denver-basedsoftware consulting firm, defends HR professionals, saying that because the jobmarket is so tight, companies can hold out for the exact requirements. "Withloads of people and competition out there, a candidate has to have exactly whatthe company needs or we’re not interested," he says. However, he doesn’tdisagree that many HR people may not understand the positions they’re hiringfor. "This is especially true when HR doesn’t have the internal respect ofhiring managers."

So how can HR improve its understanding of job requirements? Weintraubrecommends a dual screening process in which a technical person evaluates acandidate’s technical background and competence, and an HR person screens forsoft skills and cultural fit. "It’s not a good use of HR to look atbuzzwords on a résumé," he says. "Technical employees who understand whatthose words mean should be doing the first assessment of candidates."

Paradiso adds that HR people should also be working much more closely withline managers to carefully and specifically develop the requirements of eachjob. "When candidates are many and positions are scarce, job descriptions haveto be much more tightly written," she says. "The requirements should be veryspecific, and the job posting should indicate if certain certifications ordegrees are essential."

A second major complaint among job-seekers is the ineffectiveness ofrésumés as a screening tool. Paul Wyman, formerly with CareerLab and now anindependent career and executive coach, says bluntly: "Résumés suck as aselection tool. As a job blueprint, they ignore a candidate’s most significantcharacteristic, and that is what they can do for the company. But HR believes aperson’s past is their future. This makes it very difficult for people who areburnt out in one job to make a shift to a new career."

Job-searchers unanimously agree that the over-reliance on résumés oftenleads to tunnel vision about a person’s capabilities. "Résumés are ascreening-out tool," says a lawyer who wants to make a shift into corporatemanagement. "They put people into little boxes and give companies reasons notto hire you."

Jeanne Long has 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry,most recently as a technical-support engineer for a company involved with fiberoptics. She was laid off last October and has been looking for work ever since.Two obstacles stand in the way. First, she doesn’t have a college degree. "IfHR is looking at the résumé, that’s what they look at," she says, "notthe fact that I’ve held several management positions. Although the lack of adegree never hindered my ability to do a job and be promoted, it gets in the wayduring a job search because HR people are not trained to look at the wholeperson."


"There are some excellent tools HR people can purchase and use on their career Web sites."

Second, all her experience has been in telecommunications, and she believesit’s difficult for HR people outside that industry to understand how she mightfit into another kind of organization. "I put in sophisticated data networksfor all kinds of companies," she says. "While I do have a telecommunicationsbackground, I’m not limited to working with phone companies." Because ofthese frustrations, Long has been working hard to get around HR. "I dowhatever I have to do to get an introduction to a director at a company," shesays. "HR will not let you get past them if they can help it."

Instead of relying so heavily on résumés, Paradiso suggests that companiesuse more profiling and screening tools. "There are some excellent tools HRpeople can purchase and use on their career Web sites," she says. These toolsgive recruiters a much broader picture of a person’s capabilities.

Roadway Express, a national trucking firm, uses a questionnaire on its Website, www.roadway.com, that not only queries candidates about their jobexperiences, but also asks them to rate their competencies in such things asanalytical skills, assertiveness, and ability to work independently.

Bank One uses a similar tool on its site, www.bankone.com, to ask job-seekersabout their education, salary requirements, and openness to relocation. Wyman,who would like to see a move away from résumés altogether, suggests thatcompanies consider accepting "job proposals," which are, in essence, pitchletters wherein candidates tell employers what they are passionate about andwhat they can do for them. "Wouldn’t it be better to hire people based onhow excited they are about working for you in the future, rather than on whatthey did in the past?" he asks.

The frustration doesn’t stop at the interview stage
Once a candidate makes it through the initial job-screening and snags aninterview, you’d think the frustrations with HR would end. Sadly, that’s notthe case. If anything, from a job-seeker’s point of view, the angst onlyincreases. Their chief complaints? A lack of internal coordination andfollow-up.

Lisa Crispin was laid off from a job in February. The next morning, thanks toprofessional contacts, she had an interview with a line manager at Qwest. Twoweeks later, she interviewed with two of the company’s senior vice presidents,who wanted her for the job but said they would have to finalize things throughHR. While waiting to hear from Qwest’s HR people, Crispin continued to pursueother leads, including one at KBkids.com, which eventually offered her aposition.

"I called the hiring manager at Qwest, where I really wanted to work, andtold him I had another job offer. He said he was still waiting to hear back fromHR. Because I couldn’t put off my decision any longer, I accepted the job atKBkids." A week and a half later, Qwest’s HR person called Crispin,apologized for the lack of follow-up, admitted he’d screwed up, and asked whathe could do to entice her back. "I told them ‘nothing,’ " she relates."There was obviously a severe lack of internal communication."

Jim Grenfell, former CFO with ICG Communications, has experienced similarfrustration with HR in his job search. "About six weeks ago, I had a voicemail from an HRprofessional whom I’d already spoken to a couple of times whowanted me to come in the next week to, I assume, talk about a position. Thecompany was hiring, and I’d already spoken to the CFO and auditors about myexperience. I called the HR woman back that afternoon, left a message, and I’venever heard from her." Grenfell says the situation is not unusual. "Dealingwith HR has typically been a dreadful experience."

Weintraub views the lack of follow-up as disrespectful, an attitude that isbrought on by HR’s low status in organizations. "Typically, the higher upyou go in a company, the better you are treated. I’ve never been disrespectedby a CEO; I’ve often been disrespected by someone in HR. It’s apower-and-control issue. People who feel unempowered in their own companiesoften take it out on those who are lower than they are -- i.e., those attemptingto get a job."

Regardless of where the disrespect comes from, the fact remains that it cando a lot of damage -- both internally and externally. "As an externally facingfunction, HR needs to be well-versed in how to treat the public," Goudy says."They are spokespeople for the company, and they set the tone for what kind ofcompany it is."

So how are candidates getting work?
Given these frustrations, it’s no wonder that job candidates are doingeverything they can to avoid HR. Primarily, they’re getting around thefunction by networking with colleagues to learn who is hiring and then callinghiring managers directly, which isn’t a bad thing from an HR point of view. Ifyou really want to hire the best people, and those people are trying to findjobs by networking with employees, why not provide incentives for employees tomake those referrals? By training managers to conduct interviews withcandidates, HR can minimize its negative impact on the hiring process.

The point is that HR must do whatever it can, within the constraints oflimited resources, to improve the hiring function -- and fast. In the nearfuture, the tables will turn and HR will once again be in the beggar’s shoes,and may remain there for a long, long time. In less than eight years, there willbe 33 percent more people over the age of 55 in the workplace, and 19 percentfewer people between the ages of 35 and 44. Without enough bodies to go around,the most qualified candidates will be attracted to companies that treat themwell from the very first point of contact.

Workforce, June 2002, pp. 36-44 -- Subscribe Now!

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