No Shoes, No Shirt, No Biggie 1

My buddy likes to tell the story about the candidate that showed up for an interview wearing a droopy fishnet sleeveless t-shirt, a pair of well worn running shorts and dusty sandals.  Not bad attire for a beach volleyball game, but not so much for a software engineer interview.  Somehow, some way, the candidate came to believe this was acceptable haute couture to his potential new employer.

In many minds corporate culture extends only to things like core business hours and casual dress. The reality is corporate culture is hard to truly define and encompasses shared values, traditions, customs, beliefs and policies.  As a foundation these work to cultivate and grow what we call corporate culture.  Word of our culture creeps into the street with every e-mail we write to a prospective candidate, every phone screen we perform to ascertain qualifications, every face-to-face interview, every reference check and every follow-up thereafter.  What we say, when we say it, what we do, how we do it all reflects that culture back to the world outside and to those unfound gems we will someday seek to hire.  Their impressions become the word on the street.  Their treatment and candidate experience spreads the cultural lore, good or bad and builds our recruiting brand.

Recruiter contact often creates that first impression – the first peek into corporate culture – that a candidate will have of a company, especially for a start-up or little known business.    It’s easy to leverage the name Starbucks or Microsoft to reach a passive candidate, those companies have defined goods and legendary cultures, but it’s another to try and entice somebody to talk to a new company with little track record.   Long before any overture is made to bring somebody into an organization, clear thought and planning needs to be put into candidate communication and how to properly present the company. Anybody involved in the recruiting process needs to understand the importance of this messaging.  The theme and thread of corporate culture needs to be woven in each aspect of the recruiting cycle.

Mr. Fishnet may very well have been the gem in the rough, the genius the company had been looking for to solve a major issue or build the next big thing.   A clarification from the recruiter beforehand about corporate expectations on interview days – part of communicating the culture – could have easily prevented this awkward yet memorable moment.

Bodies in the Water Reply

I once consulted for an early-stage company CEO who loved negotiating salary deals with new hires.  No matter what salary compromise or offer I suggested to him he would demand I go back to the candidate and offer much less – even when he truly wanted and needed the employee and could afford what they asked.  It was about power and winning.  He saw squeezing a dime and getting the candidate to bend as a way to show his authority early.   What he was really doing was breeding contempt not only for him but for his company’s image in the marketplace.  Turn-over was high and an expensive drain on his resources and he couldn’t understand why.  He was a decent man and fun person to be around, but this management tick almost derailed him.

One morning he said to me, “I love tough economies and recessions.  There are usually lots of bodies in the water.”  He was, of course, referring to the unemployed.  He saw this pool (pun intended) of bodies as a desperate bunch who would take nickels on the dollar to come work for him.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  Here is why:  The assumption made is that the skill set being sought happens to belong to a member of the unemployed ranks.  Worse yet, the assumption is that the IDEAL person is among the unemployed and needing of a job.   Here is the reality:  During economic downturns people tend to cautiously stay put if employed and will wait out the economic storm.  When good times return the exodus can be pretty high of employees who felt underpaid or taken advantage of.  The disenfranchised become highly recruitable.  It is happening right now in our Seattle market.

My caution to clients is always the same – don’t generalize during good or bad markets – there may be a large pool of unemployed, but they may not be of the right fit for the given openings.   Accept that recruiting the right person takes planning and a deliberate process and investment.  Spend the time and energy to find and hire the best person for the job instead of trusting the winds of economic change to send along the dream candidate at a cut-throat salary.

Help Wanted: Werewolf Killer Reply

A few years ago I was interviewing for a recruiter position when I was asked:

“What innovative things have you done to find candidates?”

I smiled and politely answered, “I try to kill werewolves.”

My point was simple:  Recruiters and their employers are constantly on the lookout for a silver bullet that will magically end the monster madness associated with finding the right candidate for a critical needs position, in a timely fashion, under budgetary constraints.

I maintained then as I do now that a highly skilled and experienced recruiter is the closest remedy for that challenge.  Technical innovations, while helpful in identifying prospects, will never solve the problem.  A good, experienced recruiter is the silver bullet.

Even with the advent of social networks, job boards, tweets, on-line affinity groups and forums, somebody has to source, screen and vet a prospect and qualify them for a position.  The problem today is the unwieldy amount of resume-type data available for review.  Time was a recruiter tracked down candidates through pro-active research and phone calls.  Now  the struggle is digging a qualified candidate out of a mire of data muck shoveled in from countless sources.  Candidates, too, are inundated with digital overtures that are routed to spam folders without so much as a peek.  I was recently recruited via email for a scrub nurse position – I have no medical background – but was a perfect “word match” determined by some boolean search tool and approached with little human intervention.  This automated reliance just feeds the monster, alienates candidates and compromises the hiring experience.  All the recruiting investment and technical innovation goes to waste at this point.

So, how can a company succeed and compete effectively for new employees?  The ageless secret solution to taming the recruiting beast really is the same as it has always been – invest in a good recruiter who can build and maintain process.  Hire a recruiter who has a myriad of real world business experience and proven successes.  Hire a recruiter who can communicate clearly, efficiently and honesty in writing and who isn’t afraid of the phone.  Hire a recruiter who is not dependent or content with simply mining an inbox for possible candidates from data feeds.  Hire a recruiter who is a consultant to his employer and to the candidate.  If a company does that, they will have found the secret weapon to recruiting woes…a werewolf killer.

Oh, and by the way, I was offered the job for which I was interviewing because of my “creative answers”.

A Little Shut Eye Reply

“The woman interviewing me fell asleep.”

I usually spend the last twenty minutes of a candidate’s interview day with them in sort of a mini debriefing and expectation setting exercise.    One of my standard questions is to ask how each interviewer interacted with the candidate and how did the candidate feel about them.  This helps me to help the interviewer if there are any recurring issues.   One particular candidate told me, as the quote above says, that the interviewer nodded off near the end of the interview.  I wasn’t sure whether that was a reflection on the interviewer or a reaction to the candidate’s monotone vocal style.  Regardless, it wasn’t exactly the best candidate experience one would want to have.

Having interviewed hundreds and hundreds of candidates, I’ve heard and seen some interesting and annoying things in an interview room.  There was the candidate who cleaned out her purse while being questioned; the guy who ate sunflower seeds and spit husks into a coffee cup; the loud talker who insisted on showing me all of his awards going back to junior high – he’d brought them with him (in fairness, he did have two patents in there as well).  This list could go on and on about candidates, but what of interviewers and naps?

Every person interviewing a candidate IS the company for those fleeting moments.  The candidate is listening to everything, watching, assessing, judging and building an impression.  It really is a two-way experience.   An interviewer who displays a lack of attention is telling the candidate they don’t matter.  An interviewer who reviews emails, cleans their nails, checks their iPhone or takes a call while a candidate answers questions is marginalizing the candidate and compromising what should be a healthy and valuable experience.

To get the best out of an interview, write out key questions ahead of time (behavioral based is best), keep them to one sheet.  Bring a pad and pen to capture relevant points AFTER the candidate has answered the question.  Scribbling during an answer can often dictate the direction of the answer in real-time if the candidate perceives they are saying something powerful – right or wrong.  Leave the laptop, iPhone and any other possible intrusive device in your office.  It’s not the end of the world to disconnect for thirty or forty minutes.   Bring coffee or ice water with you if you are groggy.  Let the candidate know you are interested in them by how you act.  Focus; summarize answers out loud so the candidate knows they were understood; let the candidate do most of the talking.  The impression set and the experience had will then be positive and relevant for both participants of the interview.

Turns out the napping interviewer really did fall asleep, but had startled themselves awake when the candidate quit talking.  Going forward I had that interviewer pair up with another from their team and interview candidates together.  Worked like a dream.

The Secret To A Great Candidate Experience Reply

Recruiting a candidate is a bit like romancing somebody for a first date.   Maybe there is some third party introduction.   A couple emails get exchanged.  Maybe a phone call or two are traded.   The goal is to sit down face to face and discuss a possible future together.  If things go well, then the candidate can meet the rest of the “family” and see if they approve.   Those first few interactions will go a long way in determining whether this relationship will succeed or not. If we think of recruiting as a relationship dance, then maybe we should see the candidate experience as we would a first date.

Everything we do behind the scenes as recruiters and hiring managers should be about the tone of those first interactions.  With a little forethought and very little investment, the first date can be a huge win and even if we don’t seal the deal long term, the candidate can still walk away from the experience feeling better for having been through it.

Here are four things that a company – regardless of size or influence – can do to create a winning candidate experience:

  • Be polite when you write.   Be sure and use a candidate’s first name in an email.  Invite them to a conversation.  Be professional, but not impersonal. Don’t assume they know who you are even if your company is a household name.  Do what you say you’re going to do.  If you say you’re going to call as a follow-up to the email, then call.   When you call – be charming.  It really does set the candidate at ease.
  • Bring a gift.  I met with a company once that had very little money and was struggling to get their hiring right.  When I showed up, they had a little reader board at the reception desk that said, “Welcome, Scott, to XYZ Company!”  (There were other names on there for other visitors as well).   The receptionist led me to an interview room.  On the table was a bottle of water, a file folder – again with my name on it – and a small box of mints, a notebook and pen.  Inside the folder was an agenda, the Linkedin biographies of the people I was meeting with along with some highlights about the company and so forth.  I felt quite at ease and welcomed.  My meetings were great and that first “date” went off without a flaw.  On my way out, the recruiter gave me a coffee mug with their corporate logo and thanked me for taking the time to come in.
  • Make eye contact.  Don’t stare down the candidate.  Make direct eye contact when you first meet them and shake their hand. Direct eye contact will help a candidate feel less anxious and more welcomed.
  • Reach out the next day.  Candidates don’t want to be left wondering.   They want to feel appreciated and respected.  Call them or send them a personal email even if you have no news to share.  Give them a quick update. Let the candidate know again that you appreciated their interest and their time and set the expectation about next steps and stick to it.

The first interactions with a candidate will have far reaching effects – good or bad – on our ability to successfully recruit in the future.  A little forethought and planning on how we treat and communicate with these prospects during the initial phases of hiring can build a positive recruiting brand, yield great hires and improve the candidate experience for all concerned.

I Lost Ten Bowling Balls Reply

“Tell me about your biggest accomplishment…the thing you are most proud of….”  It’s a normal question I’ve asked in many interviews.  My goal is to get a candidate talking about themselves.

Gary didn’t hold back.  He replied, “I lost ten bowling balls.”

A relatively new recruiter at the time, I grinned, scratched my head with my pencil and waited for him to continue.  And boy did he.

Sometimes we asked candidates things we shouldn’t and often times candidates will tell us stuff we don’t want to hear.  Certainly as recruiters we need to be aware of the Federal and State laws surrounding discrimination and illegal questions – the biggies of course concern race, religion, creed, sex and age.  It’s a tender area that each interviewer should be made aware of and always sensitive to, ideally through training by Human Resources or Recruiting.  Candidates, however, often tell us things of a personal nature that may make us uncomfortable.  During those times I think it is fair game to quickly redirect the candidate back to the area we really want to explore, especially if what we are hearing borders on intimate or deeply personal subjects.

“I love to bowl.  My bowling ball weighs about fifteen pounds.  I lost one hundred and fifty pounds over the past eighteen months.  That’s like ten bowling balls of fat.  I approached my weight loss like any project.  I set goals, milestones, gathered resources, support materials, created a team to help me…”  He went on and on.  While I haven’t been able to shake the image of somebody carting ten bowling balls around with them, I did get his point.  He was focused, determined, smart and honest.  I asked for other examples and assured him those might be more appropriate to share with the remaining interviewers.  He was a pretty remarkable person to say the least.

Now, when I pose the question, I make sure I qualify it by saying, “With respect to your career, tell me about your….”  Seems to get me the information I really want and need.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, just be ready for some eye-opening answers from time to time.

Uncle Ted and the Rock Star Reply

“No, I just don’t think he is a fit for the position.  I just don’t see it.  There is just something that makes me uneasy about him.”

This comment was made by an interviewer during the first group debriefing I held with a new client’s interview team a couple of years ago after they’d spent an afternoon with a prospective employee.  The company had been growing aggressively, making many hires, but the employee attrition rate was above what most people would consider the industry norm at the time.   Their interview debriefing process was broken.

I pressed the interviewer to be more specific.  He fidgeted a bit and finally blurted out, “I guess it’s just that he reminds me of my Uncle Ted. I don’t know.  I don’t care for Ted all that much.”

Of course there was some laughter and banter about Uncle Ted among the interview team, but I used the response to get more detail from the interviewer.  I asked what was it that reminded him of his Uncle, why was that negative, what specifically did the candidate say or do that brought out that sort of feeling and did that impression overshadow the other aspects of the interview? The conclusion was that Uncle Ted was patronizing towards people and the candidate demonstrated a bit of that in his conversation and responses.  This was actually valid and interesting feedback.  It generated additional discussion about the candidate’s verbal style and how that might impact the team.

“She’s a Rock Star!  We should hire her before she leaves!”

Another new client, another new hiring team, but the same subjective type of feedback regarding a candidate.  I’ve actually heard this response many times over the years.  It is a genuine reply from an interviewer and is fine if it is part of an overall critique.  I just put it under the category of “positive overall impression.” But in this instance, it was the only feedback from the interviewer.  I suggest that an interviewer should never make a hire recommendation on the basis of whether they simply like the person or not.

What’s a recruiter to do to help the client in these types of situations?  The short answer is to establish ground rules for debriefings before the candidate is interviewed.   In a perfect world, all interviewers would attend a training session by the recruiter on how to interview effectively and how to make smart hiring recommendations.  Absent that, or when starting cold with a company that already has an interview pipeline in place, a recruiter can write out the Debrief Rules and send them to the interviewer along with the candidate’s resume and/or interview schedule.  These rules don’t need to be elaborate. The goal is to get all the interviewers focused ahead of time on what to look for and what they will be expected to discuss.  This will go a long way towards making the feedback less subjective and more objective.  It also levels the playing field for candidates and helps ensure that they are being evaluated along the same criteria as others pursuing the same job opening.

Incidentally, the “Rock Star” and “Uncle Ted” ultimately turned down the offers made to them. The why of that is a story for another day.