Jurassic Candidate

It seems like the Internet has been with us for a long time. But in reality it really has only been with us for about ten years ó and of those, only the last six years were truly significant. It’s safe to say we are still testing, and observing the results of those tests. Think about it, the simple act of upgrading a universally established product, like aspirin, is a process that would take ten years. So we have to assume that the revolutionary and evolutionary altering of the ancient process of employment might take a while as well. In our efforts to stick, nail, glue, affix, and attach the Internet and its capability to every aspect of the hiring process we can catch we should always ask a couple of questions:

  • Is the fact we can do something a good enough reason to do it? Should we always look for a good reason and a benefit to be gained?
  • Is there an effort, conversely, to measure what is lost before implementing a “good idea”? In every step forward, there is a potential for one or more steps backward.

If value is a function of the cost of acquisition and the effort involved, then it would be safe to say that the value of information has declined considerably over the last ten years, and the concept of initiative somewhat lost in the shuffle. Several years ago ó post-ice age but pre-Internet age, I performed an unofficial, “tongue in cheek” evaluation of candidates I interviewed based on both their knowledge and their initiative. I was usually able to classify candidates as one of the following type:

  1. “Sum Zero.” This candidate arrived for the interview with no real knowledge of the company, the position, or anything more than the street address (even that couldn’t be counted on; there was still the occasional “I’m lost” phone call).
  2. “Ad Scan.” These candidate knew anything and everything ó so long as it was in the newspaper ad, a clipping of which was usually attached to their notebook to refresh their memory. They tended to accept that propaganda at its face value (“I’ve always wanted to work for an innovative and inspired industry leader!” “Yeah? So what makes you think we are, other than that newsprint, which we wrote?”)
  3. “Lobbyist.” This person ransacked the lobby for relevant reading materials, and then engaged in the Evelyn Wood speed-reading process ó often finishing the last ten words of an article before accepting my handshake.
  4. “Librarian.” This person went to the library ó public or business school ó and looked up information about the company, or checked out “who’s who” and other resources for detailed information. I loved it when this candidate pulled out a pad of notepaper and showed me what they had learned.
  5. “Informed Informant.” This candidate had the ability to make calls, network, and make connections to link into my company and talk to my existing staff.

People who walked out of my office ranked as either a “Librarian” or an “Informed Informant” were well on their way to being ranked as “a good reason to come to work today.” They had shown true initiative and “worked” to get data and information. I especially appreciated the ones who made certain they pumped enough of that information into the interview process so as to leave no doubt that they were prepared. I don’t object to being manipulated ó as long as it is for a good reason. The others? Well, not all hires can be in the top 10%, can they? The problem is, with the advent of the Internet and our desire to always use it, we are losing this once-valued technique in determining who is truly a professional actively searching for a great opportunity, and who is merely showing up to see “what’s what.” It looks like we’ll have to come up with new ways to measure initiative. For example, perhaps:

  • Candidate successfully clicked “www.all-the-information-you-need.com” better than anyone else.
  • Regurgitated well.
  • Regurgitated better than average.
  • I almost believed he knew the stuff I gave him to read.

Recruiting in the last five years has transitioned to an interviewee-friendly mindset, which assumes companies are responsible, totally, for a successful event. Qualified candidates were ó and still are to a certain extent ó few and far between. Companies had to compete at many levels to attract their share of the best and brightest, and that meant expecting less from the interview. But desperation is not the proper mindset for creating good solutions. In retrospect, I suspect we will see that, although a slight adjustment was needed in the corporate attitude toward candidates, we went too far ó or at least did not sit down and think the outcome through before we implemented those “good ideas.” Nor did we develop sufficient alternatives to supplement what was lost. At issue: If all candidates can acquire levels of knowledge about your company prior to an interview with no effort, creativity, or real initiative, can a recruiting process still consider candidate knowledge an indicator of initiative, enthusiasm, or intelligence? Question: When everyone has been given ten pounds of diamonds, are they still precious? Do you still get credit for being a diamond miner if diamonds are handed to you? The subjective qualities I like to evaluate in all candidates include:

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  • Preparation as an indication of sincerity and initiative, and energy expenditure as a sign of commitment.
  • The ability to communicate and deal with the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of an interview, and success in overcoming this awkward social interaction. There will be many strangers in their first 90 days on the new job.
  • The ability to input and influence in a strange and developing situation. They are finding their way without a map or previous directions.
  • Their effort to influence outcome by their own creative efforts, and not merely the masterful use of those I provide.

Over-prepared candidates are not the end result of a insightful, complete, and competitive recruiting process. Rather, they are the result of an unconscious effort to homogenize the process to the point that the only difference between candidates will be the day and time of the interview. Otherwise they will remain interchangeable and indistinguishable, all having been prepped by a process that gives total and absolute access complete with hyperlinks.

  • Point: Just because you send the data, that does not mean the candidates will access it or review it. So the weaker candidates will continue ignore the “hint” and show up unprepared.
  • Counterpoint: But the range and degree that used to distinguish candidates into multiple levels has been reduced, to where often it will be impossible to distinguish between two potential outcomes, good or bad.

The mission of a good recruiting program is to find and attract from among the best possible candidates and to create a process that sufficiently qualifies candidates for the company, while also revealing the company to the candidate to support the mutual decision that must be made. A good recruiting process must also make more efficient the effort for hiring managers to screen in and screen out based on objective and subjective qualities. There is a difference between making available and “spoon feeding.” For example:

  • Do send an email to candidates inviting them to an HR website with directions and basic information about the company, the position, and a brief on corporate history.
  • Don’t send them “directions” to other detailed information posted elsewhere on your corporate website. See if they seek it out on their own.
  • Don’t send them information about your hiring managers’ “accomplishments” as a tool to make conversation easy. An interview should be a screening process, which means some people will fail due to their lack of initiative or discomfort. You may have one or two members of the interview team with no “pretty story” to tell. You may be unintentionally sending the message that they are not “players,” and as a consequence, the candidate may unintentionally perform badly in front of those without a portfolio.
  • Do post papers, professional accomplishments, and other noteworthy aspects of your hiring managers in a “who’s who” section of your website. The creative and curious will find it.
  • Don’t volunteer information. If not asked, do not volunteer ó unless the information is a natural and reasonable extension of the intent of an original question.
  • Do answer completely and as helpfully as possible all questions. If asked, answer.

I will always do everything in my power to get the “right candidate” for my customers and clients. But I will not “make” someone a great candidate. Even if the intent was to inform and improve performance, I have to ask, “Will a candidate who, without external influence, lacks both the initiative and energy to prepare themselves for the interview fair well at this company if hired?” Is their success due to your efforts to help them overcome this “minor” personality flaw for the interview? Does that speak well for the process? Nobody loves interviews, especially those of us who make a living running and designing them. But they are a means to an end we all seek. So to put anybody through one, especially yourself and your team, without the defined goal of selection based on personal initiative, intelligence, energy, and sincerity makes no sense to me at all. Great candidates will get the needed information and job without your help. Good candidates will most likely succeed. It is the mediocre and marginal who need someone to do their job for them as candidates. If they become employees, will you still have time to do their job for them? Be a traffic cop, but don’t drive the cars for anyone. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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