We Multitask Here

The Northern Lights have seen strange sights,
But the queerest they ever did see … — The Cremation of Sam McGee

While they may not quite compare to the sight spoken of by the nameless narrator of Robert Service’s famous poem, nonetheless some of the tales I’ve heard lately of interviews certainly give Cremation of Sam McGee a run for its money.

By far the most dramatic was the interviewer who spent the entire interview reading email. When the candidate tried to get the interviewer’s attention, the response was, “We multi-task here.”

The interviewers who ask technical questions and then say, “That’s not how I would solve the problem, so you must be wrong,” are, sadly, so common that they don’t even rate.

I must confess that when I heard the first story, I was left speechless. Here’s an interviewer trying to convince a candidate to take a job at a company and is treating that candidate with a total lack of respect. If that’s how the person behaves when the candidate isn’t working there, how will he behave when the candidate is working there? That’s assuming, of course, that the candidate takes the job.

Now, it’s highly likely that some people are thinking that there must be a mistake in the previous paragraph: shouldn’t it say that the candidate is trying to convince the company to hire them? Sure they are; however, it’s a two-way street. The company clearly needs someone to fill a certain position, even if it’s not that specific person. Conversely, that person needs a job, even if it’s not that specific job.

But wait, it’s a terrible economy! Does the candidate really have a choice?

Surprising as it may seem, yes they do. If one company is hiring people with a given skill set, odds are others are as well. Companies hire because they believe that the value of bringing someone in exceeds the cost: in other words, they see a potential, or actual, source of revenue. Well, there are a lot of companies out there; if one finds a valuable niche, you can bet others will too. Pretty soon, they’ll be competing for the available pool of talent. The best people will go where they are most respected.

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Of course, once a company has successfully hired someone, there’s the little matter of keeping the person. Economies have a nasty habit of suddenly getting better. People who feel that they are being badly treated at their current company are the most likely to jump ship when things turn around. The worst time for a company to lose people to the competition is, by a rather amazing coincidence, when business is really starting to ramp up. The company that establishes a huge lead at the start of an economic upswing may not become the dominant player, but that’s the way to bet. The company that lags risks being doomed to second-rate status, if it survives at all.

During the last downturn, the CEO of one midsized technology company told several employees that he wouldn’t give them raises because, “It’s a terrible economy and you have no where else to go.” Within a month, each of those people had found new jobs at significantly higher rates of pay. Although the employees were eventually replaced, the cost to the company, in terms of lost productivity and ramp-up time for the new people, was huge. Their competitors dethroned them from their once dominant position in their market niche. The company now no longer exists.

It is, therefore, extremely important to remember that trying to take advantage of a downturn is penny wise and pound foolish. The hiring process is the first glimpse that prospective employees will have of your company and its culture. Right from the start, it’s critical to present the right image. That means that:

  • As obvious as it may seem, apparently there are interviewers who don’t realize that they should give candidates their undivided attention. Would you hire a candidate who spent the interview reading email or IMing?
  • The company needs to understand who it’s looking for and know how to recognize that person. Bringing candidates back for one round of interviews after another only sends the message that the company doesn’t know what it’s doing.
  • Tests, puzzles, or other problems presented to the candidate to solve must be presented by employees who are capable of understanding answers other than their own. It’s not a battle of wits: the goal is to see if the candidate can solve the problem, not if they can read the interviewer’s mind. Interviewers who will only hire candidates less skilled than they are doom the company to mediocrity.

If you want the best people, you need to treat them with respect from the very beginning. When it comes to treating people with respect, it’s never different this time around.

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. He is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve's latest book, "Organizational Psychology for Managers," will be published by Springer in late 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit 7stepsahead.com. You can also contact him at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.


9 Comments on “We Multitask Here

  1. Stephen, Wow! What an article! Kudos for having the guts and gumption to call a spade a spade. And when I say that, I’m not suggesting the sweeping generalization that most interviewers fall into the category of which you describe . . . yet if there were not some level of truth to your suggestions, they wouldn’t be worth mentioning in the first place.

    While the entire article was outstanding, there was one particular point that resonates with me most: “Tests, puzzles, or other problems presented to the candidate to solve must be presented by employees who are capable of understanding answers other than their own.”

    I have never understood how Directors and VPs of Talent Acquisition could employ such myopic and fault-laden evaluation processes; evaluation processes that are too impacted by the ‘observer’ to be of any true value. Personally, I look to the leadership first. Leaders can maintain the status quo or actually drive substantive change.

    Between you and I, if organizations simply hired better talent as Recruiters (and paid them higher than the peanuts we normally see), many of these problems would take care of themselves. Great talent will only ferment in an ecosphere of mediocrity for so long before it comes time to move on somewhere else or start implementing real solutions.

    Kudos again for an outstanding article that is likely to be embraced by Upper Mgmt yet meet some defensiveness by the Recruiting Community. Such is the price for assuming a position in our space (as opposed to blindly subscribing to the prevailing groupthink), yet it’s more than obvious you’re up to the task 🙂

  2. Joshua, you beat me to it! Excellent article Stephen! I will definitely be sharing it with others.

    My company works to align value between the employer and the individual to increase company performance and result in a mutually beneficial work relationship. Many individuals are truly embracing the concept of “choice” when it comes to job search. I find that many employers, however, are still assuming they have all the control and power. I will never understand why some business owners and supervisors think telling staff, “Be happy you have a job” will result in a thankful and engaged workforce. It will be interesting to see which companies have difficulty recruiting and retaining talent when the economy begins to rebound.

    Your article really reinforces that companies need to treat their Talent Management initiatives as strategic business initiatives…beginning with the selection process.

    Thanks again!

    Marge McGee
    Career Architect Consulting Services

  3. The other thing to take into consideration is that hiring managers (not HR) think that with the proliferation of candidates, that everyone is dying to come to work at their company – including passive candidates. Passives are extremely skittish about making a change now. If I do convince a passive candidate to interview, the welcome mat had better come out and the candidate seriously romanced to prove that this is an exceptional opportunity. This type of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated.

    In this economy “the best” may be an active or passive candidate. Both are due proper respect.

  4. One other point that hiring authorities need to consider is that TIMING is important. When interviewing for a position the best (passive or active) need to be treated in a timely fashion. I have seen many candidates interview process dragged out weeks and even months. Then the company is ready to make an offer and guess what the #1 and #2 candidates have already accepted other positions.

    Hiring managers need to realize that the decisions need to be made in a timely fashion. Too often they think that there is an unlimited supply and that their job is the only good one under consideration and “if they are interested they will wait”.

  5. Thank you, Stephen. I liked your article. It helped clarify something for me- the importance of corporate branding, which I’d previously viewed as so much marketing hype. I’ve realized that if your company has a sterling brand (quite apart from actually BEING a sterling company), candidates will line up to crawl over broken glass to interview and work for you, so you don’t have to treat them well. Also (and here I disagree with you), if your company doesn’t have a sterling brand, you can STILL treat people like crap (for now), because there are so few decent jobs available, and I don’t believe there will be a quick, major employment turnaround anytime soon (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/laus.nr0.htm).

    Josh, as usual you bring up valuable points. I disagree with you on one premise: while some enlightened executives may take this to heart, many will not. These “many” believe they already know how to hire well, and THEY ARE WRONG. I have never heard of senior management being dressed down for creating/maintaining a dysfunctional recruiting/interview process, which often reflects the biases and prejudices of the founders. The GAFI Recruiting Principles of Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance (or Incompetence) remain safely enshrined in America’s organizations.

    However, I try not to treat candidates poorly, as I remember what it’s like to be treated poorly. Hopefully, I succeed most of the time….

    Keith keithsrj@sbcglobal.net

  6. The Army has a saying that “tracer bullets work both ways.” Tracer bullets are the phosphorous-tipped ones that glow when shot, so the machine gunner can see where the bullets are going in the dark. They can also show the enemy where the bullets are coming from. Interviews have and always shall be a two-way street in good times and bad. If the process is a disaster, the candidate will not accept or if they are desperate enough to do so, will not stay long.

  7. Steve-

    your article reminds me of when I interviewed at ITA. I wrote up a solution to one of their puzzles. I found a reasonable answer, but not in the way that they wanted; they were only looking for one particular “solution”. Also, they didn’t state what the answer they were looking for looked like- ie, how long the string should be and/or how many elements it should have. I didn’t get called in for an interview.

  8. Grand article. So many executives don’t get the idea that if they treat employees as interchangable vegetables… they will end up with a row of vegetables.What happens next? The executives are responsible for ALL mistakes and there is nobody there to provide a safety net.

    I’ve always thought a smart person would have the habit of hiring people smarter than they are and then exploiting (in a good way) those smarts. The evidence supports me and also suggests that there are never many smart people hiring.


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