Alex recently interviewed at an Internet startup here in Silicon Valley. The company has a reputation as a well managed start-up with potential to change the market space it operates in. A headhunter had done an excellent job of selling the company to Alex, who entered the interview with excitement and interest. He ended up going to five interviews over the course of two weeks and did a lot of personal reference checking to find out about the company. In Silicon Valley as anywhere else, knowing the “inside story” is particularly important when investigating a new position. Most candidates want to know the answers to questions like these: What’s it really like to work there? What’s the reputation of my potential new boss? How are the projects assigned? And so forth. Alex received a mixed set of references from the few associates he knew who had any knowledge of the company. Several people knew his potential boss, and a few even knew what the venture firms were saying about the company. Most of his information led him to conclude that this firm was as good as most to work at and had a mixed assortment of good and bad points. But, even with this information, he turned down the offer he eventually received. In chats that I have had with him, and others like him, many lessons can be learned. Here are a half dozen things that explain why candidates often turn down even your best offers:
- Inconsistent messages about the company’s strengths. Most important is the overall message and that comes through from the interviewers to the candidate. In Alex’s case, some of the managers he had interviews with were very positive about the company and felt it would achieve its goals in record time. Others were more skeptical and left him with an impression that they were ready to leave or that they did not have much confidence in the future of the firm. When people have limited information about a situation, they tend to put up defenses and be wary until the evidence sorts itself out. Even though Alex understood intellectually that everyone has a slightly different perspective about a company, he still felt that the people who worked there had concerns and were not convinced that it would succeed. Potential employees need to hear the same messages from everyone and need positive reassurance about the future. Any doubt will most likely come through in body language or attitude. The candidates will pick this up, reflect on it, and look for better and more consistent options.
- Job role was unclearly defined. Alex did not feel confident that the job he was applying for was clearly understood or even how it fit into the overall strategy. It seemed to him that the role the headhunter had described was very different from the one he was hearing about. In every interview, managers had a different twist on what he was supposed to do when he was hired. Some looked on his position (a mid-level technical manager role) as one created to curtail the excitement and freedom of the earlier days. Others seemed to welcome it as a way to introduce order on chaos. In either case, the role was not one John relished fulfilling. He had a sketchy job description, obviously written by the headhunter and not the company, which no one had seen or understood. Even his potential new boss did not express great confidence that this was the “right” description. It is critical to have a short, clearly written document for a candidate to study and share with family and friends. It is a way of defining a new landscape and of building confidence that the job can be done. Without it, many candidates feel uncomfortable and lost.
- Inconsistent vision and strategy. Out of five interviewers, no two had the same vision for the company. And none of the visions Alex did hear were the one the headhunter had described. Some had similar elements in them, and each was compelling, but they all expressed very different ideas about the long term goals, and even about the eventual product, of this company. He said that if felt as if one group wanted to develop DOS and the other Windows! It is important to be consistent and to make sure there is an “official” vision or strategy available to all candidates. While it may be very normal for internal employees to disagree and even debate product and service issues, it can be very upsetting to a prospective job candidate who may be leaving from an environment with the same problem. Good marketing skills are as important with candidates as they are with products.
- Too many interviews. Five interviews were way too many! By giving five uncoordinated and un-coached people the opportunity to interview a candidate with Alex’s skills was unfortunate. The result was the inconsistency, which should have been expected from the beginning. There are always good and bad points about giving a candidate many interviews. On the positive side, it allows the candidate to explore different views and see several sides to a company. On the negative side, it accentuates the negative aspects and allows for inconsistency and even contradictions that may cause the candidate to have second thoughts. If you allow or encourage many interviews, I hope you train and coach the interviewers and coordinate their approach and questions.
- Slow interviewing process and decision making cycle. The process took several weeks and was much too slow. Time is the enemy of closing a candidate. Have you ever wondered why car dealers and appliance salesmen use every incentive to get you to buy right then — on the spot? They do that because they know that “out of sight is out of mind.” People forget quickly and what was a compelling argument a couple of days ago is now not very interesting. Time gives candidates the opportunity to ask lots of questions and become confused about what they heard. In my opinion, all interviews should be competed in one day and all offers made within 2 days of the interview. If you really want to get candidates to say yes, make offers on the spot which are good for 24 hours. It is impressive and flattering to the candidates and focuses their attention (and yours).
- Salary and benefits did not match or even address his expectations. Amazing as it seems to me in this time of economic boom and plentiful jobs, no one asked him what he wanted from an employer in term of benefits or job duties or schedule. When he received the final offer, he felt that this was the same offer they were making to everyone. He was more than willing to trade salary for telecommuting to avoid the terrible traffic, but this was never discussed. The recruiter had asked him what his current salary was and the offer reflected a nominal increase, but not enough to be very attractive. No one had ASKED him what he wanted or personalized the offer in any way. It is getting to be a necessity to inquire into the expected and desired benefit/salary package and customize one for each offer made. Many organizations are experimenting with a variety of custom packages and I think this will be an increasing trend over the next five years. The one side fits all approach of the past is pretty much gone for anything but the entry level or most basic jobs.
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The lesson to be drawn from all of this is simple: be clear, be consistent, be quick, and personalize everything you do in recruiting. Actually these are pretty good axioms for most things in business or personal life (except in love)!