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When I was a wet-behind-the-ears human resources bunny during the Cyndi Lauper era, I got a fresh shock almost every day. Never having paid much attention to the practice of HR before my boss plunked me into the department, I was struck by how what looked like a well-oiled machine on the outside was so often random and whimsical in daily practice.
That shock was especially profound in the hiring department. I’d interview candidates and then talk with hiring managers who had also met them, so as to share impressions. Often the hiring manager and I would have similar reactions to job seekers. We’d talk about each one and discuss where we saw a fit or lack of fit between job seekers and jobs. If we were lucky, we’d agree quickly on people and assignments. That wasn’t always the case. Sometimes hiring managers and I would find ourselves on different planets. In such cases, conversations would go like this:
Me: So, I just walked Theresa Adams out to the lobby. We had a good talk. What were your impressions?
Hiring manager: She’s smart. Excellent ideas. But I’m not hiring her. Someone will—she’s got a lot on the ball.
Me: Oh, I’m surprised. I thought she was terrific. I have to say I didn’t think we’d find a person with her expert Excel skills and both the financial-analyst and payroll experience you were looking for.
Hiring manager: Oh, yeah, that’s right. We had that in the ad. Well, she’s O.K., but I’m not hiring her. She has a John Lennon bumper sticker on her car. Total granola head. She told me about her dog.
Me: It’s bad that she has a dog?
Hiring manager: Get me some other people.
At the time, a part of me had the naiveté to think that maybe there was some inscrutable, ineffable quality I was missing in certain job candidates—the ones who seemed fantastic to me but didn’t get hired. I figured these hiring managers, older than me by a decade or more and with hundreds of interviews under their belts, saw something in these seemingly heaven-sent job candidates that I failed to detect.
The joke was on me. Years later, I see that those candidates had no ineffable negative quality. The managers simply decided: “There is something about you—completely unrelated to the job at hand but closely entwined with my own sense of power and control—that bugs me.” Case closed. You’re not getting the job.
Undoubtedly, certain candidates (such as our fictional example, Theresa) failed the politics test or the alma mater test or some other private sieve that a hiring manager had concocted and clung to against all reason. Some passed all those tests, but exuded a bit too much confidence and self-direction for a mojo-less manager to accept. Somewhere in my mid-thirties I realized that employers shouldn’t allow some people to hire other people on their own. Their lens is too grimy, you might say. Their motivations are complicated and unwholesome.
We’ve all met these types. (And we cataloged a few of their standard phrases in Ten Things Only Bad Managers Say.) Here’s a quick walk down memory lane, recalling from my many years in corporate HR some of the unfit-to-hire managers who brought their own special brand of crazy to the talent-selection process:
Sorry, wrong side of the tracks. We had just installed a whiz-bang, mid-’90s, résumé-scanning system. One hiring manager called me to say, “I want the paper resumes still, not the electronic versions.” “I totally understand,” I said, “I like to have the paper, too. Is there anything in particular about the paper résumés you miss when you read them on the screen?” “Yes,” she said. “I want to see the applicant’s address. That tells me a lot.” Ay caramba. “What is that?” I asked. “Well, you know, their socioeconomic status,” said the hiring manager. “That tells me what kind of person they are.” A horrifying thought—but also a learning opportunity: Afterward I launched a discussion with her to go over the data points and factors that should influence a hiring decision—and the many factors that shouldn’t. How many hiring managers across corporate (and entrepreneurial) America are using similar, scary, self-designed screening systems to make their wheat-from-chaff decisions?
“Loser” speaks for itself. A manager of production employees said to me: “Don’t send me any more candidates like that last guy.” “Oh, what happened?” I asked. “He was a real loser,” said the manager. “Tell me what wasn’t working for you,” I said. “Was Gary lacking in some of the qualifications we needed, or what exactly?” “He’s just a loser,” said the manager. “You have to do better than that,” I said. “Was it something specific he said, or what?” “You could force me to list reasons for my decision, but I’d be making them up,” said the manager. “Some people are just losers.”
The law? Screw that. A friend of mine (we’ll call her Paula) interviewed with a white-shoe law firm in a big metropolis. She specializes in employment law. At the interview, the managing partner asked: “Now Paula, you’re in your early thirties, I’m guessing. Do you plan to have kids?” “That is a great question,” said Paula. “You’re testing my knowledge of employment law. Parental status is one of the protected classes, so you’re checking to see whether I know that is just the kind of thing our clients shouldn’t be asking at job interviews.” “No, I figured you knew that,” said the partner. “I really want to know. I want to know whether you plan to have kids.” “You’re joking,” said Paula. “I’m serious,” said the partner. “Who’s going to believe you over me?”
What a delightful club. Earlier this year I attended an event for recruiting types hosted by a big-city daily newspaper. I met a young woman at the event and chatted with her about recruitment. “I’m an in-house recruiting manager,” she said, mentioning the name of her employer (a massive company with gazillions of call-center employees). “So, what sorts of people are you looking for?” I asked, expecting her to answer: “Call-center agents, administrative assistants, and telephone operators” or the like. “Hispanic people,” she said, causing my mouth literally to drop and my drink nearly to fall out of my hand. “You know,” I said, “I wasn’t asking you about the ethnic background of your employees. I was asking about the jobs you’re trying to fill. It is not really O.K. to prefer to hire Hispanic employees or caucasian employees or black or Asian ones.” “What?” asked the recruiter. “We don’t pay a salary that will keep white people, so we hire Hispanic people.” “Er,” I said, “have you heard of the EEOC [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]?” “No,” said the recruiter, excitedly. “Is that an association for Hispanic job seekers? I’d love to get their number.”
If you’re responsible for hiring in your organization, you should double-check the hiring judgment of the managers and HR folks in your shop. Without a clear set of signals from the person at the top of the organizational chart, plenty of all-too-human hiring managers will fall into misguided, unethical, or unlawful decisionmaking patterns about hiring. Every chance you get, you can set the tone by talking about talent and hiring priorities. (Brains? Pluck? Creativity?) And make clear which random and indefensible hiring screens won’t stand.