Companies & Industries

When Chutzpah Crosses the Line


Whether you're an employer or a job candidate, be mindful of attitudes and behaviors that signal it's time to walk away

My friend Sue got a call from a recruiter about an out-of-state job opportunity. She had a great talk with both this person and the company recruiter, then one more with a vice-president of marketing. Then they asked Sue to send over her references.

"Sure, I'll send them right away," she said, "but you're not going to call them right now, are you?" The company recruiter said, "Of course we are. We need to know more about you, before deciding whether to spend the money to bring you in for a face-to-face interview."

Now, that's chutzpah! If you want to express the recruiter's statement as a mathematical expression, it would be "x > y," where "x" is the cost of Sue's round-trip plane ticket, and "y" is the value of those treasured reference-givers' time.

Expressed in words, the company's statement would be: "Your trusted reference-givers' time and energy costs us nothing, but the plane ticket costs us something, so we don't mind leaning on your references now in order to check you out, even before we've laid eyes on you." Sue did not send her references' contact information -- and did not pursue the opportunity.

BLATANT BLINDSIDING.

Chutzpah in the hiring arena is nothing new. But both employers and employees are trying more brazen tactics, and it's important to pay attention to those. Whichever side of the deal you're on -- buy side or sell side -- you need to be alert, because these chutzpah attacks can come out of nowhere, and you'll be better able to respond if you anticipate them.

A job candidate was nearing the offer stage with my employer. I was the human-resources person in charge of the hire. I said, "We're very excited to be moving along in this process with you. Do you have any questions for me right now?"

"Yes," he said, "is there any way to change the job that I'm being hired for?"

"Hmm," I replied, "I'm not sure what you mean. Is this not the job you're interested in -- the one we've been talking about for several weeks?"

COMMITMENT PHOBIA.

"Well," said the young man, "I knew that I would impress you if I got to meet you and the hiring manager. But I have no interest in this job. Do you have any more senior jobs that I could interview for?"

"We do have some, but unfortunately your experience isn't quite right for any of those," I had to admit. "I would encourage you to take this job if you're interested in the company. It's perfect for your skills, and in one year you could transfer internally to a different position."

"One year!" said the candidate. "I can't wait a year. Why can't I transfer sooner than that?"

"Because in the first year, you'll still be training in the job you're hired for," I said. "If you feel that you couldn't do this job for a year, I don't think you should take it. We're really firm on the one-year commitment. We just don't make exceptions."

"No problem!" said the candidate. "If I see a job I like in another department and my one-year sentence isn't up, I'll just quit and reapply for the other job!" He didn't get hired.

SELFISH SIGNALS.

Chutzpah, in many instances, is a good thing. Standing up for yourself is important. Candidates get pushed around by prospective employers every day, and that's not O.K.

It's perfectly appropriate and healthy to set boundaries. And from the employer's point of view, it's important to set appropriate expectations, too. But when either job seeker or employer sends the signal "It's all about me," it's time to end the relationship.

One e-mail acquaintance of mine went on a job interview and got peppered with questions. My friend interjected, at one point, "Would now be a good time for me to share my questions?" The interviewer replied: "No, we have no time for your questions in this interview. I have a lot of information to collect, and not a lot of time to do it."

In other words -- who cares about you?

"IT'S YOUR CHOICE."

On the other hand, there's the job candidate who said to me: "I like the job, but I think the sales target is unrealistic. Based on my extensive experience in this area, I'd discount your sales goal by 25%."

Oh, wow! You'll discount our goals by 25%? Gee, that's just the kind of salesperson we want! Heck, unless we can find someone who wants to discount the sales target by 50%, you're hired!

And then there's the employer representative who calls up the candidate four months after a first interview and says: "We'd like to have you in for a second interview." The candidate replies, "Gee, I'd forgotten all about this opportunity, since I hadn't heard from you -- what's the history on that?" The recruiter gets huffy and says, "All I know is that we want you in for an interview -- it's your choice."

Got it. My choice is to target my search on companies that actually give a flying hoot about the people they intend to employ. (Call it my little idiosyncrasy.)

GO WITH YOUR GUT.

So how do you respond when a gape-inducing chutzpah bomb hits you in the face? You pause, and let it sink in. You try to imagine the set of values and priorities that could allow a person to open his mouth and say something so outrageous.

Do all of this before you respond. In fact, very often there's no need to respond immediately. You can simply say: "That's interesting. I'll need a little time to noodle on that -- let me get back to you."

Then let the remark settle. You may think of extenuating circumstances that could cast a different light on what seemed like a hugely insensitive, unprofessional, or self-centered move. Or you may not. If you listen to your gut, it will guide you in the best direction.

While I wouldn't encourage job seekers or hiring executives to be thin-skinned or take every tossed-off comment to heart, sometimes it pays to listen carefully. There's only so much chutzpah you can, or should, tolerate during the recruitment process. Once that line is crossed, you have to bolt -- or regret your silence later.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive. She can be reached at liz@asklizryan.com.

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