Sunday, July 25, 2010

The (Candidate or Company) is Just Not That Into You: When Interviewing is NOT Like Dating

I received a call from a small (but growing) business client last week about the lead candidate for a critical customer-facing position that they needed to fill.

The candidate (who had been laid off from their last position and unemployed for nearly a year), had done very well in their interviews with the company's leadership team. The last step was a final interview with the CEO, during which the CEO planned to extend the employment offer.

The candidate never showed up for the final interview. Nor did they call or email in advance to cancel the final interview. Nor did they respond to subsequent phone calls or emails from the company. For two weeks. (And at this writing, still no word from the lead candidate. Obviously, they're no longer the lead candidate, and the company is better off learning this now rather than post-hire.)

The company's hiring manager was a bit shocked, to say the least; until their recent growth trend, this particular company has not done a great deal of hiring on a regular basis. "The candidate was great, we wanted to hire them. They did say they would need some minor surgery before starting the position with us, but we were fine with that. And then, when they didn't show up for the meeting with the CEO -- or didn't call or email to cancel the meeting --- or didn't call or email us back when we followed up to see what was wrong -- well, that was weird. Is that normal?"

It's not normal; it's rude; and it's bad business, particularly in a local (and recovering) economy like SmAlbany where you never know who knows you or the company hiring authority who's interviewing you -- it's more like 2 or 3 degrees of separation rather than 6, and your reputation is core to the product -- you -- that you are marketing and hoping that a hiring authority will purchase.

However, in the last 10 years or so, I've seen candidate finalists who progress to the phone or face-to-face phase of the interview process do the exact same thing more and more: they don't call, they don't write -- they just drop off. I say the last 10 years or so, as I first noticed the trend as a hiring authority around the Y2K hiring frenzy with IT candidates, when there were jobs aplenty and companies were competing furiously for candidates by constantly upping the hiring incentive ante with dueling hiring bonuses, etc. (Those days will return with the next economic uptick cycle!)

Now, in my role as an HR Director, I've certainly run into situations when bad luck strikes both candidates and employees, incapacitating them to the point of being unconscious / missing in action and therefore temporarily unable to communicate -- however, those are the very rare exceptions. (In July 2001 for example, when my son decided to change my plans and make his appearance via C-section at Albany Med, I was at the ready on my cell phone with my friend and mentor Patty while in labor to ask her advice, which was to get off the phone and listen to the doctor.)

When an employee goes missing in action, it's almost always a message that the employee no longer wants to work for the company but doesn't know how or doesn't want to resign gracefully. It's either fear, passive aggressive behavior, or usually both.

And when a candidate goes missing in action, it's (obviously) almost always a signal that the candidate is not interested in pursuing a position with the company, but for some reason they do not know how to say proactively and professionally something as simple as "I'm pursuing a position with another company that better meets my career interests and needs; thank you for taking the time to consider me as a candidate." Great reputation management with that simple phrase. Best to communicate that message to the hiring authority in person or on the phone, but an email with the same message, while not as effective, is at least better than radio silence.

We've all experienced in a dating situation (or vicariously through recent pop cultural references) the "They're Just Not That Into You" behavior, when the person you're interested in dating just stops calling, emailing, texting and does not respond to your calls, emails and text messages. It's rude, it's hurtful, and frankly, demonstrates a lack of courage, authenticity and emotional intelligence.

Whatever you do in your personal life clearly is your prerogative. The "They're Just Not That Into You" behavior however does not translate at all well in a business transaction, which absolutely includes the interview process. Here is where interviewing is not like dating at all: the company or the hiring authority will not experience hurt feelings by a candidate's professional and proactive declination; they will just move on to the next most qualified candidate.

But if you just drop off -- if you don't call or write -- that company probably will never consider you again as a candidate. And if that company (perhaps you didn't care for the company and didn't want to work for them anyway) happens to be consulted by one of their fellow hiring authorities on your candidacy with another company in the future (and it does happen more frequently than you realize), the hiring authority will share their negative experience with you as the candidate who dropped off unprofessionally. That's where the business -- and ultimately, your career and economic success -- transcends any personal that may be attached to the interview process on the part of the hiring authority.

I also have a theory that candidates who engage in the "They're Just Not That Into You" behavior are responding (in not the most strategic manner, granted) to companies and hiring authorities who demonstrate the same behavior, especially to candidates who have progressed to the face-to-face interview stage and then are not selected as finalists or hired, and they never hear back from the company. (Well, in a sense, they do: in this case, silence means "no.") The ill-conceived rationale might be something to effect of: "Companies blow off candidates all the time; why can't I as a candidate take the same tactic?" Like I said, it doesn't quite make sense for either candidates or companies.

From a hiring authority reputation management standpoint, I subscribe to at least a phone call to let face-to-face and phone-interview candidates either know how they're progressing in the hiring process, or not (If you need advice or coaching on this as a hiring authority or as a candidate, I'm here to help). Runner-up candidates, on both sides of the interview table in my experience, often end up being hired in the future, or even more interesting, in a decision-maker role like customer. At the very least, companies who spell out the interview process in their email auto-responders or on their websites are at minimum setting the stage for candidates with regard to realistic communication expectations during the interview process.

I had a great experience during a phone-screen with a hiring authority, where we switched places at the interview table. "You hired me as an entry-level candidate over 10 years ago," the HR recruiter said. I chuckled at the SmAlbany factor. "I assume it was a good experience, since you called me for a phone-screen."

"Yes," they responded. "The hiring process was long and might have been more frustrating, but you called me every week to let me know that my candidacy was trending positively, and that I was a strong candidate, but that your company was not in a position to make a hiring decision until all the candidates were interviewed and assessed. It helped to keep me interested in working for the company."

In the interview process, reputation management can indeed cut both ways: the key is for both candidates and hiring authorities to proactively and respectfully manage that process, which will yield business and career wins that you cannot predict or imagine.

Have a great and prosperous week!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Dating and Interviewing Have in Common (Except Please Don't Date Who You Interview)

Among several passions, interests, entrepreneurial endeavors and job experiences, I've been an inside (corporate) recruiter for about 21 years. I've been a salesman's daughter all my life. My daddy, who worked as a wedding and bar mitzvah photographer on the weekends as a second job, had me cold-calling prospects when I was 14 years old.

Howard (my father) taught me then and since that selling is not shoving unwanted products down customers' throats: it is instead first determining the customer's needs and then meeting those needs. It was a great and early introduction to my own native skills, and it definitely formed the basis of my success as both a recruiter and a candidate.

As a result of my journey to date, in both robust markets and during several rides to the Recession Rodeo, I've come to the conclusion that the following skills are congruent: interviewing; selling; marketing; networking; and dating. Had I recognized these skill intersections when dating was a primary interest in my life, I definitely would have dated more.

However, in the spirit of full disclosure as an HR practitioner, you definitely should not date who you interview.

There are several opportunities at play within these skill intersections, for both employers and prospective employees. These are not meant to be inclusive or ranked in order of importance; merely thought- and continuous improvement-provoking.

I also use these skill intersections to illustrate how accessible the recruiting and interview process can be when I train others to both interview and recruit.

First: an intense curiosity to learn about new people and to have new experiences with them. My friend Nan (who is a writer and an English teacher) and I share this gift. Nan applied her skill masterfully in the dating category. To this day, I marvel at her ability when she was single to secure at least one date in nearly every social situation. As a runner-up to Nan, I always make a new networking connection no matter what the setting, because of my native curiosity to draw out and learn people's individual stories, which more often than not, are wonderful takeaway nuggets.

Second: the ability to read signals, verbal and non-verbal, and determine whether or not needs are being met for both parties. I have ended meetings or revised the original meeting agenda, no matter what side of the interview table I sit on, when I determine that there isn't a needs match on both sides, in the spirit of saving time and preserving mutual esteem and credibility.

One example was an interview for a senior HR position as a candidate: once the recruiter finished his clearly rote description of the position, I then asked him why he wasn't considering our mutual friend Lynn -- she was a perfect match for the position, which substantiated my intuitive conclusion that the position was not for me. He subsequently recruited and hired Lynn. I love vocational matchmaking.

And then there was the guy with a strong Accounting background who came to my then-company's job fair booth and began our interaction complaining that he had been job-hunting for several months and that he couldn't catch a break because his last boss was an asshole and that his age was a problem and that's why he couldn't get hired. Yikes. I stopped him and told him the truth: that he needed to resolve his frustration before he approached the next hiring authority, as he was clearly undermining himself. He was grateful: no one had ever given him that feedback.

Speaking of signals: watch-checking -- whether on a date or an interview -- telegraphs a clear "Stick a fork in me, I'm done" message. A strategically placed clock over the candidate's (or date's, or customer's) shoulder is a more subtle and respectful time-tracker.

Third, and perhaps most important: knowing what you want, whether you're the candidate or the hiring authority. I'm a big advocate of defining exactly what you want (and what you have to offer) affirmatively and in detail before recruitment (or job search) begins. This preparation invariably produces expedited screening processes, specific and meaningful interview questions and dialogue, and on-target needs identification for both candidates and hiring authorities, which in turn translates into focused marketing that invariably produces better results. Covey's classic "begin with the end in mind."

However, the human experience often presents these nuggets in the form of learning from our mistakes, e.g. learning first what you don't want.

Like dating the newly recovering medical student for a year and a half despite the fact that on the first date, he took me to dinner knowing full well that he did not have the money to pay, but cutting him slack because he was adorable. Unfortunately, just being adorable was not enough to sustain a relationship. I subsequently learned my lesson after that relationship on the first date with the immature lawyer who took me to the movies knowing that he did not have the money with him to pay. There was no second date with the immature lawyer, lesson learned.

And then there was the wonderful 5-hour first date with the man I knew would become my husband. Except I had the sense by then not to mention that intuition during that first date.

Fourth, as noted above: the ability to identify red flags, large and small, and to assess whether or not, according to what you have clearly defined as what you want, if the red flags you identify are manageable or deal-killers. And to not ignore those red flags, instead to drill down into them with additional questions / discussion to confirm or deny your red-flag intuition.

A candidate example was the nonprofit Executive Director who called me before 8 AM the Saturday morning after my first interview with her to spontaneously continue the interview -- I respectfully withdrew myself from consideration. I could easily extrapolate what it would be like to work for her: she'd show up on my doorstep early every Saturday morning expecting coffee.

One of the sadder hiring-authority examples was the guy who showed up still drunk for his first day of work from celebrating his new job into the wee hours the night before. His employment offer of course was rescinded.

Because here's where the first date and the first interview are identical: for both the hiring authority and the job candidate, it's as good as it gets: we're all on our best behavior. So if the red flags bleed outside the boundaries of your standards on that first date or interview, more likely than not, it's not going to get any better than that first encounter. Then both parties need to decide whether or not to move forward -- whether or not needs will be met on both sides.

Hiring authorities: The manner in which you recruit employees should be the same as the manner in which you attract customers, as it requires the same passion and energy. And you never know when a job candidate can end up as a customer, especially in a local economy like SmAlbany. Recruiting is part of your branding and your reputation. Everyone, internally and externally, is a customer -- it's a win-win set-up and ultimately reflects best on your organization.

Job candidates: you are the product that you're selling to the prospective employer. Have you determined their particular needs? Can you clearly demonstrate how you will meet / exceed their needs in the interview? Have you asked for the order by telling the hiring authority that you want the job, and that you're the best candidate for the job because you've laid out the true facts of how you will meet and / or exceed their needs? (Asking for the order without making the factual case of meeting the hiring authority's needs is like saying "I love you" on the first date, by the way -- it cheapens everyone in the conversation.) It's a lot more work, but it feels much better than the stereotypical candidate paradigm of supplicant, don't you think?

That symmetry goes for subsequent interviews too: I'm a big fan of Ask the Headhunter, where among other nuggets, I wholeheartedly support his philosophy of doing the job during the interview, as this benefits and identifies needs on both sides of the interview table. One of my best career interview experiences as a candidate was the interview task to write a sample press release as if there was currently a plant emergency. I loved it, and my hiring (and subsequent) manager, Bill, picked up on my energy. Needs met and matched!

Seriously though -- please don't date who you interview. I'll talk more about that in a future post.

Good hunting: have a great week.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Walking in Their Resilient Footsteps: Keep Daring to Create a New American Dream as Employees and Entrepreneurs

I sent the link to the New York Times article below out via Twitter early last Friday morning in between two seemingly unrelated conversations, one on Thursday and the other on Friday:

For a New Generation, an Elusive American Dream- - Create a New Dream by Training #Employees to be #Entrepreneurs #CEO

Apparently, 140 characters is not enough space for me to weigh in on this subject, hence this foray into more than just micro-blogging.

On Thursday evening over wine and Saratoga Water at Creo, I mentioned to John Stahl how much the article struck me: that the young man in the article hadn't been able to find a career job since graduating in 2008, and that unlike his father and grandfather who both secured career-long jobs after some brief initial networking and job-search, this third-generation son's road to employment would be much more challenging due to the current economy. Instead of wringing my hands about the recession in harmony with that article (my 5th recession, I think, since my childhood), I was energized by the opportunity to shake the employee paradigm a bit.

"Clearly, we need to train our current and future workforce to be both employees
and entrepreneurs, to build ultimate resiliency and creativity no matter what the economy serves up," I asserted. "I've been on both sides of the layoff table during several visits to the Recession Rodeo, and I'm grateful that I've learned not only to earn a living as a consultant and an HR Director, but more importantly, that I'm the source of the money, whether I'm working as an employee or a vendor." I also asserted to John, in the spirit of full disclosure, how difficult it was at times to detox from the employee Kool-Aid to authentically support that assertion, which for me was especially compounded by my chosen profession upholding and investing in the organizational employment structure as a double-dip in the stuff. Nonetheless, the journey and the learning have been invaluable in both arenas.

"Of course," John agreed. "But remember: the whole employee paradigm is a product of the industrial revolution. 100 years ago or so, our ancestors
all worked for themselves: farming, running a store, etc. We just need to remember our roots."

The second conversation was with my dad, up from Florida on his annual visit to see my son Noah, his only grandchild. As we usually do, talk turned to family history as we waited for what thankfully turned into a pleasant dinner at The Barnsider after a rocky start. "Do you know what your grandmother's name was?" (Dad's grandfather's name was Davis, according to the scant paperwork we possess, including a colorful Last Will and Testament leaving only $5 each to his two daughters, "for reasons that they know full well.") "No, I don't," Dad replied, "She died long before I was born."

Curiosity piqued, I started Googling on Saturday morning, with no results. I then broke down and opted for a trial membership on Jackpot in both the 1900 and 1910 census records: Davis and Katie (interesting name for a nice Jewish girl from Russia) had 6 children including my grandfather Joseph, whom I had never met.

More fascinating still was connecting the dots on their immigration and entrepreneurial journey - here's how the two conversations dovetailed, not without coincidence. Davis arrived first in 1891 to find safer haven from the Russian pogroms. Katie and their older 4 children (including the later outcast daughters Sarah and Lena) followed in 1896. The 1900 census documents them all speaking English as their main language a few short years later (Where in contrast, even after 6 years of studying French, I have retained none of it), and that Davis sold clothing. The 1910 census clearly documents the progression of Davis' entrepreneurial success: "
Operator of Clothing Store." What great nuggets to uncover!

I was thrilled to discover yet another family entrepreneur. After losing her husband in the 1918 swine flu epidemic, my great-grandmother Rose opened up a sewing and knitting notions shop to support her two young sons. Her older son, my granddaddy Nat, started his career at the age of 11, learning his trade as an electrician, which was interrupted by the 1929 economic crash. He and my grandma Betty (with my infant Aunt Marilyn in tow) had to go live with their respective mothers for a time to wait out the economic storm. He subsequently retired after 53 years of service from the same company, and saved and invested more than enough to keep my grandma Betty well-supported for more than 20 years after he passed, until her own death.

I've read recently that through natural selection, we are the descendants of the most resilient prehistoric humans who survived near-extinction-level events - earthquakes, floods, ice ages, disease, famines, you name it. Yet here we are. A bit distant however, and too cold a comfort to reassure me.

But Davis, Rose and Nat, and we who are blessed to be their children and grandchildren, are a warmer and more recent touchstone of the true potential of our own creativity: documentary proof of how infinitely and resiliently, that
we are the source of our own wealth -- financially, physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.