Hires, Fires & What’s Important

I haven’t had experience with hiring in more than a basic sense. (Spousal hires for employees working part-time at minimum wage just didn’t come up.)

Many of you have hired – or been on hiring committees. Your experiences are likely to be varied: as a hiring member of A) Your own business; B) A professional partnership; C) A large corporation; D) A public bureaucracy, or E) Academia. Probably sometimes you had complete control & sometimes you were on hiring committees governed by strict rules.

Prompted by Conglomerate Blog’s discussion of whether a law school grad should sanitize his resume of any hints he is both a Republican and a Mormon, I wondered what others thought. Conglomerate Blog suggests honesty, but admits that will lose interviews. Complete objectivity is impossible; in some environments, noting that difficulty, it was given up as goal. Certainly the factional or tribal, nepotism or ideology, make the disinterested ideal difficult. Nonetheless, some institutions encourage a dispassionate approach by rules & company culture. How much does this vary by the kind of organization? the level of job security?

So, what are your opinions? What worked, what didn’t, what was legal, what wasn’t? Most of all, what would you like to do & what did you hate doing?

Some questions:
A) What (if anything) should be “sanitized” in broad terms?
B) Would the hint of a religion influence your choice? (Some have to work at eliminating it – say a Mormon with two years service, a Muslim or Jewish name, a private high school or college, etc.) Would a religion (Muslim, Ba H’ai, Mormon, Baptist, etc.) influence your opinion?
C) Would any political signals be a turn-off to you? To your colleagues?
D) Do you ask about the applicant’s marital (or partnership) arrangements?
E) Is the policy one of finding position for the spouse or partner? Or, would your hiring be limited by nepotism rules? Do you treat married spouses differently than partners (whether hetero or homosexual)?
F) Are you willing to bring in a spousal hire at a higher level than the original interviewee? What would make you want to do this?
G) Do you ask life-style questions and does that make a difference? (Decades ago, the chair here didn’t want to hire a guy that didn’t drive. Actually, that probably did indicate someone too urban for this culture, but since I didn’t drive then, I was pretty irritated.) How important is their affection for the unique situation (cultural, geographic, etc.) your firm offers?
H) How important is “service” for those of you in situations where that is a factor? Is collegiality important? Surely “liking” always plays a part – but is it a conscious plus or a pull that you try to work against with your mind?
I) How much are hiring decisions weighted by out-reach or a desire to increase diversity?
J) Would an applicant’s suit against a previous employer trouble you?
K) Do you ask about security clearances? Felony convictions?
L) Does your firm give personality tests? When in an employee’s application process? Do these tests vary by the kind of job or the level of the position?

This is low wattage next to Foster’s GM discussion. Fantasizing sitting on a hiring committee isn’t nearly as fun as fantasizing sitting at the head of GM, but some job-seekers will be grateful for a look into the heads of those on the other side of the table. And I’m curious if different work environments hire differently.

14 thoughts on “Hires, Fires & What’s Important”

  1. IANAL. You will probably hear from an atorney who will explain the law. The law has stoped a lot of bad practices and made a lot of hiring managers think twice about what they are doing. That is good, but the law won’t assure that the applicant and hirer will be happy with each other long term.

    The first rule is: be honest.

    The hiring process should stick to issues relevant to probablility of job success. Part of this is how the applicant got to where they are. Holes in the chronological presentation of the resume or non-chronological presentation are red flags. If you went on a mission for 2 years or if you spent 2 years in Attica, the employer will find out. Would you prefer that to be when they read the resume, after the first interview when they do an outside investigation or after the first year when you let it slip in casual conversation? And do you want to work for an organization that wouldn’t want you there if they knew what you had really done?

    All the questions about spouses are irrelevant to the hirer unless the spouse is part of the package as for a very senior executive, in which case the spouse will be informally interviewed when you take them out to dinner.

    The issue for the hirer is, is the person the best candidate for the job? That requires managers to do the hard work of defining the job. Once that is done, and you would be surprised how often it is not, squaring candidates against the requirements is much easier.

    If there are irregular hours or frequent rush projects with little notice, can the applicant’s schedule provide the required flexibility? Who cares if it’s because of children, and elderly parent, or a bowling league?

    Jobs are like street cars, if you miss this one, there’ll be another come along in 5 minutes. At least in this economy.

  2. Key point: “do you want to work for an organization that wouldn’t want you there if they knew what you had really done?”

    That’s why I don’t sanitize my resume. Teaching experience? College classes (list), Elementary school, and Sunday School. If somebody sees “Sunday School” and decides they don’t want to interview me, their loss. I’m good enough at what I do that if your prejudice keeps me out of your company, it’s you who loses out. I’ll go work elsewhere, and I’ll enjoy it.

  3. The simple fact that a resume can be sanitized leads me to subordinate that doc to the actual interview. When I interview employees I always ask myself whether I think I can work with them. Humor, a sense of trustworthiness, and a reflexive, real personality can outweigh educational credentials, or documented skill-sets as far as I’m concerned.

    Even in high tech jobs like IT, a willing and engaged employee will fill-in his knowledge through reading and practice. The hint of that sort of devotion, or the lack of it, is better found in the eyes and words of the candidate during the interview, rather than in a manufactured representation we call a “resume.”

  4. Hiring managers don’t want to hire the BEST employees, they want to hire the safest employee, the one least likely to make the hiring manager look bad or cause him problems.

    In the future, I’ve learned my lesson, and will only hire people who are like me, to prevent them from bonding with my boss, for example.

  5. I’ve interviewed and hired a lot of people, both directly and in one-over-one situations (ie, talking with a candidate who is being considered by a manager reporting to me) I consider it to be one of the most important and interesting aspects of the management job.

    It’s a task that isn’t always done as well as it should be. Several years ago, I read about a study in which 2 groups of people were sent out to interview for the job of electrical engineer. One group consisted of professional actors who had been carefully coached; the other consisted of actual electrical engineers. Guess which group got the most job offers?

    I can’t remember if these were screening interviews with HR only, or if the hiring managers (who themselves were probably EEs) were involved.

  6. Also, more directly on topic: Unless the manager doing the hiring owns the organization outright, he is responsible for money and resources that belong to other people, and has a responsibility to those people. He has no right to use hiring decisions to advance his own personal beliefs at the expense of the organization.

    This principle is sometimes violated in business: it seems that it is violated almost constantly in academia.

  7. Yes, David, there are large differences. And frankly those were what I was thinking of when I put this up.

    The differences do not arise simply from different human natures. Academics do not see themselves as a service that teaches something important to taxpayers’ children. They see themselves as a guild. In business someone else’s productivity and creativity may impact in a positive way your salary. In the long run, this is true in academic circles – a better department brings in better students & more money. In the short run, however, if you have friends on committees that determine salaries, course reductions, etc., you will be better off. Therefore, hiring people that have the same ideology as you or who in some other way can be counted on to favor you can seem important. (That is why for a long time nepotism was frowned upon in academic circles. It is not now – which has had effects that are both positive and negative.

  8. Employee interviews seem to serve several overt purposes:
    (1) to answer the question “Is she one of us?” That is, we want to know ‘can we work with her?’, ‘would she be a good fit in this organization?’.
    (2) to exclude the clearly crazy/unpleasant/destructive types.
    (3) to reassure the firm that the person is the same as that offered on paper.

    The problem is, sociopaths are often quite capable at exploiting these interviews, especialy those with considerable personal charm. Detecting the sociopath is quite difficult on paper and in simple interviews. Moreover, past employers are reluctant to offer meaningful feedback on candidates due to fear of litigation, so their working history is just one-sided. Since sociopaths can destroy organizations (e.g. Al Dunlap at Sunbeam), this knowledge is essential.

    However, very little attention is paid to this phenomenon. Indeed, many career tracks are conducive to promoting those who are destructive high achievers (i.e. the quintessential bad boss: screamoing tirades, bullying, etc.), leading to high turnover, lost profits, and, for some, extinction (e.g. Enron).

  9. As for “is she one of us?”, in academia this has turned into an ideologic litmus test. Much as disputing evolution deletes you from the short list of candidates for a college biology teacher position, espousing certain politcal beliefs are sure to be anathema to certain History, English, and Sociology departments, resulting in automatic rejection.

  10. I’ve hired and fired at many levels, from fast food to high end IT consulting, and you are NOT, I repeat NOT, allowed to ask about someones marital status, nor anything else generally on the Federal list of ‘protected status groups’, at least if you do ANY business interstate, or take one Drop of Federal money. This ends up including just about every employer there is.

    Hence the phone interview becoming popular during the dot com boom: you can judge emotional maturity and tone over the phone, and you can’t see the turban, etc. that might, illegally, turn you off on the hire.

    Not that you can’t ask about such facts in more detail if/when the employee mentions them, you can. I have seen HR people throw a gasket when an interviewer hinted at a question about marital status. When interviewed myself, I always make sure to mention any materially relevant bits that they can’t ask about, and explicitly acknowledge that I told them such info knowing that they can’t ask, and verbally waive their liability for knowing it.

    Seriously. We’ve become THAT litigious. It’s sad.

  11. The republican and morman part wouldn’t bother me. I might even hire the lawyer-but wouldn’t give him the combination to the safe.

  12. I couldn’t help but notice that the article Mr. Foster quoted above listed Mike Sears as “previously CFO of Boeing”. It doesn’t detract from the article’s arguments, but I note with amusement that the “previously” in the last sentence is because Mike Sears was fired for cause after arranging to hire a DoD bureaucrat while she was negotiating a contract with Boeing, for which offense he has been sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.

    More here

  13. I’ve been involved in hiring decisions for technical staff (technician, scientist) and mid-management in the biotechnology industry.

    Cover letter and resume get you in the door; much better if accompanied by a separately written or emailed endorsement by somebody known to the hiring manager. Sanitizing is a risk, as being labelled as “playing footsie” would take a candidate out of circulation.

    Science is probably better than some other careers regarding religion, as open-mindedness is taken to be a virtue, and there’s been plenty of exposure of all party to different beliefs. Being outspoken about politics would be risky: probably taken as a sign of ‘not playing well with others.’

    Discussions about lifestyle, marital status and the like are guided by HR, which is to say mostly out of bounds, unless a clear case could be made for its relevance. Fairly often, such information would be volunteered. At a small company in a metropolitan area, the presumption is that the spouse or significant other will make his/her own way.

    Being African-American in science is a plus, as they are under-represented. Probably at the tie-breaker level of importance.

    A lawsuit against a former employer or a felony conviction would raise pretty serious questions, especially with many qualified applicants for most jobs. Hard to overcome either one.

    To my knowledge, we never experimented with personality tests.

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