Thinking out loud: The broken talent acquisition process

I was scanning through my LinkedIn feed the other day and stumbled across an interesting picture / chart showing common mistakes that interview candidates make posted by a former colleague.   To basically summarize, it was a culmination of physical characteristics (slouching, not smiling, clothing not too trendy, but not too outdated, etc.), knowing a lot about the company and position, and various other common do’s and don’ts.

My first reaction was “no duh”, but then I paused for a moment and said to myself “Why?”  Does this criteria really lead to you getting the best candidate for the position or is it actually filtering out the best candidate for the position?  It actually got me a little annoyed just thinking about how shallow someone recruiting must be if these were deciding factors.  Then I started thinking about other facets of recruiting that just seem not only outdated, but also likely detrimental to a company finding the best possible candidates.  It’s actually bothered me enough that I felt compelled to get a blog post written about what I think is wrong on not only the recruiting side, but also the candidates side too.

I realize a lot of the things I’m going to mention will have exceptions.  There are always exceptions.  I’m not writing to debate the exceptions, I’m writing to discuss the averages, which contrary to most companies beliefs, they’re likely in the average, and that’s not a bad thing.

First, let’s really think about what a companies goal SHOULD be when attempting to fill a position.

  1. A person who has the best demonstrated skills in the chosen position you need filled.
  2. Ideally the person should be reliable.  You might also consider this a great work ethic.  it’s not an inherently easy trait to get out of an interview, but its an important one.
  3. They should be passionate about their career, and love their work.

With those three simple yet crucial traits, there’s no reason you should not be able to find the perfect candidate.  Now, I’m not saying they’re easy traits to determine, nor am I saying that the candidates which posses them are abundant.  However, if you put up superficial filters, you’re reducing your chances of finding them.

What’s broken in the talent acquisition process from a candidates view:

Where I sit as a former job seeker, these are things I saw that led me to not wasting my time applying for a position, or just being generally frustrated with company that I was trying to apply to.  I think more often then not, companies forget that employment is a two way street.

  • Making applying for your position a lot of work.  This could be things like forcing candidate to go through lengthy online applications, to something as simple as not having a “click here to submit your resume”.  The application process should be as simple and as quick as possible.  I’m not condoning applicants shotgunning their resume out either, but I think given the possibility of an applicant not applying or forgetting to apply, outweighs the cost of sifting through more resumes than you’d like.
  • Related to the above, cover letters need to go.  I’ve started noticing this as a slowing trend, so hopefully that continues.  Seriously, its an old fashioned formality, 99% of the time, the candidate is going to use a template, and I suspect, most recruiters don’t read them anyway.
  • If salaries are not going to be in the job posting, they need to be discussed at a high level early on, not at the end.  It’s a waste of a companies time, and candidates time if the salary the candidate is looking for is way off what the company is willing to stretch too.
    • Adding to this, the candidates salary history is frankly none of the hiring companies business.  Add to that, it really should matter what I was paid, what should matter is what I’m willing to work for, and what you’re willing to compensate.  That’s it.
  • Not doing the majority of your interviews via phone IMO is a disservice to your candidate.  As a person that’s now been on both sides of the table, I can say without question that you know if you want to hire someone before you ever meet them in person.  To me, the in person interview is mostly a formality, and really just a chance to meet face to face, and get an idea of the work environment.  Add to this, taking time off of work to go interview for a candidate is WAY HARDER than say slipping out during lunch for a one hour conversation via phone.  Just think about it from the candidates view.  How would you like to tell your manager for the 5th time that you’re sick, or your car broke down, or whatever other lie you force the candidate to make so they can meet with you.
  • If you’re going to bring the candidate in for an in person interview, then make sure its a once and done thing, unless the candidate wants a second in person interview.  Again, looking at the point above as the main reason, but also because its highly likely the candidate is burning up vacation time to come and interview with you.  I can think of one place I interviewed at where I literally went in 5 times, only to get told “no”.
  • Offer interview times after hours, during lunch, and heck even over the weekend.  Forcing someone to interview during business hours makes it tough to coordinate for the candidate.  If you realy want this person, and the person really wants to work for you, what’s the big deal with spending a non-work day in the office to meet / greet.  I’d even add to the fact that maybe you nor the candidate would feel as rushed as you might during the work week.
  • Be both flexible and understanding when it comes to someone showing up a little late or a little early.  I’m not talking about 30 minutes or an hour, but if they’re say 5 – 10 minutes late, so what.  I can tell you a number of times where I was basically racing from work to an interview (pre-GPS) and there were just times it was tough to find a place.  Add to that, accidents and other things happen.    I get being punctual is important, but I bet your average person (even you the recruiter) are late at times, and its beyond your control.
  • Except in a few circumstances, judging a candidate in person based on their appearance and NOT focusing on their skills set and experience isn’t a determination that they’re a bad candidate, its that you’re a poor interviewer.  Sure, maybe they showed up to a job that claims they’re “casual dress” in a polo instead of a suite, but does that really change that they’re a kick ass SysAdmin, that you’re trying to fill for a casual dress code company.  If the company dress codes is business professional and they show up for the interview in a polo shirt, then I would say that might be an issue if they didn’t tell you ahead of time.  For example, what if the candidates current employers dress codes is casual.  Everyone wears jeans and t-shirts.  Now they need to go from that place to your business professional dress code.  You’re only leaving them with a few options.  None of which are good for them.
    • Dress professionally while at their current employer, that won’t set any signals off that they’re going to an interview.
    • Change in a bathroom along the way there.  That’s not awkward for the candidate or anything.
  • Not letting the candidate know that you’re not moving forward with them via a phone call or the very least an email.  Getting some insincere letter in the mail weeks or months from when you interviewed is just rude.
  • If you are still interested in them, but are still interviewing other candidates, a weekly update isn’t too much to ask for.
  • Requiring candidate to have a college degree when you know darn well that the degree isn’t required to accomplish the work.  At least when it comes to IT, a college degree does not inherently make you a great IT person.
  • Worrying about skills that are not critical to the position at hand.  For example, “SysAdmin must have excellent written and oral communication skills.”  Why must they be excellent?  Seriously, do you care that they can automate your entire infrastructure, or do you care that they can write a perfect announcement.  One skill actually is important to getting work done, the other is just looking for something to nitpick about.
  • Putting 100 skills that a candidate must posses when any reasonable person could look at that and go “yeah and unicorns are real”.  Seriously, expecting someone to be wide and deep knowledge wise is so unlikely to exist, and if they do, you probably can’t afford them.  I’ve looked at job posting where they basically wanted an entire IT departments worth of skill sets in a single person and wanted to pay them the salary  of a Jr. Admin.  I’m not saying that well rounded candidates shouldn’t exist, but expecting someone to be an expert in networking, virtualization, storage, Linux and Windows, sorry ain’t gonna happen.  Sure, they might know some stuff in those areas, but they’re not going to be true experts in all of them.
  • Having unrealistic salary expectations is another issue I see a lot.  Contrary to popular belief, finding a GREAT SysAdmin (as an example) is VERY tough to find.  If you want the best talent, and not just a person that says they can do stuff, its going to cost more than you likely budgeted for.  And you know what, if they are that good, you probably will make whatever extra salary overhead you think you’ll incur back, when they do their job about 3x better / faster than the cheaper candidate you wanted to hire.  Not to mention, golden shackles are pretty powerful way to keep most good talent from leaving.
  • Interviewing with either too many people or not enough people and sometimes the wrong people is also an issue I’ve seen.  I remember interviewing through a recruiter where the SVP of infrastructure wanted to interview with me in person.  They insisted that the interview be both in person and during a date / time that they were around.  I had probably 2 – 3 different interviews scheduled that were canceled at the last minute because the SVP either had vacation, or something came up.  When I finally did come in for the interview, I never met with them, but I met with every other person that reported to them.    What’s funny about this is, every person I interviewed with, indirectly lamented how strict and demanding the SVP was.  So not only was I turned off by the fact that the SVP after changing my schedule around about 3 times didn’t bother to meet with me, but the people he delegated to do the interviewing basically convinced me (without knowing it) that there was no way in hell I wanted to work for this guy.  I suspect, had I actually met with the SVP, I may have picked up on the queues, but who knows, maybe not.  Either way, they lost me, and I know I could have turned things around for them.
  • Having a candidate fill out an application even during an interview is a waste of time.  I say, reserve the job application for when you think you’re ready to send them an offer letter.  Focus first on finding the candidate of your dreams, THEN go through the formalities once you’ve found them.
  • Asking stupid interview questions that have no chance of determining the quality of the candidate or are not applicable to the job.  Most of the time I see these coming out of the HR, but every once in a while I’ll see a hiring manager ask them too.  Those types of questions I’m talking about are things like “why do you want to work here?” or “what are your 3 greatest strengths and your 3 greatest weaknesses?”.  Seriously, stop wasting my time and yours and let’s move on to questions that really determine if I’m a good candidate.  One example would be “what project were you most proud of in your career and why?”  Remember my “passion for their career” requirement, if they don’t light up when asked to brag about themselves and their career, there’s something wrong with them.  Or if they can’t explain anything of significance, I think you have your answer as to whether they’re a good fit.  Me personally, I could probably give you a 100’s of projects that made me beam with pride.  Even technical questions that are trivia.  If someone claims to be an expert in a field, then sure they should know the trivia, but if they’re not claiming to be an expert, don’t ask them something that you could just Google.
  • Can we just do away with dumb requirement of bringing three printed resumes and references along?  First, its a waste of paper, and second, you can print out the resume that I sent in, or just look at it on your phone.

What’s broken in the talent acquisition process from a hiring managers view:

These are points where I see that the candidate has messed up, or is making my life tougher than they should.

  • Stop loading your resume up with stuff that you did, that you really didn’t do.  There are so many times where I would read through someones resume and start asking them to explain details about an accomplishment they listed, only to hear that really they just helped and someone else actually did all the complex parts of the project.  If you put “designed and implemented a virtual environment hosting over 500 vm’s” then I’m going to dig into that environment so that I know you actually did it.
  • Sort of related to the above, but don’t apply for jobs that you know you’re not qualified for.  Just because your employer gave you a fake title of *Senior* SysAdmin, when we both know at best your mid level, and more than likely not much better than Jr.  You applying for a job that your not qualified for is only going to lead to you either getting declined (wasting both our time) or me having to let you go if you do talk a good game, but can’t back it up.  Don’t get me wrong, there were times much later in my career where I realized I had to fake it till I made it, but I knew I had the skills to do the job.  Not just because I thought so, but because everyone I worked with told me I did.
  • Related to the above, I actually appreciate a person that admits “you know, I really don’t know how to do this”, so long as that’s not your answer to every question I ask, and so long as that’s not the answer to critical points of the job description.  Let’s be real here, if you DO say you know how to do something, I’m going to ask you about it.
  • Not having a passion for what you do is a huge negative for me.  Look, I’m glad that you enjoy your tomato garden, but I care a hell of a lot more that you love your job to a point where you’re going to stay up to date on your own.  Unless you just happen to have raw talent (and some do) being good in IT, requires a lot of work, and there’s not enough business hours to get work done and stay up to date.  If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.  I live by that, and I want the people I look for to as well.  Think of it like this, do you want a surgeon operating on you that only cares about their job when they’re getting paid, or do you want someone that goes to seminars on their own, researches on their own and in general wants to excel at what they do.  I’m not saying you should live to work, but reading a few blogs every night on the couch isn’t going to kill you, nor is thinking about how to architect solution x while you’re running / biking, etc.
  • You should be an expert at some things and pretty darn good at a lot of things.  If you say you’re an expert in Active Directory, I’m going to ask you about the bridge head controllers and how they’re elected.  I’m going to ask you about the 5 FSMO roles, and what they do.  If you say you’re a VMware expert, I’m going to ask you if HA requires vCenter, and I’m going to ask you if the vMotion kernel and the management kernel can co-exist on the same vLAN.
  • I want you to be able to talk about IT architecture, and how you’d solve certain problems and why you would use that tactic.  I might not agree with you, but if your answer is well thought out, we can always negotiate the tactics as long as the strategy ultimately solves the problem.
  • I want to see progressive experience and responsibility, and you should have the skills to back it up.  I realize the higher up you get the tougher it gets.  But if I see that it took you 10 years before you got your first sysadmin gig, I’m going to wonder if you really have what it takes.
    • Just because you’re a SysAdmin, doesn’t mean I don’t expect very good desktop management skills out of you.
  • I want to see fire and passion when I interview you.  if you disagree with me, diplomatically correct me.  I don’t know everything, and who knows, I might just be testing if you do, and if you have the non-technical skills to lead upwards.  You’re no good to me if you’d let me crash the titanic into the iceberg if you saw the iceberg and didn’t say anything.    Besides, think of it from your view, do you really want to work with someone that isn’t open to discussions?  That doesn’t mean I won’t push back, but if your point is well thought out, I can at least respect your view.
  • If you need to dress down, I’m okay with it, but just let me know ahead of time before you show up at the interview.
  • If you’re calling me from a cell, try to make sure you have decent signal.
  • If you think you might be late, just let me know, I get it.

Closing thoughts:

Just remember with all of this, the point isn’t to make all kinds of crazy demands of both the candidate or the hiring company.  Its about cutting through outdated and in many cases proven to be ineffective recruitment techniques.  I want to work for the best company, and in turn I want to be able to find the best candidates too.  The sooner we get rid of broken acquisition techniques and improve our process, the quicker we’ll all find what we’re looking for.

2 thoughts on “Thinking out loud: The broken talent acquisition process”

  1. Eric, you have a lot of good points in the article. No doubt, a lot of hiring managers (or recruiters) have a horrendous record of letting interviewees “sorry, we’re moving on” but then would get all annoyed when a candidate doesn’t send a timely thank you email (or note).

    I agree that you ought to be doing your initial interviews (I mean the ones post-the-HR-person-asking-you-generic-stuff) via the phone. But having an in-person interview is invaluable to me, and depending on the job having the 2nd in-person interview, where they maybe meet higher ups (or the lower-downs) for the final approval, and possibly dis-approval, is normal.

    However (big surprise) there’s a lot I disagree with. Hopefully when you interview for your next job, you (and your readers) will understand that, right or wrong, a lot of hiring managers EXPECT these traits. For example, as I’m hiring a *professional* level individual, I DO expect them to come in a suit…and if they are not going to, I would want to have a really good explanation in advance…..even if the company I’m hiring for is a t-shirt and sandals company. As I’m sure you know, *I* place a premium on excellent communications skills. And those generic “what is your biggest strength” questions, I can get a lot out of. First, since they are asked at almost EVERY interview, you better have one at the ready. Second, if you know its coming, then don’t answer it with some canned “my biggest strength is my reliability” answer….start off with “As a common interview question I get that a lot, but I prefer to showcase my strengths by telling you about one of the projects I’m most proud of.” Trust me, you’ll answer your biggest strength AND talk about your best project AND probably impress me with your (oral) communications abilities.

    I understand that how good someone is at their job most times does’t correlate to what suit they are wearing (or not). But after reading 500 resumes, making 25 phone interviews, and having 3 people come in, if you show up in a polo shirt for *my* interview the first 5 minutes of the interview is lost because I’m rolling my eyes in my head about how could someone show up for an interview so out of touch with expectations. Should an interviewee need even 1 copy of his/her resume? No. Should they take a hit b/c the interviewer lost/misplaced/was irresponsible with their resume? Yes.

    Will I refuse to hire someone that has bad communications skills but is an awesome admin? Probably not….but if I’ve got 2 admins that are nearly comparable, guess which one I’m going to be thinking about how bad they are at communicating?

    Remember, when you are interviewing for a job (or frankly this can be said about online dating), you want to impress at all levels of the process if you want the gig. Write well, have a good resume. Then speak well on the phone and be prepared. Come early to the interview, dress appropriately, don’t slouch, look engaged, impress me.

    1. I’ll start by saying and will clarify where exactly, but I don’t disagree with some of your points, but others, I’m very steadfast with. The first and most obvious thing that we agree on is that tend to disagree :).

      For the in-person interview. Two interviews probably isn’t overboard, but if we’re being real, unless there is something glaringly wrong with the person when they show up, you should be fairly confident that they’re the one you want to hire. My more specific contention with this point is when companies bring in MULTIPLE candidates. Unless you really found two people that are just amazing, but you can’t differentiate between them over the phone, I just don’t see the need to bring both in. Find the person you want, that you really want, and do the leg work over the phone. Do multiple phone interviews if that’s what it takes. When you’re reasonably certain they’re “the one” then bring them in for the interview. Just remember its a two way street. YOU WANT THEM just as much as they want a new gig. There should be a very specific purpose to bringing the candidate in, in the sense of removing whatever doubts you may still have or confirming everything you think you expect they are. As for the second interview, if your talking a “C” level person, I get it, if you’re talking about an AVP / Senior Manager or someone lesser (unless they’re the last stop), no excuse in my book for wasting a candidates time. Line up the people that you need and get it done in one shot. To me, not doing that shows that you as a company don’t value the candidates time, or that you’re not organized.

      I think when you say “a lot of hiring managers” I think what *you* think they should expect and what they really *should* expect are two completely different things. First and foremost, the influx of millennial’s in the workforce will make that line of thinking a thing of the past, and I say good ridden. I’m one, and I’m sure there are plenty like me out there, and it’s only going to grow. My greatest strengths and my greatest weaknesses are something you should be able to discern through the interview process without needing to explicitly ask them. Not to mention, most can fairly easily just BS them (and most do if we’re being honest). And if you’re really going to null a candidate out because you didn’t like the answer to a superficial question vs. looking at their background and job related question, the only one who’s loosing out is the hiring manger. Which is of course the main point to the whole blog post. You placing a premium on awesome communication skills for a sysadmin gig is like me placing a premium on horse power in a mini van. Sure its nice to have, but its not the point of the mini van to be fast, and its not the point of the sysadmin to be the best communicator either (averages remember, not the exception). Am I saying if I had the choice of two candidates, with the same skill sets that I wouldn’t choose the better communicator? No not at all. However, if there’s even an ounce of better skill in the sysadmin with lesser communication skills, I’ll choose them in a heart beat over the other. There are people that communicate well and there are people that do the work thats being communicated about well. Un-needingly mixing the roles and creating an arbitrary requirement again leads to you ending up with the lesser candidate IMO. If you the hiring manager for example are the primary communicator, then the company is better served by you doing what you do best, and by hiring the sysadmin that does their job the best. *You* IMO are in a minority, that is a person that values both excellent communication in primarily techy roles and also possessing both excellent communication skills and technical ones as well. In essence you’re looking for yourself, and while I can see the value in such a person for sure 🙂 , if I have to choose (and the majority of the time you will have to choose) I’d rather have the techy *if* its a technical role. Saying that a manager must have excellent communication skills, while I don’t personally posses them, I can at least understand, as the position will have a high degree of communication involved. At the end of the day though, communication skills was just one example of many soft skills I see, that tend to be less important IMO in the grand scheme of things.

      As for the suite, let me re-clarify. I think we’re partially agreeing. I’m not saying a candidate shouldn’t attempt with all reasonable levels to show up in a suite. What I’m saying is I’d be willing to make exception to the rule if I knew it in advance and understood the reason. Showing up unannounced without a suite, not cool.

      Also for every candidate you review, every resume you read, everyone phone interview you have, I’m sure the candidate sitting across the line / table has gone through an equally grueling process. Don’t you think that candidate has sent out their resume to 10s or 100’s of companies? Or that they’ve had dozens of interviews? My point being, getting hung up on frankly petty / arbitrary things are detrimental to the hiring manager just as much as it is to the candidate showing up. It’s almost akin to the whole “whose the bigger person” statement. Do you want to find the best candidate or do you want to find the best looking and best talking candidate (yes, depending on the job, those may actually be critical skill sets).

      I get where you’re coming from in your last statement, but again, I’m focusing on the hiring manager not getting hung up on the petty things. Employment is a two way street, acting in any other manner is disservice to the hiring manager. The point is to be on even ground, peers with common interests. For a hiring manager to act as if they hold the power and that the candidate should bend to their will is not only wrong, but ultimately leading to the hiring manager NOT securing the best candidate. Since you brought up the personal side of life, I’ll simply say this. Do you think dating someone strictly based on looks and common hobbies is what leads to a fulfilling relationship? Or is it founded on something more substantial? When you are seeking a personal relationship, do you go into the date as a peer / partner, or do you go in with a power position? I think we both know the answer to that. Professionally speaking I don’t think it should be any different, at least not if you want the best candidate. That being said, I’m certainly not saying that a candidate shouldn’t put their best foot forward. However, what I am saying now and trying to convey perhaps poorly in all of this, is that sometimes overlooking what was once considered important traits may be in the hiring managers best interests.

      As always though, even if we disagree, I still love debating with you :).