Monday, February 25, 2008

Fire All Managers!

(With apologies to my readership; I've been laid up with the flu... I should have my next piece up on Sunday evening as normal.)

OK, not really. But experiences I’ve had, plus some related to me during email exchanges and conversations indicate to me that many managers are severely lacking in one key experience: being unemployed and having to look for a job in today’s environment.

I’ll start this posting with a specific example: prior to my landing my current position, I had an interview with a large, multi-national company. More specifically, this company made a line of products that a previous employer of mine purchased en masse; we bought millions of their product line every year. I was very familiar with their product, understood – from a customer’s perspective – what was important, and had people from that former employer willing to be my references. If not a shoe-in for a job offer, this should have been as close to it as it is possible to get assuming I didn’t contract foot-in-mouth disease.

Unfortunately, I ran into something I had not expected. Specifically, I ran up against the experiences of the hiring manager. You see, this man had worked his entire career, I believe over two decades, at this one company. In contrast, my resume showed a couple of layoffs, and at the time of my interview I had had three short-term contract positions in succession to “put beans on the table.” The stated reason for my not being hired was that the hiring manager was uncomfortable with my not having also been continuously employed by the same place for ten-plus years. (Fortuitously, I got the interview through a recruiter who has been exceptional at getting me actual, real feedback as opposed to the typical pap foisted on rejected candidates.)

This man, apparently, had no concept beyond the abstract that layoffs happen. In theory, of course, he knew, but there is a perception on the part of people who have jobs that those who lose theirs in layoffs somehow deserved it. This is an ugly truth; when a job search coach or recruiter says “Oh, don’t worry – nobody holds being unemployed against you anymore,” your BS detector should peg out.

His second point was that I “bounced around a lot” and thus gave the impression that I was not someone who would stay long. On the face of this, this was utterly ridiculous. I had worked for an employer – their former customer – for six years; my downsizing was a part of a massive RIF consisting of almost 2,000 people. The next downsizing was also involuntary, and part of a rolling reorganization of the company after a couple of new managers were brought on board. New managers like to do that, and most people “in the trenches” are aware of this and, in fact, have probably experienced it. I was aghast that this man was so unaware of the current business climate that he didn’t comprehend how this is now the standard.

Then, the coup de grace: Three short-term contracts in a row indicated, apparently, that I was truly not committed to staying with an employer. Hello? Bueller? Bueller? That’s why they’re called contracts – so that the employer can use people to get a particular job or task done, and then dispose of the expendable asset at their convenience. More to the point, most people don’t do contracts for love of the lifestyle – though some do – they do them because they need an income, any income, and they take what they can get in order to survive.

Managers, especially managers who have been employed at one company for any length of time, should not really lose their jobs – that was a bit of hyperbole to get the readers' attention. But they should, somehow, be brought up to speed that today’s workplace is nothing like the job-for-life environment they knew when they were job searching. Perhaps this could be a good exercise for a Personnel (not HR) member to go through the 100+ resumes received for the manager’s requisition, and do a histogram with average number of positions, time in a company, etc. Place that on top of the pile of resumes passed to the hiring manager. The hiring manager must, in turn, sign a written acknowledgement that they have read and understood the statistics of the people whose resumes they are about to review.

Yes, it sounds kind of hokey and certainly silly. But, apparently, hiring managers need to have it entered into their heads that the world has changed from when they were bright youngsters. And part of that is an understanding, based on actual numerical data, of applicants’ job histories and the current job search world. It would also be enlightening to see how many have taken contract positions, their number and duration. I think that hiring managers who have been insulated, as was the one I related, would be very surprised to see that information.

Another reason managers should be fired – hyperbole! – is the simple reason that they don’t seem to understand the difficulty of the environment in general. People who are secure in their roles and status have no empathy for the job searcher. Note that I don’t mean that people should be hired because they are a sad case; rather, that between the “Perfect Fit Syndrome” making it extraordinarily difficult for people to find work if they are stepping outside the boundaries of what they’ve done in the past and the tighter-than-anyone-really-imagines environment, they’re having a hard time landing. And hiring managers can be surprisingly blunt with that lack of empathy.

As an example of that, I was on a second interview (different company) – the contest was between me and one other person – and I thought the interviews were progressing quite well. I had had an excellent chat with the Manufacturing Manager, in which we discussed the need to design products to take advantage of common components, Design-for-Assembly rules, etc. Design-for-Six-Sigma, about which I know enough to be dangerous, was also discussed… as well as the need, on every dimension, for the designer to understand that someone has to be able to measure it or the value is useless. Other discussions went, I thought, equally well.

Then, my wrap-up meeting with the actual hiring manager. Again, I thought things were going well until he asked how long I’d been unemployed. I’m not a dissembler, I don’t hem and haw easily, and so I replied to the effect of “about a year.”

His next question floored me. “What’s wrong with you?”

Sadly, I exploded and destroyed any chance I might have had, but this was a particularly sore spot with me and my frustration had been growing over the last several months. Details omitted, but to sum up, I have excellent qualifications, accomplishments, education, and feedback from interview practice sessions including comments from persons who were hiring managers themselves plus HR persons attending these practice sessions all said I interviewed very well. So to ask me “What’s wrong with you?” when, by all indications of past accomplishments and career-coaching feedback I was doing everything right was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

My own diatribe notwithstanding, complaints like this regularly come up in discussions of my own job search group, and with others on a one-to-one basis. It’s one thing to give someone out of work the advice to buck up, put on a happy face, stay positive, etc., but for a person who may be a month away from losing their home because they haven’t found anything for over a year, their savings are gone, and their stop-gap bagging-groceries job doesn’t pay squat, putting on a cheery disposition is not so simple.

So another recommendation for that “cover sheet” of the resume pile would be to include statistics of how long people are out of work. This can be difficult as most standard guidelines for resume writers recommend only including years. Still, some will include months, and that should be enough to give at least a rough picture.

The conclusion is this: That many of today’s hiring managers do not have direct experience with the fears and frustrations of the typical job seeker in today’s world. Managers that have been in one company for any length of time have, based on my experience, no gut-level understanding of what is happening today.

We get what we measure and reward; and we can only truly adjust what we are able to measure. Here are some modest (OK, not so modest) thoughts.

Any manager who has hiring authority has included in their performance review some new metrics:

1. The raw number of resumes received by the company vs. the number passed on to the hiring manager as meeting their job description. What this measures is “Perfect Fit Syndrome,” i.e., just how ludicrous is their expectation. For example, I did a phone screen interview with an HR person, who declined to pass me on to the hiring manager after I met every criterion except knowing the right CAD software. I had more years of experience doing this task than they required, and anyone who knows anything about it understands that new software can be learned quickly (I had never used the particular CAD software used by my current employer, but that didn’t stop me from playing around and building a real-live, substantially-complicated model for a project – even before I took the week of training I eventually attended!) but that didn’t matter. The hiring manager demanded this particular software, so a promising potential candidate who met everything else desired never even crossed his desk.

2. The ratio of people brought in for an interview vs. the number of offers made (offers can be rejected; if this happens often it should prompt other corporate soul-searching beyond the scope of this essay); and as a supplement, the time between when candidates start being brought in for interviews, and someone is hired. Company leadership needs to understand that job seekers are a very talkative bunch – companies that have the same position open for months unending gain a reputation as not being serious; potential candidates heed warnings from others on this.

3. Lastly, and this is more likely for larger companies, a database of these other metrics for comparable levels and departments can highlight hiring managers who fall far outside the normal ranges – which should prompt questions by their boss as to why it takes so long for them to hire and fill vacancies.

No reasonable person expects the hiring manager’s boss to tell them whom to hire. No self-respecting hiring manager should tolerate such micromanagement. But if a hiring manager is subjecting candidates to the Goldilock’s Treatment of “too hot” or “too cold” for too long, their boss needs to step in and set them right for the good of the organization as a whole. This “setting right” could include strong input from Personnel, who should be far more aware of the job search realities than hiring managers. All these could, potentially, give the hiring managers in question some additional perspective on why they can’t seem to fill that opening, as well as receiving explicit permission from their bosses to deviate from their own exhaustive list of criteria with the associated increased risk of hiring the wrong person.

The above could be refined to be faster-acting than an annual or semi-annual performance review. To wit:

Statistics regarding open positions should be brought to upper management’s attention on a regular basis, perhaps in a monthly meeting where many things are typically discussed. I imagine something quite simple: Reviewing a list of open postings by department/line manager. Each manager would have a list of open positions underneath their name, along with some cut-and-dried numbers regarding each position in their purview.

* Time position has been open (months)
* Number of resumes received; number passed on to hiring manager
* Number of persons interviewed; number of offers made (relevant if offers are being refused!)
* A ranking of green, yellow, red as determined by a standard set (e.g.: IMHO I think that to not be able to find, interview, and hire someone for a “rank and file” white collar position in six months after such a position is listed publically is an indication something is wrong… and note that this is said with the caveat that I have not been in a hiring authority position – your mileage, and your acceptable time frame, may vary)

Green: Opening falls within previous time data on filling similar positions
Yellow: Opening has not been filled within a “typical” time but is not yet twice the average
Red: Opening has remained unfilled for more than twice the “typical” time

There are three necessary tensions here.

The first is between the need to get feedback to the hiring managers’ bosses about the potential Goldilocks attitude of their subordinate versus the need to not make this a major issue if the hiring manager’s other metrics are fine. This is not, nor should it be, an A-level, firing offense – but there still remains the need to give feedback to those hiring managers that, perhaps, they are being too picky.

The second is the tension between upper management's need to control the organization given their perspective, vs. micromanaging a subordinate's department. Specifically, hiring managers need to understand that if needed from an organization-as-a-whole perspective, they have their boss’ permission to relax their criteria with the accepted price of a longer and steeper learning curve without being directed to hire any particular person. Heaven forfend, they may even need to send someone to learn the particulars of a new CAD software (obligatory snarky comment).

The third tension is the balance between having genuine needs in the organization, hence the open position, and desperation to get a warm body – any warm body – in there who could end up being a catastrophe.

So take these recommendations as I intend them: As a thought starter. If people are, indeed, a company’s most valuable “asset” (cough), surely companies can develop ways to incorporate a feedback loop to hiring managers on their hiring practices. The leisurely and overly persnickety approach to filling openings could now have a counter-balancing force. Where that equilibrium point falls will need tuning, but in today’s hypercompetitive world, the “Goldilocks” approach to hiring candidates without thought to the organizational consequences of leaving positions open too long cannot stand. And the other things that cannot continue are the attitude of hiring managers that candidates must meet their own prejudices regarding work history or there is something "wrong" with them, as well as the idea that being professional and objective in evaluating candidates means that one can ignore the emotional consequences of being unemployed on candidates. Being polite is not a weakness; remember, someday you may be on the other side.


The Actuary said...

Wow...perfect and timely. Can't tell you how many times I have lived the experiences you have described here. Too many times HR is a company's "Achilles Heel" in obtaining motivated, energetic new talent as their own agendas and search for the perfect organizational "fit" far, far too often get in the way. As Shakespeare might say, "Hang all the Gatekeepers"!!!

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Dave- GET OVER IT! I have heard you carp about this on WIND dozens of times.
This is not a perfect world. There are millions of less than perfect hiring managers out there. To be successful (whether in life or in getting hired) one must figure out how to work with and get through to these kinds of imperfect people.
The only lesson I believe from this is "be prepared". Like any good marketing and sales person "know your audience". Figure out what THEIR needs are, keep your ears and mind open.
And above all, NEVER lose it during an interview.

Laurence said...

Having worked with you and knowing of your trials for the past 9 years I agree.

It always amazes me how many hiring manager base their opinions on such irrelevant issues. Equally perplexing are the HR peopl who are totally clueless about the technologies used by their own companies. It is like having a ballet master as the personnel director of an NFL team.

David said...

To "anonymous":

You are abolutely right, this is not a perfect world. And if I were JUST carping, I would accept your comments much more seriously.

But I'm NOT just carping, I'm proposing a way for companies to provide feedback to those hiring managers so that they can improve themselves.

You're also right in that I should not have lost my temper. I typically don't do that. But let me paint a small scenario: I'd been on, literally, 20-30 interviews. People in the NH-based networking groups I attended were flummoxed at how many interviews I got... virtually each time I went to the groups, I'd say "I have an interview tomorrow, and another in three days, and hopefully one early next week..."

According to one networking guru whose talk I attended, for every three lectures there is one offer - statistically, of course. So imagine going for interview after interview after interview... after interview after interview, and not getting an offer despite:

1. Doing your homework on the company
2. Understanding from that HW what their challenges are
3. Bringing up those challenges and using SPARs to show how you could be an asset in overcoming them
4. IN other words - your own words - being prepared

Sure, not every interview where you do that will lead to a sale, but my two points in "carping" are that companies act with a split personality: Hiring managers have the "Goldilocks syndrome" where even the smallest imperfection is enough to disqualify you (e.g., not knowing the right CAD program), yet they complain they can't find enough qualified people.

If my postings were a rant session - and I admit I've done a few of those on WIND - you'd be right. But this isn't a rant, it's stating a problem with examples, and then proposing a solution.

Just like any pro-active person would do.