Ask the Headhunter: 8 steps to better hiring

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Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Last week we got a look at machines doing interviews — automated hiring. (See “Why can’t new grads get jobs? Automated interviews.”) A reader who is an electrical engineer expressed dismay at employers who try to recruit by substituting technology for personal, human contact, as fewer companies do on-campus interviews.

Instead, employers are sending robo-drones to select applicants online and via video, without investing the time applicants are expected to invest. This job hunter found it troubling that human judgment has gone missing from the most important point in the recruiting and selection process — the very beginning, the first contact between the employer and the job seeker.

Human judgment has gone missing from the most important point in the recruiting and selection process.

In this edition, the same engineer shares his experience of landing a job with a company that relies on personal contact to judge applicants and to make hires. He closes his comments with an interesting observation about how a top university selects its freshman class — and suggests that employers may have something to learn.

A reader’s story: I recently took on a new job in my town. I have been reading your website for a long time, and while I have been working on expanding my network, I still applied for jobs the “traditional” way when I saw one I was interested in. (I’m from the school of Do What Works.)

I applied on their website and soon thereafter got a phone interview. It was not with the manager, but it was with a human, and it was short. About a week later, my current manager interviewed me in person for only an hour. (Also in the interview was an engineer who now does marketing. I like that — a technical person who talks to customers!) I was told right then and there that of the three candidates under consideration, I was the top one.

A week later, I had a phone interview with the manager’s boss, whose office is 2,000 miles away. The following week, HR interviewed me on the phone. Over the next two weeks, my manager called me twice to let me know what was going on. So when I got an offer within a week of the manager’s last call, I accepted. It took about a month altogether. This was the perfect balance of technology and face-to-face.

Yes, it was very personal.

Now, if the highest tech of the high-tech schools does not have an automated system to do this, then I can only conclude that they realize there are some tasks best left to human beings.

My previous company tried to counteroffer — “Raise! Stock!” they said. I answered: “Sorry, but I’m leaving.” I’m glad I made the change.

You can verify this, but the California Institute of Technology, which gets way more applications for their freshman class than they can admit, actually has every single application read and considered by real, live human beings.

Now, if the highest tech of the high-tech schools does not have an automated system to do this (and they could make a very good one with all that talent), then I can only conclude that they realize there are some tasks best left to human beings.

I love reading your website, and keep up the good work!

Nick Corcodilos: Thank you for your kind words — but thank you more for your instructive story. We need to hear how good employers hire!

A few decades ago, your experience was common, and even candidates who were rejected received a personal note thanking them for applying. Now, in many companies it’s robo-all-the-way and damn the personal touch. “We have no time in HR for professional courtesies because there are too many of you responding to our cattle calls!” (See “Rude Employers: Slam-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’m.”)

Let’s look at the key differences in how this employer treated you and what’s common today. It seems clear from your story that you were enticed and convinced by the personal touch and the timely handling.

8 steps to respectful hiring

  1. The company responded quickly after you applied. Most companies seem incapable of prompt action and decisiveness — or of tendering a speedy, polite rejection. In this case, it’s clear that HR made the first call to you — not the hiring manager. While I think the manager should make the first contact, the fact that HR kept it short tells me the manager preselects candidates, and HR serves in a support role. (Yes, there are good HR workers out there who know what they’re doing — and how not to interfere when it comes to judging candidates.) After all, the number one candidate seemed to be one of just three — that’s all it should take to make a hire.
  2. A human called you. Most companies waste weeks letting algorithms sort applicants. HR doesn’t realize that the shelf-life of a good candidate in a “talent shortage” is very short. These employers behave like there’s no rush — they’re poor business people!
  3. The next step was a personal investment by the hiring manager. It was important enough that he quickly met you face-to-face, along with another team member. Most employers would have you fill out more applications or take tests online or in the HR office — without a manager’s involvement. You would have been left with a poor impression of the company.
  4. The manager gave you immediate feedback. Most of the time, applicants leave interviews with no idea whether the employer is seriously interested in hiring them. And then it’s impossible to get any feedback, much less a response to phone calls or email queries. My guess is that this manager would have tactfully let you down before the meeting was over if you weren’t a very good candidate. He was smart to fess up that you were number one and then to follow through. (See “Will employers explode if you squeeze them for interview feedback?”)
  5. The manager’s boss called you personally. Rather than push the selection process downward to HR, your new manager invested the time of a higher level manager in a timely way. It’s important to note that HR was not driving this process — the managers were. They moved in concert quickly — another sign that you’ll be working for good, decisive people.
  6. The manager demonstrated respect. He took personal responsibility to call you regularly with updates. Every manager is busy. Most use that as an excuse for dropping the ball when hiring. Most companies have no qualms about radio silence for weeks or months — as if the applicant’s time and peace of mind are immaterial. (“We don’t care about our reputation among job seekers, because there are thousands more waiting for a job here!”)
  7. HR stepped into the process at the end — where it belongs. Dotting i’s and crossing t’s is HR’s job. This HR organization did it right: It left the responsibility and authority with the hiring managers and entered the process after your new boss decided to hire you.
  8. An offer was tendered promptly. In the month your new employer took to make a written commitment to you, other employers don’t even start interviewing candidates. Their HR staff is busy watching hundreds of videos or processing thousands of resumes. (Do employers take forever to make you a job offer? See “Play Hardball With Slowpoke Employers.”)

End noisy hiring: Managers need to hear the candidates

I think employers’ biggest mistake today is using technology (algorithms, machine interviews, massive applicant databases) to process far too many applicants, making it more difficult for managers to choose and turning the process into a months-long embarrassment. By the time HR watches the umpteenth video interview, it becomes convinced that watching more will yield a better hire — when all it does is protract an already cumbersome process that alienates the best candidates.

Every employer that reads this should pay close attention to your story about Caltech. You’re absolutely right. While HR departments are enamored with more and more HR technology that puts hiring managers farther and farther away from job applicants, Caltech demonstrates the wisdom of decision-makers getting as close as possible to applicants immediately.

I think employers’ biggest mistake today is using technology to process far too many applicants, making it more difficult for managers to choose and turning the process into a months-long embarrassment.

In engineering, it’s called a signal-and-noise problem. The point is to identify the signal before noise seeps into the system and obscures it. HR and “robo-hiring” vendors introduce more and more “pre-processing” into recruiting and hiring — and that adds noise. The best candidates — the signals — get lost or rejected long before any hiring manager gets to judge them properly. Managers can’t hear the best candidates.

Gullible HR executives have turned hiring into a big, noisy system by adding more and more technology to what’s really a simple task. It’s no surprise that an engineer like you — who designs technology — knows what its limits are.

The single best reason for taking this job was the manager’s integrity and commitment to hiring right. You made a wise choice to reject a counter-offer. You’re going to work with people who realize hiring is job number one. (See “The manager’s #1 job.”) This demonstrates their commitment to employees too.

Kudos to your new boss and employer for how they hire and treat job applicants. It should be a signal to those who are crying that they can’t find good hires.

Dear Readers: Do you have any positive experiences to share about how you were hired? No doubt employers are waiting to learn how to do it right — so let’s give them some examples.


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2016 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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