Tag Archives: recruitment

Humane Recruitment

There are many ways that recruitment is broken for both candidates and potential employers, but this time I want to focus on one aspect that I experienced recently as a candidate: how companies and recruiters don’t treat prospective hires with respect. I’ve changed jobs a few times over the years and some of the ways that I’ve been (mis)treated in the last year surprised even me.

Let’s start with something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced: not getting a response back from an initial application.

“We get so many applications that we’re unable to respond to each one individually.” I totally accept that this happens. It sucks and I don’t believe them. Writing a single, bulk email to every candidate saying “Thanks but no thanks” would be better than getting nothing.

It is appalling, but I was prepared for it.

What I was not prepared for was getting the cold shoulder after an interview.

One company I had three interviews with and spent the best part of a day on an exercise they set and got no response for two months afterwards, even after prompting several times. By “no response” I mean literally nothing. Not a call, not a “we’re still considering options.” They were seemingly ignoring my messages. I’m not even sure that I would have had any response had I not kept bugging them.

I assume they found another, marginally preferable candidate but took a long time to convince them to take the job. Did they think I’d wait? (Reminds me of this piece.) Did they think I’d be flattered to be second? Given the cost of a bad hire, when I’ve been recruiting, a “maybe” is always effectively a “no.”

Is this how the recruiters would like to be treated? Even if there are really so many qualified candidates that you can treat people like this, should you? These companies treat you as a commodity. I’ll come back to why this is a mistake.

A quick aside: I’m using the words “recruiter” and “company” more or less interchangeably. I’ve seen the behaviour I’m talking about here both from recruitment companies and internal “talent acquisition” teams.

Even when I wasn’t completely ignored I didn’t feel that I was treated like a human. For example, another interview appeared to go well, at the end the hiring manager said “We’ll get you in for your next interview soon.” The next day I got an automated “no thanks” message, addressed to “Dear candidate.”

Both parts of that feel like a failure. Why tell me good news if there was the possibility of bad? Is it passive-aggressive? Was it just as simple as he didn’t want to give me bad news in person? Why not just say “We’ll get back to you soon”? Similarly, the automated message just felt like cowardice. I don’t expect long and chatty. I’d like to see a reason, but don’t expect it (The reason I don’t expect it is another rant.). But after meeting someone, investing some time into a relationship, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something more personal than a form message.

How do I know it was a form message? I’d had exactly the same message – the same wording, the same punctuation, the same title and job description of the source – from another company using the same recruitment website.

There are two other variations that I want to mention. First, the rejection because of a missing skill that wasn’t mentioned in the job description. And, closely related, a rejection because of a missing skill you never claimed to have. Both, again, show a lack of respect for the candidates time.

I’ve pitched this all from the candidates perspective so far, but it’s bad for this hiring company, too.

Many of these examples are a waste of time for the people conducting the interviews as well as the candidates. And you know the old adage: time is money. A few minutes reading a CV / resume would show that a particular skill is “missing.” If everything else looked good, a quick phone screen would confirm.

But it’s worse than just the immediate effects. It’s also a reputational risk.

When I sat on the other side of the table, I always wanted to portray the company I worked for in a positive light. Just because you don’t get a job doesn’t mean you should end up disliking the company. Almost by definition, we work in the same industry. I may end up in a position where I could recommend your product. Or you. Why give me a reason to find your competitors or communicate your products your flaws? (One project I worked on at an earlier job, I found we won the work because we were nicer people to deal with. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.)

I recognise that I won’t be a good fit for every job I apply for, for a whole host of reasons, both mine and theirs. And I know that recruitment is an expensive and error prone process, but doing it badly could actually take more time and alienate people that you should been keeping on your side. Why not do it right?

Recruitment Tests

Over the years I’ve been asked to do a lot of programming aptitude tests. I’ve had to do some in the last couple of months and I’m deliberately writing this now before I get the results back of the most recent one so you won’t think that this post is just sour grapes…

I’m not going to get into the details of the tests because it doesn’t really matter what they are or who administered them for the purposes of this post.

I don’t like these tests. I don’t think they work well for either the candidate or even the company that is using them.

An obvious complaint is that the tests bare little resemblance to Real Life. On Twitter I cynically suggested that a more realistic test would involve trying it write a program based on an ambiguous and constantly changing specification. The test would end when you quit in frustration.

A bigger issue, I think, is the amount of time it takes and when they take place.

Let’s tackle the latter point first. Every time I’ve been asked to take a test it has been before I’ve spoken to anyone. All they’ve seen of me is my CV/resume. All I know about the company and job is what I see on their website and a brief job description. Am I a nice person? What is it like to work there? Neither party has any idea.

My objection to this is that we both have a lot to lose if the recruitment process goes wrong. I always consider an interview to be a two way process — they need to learn about me and I need to understand more about them — yet the very first stage in the recruitment process is them demanding a couple of hours or a days commitment of my time but only a couple of minutes of their time.

To be clear, I have sat on the other side of the table. I do know that far too many candidates have no real hope of filling the position. But, equally, you don’t want to push away the most qualified candidates.

Two hours is a good a chunk of time. A day is a lot of time. If I already have a full time job and am just looking to move to something better how are those requests going to fit into my schedule? Badly I’d hazard. A full day is half my weekend. Two hours is an evening. (At least! Finding two contiguous hours at home these days is a challenge.)

Sure, the least qualified candidates will fail it but the very best candidates probably won’t even take it. They’ll just say “no” and move on to an opportunity that requires less upfront effort.

I came across this quote earlier today: “Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option” (either Mark Twain or Maya Angelou, not sure who said it first). That seems very appropriate here. Should I really prioritise these companies over others? Are these companies that special? (A possible exception would be really big names like Google or Apple but I think it’s fair to say that none of the companies that have asked me to do tests have been in that class.)

So, what’s the answer? Certainly there’s no silver bullet that pleases everyone and finds only the very best matches. Having thought about this I think the best compromise would be asking candidates to do something as basic as FizzBuzz (but probably not exactly that as it would be very easy to Google the answer).

To people who have never done any recruitment this probably sounds incredibly patronising. All I can say is that I wish that were true.

And if you really want to administer a test that takes more than thirty minutes, I think they’d be more acceptable much later in the recruitment process. Or failing that, offering to pay isn’t a ridiculous suggestion, though I suspect most employers would argue otherwise.

Afterword: After writing all this, why am I even taking the tests? Mostly because I’m currently between jobs so it’s difficult to argue that I don’t have the time.

After-afterword: I passed the test. I still don’t like them.

My del.icio.us bookmarks for January 12th through January 16th

  • Apple introduces new Apple TV software, lowers hardware pricing – Now potentially more useful with the movie rentals. But where is the price drop in the UK?!
  • Dell tells customer ‘Mac is good option’ – “Now, it’s possible that the techie was referring to a 1970s rock band, or to an item of waterproof clothing. But we can’t help concluding that he was indeed talking about Apple’s operating system.”
  • Steve Jobs gets cohesive – Some cool stuff from Apple at the MacExpo. I think the Time Capsule is going to be on my shopping list when it ships next month. The movie rentals (when they get to the UK) look interesting but they really need to build their catalogue!
  • How to recognise a good programmer – Great discussion on recognising great developers. The problem would seem to be finding them! Most recruiters just pattern match on CVs which tends to favour the “career” developer.

Smart and Gets Things Done

I like Joel. Well, I’ve never actually met him, of course. I mean I like his writing. I’ve read much of his website, I subscribe to his RSS feed so that I can see his new pieces as soon as they’re “published” and I’ve bought his other books even though they’re just rehashes of stuff that’s already on the net. That may seem a little crazy, as though I have more money than sense, but some things are much easier to read on paper than on LCD. And his writing is easy, humorous and engaging, making it worth dipping into occasionally.

So, cutting a long story short, I bought “Smart and Gets Things Done.” So what’s it all about? Well, one suspect is that it’s an advertisement for Spolsky’s software company, Fog Creek. But, in fact, it’s a book about attracting, recruiting and keeping super-star programmers. Indeed, chapter one is why you even want to hire top developers when you can hire a decent developer for rather less money and effort.

He covers the whole process, right from where to find your next recruit; how to sifting through the large number of CVs (resumes) that you’ll probably receive; how to interview people; and how to keep them once they do join. It covers a lot of ground in a couple of hundred pages and he almost makes it sound easy.

Joel is very much against the Google and Microsoft approach to interviewing. He (rightly I think) points out that asking brainteaser questions only finds out whether people can do… brainteaser questions and tells you little about whether they are decent software people or whether, as the title of the book suggests, are smart and gets things done. He spends some time discussing the title, and this is something that jells with my experience. For example, you don’t necessarily want PhD’s, as they are often smart but spend a lot of time thinking about theoretical problems rather than doing anything about it — clearly not the kind of person you want when deadlines are looming. In another chapter he notes that you really don’t want to be forming opinions of people before you meet them. Or, put another way, suggesting that PhD’s might not “get things done,” is not a brilliant idea.

In summary there’s plenty of good stuff to see. But, as I mentioned earlier, much of the content has come straight from his website. That was also the case for his previous book, “Joel on Software,” and isn’t necessarily a criticism in and of itself. However, that previous book was intended as a collection of short, separate essays tied together by a common, fairly broad theme — software engineering. In the sense that each chapter was distinct you could reasonably dip into it, reading one section but randomly skipping over another.

This book, on the other hand, is supposed to be on recruitment — a much narrower subject — and the chapters follow a kind of trajectory. Unfortunately the essays on the website generally work as stand-alone pieces, so when you bunch them all together in a single book and read them back-to-back you find that there is quite a lot of repetition. If it was all a thousand pages long and a recap was in order then that might make sense, but “Smart and Gets things Done” is only a couple of hundred pages long.

So overall it’s a nice book. It has a lot of good advice, even if some of the suggestions are not achievable by the typical employee. As is generally the case with Spolsky it is entertainingly written and is engaging, witty even. However, given the length of it and the fact that there is a considerable amount of overlap you may be better served by reading it all on his website.


Talking about Google’s old and new hiring practices seems to be all the rage at the moment, so I thought that I would get in on the act.

I got through two phone interviews for a technical consultant role here in the UK before being rejected. My second interviewer told me that he’d had fourteen interviews before being hired. That’s just an absurd number. How much holiday and sick leave can you take at short notice without arousing suspicion?! (They were both long enough or required Internet access that I couldn’t do them at work.)

By the end of the second I was in two minds whether to take things any further anyway. I wanted to work for Google, but could I go through fourteen interviews? I was concerned about the money, as no number was on the job spec and big names often offer low and offer options to compensate. I can’t pay my mortgage with stock options! And the work in the consulting side didn’t sound quite as appealing as the kind of thing you hear on the development side.

Most significantly, was the style of interview. They asked brain-teasers, which I tend to think is a lousy way to scope out a candidate. Either you know the trick and can do it instantly, you get lucky or you need a hint. None of these really shows how smart you are, how well you can program a computer, interact with clients or, indeed, any other aspect of the job. The interviewer was also clearly typing away in the background while I was trying to answer the questions, only half listening, which was just plain rude.

Most communications were friendly and personal, right up to the last. The rejection email was signed, impersonally, “Google Staffing.”

So overall I’m not terribly impressed with Google recruitment. Okay, maybe I’m biased against them as they turned me down but as an interviewer I’ve always considered part of my job as leaving a positive impression of the company even with candidates that are not going to be hired. Google failed in this.