Is this what you want?

Is this what you want?

Let’s face it: the recruiting and selection process in most organizations is hardly a shining example of open and honest communication. Candidates naturally avoid revealing too much truthful but negative information and organizations often soft-pedal unpleasant realities (or are completely blind to their many deficiencies). You might look at places like Glass Door to see what employees are saying about the organization, but the information posted there can range from messages from those who have drunk the Kool-Aid or comments by those with serious hidden agendas.

The best way to evaluate whether or not a workplace is worthy of your sacrifice is to ask direct questions of the people interviewing you and listen to both the content of the answer and the way they answer it. As total honesty is often rare in an interview process, you will know when you’ve heard it. When you hear dissembling, stuttering or avoiding the question entirely, it’s a very bad sign.

Here are some questions you can use to help you get more of the truth about what it’s really like to work there:

  • How much time and energy do you expect me to contribute to be successful on this job? (If you get “Whatever it takes,” press for a specific hours-per-week figure.)
  • What are the priorities of this organization right now? Of the workgroup? (Check those against the mission statement for a disconnection.)
  • What kind of support does this organization give its people in terms of technology, training and career movement? (Listen for what they’re actually doing, not what they’d like to do.)
  • What kind of people do you want working here? (Listen for underlying sexism, racism or other kinds of bias.)
  • What kind of people do you not want working here? (Same as above.)
  • How do you see me contributing to this company? How do you see me making a difference?
  • Is it possible for me to interview with the people I will be working with? (If they decline, that’s a big red flag.)
  • What other commitments beyond an honest day’s work do I need to make to achieve success here? (After-hours engagements, checking email at midnight, learning to play golf, etc.)

For your supervisor, try these questions:

  • Tell me what your hot buttons are. (This will reveal their true values.)
  • Tell me about the leader you worked for that you admired the most. (This will tell you about the kind of leader they see as a model.)
  • Tell me about a problem employee you had and why that person was a problem. (This will reveal any biases and blind spots.)
  • Now tell me about a great employee you’ve had and what made them great. (If you can’t get more than a general answer, that’s a very bad sign.)

Although it’s tough to turn down a job when you need the money, the truth is we often settle for jobs we don’t want because the job search has drained our confidence. You can’t let that happen. If you find your confidence sagging, review your resume and remind yourself of all the times that you have delivered great results. Whatever you do, don’t settle for a job in an organization that simply isn’t worthy of your time, energy and talent.

The entrance to companies with the industry experience fetish. You have to know the secret password to unlock the chain.

The entrance to companies with the “industry experience” fetish.

Many job postings list “industry experience preferred/required/strongly preferred/a must” or endless other variations of the theme.

I tend to view these blurbs with skepticism. In certain cases, industry experience can be a valid differentiator, particularly when the organization posting the ad needs someone to step in right away and hit the ground running.

On the other hand, I think some companies use it as a defense mechanism to hide lazy thinking and narrow-mindedness.

Everyone thinks their industry is special, unique and different. I’ve never met anyone in any industry who didn’t tell me that their business was incredibly complex and difficult to learn. This is always an exaggeration. Some industries have more rules, some use unusual language to describe their activities and some are in relatively new fields where there are no rules. None of that makes an industry more complex. The claim that their industry is uniquely challenging is something that people often use to make themselves feel important. They also use it in collaboration with others to form an exclusive club, and exclusive clubs always want to keep out the riff-raff and the people who don’t know the secret knock or have the secret decoder ring.

I base my argument on three key facts:

  1. I am no Einstein.
  2. I do not have a business degree. My degrees are in English (BA) and Public Administration with an OD emphasis (MPA).
  3. In consulting and in-house roles, I have worked successfully in all of the following industries: Health Care (clinical and medical devices), Manufacturing, Logistics, Energy, Environmental Services, Computers, Telecommunications, Software, Semiconductors, Wireless, Government, Higher Education, Military, Trucking, Internet, Food Services, Financial Services, Nonprofits, Social Services, Real Estate, Advertising, Business Analytics, Publishing, Entertainment, Employment Services, Construction and Precision Instruments.

So, if I am not imbued with any magical powers, how have I managed to accomplish something that most employment ads assume is impossible? Simple:

  • When I go into any company—even if I’ve worked in the industry before—I adopt the attitude that I am entering a foreign country where I know neither the language nor the customs. I listen, I ask questions and most importantly, I make no assumptions that my previous experience has any relevance to this experience. I will bring my experience into the conversation only when I have proof that it is relevant.
  • I’m not afraid to learn new things. Even though I’m the consultant and supposed to be “the expert,” I’m there to learn first, teach second.
  • I don’t let them intimidate me with buzzwords. If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language in school and you go to a country that speaks that language, you’ll have a moment of terror when you have your first encounter and find out that you can’t understand a word they’re saying and that you are completely unintelligible to them. What happens then? You get anxious, fearful, start beating yourself up for having had the arrogance to believe that you could master the language . . . and wind up forgetting everything you do know and disabling your ability to listen and learn.

To put it simply, it’s not industry experience that matters, it’s learning ability. Anyone can learn the essentials of any business in a relatively short period of time with an open mind. The advantage of hiring outside the industry are enormous. You get new perspectives on old problems and different ways of thinking. You get people who are unlikely to be bored because they’re learning new things. You’re more likely to get excitement and motivation from people who want to prove themselves as opposed to people who have been there, done that.

This brings us to the fundamental danger of insisting on an industry experience requirement. If all you’re doing is hiring people who think like you and talk like you, how are you ever going to innovate, deal with change, or create a learning culture? How do you expect your company to grow when all you’re doing is recycling old ideas? Why on earth would you want to duplicate the practices of a closed, stagnant culture like North Korea?

When I worked in health care (as closed an industry as there is), I knew we were making progress in our culture change efforts when one of our best leaders, a clinical professional with multiple certifications and a long career in health care, called me about recruiting front desk staff for the clinics. “You know, I’ve been thinking. I don’t want anyone with health care experience. I can teach them what they need to know. What I want are people who are good with people and who have had customer service training at some of the companies known for great customer service. The candidates I get from health care don’t really connect with people. They seem bored.”

Bless her heart. To be fair, health care has more limitations than most other industries because you can only hire physicians, nurses and technologists from within the health care mindset. This is a major reason why health care is so slow to change and why a colleague of mine who recently entered the industry described it as “going back in a time machine twenty years.” It’s not going to get any better in health care until they remove that “health care industry experience preferred” tag from their employment ads for non-clinical positions. The sheer weight of custom and accepted practice needs a strong counterweight if the industry is to join the rest of us in the present day.

My feeling is that the industry experience requirement is overrated and sometimes dangerous. It reflects lazy thinking on the part of HR and hiring managers who don’t take the time to clarify what they really need. Sometimes it’s used to avoid the possibility of hiring someone who will challenge the status quo, and in that case limits the ability of an organization to diversify its thinking. Focusing instead on interviewing for the critical competencies of learning ability and flexible thinking will get you far better results than simply hiring people who may know your buzzwords but may have stopped learning long ago.

© Emadrazo | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images

A recent announcement from the EEOC describing their draft strategic enforcement plan for the upcoming months listed the following discriminatory practices as examples of what they’re targeting:

  • The channeling/steering of individuals into specific jobs due to their status in a particular group. Yes, this still happens. I don’t see too many male executive assistants or female construction workers, to say nothing of the continuing shortage of female and minority executives.
  • Restrictive application processes. A broad term that could mean anything. I wish they’d do something about tedious application processes, legal or not.
  • The use of screening tools that adversely impact protected groups. This parallels their recent reminder to employers about job-specific background checks, but could also eliminate the practice of many prominent employers that make year of high school graduation a required field on their online applications. Any idiot can calculate a person’s age from that statistic.

This is a classic enforcement agency list that misses the impact of common hiring practices that truly result in discrimination. Here’s what they missed:

  • Not having a hiring process at all. Too many jobs, particularly at the executive level, are filled by someone the hiring manager knows and has worked with before. An equally despicable practice at the higher levels is hiring someone who has valuable connections or a pedigree while ignoring the competencies required to do the job. Unethical HR people then cover the unethical executive’s tracks by completing the tracking logs as if the winning candidate was selected in a competitive hiring process. Hiring someone they know may relieve hiring managers of the desperation anxiety that arises whenever there’s an open job, but it is a biased, unfair and exclusionary practice.
  • Not focusing hard enough on age discrimination. This one is such an obvious candidate for enforcement that you have to be stoned out of your mind (or working in Washington, D. C.) to miss it. What does every outplacement agency tell older candidates? “Don’t go back more than 15 years on your resume.” Why? Because of likely age discrimination. Many people over 40 have learned to exclude certain companies (particularly tech and Internet companies) from their job searches because they know they’ll be stereotyped as yesterday’s news. People have learned to accept age discrimination as a fact of life, and given the huge number of Baby Boomers in the job market today, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more of an outcry. Then again, given their early indoctrination into the philosophy of “Hope I die before I get old” and market for youth-restoring plastic surgery, it’s likely that most Baby Boomers are too ashamed to admit they’re entering the golden years.
  • Not questioning candidate evaluation methods and records. Pretty much all you have to do in your recruiting logs is say “did not pass interview” or “failed phone screen” and that’s that. This is why managers can get away with telling the recruiter, “I just think Louise is a better fit.” Recruiters rarely push for specifics because they’re just happy to close another req. Hiring managers are seldom held accountable for justifying their decisions or for documenting specific examples of a how a candidate did nor did not meet the competencies the job requires.

In a legal sense, the tagline “equal opportunity employer” means that race, gender, age and all the other protected classes are irrelevant to a hiring decision. However, the spirit behind that phrase is far more important from an ethical and professional standpoint. The goal of anyone involved in the hiring process is to find the best person qualified for the job, and you can’t achieve that if the real hiring process is limited to buddies, people who attended certain universities or someone who has a “name company” on their resume. All of those considerations are not only irrelevant, but contradict a company’s claim that they are an “equal opportunity employer.” What those practices do communicate is that the hiring company is a narrow-minded closed network of like individuals who arbitrarily exclude people for no valid reason at all.

HR people (especially recruiters) need to have the courage to stand up to hiring managers, declare war on mediocrity and insist on an open, fair and competitive hiring process. Just filling the req isn’t good enough. A great company hires the best people through a professional hiring process where everyone feels they had a fair shot and even those who lose out develop a healthy respect for the company’s sense of fair play.

The EEOC won’t tell you to do that, but do you really need them to?

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