Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Interviews: A Real Song And Dance

It seems apparent that with rising unemployment, companies are looking for new ways to sift out candidates for their vacancies. Having been applying actively for jobs since February of this year, I have had seven interviews and have just been invited to my eighth, so the fashions in interviewing are of concern to me. However much employers deny it, there are fashions in the style of CVs and how interviews are done. Often the interviewers themselves cannot articulate what the fashion entails, just that they, and even more often the human resources staff who advise them, 'know' that there is a 'right' and a 'wrong' way, which may be very different from what was prevailing two years earlier. Of course, as I have outlined here, in many companies, no-one knows how the human resources department recruits people and interview panels often show clear surprise at the nature of the application forms they are given to consider.

I have never been a fan of television programmes in which people are voted off. However, they straddle so much of popular culture these days ranging from those dealing with the public such as 'The X Factor' and 'Britain's Got Talent', through the fate of 'celebrities' in 'Strictly Come Dancing' and 'I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here' to less entertainment orientated ones, notably 'The Apprentice' and 'Dragons' Den' in which individuals pitch themselves or their products in front of a panel of 'experts' to receive their approval or dismissal. Even in the programmes with a popular vote, the panel often leads the way. Of course, there have been game shows going back to 'Fifteen to One' in which contestants selected who among them would be asked the next question, evolving into more aggressive and deceptive behaviour for programmes like 'Golden Balls' and the short-lived 'Shafted'. Of course, the one that has been most enduring has been 'The Weakest Link' in which contestants get to vote off others usually on a tactical basis to make their path to the end easiest. The dismissal is delivered as cruelly as possible by an intentionally austere presenter. People, this is a game show not real life. Recruitment should not be debased this way; I am not an actor or musician.

As I say, I do not enjoy these programmes and bar a couple of programmes of 'The Weakest Link' and 'Golden Balls' have never watched any of them. However, I am aware of them and how the tactics operate as well as any ardent fan. They have so penetrated British society that knowledge of the methods and the tactics is commonplace. To my alarm, it now seems to be creeping into the corporate world and shaping how recruitment is run. For my next interview I have to appear before a panel of 15, some of whom will not be knowledgeable about the topic I have to speak about. I have 10 minutes to present on a detailed topic and then there are 5 minutes of questions. The use of presentations before an interview is very common for interviews these days, however, in every other case, they are used as a springboard for questions in the interview, not as a method to sift out candidates without really getting to know them. I suppose I would have been happier if they had said they would let us know if we were through to Stage 2 an hour later, but they emphasised the immediacy of the decision.

It is interesting to note that this is my second interview this year for which I have been told there will be no data projector for Powerpoint slides nor an overhead projector. This is a vast change from back in the early 2000s when I was rejected immediately at an interview because I did not use Powerpoint slides in my presentation. Partly it comes from the ignorance of how this technology works. One interview I attended last month was delayed an hour because no-one on the panel could operate the projector equipment or laptop to deliver Powerpoint slides. Partly it is because it is now seem as hip and bullish to put aside the 'crutch' of the Powerpoint slides. Ironically, that puts people like me, in the business when there was one terminal in an office, in an advantageous position over applicants who have been doing multi-media presentations since primary school.

What is jarring about this upcoming interview is that after my 15 minutes in the spotlight I will be told if I have got through to the next stage, i.e. the interview. Quite easily I could have driven 240Km and stayed overnight simply to have 15 minutes of performance and then come home. Of course, I cannot travel by train as I have no idea whether I will have to leave sometime in the middle of the morning or hang around for an interview at 5pm. The interview schedule will only be outlined after the performance stage. This clashes with the expectations of most companies that you book train tickets well in advance and at the cheapest price, and in the UK today, that means sticking to a set scheduled train. I have no idea what the interviewers can learn in 15 minutes, especially if the bulk of the audience are not knowledgeable about the areas the job covers. I can understand you have to make a good show to customers and prospective clients, but this system seems to be more beauty contest than even talent show. I can envisage the audience holding up scoring cards or simply a tick or a cross to say whether you go through to the next stage.

Interviews, as I have noted before, are getting shorter. They are about 60% the duration of what they were when I was looking for work in the early 2000s but the specifications are increasingly complex and often straddle many different roles. Perhaps I am too old to respond to the type of interviewing which demands that you snatch the attention of the 'audience' in an instant and somehow communicate vast areas of knowledge in a handful of minutes. If I was not so desperate for work, I would consider turning down this call for interview. I am not keen to encourage this methodology to spread, however often it is used in popular culture. I think it will do a disservice to the companies who use this methodology and I wonder how many companies will still be employing any person they recruited this way, 12 months down the line. Recruitment is a slow process and needs to be thorough. Adopting flashy approaches will not secure you the ideal candidate and it simply encourages behaviour and methods that get us even further away from the type of skills necessary for most business. I accept that for sales and even marketing it might be appropriate, but who ever insisted that the stock controller or the quality manager had to be able to sing karaoke well to work effectively in those posts?

P.P. 29/07/2009: I was persuaded by friends to withdraw from the process. As they pointed out I would be travelling 480Km with a good chance that I would not even be interviewed. I would have had to prepare for Stage 2 even if I did not reach it. Even if I got through to Stage 2 there was no indication at this stage of the schedule, making booking train tickets impossible. I wrote a strongly worded email to the company saying I was not going to go through their version of 'The X Factor' and will spend my time applying for jobs with companies who do not indulge in this kind of false machismo. I have reached a certain level in my career and expect some degree of respect, but I hope that they stop treating any candidates this way. Just because there is high unemployment should not mean we have to be performing monkeys to get a job.

Another thing that the company seems to have forgotten is that these days interviews are strictly based on criteria and if they refuse to give someone a job on spurious grounds they can be called to account for it. There is no indication what criteria they are using to judge people at this presentation, but given the immediacy of the response it must be on first impressions. They have to be careful here, because first impressions is the basis on which disabled people and other minorities will lose out to average interview panel and these people rejected on wishy-washy reasons will come down heavily and with legal backing on employers.

I just hope this employer is an aberration and that from now on I will encounter only rigorous and rational interview processes. However, I fear the approaches of entertainment have now contaminated what is a far more serious activity.

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