Sunday, 3 October 2010

The 'X Factor' Approach to Job Interviewing

The 'X Factor' is one of those programmes that even if you have never watched an episode you are aware of it through the cultural ripples it makes.  It is the most enduring of the talent shows (having started in 2004) that have been on British television over the past decade amongst others being 'Pop Idol' (2001-4) and 'Britain's Got Talent' (2007-).  Such programmes are revivals of the 1970s shows 'Opportunity Knocks' (1956; 1964-8; revived 1987-90) which had the public vote for acts and 'New Faces' (1973-8; revived 1986-8) with a panel of judges, which 'discovered' a number of comedy and music acts that have persisted.  Basically all of these recent programmes, whilst combining judges and popular votes, unlike the older shows, have open auditions that allow members of the public to come in and perform in front of a variety of 'celebrity' judges who then decide whether they proceed to the episodes of the show in which the public vote and whittle down the contestants to a final winner.  A lot of people enjoy the early stages of the programme in which members of the public, often with minimal entertaining talent but general a lot of self-confidence perform.  In many ways they particularly enjoy the ridicule element and especially cutting remarks from judges like Simon Cowell who has made a fortune through his involvement with the programme both in the UK and USA; versions have been produced across the World.

The trouble with the popularity of such programmes is that their methods seep into our everyday behaviour.  Often this is through catchphrases, such as 'you are the weakest link, goodbye' from the quiz game show 'The Weakest Link' (2000-) in which contestants vote off their opponents, or 'is that your final answer?' or 'do you want to phone a friend/go fifty-fifty' from the quiz game show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' (1998-).  Those these programmes stem from an American approach to game shows and have prospered in the UK, their versions across the world, for example 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' is seen in one version or another in 100 countries, also propogates the attitudes that the programmes require.  Certainly in 'The Weakest Link' players have to think tactically to go with the trend of other contestants' voting but also eliminate their toughest rivals.  Such devious thinking has been taken further in programmes like 'Golden Balls' (2007-) and the briefly running 'Shafted' (2001; axed after 4 shows) bizarrely hosted by former MP Robert Kilroy-Silk in which players had to cheat and lie to beat other contestants to the money prizes.  I have noted the impact also of 'The Apprentice' (in UK, 2005-) which masquerades as a business show but is in fact just another game show in which contestants try to outdo each other in business-related tasks and someone is eliminated each week. 

These are entertainment shows and you may argue that they are harmless.  However, it is important to note that not only their catchphrases but their attitudes which penetrate our society.  The sense that you can only succeed by pushing down others can be seen as an element of a capitalist society, but that is not necessarily the case.  Certainly that kind of behaviour in the workplace is not going to benefit the company in the long run.  Ambition is a good characteristic in the workforce but is very wasteful of time and resources if it is unbridled and sees success only be embarrassing or restricting workers around you, who, are, in fact trying to do their best for the company.

Where I have seen the greatest penetration of 'X Factor' behaviour is in terms of job interviews.  I guess this is not surprising given that the programme seems to have an effective way of filtering out large numbers of applicants down to a number of half-decent ones.  With unemployment rising and companies often having little idea how to sift among numerous applicants whilst not falling foul of anti-discrimination legislation, they are unsurprisingly falling back on patterns of behaviour they have seen on television.  Regular readers of this blog will know that recently I applied for a job which had 51 essential requirements in its specification.  It took me 8 hours and 10,000 words to respond to each of these.  Of course, many of the requirements were duplicated, but despite me raising the huge number, 3-4 times more than for other comparable jobs, the company sniffily said it had elicited a strong field.  Looking around the six candidates that did not seem to be particularly the case.  Two of the candidates were internal, and one said that she felt she had only been brought in to make up the numbers.  The others seemed fine but not overly strong candidates for what was a senior position.  I suggested to the company that people unlike me, unemployed, and currently working in similar roles would not find time in the short period between the job being advertised and the deadline falling (many companies in my sector allow only 5 days now) to complete such an application.

Anyway, how did they decide to cut down even the six that they had called (I was going to say 'for interview', but as you will see it did not turn out to be as I and others expected)?  Well, they asked us to do a presentation.  This is a very normal part of the recruitment process and, as I have noted before, even with the use of Powerpoint declining candidates are usually invited to present on some big issue for the company.  Taking the often very lengthy title and shaping it into something you can cover in ten minutes is a challenge, and not really one that matches the kind of skills you will need in the job if you get it.  However, it is a ritual and you have to do it.  Often it is a lottery.  In my experience one employer wants minimal detail and the next wants much more.  I have been told that I should not refer to my past experience but point to developments in the future.  I thought I had done that and was then told not in sufficient detail.  If I could predict the future that accurately I would still be doing the lottery.  Another classic one recently was that in my presentation and interview I did not refer to examples from that company's current work.  Given that I have not worked there since 2001 when it was under a different name, if I had known that much about it, it would be verging on industrial espionage; of course, it was just an excuse to recruit the internal candidates, increasingly the common way to cut down the numbers.

Back to the presentation.  Usually this is the precursor to the interview whether immediately or later in the day.  However, in this most recent example it has become very much like an 'X Factor' audition piece.  In contrast to (most) interviews (still, fortunately) after 15 minutes you were judged and an hour later told if you got through to the next round, i.e. the interview.  Not being clairvoyant I failed and was sent home, not having been interviewed.  I made a round trip of 440Km and stayed overnight, on top of the huge application form I had spent a day completing, all for 15 minutes and some sandwiches, not even a cup of coffee. 

I had been invited to a process like this last year, even more abrupt: after 10 minutes of presentation to a panel not of specialists, you would be told to stay or go home.  That would have involved a round trip of 512Km and another overnight stay.  I had planned to go by train but to get a decent price on train tickets you have to book a precise time slot on the train so I would have been gambling if I got through the first phase in the morning or whether I would need to stay in the city until 15.30 or even 17.30.  It was not a gamble I was going to take and I withdrew my application.  Given the amount you have to write on the applications and the fact that many employers take up references before the interview you would think they had more to judge you on than how you can come across in a presentation.  Misinterpret the title (which on more than one occasion has been sent to me with words misspelt) or not have local examples and you are out, just as if you sang off-key because you were nervous at an 'X Factor' audition.  Signing on at present I cannot refuse to attend any interview I am called for, but I certainly would not have put in the effort to get to the 'interview' if I knew in fact I was there to perform for just 15 minutes; I would have 'broken down' on the way or got stuck in some of the numerous road works on the UK's motorways at present.  However, no indication was given that this 'X Factor' approach was to be used, and so, like a fool, I thought I would actually be properly examined not ruled out on the basis of not taking the same interpretation of the title as the panel.

I am an experienced manager who has a range of skills and knowledge which would benefit many companies.  I never pretend to be something I am not, I certainly make my approach to management very clear and I do not lie about my experience.  However, I can see no way to get a job in such a context, despite all the interview training I have received and the fact that, in the past, I have both trained people in how to give presentations and have been highly praised for presentations I have given.  With the 'X Factor' methodology being apparently accepted as a legitimate way to select candidates, it seems that these things count for nothing and I should instead be having radical plastic surgery and learn how to juggle so that I can win through what is now little more than an entertainment/game show format for recruitment.

P.P. 15/04/2011
I have now done 25 interviews in 10 months.  Whilst unemployment has risen during that time, some companies seem to be coming to their senses about job applications.  Given that the jobs I go for typically have 70-100 applicants for every post (I am often told the precise number who applied) companies are realising that if they list 30-50 requirements then it is going to take someone in their company hours to read the application forms and so specifications have dropped back to 15-25 per job.  Of course, I know some industries come down to selecting application forms at random, but as yet, it does not appear that they are doing that for the level of job I am applying for.

The other thing that dawned on me, when for the fourth time I saw a vacancy advertised that I had been interviewed just a few months earlier, that too many companies see a successful interview as a skill in itself.  I guess I was picking up on this when I first wrote this posting.  However, it is only as it has become apparent that whoever they employed in at least four of the jobs I went for, moved on in less than 12 months, I realise that they clearly did not get what they wanted from the recruitment process.  In addition, feedback from a number of interviews has made it clear that I did not get the job because I lacked the skills and expertise required to do the actual job, but just because I pitched myself wrongly in the interview, coming across as too practical in one, too theoretical in another; too confident in one, lacking in confidence in another.  However, the judgement has been on the interview itself, not what the interview revealed about my ability to do the job.  I think this is a key problem, too many companies assume that being able to perform well in interview is somehow a guarantee that you are suited to the job.  They have forgotten that, in fact, an interview should be the process in which you find out more about the applicant.  It seems ironic to judge people on their success in interview when the job will often not involve doing anything like that ever again.  For too many companies, an interview is no longer a process for gaining information it has simply become a competition with someone 'winning' the job for completing the contest.  Consequently, a few months down the line, the company actually finds out that the person best at interviews is not necessarily best in the post, hence the rapid re-advertisement.  You do wonder if the company has changed its attitude sufficiently not to keep making the same mistakes.  Interviews are a tool not an end in themselves!

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

Yesterday, 'The Guardian' outlined a number of recruitment processes which are even more like 'The X Factor' than the ones I have been through. See:

As they note, the tasks that candidates are set, are often extremely time consuming, and, in fact often do not reveal the kind of information that selectors need to find out who is suited for the job. As with so much in business today, especially with recruitment, chasing after the latest fad is seen as far more important than doing a good job.

I suppose the recruiters have to prove to their bosses that they are 'with it' so implement these rituals rather than actually analysing who they want. Leaving it up to some arbitrary activity takes the burden of making decisions off the selectors.

I guess the next fashion will be something based on 'Total Wipeout', i.e. candidates having to get drenched, muddy, bruised and humiliated in the process along a tough assault course just to get a shot at being an office junior.