Thursday, 13 September 2012

Current Fashions In Interviews

I have commented before about how there are fashions in interviews: and my recommendations for running interviews effectively:  Looking back over these old postings has reminded me of how much fashions in interviewing have changed over the past 3 years. Who changes these fashions and where you can find out about them, remains a mystery to me. I guess you need to subscribe to some human resources journal to find out what is now required. The woman who lived in my house used to be sent the latest style of CV by her sister who appears to have had a supplier of these. I wonder why there are so many changes so frequently. To some degree I guess it is to keep human resources people in work or to make sifting out applicants easier. As yet I have to encounter a human resources department which is not over-staffed or one that is busy. Given that entire departments at two companies I have worked for take a whole day off not leaving even one person to answer the phones and that at least one had enough time to specifically write to the Department of Work and Pensions to try to get my benefits stopped, they clearly have a lot of time on their hands.

Certainly one thing they do not do is communicate what they have changed to other departments. The most disheartening thing, when you have followed every instruction to the letter to be told by the interviewers ‘well that’s not how we used to do it’ and ‘you must have got it wrong’. You are blamed for them not being updated that now applications come on this form or are sent to this person. I know blame-shifting is second nature these days, but to blame the poor applicant for a lack of communication within your company is terribly mean spirited.

Thus, having applied for 39 jobs since the start of June and having attended 14 interviews, with 2 more scheduled, I thought I would alert you to new trends in recruitment for the Autumn 2012 employment season in case you are out there trying to get a job.

The first thing is the deterioration of online application systems. About 90% of the jobs I apply for, I apply through an online system. This means I have to set up an account with them. I must be on fifty different companies systems now even if I have just applied for one job. In some cases this can be an advantage as I do not have to type in how many ‘O’ levels I got in 1983 again and again. I am always astounded how much information they want which is utterly irrelevant to the job. Does it really matter if I got an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ for O Level Chemistry in 1983? I am not applying to be a chemist. I suppose it helps with the filtering. I guess this is the reason why you have to list what school you attended and where, so they can simply bin those who did not go to Eton or one of its equivalents.

The problem is that these systems are unstable. They can lose everything you have written in an instant. They can suddenly deny you access to certain pages. Contacting the company whose website you are applying through is useless. They only see it from their side and so do not see the buttons missing for people coming from the public side. I had to abandon one application because there was no way I could register for an account, only people who already registered could get in. I emailed the company which sent me a link back to the page which was missing the registration button, telling me it was there. Again I am portrayed as the stupid one. Of course, a lot of companies simply buy in these systems without checking if they work or are suitable. I have mentioned before how you get 2000 characters to respond to 25 job requirements, working out at something like only 380 words. For one company I could not fit my response in the box they provided and asked what the character limit was for it and they said they did not know. Conversely, I have been given 5000 characters to write my nine character national insurance number into and 2000 characters to write ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the question about whether I had a right to work in the UK. Some employees are aware how bad their systems are to the extent that I have now learnt their names and simply email my application to them rather than trying to wrestle with the system. 

One element which has certainly been around for the last five years if not longer is the fact that if you cannot match every single one of the characteristics listed on the job specification, do not bother applying for the job.  Often if you say you have not used Software Package X but are very experienced in Software Package Y, which in my sector tends to be far more up-to-date than X, your application is often rejected even before it is seen by a human.  The trouble with this matching every requirement, typically 20-30, is that you can never progress.  You are only interviewed for jobs that you have entirely done before.  There is no ability to step up a level.  This is contrary to the long standing trend in the UK going back probably two centuries, that you moved job to climb to a higher position, something in contrast to Japan for example.  To progress you must pay to go on training courses and get certification yourself and in your own time, without support from your company even if they benefit from you doing this.  Being unemployed I do have the time but not the money to go on such training.  As a consequence my career having peaked in 2010 is now on a downward trajectory as some of the skills I have become obsolete, I cannot apply for as wide a range of jobs as I could have done two years ago.  People tell you that it is your job that becomes redundant not you as a person, but actually in the UK today, that is not the case.

Both salaries and leave are falling.  Jobs I held back in 2005 are now paying £5,000 per year less now than then, despite the sharp rise in the cost of living since then; petrol is twice the price per litre that it was in 2005.  Interestingly pay rates for the same jobs at different companies have now become incredibly varied.  I have seen everything from £27,000 to £44,000 per year for an identical post in different companies.  The most leave I have ever had in a job was 38 days and the average has been 33, but many jobs are now offering only 20 days.  The number of job specifications which state 'must be flexible as to hours' which in its poorly phrased way suggests that you will be expected often to come in early and work late or at weekends.  Clearly despite falling salaries companies want to squeeze more work out of each worker.  As discussed below, this is aided by new technologies which mean you are expected never to be free of the office.  The other thing is 'must be able to work under pressure and to tight deadlines'.  To me, any office especially one which is not associated with the media, where there is constant pressure and tight deadlines is a highly disorganised and inefficient office.  In addition, this requirement contradicts the many others about you being able to organise well, manage your time and prioritise effectively.  Consequently it suggests that the company expects bosses to suddenly spring work on you and expect you to do it for them.  I suppose that with so many attitudes in the UK returning to the 1950s we should not be surprised at this.  However, it hardly suggests working practices that are going to make British industry competitive.  The 1950s were the time when efficiency in British business slid fastest despite the growing prosperity not only in Britain but across Europe and in Japan and North America.

The length of time vacancies are advertised has been reduced with some being taken down within a few days of being advertised.  I imagine that is to reduce the number of applicants.  On a number of occasions jobs I have applied for have got back to me to say that the decision has been delayed by some weeks or the interview arranged for a date two months into the future.  Also vacancies have disappeared usually because the funding has been withdrawn.  I have found that there is absolutely no point in asking about these vacancies and certainly not to point out that you spent a lot of time applying for the post.  In my field it generally takes 8 hours and 5000 words to apply for a position.  The Job Centre presses you to chase up employers you have not heard from.  However, these vacancies which ultimately never have an interview and effectively, disappear, are treated by companies as a particular case.  Often their disappearance is the result of funding changes or difficulties or changes in policy so to respond to queries about the vacancies going is embarrassing to companies to the extent that they can be hostile to queries about them. This is added to the fact that they know they have wasted money in advertising the post and even beginning to analyse applications.  I have learnt it is better to fob off the Job Centre with an excuse which is probably close to what actually happened even if the company would not say it, e.g. that the funding for the post was reallocated and they decided not proceed with the vacancy and hope that the Job Centre staff do not insist on written proof of that supposition.

The other thing that has been reduced is the length of time in which you are notified of an interview.  Back in 2009 when I was invited to an interview 2 days later I was quite surprised but this is now the norm.  I rarely get even a week's notice.  The shortest notification was at 15.15 for an interview at 14.30 the following day, so less than 24 hours.  What made it worse was that the email giving me this information did not actually arrive in my In-box until 22.30, leading to me going to bed immediately.  Fortunately it turned out that the administrator has her work emails going to her smartphone day and night and she texted me back that night to say she had received my message.  I have not been able to afford a smartphone, but it is clear employers are now expecting you to be accessible via email even well outside office hours.  The thing about such short notice of interviews is that it discriminates against anyone with caring commitments.  In addition, it discriminates against people already in a job but looking to move.  Employers still prefer to employ someone currently working rather than someone unemployed, yet there is no way that you can book leave for the following day.  Thus, this approach clearly contradicts the actual attitudes of the companies with no real benefit in my view and in fact preventing many good candidates from attending the interview.

One thing which has certainly appeared in the past year is the need to prove your identity when you arrive at an interview.  The UK has stepped away from identity cards more than once in recent years, but these days to get a job, because of the immigration regulations, you have to constantly prove your identity.  All the markings on my passport have worn off as I have had to use it so often.  I cannot remember when I last travelled abroad, perhaps four years ago, so effectively my passport is no longer used for foreign travel, it is simply my UK identity card.  Mine has expired but I lack the funds to renew it and do not know anyone suitable to sign the photographs.  As yet I have not been challenged for using an out-of-date passport, but I know soon someone will say that they cannot be certain whether I am still British and will bar me from a job on that basis.  I do not know how anyone can claim that immigrants are taking British jobs because the nationality proof requirements are so stringent even if you want to attend an interview let alone actually get the job.  Of course, bigots exclaim loudest from positions of ignorance.

There are some interview trends that I am happy to see have apparently died.  From about 2003 up until last year 95% of the interviews I attended, somewhere around 80, insisted that you did a PowerPoint presentation.  Now, I became very adept at these.  Though some people complained my slides were too plain and lacked decoration, most welcomed their clarity.  The key problem was that in so many cases the interview panel could not operate the equipment.  On a number of occasions the interview was postponed by 1 hour whilst the technical staff were fetched.  On other occasions, I simply had to hold up print-outs of the slides I had produced.  This year interviewers have turned right around and say there will be no facilities for such presentations and you should not bring them.  The new fashion is 'initiating a discussion' on a particular theme.  I quite enjoy this approach.  The key difficulty is not being able to gauge how long to speak for.  This is the same with the responses to questions, you want to appear knowledgeable but not exceed the time the questioner has in their head for what is an appropriate answer.  The tolerated duration varies between the different members of the panel and bears no relevance to the length or complexity of the question asked nor to whether one question was asked or four were asked wrapped up to appear as a single question.

Another trend that I am glad to have seen the death of, is the requirement to bring along a copy of every single qualification you have ever received.  This never seemed to have any point for me as you cannot get 'A' Levels unless you have done GCSEs (or if you are as old as me, 'O' Levels) and you cannot get a degree unless you have 'A' Levels or some equivalent.  So each level effectively renders the previous one obsolete.  In the case of specific skills, such as have you studied French to 'A' Level when you did a degree in Financial Management is a fair thing to ask if appropriate for the job, but up until last year it was every single scrap of paper accumulated since I was aged 13.  Now about 20% of the interviews I have attended ask for qualification certificates and in every case only the highest.  However, you do still get asked about your competency in English, in fact, this is asked more than before, I think as adjunct to the immigration scrutiny.  I suppose also given how poor spelling and grammar is among young people today it is a fair point even for those with a degree, but to someone of my age it seems a bit silly.

A less common fashion is a revival of what I call the 'civil service' style.  I have had tens of appalling interviews in my career but one that sticks out in my mind was with what was then the Department of Employment in 1993 for a job in a Job Centre.  The lead interviewer held up a piece of paper in front of her face and simply read in a very mechanical tone a list of questions that all started with 'give us an example of ...'  I suppose you could say it was a very fair process, it was pretty much like being interviewed by a computer.  Two interviews I have had recently have used this style.  They have a list of 'competencies' and expect you to give an example which shows that you can do all of them.  They do this in addition to a normal interview.  Now, such requirements are standard on job specifications but they are not often checked in this mechanical way.  A challenge is that they often include a range of different aspects.  The classic one which I see on about 80% of job specifications is 'must be a team worker but also be able to work on your own initiative'.  Now this is one requirement yet responding to it you have to show skills that are in fact in the opposite direction.  Unsurprisingly the interviews at such companies using this competency approach constantly over-run as it is difficult to get through 20 competencies, a typical number in 30 minutes.  The last one I attended started 45 minutes late and rather than the 30 minutes I had been assigned mine ran to 45 minutes, adding a further 15 minutes to the delay for the next candidate.  Many interview panels simply pick a duration at random and do not make any effort to judge whether the number of questions and reasonable answers to these will fit into the time they have assigned.  It happens both ways.  At an interview due to last 1 hour we found it was all over after 40 minutes with all the questions thoroughly answered.

Two interviews on the same day with different panels is a fashion which, whilst not common, still seems to be around.  I have no real problem with this approach though often you find yourself repeating things to the second panel you said just moments before to the first panel.  The first panel is often in a rush as they are conscious of over-running, first because in two-panel interviews each session is shorter than a standard single panel interview and second because they are conscious that any delay at their end with impact on the scheduling for the second panel.

In my sector, something which has gone through a big revival is the activity test.  Sometimes these are cognitive analysis exercises.  However, they are generally purchased from generic business suppliers and in my position are not always suited to the jobs I do, particularly in the case of the level of proof which is required to make a judgement.  Most, however, consist of summarising a document or producing a policy briefing based on it.  Generally these are fine, though you need to learn to move fast to set up a strange computer to how you do things, especially if you are left-handed.  Some companies give you all the company documentation relevant to the task as if you had time to read it.  These are internal handbooks and guidelines not accessible outside the company.  Thus, whenever I am given so much documentation which could not be processed in the 30 minutes always assigned for the task, I know an internal candidate is favoured or in fact, as with so many aspects of interviewing, the panel have thought it a good idea to set a test but have not thought through how long it will take or what in fact it is supposed to be demonstrating.

I must say that employers are getting better at letting you know if you have not got the job.  A couple of years ago you simply heard nothing, but these days they send an email, sometimes telephone and in one case actually sent me a rejection letter.  I think they have realised that in a time of high unemployment, they get people ringing and ringing to find out what has happened, something we are strongly encouraged to do by the Job Centre.  Though they loath having to send out rejection messages, companies have learnt that it ultimately saves time fielding calls from concerned applicants.  Only two of the 14 companies have offered feedback on my interviews.  About a third have either ignored requests for it or have refused to give it citing confidentiality of the interview process.  Some of the feedback is useless, wheeling out the set phrase 'another candidate better matched the job description' which suggests they cannot really articulate what I did right or wrong because that judgement could easily have been made from the application form alone.  The number of companies paying interview expenses has fallen to about 1 in 3.  The rates have remained the same which means you are worse off with rising petrol prices.  The level varies quite considerably.  Having attended interviews at companies which lie less than 7 Km apart I received £35 to drive to one but £90 to drive to the other.  Of course, even with the rise in petrol costs, driving can be up to four times cheaper than travelling by train to the interview and as companies often do not pay beyond the main journey you are often stuck walking kilometres from the station or having to ride the back streets and housing estates on a local bus, assuming you can find the right one.

My concern in all of this is that British companies have still not found interview methods which provide them with the staff they actually need rather than what they think they need.  I am hearing of too many companies not being able to fill vacancies which in a time of high unemployment is very strange.  It seems to come from them setting job specifications that cover so many different skills that you need an individual who has had three or four different careers to be able to fulfil them.  In addition, the interview process is often so poor that the company does not know whether they have got a suitable person or not so err on the side of caution.  They have no willingness, however, to train or develop staff, so when they cannot find the people with 100% of the skills they want down to a very specific level, they would rather go without.  This leaves more work to fall on the existing staff increasing inefficiency.   You can do well with someone who has 90% or even 80% of the skills and they will like being able to expand into new areas rather than feeling they are trapped in a job which is identical to all the ones they have done before.  Companies also really need to reflect on what they actually need the person to do in the job rather than pile up a whole list of dream requirements that apparently make the company seem dynamic but actually make it appear poorly run.  They also need to give people time to apply for jobs and to arrange to attend interviews.  By using a 'just in time' approach to interviewing they actually exclude a lot of candidates who in fact may be the best they would get.  As with so much in British business, we need to move away from 'seems' being the driver for so much behaviour to approaches based on the actuality.


Jonathan said...

You're correct, it's got to the point now where employers are only prepared to employ somebody who is already employed. Being unemployed disqualifies you from the job. I had a telephone interview with somebody some weeks ago, and when she ased, in a puzzled voice: "so, what have you been doing in the last two years", my answer "applying for jobs" seemed to confuse her even further.

As with you, I'm getting fed up with public pronouncements from companies saying they can't find the skilled employees they want. Hello!!!! Unemployed highly-skilled software engineer here!!!! If you were prepared to actually employ somebody who is unemployed instead of insisting on only considering people already employed in the exact identical job that you are recruiting for, then would have the skilled employees you're looking for.

Another frustrating thing now, is because I've consistantly applied for every single job I beleive I may possible be physically capable of doing - after all, being alive costs money, refusing to work equates to refusing to eat - I'm now starting to receive rejections that say: we've turned you down three times already, stop b****y applying for jobs with us. Cameron wants a "work or starve" economy. Well, unless somebody forces an employer to get off his arse and actually pay me to work, that work-or-starve economy has already arrived.

Rooksmoor said...

Jonathan, thank you for highlighting some very good issues. I had it recently that one large company I would have loved to work for, after 3 interviews told me to stop applying to them. They see it as partly my problem that they get so many applicants.

I am always surprised that companies are surprised at how many applicants they get as if they are unaware that unemployment is currently high. In addition, they are certainly oblivious to the fact that Job Centres compel people to apply for a certain number of jobs every week. I had to apply for 3 every week which meant some weeks I was compelled to apply for jobs I was not the best person for simply to match the Job Centre's weekly quota or risk losing my benefit. Hundreds of thousands of people must be in the same situation.

I had this some years ago when I had 6 interviews for internal posts at a company I was working for as a temp (for 2.5 years, so not very temporary, but on a temporary contract, renewed weekly) and they said that I just kept on coming up with the same information at interviews and I asked them if they expected me to magic up a different career each time I applied. I gave up applying for jobs there when I overheard one of the senior staff categorising temporary workers into those she felt were 'born' to work for the company and those who would never be suitable despite their good work for the company. I realised I was on the second list and no matter how good my interviews were I would never be offered a full-time post.

Interestingly LearnDirect now offers qualifications in 'looking for work' so it is clear that it can become an occupation in itself. The thing is, as I have found, these days with companies getting so upset any time you take a day off and having so many minutes that 'you must be at', it is incredibly difficult to apply for a job or at least attend an interview when in work.