Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Adventures In Recruiting: Crazies And Eccentrics I Have Known

When I started recruiting, it never occurred to me that I was actually dealing with the general public.  But with so many people I have met, that is the truth.  On a bell shaped curve, some fall into the upper 2%, but some fall on the left side of the curve in the bottom 2%.

I thought it would be fun to briefly recount some of the “crazies” and eccentrics I have met.  Suffice to say that I don’t work with any of them.
  • There was the woman who refused to come to my office for an interview, despite me being well known.  She told me, “I don’t go to men’s offices.”
  •  There was the guy who wouldn’t give me his address.  It turns out he was saving money by not paying rent during the summer. He was literally living under a park bench on Long Island.
  •  There was the woman who unbuttoned her blouse in order to try to convince me to send her out on interviews.
  • There was a man who refused to tell me where he currently worked or what he worked on, “For reasons of security”.
  •  There have been several “new business” people who claimed to be able to move an account with them. But when I contacted the ad or marketing manager of the business, they either didn’t know this person or hadn’t been in contact with them or had no intention of changing agencies.
  • There was an account guy who did primal screams in the middle of the day and saw nothing wrong with it. He told me he could not share and office and could not work at an open plan office.  Not surprisingly, he was out of work.
  • There was a guy who sent a résumé under a false name; he even had an email account. When I met him he told me his real name, but did not want me to identify him to my clients until after he received an offer.
  • There was a woman who heard about a job at a company and asked me to change her name on her résumé.  It seems she had worked there before and didn’t want them to know it.
  • In the days of snail mail there was a guy who used a false address on his résumé, “So he didn’t get junk mail.”  He never told me. When his offer letter was returned marked “address unknown” his offer was withdrawn.  He told me he did not expect a letter, just an email.
  • There was a group account director, a notorious screamer, who has been let go many times. He screamed at me for not sending him out.  He then sent me an insulting email rant, which ended with, “If you don’t send me out, I will never use you to recruit for me”.  He never had before.
  • I was about to hire a recruiter.  I called her on a Saturday morning to make her an offer.  She cursed at me (literally) and screamed that I had no business calling her on a weekend and that I was stealing her personal time.  I did not make the offer.
  • I got a call from a client. He had just fired a person I had placed a year prior for making a huge mistake in scheduling; it cost the agency a lot of money.  She told him it was my fault because she did not like being there.  The client and I both had a good laugh.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What A Reference Check Should Really Determine

Most reference checks are limited to names that the job applicant has given to the company.  And while these references can give a good sense of what the candidate is about, there is more that a reference check can do.  

Reference checks are a wonderful opportunity to find out things which don’t show up while a job applicant is interviewing.  While someone is interviewing, they are always on best behavior.  A reference check is a great way to find out if someone is truly likable. 

Yet most companies fail to determine this critical information.  In fact, most companies, do fairly perfunctory references.  Often, more because they have to.

The law that may require reference checks is called Sarbanes Oxley (SOX).  It was passed by congress about a dozen years or so ago. SOX requires public companies to be responsible for internal controls to protect against fraudulent accounting practices.  These controls have been extended to include many human resources functions and, among other things, may include reference and background checks.

When checking references, companies usually ask valid questions. They ask about abilities; they ask about the circumstances under which someone left a company; they ask about relations with others, their working habits, their managerial skills.  All these things are important to know, but often form a mere check list, to be put in a file drawer to show that a company did its due diligence (under SOX or otherwise). 

References should go beyond this check list, even with names that have been given to them.  I have found that even good friends will be honest if probed properly.  Reference checks are a great opportunity to ask about issues which are important to know but are best coming from a third party. 

Here is my list:
-       Are they nice?
-       Are they likable?
-    Are the good humored? 
-       Are they compassionate towards others?
-       What is their management style?
-       Do they manage up better than they manage down?
-       Are they temperamental?
-       Are they hands on?
-       Do they present well?
-       How do they handle difficult situations?
-       Do they have personal issues which may not have shown up while interviewing?
-       What problems are they best at solving?
-       What are their working habits?
-       Would you work with them again?

If these issues are probed and examples asked for, the people giving the references, even  if provided by the candidate, will usually give a very good picture of the candidate.  For instance, it is impossible to directly ask a candidate if they are nice, but is easy to ask a third party and then probe them to find out specific instances of their niceness.  

I just had a candidate who told me that her boss is Jekyll and Hyde; when he is nice he is good, but when he is off his meds, so to speak, he is horrible.  I am sure his references said that he was an excellent executive and good at his job, but this personality trait never showed up because it wasn’t asked. Yet isn’t that what a company really wants to know?  That a person is a screamer, or difficult, or temperamental should be known before they begin work, not after.  Finding out it in advance can save a lot of angst later on.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Importance Of Gravitas When Hiring Or Interviewing

When one meets Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or even Mitt Romney, they each exude an aura of authority, power, and, if you will, leadership and command. In short - gravitas.  The dictionary defines gravitas as seriousness of demeanor.  But it goes farther.  There is also a certain substance that goes with it.  Gravitas is why Bill de Blasio won the mayoral race – his competitors lacked it.

When hiring, especially senior executives, companies look for gravitas.  It is evident immediately  from the moment a candidate enters the room.  It is the way they are dressed; it is their posture; it is in their smile and their demeanor. And it is in their handshake. It is in something they exude.

Some people have gravitas. Some do not.  The ones who have it are born with it.  It is just part of their being.  The ones who do not, must create it (there are many books written on this subject).  They have to relearn how to dress and how to carry themselves. It can be a learned trait.  Some get to it quickly; others have to work hard to present themselves in a way which compensates for it in their lack of carriage.

It is really important as people move up the career ladder and become more senior.  Everyone wants to hire a leader.  Everyone wants to hire someone who commands respect.  It isn’t just about body type – look at Chris Christie or Madeline Albright (only 4'10").  It is about authority and the ability to take over a room when it is entered.

That is why I insist on meeting all my local candidates in person.  Or, if they are not local, I always do a Skype call.  Any recruiter who doesn’t do this is doing themselves, their candidates and their clients a disservice.  It is also why I like to visit my clients.  There is a certain “type” who works at different companies.  That is part of their culture and it is an important thing for a recruiter and a candidate to understand.

In the old days of the original Chiat/Day, before TBWA, when account people at other agencies were still wearing suits, the Chiat account person was loose, upbeat, casual and authoritative. I made lots of placements there because I got it immediately. And people who interviewed with me wearing dark, somber suits and rep ties would never get hired there – unless, of course, they had gravitas and were upbeat and creative.  In that case I would have them dress way down for their interviews.  And some of them even got jobs there.

It doesn't matter what level you are, but coming across strong and smart is what counts.

My wife was a wardrobe stylist who dressed people for commercials.  She used to say that there is central casting for every business.  But if someone dressed like a duck and looked like a duck, they were a duck.  

Ultimately, carriage and demeanor wins the day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

There Is No Shame In Being Let Go

There is a myth that the best people don't get let go. I would like to debunk that fallacy.

Once upon a time, businesses were nicer, smaller and private (non-public); the need for expediency and profits was less evident. That was especially true of ad agencies. When business turned bad or an account was lost or there was some other issue whereby people had to be let go, management and human resources sat together and made a plan. The best people were rotated, promoted or otherwise moved to keep them.  The under-performing and weakest employees were axed.

But that was long ago.  That era seemed to have come to an end in the 1980s.  Unfortunately,  there are people who still remember those days and still believe that the best people are kept and only the weak ones are on the street. 

It just isn’t true anymore and applies to all companies, not just ad agencies. (To prove my point, we recently got a job from a company and the person giving us the job order asked that we not send anyone out of work.)

A few years ago, a human resources director called me (yes, an actual call, not an email) and asked me to see a fabulous account supervisor who had been laid off because her account was lost.  I saw this person and, indeed, she was wonderful.  So much so that I called the HR person and asked why she had been let go.  Her response was that this person’s account had left the agency. I responded that surely she was better than many or most of the people at her level and she should have stayed.  The HR person agreed, but again responded that her account had left the agency.  I pressed because I couldn’t understand the logic and couldn’t understand why they didn’t do an evaluation at her level and keep her while letting go someone who was under-performing. The final response was stunning.  “That would be too much trouble and take too much time; we would have to evaluate everyone. It is easier to fire the entire account group.”


But that is the truth of business today.  Expedience takes precedence over people. Even the best, most productive and well-respected employees are vulnerable.  There is little loyalty for past performance. Good deeds are forgotten quickly.

I understand that in advertising, under the client/agency fee system, it is very difficult for agency management to go to a client who is paying a fee for staff and is happy with his or her people and tell them that someone on their account is being let go to make room for a better person.  That would be like admitting that the person servicing them had been less than stellar or had not been good. Clients don’t like that.  And clients don’t like change. It is easier to keep the status quo. This is true at all levels, but it is especially true of senior executives.

So companies do the easiest thing.  It requires little or no thought and terminating an entire group  can be done quickly. I am always surprised when I get a call from someone who I know is excellent and they tell me that they have been let go.  I stopped being an account guy years ago, but I never worried about being fired if my accounts left or their budgets were cut.

But business is different today.  And being good is not enough to keep one successfully employed.

There is no shame in being terminated. There is great shame if a hiring company will not see someone who has been cut back.

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