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Quo vadis?

Quo vadis?

Contributed by Ira (irav@goodnet.com). Contributed articles do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the ÆGIS e-journal.

The following is the observation of someone who has been employed as a technical recruiter for a high tech computer software company. This writing, to some degree, is a confession of sins past. The author asks that, when judging it by personal standards of ethics and behavior, the reader keep in mind that this behavior goes on in the competitive business world of today.

Why Spy?

The job of finding technical people for my company fell entirely on my shoulders. Typically, when a company needs a certain type of employee, someone creates a job description and places a help-wanted ad in the newspaper. I soon found out from rough experience that this traditional method of recruitment was unsuitable for creating a stable, productive workforce. Based upon the law of unintended consequences two results of a blind ad may occur:

1. You may not get any qualified responses, which means your recruiting efforts have been set back at least a week, because it is only the Sunday papers that effectively draw job seekers. In today’s climate of fast turnaround and product cycle, employers cannot wait. They must have immediate solutions to current needs, and the competitive pressures corporations suffer demand this truncated time line to get people on board and producing.

2. You may get responses from people who appear by their resumes to have the experience and qualifications that you need. When you have an ad campaign that was really successful you may have a pile of a thousand or more resumes, requiring enormous time and resources to winnow the pile to a manageable few who appear by their resumes to have the experience and qualifications that you need. But do they really? Job applicants have been known to lie: In more accurate terminology, we might (but graciously don’t) call this “fraud in the inducement.” We need do our best to ensure the truthfulness of the resume we are reading.

Unfortunately, in today’s litigious social environment employers are loath to state anything about a former employee except name, rank, and serial number, making verification all but impossible in some cases. “Yes, that person did work here from this date to that”. Period. No comment on work habits, skills or any of the other things that make an employee valuable. Even worse, employers anxious to get rid of a bad employee may just give that splendid specimen of corporate ineptitude a glowing reference, hoping to palm off the problem onto the next hapless employer. This means that a prospective employer must interview the candidate effectively and find that information the old-fashioned way.

Sadly, some unqualified people are excellent at deception and are hired, while some qualified people (especially “techies”) are very bad interviewees, and are turned away. The problem is that most interviewers don’t really know how to interview, beyond asking technical and simple historical questions.

There are, then, two classes of error that occur in interview situations. The first occurs when one accepts that which is false: Someone lies and you believe it. O.K., you hired that lying swine who swore to you that he or she really did have a degree and all those skills spelled out in the resume which so impressed you. Sooner or later you find out that it wasn’t so, and you have to make a decision as to what to do about it. This is not too bad an error, because it is correctable, albeit at some cost.

A much more serious error occurs when the employer rejects that which is true. Typically, the case of the techie who can’t effectively describe his skills in an interview situation and doesn’t get the job. This error has no feedback mechanism, and the loss to the organization by not having this person might be staggering.

Thus, in the traditional hiring scenario you don’t know whether the applicant is telling you the truth about his experience and skill level. And you don’t have the slightest idea about their work ethic or social attitudes. And you don’t know if this employee, particularly if a member of a protected class, has a history of litigation against their previous employers, or what really went on at the previous job.

When you balance that against the high cost of hiring (employment agency fees, non-productive periods during training, sign-on bonuses, supervisory time expended, cost of training, and the trial employment duration at full pay and benefits, the repeated cost of having to hire a replacement, and the liability involved in getting rid of an unwanted employee, i.e. wrongful termination legalities, appeals, and the threat that the miscreant will infect other good workers with bad attitudes and work habits) it is no wonder that employers are afflicted with indecision and “Excedrin Headache Number One”. The adage that “one rotten apple will spoil the whole barrel” is particularly meaningful in this situation. So what to do?

“Eagles Don’t Flock, You Have To Find Them One by One”- H. Ross Perot

Your goal is to identify new talent that you might want to hire. Good people know other good people, and even bad people know good people. The point is that peer review comes in all sizes, shapes and colors. It makes a lot of sense that if you want to hire the best employees, you go to where the best employees are. And who knows where they are better than people already in the field? This means that a determined employer uses the best asset at hand and that is your own employees. Treat an employee kindly and with respect and that person will gladly tell you about all the best people in their previous professional encounters. It definitely helps if a small gratuity is attached. It is easy to interrogate your own employees, but that puts you in the position of the newly-minted insurance salesman who is told to sell friends and family. Sooner or later, you are going to run out of people to interview. Some thought has to be given to enlarging that pool of informants.

An aid in this quest is the fact that companies tend to hire in their own image despite everything said about cultural diversity. While the worker may now be female, Asian, Latino, Black, or other minority person cloned to the prevalent corporate culture, IBM people still look like IBM people, and Apple people still look like Apple people. This makes sense because hiring takes place from the top down, and human beings generally believe that people who are like themselves are the best talent around. The hiring envelope has gotten stretched, but it is still pretty much business as usual. Since certain skills and types tend to congregate in very identifiable places, someone has done the majority of your work for you.

Run Up the Jolly Roger

What I am about to say may sound unethical and crass, but it is the secret to success. You have to become a Pirate. Here are a number of ways to do this:

Place a help-wanted ad;

Go to a trade show;

Talk to a salesperson who visits other companies.

The Dark Side

It is not unfair to assume everybody is ultimately looking for a better job for whatever reason. We don’t care about those reasons because we are not especially looking to hire those people, but rather to use them as sources of information. There is no better way to get the information we want than to hold out the illusion of new employment. In the course of the employment interview ask them specific questions about the reporting hierarchy of their department, their supervisor, who is the best employee, who they have worked for, who they would most like to emulate professionally and why, etc.

It never ceases to amaze me, most people being open and honest, how much information is revealed this way, some of it of a most personal nature. If this interview is done at dinner with an adult libation or two, it gets even better. It is a good idea to carry and use a mini tape recorder because you will not be able to remember all the answers. Unfortunately, the more information that interviewee gives, the less desirable that person becomes: It could be your staff that is being discussed in the next job interview. According to our strategy, you don’t want to hire that person anyway because you don’t have a peer endorsement and you know nothing except what that person has said about himself. You want the people that the interviewee has endorsed.

If the interview goes according to plan, you will know an amazing amount of detail about each employee discussed. You also know the names and job functions of a lot of the other employees who work with other potentially attractive employees. Just as we go to another doctor for a second opinion, it is often worthwhile to call in another interviewee for a second opinion of someone recommended by the first. However, that person should not be viewed as hiring material either, but just someone to corroborate the opinions of the initial interviewee. Same treatment. More general information. Focus in on the candidates that appear best for the job to be filled.

Now, with all this information in hand, an offer of employment is created to suit the person you really want for the job, taking into account personality, ambition, hobbies, dislikes, attitudes, salary considerations. And, much like the red-headed man of Sherlock Holmes fame, you will get the employee you want. No more one-size-fits-all offers that may or may not be accepted by the person that you may or may not want anyway.

The Even Darker Side

Have you noticed that by identifying and hiring the very best employees within one’s industry there is something of a zero-sum game at work? If you have all the key talent, the competition does not. From another prospective, if a company induced several key people from a certain department of a competitor to leave their current employer, might not that department collapse? Might that same competitor be able to survive the loss entirely? If a company knows that the competition is developing a technology or service that would seriously compromise its industry standing, could that company, in its own self-defense, legally hire away the competitor’s best people to delay or destroy the project? Could a company use information gathered in the job interview process to gain competitive information valuable to their own market position?

The answer to all the above questions is generally (putting aside nondisclosure and non-compete agreements) “YES”. And therein lies the dilemma. If knowledge is power, then what may one ethically do with that information? People do change jobs, advance their lives and careers, and create new friendships and allegiances, and to do that they must demonstrate a sufficient level of competence and knowledge. The job candidate can never fully know what information revealed to a competitor might harm the present employer, and even partial information gleaned from several interviews can be reconstructed as if it were a jig saw puzzle. It can also be coordinated with other sources of data available through numerous sources, including trade and professional journals.

In part, the problem of vulnerability has to do with the fact that we live in an open society and people generally don’t pay attention to the concept of privacy in either their personal lives or their work place. Employees talk to each other, their spouses, friends, barbers, house cleaners, manicurists, and total strangers. The concept that “Loose Lips Sink Ships” is a wartime model, not a practice ingrained in the good-heartedness of the American psyche. If people will reveal their sex lives on talk shows, what might our population withhold from a skilled questioner? Not much. Increasing the stakes with the presumption of a job with a significantly higher salary and a change in status is a powerful incentive to tell the enemy where all the aircraft cameras are.

The second problem has to do with a peculiarity of corporate organization. There is very often a real difference between titular leadership and actual leadership. The head of a department is not necessarily the most admired or competent person on the staff. Often a second or third in command carries the loyalty of the rest of the staff, by having greater skills and competence. The nominal head may be an internal political appointment and not a good leader. In this case, if a competitor can induce the second level to defect, the whole department may become ineffective. The loss of a single important person can cause utter disaster in the same way that pulling a keystone out of an arch causes that structure to fall.

Ethics provide little comfort to some corporate players under pressure to perform, and, if given a weapon, many will use it if they think they can get away with it. Any prudent manager at any level needs to assume that someone is watching, and I don’t mean with friendly eyes nor eyes within the walls of his own organization. The recognition of that particular reality means that the other side may feel it has to compete at that level also, or remain at a disadvantage. So, in effect, a corporate cold war erupts. From that point forward, the concept of spying as a precursor to intimidation and sabotage is not a very difficult step.

The caveat that “In the War of the Titans, the ordinary mortal is crushed” pertains to industrial fights which are long, bloody and long. They are expensive, career destroying monsters often predicated upon which side’s attorneys have the bigger computers. Witness the Volkswagen scrap with GM over the defection of a key employee who took valuable and proprietary data with him.

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