Go to Menu Death by Lethal Reputation
The Demise of an Employer
By Nick Corcodilos

Quite a few years ago one of my biggest clients stopped me dead in my headhunter's tracks. A human resources manager at the company wanted me to tell her why the company's name was "Mud" among engineers in Silicon Valley. Actually, she asked me for a formal, written report.

"Too many job candidates -- engineers and managers alike -- are rejecting our offers outright, and even more of them refuse to come back for a second interview," she explained. "Management really needs to hear the truth, and I know you know what's going on."

What I knew was that we were opening Pandora's Box.

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Pandora's Box
This company was one of the grand dames of the computer industry. The technologies that were invented and developed within it, and the engineers and managers who cut their teeth there, had pollinated almost every significant company in the Valley. In fact, when old timers referred to the company, they always added "University" after its name. Many seasoned and noted people in the electronics industry were alumni. It was sad to see such a company prove itself incapable of getting a good candidate to sit through a job interview.

None of this was news to me. I'd had candidates flat out refuse to even consider a job there. I was successful in filling positions, however, because I had close relationships with some key managers, and our channels of communication were wide open. In other words, we were always brutally frank with each other. This enabled me to coach my candidates past the rumor-mongering so they could get to the managers who were worth working for. As long as these good managers were there, I was able to avoid the crash-and-burn outcomes the HR department was experiencing in most interviews.

The HR manager who approached me knew what the problem was, too, but she needed an outsider to pound it onto her boss's desk. Such are corporate politics. So I wrote my report. Not one to mince words, I just told them the truth. Little changed as a result, of course, but in the course of producing the report I learned a whole lot about how a company can destroy itself from within. I also learned that, of all the mission-critical tasks any business faces, the most critical is hiring the right people. That is, being able to hire them.

On the surface, the company's problem was a nasty reputation for a number of bad hiring habits. At a deeper level, the problem was a lack of pride and a lack of concern about how it presented itself to its professional community. If the company had been able to shake the bad habits, it might have been able to regain the respect of its community. But bad habits are hard to break, aren't they?

Bad habits
While most of management was oblivious to the gross errors the company was making in its hiring process, its bad habits were legendary among engineers and headhunters.

  1. Wrong candidate, wrong job.
    Candidates were routinely interviewed for the wrong job. You have probably been through more than one interview where you sat wondering, "Why am I subjecting myself to this interrogation? This isn't the job I agreed to interview for!" This was a policy-level problem, relating to who was deciding whom to interview and why.

The next two bad habits represented senseless practices:

  1. The wrong interviewer.
    More often than not, the wrong person conducted the interview. Either they (a) were not the actual hiring manager, or (b) didn't understand much, if anything, about engineering.
  2. The rude process.
    Job candidates were put through two or three rounds of meetings with personnel jockeys who treated these professional engineers like desperate freshmen at a fraternity rush.

The final nails in the coffin revealed the poor attitudes that no one bothered to address:

  1. Cynicism. The interview process included meetings with employees who were disillusioned about the company and said as much to the candidates they were interviewing. Rather than attempt to rebuild its ranks with upbeat, motivated engineers, the company allowed some of the worst of its crew to continue poisoning the well.
  2. Indifference. Finally, too many hiring managers ignored the rumors they knew were circulating about the company. They didn't bother to do damage control. Candidates who were enthralled by a particular job and impressed by the manager and the department were nonetheless left worrying about the negative things they'd heard from their friends.

Lack of pride goeth before a fall
One could argue that professional pride is a personal, individual matter. I think it's a corporate (as in "a unified body made up of individuals") imperative. Try to work without pride, and watch your reputation wither. This goes double for "corporate bodies". The stench of a withering company spreads quickly through its professional community.

It's fine to talk about an intangible like pride, but it's not very useful because you can't tweak it very readily. So let's focus on a more accessible control knob: the mechanism that communicates pride or the lack of it. For an individual, this is the behavior he exhibits. For a company, it's the interface it presents to its professional community: the behavior of its employees and representatives.

Don't understand what I mean? Consider the best sales rep who's ever sold to you; then consider the worst. Both were their employer's front line -- the interface that shaped your professional behavior toward that company (and what you had to say about it to others in your community).

Many companies fail to realize that customers aren't the only constituency they need to continually impress. The professional community is critical, too. No company would tolerate a sales force that treats potential customers wrong. Why then do so many companies tolerate inappropriate behavior toward potential employees? My client was engendering a poor relationship with its professional community through its hiring practices. That's how its name turned to "Mud.

Let's look at how some companies wind up soiling their reputations. Then we'll review some sober behaviors that might help your company avoid the fate of my client.

In my client's case, its poor interface to the professional community revealed itself in the company's policies (Bad Habit 1, above), practices (Habits 2 and 3) and attitudes (4 and 5).

The policy problem
Any company that allows hiring managers or Human Resources to willy-nilly schedule ill-conceived interviews is quickly seen to be "crying wolf," and good candidates stop responding.

Decisions about which candidates to interview are too often made by the wrong people and for wrong reasons. Usually there's pressure to fill difficult openings, with the result that candidate selection becomes an act of desperation and wishful thinking: "This resume looks interesting; lets bring the guy in."

The policy problem often centers on who has the power to select the candidates. Is HR empowered to screen anyone it wants to? If it is, the candidate pool can be quickly polluted by inappropriate stirring. Because such screening is usually regarded as HR's prerogative and as part of the indelible "HR administrative process," by the time my client identified it as part of the problem, the damage was done.

When a company pollutes the pool, the reputable headhunters who service the company step away. That's a clear sign that something is very wrong. Some headhunters, however, can subvert HR's administrative process and, by working closely with the hiring managers, run the show themselves. The candidates I placed with my favorite managers in the best parts of the company fared very well. HR was ready to kill me, however, because they were the last to interview any of my candidates, and only after a manager had composed an offer. My candidates smiled through the perfunctory administrative interviews because I both cued and coached them -- and they already had the backing of the manager they were going to work for.

But the company's hiring needs were much greater than a few savvy headhunters could satisfy. Candidates who wandered blindly into the company stepped in you-know-what and complained about it to their friends. The negative fallout from a generally bad interview policy spread.

Poor practices, poor judgment
Why is it that a company's sales reps are carefully trained before being set loose on the market, but anyone with a desk and chair in his office is allowed to interview job candidates?

It was common practice in my client's HR office to have first-year personnel staffers who didn't know disk drives from toasters interrogate senior engineers for an hour or more. But tolerance of administrative hassles has its limits, and smart job candidates balked.

Worse, I saw employees who had tendered their resignations interviewing new job candidates. Ever see a company allow a sales rep who's just quit his job go out and meet with a new account?

But such egregious errors aren't just made at the staff and middle management levels. Executive management can be just as guilty of poor judgment as anyone else. I know of a Marketing Director who, impressed with a top-notch sales person he'd met at a professional function, promptly scheduled her for an interview with the Operations Director. She was summarily dropped from consideration for a sales job because the operations expert concluded she didn't fit his model of a good sales rep. Say what?

And that brings us to the worst of bad judgment and questionable practices: the preemptive psychological strip search. Having recruited and enticed a desirable job candidate to come visit, the company demands that she lay bare her psyche and soul when she walks in the door. It's become altogether too common for HR to administer a battery of personality and aptitude tests to candidates before they even get to see the manager who's supposedly interested in meeting them. I'd like to know what's being "tested" here: the candidate's worthiness, or the HR department's judgment? After all, HR selected the candidate and invited her in to begin with. Should the HR manager earn a tick against his record when the candidate scores poorly?

Such pre-qualification wasn't so prevalent in Silicon Valley -- or anywhere else -- back then, but a burgeoning HR consulting industry is selling test services hard and alienating good job candidates in the process.

Death by attitude
Practices and policies weren't the only problem at my client company. The attitudes conveyed by interviewers sank many hires. A candidate I'd submitted to a manager had just been interviewed by a seriously disgruntled fellow who had nothing but bad things to say about the company. It took lots of damage control on my part to get the candidate to then meet the manager. He was hired, later promoted to his boss's position, and enjoyed many good years at the company. After that, I insisted that all my candidates always be interviewed first by the manager I was working with.

The Valley was rife with such stories about this company. I learned about some of these experiences from engineers I was recruiting for other clients. One fellow was interviewed twice by HR before he declined a third interview. Prior to each "interview" he was made to sit like an uninsured indigent in a hospital emergency waiting room. There was no rush to welcome this busy engineer who had taken a day off from work to come to this meeting. He was finally given an hour's worth of forms to fill out. During his second visit he was quizzed by HR about why he wanted a job with the company. ("I don't know if I do; the headhunter told me your engineering department wanted to meet me," he replied.) An imperious attitude does not suit an overhead function in any organization -- least of all HR.

Perhaps the most damaging attitude was denial. Too many managers, HR included, felt it was inappropriate to raise the problem of the company's reputation in interviews. So instead, they left it up to each job candidate to ignore the rumors. Maybe that was the last bit of disrespectful interview behavior the community was willing to swallow.

Respect is everything
Interviewers are not excused from performing professional courtesies and responsibilities. The presence of an HR department does not absolve the rest of management from the responsibility they owe a person who takes the time to come to an interview. Likewise, having dirty laundry is no excuse for insulting a visitor by throwing it at him.

Every job interview must be founded on some very simple rules that are based on common respect:

  1. The quality of a job interview is the employer's responsibility. If you're not sure whether to invite a candidate in, ask yourself whether you'd do it if you had to pay the candidate a consulting fee. Otherwise, don't waste his time or yours.
  2. Put your best foot forward first. The interviewer-- every interviewer, not just the hiring manager -- should be as knowledgeable about the subject matter as the candidate. Don't send clerks to do your interview work.
  3. Respect your guest. A job candidate is an invited guest to be shown hospitality, enthusiasm, respect and deference. Don't let anyone beat him up.
  4. Manage your reputation. Every interview turns your company's face toward the camera. Everyone who meets the candidate is representing you, your department, your company, your product line, your technology, your board of directors and your stockholders. Want to reconsider any of those meetings?
  5. Act like you care. Your professional honesty and frankness are the only proof that your company is a responsible member of its professional community. And that responsibility is personal.

My client company violated every one of these rules every day. This was a company at which there were exciting projects to work on, seasoned managers who were very good at mentoring other engineers and managers, and new product developments that provided excellent experiences for talented employees.

At this company, there was a core of everything that was desirable. But on the surface -- on that largely administrative level, where the company made contact with other professionals -- the company's reputation had peeled apart.

Have pride, give respect
Here was a once proud company that let bad hiring habits alienate its professional community. That's not to say it didn't have other problems; but this was the one everyone was talking about. Even in the midst of the largest population of electrical engineers in the world, it couldn't attract the best engineers.

When a company fails to monitor how it relates to its professional community, it loses that community's respect. Gradually, that lack of respect affects the internal community, too. I knew the death knell was sounding when my client managers started calling: "Get me out of here."

It took a few years before the company was acquired and dismembered. The name was sold, and that's all that's left of the original business. Some of its alumni are founders of notable companies you'd recognize in a second. I wonder what lessons they took with them.

[A reader suggested Deceptive Recruiting as a good follow-up to this article.]

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