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INTERVIEWING: How far is too far?

By Norman Burden, Partner TRUE NORTH

If you happened to miss the story that broke on BBC Radio 5 Live last week, when Olivia Bland told presenter Rachel Burden (no relation that I know of!) about her ordeal at the hands of overzealous CEO Craig Dean, who in a job interview took things much too far in order to see what Olivia was really made of, you can catch up with it here;

Following the interview, Olivia was offered the job in the marketing department, however the interview had been conducted in such a way as to completely turn her off the idea of working for the company.

Olivia had to endure a critique of her work, the choices she had made in life to date and a range of questions which simply had nothing to do with why she was there. So much so that she was reduced to tears as she left the interview.

What happened next I suspect rather turned the tables on the interviewer in term of stress testing; Olivia bravely decided to take to social media and published her rejection email to the company, outlining exactly why she was turning the job down and she did not hold back when it came to feedback on Mr Dean;

‘I suppose I am supposed to feel privileged to be good enough to be offered the job. I don’t. I don’t want to line up with someone who gets a kick out of attacking young women, calling them underachievers and making them visibly uncomfortable’

Olivia went on to compliment others she met in the organisation but highlighted that her experience, together with others’ reviews she said she had read, very much focused on exposing Mr Dean as the weak link as far as attracting talent to the company. Olivia did also include her CV and used the opportunity to promote the fact that she was still looking for a job!

If Olivia was acting purely for altruistic reasons, as a wordsmith herself, she chose her approach in order to have maximum impact. If that is the case, then she has certainly achieved her objective. Doubtless Craig Dean will feel he has had better weeks!

Perhaps though we all need to take a step back at this point before we applaud her methods?

Regarding her own prospects, there will certainly be potential employers out there who, as a result of Olivia’s actions, would not consider employing someone who has acted as a whistle-blower, based on only a snapshot and without ever having actually worked for the company. Others of course my well applaud her and think this is exactly the kind of person they need!

Equally, there is a good chance that this could damage the commercial prospects of the organisation and one of the unforeseen consequences could be cancelled contracts and orders which could lead to other employees losing bonuses or worse still, their jobs. Surely Olivia had no intention of harming others through her actions?

All this does however beg the question that when it comes to interviewing potential new employees, how far is too far?

In today’s world, many would argue that the balance of power sits with the employee rather than the employer when it comes to a host of areas of the work place. Making mistakes is a costly affair, not only in term of the actual costs associated with an employee’s salary and taxes, but also the recruitment, onboarding and training costs as well of course as the opportunity costs of having an employee who underperforms.

As a result, employers invest heavily in trying to avoid making a bad hire. Some use science and a well thought out and tested methodology, others still rely heavily on gut feeling. Whichever the preference, it is every employer’s responsibility to ensure that an interviewee is put through a robust interview process and equally, every applicant should expect to be stress tested in ways which reasonably reflect the pressures they are going to be put under in the job itself.

At the challenging end of the spectrum, if you wanted to work in the SAS for example, you would have had to prove yourself and one of the highest achievers in you chosen profession, be prepared to subject yourself to a five month residential assessment called the ‘Special Forces Aptitude Test’, and if you are one of the lucky ones to get to the final round; there is a 90% failure rate, expect a final interview lasting ten days which includes five timed marches of between 14 and 17 miles. Being late is not an option if you are serious about your career!

OK, of course this is an extreme example but realistically none of us would expect to get on a bus driven by a driver who had not been thoroughly tested or operated on by an under-qualified surgeon or have your central heating boiler serviced by someone who did not have the knowledge and training to do a safe job. It is of course the employer’s responsibility to ensure that their employees are proficient and safe to perform their job and crucially, will not underperform when they are put under pressure.

Because none of us have a crystal ball, as interviewers we tend to rely heavily on the previous experiences of the interviewee and we also have to come up with techniques and approaches which aim to mimic as many of the situations a potential employee is likely to encounter.

In an ideal world, most employers would almost certainly favour a trial period but because there are many limiting factors which in normal circumstance mean that this in impractical, employers have to resort to the second-best option. This ends up being over an intense period of a few hours, normally spread out over a handful of meetings, during which time both employer and employee have to access a wide range of factors to try to conclude whether or not appointing as the employer, or joining as the applicant, would be a good decision.

However you look at it, this is never an easy task and of course, just like in all things, some do it very well whilst others leave a lot to be desired. Any experienced HR or recruitment professional will have war stories to share (if they dare to!) and experiences like the one Olivia went through are sadly all too common.

It can only lead to the conclusion that for any company, someone who takes the time to apply and attend interviews, whether or not they get the job, is a future brand ambassador for your company. Whilst in the end it might not work out, they always deserve your respect; there is nothing wrong with stress testing their skills whilst making it clear what you expect of them, but good manners cost nothing.

And whilst any employer reading Olivia’s story and Twitter feed will I am sure, think about sensor checking their approach to recruitment, for any potential ‘Olivias’ out there, who’s first reaction was to applaud her bravery and approach, sound advice would be to think very carefully before jumping in the same direction.

Many will think that this sort of thing is most often best dealt with in private. Olivia exercised her ultimate right which was to turn the job down and tell the company why; she looks on it as a lucky escape!

Going public via social media takes things to a whole new level and might lead to of unforeseen consequences which could not be desirable for anyone.

This is a live debate in these changing times I would be interested to understand your views and thoughts and hear about your experiences…

TRUE NORTH is an Executive Search firm specialising in solving senior level hiring challenges for technology enabled businesses. Please subscribe here to get involved.