Ben Scofield

Ben Scofield

… rarely updated

20 Sep 2013

On valuing people

Ernie and I are going through many of the same experiences right now, so his post on how interviews are broken resonated with me. In particular, I wanted to expand on his “I am special” point.

I don’t know that I’m particularly special; that carries a slight note of “better-than” that I’m uncomfortable with (though I don’t see that in the context of Ernie’s post). I am, however, convinced that everyone is different. We all bring different strengths, weaknesses, preferences, biases, intentions, and experiences to whatever we do. Any process that ignores that fundamental truth – whether it’s a hiring process, a date, a debate in a comment thread, or whatever – is broken.

Caution: philosophy ahead

Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy system was built on the categorical imperative; basically, it’s a framework for evaluating actions. The imperative has a few different formulations, but the one I’m interested in here is the second: “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.” I’m not a Kantian, but I’ve always found this formulation compelling. It is wrong to treat other people simply as a means to some end or goal.

It’s not always easy to remember to treat people as people, instead of as extras (or worse, props) in a story in which you’re the protagonist. It’s even harder when you’re dealing with a lot of people all at once, like when you’re hiring someone. Here’s the thing, though: if you can keep in mind the individuality of the people with whom you’re dealing, you’re going to be much more successful in the long run.

An example

Some time ago, I interviewed with a large company. I got dropped into a fairly standard interview process, which means they wanted me on-site for an all-day interview. They set me up with a travel agent who booked the trip, and I was off – to a pretty terrible experience.

While in the air for the first leg of my flight, the second leg (which was direct to my final destination) was cancelled. Upon turning my phone on after landing and finding out, I freaked out, found the rebooking center, and … got myself booked onto another two flights that would have me in the air until midnight. A few more delays later, and I ended up checking into my hotel at 1:30am, a little less than 12 hours before the interview.

After a few hours of sleep and catching up with an old friend who happened to live in the city, I walked over to BigCo and proceeded to talk to a series of people over the course of 4 hours. I designed systems on the whiteboard, instrumented existing processes to ensure performance, talked about how I’d tackle various sorts of problems – and was asked very little about what I wanted to do. It seemed very clear to me that I was one of a large number of (from BigCo’s perspective) interchangeable candidates that might or might not fit into the role they were trying to fill. In other words, they were treating me as a means to solving their problem, not as a person with ends of my own.

The trip home was actually worse than the trip out; the second leg of my flight was delayed repeatedly and eventually cancelled, but by that time I had given up hope of salvaging the trip, rented a car, and just drove home (luckily, the first leg left me in Charlotte, so it was only a two hour drive). And… I never submitted any of my expenses for reimbursement. I just didn’t want to deal with BigCo at all anymore.

So, what could BigCo have done differently? The interview should have been a conversation; an exploration of their goals and resources, my goals and skills, and how those might fit together to be mutually beneficial. I won’t lie: that is hard, especially at a really big company where no one person knows all the possibilities. It gets even harder with less experienced candidates, since their goals are often more vague. Given that we’re talking about a lot of money (in compensation, and even more in impact), however, it doesn’t seem to make sense to skimp on this process.

And the travel. Honestly, that really got to me. If you’re going to book a candidate’s travel, then you’re taking responsibility for it. I don’t expect you to build a weather machine, but it’s not that expensive to have your travel agent proactively monitoring your candidates' travel and fix problems before the candidate knows they happened. Travel is your first impression, and in many cases takes longer than the interview itself. (I was in the BigCo office for a total of 5 hours; I had layovers longer than that on both sides of the visit.) In addition to knowing the candidate’s resume, your interviewers should know how the trip went and express sympathy for whatever obstacles arose.

Very little of this is easy, at the company level or the personal level. It certainly entails some additional effort and expense. Compared to the cost of losing great candidates, however, it seems like a worthwhile expense even without considering that it’s the ethical way to behave.

Wrapping up

One final word: I’ve often heard interviewers (and myself) use a candidate’s lack of excitement about the company or job as a mark against them – “she just wants a paycheck.” Hopefully, this (overlong) post has convinced you that turnabout is fair play, and that “they just want a body” is equally bad.