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What Are We Looking For? Agreeing on Candidate Specifications by tom payne

An organization was having problems in recruiting. There was growing frustration with HR after they had failed to hire a service engineer after interviewing for 4 months. HR was under pressure for not being able to come up with suitable candidates. The Director of Engineering and Maintenance, the Service Manager and the Head of Sales were all involved in the candidate interviews. They had not been able to fill a service engineer position that was servicing a large customer. They had interviewed 16 candidates and had not been able to agree on or hire an acceptable candidate. They were frustrated that people who were qualified were too expensive and those that were willing to work for the monthly salary were not qualified. They were ready to get HR to do a new salary survey and wanted HR to get more creative with looking for candidates.


HR had placed six, 5-day newspaper ads over a 12-week period. The cost of the newspaper ads was staggering. The ad was re-written once during that time. They had also placed the job on an electronic job board for the entire 12-week period. They had received over 150 applications in 3 months, screened 53 candidates face-to-face, and panel interviewed 16 people but still could not find a suitable candidate. The Director of Engineering was sitting in the President’s office telling him how HR had let them down and that this was just another example of how poorly HR was at doing its job.


HR is often a target of line management frustration in the selection process but by no means the only one. A common complaint is that the line has to deliver results and needs to fill vacancies but HR either does not listen or is too slow. In some organizations, turnover is viewed as an HR problem.


The CEO was hearing too much about the HR failure to find candidates so he asked a consultant to come in and see what could be done to help HR get this situation solved. The consultant asked if she could sit in on the next panel interview, which involved the Director of Engineering, the National Sales Manager, and the Service Manager who were going to be interviewing several recently screened applicants. The consultant did not like panel interviews as she felt that no one clearly owned the responsibility for the interview, and it does not build much rapport with the candidates. The consultant joined the panel interviews in session as an observer. (This is what consultants like to do most).


The three executives all sat in a row at a table and the candidate sat on the other side. There were no introductions, no explanation of the role, the company, or explanation of the interview process. The Sales Manager started and launched into a series of questions about the candidate’s background in handling customer issues. She wanted to know what people in the customer organization the candidate had to have contact with at his previous company, what kind of rapport he had with other people in the customer organization, and how often he went to lunch with them. She asked how he followed up on issues with the customers on quality, service, and product and service time allocations issues and how he had to work with the sales organization. The Sales Manager may have smiled once, had little eye contact with the candidate, and after about 15 minutes was obviously dismissive of the candidate. She did not ask any more questions. The consultant glanced at the HR recruiting manager who sat in an awkward silence. It was clear that a familiar process was repeating itself and was not going well.


Once the sales manager had stopped asking questions, the Engineering Director started asking about the candidate’s engineering background. He asked the candidate about courses he had taken, if he had any experience with project leadership, or if he had ever worked as part of a major project team and what his role was. He further questioned the candidate on whether he ever had responsibility for training or orienting new service engineers, if he ever supervised people. He asked how much experience he had with preventative maintenance programs. He asked what the candidate had done about his own career development, opportunities where he had to take on new responsibilities, and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He occasionally smiled but most of the time he stared at the candidate with what most people would call a penetrating gaze.


The Service Manager deferred to the Engineering Director’s line of questions (the director was his boss) and waited until the Engineering Director had finished. The Service Manager’s line of questioning was more direct about the candidate’s current responsibilities. He asked what the candidate did when he went to a customer location, and how he split his time working on repair and operational problems vs. preventative maintenance. He asked what he did if he ran into a serious technical question or problem. He asked how many times a week was he expected to visit the customer, how many customers did he have to see per week or per month, and how did the company reimburse him for travel expense. The Service Manager occasionally smiled at the candidate and told the candidate at the end that it was nice to meet him. He was the only one to shake the candidate’s hand at the end as he was leaving.

The Sales Manager stood up, tried to smile, and said, “Well, I guess we have enough information for now. Thank you very much for coming, we’ll call you and let you know what happens”. Everyone, including the candidate, already knew what happened. The Sales Manager and the Engineering Director now shared a common frown at the HR manager. The Sales Manager walked out of the room, letting out an audible sigh and said barely under her breath, was “That a waste of time.”


When the consultant talked to each of the four in turn, she heard four different stories. The Engineering Director was looking for a Service Engineer who could be a replacement for the Service Manager who would be thankfully retiring in the next 24 to 18 months and sooner would be better. He was hoping to find someone with supervisory, or at least project leadership, experience or someone who had been involved in a more senior or lead service-engineering role.


The Sales Manager was looking for a service engineer who could help them manage a particularly difficult customer and if they were the kind of service engineer who could take a few people to lunch and build productive customer rapport. She felt this was an important component of the job. She felt that they needed service engineers who would see and hear things coming so they would not get blind-sided as they had six months before when they lost 30% of their business with a customer because they did not see a competitor’s trial run going on. By the time, they did find out, they were being told to take out their equipment on two packaging lines.


The Customer Service Manager was under pressure to fill the position as his other service engineers were stretched thin covering this account, which he sometimes had to cover himself. Servicing this customer took a full day away from his office 3-4 times a month and it was a long drive. He did not like having this kind of demand on his time and he had been away from hands on service work, except for training and participating on major installations or project teams, for over 8 years. He needed someone to get this extra pressure and work off his back.


The HR manager in charge of recruiting was trying to fill the job description that had been written for all service engineers about 5-7 years ago and probably needed to be updated. This was partially done when they re-wrote the copy for the newspaper add halfway through the recruiting process. They had new processes, new technology, and had changed the organization to align service engineers and sales teams into customer-focused teams. Over the last 4 months, 150 resumes had been received, leading to 53 candidates being phone screened, 16 invited in for panel interviews and still no service engineer. The next vacancy was probably going to be the recruiting manager for HR.


This was a problem of not having those doing the interviewing agree on what a successful candidate would look like. The only thing they could agree on was that HR was letting them down. Has anyone run into the same problem?

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