Tight job market turns tables on interview process

By Rachel Konrad, CNET – 07/06/2000 – 12:00am


Have you heard the tale of the job candidate who opened her purse, pulled out a brownie, and started munching at the CEO’s desk? When the executive vented his shock, the woman said she was merely trying to maintain her blood sugar level.

What about the chief technology officer who asked a prospective employee how he could contribute to the company, and the programmer threw his hiking boot-clad feet on the CTO’s oak desk and said, “What can you do for me?”

Recruiters and human resource managers sadly recount these stories and dozens of similar ones, insisting that uncouth behavior has become alarmingly commonplace in job interviews. They argue that the nation’s low unemployment rate has created a job seeker’s market in which prospective employers are willing to forgive a multitude of sins. In the process, they say, interview etiquette has become as scarce as the hand-written thank-you note.

Job candidates for computer or Internet companies in the nation’s technology hubs seem especially unschooled. From personal hygiene quirks to body-piercing faux pas, recruiters say their repertoires of horror stories are growing faster than the preponderance of tongue studs among urban youth.

Many employers are willing to shrug off small breaches of civility, including job candidates who neglect to shake hands or make eye contact. What most alarms recruiters is the prevailing attitude that the worker, not the prospective employer, controls the interview.

Their biggest complaint: job candidates who talk about compensation, particularly their salary or how many stock options they will receive, before they discuss their career path. Another annoyance is candidates who discuss quality-of-life factors, such as telecommuting privileges or flexible hours, before determining their role at the company.

“The common thing that I see, particularly with top technology people, is an attitude that they’re the only debutante at the dance,” said Mark Kesic, vice president of Cleveland-based executive search firm Christian & Timbers, which specializes in filling technology positions. “There’s some amount of arrogance that comes in, and civility can sometimes go out the door.”

How much has etiquette deteriorated?

A cottage industry specializing in teaching manners to engineers and programmers is sprouting with the tech industry. Recruiters, who get paid only when companies hire their clients, often find that they must brief candidates on the most basic interview skills: what to wear, how to shake hands, how to write a resume.

One recruiter does a “sandals check” to make sure that candidates wear closed-toe shoes when meeting a company’s top executives. One screens for tube socks. One tries to meet candidates for lunch to make sure they don’t talk with their mouth open or use utensils improperly.

Another is adamant about her “rule of accessories”: The fewer earrings, studs, rings and hoops–particularly on the face–the better the chance of getting hired.

Ignorance isn’t bliss.Another pet peeve of recruiters and the people who conduct interviews is the job candidate who arrives with little or no knowledge of the company or position offered.

Human resource executives hang the ignorant candidate phenomenon on aggressive recruiters, who descend on anyone who posts a resume online–regardless of whether the potential worker is interested in a new job or whether that person knows details of the new role.

But others argue that the Internet is the salvation to the ignorance issue.

“With the Internet, you’ve got easy access to a company’s annual report and other information,” said William Lampton, a professional speaker and corporate trainer who specializes in business communication and etiquette. “The interviewer expects you to know the basic history, milestones, leaders and the stock price. There should be no excuse for walking in and saying, ‘What’s your product?’ but it happens all the time.”

Experts blame the overall decorum decline on several factors: the technology industry’s voracious demand for talented professionals, the sector’s relatively young work force, and its hallmark informality, manifested in the industry’s overwhelmingly casual dress code.

High-tech talent drought. Given the supply of and demand for programmers and engineers, technophiles may have reason to be smug. The unemployment rate in some niches of the tech sector is less than 1 percent, compared with the national rate of 4.1 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to IT staffing and consulting firm Management Decisions Inc. (MDI), the tech industry will create an estimated 1.5 million new positions in 2001. Because of the severe shortage of qualified workers, roughly half of those spots will go unfilled.

The job market in some regions is even tighter. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, California’s Silicon Valley has 1.06 jobs for each employable resident, effectively creating a negative unemployment rate in the tech-heavy region. That means demand for all local workers, even churlish ones, is heightened.

“High tech is a very forgiving industry, so everyone is lax,” said John Bongiorno, founder and CEO of New York-based MyRecruiter.com, a Web-based staffing firm that focuses exclusively on the Internet industry. “Desperate companies don’t care if the candidate is a job hopper. They’re not doing background checks…If they see C++ or Java on the resume, you’re in, regardless of your manners.” Trash talk According to recruiters and human resource managers, these are the 10 most common mistakes by job candidates:

  1. Have little or no knowledge of the company, products, culture or competitive landscape.
  2. Presume they will get the job.
  3. Want to know about salary or stock options before they discuss job responsibilities or their career path.
  4. Cancel interviews, show up late or leave early for no apparent reason.
  5. Flaunt other job offers or try to incite bidding wars early in the interview process.
  6. Show little regard for hygiene or conventional dress codes.
  7. Use their cell phone during the interview.
  8. Have unsightly eating habits at restaurant meetings.
  9. Chew gum, suck on water bottles, pop mints or smoke during interviews.
  10. Overextend their stay by asking too many questions.

Bob Winter, the senior technical recruiter for Atlanta-based MDI, recounted one story in which a C++ developer from Eastern Europe interviewed for a position with a U.S. company. The man couldn’t speak English and never uttered a word during the interview.

“Whenever he was asked questions, he would just nod his head,” Winter said of the job candidate, a coder for Internet-based applications. “It was without a doubt the most unsettling interview I’ve ever sat in on. I wanted to grab the guy by the lapel and say, ‘Hey, answer the questions!’ But you know what? He got the job without even being able to verbalize his skills.”

Youthful indifference: Others blame a decline in etiquette–and downright interview ineptitude–on the relatively young and inexperienced work force that has fueled the Internet start-up boom.

Although reliable statistics are scarce, it’s not uncommon for the average age of a medium-sized Internet company in San Francisco or New York to be 26 or 27. Small companies are often considerably younger, with some top execs bordering on the legal drinking age.

“There are these very wealthy young people in the (Silicon) Valley making a couple hundred thousand a year, and they haven’t had any etiquette training in 15 years or more, since they were little kids,” said Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival of Los Gatos, Calif. “There’s a lack of social graces, and people aren’t pulled together.”

The situation was becoming so dire that Fox, the former executive assistant to Steve Jobs at Apple Computer, decided to start a company training professionals in business etiquette. Fox trains employees on proper office protocol, and her clients range from small companies to Fortune 500 corporations.

Another culprit in the tech industry’s disdain for decorum is the sector’s notoriously casual dress code.

Big-city law firms and investment banks have made headlines in recent years for their “business casual” approach, in which they allow workers to wear a uniform of khakis and denim button-down shirts on Fridays–or every day, if the company is trying to shake its stodgy image.

But even the most liberal etiquette experts blanche at the uniform of dot-com workers, known as “weekend casual”: T-shirts, overalls, cutoff shorts, jogging pants, sneakers, sandals and denim. Workers may dress up on Fridays, but only because they are planning to meet a date after work. Nose rings, exposed tattoos and multiple earrings are common.

Experts say such informality has made many job candidates confused about what to wear to the initial interview: Should they wear a conventional blazer or suit and risk seeming too prim? Or should they dress to distress, fitting in with fellow cube dwellers but possibly alienating the top brass?

Anne Gregor, editorial director at job placement service CareerPath.com, insisted that conventional dress codes should almost always apply to interviews, regardless of what most workers wear.

“Unless you literally know half the people in the office and can approach it slightly less formally, the old rules still apply,” Gregor said. “At a minimum, wear a polo shirt and khakis. No sandals, no bare feet, no shorts, no three-day-old beard. And please rethink the piercings for that initial appearance.”

Interviewing 101
Casual clothing may be one cause for the deterioration of interview protocol, but job candidates say much of the blame lies with companies themselves.

Many job seekers say that the low unemployment rate, combined with an emphasis on filling engineering roles before “soft” positions in human resources, has caused a drop in the skill level of interviewers and a deterioration of the interview process.

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Jim Zaleski, a senior account executive at Mindstorm Communications Group in New York City, said recent job interviews for public relations positions in the tech industry were exercises in frustration.

“I have interviewed with CEOs, HR professionals and senior account personnel to find, only in the rarest occasion, any formal training in the interview process,” Zaleski wrote via email. “Formal HR tools, such as the three-tier interviewing process and personal account recognition, are being replaced with ‘Tell me about yourself’ and ‘So, do you like technology?’

“As an industry, we find ourselves pointing at interviewees and asking why they only meet a minimal level of professionalism. What we don’t ask is, who set the level?”

Some say the very executives who are eager to hire top talent have helped destroy etiquette, creating a vicious cycle of desperate companies and rude job candidates. If employers loudly tout benefits such as stock options and tuition reimbursement, workers say, why should interviewers expect job candidates to talk about anything else?

Gary Wimp, vice president of human resources at Interwoven, said it’s difficult to walk a fine line between attracting lots of talented job candidates and weeding out the uncouth. Interwoven, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based software company that hires 60 to 75 new workers per month, recently sponsored a talent search in which qualified candidates who took jobs received a BMW Z3 roadster.

“On the surface, it sounds like we’re just getting flooded with people interested in the car, but…it broadens the resume funnel so we have more to chose from,” Wimp said. “If the first question out of their mouth is something about equity, that’s a real red flag. I’m looking for someone who’s talking long term, asking me questions about what we’ll do for their career development.”

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