The pitfalls of recruitment

29th of December 2017
The pitfalls of recruitment

In many ways, a job interview is not so very unlike a first date. And as with the course of true love, the path to finding an ideal match is just as likely to be strewn with banana skins as rose petals, for both parties. Hartley Milner explores the pitfalls of the recruitment process.

As a business manger, you are looking for a long and productive relationship based on mutual trust and respect. The applicant is seeking much the same, plus assurances that they would feel valued, secure and able to give their best.

But there is no certainty you will find that chemistry. Rather than ‘falling for each other’, a clash of strong personalities can create friction, and clumsy or inappropriate comments may lead to awkward silences with you both looking for excuses to terminate the relationship before it has begun.

One male company boss took the dating analogy too far, asking the female candidate: “Are you in a committed relationship right now?” When the interviewee asked what the question had to do with her job application, he added: “Well, I have a busy agenda today… I was wondering whether we could conclude this interview over dinner tonight.” The horrified woman bolted for the door.

Another candidate applying for a job in a call centre saw she was being ogled at through the glass of the interview room. Unmoved by her discomfort, the male recruiter eyed her up and down and said: “You are very attractive. How would you fight off the office wolves around here?”

You might expect such unseemly and unprofessional lines of questioning from the likes of David Brent of The Office fame, but it is more common outside a sitcom situation than you might think, according to a survey of 2,000 UK adults by the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT).
Here are some of the more bizarre interview questions survey respondents said they had been asked:

• What would you do if you caught a member of staff kissing the boss?
• Is a Jaffa cake a cake or a biscuit?
• Do you like to sing in the bath?   
• What would you do if the sun died out?
• Who would win in a fight, Superman or Batman?
• What dinosaur would you like to be?
• How do you feel about blood sports?
• If a hippo falls into a hole, how would you get it out?
• Was the book Frankenstein really about state control?

Other hapless hopefuls complained: “The interviewer seemed bored”…“I felt intimidated”…“The other person was really rude”…“The other person interviewing me asked if I was thinking of having a child anytime soon”…“I was made to do an interview Apprentice-style with the other shortlisted candidates.”

Interview candidates also reported being asked to undertake strange tasks, such as:

• Build a tower of paper cups in one minute that would not fall down when you put water in the top cup.
• Please bring a toy with you and explain how this reflects you as a person or a part of your personality.
• Please do an improvisation of a film (with potential co-worker).

AAT spokeswoman Aimee Batemann said: “The prospect of being interrogated on our professional experience and ability is a naturally intimidating scenario and, as the results show, it’s not always easy to keep composed. The range of random and unbelievable questions or tasks candidates were subjected to shows that sometimes you just can’t predict what will be thrown at you.

Prepare for all possibilities

“However, the best way to maintain composure and reduce the chances of embarrassment is to try to prepare for every possibility and be prepared to think on your feet if need be.”

But more than a few job applicants admitted they have found themselves in embarrassing situations of their own making.

Sixty per cent said they had made gaffes such as spilling drinks, tripping up or accidentally swearing. Some ended up in tears after being caught out by a lie on their CV or had failed to prepare for the interview, knowing nothing about either the role they were applying for or the company it was with. And others turned up late or nursing a hangover.

Freezing on the spot was the biggest cause of awkwardness, while stuttering, breaking out in a sweat, not knowing what to say or blurting out something stupid were also high in the top 20 awkward moments revealed in the AAT survey.

The questions job hopefuls said they sweated over most included: “What are your weaknesses?”...“Describe yourself in three words”…“If you were a fruit or vegetable what would you be and why?”…“What has been your greatest achievement?...“Describe a time when you have failed”…“Why should we choose you for this role?”...“What attributes do you have that will support you in this role?”…“How will you contribute to the team?”

But despite their frequently surreal experiences, a third of all candidates said they still got the job.
Batemann added: “Whether it’s a difficult or random question or the fear you’re out of your depth, confidence comes from feeling prepared and ready for anything thrown at you.”

Well, not perhaps anything. There are questions that job applicants should not have to answer and employers should ask in the first place because they fall foul of the law. You would expect HR departments to be aware of seemingly innocuous questions that are strictly taboo, but it appears many hiring managers are not.

At least 20 per cent of hiring managers held their hands up to posing a question only to find out later that it was illegal to ask it, according to an online survey conducted in the US by Harris Poll for employment website CareerBuilder.

“It’s important for both the interviewer and interviewee to understand what employers do and don’t have a legal right to ask in a job interview – for both parties’ protection,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “Though their intentions may be harmless, hiring managers could unknowingly be putting themselves at risk of legal action, as a job candidate could argue that certain questions were used to discriminate against him or her.”

Among the most common questions that later led to ‘oops’ moments for the 2,100 interviewers surveyed were:

• What is your religious affiliation?
• Are you pregnant?
• What is your political affiliation?
• What is your race, colour or ethnicity?
• How old are you?
• Are you disabled?
• Are you married?
• Do you have children or plan to have any?
• Are you in debt?
• Do you socially drink or smoke?

Most countries draw up their anti-discrimination legislation along broadly the same lines. Employers who fail to abide by the rules governing the recruitment process not only risk damaging their brand but also leaving themselves open to a costly equal opportunities lawsuit. And it may not always be blindingly obvious why a question is wrong in the eyes of the law.

Forbidden questions

Why is it discriminatory to ask about a candidate’s marital status, whether they have children or are planning a family soon? The assumption is that applicants who are married could be treated more favourably because they are seen as stable, or perhaps less favourably because they may not feel so inclined to devote as much time to the job as a single person. It is acceptable, though, to ask whether there are any responsibilities that could disrupt their attendance at work. However, questions about sexual orientation are strictly verboten and provide generous litigation fodder. Never go there!

What is wrong about asking for a candidate’s age or date of birth? The question implies that the company has a policy of discrimination against older applicants, perhaps because they are trying to promote a more youthful brand. Some crafty employers try to get around this by posing related questions such as asking an older applicant how long he or she saw herself working until retirement. But this would also be unlawful.

Are there any circumstances in which you are entitled to ask an applicant whether they have any disabilities? Physical or mental issues may affect a candidate’s ability to do the job, but you should avoid asking about them. Instead, you should ask the applicant if they could handle what is required. For example…”Are you able to perform the specific duties of this position?”

“Employers need to take great care because job applicants are becoming increasingly savvy about the type of questions they can and cannot be asked, and not so reticent about saying so,”
said Sandy Stafford of online recruitment site TopJob.

“Successful interviewing is a skill that has to be learnt but, equally, job candidates need to ensure they are properly prepared before they go into the interview. Their future may ride on it.
“If both parties follow the rules and treat each other with respect, the process need not be so very daunting. After all, you are seeking the same thing…a professional relationship in which you can grow and prosper together.”


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