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 My life with recruiters

How to tarnish your reputation with poor recruitment

Copyright Alex Gough, 2002.

The idea, you see, is that Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance. -- The Player of Games, Ian M Banks

Over the last six months I have been winding my way through the recruitment channels of a range of organizations in search of a graduate IT position. I am now employed, and happy with my appointment, but my experiences with many of the companies to which I applied has left me with a reduced level of confidence in their ability to deliver high quality products or services. Simple and easily avoided mistakes have left a bad impression which may affect my willingness to send money towards these companies in the future. This cannot be good business sense, especially given the large amounts of time and effort which have been spent on making me think this, and may well cause you to miss out on a good applicant.

In the rest of this article I will talk my way through my final year, from careers' fair to job offer, picking out those low points along the road which have blackened the names of a fair few potential employers to a potential customer. It should be noted that I am not an expert in recruitment, and have little understanding of its complexities and pitfalls. Because of this I will try to pick out some examples of good practice so that a modicum of balance is preserved. As background: I am a final year Master of Physics student with good expectations of a 2:1. I am technically competent, having worked on a range of software projects, presented papers to programming conferences and performed technical reviews for a couple of well regarded publishers.

Careers' Fairs, Pamphlets and Presentations

I began my final year with a well formed idea of what I wanted to do with myself for the next few years, and the sort of organization I wanted to work for. Software development and design, IT with a very technical bent, under a flexible employer that followed good practice in both employee relations and software engineering. It was then, I hoped, a simple task to match myself to such organizations from the start. This, alas, was not to be the case.

Although pamphlets and web sites were keen to highlight the innovative nature of each business, the excellent training available and wide range of generous benefits on offer, often little was said in detail. I want to know which courses might I be sent on? How many days of training I could expect to receive in a year? Was it all external or internal? How much of the budget is set aside for training? Which technologies would I be working with? I certainly cannot find answers to these questions if all I am offered is a glossy handout with lots of ``WOW!'' and little ``What?'' While the flashy advertising might get my attention, you're more likely to get my application if you accompany your brochure with a couple of closely typed pages full of information.

Extending the gee-whiz factor onto the Internet, I found that many of the graduate recruitment web sites were hard to navigate, concentrated more on style than substance -- a cardinal sin in a medium where substance is cheap -- and, more often than not, would display incorrectly when viewed from a Unix or Macintosh machine. If I'm considering applying for a technical position, at an organization which derives all its income from software, I will find this very off-putting as it shows a clear gap between the ``talented'' colleagues the web site boasts and the reality that leaks through to me. I often wondered what many companies actually did, other than offering ``business-critical innovative technical solutions from a fast-moving company''. Phrases like this which are nothing more than a piece of marketese serve to obscure the nature of the company. Either I end up wondering if the company has nothing to sell and is covering up with big language, or if all they offer to their clients is empty consulting... would I end up having to write trite English in place of solving problems if I worked for them?

The careers' fair is your final line of defence if you wish to avoid looking foolish. If you can convince me that it's not worth applying in the first place I'm less likely to see the glaring holes that later rounds expose. The best way to lose my attention is to treat me like an idiot when I ask detailed questions; I'm familiar with the software industry and have some idea as to what I consider good and bad practice. If I don't receive sensible answers to my questions about your design process, your quality assurance or your relations with your clients as a project progresses, I'm not going to want to work for you. It's essential that you man your stalls with both recruitment professionals and technical people who can talk about these areas. It's not enough for someone to say ``Yes, we have an IT department, it's quite large but I've never met them.'' My best careers' fair experience was provided by a friendly five minute chat with someone who remembered my name when I later visited them for their first round of selection exercises, a personal touch that was repeated throughout their recruitment process. As a final note, I am now in possession of ten mouse mats and five bottle openers, please be a little more creative in your provision of trinkets.

Following the careers' fair comes a few weeks' of presentations. During my penultimate year these formed a good route to a free meal (assuming a convenient habit of turning up an hour late by mistake) but this time round I started paying proper attention to the proceedings. These events usually provide the final catalyst for my application, moving me from a maybe into either a yes or a no. This is a big decision, given that my entire future is at stake, so I'd like it to be well informed. I wouldn't be at a presentation if I wasn't at least a bit interested in working for you, so you can probably skip most of the slick advertising and concentrate on delivering detailed information which will turn into reasons to work for you. Pay careful attention to how you run the evening; sitting in a chair sipping wine in front of a screen of adverts while I wait for the official start tells me nothing -- and bores me a lot -- while circulating around intelligent employees, talking directly about what they do and why, might just fire me with enthusiasm. Once the slide show starts, make sure everyone can hear you, make sure the slides can be read by all of your audience, don't overdo the changeovers with animations and use your clip art carefully. I'm not a fool, this is why you might want me working for you, and I can spot a badly planned and poorly executed talk a mile off. When you invite questions afterwards, make sure you don't tell me lies, I might check up on what you say. If you announced a 5% cut in your work force a week ago, don't dodge this, but say why. I will not want to work for someone who does not seem to be honest and professional, and I may think twice about entrusting part of my business to you in future.

Application Forms

So, you've not yet managed to put me off -- although someone with less patience may have long since run for the hills -- and I'm about to enter a dangerous period of direct communication. I made all my applications online, saving you from my handwriting, in the most part using long and complicated web forms. These provide yet another opportunity for something which should Just Work to instead fall apart horribly. It is a little embarrassing if during my application I find myself composing an email to you detailing what you need to do to fix your server so that it no longer generates errors and instead eats my hours of hard work happily. Remember that I will wonder if I actually want to work with people that consider this level of performance and availability acceptable. Given the amounts of confidence this inspires, it is very worrying to submit an application and then not receive an immediate acknowledgment, a worry I could certainly do without. At the same time automated replies which consist of very large Word documents should be avoided; one organization sent me an email which was too large to fit into my inbox, but contained only thirty seven words of text. I've still not worked out why they thought this might have been a good idea.

Web sites also do not offer a helpful editing environment, with the text boxes on forms often being too large or too small for the expected response, and without many of the features of a good word processor. This makes my application take a lot longer to fill in, not because I'm thinking carefully about my responses, but because I'm fighting the form. While this might not put me off applying it does annoy me, and puts me in a foul mood. This is easily avoided by distributing application forms as RTF documents, which are then filled in by applicants and returned by email. It's then trivial to extract parts of the response to a database, and the applicant can be sure of how their form will print out for their interviewers to read. I was very pleased when this option was offered to me.

The First Round

On paper I'm up to scratch, so I'm invited to a first round of assessments (almost everyone followed a two round pattern, with two exceptions). In many cases I'm called away from university, requiring a whole day of traveling, sit an hour of tests then return. While my expenses were always covered, this is a large chunk out of my week and it would be nice to feel that I've gained something from my visit to your offices. A half hour tour perhaps, or a presentation over lunch. After all, if I'm given an offer by another organization between your first and second round, but don't feel inspired to carry on, I might just jump ship.

As for the tests themselves, if you are using aptitude tests, make sure you use originals and not photocopies. It's against copyright law and, for companies which sell intellectual property, otherwise known as software, it raises questions of honesty and integrity. These might not be big issues to many applicants, but for those of us that are well informed it stinks, and the smell will stick. Can I trust you to keep to the terms of a contract when you so blithely avoid paying for the tests I'm sitting? When giving written tests, make it very clear what is expected and what is being assessed. It's hard enough to answer contrived questions, and doubly so when the audience isn't known to the candidate. Where technical problems are posed don't hide them behind quaint stories and don't use situations for which engineered solutions are likely to be known by some candidates, as they will be left working out not how to answer the question, but how much they should let on about what they do know. Should they write at length about monks carrying tablets between philosophers or merely state that ``TCP with monks ferrying datagrams'' is the best solution?

The Second Round, Interviews and Group Exercises

By this stage in the application process I've had plenty of chances to make a fool of myself, and begin to receive rejection letters, but in some cases I'm (un)lucky enough to be invited to attend a dreaded assessment centre. The invitations themselves were often a source of much amusement for me as I was subjected to some of the worst English I have read for some time. In one case a spell checker had turned me from a graduate into a gratuity and in another the address of the building to which I had been summoned included a street which was five miles away in a different town. Do you really want a member of the public, for that is what I am, to see that some of your staff -- and my potential coworkers -- would fail a basic English language qualification?

Further complications occurred when my instructions failed to warn me that I would need to bring my passport along as identification, when a site tour covered only a fish pond and a squash court because my guides hadn't gained the correct access codes beforehand and when I went without food for eight hours because catering wasn't ordered by the organizers of the selection day. Every one of these mistakes could have been avoided with a little thought and careful planning, something I expect of a ``world class'' business, and each one reflects badly on the entire corporation.

The tests themselves formed something of a mixed bag. For the most part I could work out what was being assessed each time, could see the connection between the test and the job I might end up doing and felt that a fair assessment of my abilities was being undertaken. In a couple of cases though I was left feeling mystified. Silly games with more similarity to Twister than any task I might perform during my employment appeared to be ice breakers but included markers scribbling down my every move. Many exercises were based on an abstract logic puzzle with a tenuous connection to IT thrown in at the end and in one case we were asked to discuss religion -- a topic best avoided when in unfamiliar company -- in the context of an alien visitor. I used to do this during drama lessons at school, but I'm an adult now and quite capable of grasping real world situations. The evening meal, between two intensive sessions of exercises, required a full seating plan and the presence of the people who would assess me the next day. Was this entirely consistent with the promise that any decision about me would only be made on the basis of the formal tests?

Almost everyone provided a friendly face who would run the day and not assess candidates directly, this was helpful in general as it made it possible to relax a little between exercises and collect my thoughts before interviews. Of course it is important that those thoughts are left to collect by themselves, mentioning that I shouldn't worry that my interviewer looks like Jesus is probably a bad thing as I'll spend most of the interview with precisely that thought floating through my head.

I cannot say if everyone will gain the same impression of these events as I did, but I could certainly see large differences in approach and organization between employers and have certainly come to some conclusions, both good and bad, about them and how they operate as a result. In short, be careful, I'm not the only party being assessed.


In the most part I now find I'm not up to scratch and, as expected by a perennial pessimist, find myself without an offer at the end of the day. I prefer to receive my rejections as soon as possible, as there's nothing worse than getting one's hopes up to find them dashed cruelly against the hard rocks of reality, and if a decision might take longer than a week it's helpful to be given a time by which it will be made. This makes it much easier to consider other offers and ensures that should you want to employ me I'll avoid taking up any other offers in the meantime. Any rejection should also try to keep me on your good side, perhaps by detailing areas in which I am weak and strong. You should also avoid looking like a leaking ship, stating that you cannot employ me now, but might in a year or two, doesn't fill me with confidence in your company's ability to survive. This will have knock-on effects if I'm ever in any danger of engaging your services, as I'm sure to consider how well you plan into the future as a part of my purchasing decision.

On a slightly brighter final note, I enjoyed almost all of the exercises I faced during my quest and met a good deal of interesting people along the way. A couple of companies have even managed to leave a good impression and may find this beneficial one day -- make sure that yours is one of them!

 ^Back to Top^ | ©Alex Gough Mon Mar 14 2005 ...more than you might imagine.