Why are We Mere Humans So Bad at Interviewing Each Other?

For reasons that will never be clear to me I found myself browsing a thread on Quora where people offered advice on how to spot “assholes” when interviewing job candidates.  I only ever hired one person I would have described with that word and we not only made an offer, that was the only person who fit the criteria I had been handed by my boss for finding “the right candidate”.  I think the hire was a mistake for the company, me, and the individual we hired.  That’s all that need be said on that matter.  I only mention it to point out that a lot of hiring managers make offers they regret but also to illustrate the point that sometimes senior executives want you to hire exactly that kind of personality.

There are many theories about whom you hire and why you hire people.   I can’t summarize them all and have no interest in learning them all.  Experience teaches me that we tend to hire people who fill our expectations, or out of desperation, or because they are sexually attractive.  I’ve found myself in all of these situations either as the hiree, the hirer, or someone who passed on a candidate someone else wanted to hire.

I have never hired someone because of their appearance, but I did once work for a company where — after a few months on the job — I was told flat out by a co-worker (not any of the supervisors) that one of the reasons why I was hired was that I was considered to be “attractive enough” for the job.  I was a back room technical guy, not a customer-facing salesperson.  I had the weirdest feeling when I was told that, but eventually I noticed that all the new hires were really great looking men and women.  It was “expected” in that company’s industry, I was told.  I’m not sure who does the expecting in that industry but I suspect a lot of it comes from the hiring managers, not from the customers.  I could be mistaken though.  Remember, I did not do sales for that company.

Would you hire this man? If Vladimir Putin interviewed for a job with you, what would you look for in his skills and personality?

Would you hire this man? If Vladimir Putin interviewed for a job with you, what would you look for in his skills and personality?

As a modern society we have read and written a lot of articles about how sexism prevails in the workplace.  I encountered blatant sexism only a few times in my storied career but I am sure I missed a lot of sexism that I was simply not sensitive to.  The most blatant sexism in my experience as a hiring manager occurred when I was looking for a research assistant.  As jobs go this was not one that required a great deal of skill but you did have to be intelligent and capable of working with the Internet.  This position came open during the Great Recession and we had, if I recall correctly, 200-300 applicants for a part-time job.  The hiring process we used led to me interviewing only a dozen or so people for the job.  It was heartbreaking because they were all qualified to do what I needed to do, but I had to pick one, just one, and it had to be one I thought would stick around for part-time work.

I was looking for a student, not a working mom, an empty nester, a recent graduate, or someone who was hoping to get in on the ground floor of a tech company with the expectation of advancing through the ranks.  At the time that was a sensitive subject for me because my team members kept advancing through the ranks to other areas of the company.  We were growing and I had a reputation (I believed) for picking good people who had a lot of skills.  But doing what I was doing, I needed smart, flexible people and, doing what we were doing, it was inevitable that they would feel bored by the tedium of constantly writing glowing articles about billionaires and Fortune 500 companies.  It didn’t help that we had a high stress environment where people felt like they were working in a mine field.

One of the managers in our group wanted to hire a really hot girl.  Geeze, she was gorgeous.  She was smart, too, and highly qualified to do the research work I needed done.  But with this co-worker of mine constantly urging me to hire the “hot” one (that word was never spoken in any conversation I recall, but it was obvious that hormones were at work) I deliberately removed her resume from the prospects pile.  I just did not need that kind of work-place grief and I had no idea of how that would go over at home if any office banter were to reach the ears of my loved ones.

It’s not like office romances don’t happen, but no woman should be hired because some guy thinks she’s “hotter than the others”.  That’s just cruel and inhuman punishment, in my book.  Sure, there are some jobs where that probably does matter for the business, but not in a tech company.  Not for a research assistant.

The assholes of the world are not born that way.  Sometimes we are all assholes.  You know what I mean.  You have a bad day, you go through a divorce, the bank forecloses on your mortgage, your dog dies — something upsets you and you strike out at other people emotionally, mentally, verbally, maybe even physically.  No one wants to work with me when I am sick.  I am miserable when I am sick and I just make everyone around me miserable.  I might not be a jerk 100% of the time but I’ll have my moments, especially if some well-meaning doctor puts me on a new medicine.  I am one of those people who doesn’t tolerate most medications very well.  I once went off the deep end for a week because of a sinus medicine.  I mean, literally, I had paranoid delusions and verbally abused people right and left.  I never took that prescription-strength medicine again.

Hopefully when you go interview for a job you won’t act like a jerk, but a lot of hiring managers right up to the CEO level have developed “jerk tests”.  These tests are designed to get you out of your “interview mindset”.  You go into the job interview with a game plan, a strategy to sell yourself to the company.  The people who want to understand your personality will try to disrupt your game plan so they can see who you are when you least want them to.

Oddly enough, this process is very similar to the way single women assess guys.  At least, if you read a few dating books (and I have) you’ll find that a lot of these romance gurus talk about all the tests that women put men through (and, really, they do).  No one describes the process perfectly but women have to be careful about the men they allow to get close to them.  If statistics are to believed, one in four women is sexually abused by the time she is twenty-five years old.  And that is just in the United States.  In some countries if a woman or girl is not accompanied by a male relative she will almost certainly be abused and harassed, maybe even raped and killed.

Women have an instinctive bullshit meter that they use to try to sort out better guys from worse guys, but their standards are not always set on marriage and making babies.  The evolutionary psychologist says that women instinctively sort us into “I would have his children” and “I will NEVER let him touch me” categories.  In western society women don’t have to think about having babies all the time; they can think about where they work, where they play, who they play with, what kind of play they will enjoy, etc.  We exaggerate life’s basic needs (eat, sleep, reproduce) into an enormous variety of supplemental tasks and life choices.  We remain emotionally and biologically competitive but we channel these energies into directions that simply did not exist 200,000 years ago.

So women are easily turned off by guys who come on too strong, who try to hard, who try to be impressive peacocks (that kind of nonsense only seems to work for peacocks and similar species with brightly colorful males), and guys who “on their game”. Sure, some women like to think of themselves as the predators and they will play the game, too, but in general they live in a world-sized mine field of testosterone-driven threats and bullshit.  A lot of guys are just not mature enough to “be themselves” when they should be.  And what does that mean, anyway?  It means you have interests other than “God, I wish she were my girlfriend!” and you are confident in yourself and who you are.

Job applicants need those same high quality traits.  None of us will be offered every job we apply for.  Heck, in this modern day where companies use algorithms to weed out imperfect resumes the most qualified job applicants are probably never even seen by hiring managers for most jobs; that’s because most people suck at writing algorithms to weed out imperfect resumes and most people suck at writing perfect resumes.  Whoever thought using software to assess job applications would be anything other than efficient has no business assessing job applicants.

You should only interview for jobs on your worst emotional days.  If you can overcome (not hide) your need for a job so that you act like the person you would be on the job, you’ll have an advantage over other applicants.  Here in the United States over 50 million people have stopped looking for work because there are no jobs for them.  But if you’re still in the active labor force you have to treat the job market as a numbers game.  You have to put your normal self on the line for as many interviews as you can get in order to maximize your chances of being hired.

If you want a job in the tech industry you had better plan on finding a new career by the time you’re 45-50, because they don’t like old people at tech companies.  You’ll find a few older people still working in the tech industry; many of them own the companies or simply never left.  So if you are already over 40 and you are applying for tech positions, don’t give up but keep in mind that the closer you get to the Silicon Valley mentality the less likely you will be offered a job.  Maybe I shouldn’t write that on my blog.  Maybe in a few months or a year I’ll find myself approaching another tech company, resume in hand, hoping they hire me.  As a small business owner I have been recruited a few times the past four years but none of those “opportunities” panned out.  I doubt my age had anything to do with it, but when they come to you instead of you going to them they should already have dealt with their age biases.

My point, however, is that you can go into the interview relaxed and comfortable and confident and ready to pass the jerk test but you could still run into the other side of the question: how do you filter out the jerks who are hiring?  Do you really want to work for and with a bunch of assholes?  It happens.  In fact, one former boss of mine told me flat out that he didn’t think his new company was a good match for me “because of the culture”.  Kids.  What the hell do they know?  Well, they know they don’t want to work with old guys.

Who, exactly, is a jerk or an asshole?  Seriously, we call each other these names all the time when we are driving.  The road is filled with idiots and me, and I’m just trying to get from point A to point B without being seriously injured or murdered by one of the idiots on the road.  It’s the same way in other walks of life, including dating and job hunting.  The girls like the jerks and the hiring companies go for the aggressive assholes over the passive pleasant people.

I was once asked to provide a technical assessment of someone who was applying for a spreadsheet job.  What is a “spreadsheet job”?  It’s a job where all you do is work with Excel spreadsheets, entering data into them, setting up formulas, etc.  This is not a job for stupid people.  But it’s not the kind of job that people flock to, either.  I asked my boss at the time how many applicants there were for the job.  “Just one,” he said.  “So why am I assessing this guy’s technical skills?” I asked.  “Because we want to make sure he’s not bullshitting us and you’re the one with the most spreadsheet experience.”

Okay.  Strike that skill off my resume (what was I thinking — Multiplan died in the 1980s anyway).

So I interviewed the guy and designed a test for him.  He passed it easily, demonstrating he knew spreadsheet formulae far better than me.  He also acted weird.  I wasn’t sure about him but I had only been asked to assess his technical knowledge.  “He knows more than me,” I dutifully reported.  “That’s all we need to know,” my boss replied.  “We don’t care if he’s an asshole.  This job has no growth potential.”

So we hired the guy and in a few months the executive team left the company (that’s a long story I may never tell).  As a senior employee I was not senior enough to be invited to walk out the door with the executive team, but my boss was.  He didn’t hesitate to leave with the big guns.  I don’t blame him.

Within a week I was being considered for my boss’ old position, a job I had often said I did not want.  And I did not want it.  But the spreadsheet guy wanted it even though he didn’t know a damned thing about what it entailed.

The new CFO came in and treated us as equals (from which I inferred I was dealing with an idiot as a new boss).  It’s not like the spreadsheet guy’s personnel file should have magically changed over night to include all sorts of qualifications he didn’t possess, but maybe it did.  The company was in chaos for a week while a new executive team was assembled and, believe me, you will never see what I saw going down that week.  The power grabs were amazing.

Eventually I decided I didn’t want to work for and with idiots and assholes and so I left that company.  The spreadsheet guy got the job and, I have been told, spent the next several years complaining to people that I had left time bombs in the software and may even have hacked my way into the network in order to sabotage it.  Mind you, these allegations were (if true) sufficient to send me to jail for a few years.  Clearly an incompetent idiot had put another incompetent idiot in place and like a couple of assholes they blamed me for all their incompetence.

So this is what you could be facing when you interview for a job: the guy trying to hire you might be an asshole, an idiot, and some murderous piece of crap you want absolutely nothing to do with.

I don’t want to hire any jerks or assholes.  I’ve had to deal with way too many in my life and I have been one way too many times.  But neither do I want to work for jerks and assholes.  I have walked away from more than one job offer because I had a bad feeling about what I might be getting into.

You won’t get that many jobs if you are as selective about applying for them as they are about hiring you, but I think if you spend some time browsing the employee complaints on Glass Door you’ll see what I learned the long way around (as the Doctor puts it on Doctor Who).  A lot of managers and executives are not very good at being good managers and executives.  Employees are rarely treated well by companies, especially publicly traded companies, most especially tech companies.  Sure, they’ll give you free food and let you play with toys in the hallways, but when the investors start demanding that they improve the bottom line you’ll find out that executives are more likely to fire YOU than they are to take a pay cut.

You cannot get away from the jerks and assholes in the business world.  All you can do is set boundaries for yourself and decide what you will do when the time comes to make a choice.  We are terrible when it comes to vetting each other and all signs suggest we are getting worse at the process, not better.  I don’t have a theory about why.  I just know that people don’t make the cut for the dumbest of reasons in a lot of situations.  One cross word, one failed test, and you are out.  There is no reprieve in the life game where people label you as an asshole or jerk.  They may be right or wrong about you, but once they put that label on you it changes everything.

So this is the part where I sum up by saying: And we should all be better people.  Treat each other with respect.

Sure, we should treat each other with respect but the real life lesson for me is to always have a Plan B because sooner or later some idiot is going to derail Plan A.  You may be your own worst idiot.  It doesn’t matter.  Just don’t pin all your hopes on the next interview because you just may be making the worst decision of your life regardless of whether you are hiring or applying, and I’m not just talking about jobs.