The Theseus Syndrome: Are We Just Hiring Those Who Can Get Past the Beast?

Wordpress Pic - MinotaurGreek mythology tells us that Theseus was an Athenian hero. His enemy King Minos sent Athenians into the Labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. The Labyrinth was a maze from which it was impossible to escape, home of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull. Those Athenians who weren’t slain by the Minotaur were lost in the Labyrinth. Having had enough of the carnage, Theseus volunteered to enter the Labyrinth and face the Minotaur. But he tied the end of a ball of thread to the entrance of the Labyrinth, unrolling it as he sought the monster. He awoke the Minotaur, slew the beast and following the string back he became the first to find his way of out the maze.

A System That Works for Neither Side

So how does Greek mythology apply to the world of work?

We have all in our careers gone through the process of applying to jobs then interviewing for them. With the age of the internet, the mechanics have changed but the steps are the same:  we spy a potential new job description, forward our qualifications, get a phone screen, a personal interview, then get an offer. Much of this occurs online and with telecommuting options the geographical scope might be wider. But the process remains the same.

Working with different clients, I’ve been hearing more and more over the last year or so that they are having a hard time finding the right talent. On the other side of the fence, many colleagues of mine have also been complaining about the hoops they need to jump through as they navigate the process of investigating potential new job opportunities. How could both sides of the talent acquisition equation be complaining? Something didn’t make sense. As a human performance technologist I decided to investigate. What I found was sad.

Walking in the Shoes of the Applicant

I started with a colleague of mine who is a senior project manager with a mid-sized IT firm. He likes his job and his company but wants to advance and his company appears not to have any good career path. He’s got a solid résumé, including a good education and some industry certifications. He has worked with a couple of other good companies with increasing levels of responsibility. Just the type of professional some new company would be looking to hire, right? I decided to look over his shoulder one day as he explored new opportunities.

He had signed up with some good online search agents. LinkedIn has a solid job search function which finds potentially suitable jobs as does Execunet and The Ladders. There are other fine services, I’m sure, but these are the ones he uses. Some of these allow my friend to elegantly apply to jobs, but many simply say, “Apply on Company Site.” That’s when it gets nasty.

Most of these company career sites make the Labyrinth look like aisles in a Target store. First off the sites require (not optional) the candidate to create a username and password. Of course that step now requires my friend to remember one more name and password if he ever goes back to follow up.

Next he is asked to upload his résumé, a reasonable request. The next step is where we really enter the labyrinth. Many companies now rely on out-of-the-box recruiting systems such as Taleo, Brassring or others. The system now acts as if it’s smarter than my friend and magically parses out his résumé into a series of fields populated with his information in what it thinks are the right places. They are not in the right places and the system is not as clever as it thinks. For example, he was certified by PMI but the system thinks he worked there so he has to delete that section.

The system creates what should be a job history, but it gets titles and companies wrong. Faced with an incomplete work history the applicant now has to fill in the gaps. If he just wants to ignore it and tries to click Save, the system won’t let him advance until he completes a slew of required fields. So he’s stuck there for a while.

This is Crazy Town. He just uploaded his CV. Why does he now have to recreate it online? To make it easy for the recruiter? I’ll bet most recruiters just use the original résumé anyway. Oh and by the way, my friend is on LinkedIn, as is any recruiter worth her or his salt. His profile is there for all to see. Can’t he just link to that?

If our Theseus has the tenacity to get past this step, he is next greeted by a series of questions on his age, citizenship status, criminal record, languages spoken, gender, veteran status, disability status and whether he is white, Hispanic, black, American Indian or other. Many of these questions are premature information not needed at the application phase and some are downright illegal.

Some sites ask for job references. Again, a little premature. My friend is just exploring opportunities. Before we plan an engagement let’s go steady for awhile.

Some company career sites have the audacity to ask for current and future salary expectations. My friend doesn’t share his salary amount with his friends. Why would he tell a total stranger on the internet? I get that salary requirements help a recruiter winnow out those who aren’t close to the ballpark. But to the applicant it feels like tricking someone into boxing themselves into a salary range to put them at a negotiation disadvantage in the future. Compensation is really a nuanced conversation that encompasses benefits, bonuses, state taxation, paid time off and many other factors. Way too early in the process and somewhat presumptuous.

Another thing these sites don’t get right is job location. My friend lives in Brighton, Massachusetts, which is essentially part of Boston. So on his search profiles with LinkedIn, Execunet and The Ladders, he enters “Boston.” They find many jobs that companies label as “Boston” only to find that in reality the job is two hours away in Rhode Island.

The final kicker is the system asks my friend if he’d like this particular company to add him to a mail list for future job openings. These companies don’t get that applicants are applying to a specific job in their specific discipline. They are not applying because they love this company and would take any type of job to be there. Comes off as a little pompous to ignore that many professionals care about advancing within their specialty. Where they work, while important, is secondary to what they do.

After my friend wends his way through this labyrinth, he will sometimes get follow-up emails referring to “the job to which he applied.” Which job? Sometimes he applies to several within one company. Better still he will sometimes get marketing emails or newsletters from that company. They’ve automatically put his email address on a mail list from which he needs to unsubscribe. Again a little presumptuous to assume he is a fan of the company.

An Open Letter to Corporate Recruiters

I took the time to sample other company career sites and much of the craziness I experienced with my friend is thematic across many of them. This is result of either Taleo, Brassring and other systems building their software around archaic practices or company talent acquisition departments configuring those systems according to archaic practices or both.

The problem with the current state of these systems is that they run counter to the goals of HR’s primary objective, i.e., to hire the best talent best suited to the work to be done. With systems like my friend had to navigate, companies are not finding the best matches; they are finding merely the people who have the time to navigate their recruiting labyrinth, the desperation to get through the crazy process or who have applied to so many jobs that they have learned the tricks and shortcuts to getting through them. They are just getting the Theseuses who are wily enough to tie the end of the thread to the entrance. In any of these cases, you are not getting the best people; the best people have opted out early in the process because it is not worth their time and frustration. They are marketable professionals and are frankly turned off by the hurdles the recruiting site is arbitrarily throwing in front of them.

Some online recruiting sites have learned this. Their process is easy, elegant, respectful and transparent. Here’s what they’ve learned:

Employment is a partnership. The industrial age model viewed job applicants as the great unwashed sea of workers desperate for a stable job with a big company. Today companies want qualified, motivated professionals as much as employees want to work for a good company. Any website that acts as if the company is doing a person a favor by offering them the privilege of working there is going to get just that:  desperate applicants. Those applicants who know their own value will long since have closed their browser and looked elsewhere.

Many good applicants are currently in a job. When job sites have applicants complete a job profile they often ask them to provide their reason for leaving. They assume someone has left their current job. Bad assumption. (In fact why ask that question at all? The legality is questionable. And honestly, who’s going to answer that they were fired for incompetency?)

The job site is an applicant’s first impression of the company. A poor process of having pages and pages of job profile information from the same résumé that was just uploaded and asking premature and illegal questions sends the message, “You need a job so we can make our process as hard as we want to.” If this is what the recruiting process is like, what is the rest of the company like? What will it be like to get paid or promoted? How mature is this company?

The applicant is the customer. Or at least they are a partner. These job sites seem to be designed to make life easy for the recruiter, not the applicant. The days are waning when the application process is a one-sided conversation on how well a company likes the applicant. More applicants these days interview to know how well they like the company.

Some information can wait. Good companies ask for just the data points to determine if someone is a potential match and worth an interview. Information on salary, referrals and ethnic profiles can wait until later in the process.

We are not the only employer out there. Sure you might be good and you might be proud of your company. But there are hundreds of similarly good employers just down the street. So get off your pedestal and start competing for great employees. Boomers are beginning to retire and the sea of great candidates is shrinking. Start acting like it.

The Solution is Simple:  Simplify

The tragedy is this is all unnecessary. A recruiter that isn’t trying to put up walls against potentially game-changing talent simply needs to understand that to get the best candidates you need simple, adult recruiting systems. Don’t lose the good ones through attrition and reward the Theseus who’s lucky enough to find and slay the Minotaur. Give all your applicants a ball of thread to work with. Better still who needs thread? Knock down some of the walls in your labyrinth. If you’re not, the recruiter down the street is.

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© 2013 The Iago Group LLC

About Author: David E. Wile

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