Zen and the Art of Candidate Maintenance

Recently, thanks to the remarkable and inimitable Amy Ala, I was lucky enough to score ringside seats for a fascinating follow up conversation to a seemingly simple question a candidate had posted to Quora, asking for advice on which of two outstanding job offers they should accept.

The resulting firestorm of impassioned opinions and inflammatory commentary about which option the candidate should choose served as a fascinating real time case study into the world of online recruiting and talent acquisition today.

It should come as no news that even the most innocuous question about the simplest of issues would ignite such a complex and contentious conversation, since, after all, Quora’s entire raison d’etre is to serve as a forum for allowing users to pose questions to the community about a variety of topics, including requests for job search and recruiting related advice.

As you can imagine, there are no shortage of “experts” out there waiting to weigh in with uninformed or asinine insights, or vendors waiting to present whatever product they’re selling as the solution to whatever problem a user might have. Welcome to the wonderful world of social media – if you’ve been there, the Quora brouhaha I witnessed was pretty much par for the course, of course.

What made this particular conversation particularly interesting was a complete shocker: turns out, the CEO of one of the companies in question publically responded to the post to inform the candidate that they would no longer be moving forward and were effectively rescinding their outstanding offer.

As you might expect, the Internet had a field day with this story when it broke, then promptly moved on to the next dispensable human interest story or the next cautionary tale of life in the online age, and for the most part, this incident disappeared just as quickly as it went viral.

Friends With Zenefits: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

39466-the-good-the-bad-and-the-uglyBut even after our collective attention has shifted to the next weird news item or internet-induced debacle, there are no shortage of outstanding issues raised for all parties involved – and potential repercussions that should prove far less fleeting than the ensuing 15 minutes of internet fame.

Now that the buzz has died down and the blowback has largely blown over, it’s a perfect time to dissect this discussion and what the recruiting issues this story raised really mean for talent acquisition today.

The Good

The candidate, who reported receiving offers from both Uber and Zenefits (not a terrible choice, all things considered), decided to leverage the collective experience and expertise of the Quora community to solicit information or insights on which company would be the better employer for someone just kicking off a career.

The candidate weighed out the respective pros and cons of each of the offers, and his SWOT analysis, so to speak, personally really impressed me. As a seasoned recruiter, I know that this sort of due diligence and analytical approach to a job offer is something of an anomaly, even though one should reasonably expect that anyone in a similar scenario would utilize a similar strategy for successfully assessing any job opportunity, particularly when there’s an actual offer involved.

What impressed me even more was the fact that even though the candidate is a new grad, he (we’ll use the masculine tense for the sake of simplicity) put a commendable level of thoughtfulness into his evaluation, focusing his pros and cons of the offer beyond simply looking at the associated salaries; many recent grads make the rookie mistake of chasing money, often to the exclusion  of more important or meaningful long term career considerations.

This willingness to not automatically take the highest offer and realization that the value of a job isn’t always completely based in cash compensation is a scenario that’s increasingly rare in today’s cutthroat and competitive job market, particularly in Silicon Valley, where the ability of high growth, high tech companies to attract top talent lies largely in their ability to pay more than the competition. So I’ve got nothing but respect for someone who is looking for more out of an offer than money, particularly for someone just starting out.

The Bad

Now, that said, the candidate’s approach was admirable in theory, but poorly executed in practice, with more than a few key missteps along the way ultimately leading to unanticipated (and unwelcome) consequences. For starters, the candidate committed the cardinal sin of naming names, identifying which companies the competing offers were actually from.

Since he was looking for advice on which offer to accept rather than, say, company specific career information, there was absolutely no reason or justifiable rationale for explicitly stating the names of the companies he was considering, although I suspect that this mistake, like the road to hell, was paved with good intentions. I don’t believe the inclusion of the companies’ identities was done out of some type of malice or to manipulate one against the other for his own selfish ends. Instead, he simply forgot that during the hiring process, there’s an expectation for discretion that’s even more acute given the current state of Internet affairs and the preponderance of online oversharing created by an entire generation for whom there’s no such thing as TMI. Which, of course, couldn’t be further from the fruth.

What’s more, though, is that in while the carefully considered pros were well thought out and more or less objective, the candidate also took a few shots at each of the companies while discussing the offers’ respective ‘cons’ that would have been ill advised in any situation, but were particularly idiotic inclusions by a candidate given the context. For example, here is an example of the kind of ‘cons’ that should probably have never seen the light of day:

uber-logoUber

“The biggest con for Uber is that their attitude towards me so far has been: “we don’t really need you. but here is your offer”. They really don’t seem to care as much, and I can understand why. Uber attracts top talent and they can easily find someone to replace me.”

This sense that Uber has expressed an attitude that ‘they don’t really need you’ is anything but an objective observation, and the candidate seems to be expressing a personal feeling rather than universal fact.

Add to this the additional blurb about the ease by which Uber could find someone to replace him, and you’ve got a statement that truly irks me, particularly the last part of the statement.

I would hope that his complete lack of self-confidence or intrinsic belief in his personal abilities would somehow have gotten flagged at some point during the interview process; that the candidate feels that he’s dispensable before even accepting an offer is the definition of a recruiting red flag, and as much an indictment of Uber’s hiring process as the candidate’s decision making process.

That the candidate feels the company doesn’t really need him, even though they’re moving forward with an offer, speaks to the fact that Uber’s candidate experience likely leaves a lot to be desired. If candidates don’t feel like they’re in the driver’s seat, companies like Uber will find that candidates will quickly realize they’re being taken for a ride.

Zenefits_1414602Zenefits

“My biggest problem with Zenefits is that it isn’t a buzzword like Uber. Most people won’t know what Zenefits is (or so I think). I think that this isn’t as exciting a brand name to have on your resume when applying to the likes of Google.”

When the candidate was inevitably asked some variation of the question, “why do you want to work here?” while interviewing, this issue should probably have come to light, considering this question, for me and many recruiters, is one of the simple starter questions we lead off most of our interviews by asking.

Generally, my phone interviews are scheduled a day or two in advance, and I expect candidates to use that time to do at least a little research and come up with a rationale for why they want to work at my company, in addition to what they know about us, assuming of course they weren’t direct sourced. And this is almost always one of the questions I lead off with in an interview, since if they can’t answer those, they’re unlikely to get much too much further along anyway.

Unfortunately, this candidate’s apparent concern with ensuring the right professional pedigree and keeping up appearances so that he can ultimately land a job at a company like Apple or Google instead of focusing on the job at hand gives the appearance of a candidate who already has one foot out the door – a perpetual flight risk who sees this opportunity as a means to an entirely different end game.

I would have also cautioned the candidate against sharing specific immigration and salary information. However, once again, oversharing on the internet is one of those realities of the world we live in, and even though it’s omnipresent, it almost never ends well for anyone involved.

My point is, that many of these missteps made by the candidate can be chalked up to naivete, but the fact that they actually went out and solicited advice and critically examined an outstanding offer should be commended – this is something smart candidates should do, but almost always overlook. A little discretion would have gone a long way in preventing this whole situation from becoming the next sensational internet recruiting debacle.

At the end of the day, I’d offer any job seeker the same advice I’m suggesting to this candidate, and you should always apply the same rules of the recruiting road that could have kept this incident from turning ugly: don’t ever publically post anything that you wouldn’t want your employer, current or future, to see associated next to your name for all of eternity.

The internet never forgets, and these small mistakes could be a big issue throughout your career, no matter how long or illustrious that career may subsequently be.

parker-conradThe Ugly.

The hero of this sordid little tale, and the sole gold medalist who gives us the moral to the story is clearly Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad (pictured).

For starters, how the hell does the CEO of one of the fastest growing technology companies in the world have the time to troll candidates on Quora, anyway?

I’ll grant that his responding to the candidate wasn’t the best use of his time, at least that’s the way it came across to me, and likely, to many of his investors, too.

But while, as we’ve discussed, a little discretion on the candidate’s part would have gone a long way, the fact that they publically named the company gave the CEO of said company more than enough justification to reciprocate by publically pulling the offer. His exact quote to the candidate query about who he should choose?

“Definitely not Zenefits,” cautioned Mr. Conrad, before going on to  retract the job offer entirely, just in case the candidate missed the hint. So, let me get this straight.

A candidate who’s survived your company’s screening and selection process and made it through to actually getting an offer (after presumably being deemed a “good fit” for your company) goes online and solicits some advice on multiple offers, and that act alone is enough to negate the entire hiring process that preceded it?

Get over yourself, Parker Conrad. If you think that your company is the only one candidates are considering, you, sir, have another thing coming.

News flash: in today’s job market, candidates are the ones in control, and virtually every candidate I’ve talked to so far in 2015 is weighing multiple options or are considering different opportunities, often with several offers already in hand.1 Chalk that one up as a win for Uber, I guess.

But if we segment the action the candidate took in soliciting advice without penalizing them for subsequently over sharing, the real loser here is Zenefits. This company arguably lost a detail oriented candidate with a propensity for making calculated, well informed decisions – characteristics that definitely sound like a candidate I’d want to hire for my company. Instead of trying to sell him on opportunities at Zenefits, Mr. Conrad simply withdrew the offer, ostensibly searching for that special someone who could love him, and only him.

The part of this whole sad saga, though, that really ruffles my feathers is that the CEO had the audacity to publicly pull an employment offer, but then, after going to this extreme, went back into the site and edited his initial response, deleting the entire portion of the thread where he formally pulled the offer from the site (but fortunately not from the immortal cache of the web).

I want to make sure I’m clear on this. The CEO steps up and single handedly pulls an offer, then realizing the flames have already been fanned, rushes to cover up his very public mistake once the PR team tells him what a bad idea his previous move really was in retrospect? Why in the world would he do this?

You, the CEO, and a well educated, experienced one at that, didn’t think that this was a bad idea until after the fact; if you believe what you wrote, and one would hope that there was some conviction driving this impulsive decision, then own it and stand behind your actions and what you wrote.

By the very nature of his response, Mr. Conrad missed an opportunity to show exactly how approachable and engaged the executives at Zenefits can be to this and all other candidates out there. The perception that the senior leaders at the organization was one that the candidate specifically cited in his list of ‘pros,’ and it’s one that remains ever elusive for almost every other organization out there to instill as part of their employer value proposition. The candidate wrote of Zenefits:

“Upper management is accessible. I can speak to top people (CEO, CTO) which is really nice.” 

Sure, you can speak to them, just as long as you limit yourself to unilateral praise and avoid any hint of dissention or suggest that you’re not walking the company line, it seems. Instead of engaging in an “accessible” manner, the CEO instead just threw a tantrum – which I’ll file somewhere other than ‘accessible’ or ‘approachable’ on the laundry list of leadership characteristics.

For all the big bucks Zenefits spends at building brand awareness and goodwill within the recruiting ecosystem, this seems like a really low hanging fruit that’s a perfect set up to reinforce the company’s accessibility, and Zenefits’ commitment to this value. Instead, they showed an utter disregard for taking this common sense approach to addressing this situation, and proved, yet again, that common sense in the world of work actually isn’t very common at all.

One can only imagine the kind of impact this cautionary tale will likely have on Zenefits employer brand or how much it will influence the company’s ongoing talent attraction strategies, but one thing is clear: there’s nothing zen about having to clean up after this mess, and no one benefits from such epic recruiting fails. No one wants to be friends with Zenefits. Don’t make the same mistake.

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