The American View: Pride and Perhaps Prejudice
17 March 2020 |
Why would a leader deliberately turn away top talent because of a peculiar affectation for anachronistic social habits? More importantly, why would a company allow such a practice? People are fascinating; even those people that wouldn’t deign to hire you because you’re too modern.
Arrogant businesspeople can be fascinating. I don’t mean that in the sense of watching a stranger ruin their life through bad decisions and then savouring the schadenfreude. I mean that instances of self-sabotage brought about by one’s own blind spots can be academically interesting and entertaining to boot. Why do people who are both capable of and interested in doing their best allow their own flawed thinking to undermine their best interests? Especially when there’s ample evidence and community feedback communicating that the self-destructive behaviour should be avoided? Why take the proverbial dead-end road at full throttle?
I’m especially interested in these people and their tragic stories in a business context. My business is understanding people. Or, at least, trying to understand them enough to teach them and their colleagues how to avoid making the same awful decision(s). I’ve been captivated by this topic since my first Sociology of Deviance class at university. That’s why I’m always on the lookout to find new stories of ruinous behaviour in the workplace.
My latest gem appeared on the American humour site Cracked.com at the end of January. Staff writer Ryan Menezes published a short piece titled ‘6 Stories That Prove Job Interviews Are Pointless Nonsense.’ Exactly the kind of clickbait to catch my attention. In his very first example, Ryan referenced an April 2019 article by Business Insider’s Managing Editor Jessica Liebman titled ‘I've been hiring people for 10 years, and I still swear by a simple rule: If someone doesn't send a thank you email, don't hire them.’
She’s clearly not kidding about this. About two-thirds down the article, she comes right out and says: ‘As a hiring manager, you should always expect a thank you email, and you should never make an offer to someone who neglected to send one.’ 
‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like interviewing with your august firm! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of an in-person interview! – When I have a cubicle of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not a stack of résumés to process.’
Wow! My immediate impression of Ms. Liebman after reading that statement was that she must be among the haughtiest people I’ve ever heard of. Demanding that candidates conform to archaic social conventions like a time-traveling sycophant as an absolute barrier to entry into the corporate culture? Working for her must make The Devil Wears Prada seem like a tropical holiday in comparison.
To be fair, I’ve never met nor otherwise communicated with Ms. Liebman. She might be a lovely person. This personal policy of hers might be well-intentioned. It is, however, damning to her organisation’s reputation. Imagine broadcasting to the world that your employer will only hire people who painstakingly conform to 19th century middle class social rules. Just saying that in public is likely to drive away huge swathes of applicants. I know that I’d never apply to work at work at or for her company now that I know this is their official policy for qualifying talent.
Speaking of, I wonder if this is Business Insider’s official policy. I submitted a request for more information through their ‘contact us’ page in early February. My first question was: ‘Are all job applicants rejected if they don't send the interviewer a 'thank you' note within 24 hours of their interview? Or is this practice unique to Ms. Liebman's sub-organization?’ I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that each brand or department at Insider Inc. has its own standards. Most large companies that I’ve worked for set ironclad rules about how interviews must (and must not) be conducted, and those rules applied to the entire enterprise. Every company is different, though. Dot Com style businesses are famous for their wildly creative hiring practices.
My next question was: ‘Is this requirement ever communicated to a job applicant?’ This one – to me – is the factor that could be the most damaging to a company’s reputation. Imagine if only selected candidates were informed about the unpublished ‘extra qualification step’ … then imagine if the person choosing who to clue in was filtering applicants based on race, gender, religion, etc. If word got out that a company had secret hiring rules that discriminated against qualified candidates, it could be a hell of a scandal.
Now imagine being the in-house counsel getting news of the lawsuit and the resulting media frenzy. Seems like this would be every lawyer’s nightmare.
On the other hand, if the company clearly communicates the requirement during the application process and fairly enforces it while correcting for unlawful bias, then good for them. I still don’t think it’s a good idea necessarily, but it would likely pass muster with the lawyers.
Next up, I asked: ‘How is the applicant expected to know the interviewer's correct e-mail address to send their note to?’ If Insider Inc’s interview process doesn’t require that someone in the process give the interviewer’s contact data to all applicants, then it might be argued that unlawful bias could be a factor in preventing certain people from receiving offers. If the interviewer was only giving their business cards to select candidates, that could indicate conscious or unconscious unlawful discrimination. Either way, not good. Still, if the company’s process sends the correct contact data to all candidate after their interview is held that might be fine with the lawyers.
Finally, I asked ‘How do you address cultural differences, given that some countries don't allow applicants to communicate directly with their interviewers?’ In several Dot Com companies where I worked, HR was the gatekeeper for all hiring actions. Us interviewers were forbidden to communicate with our applicants directly; all communications had to be routed through HR.
I’m still quite curious to hear the company’s perspective on this. As of the date this column went to press, I still haven’t received a response. That’s okay; they’re a huge company. They’re probably busy.
If they’re that committed to historical best-practices, perhaps they are responding to me, but have to hand-write everything. I look forward to seeing the elaborate marginalia!
I’m inclined to give Insider Inc. the benefit of the doubt. It’s a good bet that they have a strong team of lawyers and a team of internal auditors who have already scrutinized all of their internal HR processes to ensure that every employee is meticulously following all relevant laws and regulations. That’s what legal and IA are for, after all. Given that Ms. Liebman first publicly posted that this is her official hiring policy in 2012, her process has almost certainly been addressed and approved inside … er … Insider Inc. It has to have by now.
So, setting aside all of the potential administrative, regulatory, and legal complications that would logically flow from such a policy, why object to it? Sure, it’s unconventional. Doesn’t it help Ms. Liebman find the right ‘culture fit’ for her department? Isn’t this an effective method for determining who the ‘best’ candidate is out of a pool of strangers?
No. No, I don’t think it is. This is the appearance of arrogance factors in. This peculiar process – as explained by the process designer herself –that she will only offer employment to an applicant who chooses to perform a quaint, anachronistic, social ceremony seems inherently counterproductive. She turns away (or has her subordinate managers turn away) anyone that doesn’t conform. Think about that for a second …
One hundred people apply for an open position on her team. The top ten make it through HR’s screening process. The best of the best come before her and interview, demonstrating their skills, abilities, experiences, and drive. Then they leave. She rank-orders those ten applicants from the most qualified (#1) to the least (#10). Just like every other hiring board at every other company. So far, so good. 
Then she waits 24 hours. Only one applicant sends her the old fashioned ‘thank you’ note that she desires. It’s applicant #10. She disqualified the nine better qualified candidates and hires the least qualified candidate because only that applicant wrote her a thank-you e-mail. She extends the least qualified candidate an offer letter and brings them on to her team. Meanwhile, the nine better qualified candidates all leave to go work at her competitors. That’s …
That’s great for organisations that value talent, experience, and motivation over obsolete social conventions. More top talent for us!
‘Arrogance,’ as defined in the Cambridge Dictionary, is ‘the quality of being unpleasantly proud and behaving as if you are more important than, or know more than, other people.’ Hence, my impression of this leader based solely on her publicly-stated policy of refusing to hire the best candidates out of any applicant pool in favour of one who (knowingly or accidentally) conforms to an anachronistic social convention straight out of a classic regency novel.
The thing is, we don’t live in the 1800s (much as some people would prefer). A contemporary manager has a duty to their organisation to attempt to get the best possible hire out of an applicant pool, so as to maximize the organisation’s return on its investment in personnel. To deliberately ignore the best candidate in order to instead take one that demonstrates a peculiar antiquated affectation seems absurd.
At least, that’s how it seems to me. Maybe there’s more to this method than Ms. Liebman is letting on. Maybe the culture of Insider Inc demands that all internal correspondence be conducted using linen paper and steel-nib pens, then sealed with wax after being folded into their own envelope. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t send a polite ‘thank you’ e-mail to close our social niceties (as our grandparents dispatched their correspondence) likely wouldn’t know how to use a blotter or ow to write in flowing cursive.
Or maybe this is an anachronism peculiar to a certain region. It would be equally arrogant to assume that every company on Earth conforms to American rules business etiquette. Maybe I’m being ethnocentric for not understanding the peculiarities of Ms. Liebman’s culture. Except … she’s from New York City. I’ve been there. That’s not an NYC thing.
Or maybe she’s just being unnecessarily picky. Either way, I’m not applying to work there. Not that I’d be given an offer if I had since I don’t conduct business by regency romance standards. If, however, that’s what you like, have it. It might be the perfect job you never knew you were uniquely qualified for.
 Emphasis added.
 I’ve ranted enough about how screwed up AMS-based applicant screening is in other columns.
Pop Culture Allusion: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813 novel)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.