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The corporate recruitment process is upside down

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ON THE same day last month my daughter and I each got up, put on our best clothes and went off to be interviewed for different jobs.

She, a recent graduate, was being considered for a position close to the bottom of the pile in an organisation that lots of other people also want to join. To get this interview she had had to clear many hurdles, including filling in a form containing 15 pages of dismal questions such as "describe a time when you learnt from a mistake", an intelligence test and assorted written challenges.

I am a less-recent graduate, having left university 35 years ago, and I was being considered for a job close to the top of the pile, as a nonexecutive director. In order to get thus far in the hiring process I had done practically nothing: I had fired off a CV, and that was about it.

On the day itself, my daughter turned up at 8.30am for a process that was to last six hours. By contrast, my interview started at 2pm and was over before tea-time.

For her, the day began with a team exercise, during which all candidates had to prove they were both assertive and inclusive, followed by a presentation each had to give to an audience that was deliberately being obstructive. At around lunchtime the candidates were herded together and half of them were unceremoniously sent home, X Factor-style, while the rest went through a further series of panel interviews, ordeals and other assorted pranks.

My day, or rather my hour, involved no tests and no difficult questions. Instead I sat on a sofa and had a cosy chat with an urbane company chairman, who far from trying to trip me up was falling over himself to be amiable. He told me there was no question of my ability to do the job: what he was interested in was to see if there was "fit" with the rest of the board.

That evening we compared notes over a glass of wine, my daughter wrung out, me comparatively sprightly. I remarked on how much easier and less competitive life becomes as you get older. Once you are on the ladder you can go on climbing, no further questions asked.

It seems her experience of job hunting is perfectly normal for her generation; at the BBC, competition for the journalist training programme makes getting to Harvard look a doddle. At Goldman Sachs it is worse still — only 3% of the 267,000 applicants get hired. To get a job, graduates have to jump through hoop after hoop, being assessed on IQ, EQ, knowledge, leadership, stamina, creativity — all for junior positions in which these attributes will mostly not be called for.

By contrast, at board level, where all these things really count, everything is taken on trust. Why did the chairman say my ability to do the job was not in doubt? It jolly well ought to have been.

You could argue that unlike graduates, senior people are a known quantity. They have proved what they can do. They have track records. So all that remains to be tested for is this elusive thing called "fit", and the only way of doing that is by sitting on a sofa and having a cosy chat.

But I am not so sure. Not only do we never know how someone has performed in their last job, we assume that experience in one area translates into another (which it often does not).

This is not to say that assessment centres are necessarily a good way of picking people; merely that if they do work with juniors, they would be better directed at seniors instead.

For graduate trainees there is little point in such a costly search for the smartest and most employable, as they will be the first to defect. It would be wiser to be more lackadaisical about handing out jobs at entry level, and letting the only test that works — how people perform — decide who stays and who doesn’t.

With nonexecs you need to get it right first time, as you can’t invite people to join the board for a trial period to see if they are any good. Fortunately, there are some obvious things that could be tested for in advance. The job involves reading accounts and stacks of papers, so it is irresponsible not to check in advance whether people can count, read quickly and find the right needles in the haystacks of the board pack. Equally, the job involves playing with others, being brave and speaking up — all things that could easily be whipped up into a The Apprentice-style game.

I imagine the reason that no one hires like this is that the size of the candidates’ egos is so large that they would balk at being tested — but that is the best reason of all for doing so. There is an inverse relationship between size of ego and effectiveness of corporate governance, and so if the selection process deterred the biggest ones from applying, that would be a result in itself.

© 2015 The Financial Times Limited

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