Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Feedback loops

The first time I ever heard the term feedback, it referred to that teeth-aching, ear-shattering, hair-standing-on-end sound you get coming out of a speaker when the microphone moves into the wrong space.

Sometimes I think we forget that definition even when it's the most accurate of all of the possible definitions.

Periodically, I get asked for feedback on interviews by job candidates.

You can ask. Chances are almost no one will be able to give you that feedback. HR departments tend to be fairly rabid about this. And most of us regard the survival odds of crossing our HR reps as equivalent to our survival odds if we were facing down a few Kodiak bears while wearing a raw steak parka.

But here's why I won't tell you anyhow.

Nearly all of the time, there will be absolutely no way that feedback can help you.

How could it?

An interview, with me anyway, isn't an algebra test with a pre-determined right answer to each question. It's an opportunity for the interviewer(s) and interviewee to get to know each other. Learn something about what's most important to each, figure out if there's a good match there. And to give us a basis of comparison between candidates to find the best match at the time given the candidate pool available. If you'll forgive me the romance novel metaphor, it's not about Mr. (Ms.) Right, it's about Mr. Right Now At This Speed-Dating Event.

That goes both ways, by the way. You should be interviewing the people and the position at the same time they're interviewing you, to see if it's a good enough match for you, too. (Uh-oh. Maybe that speed-dating thing is a more accurate metaphor than I'd guessed.)

Our questions and our combination of questions and even the makeup of the committee are designed for our particular position, for our particular needs, at this particular time. Even if I ask the same question in two different recruitments, I may not be looking for the same answer. And sometimes it isn't even about the answer, it's about the candidate's approach to the question, what they think the question meant. And sometimes it's about the answer. And sometimes it's about the answer to question #3 combined with the answer to #5 and contrasted with the answer to #8 and all that put up against the answers to questions 2 and 4 as answered by candidate C.

Let me give you an example. A few years back, I included the question about "If you had one word to describe yourself, what would it be?" One candidate took over 5 minutes on the question, to finally settle on 3 words (one was "outgoing.") Normally that would fall under the category of "never do this." Here's why it wasn't a candidate-killer answer: in the context of this candidate and the job on offer and the existing interrelationships in the department, well, it still wasn't great but it wasn't bad. The other candidates hadn't been as good matches and this particular candidate was an excellent match in terms of skills and personality. Mostly the committee shrugged, laughed it off, and continued on with what was one of the longest phone interviews I've ever been a party to. The candidate was indeed a great addition to the department, worked out great, and even years after she'd moved on, those that were around during those days still miss having her here and still laugh over that interview.

In that case, the word(s) she chose were important. Individually, they were all "right" answers. The method of delivery left a lot to be desired, but it wasn't enough to close off her candidacy.

It's almost never about the answer to a single question. It may be many answers accrete up to a picture of a candidate that is different than what we're looking for. At this time. In this place. It may be on a side-by-side comparison, this candidate edged out the others. It may be that we messed up the job description and/or requirement statements and we ended up with a pool heavily weighted away from what we were actually seeking and the interview questions were allowing us to bridge that gap. (This possibility keeps me up at night, BTW.) Even if I were to tell you that, what will you be able to do with that information? The next job you apply for will have a very different pool, probably different requirements, most likely a different group of people seeking different traits and skills and prioritizing those traits and skills differently than we do. 

So that's why, HR aside, I won't give you feedback. In short, there's two main reasons. First, If I tell you not to say something because it's not what I wanted to hear, who is to say that will be appropriate for the next interview you have? And second, it's usually not even that simple. It's complex theory, not arithmetic. It's a symphony, not a violin solo or even a string quartet. It's impossible for me to tease out the many variables and would often require I tell you about what other candidates did as well, and remember what I said about HR and the raw steak parka? If I told you what another candidate did, I imagine the results might look something like this.

But since I know you're not going to let the above be the last word, yes, I have heard answers I would classify as "wrong answers." I usually never know what those are going to be until I hear them. I've heard answers so wrong that every committee member appears to have spontaneously forgotten how to breathe. I've seen those moments after we hung up the phone where there's dead silence and suddenly one committee member will blurt out "Did that actually just happen? Did s/he SAY those things?"

First, if you have any misgivings, chances are that wasn't you. Only a tiny percentage of interviews will go that stupendously wrong, where the interviewee introduced us to a whole world of "wow, it never occurred to us that somebody might think that way."

I hesitate to go here, because I'm worried that many of you will read this to mean that it really does come down to there being a wrong answer and a right answer and you just need to know what the right answer is.

Seriously? Okay, then here's why I'm not going to give you the right answer, in that mythical universe where there is any such thing.

Why won't I tell you?

Because maybe, just maybe, your answer to the question matters to me. Your honest answer. The answer you believe, the answer you think, the answer you have to offer. Why on earth would I want you to lie in response to an interview question? What good does that do me?

Really, if you hate working with the public, I need to know that. I don't want you to say "Oh, I love working in teams" if you'd rather stab your eyeballs out than to cooperate with a colleague. I need to know that you want to focus on 10% of the job description and will do almost anything possible to avoid doing the other 90%. Yes--I'm not going to hire you if you can't play well with others. Or if you are going to try and spend all of your time getting out of processing collections. You're absolutely right. But think for a moment: how does it benefit either you or me if you lie, I hire you, and then I find out six months later that somehow none of your ongoing collection description projects show any progress but the reading room chairs suddenly have coordinated slipcovers? What positive outcome can result from that scenario, workload-wise?

So be honest. Listen well to the questions, answer them to the best of your ability and recognize that sometimes, no matter how well or poorly you think you did at that interview, the results will not reflect that performance assessment.

It's not just about you. It's about you and us and everybody else we've talked to. And there's no way you can account for all those variables. The only way to guarantee a specific interview outcome is to not show up to it.

Will somebody please kill that mic?