When the Hiring Process Violates "Recruiting 101"

Having a potential manager meet with a subordinate is O.K., but not to be grilled by that person or have her check references

By H.J. Cummins

Q: I'm applying for a management job at a midsize company. I have solid credentials, including nearly 20 years of experience, and I had a strong interview with the company vice-president, who would be my boss. Imagine my surprise when I arrived for a second interview and learned that I would be talking to a person who would report to me if I'm hired. She had a prepared list of interview questions for me. Since then, I've learned that that same employee is checking my references. Why would a VP allow the person who would be reporting to the new manager to do the reference check? I strongly disagree with this approach to hiring, and I plan to ask my would-be manager why it happened. K.F., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A: You don't sound half as scandalized as our experts. They respond with descriptions like "outrageous," "completely inappropriate," and "against recruiting 101."

They were all O.K. with the company's decision to let a potential subordinate play "20 Questions" with you. It's a recent but growing adaptation of the "360-degree assessments" that companies sometimes use to evaluate employees -- by having bosses, peers, and subordinates weigh in, says Barbara Kate Repa, an attorney and vice-president of HROne, a Web site that covers employment issues.

On the whole, they like the idea of you and your potential staffers sizing up one another. "They will have questions like, 'Is this a person I can follow?' 'Am I going to learn from her?' 'Will she make a good mentor?"' says Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant with Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global business consulting firm. Allowing subordinates to assess a job candidate is one way a company tells its employees, "we value your career goals as well as the company's needs," Weizmann says. "And in today's world, part of the glue holding a business together is congeniality."

UNFAIR.

  That doesn't mean, however, that a potential subordinate should be asked to grill you. Repa thinks a better approach is a less formal and more inclusive get-together, such as a lunch with some of your potential crew. Also, it's unfair to spring a surprise interview on you, a few experts say, because you would probably prepare differently to speak to an employee than to an executive.

As for this VP's personal brand of reference checking, our human resource experts voice a loud: What was he thinking?

First, it's often the case that potential subordinates were just passed over for the job you're now pursuing, says Shirley Hughes, senior vice-president for Ceridian Corp., a human resources consulting firm in Minneapolis. In such instances, only a saint could be objective in checking you out.

Also, there are two classic reference questions, says John Kitson, president of the Employment Management Assn., an organization of staffing professionals. They are: What are this candidate's greatest strengths? What are the greatest weaknesses? A future subordinate has no business being armed with a list of the new boss' weak spots, Kitson says.

LITIGIOUS TIMES.

  In addition -- duh -- your future subordinate is likely to ask very different questions about you than your future VP would, says Jean Leslie, who manages "360-degree assessments" research for the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. That's the very reason for a 360-degree interview, she says, and the very reason the VP needs to be making his own calls.

Finally, there's the matter of the modern art of reference checking. In these litigious times, people who provide references are often circumspect, disclosing little beyond employment dates, titles, and other unrevealing information. Therefore, the checker needs to be something of a Kremlinologist. "You have to listen for what's not being said, or how something is being said," explains Valerie Sessa, co-author of Executive Selection: Strategies for Success.

So, our experts say, you should go see what the VP has to say about all this. It's time for you to do some checking of your own.

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H.J. Cummins has covered workplace, personal-finance, and work and family issues for more than a decade at Newsday/New York Newsday and the Minneapolis Star Tribune