Jun 16, 2009

What Won’t You Do for a Job?

Article from the WSJ
June 2, 2009

Melissa & Doug LLC, a fast-growing toy maker in Wilton, Conn., puts applicants through an interview process so grueling that one job seeker says she left in tears and felt psychologically traumatized.

Candidates must bring their lunch — plus three years of W-2 statements. They spend hours on simulated work tasks, several with tight deadlines. They complete a lengthy survey, where they rank their interest in chores such as fixing a leaky faucet and changing the fax machine’s toner. Some prospects walk out right after the all-day screening starts.

The process “is sometimes a little rough around the edges,” but Melissa & Doug hires only individuals “who will love it here,” says co-CEO Doug Bernstein. He and his wife founded a firm where sales staffers often interrupt work to belt out songs using the office karaoke machine. Melissa & Doug can afford to be picky. About 50 people now apply for every position the company fills, 10 times as many as two years ago, according to Mr. Bernstein.

As the downturn persists, U.S. employers flooded with résumés increasingly insist that job hunters jump through unusual hoops. An investment bank ordered an experienced female marketer to come dressed in fancy evening wear suitable for entertaining wealthy clients. Certain businesses force contenders to interview each other and tout their rival’s prowess. Others demand protracted unpaid tryouts.

“Job seekers frequently face a process that makes the Spanish Inquisition seem tame” because management sees the sour economy as a golden opportunity “for upgrading talent,” says Jennifer Berman, a Chicago human-resources consultant.

Anyone craving employment these days “should expect just about anything,” says Tom Carter, president of LeaderFinder Consulting Inc., a New York executive recruiter. He recently began requiring prospects to ace a role-playing exercise before recommending them to clients.
However, there are ways to anticipate and handle unorthodox screening tactics so you don’t get knocked out of the running while jogging that extra mile.

You may avoid surprises by digging deeper than usual. Ask present and prior staffers about a company’s hiring regimen, before checking online chatrooms and the corporate Web site for extra clues.

Capital One Financial Corp. alerts potential professionals and managers that many will tackle a business case study during interviews. The big bank’s Web site offers a sample case study and acceptable analysis. Candidates believe “it’s extremely helpful to have that case-study preparation,” says Tonya L. Swatzyna, senior director of recruiting.

Rehearsals also get you ready for curveball interview requests. Act out responses to standard queries with friends, and then “have them ask you crazy questions to catch you off guard,” says Townley Paton, owner of InterviewClips. The small San Francisco concern produces multimedia résumés for job hunters. You will appear even more self-confident if you practice your breathing, eye contact and smile, Mr. Patton adds.

Thinking fast on your feet helps, too. That’s how a candidate became the frontrunner for a vice presidency at a midsize biotechnology company. During the prospect’s interview with the company’s chief executive last month, the CEO insisted the woman attend a corporate meeting about pitching for a contract research assignment.

Her participation “was totally unplanned,” says Jay Meschke, president of CBIZ Executive Search, a CBIZ Inc. unit that helped the biotech concern field candidates. The woman offered impressive ideas about how the biotech business might craft the client pitch, according to Mr. Meschke. The firm will likely decide this month whether she will be its next VP of sales and marketing.
Daunting Hurdles

Some employers create hiring hurdles so daunting that their reputations suffer. A jobless executive sought to manage a large training department for a West Coast bank last year. The executive and seven fellow candidates were ushered into a crowded boardroom, where officials gave them each five minutes to interview the applicant next to them and offer a presentation on “why that person would be the best person for the job,” he recalls.

The assignment infuriated the HR executive. “It’s a total no win. You’re put in a position of failure from the beginning,” he says. The bank didn’t hire him, but “never told me why I wasn’t chosen,” the spurned candidate adds.

Since then, the executive repeatedly has discouraged acquaintances from applying there. He hopes the bank hears about his criticism. “Why would I care about burning employment bridges at a place I don’t want to work?” he asks.

Making the Most of It

Rather than retaliate, other job hunters take advantage of unconventional hurdles. Consider William “Tommy” Rollins, a digital marketing analyst laid off when Circuit City Stores Inc. liquidated in January. He soon met Brent Peterson, founder of InterviewAngel, a professional guide and toolkit offering interviewing tips in a binder. Mr. Peterson offered an unpaid tryout.
Mr. Rollins agreed to design free of charge an online sweepstakes where winners will receive a free copy of the guide, a résumé overhaul and a month of career coaching. He figured the start-up experience might lead to a paid gig there or elsewhere.

Mr. Rollins has provided 60 hours of free labor so far. The sweepstakes, launched May 13, proved immediately popular, according to Mr. Peterson. To make sure pro bono work opens doors for Mr. Rollins, Mr. Peterson serves as a job reference. “It is the least I can do,” he notes


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