I’ve spent most of my career looking for a job, or hiring software engineers, or at least watching software engineers being hired. As I had had yet another bout of exhausting job search, I spent a fair amount of time talking to everyone willing to listen about my career path, my strengths and weaknesses,—and, yes, about my opinions on hiring and getting hired. I think it’s a good time to write them down, so that next time I can just point my interlocutors to this blog post.
Not that I have much to add to the discussion, but just to express my strongly held opinions and by doing so show my readers what kind of a person I am. So, let me start with making a not very original statement, and see if I can argue it well.
Getting a job is about finding a good fit.
Many years ago, when I first came to the US, I was young and new to the adult professional life, not to mention having grown up behind the iron curtain. I didn’t know the rules of the game, but I was eager to learn. I’d read books on writing a resume, and online how-tos on interviewing. I dutifully put bulleted lists in my resume, and dressed in a suit for interviews.
Back then, not knowing better, I thought about the entire process as a goal-oriented activity. You write a resume to get an interview. You do an interview to get the job. You dress your best, you talk your best, you smile your best to get the damned job. If you get an offer, you win the game. If you get rejected, you lose.
It took me many years to converge on a deeper understanding. It is in both parties’ interest to hire the person who would last for many years. This can only work if both parties are sufficiently happy with the arrangement: if there is a good mutual fit.
A good fit: that’s the only thing that really matters. Not bullet points in the resume and smooth talking on the interview. Unless, that is, you are specifically looking for people who are good at writing bullet points and talking smoothly.
The price of a hiring mistake is very high—and this, again, applies to both parties. Many people, myself included, irrationally want to last for at least a year on a new job; many companies are reluctant to fire, concentrating instead on helping employees who are struggling and writing performance improvement plans. Here come months of interviewing and many more months, if not years at a wrong job—wasted, lost from your life. I like pain and suffering more than most other people, but even I would prefer to suffer biking in freezing rain to showing up every morning for a job I hate.
So here we have it: a bad fit is bad; it’s a waste of time at best, and setting back both the employee and the employer at worst—not to mention the copious amount of bad will and bad karma typically generated in the process. Thus it is in both parties’ best interest to detect the wrong fit as early as possible during the relationship. Detecting a wrong fit—and the rejection that typically follows—is actually the best possible outcome under the circumstances.
Never feel bad about being rejected after an interview or losing a candidate. Be happy that a bad fit was surfaced, and years of unhappiness prevented. Being rejected by a wrong employer (or a wrong candidate) helps you to concentrate on looking for the right job (or the right candidate).
Be grateful for the early rejection.
Getting a job is like dating.
This is a very useful metaphor, and I like to keep it in mind. For one, dating is also about finding the right match. Stable, happy couples are rarely formed by looking for a skill checklist, or targeting partners at specific income levels. Rather, you look for a temperament complimentary to yours, for the life outlook and values broadly aligned with yours, for somebody who would stand by you in hard times.
Second, a healthy relationship is about two people. Hiring is often considered as an asymmetrical process—as an adversarial game where the job seeker is trying to win over his interviewers. I certainly thought so during my suit-wearing days. Employers reciprocate by designing a brutal interviewing process and putting potential employees in the position where they need to prove their worth. Job seekers reciprocate back by fudging their resumes and misleading their interviewers.
This is not healthy, and it equally hurts both parties. The only way to discover mutual fit is, well, to work together on discovering it. The best interviewing process is thus a two-way dialog: a mutual journey of learning more about each other. Good interviewees ask their interviewers a lot of questions. Good interviewers encourage the interviewees to interview them back and allocate ample time for it.
It took me many years to realize all that, and it profoundly changed the way I interview as a candidate. These days I never dress up for an interview, but rather come in my everyday outfit. If it is jeans and a t-shirt, then jeans and t-shirt it is. And if they have a problem with the way I dress, I would love to surface it right away. Please, please reject me for the way I look, it means we won’t enjoy working together anyway, don’t waste my time.
Likewise, even though I may smile more than usual, I would never smooth-talk or sugarcoat at the interview. Instead, I try hard to be my authentic self—arrogant and abrasive at times, but straightforward and brutally honest. If they don’t like it, fine, I’d rather find people who can appreciate me for who I really am. And of course it goes for the technical skills as well. I would never pretend to know something I don’t. In fact, “I don’t know” is my favorite phrase. If my interviewer doesn’t take it well, I want to find it out right away!
And you know what? When I am on the other side of the table, I behave exactly the same. I wear my daily clothes, and I am honest and straightforward about the position, the team, and the challenges that the company faces. I am not trying to lure people to work with me. I want to get those who would really enjoy it.
Just like dating.
Firing is like hiring.
Finally, let’s talk about the situation when the dating—that is, the interviewing process—failed to detect a bad fit, the person got hired, started at work, and then the badness of the fit became painfully obvious.
If you are the employee, don’t succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. Don’t try to “make it work” when it’s obviously hopeless. Don’t waste your time, resign as soon as possible, find yourself a better place, and be happy there.
If you are the employer, consider this. A bad fit is bad for both parties. If you let the employee go, both sides will be able to find a better fit for themselves and thus will be better off.
Importantly, letting go is not a judgment of the person. People are rarely uniformly bad. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. A bad fit is just that, a bad fit and nothing more. Recognizing and rectifying it is judging the situation, not the person. A bad fit is almost always mutual, and the person will be better off elsewhere. Firing will help them, not hurt them.
In this case, firing is fundamentally the same activity as hiring: trying to establish the fit and to act on it.
That said, hiring a wrong employee is a failure of the hiring process: your failure as an employer. It is your moral responsibility to own it and to help the employee to the extent possible, be it with a generous severance or with using your own network to help find them a better job.
Admit your failures, own them, and double down on surfacing the bad fit early.
It takes two to tango.
Summing up: looking for a job and hiring are two sides of the same process, and it should be approached in the same way from both sides. In a healthy relationship, both sides are looking for a long-term, mutually advantageous arrangement.
Suits and bullet points are not required.