Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Malleus Maleficarum and the Danger of the Perpetual Interview

The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Hexenhammer” in German) is one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Its main purpose was to challenge all arguments against the existence of witchcraft and to instruct magistrates on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches. The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Despite this, the Malleus Maleficarum became the de-facto handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, it was published thirteen times, and between 1574 to 1669 it was again published sixteen times. The papal bull and endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book contributed to its popularity by giving the illusion that it had been granted approval by Pope Innocent VIII.

So, what's all this got to do with the world of recruitment? Am I about to advocate the burning of unsuccessful candidates? No. Talking recently to a friend who is an in-house recruiter at a global software company she was saddened by a practise that was seemingly commonplace. After the recruitment process was completed, the tests all squared away, file lovingly placed in labyrinthine databases - her new recruits we're being force to run an equally nerve racking second "interview" in their daily work. In effect they were having to prove themselves to their coworkers despite having already run the gamut of a lengthy recruitment process.

This is an example of yet another recruiting anti-pattern - The Witch Hunt. In short this is the practise of the re-examination of hires by some or all of the incumbent members of staff, whereupon judgements on suitability, technical ability and overall "fit" will be gleaned from limited interactions (water cooler conversations) and these confirmations distributed to the larger workforce through informal interactions. The outcome of this process is the alienation and damage to the reputation, be it technical or social of the individual involved. The Malleus describes this process as "initiated either at the instance of an accuser, or of an informer actuated by zeal, or by reason of a general outcry and rumour" - suddenly 1486 seems more relevant!

Obviously, I am not accusing a workforce of whipping up the same fervour for brutality that we read of in the middle ages, but the pattern is largely the same and the effects less dangerous but no less debilitating to the victims.

Any organisation that has a mantra of hiring "the best", "the top 1 percent" or "from the best universities" is fostering a culture of entitlement and arrogance in it's staff. By the simple fact of going to work each morning is confirmation of their position as "best". This can have a catastrophic effect on an organisations ability to hire and retain staff. The formation of a dominant,oppressive culture rather than that of collaborative or inclusive can only lead to the atrophication of ideas and kills innovation. New staff hired in these organisations will only ever be "cookie cutter" representations of those persons already present - cultural stagnation awaits.

What then, can recruiters do to stimulate a change in these practises? There are some easy steps that one can make during the process to try and avoid the later Witch Hunt!

1. Make an advocate for your candidate - When interviewing, particularly in the case of technical staff, use a widely respected member of staff. Make this one of your "gurus" or architects and the wider body of technical staff will instead make value assumptions based on their perception of the interviewer, in short "Bob interviewed him? Oh he must be great then". Of course this does mean that you'll need to ensure that your candidate is good enough to pass that evaluation.

2. Become an advocate for a new hire yourself - During the recruitment process highlight the achievements and status of the new hire. Bring attention to those points that made them an attractive candidate in the first place - publicise their blog, published articles or accomplishments in the Open Source community. This is also a great "double check" on a candidate - if you can't think of anything "saleable" about the candidate are they right? Why are you hiring them?

3. Look closely at your onboarding process. Look for elements of over exposure, take care with a new employee that others are aware of their level and set expectations with these parties. Set meeting points and get regular feedback on performance. If a candidate passes the interview process but is seeming to fail in the day to day work look closer at the tasks assigned are any outside of those first detailed in the recruitment process or envisaged in the role description.

4. Assign a sponsor or buddy for your new hire. ThoughtWorks has an effective sponsor programme in operation currently. Sponsees are expected to meet up at least once a month to discuss how things are going and other concerns or problems they may have. These meetings are informal and are often over a lunch or after hours adding to the social aspect.

The hatred and misogyny espoused by the Malleus would eventually come to an end in Europe. In England in 1684, Scotland in 1722 and not until 1782 for the Swiss. So the fervour for alienation and accusation has long been dead... but how much of it lies dormant in your corporate culture? How welcome are your new employees? Is there any Matthew Hopkins spirit in the dark corners of your office?


Anonymous said...

I may have missed something, but I think I vehemently disagree with the implications and assertions in this post, which is disappointing because I normally enjoy your insights.

Are said incumbent staff more arrogant than a recruitment professional who thinks they are capable of ascertaining all the nuances required to ensure candidates are acceptable on a sufficient number of facets (some being more important than others)?

Matt said...

I'd counter that the arrogance isn't in the case of an individual recruiter but it's a conceit of the process of recruiting someone. If an individual passes all of the hurdles that a hiring process puts in front of him it isn't the Recruiter who makes the decision but largely the process itself. I am as yet unsure if this happens in ThoughtWorks my comments followed a discussion with a colleague in a similar position to my own in another organisation and it's a behavior she had noticed.

There should always be an on going review period for every new hire, a probabtion period should be clearly defined in terms of timescale and goals. However, in my colleagues organisation she found that those who were not included in the interview process would then go on to doubt the individual in questions ability to do their job. This second guessing of the interview process, not the recruiter is the danger I was seeking to highlight. Increasingly in a well rounded process it's not the recruiter who makes a decision to hire or not to pursue an application but the outcomes of the hiring process. The position of recruiter is often as guardian of an accepted series of obstacles, socialised and normalised by the culture of the employer rather than an individual recruiter who has the final word.

Recovering ThoughtWorker said...

Of course at the other end of the life cycle, exiting people, ThoughtWorks has got the Witch Hunt down to a fine art. There is a litany of people, many of them long-serving, who were booted out according the the following procedure. Senior management orchestrate a whispering campaign against the hapless TWer. The first they hear of it is that HR haul them in for a disciplinary hearing, and a process (possibly originating in Malleus Maelficarum) is started where those involved in the whispering campaign are solicited for "feedback". The feedback is simply a regurgitation of all the baseless, vitriolic tittle-tattle whipped up during management's whispering campaign. Any positive feedback is mysteriously dropped. All this is then presented to the employee by senior management, with the lawyer and HR director in attendance, along with an ultimatum that they can't possibly stay at the company with this kind of feedback floating around. This forecloses the "disciplinary process". The TWer counters with a threat of an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. TW know this is coming and immediately offer to settle for a smidgen over the maximum award available at a tribunal (not much), if the employee signs a non-disclosing compromise agreement. With the prospect of management against them, everyone having been fed false information by that management and a paid exit from all that hideousness, they give in and take it.

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger would be proud. Unfortunately for ThoughtWorks it means they are now on many people's, and many companies, Consultorium Prohibitorum.

Anonymous said...

I know some people who do not want to have their salaries listed due to personal privacy but favour a more Kadima type centrist approach and prefer to have "salary bands" rather than "Name-Salary" table. Salary bands may not be as relevant as one would expect those to get from a range to websites such as payscale and and itjobswatch. So, no point in "salary bands" then again either.