If a thank you note is a requirement, I don’t want to work for you

Jessica Liebman wrote an article for Business Insider where she shared a hiring rule: If someone doesn’t send a thank-you email, don’t hire them. This, to be blunt, is a garbage rule. I don’t even know where to begin describing why I don’t like it, so I’ll let Twitter get us started.

When I’ve been on the hiring team, a short, sincere “thank you” email has always been nice to receive. But I’ve never held the lack of one against a candidate. It’s not like we’re doing them some huge favor. We’re trying to find a mutually beneficial fit. And employers hold most of the power, in the interview process and beyond.

You can lament it if you want, but the social norm of sending thank yous for gifts is greatly diminished. So even if it would have been appropriate in the past, it’s no longer expected. And, as noted above, it’s culture-specific anyway.

Until employers see fit to offer meaningful feedback to all applicants, they can keep their rule requiring thank you notes to themselves. And even after that. If an employer wants to use arbitrary gates that have no bearing on performing the job function, I don’t want to work for them.

Subconscious biases in hiring

The tech industry has a diversity problem. It’s not the industry is full of racist, sexist, whateverist jerks (I mean, there are plenty of those jerks, but they’re not the majority). People have unconscious biases, and in industry that’s poorly-defined and rapidly changing, the tendency is to go for the safe, familiar bet.

Even people who are very smart and successful fall into this trap. Take, for example, Jeff Atwood. Jeff wrote a great piece a few weeks ago where he tore up the “we only hire the best” manta that many companies are so fond of deluding themselves into. Jeff describes hidden biases and talks about how damaging they can be. And then he advocates his own hidden bias.

The idea of an audition project is certainly appealing on the surface: you can take a risk on a candidate and see how well they actually work. No hoping that their resume and interview skills outshine their work performance. No worrying that you’ll be stuck with a malcontent who drags the rest of the team down for the next three years. No hiring a parent of young children. Wait, what?

Expecting someone to take a short-term trial job is basically saying “you must be this well-off to apply.” I have two small kids who already think I spend too much time in the office. There’s no way I would work an extra job for a few weeks unless we were in danger of being homeless. I changed jobs while I was in grad school. Atwood’s model would have meant I got no sleep for the duration of my trial period. Oh sure, I could have quit my job in the hopes that this audition worked out, but that’s a risk that very few people are in a position to take.

That Atwood would advocate such an idea in a post about hidden biases without even mentioning the fact that it biases the hiring process against many qualified candidates is a testament to how hard these biases are to overcome.

Job requirements: often counterproductive

My friend Rikki Endsley shared an article from Quartz entitled “job requirements are mostly fiction and you should ignore them“. Based on how quickly my friends re-shared the post, it seems to have resonated with many people. The article is targeted at job applicants and the TL;DR is “apply for the job you want, even if you don’t think you’re qualified. Job postings are written to describe ideal candidates, even if they’re not realistic, and most hiring managers would gladly take someone who meets some of the requirements. When a characteristic is listed under “requirements” instead of “preferred”, potential applicants assume that they shouldn’t bother applying.

This isn’t true in all cases, of course. In some places, the requirements are well-written and the hiring manager doesn’t consider any applications that don’t meet the requirements. Other times, the initial evaluation is done by the human resources department and they apply the requirements strictly (as an anecdote, I know I’ve been rejected for more than one position because my degree was in the wrong field. This despite that I had experience in the position and the hiring manager asking HR for my resume specifically). In many cases, though, the “requirements” are a high bar. The Internet is full of (possibly apocryphal) stories of job postings wanting 7 years of experience in a 5 year old programming language.

Hiring managers aren’t addressed directly in the article, but there’s a lesson here for you: be careful when writing job requirements. Apart from scaring away people you might have otherwise ended up hiring (especially women, who are more likely to pass on jobs where they don’t meet all of the qualifications), you’re robbing yourself of a good way to weed out the truly unqualified. Especially when someone else is pre-screening applicants, I prefer to craft job postings as broadly as possible. I would much rather spend extra time reviewing applicants than miss out on someone who would have been a great hire. It’s a low-risk, high-reward decision.

It’s not cheap to hire people. Especially in small organizations, you don’t want to risk hiring someone who you’ll have to get rid of in six months. But turnover isn’t cheap, either. I haven’t studied this, but speaking from my own experience, I’m much more likely to leave a position when I feel like I’ve stopped growing. By hiring someone who is 80-90% of the way there instead of 100%, you buy yourself more time with this person, reducing turnover. Sure, you get less productivity initially, but allowing an employee to grow is a cheap way to keep them interested in their work.

Likewise, I don’t want to apply for a job where I could step in on day one and do everything. If I wanted a job that I could do easily, I’d still be in my first job. I bet I’d be really good at it by now, but my skills wouldn’t have expanded. As a friend-of-a-friend said “I don’t think I’ve ever applied for a job that I was qualified for.” If employers can write job requirements aspirationally, then potential applicants should be aspirational in job applications.

How not to get hired

With over 3000 machines in five different buildings on campus, we rely heavily on student labor to keep everything up and running. Unfortunately, undergrads tend to do things like graduate, which means we’re hiring almost every semester. Recently, we decided to hire six new students, since much of our staff graduates soon.

We received about 12 resumes, and since none of them looked particularly terrible, we brought them all in for half-hour interviews. I present here some lessons on how not to get hired.

  • Show up 20 minutes late — Trust me, we don’t have work we need to be doing. I mean, it’s not like you knew you had a final right before the interview. Being late is so much better than asking in advance for a different interview time.
  • Don’t show up at all — This is even better. If you’ve got a five our drive that includes passing through Chicago, there’s no chance that anything will happen to delay you. An e-mail later that night totally makes things okay. Once again, don’t even think about asking for an interview time that you can actually make it to.
  • Have no knowledge of computer hardware — It’s not like the job description says anything about working with hardware. Don’t be able to reconnect desktop components. Don’t be able to work your way through a troubleshooting exercise. That stuff is pointless.
  • Bullshit me — Watching your brother put together a computer is the same as knowing hardware. Having used a Linux computer in your programming class is the same as knowing Linux. I won’t be able to tell.

In all seriousness, it does strike me how seemingly rare hardware experience is among college students these days. Have computers become so cheap and plentiful that hardware skills aren’t necessary to become a computer nerd? Fortunately, we’ve always been able to find enough quality students. Some of them even go on to get job offers for way more than I make.