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Case Study: Let’s Grill Joseph

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Arpita Dandavate nibbled through her food in the cafeteria of Bright & Thakur (B&T). At her table were Madhav and Soham — they were consultants at B&T. All three had grown silent as the voices at the next table grew audible.
 
At the next table sat Vivek Sinha, Meghna Desai — both associate directors, along with two directors of the firm. Vivek and Meghna were agitatedly talking about their exchanges with the Principal of ABC school where their children studied. More than narrating, they were reiterating their arguments. Words flew around the trade off that schools did of quality over quantity, of how schools tried to create an aura of difficulty but, in fact, the learning that was happening was questionable, that the integration of knowledge between subjects was absent and the focus on fact-based evaluation at the exams did not aid strategic thinking and hence, Vivek was saying, “How do we even know what quality we are hiring? I might choose the student with 75-85 per cent marks over someone with a 98 per cent, for he may well have the strategic thinking we need, even if he does not know which joint secretary signed the Mandal Commission report!”
 
Some explanation followed, some laughter, some argument and Soham and Arpita rolled their eyes as if to say, now, what do we do?
 
As they picked up their trays and stood up to leave, Vivek caught the eye of Madhav and said, “Arre, get those executive trainees on board by end of November, the organisation structure study for the municipal corporation has come through, it is a mammoth task, so step on it!”
 
B&T was hiring six executive trainees for this huge assignment and Arpita and Soham were sifting through CVs from candidates who had just graduated. Some were applying to grad schools overseas and would bide time till next fall. 
 
Vivek: We want candidates who will stay at least two years, Arpita. No short term jobs as the cost of retraining is very high for us. They stay 24 months and get a brilliant recommendation for their B-schools. If they quit sooner, they get nothing, make that clear. 
 
Ashok Vatsa (director): And you think this work experience (WE) at B&T matters?
Megha: B-schools have begun to demand WE. If I was a student I would somehow get the WE, as the whole take-away from a B-school is significantly different if you have the WE.
Vivek: When I taught a module  on CRM for Aspen Business School. I did not use text books and such. I just stood there and taught. Now, the class had both kinds of students: those with WE and those without. Some students who had WE would ask ‘how do you’ questions, related to their experience with the subject. But those without WE, rated me real bad. They wanted work sheets, they wanted hand outs, they wanted something to learn and memorise, a book to study from. Then looking at our PPTs they wanted to know if they would be asked questions based on the PPT!

When I said the questions will be very application based, you will be judged on the principles, they were sorely upset. They wanted a text book. 
 
There are no fixed answers — that was the message I was giving them, but they were brought up on set rules, and felt safe in format, in prescriptions, in scaffolds. They could not churn the lesson and draw a multiplicity of learning from it. This, I say is a function of education that tests memory and restricts thinking. And many get in through the crack... won’t these sorts contaminate the system and pull down students who have an unhindered mind?
 
Ashok: But that is the kind of people you are going to get... The system today delivers students who are not assessed for strategic thinking. With what confidence then, do you hire a person who says he got a 98 per cent in his boards? (Looking at Arpita) What kind of candidates do you have in your shortlist?
 
Arpita looked towards Vivek unsure if she should even reply. Then she said, “It is a mixed bunch. Many are top scorers at school level, but in their essays they do not all show adventure. I have been thinking about calling a fair mix and interviewing them individually.
 
Meghna: Arpita had shown me the CV of an interesting young lad. No, no, not from one of the top colleges, no way. Arpita, just share what you told me about that boy Joseph?
Arpita: ...yeah, about 80 per cent in his Boards; the cut offs were very high for the better colleges, so he joined some college in Umeed Nagar. But what I found admirable was that he has not been sapped by this; he has conducted a youth festival all on his own, he plays for his college, has his own band that performs at Khyber.... 
Vivek: There will always be hundreds such who are good in many things, but I am looking for a consultant. People have to be hardworking. It is a pre-requisite, not a qualification.
 
Nuts and bolts, I would say poor marks at 12th grade is bad news. My ex-boss used to say when hiring look at just 2 things: 12th grade marks and family. 
 
Meghna: That’s absurd. How hard a person is willing to stretch, matters. People feel life owes them a favour. Many students demand things as a matter of right. My nephew was asked by a foreign university at the interview, ‘Tell us why should you be granted this admission. What is special about you? Right now, you only have shown ability to pay the fees because your father is rich and students like you form less than 5 per cent of India. But what have you done for India?’
Ashok: So, Meghna is saying be not a cribber but a get-up-and-goer. So if the system doled out poor marks even though you worked very hard, are you sulking and moping or do you have the resilience to dust your back and bounce back, like whats-his-name Joseph? A distinctive ability to survive by working extra hard at their life.....
Vivek: These are in the realms of subjectivity. I feel when it comes to hiring one must not apply subjective likes and dislikes. How can we assess if someone is resilient or not when we don’t know the person beyond what his CV says? Will I take that risk for the firm? I am not sure. Then again, can the duality of our minds be applied to hiring people? I feel firms should have templates for human resources and simply hire according to template.
Ashok: Where is subjectivity here? To say people from good families are good is subjectivity. But this Joseph who scored 80 and not the fashionable 100 hence could not get admission, could have felt he deserved the 100 and carried that disappointment to self destructive levels. Instead what he did is celebratory! How is this subjective ‘like’ or ‘dislike’? Business needs survivors! He worked much harder to beat the rut he had been pushed into; much, much harder to remain relevant, because he would have figured that he needs to pole-vault to attain what he has lost owing to the whimsical methods of the colleges. And he did it. He seems to have not allowed judgement and society keep him down. 
 
I would watch out for this guy, he is definitely interesting... he is definitely worth short listing. (to Arpita) Ok, ok, I am not asking you to, but I am debating the arguments now. 
 
Meanwhile a confused  Soham  said to Madhav, “After so much talk, he is still not saying ‘hire Joseph’! So, what is the firm’s view on this?”
 
Madhav: Tu pooch na? Ask, ask, it is your client...and just when it seemed like Meghna had an answer, Ashok stood up and pushed his chair noisily so that it was not clear what she said, but Vivek was shrugging and saying, “That is life, it is about risks...” which was neither here nor there.
 
The party broke up and the men quickly got onto their phones and calls flew around as they all left the cafeteria leaving the younger consultants more confused than they were.
 
Madhav: The approach that HR has depends on the kind of image building they do for the firm. Are they presenting B&T as the killer firm or the ‘we want good people’ or ‘if you have creamed the top, just walk in’...? Frankly we will tend to cover our backs and shortlist the good boy with the best marks, because it is the safest bet. How do you know this Joseph fellow is not a drug addict?
Soham: You have something against good boys? If 5 guys feel he is a better bet, that he has the survivor instinct, and has worked the hardest... wouldn’t you run with that? Most sensible people would!  I daresay the guys who got 100 per cent would not have that ability in them!
Arpita: Ok, let’s run it with some serious HR types. I will call Subhash Bose in our Mumbai office and ask him his opinion.... Bose was my mentor at the last workshop, he is nice, he will guide us.
Soham: Then, I will ask Ami Saldanha (Partner at B&T); she has worked at ITC — solid lineage... let’s see her attitude to this.
 
Soham met Ami at the coffee machine. “Ami, I need direction. Would you place more credence on higher marks at CBSE and hence the kind of college the person has studied at? How much subjectivity is really there in hiring?
 
Ami: A hiring manager’s reflections are finally his  experiences and his perceptions. Maybe they are right and may be they are wrong. While hiring people, it is good to have consistency in what criteria you use and also a good shared understanding of the criteria among the panel members. Looks like in this situation both points seem to be absent, eh? Ha ha. Ok, my advice: HR has to define a criteria. Typically companies have started using competency based interviewing processes — candidates are assessed on a particular competency by posing ‘what would you do, if’ questions. For example, if you want hard working chaps, then ask the candidate — tell us a situation in which the task demanded you to work hard and what did you do. The replies will tell all. Obviously, interviewers need to be trained to catch when the candidate is spinning yarns. 
 
Similarly, probe the high marks candidate and establish that he has fire to match your Joseph and more hunger in his stomach. The interviewers, Soham, should manage their bias as well as their tendency for the Pygmalion effect. A lot of bosses end up hiring clones, which I find very annoying, but then... (she shrugged).
 
So, it all depends on what are the demands of the client, the role, the culture — these  play a big role in hiring. Marks, colleges, etc., can be filters to short list from a large pool, as these are entry level jobs. That is Recruitment. But Selection is dependent on clear cut pre agreed and shared criteria. So, please catch hold of your bosses and make them put their money where their mouth is! 
 
In every country, there would be a bias to particular pedigree — like India loves an IIT-IIM combo. In my own experience of hiring, I have seen people with great pedigrees not doing well in a particular role in a particular company. It is all about the fit. That same chap will likely do a very good job elsewhere. It is not the person, it is the context that is critical to be understood, and candidates evaluated accordingly. The problem compounds when you are hiring freshers because, at this level, everyone looks identical!
 
Soham was captivated. Overwhelmed. He knew instantly he liked Ami Saldanha. He must quickly move into her accounts, he thought.
 
Elsewhere Subhash Bose was telling Arpita on the phone, “This is an everlasting debate! We try not to be influenced by our own biases, but it cannot be helped I guess. But let’s start by understanding the work we are hiring for, and what is required for a person to be successful at it. The job you are profiling involves a lot of data collection, analysis and number crunching. I see two dimensions of this hiring: One, attributes needed to do the job well, and two, the kind of people who will enjoy this job, therefore ‘culture fit’ with the job. Or look for ‘disqualifiers’: What attributes will not work in this job! Mind you, these two dimensions are different, and, in most cases, we tend to ignore one for the other.
 
“It seems to me this job needs candidates who are hard-working, systematic, and analytical. Now what role can grades play in our selection?"
 
While it is not right to generalise, school grades in India are a primarily a function of focus, hard work and basic intelligence. They are also a function of which school you are from, as many schools work like a grade churning factory. People who consistently get good grades clearly demonstrate focus and commitment. That is all. High grades do not imply creativity or intelligence. One kind of intelligence is the ability to do logical analysis, and the ability to look at patterns and think conceptually. Definitely high grades don’t assure conceptual thinking, but can probably be an indicator of analytical thinking. So, grades can be a good proxy for shortlisting at this stage. But is a person committed and hard-working? For that, check if he has taken up one area of passion and strived to be excellent at it?
 
These will cue for you best fitment. 
 
So Arpita, go with grades as a quick and dirty way to sift through the CVs; but if we have the resources, shortlist based on a set of clues from the CV that show commitment, and grades could be just one of the many factors there. This will give you the best fit for the job! I would do this!
 
Later Soham said to Arpita: “Ashok said that there cannot be subjectivity while hiring. I don’t believe that. That everyone is dodging Joseph is subjectivity. Come, let’s grill Joseph...!” 
 
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 15-12-2014)


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