I wanna go undercover. Are you with me?

Recruiting from a hiring manager’s perspective, coming from the horse’s mouth, as told by a friend.

After getting “laid off” (that’s another story; I will post it later) a few months ago and still no offers in sight, I started scratching my head, looking for possible causes.

For the most part, the jobs I applied to, I felt I was well qualified for. In the mean time, I still maintain a fairly healthy application to first-interview ratio. But after that, I either got the silent treatment or the standard “you-are-impressive-but-we-went-with-someone-with-a-better-fit” message. Most of these same job ads are still kicking around. I guess they would rather stare at the fridge on a Saturday night than go out with me, as if it were dating.

That’s when a friend of mine — let’s call him Vangos — came into the picture. Vangos and I used to work together a few years back. We still kept in contact after going our separate ways. Now he is a general manager for a automotive consulting firm. He sees a lot of potential for growth in his shop, and has opened up an immediate position to set the wheel in motion.

As soon as Vangos heard I was looking, he urged me to apply. He told me needed someone he can trust and it would be just like old times. As reassuring as it is, I mentioned that relocation would be an issue for family reasons. However, Vangos persisted and asked me everyday to to reconsider. So I put in an application for him, with one condition: “I would like to know what goes on with the hiring process from your point of view. What kind of applications came in and how decisions are made on your end.”

With a gentlemen’s handshake over the phone, the deal is sealed. I promptly filed my application “for his consideration” that evening. Vangos also held his end of the bargain; he told me I was Candidate Number Five.

Vangos then went on to tell me his take on the recruitment progress, which is pretty straightforward. First he needed to wait until enough applications arrived, which he would review and weed out any unqualified ones. The remaining ones would be sent straight to his manager to arrange first interviews, second interviews, offers, negotiation, and so on.

According to him, as an established, profitable but relatively unknown SME (Small-to-Medium-Enterprise), it is difficult to solicit enough interest. Job seekers at all levels prefer bigger names for their perceived prestige and job security. Furthermore, his firm serves a pretty narrow niche in the automotive sector, and finding talents with such expertise is not easy. Realistically, he would be satisfied with an outsider with plenty of similar field experience, provided that he demonstrates that he can pick up the specifics of the business on his own quick enough.

“Frankly”, as he told me what he would expect, “we are looking at maybe a maximum of 10 applicants, and none of them are qualified.” I followed up on this, and he went on, “You are talking about kids straight out of university who will get run over by customers and competitors in no time. As a small company it is important we have someone who understands the real world.”

I have also seen this enough on my own. Bigger players often try to leverage their consultants. As a new player, you might sometimes have to trade earning potential for credibility, and hopefully a foot in the door. But at some point you have to draw the line, and letting the other side know your limits is more complicated than “no means no”. You’ll always be doing “great work” for them until you ask for incentives, and you are always worried that they will walk away once you do. It is a fine balancing act.

So over two weeks, resumes trickled in. It wasn’t too far from Vangos’s expectations. In total there were 30 applications. He threw out 15 immediately for not having valid work permits. Most of the remaining were, as he predicted, fresh grads with little relevant experience. Only two stood out, and I was one of them.

“See, from this pile of applications you are the most qualified,” Vangos said in a as-a-matter-of-fact kind of way. “None of the other ones even came close to having your experience and qualifications.” While he isn’t making the final decision, but he reassured me management would also see things his way.

“But the others could work for less if they feel they can do the job without the necessary qualification and experience,” I added. “You’re wrong,” you could almost hear him smirking. “There is enough money to go around and we don’t want to take the cheap route. If we don’t think we could expand we would not have hired at all.”

Then I pondered my next worry to him. “How about I don’t have a job right now? Should I also worry about it?” “Of course you should, but it also means you are immediately available,” he replied. “As long as you’re not lounging around all day long it’s not a big issue. You got what I’m sayin’?”

What he said did ring true. None of my interviewers frowned upon my current employment gap, not even a hint of that. One interviewer even said to me, “look, I got fired as and it took me a whole year before I got this one!” While he is still pretty bitter about this — and that happened over two years ago — he also realized it takes a long time to land a job you want these days.

“But I still had one question, Vangos. Who is this second person you mentioned who stood out?”

“You won’t believe it. It’s a taxi driver from south Paris.”

That was the oddest thing I have heard. “Why do you think he’s also qualified for this job?”

“I didn’t say he’s qualified. I just said he stood out.”

And so the Skype interview was set up. It was with Vangos and his two bosses, also the owners of the company. It was a non-stop discussion of over 90 minutes. Questions came and answers went like whirlwind from both sides. They were skeptical at first but throughout we managed to build a very strong rapport. Vangos sat and listened throughout, I guess for moral support.

Near the end came one question from one of the owners, perhaps the most difficult of all. “How do you think you could relocate to work with us?”

I prepared for everything, but this one was my Achilles Heel. I didn’t really want to move again for work, but on the other hand, out of my friendship with Vangos, I didn’t want to openly lie. Also, aside from the location issue, this is actually a really good fit. So I took the most neutral answer of them all.

“Sorry, I have not decided how to go about this and I have no answer for you.”

After a few more minutes of trying to prod some a more concrete response from me, the owner finally gave up and said this.

“I know it is difficult for you, but how could we give you an offer if you can’t answer this question?”

Yet after another few minutes of various questions and closing remarks, we thanked each other and went back to our merry ways. I don’t think I had such an exhaustive interview for ages, and that one was over 3 hours.

Vangos would later tell me, they were about to give me the offer on the spot. That is, only if I show willingness to move. Sometimes family is more important.

Even with Vangos’s willingness to provide his side of the story, I don’t really know what I gained from this experience. I know Vangos well enough he would simply tell me things like it is. I respect him for that. Most of the issues I thought could be problematic (i.e., competence, money, and job gap) were not as serious as I expected. This is, luckily, still the good news.

Maybe different people think differently. If this is really “typical” of my personal job search scenario, what else could be the problem then? On the other hand, if getting that qualified someone were really not so easy, why are there so many people still looking for work?

The search goes on …

The Little Guy talking about Little Things everyone talks about.