Hiring Shouldn’t be a Pop Quiz: Let’s Make it Open Book

Last week, I read this article about how an executive managing editor at Business Insider will only hire people who send her a thank-you note.

Then Twitter blew up a little:

There are a couple of distinct camps:

  • Yes. 100%! No thank you card, no hire!
  • NO. WAY. This is culturally insensitive and only serves to hire compliant people who will “say yes” to everything.

I can see both sides of this argument. And in the end, I’m netting out here: We should make interviews less like pop quizzes and more like open book, relationship-building exercises. Let me explain.


The case for the “thank you”

There is some merit to be said for the kind of person who sends an incredible thank-you note.

To be clear, I don’t just mean a “check the box” thank you — but one that somehow manages to extract meaning from the conversation and apply it in an interesting and thoughtful way.

Done correctly, a thank-you can showcase a real proactive attitude in a candidate. If we referenced an article and you share it with me afterward, that’s the “above and beyond” attitude that I tend to enjoy in people around me. If you kept noodling on a part of our conversation and are still thinking about it the next day, then email me to let me know, that’s also a great thing to include in a thank-you note.

I’ve interviewed candidates that sent such great thank-you notes (even when I ultimately didn’t hire them) that we stay in touch to this day. I love the medium of a thank-you note as a communication pathway to continue great connections and build upon that relationship in the future.

All that to say, I totally understand how you might interpret a lack of a “thank you” note as a lack of interest in the role. But is unfair to assume this is always the case? Should the lack of a thank-you note ever be a reason not to hire someone? I’m not sure.


The “thank you” test

I thought back to a time when I was a part of the hiring process for an executive assistant role.

During in in-person interviews, one candidate stood out far and away above the others. We all really liked her and were excited to move her forward in the process.

But then, 24 hours passed. And no note.

We started to get a little fidgety about it. Did she note want the job? Did she not like us as much as we liked her? Did we say something to put her off? Did she find a better job elsewhere? OMG WAIT DOES SHE THINK WE ARE HORRIBLE PEOPLE AND SOMEHOW NOW HATE US?!?!

That was a sampling of the kind of thoughts running through my head at the time. Later that day, I mentioned this conundrum to a friend over coffee.

“Yeah, I mean, I hate to say it, but we were all feeling really good about this candidate… but then… no note. Am I crazy to think this matters?”

He gave me a look and asked a very important question: “That depends. Do you think it shows something about her potential future job performance in this role by *not* sending a thank-you note?”

I thought about it. “Honestly, maybe? She’s interviewing as an executive assistant. Following up is a very important part of relationship building.”

“Did you tell her that?” he asked.

“Sorry, what?’

“In the interview,” he continued. “Did you tell her that following up was an important part of your relationship management agreement here?”

“Ummm…” I thought about it, but couldn’t seem to recall.

“If you didn’t, then you can’t test her on that,” he said plainly. “It’s possible that she was just operating under a different service level agreement for relationship management — maybe hers is, ‘Get the information communicated as efficiently as possible and avoid unnecessary noise in someone’s inbox.’”

“Hm.” I said, shrugging it off and changing subjects — a classic “Bethany” move that I do when someone has called me on something I hadn’t considered and I know they are probably right and I am probably wrong, but I’m just not ready to admit it yet.

As I walked back to the office, I considered his point. If a “thank you” note is important to us in doing this job right, we at least need to express the importance of this first rather than simply assume this is somehow telepathically imparted onto each candidate. After all, isn’t it more interesting not to see what somebody already knows but what their capacity is to grow and adapt with you in the role?

When I got back to the office, I said to my colleagues: “I don’t think we should discredit her for not sending a note. But we might consider talking with future candidates about what our email culture is here and how important follow-ups and timely responses are in this job.”

The next day, we got an email from her: She was no longer interested in the role. She got another offer that she accepted.


The problem with pop quizzes in interviews

One of my favorite-ever hiring stories is when I coached an acquaintance of mine before an interview at a startup. She was applying to a sales position (her first one) and as someone who had also worked in sales for a bit at a startup, I gave her a few pointers from my experience.

At the end of the interview, I asked her how it went.

“HORRIBLE!” she said.

“Oh no!” I panicked. Had my advice completely led her astray? “What happened?”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Honestly I just don’t think it was a great place to work. Even the interviewer didn’t seem to like his job!”

“What?!” I exclaimed. “That makes no sense. How do you know? What did he say about what he doesn’t like about the company?”

“Well, nothing explicit about the company,” she admitted. “But he just kept telling me reasons why I *wouldn’t* like the job. He was basically talking me out of wanting to work there. It was SO. WEIRD.”

“Ah,” I said. “Well, I mean, it was a sales job, right?”

“Yeah. So…?”

“He was probably just trying to get you to sell yourself. To see how good you are at convincing people. You know, kind of like a sales test.”

She was silent.

I left our conversation shaking my head and laughing a little.

But now, years later, I realize that there’s a bit of an unequal injustice in how this all went down. Sure, it’s possible that sales just wasn’t right for her at that time in her life. But it’s also possible that, had she known about this “secret sales test” going into the interview, she wouldn’t have reacted that way. Maybe if she knew she was selling, she would have gone into “sales mode.”

The same goes for thank you notes. If you know you’re being “tested” on this, chances are, you would react differently. And from that point on, once you’ve made it clear that your follow-up comments are a part of this evaluation, then it’s fair game for everyone to compete with those rules.

The older I get, the more empathy I have for the feeling of being an “outsider” looking to “break in” to a new group. A new company. A new job. Transitions of any type are tough. And it’s so unlikely that you’ll answer every question as best as you can from day one.

But jobs are temporary. And growth is a built-in component of doing well in any role. So maybe it is unfair that we create these make-believe “tests” of behaviors we assume the ideal candidate will do or already exhibit. Maybe instead of treating interviews like a black-box pop quiz, we use them as training tools and open book exams. I imagine, if we did, we’d foster a lot more inclusivity in the process.


Originally published at Dry Erase.