Huberta Berlaimont interview
At a recent investor dinner in Singapore in late 2017, I met an intriguing young tech entrepreneur named Huberta Berlaimont. Her pitch was compelling: I was sold on becoming an early customer of the new firm, Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL, and ostensibly the first customer to go public about using their service.
Paco Nathan: Thank you, Huberta, for the interview. Could you please describe a bit about the new service which your firm has launched?
Huberta Berlaimont: Yes, of course. It’s called Inverted Resumé and it is a blockchain for the entire lifecycle of the hiring process, from initial contact through receipt of the first paycheck.
PN: Hiring seems like a thoroughly understood process. What benefits does blockchain bring — and in particular what does your service add?
HB: Current practices for hiring may be well understood. However, those practices are far from equitable. I would say that accepted HR practices in technology firms are horrible at best. They are lawsuits waiting to happen, which HR teams excuse with “Well, everybody does it” justifications. Hiring is overdue for much evolution.
PN: Horrible? Can you give examples?
HB: Look at the bloodletting in progress among Silicon Valley technology employers, venture capital firms, media, etc. The technology sector is coming to grips with decades of institutionalized sexual harassment. Powerful men are being forced to resign, undergo public humiliation, lawsuits, etc.
PN: Are you saying that hiring practices are responsible for sexual harassment cases?
HB: I am saying that the attitudes and practices codified into typical work agreements have perpetuated work environments that made sexual harassment difficult for a victim to report. For some examples, companies have hidden behind the veil of non-disclosure agreements, forced binding arbitration, non-disparagement clauses, and other legal devices intended to make civil actions asymmetrically favor the employers, while systematically disadvantaging the employees.
PN: Okay, I buy that. I’m astounded at the legal language and terms which have crept into work agreements used at tech companies over the past decade — and that’s merely for the companies where I’ve considered signing.
HB: Hiring tech talent is a very serious bottleneck for the health of companies in general —
PN: They call it the “talent gap”, as McKinsey and others consulting firms describe.
HB: Yes, the talent gap is very real, on the one hand. On the other hand, hiring practices are designed to fast-track candidates into signing what are virtually one-sided agreements, in favor of employers. Recruiters only accelerate the worst aspects. It’s as if prospective employees get treated like serfs in a feudal society. When, in reality, they are the limited “resources”, who should be negotiating for rights and position.
PN: So then, what is your firm, and what does it do?
HB: Our start-up is Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL. The Inverted Resumé uses blockchain to put into effect a suite of unidirectional services plus the ability to use homomorphic queries on their data trail.
PN: In other words, the actions taken in a given hiring engagement could be audited or verified by third-parties?
HB: Yes, exactly. The people have their personal information kept confidential and private. However, if there are any issues that arise, the entire chain from first contact through to first paycheck can be audited by third-parties, such as an individual’s legal counselor. The individual controls what information will be disclosed, and to whom. Dates, the actions taken by other parties such as a recruiting firm, the hiring firm, etc., all are verifiable.
PN: So there’s an audit trail, through blockchain, such that if the company says one thing during the hiring process — like perhaps, offer a particular role or title — but then does a bait-and-switch later, the facts can speak for themselves.
HB: Recruiters and prospective employers must agree up-front to a potential employee’s legal terms.
PN: You’re from Europe, though as I understand your firm is based here in Asia and not organized under EU law. How does the upcoming GDPR have impact on Inverted Resumé?
HB: We provide, effectively, a better insurance for the hiring firms, for their compliance to the GDPR.
PN: As a for instance?
HB: The opportunities are clear. LinkedIn has been a feeding-frenzy for recruiters. However, it does not provide much assurance for the candidates. LinkedIn is almost entirely about one-sided benefits. While many hiring firms make claims of commensalism, it is simply not the case. In other words, commensalism implies that people who have profiles on LinkedIn benefit overall by having companies approach them for potential new jobs. There have been numerous cases of abuse. Now with GDPR and other consumer privacy laws gaining momentum, the potential for large-scale litigation related to LinkedIn data privacy abuses becomes quite real.
PN: Changing gears for a moment, what brought you to launch this start-up?
HB: I was completing business school, going through early interviews. The story about Susan Folwer at Uber had begun to surface, and I’d read some articles about how work agreements aggravated these kinds of problems. It struck me that (a) this problem seemed pervasive, and (b) sexual harassment issues were only the tip of the iceberg. My instructors were very supportive of the idea, to overhaul work agreements.
PN: Did you launch the company while still in business school?
HB: No, we did a class project where I explored some of the initial ideas. The part about leveraging blockchain came later.
PN: You mentioned “tip of the iceberg” — what are some other looming problems that you foresee in the tech workplace?
HB: There an entire spectrum of bad behaviors which get swept under the rug, conveniently, because some offending executive is considered “a high performer” and other executives look the other way. We could see that racism and ageism are likely to follow close behind the current sexism purge. For that matter there is rampant narcissism, borderline personality disorders, compulsive lying, etc., all these tend to get unlawful practices in the workplace excused in the name of revenues.
PN: All the problems that a “gold rush” brings, and you believe that binding arbitration, non-disparagement, and other legal devices are at the root of those issues?
HB: It is necessary, though not sufficient, that employers clean up their work agreements. Infractions will happen, purges will happen, lawsuits will continue. It is better to clean up contractual relationships, now, than to keep that Sword of Damocles as it stands. For example, I cannot understand how a female CEO in 2018 could possible conscience having a non-disparagement clause enforced in a work agreement. It is horrifying to think about, because it will be used to silence innocent people when companies are at fault — when some manager does wrong, gets found out, and the firm becomes desperate to hide their dirt. And yet, there are many in that category.
PN: Finally, you made an interesting remark about online presence for your company? Or the lack thereof…
HB: Yes, it is true that Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL, has no public presence. While our staff size is relatively small, employees are precluded by mutual agreement from identifying in public — such as on social networks. We check, though that has been all voluntary: no one wants to be under pressure as the public face, to be the target for cyber attacks when the data is potentially valuable. Instead, all interactions including billing are conducted through a wholly-owned subsidiary.
PN: Do you prevent your employees from participating online, such as in social media?
HB: No, we preclude anyone from identifying as part of the company. The point is to keep our unidirectional services truly unidirectional.
PN: Huberta, many thanks and I wish all the best on your new venture.
Candidates never contact Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL, directly. Communications only go through through a candidate’s placement firm — the unidirectional service, which helps firewall off the potential privacy and security issues. In fact the only “point of presence” that seems to be public to any degree is a Google form which collects initial agreements the party interested in hiring. For example, here’s my Inverted Resumé.
Let’s walk through how this works, by the numbers.
Step 1. I coordinate through my placement firm to arrange for an Inverted Resumé service. Then I pay a small fee ($) to register a resumé. Plus, I’d pay a similar fee anytime that I wanted to update my resumé.
Step 2. Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL, publishes the form and send me a URL which I can put into my website, LinkedIn profile, etc.
Step 3. An interested party, the Applicant, who might want to hire someone like me pays a small fee ($) for homomorphic search of candidates’ data, and optionally they can pay another small fee ($) for funnel metrics about a particular candidate.
Step 4. Say that a firm moves to contact me. They must agree to terms, up front, which go into the blockchain related to my account. I receive encrypted email, with options to continue or ignore the request.
Step 5. If I reply with continue then they pay a fee ($$) for an initial screening interview, arranged online through Twilio so that none of my contact info gets shared. As a candidate, I receive credits for a rev-share of that fee. My placement firm also receives rev-share for all Applicant actions.
Step 6. The Applicant pays a fee ($$$) for each subsequent interview.
Step 7. If they make an offer, that too must go through the blockchain system, and they pay a one-time fee ($$$$) with rev-share out to my placement firm if I accept.
The effect is to replace the current situation of one-sided benefits with multi-party benefits, and meanwhile also replacing relatively opaque data with unidirectional services and homomorphic queries. Note that there’s a two-sided market, since each action has a transaction fee — with a progressive fee schedule as a relationship moves deeper into the conversion funnel. Both the candidate and the placement firm receive rev-shares at their respective points. This creates a cost basis for employers that have “endless rounds” of interviews.
As I understood from talking with Huberta, each Applicant company must place a “good faith actions” bond in cryptocurrency — which they forfeit in the case of malfeasance. For example, firing an employee whom they identify as actively interviewing at a competitor. So there’s a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” aspect, where “good actor” Applicants which follow the rules probabilistically gain ROI on their bond, due to the eventual forfeits of the “bad actors” in the system.
Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL, performs reference checks for each candidate, in advance. Ostensibly that helps create a more objective basis. It also limits liability for hiring firms, in cases of bad references. More importantly for me, it reduces the “fatigue” on a candidate’s references, in situations where multiple companies might be calling at the same time.
I was allowed to talk with one hiring firm which had been a customer, on the condition of strict anonymity:
“In one early case, our Accounts Payable missed a payment deadline. Wexelblatt-Rivas, SàRL, offered our Legal office three choices. Apparently, they’d done their homework, too, to find out pain points. The choices were between forfeit of our good faith bond, a lien against customs and shipping at one of our off-shore facilities, or immediate payment plus surcharge. The latter was a no-brainer. The off-shore facility was in a small country, but critical for our manufacturing supply chain. Any hiccups there would’ve either caused product inventory delays or substantial tax hits for workarounds through other countries.”
Overall, the service seems smart. It’s intended to bring balance and accountability into a situation which lacks either, really. Perhaps now the “Well, everybody does it” justifications will no longer have teeth.