(The story below is based on true events, while working in Senegal)
The recruitment day was going well. The head of HR was accompanied by a sales manager, and they were both satisfied with how things were moving forward. Their pre-selection process ensured that they were now interviewing their best candidates for the job (that of field coordinator). They now had several intense hours to see everyone through a series of exercises, some which would assess individual strengths and some which were designed for testing group working skills. There was also a new component that had been included this time: a psychological test. It was an individual exercise meant to test each candidate’s capacity to accept feedback – in this case – negative feedback. After having spent the previous 2 months speaking with all of the managers and evaluating the previous recruitment methods used for hiring field coordinators, HR had learned that good candidates who had difficulty accepting and giving feedback faired poorly on the job. Feedback was an integral part of the company culture. Naturally, giving and receiving positive feedback is easier than giving and receiving negative feedback. Negative feedback can trigger many emotions in people, especially those who prefer to “save face” or evade potential conflict. So, moving forward, the HR director had decided to include a component in the recruitment process to test each candidate’s capacity to receive negative feedback. Working together with the head of Sales who also had a minor in psychology, they had decided together that the element of surprise was very important in order to get an authentic reaction. They agreed that it would cause some stress to the candidates. Yet they felt it was important to weed out those who would react poorly to negative feedback on the job. Being skilled and a team player simply wasn’t enough, for they needed people who could manage criticism.
The exercise was simple. They would time the “feedback test” (as they called this part of the recruitment process) so that it would take place right after one of the individual exercises. They would call in each candidate separately into a private space and pretend to have the results of that candidate’s previous exercise with them. They would then proceed to criticize the person’s results regardless of their actual performance. The criticism was not meant to be overly harsh however it was meant to be a negative review of their performance with a sprinkle of disappointment in the lines of “I hoped you were capable of doing better.” After the candidate’s initial reaction had been assessed they would then be informed that their performance had been fine and that the criticism had been offered as a test to see their natural reaction to criticism/negative feedback. Because the candidates would then leave that room to proceed to another stage of the recruitment day there was no risk that they would give the game away to their fellow candidates. So, the ruse was on.
The head of HR and the sales manager began their work. The candidate’s came in one by one. Of course both of the recruiters were having quite a bit of fun with this process. It felt like acting. It was acting, in a way, since most of the candidate’s had performed exceptionally well in the previous exercise and so the recruiters were forced to lie to the candidate’s telling them that they had “performed poorly” and that they had “expected better results”. However the individual reactions over these criticism were quite telling. A few people drew a blank. They had been so sure that they had done well in the exercise (in truth, they had performed well) that they didn’t know what to say when faced with criticism. They simply nodded and gazed wide-eyed at the recruiters. Only 2 or 3 people had the “ideal” reaction (ideal from the recruiter’s perspective). They were shocked to receive the negative feedback, but they also quickly recovered and said that they would be happy to look over the exercise again and to incorporate any improvements that the recruiters would suggest. These kinds of answers earned candidates top marks. They were rare, but they happened.
The recruiting pair were almost finished with their list of candidates when a tall, young man walked in. They picked up his file, like they had picked up the files of each candidate walking in, and read his name to confirm who he was. He nodded upon hearing his name – Amir. Then the head of HR took a deep breath and told Amir in his low, gentle, slightly disappointed tone that he had received the results of his last assignment and they were quite poor. Amir froze, gazing from one recruiter to the other, clearly confused. Quite well practiced by now, the head of HR continued his speech with the now classic mention of “we expected more from you”. Amir started growing red in the face while his tall frame grew even taller. Suddenly he burst out in angry pride “How dare you say that you expected more from me!” He spluttered, and continued “I have a fine education, and I answered those questions to the best of my ability!” He was nearly yelling by now, having taken aback the head of HR and the sales manager who were torn between the desires to laugh and calm down their upset candidate. Amir spluttered and spat out a few more phrases which were growing increasingly less coherent. There was something about “my superior education” and “best answers possible”. He was fuming. And he was clearly demonstrating a lot of pride and confusion. Unfortunately he had clearly failed the “feedback test”, and the recruiters made note of it in their notebooks. But there was also no need to keep the young man upset for too long. Taking a deep breath the sales manager stepped up and gently spoke to Amir. “Listen Amir, I’m sorry you’re upset.” she tried to speak smoothly and gently, “We’re not trying to insult your work. Actually, your performance in the last exercise was good. It was very good. That’s not the problem.” she let the head of HR take over the conversation as he added “Hey man, chill dude, it’s OK. We were just trying to get a feel for how you receive criticism. We weren’t trying to be mean.” and they all let out shaky laughs as Amir relaxed a little, his tension and nervousness now ebbing. Once he had taken a few deep breaths he relaxed a little, and he even smiled. Picking up his briefcase, he looked up at the sales manager, his confidence clearly rebuilding. He said to her in a confidential manner “So I did pretty good in the last exercise. I know I did.” he puffed out his chest proudly, and then added in full sincerity, to the recruiters’ amazement, “I’m sure I aced this one too, eh?”. With that he winked to the manager, shook hands with the head of HR and left the room.