Asking too much

Some companies want their recruits to be experts in everything. By the time they become more realistic it is too late, writes Mary Novakovich
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"SITUATION VACANT: small but dynamic company seeks an expert in IT, marketing, product development and a few other things we haven't finalised, to set up a new electronic publishing venture all on your own. We don't know what we're doing but we expect you to. No timewasters please, although we'llwaste your time while we dither."

Few recruitment advertisements are as farfetched as this one, but the scramble to jump on the electronic publishing bandwagon has left some companies inadvertently falling into this trap. It gives recruitment agencies headaches and can scare off potential candidates.

Isabelle Mackenzie had been a product development manager in an electronic publishing company for some years. She was perfectly content in her job, but thought she would test the waters elsewhere. Looking for a challenge, she was interested to hear of a print production firm that was planning to move into web publishing, although she was initially put off by an enormous job description.

"They wanted somebody who was IT literate, customer focused, product development orientated, with a marketing view and people management skills and more," she recalls. "Even the recruitment agency went back and said, 'You've got to be more focused than that.' "

Isabelle was IT proficient but by no means a systems expert. She was, therefore, mildly astonished to be invited for an interview, and made this point very clear. Their response was to call her in for a second interview.

"After that, I still thought they wanted an IT person more than anything else," she says. "Much to my surprise, they wanted to see me again and this time do a presentation on what I saw were the issues involved in taking them from a print publishing environment to an electronic one. I couldn't help but feel that they were getting some free consultancy out of me."

It was during this third interview that the job mysteriously began to mutate. Apparently the lucky candidate would have to take over the marketing side of the new venture as well, which was perturbing news to both Isabelle and the recruitment agency.

"Their reasoning was, 'Oh, we're a small, evolving company and that's how these things are,'" says Isabelle. "That's fair enough, but not if you've brought people this far along the way."

Tactfully telling the company that she thought their plans were rather ambitious, Isabelle warned the agency that she was unlikely to be taken on. Sure enough, the company offered the job to the other shortlisted candidate because they didn't feel Isabelle would be flexible enough for their sort of environment. Not surprisingly, the other candidate, after going through a similar process, turned them down.

"The last I heard from the agency was that the company had gone back to the drawing board and were rethinking what it was they needed," says Isabelle. "I spent two hours on the first interview and an hour and a half on the second; preparing the presentation another two to three hours, and the last interview was another two to three hours. And they got a free presentation out of me. I wasn't impressed."

Inefficient and ineffectual recruiting often comes with expansion into unknown territory, as the necessary changes in corporate culture might not have kept pace with their plans. Richard Coombes, an executive search consultant with Informed Business Services, has seen this problem in companies trying to move from print to electronic publishing without taking into account both the effects on their resources and the need for proper investment.

"They're used to paying someone who does hard copy production," he says, "but now they've got to get someone who's a marketing expert, a technical expert and a manager and they want to get it all for the same price. Some companies take a year or more to learn that having someone who doesn't quite make it on any level, because that's what they could afford, doesn't work. By then the market has passed them by and someone else is doing it."

Richard Coombes says companies must to be prepared before they start recruiting. Having a trustworthy executive search consultancy, he says, could save time and money.

"Advice needs to be taken and presented to the individuals who are making the decisions," he says. "Don't go to the market until you're a lot surer than you were a month ago about what you want. A big problem is that companies can fatigue the market. By the time the business is ready to take on someone, all of the good people have heard about it and rejected it because those wallies in that place didn't know what they were talking about. Do your research first."