You Can't Ask That!


You Can’t Ask That!
By Douglas Garner

We each shook the candidate’s hand as we took our assigned seats at the conference room table. Of course I sat next to the young man whose resume suggested he just barely met the minimum requirements, since I wanted him to feel he had a “friend” in the room.

Across the table sat three ‘seasoned’ managers. One, the administration director (representing this 30-employee firm’s HR function as well as the other “staff” functions), while another, the Operations Director, who oversaw manufacturing and assembly, both at this location and a facility in Asia, as well as finished goods packaging, warehousing, 24 hour order fulfillment and anything else associated with making sure product was available for sale.

The third person, the other male in the room (besides the candidate and me) for this interview, was the Director of Quality. As the hiring manager, he was preparing to give up (delegate) some quality assurance duties because he was tired of the 80-hour workweeks he had been putting in the last year and a half. Thank goodness management decided they could finally afford to double the Quality Department.

So, as we sat with smiles on each of our faces and thick notebooks, representing all of the data I had assembled for each of the candidates to be interviewed, opened to this young man’s resume, we waited nervously for the hiring manager to begin.

“So, do you own your car?”

As I looked into the eyes of the administration director, I could literally hear her nervous “gulp” and see her brow scrunch up with a quick piercing glare to the hiring manager.  She almost jumped out of her chair. She caught herself, bit her tongue and calmly returned to her previous facial expression while glancing back at the candidate. 

I quickly returned to catch a glance to my side to see the reaction from the young man as he calmly said “yes sir” without any hesitation.

The Operations Director chortled a bit under her breath. She had obviously been in these types of meetings before with the Quality Director and knew that this was not a frivolous question nor one made to lighten the mood in the room.

No, he was going somewhere with this and I must keep my SPHR (senior human resources certification) mindset under control. However, what does owning a car have to do with the qualifications for a Quality Assurance assignment?

Well, what first appeared as a totally off the wall icebreaker question became an incredibly “telling” interview question, at least for this job role, as the following conversation transpired.

The hiring manager responded “terrific!” and then “what kind of gas mileage do you get?”

“19 and ½ miles per gallon, regular unleaded.”

“Pretty good. How do you know that?”

“Well, my car’s fuel tank holds 18 gallons and I fill up whenever I am below a quarter tank on the gauge and I see a station selling my grade for less than the South Carolina’s average fuel rate. I check a website that reports gas prices every week and I note the current state average on a piece of paper I keep in my console.”

“That doesn’t tell me how you know your gas mileage” the hiring manager pointed out.

At this point the HR Director was showing a bit of frustration but also a bit of curiosity with where this line of questioning was headed.

“Yes sir. On that same piece of paper in my console, I write down the number of gallons it takes to fill up, my odometer mileage reading and the date that I fill up.”

“And?” the hiring manager replied.

“Well, this piece of paper then has all of my fill ups on it with an on-going record of my mileage; gallons that I buy at each stop and the time duration between each stop. I keep a running average of miles per gallon between each fill up and I can see if my driving is getting better gas mileage or worse. It’s kind of a game I play with myself to see if my driving techniques like accelerating, braking, speeding or such is getting me better mileage or worse mileage.”

“Why do you call that a game?” responded the Operations Director.

“I guess it’s kind of silly, really, but it’s something I learned as part of my work in quality. You see, I believe that it’s all about doing better with what we do, whether it’s product specifications or process improvements or getting more out with less inputs.”

“That’s certainly not a bad thing.” The HR Director interjected. “In fact we have a reward program where we give employees different stuff for their suggesting ways that we can save money in what we do. We’ve had some great ideas introduced because of this, haven’t we (Hiring Manager/ Quality Director)?”

He responded “yes, but I doubt more than a handful of employees could tell me what kind of gas mileage they get with their cars. And I am positive 99% of them could not tell me how many days they average between fill ups or lessons they have learned about their driving habits’ effect  on their gas mileage.”

“So,” he turned back to the candidate “what do you think my question has to do with your capabilities to perform in this job?”

“Yes, sir” the candidate began “my whole life revolves around this idea of delivering the best to the people we are working for. For the external customer, it’s about satisfying their needs every time.  For the company, it’s about doing the best we can do at the lowest cost. For the other employees, I like to make sure they know what they are doing and they have the idea, like mine, that they have the responsibility to always be thinking about what they are doing and looking for better ways to do it.”

“Son” the Quality Director began, “ I know it sounds pretty good to most people to hear you say your whole life, but please accept a bit of advice. Don’t let the philosophy consume you. There will be times when you will see that the cost of whatever the improvement may be will outweigh the benefit to be gained. I like the way you think. However, you have, hopefully, a long life ahead of you so please don’t let the mission prevent you from enjoying the journey.”

At this point the Quality Director foreshadowed his decision when he said “we have a few more people to talk with today but I can tell you, with all condor, that I believe you are a great Quality Department Associate. “

The interview then proceeded along the path we had all agreed to from the beginning. Each of the other managers asked their questions to learn more about the candidate. They also offered their insights to the company, the work environment and the other “players” that make up the organization.

We concluded on schedule after the young man had his opportunity to ask his questions about the duties, the work schedule, the projects in the queue and other topics or questions he had prepared on his note pad sitting on the table in front of him.

When there was nothing else to discuss, I stood up and extended my hand to shake the candidate’s hand while saying “well, I’ve learned that I need to keep better records to see how my driving habits are affecting my gas mileage.”

Everybody else rose and extended their hands to do the same while the Quality Director suggested “very few people keep track of those kinds of details, and I know that most people don’t understand what control they actually have on their living expenses. By documenting what you are doing. Tracking trends and evaluating your results you can really get a lot more from your money. True quality management professionals recognize that and take every opportunity to share better practices with anybody they find receptive to the learning.”

He concluded “you, young man, have the potential to be a strong quality manager even though you lack the direct experience that most hiring managers require. You will be hearing from me on our decision in the next 24 hours.”

At that, the HR Director shook the candidate’s hand and said, “I’ll take you back to the lobby so you can sign out. I know I have learned quite a bit about process measures I need to be watching. Thank you for a great interview.”

The Operations Manager said “yes, it’s always fun to go through interviews with (Quality Director). He always takes advantage of the time to do some proselytizing to those who will listen to the process improvement mantra. That is what I love about him. Often you don’t realize that you are learning something until after you’ve learned it.”

“Well” the Quality Director concluded, looking at the candidate, “much of what we see is often invisible to those who are surrounded by it. Our job is to help them see it without them thinking we are forcing anything on them. People will do what they decide to do longer than doing what somebody else tells them to do.”

The candidate nodded and said “I guess I learned that knowing my gas mileage was a sign that I should not be afraid that somebody would not see my potential for quality management.”

The next day, the HR Director called the young man and told him of all the candidates interviewed the previous day he was the only one who described a process for tracking gas mileage. She was pleased to be calling to offer him the job and “how soon can you start?”

So, how do you calibrate a candidate when they don’t have the “required” experience?


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