Here's a roundup of answers to four questions from readers.
1. Is this interview assignment too much to ask from job candidates?
I've recently read some pushback on employers that ask candidates, as part of the hiring process, to complete assignments that may take many hours to do. At my law firm, we have recently moved to giving legal research and writing assignments to our attorney candidates. I would not be surprised if these projects take 10-20 hours. We don't use the work, because we give them questions to which we already know the answers. We've found this to be an incredibly effective evaluation method. We've had people whose writing samples were fine, but who did an inadequate job on the assignment. And we've had people whose work on the project was better than expected and tipped them over the edge to getting an offer. A two-hour skills test would not give us particularly useful information, because a major part of what we want to know is whether someone with a difficult question and limited time can put together a well-researched, well-organized, substantial piece of legal writing and make it convincing.
We do not make every candidate do this, but if we are still seriously considering them after the interview, we use it as a major part of deciding whether to hire them or not. Is this still unreasonable to ask of candidates?
Yes, it's highly unreasonable and much too onerous! The litmus test you use can't just be "is this incredibly useful to us in assessing candidates?" because in that case, we'd all just have candidates do a week of work for free because that would be incredibly useful in assessing people too. You've got to balance it against what's reasonable to expect people to do.
In your case, I'd look at whether there's a smaller piece of the project that you could give people to do, or whether you could look at past work they've done. If neither of those work, then I'd urge you to consider paying people for this work -- not because you're going to use it (since you aren't), but because you're asking for them to invest a significant amount of time in it.
You should also look at who you might be screening out with this requirement. For example, if you've got a candidate who's employed 50 hours a week and is a single parent to young children, is she really going to find 10-20 hours to do this? Are you comfortable screening out people who just can't make this work with the logistics of their lives?
2. I need to tell my team they can't make so many errors
My team has been understaffed for quite some time (six months), and everyone has been carrying more than their fair share of the burden during that time. I am extremely appreciative of my team and regularly tell them how grateful I am.
During this time, there have been errors and things have slipped through the cracks. I've been extremely lenient because of the volume of work the team is handling, and figured errors are to be expected. However, workload aside, I also know that some of these errors could have been avoided with more careful attention to detail and better organization/planning on their part. I have addressed these issues as they have come up, but no more than bringing to their attention and then letting it slide because of their stress levels; I have felt that it's not reasonable to do otherwise when they're overall being so helpful. I'm still debating about whether or not this was the right approach.
Regardless, we are now finally fully staffed which is absolutely glorious, and we'll be able to move forward with reasonable workloads. I want to make my team aware that I've been understanding about errors in the past and still very much appreciate the work they put in to tide us over when we were down headcount, but now that we're fully staffed, we need to make improvements going forward and I won't be as lenient with the same types of errors. In the future, when issues do come up, I'll also need to be more firm with them than I have been to ensure corrections are put into place. Do you have any recommendations on how to communicate this without making them feel underappreciated or seeming like chill manager turned Jekyll and Hyde?
Be straightforward about it, but also don't expect them to be able to flip the switch into this new mode overnight. Stress is cumulative, and there needs to be a buffer period where they can decompress from the past six months of stress. In fact, I'd explicitly say that so they know you get it and also, if you can, encourage them to take some vacation time soon to assist that decompression.
You could thank people for going above and beyond for the past six months and then say something like, "In recognition of how much everyone was shouldering in the last few months, I relaxed our standards a bit on things like X and Y. Now that we're fully staffed, I want us to return to our previous standards -- meaning (insert details here). But before that happens, I think we all need a period to decompress! So let's take the next few weeks to try to do that first. If your plate still seems very full, come talk to me and we'll figure out how to redistribute things. And I hope you'll consider talking some vacation days soon, even if it's just a few long weekends. If there's something else you need to help you move out of stressed, overworked mode, let's talk about it!"
That's enough to start. And then, after that, if you do still see someone making too many errors, you can address that with them one-on-one.
3. I asked my employee to nominate me for an award
Moral dilemma. I was recently nominated as a finalist for a pretty important industry award. To get nominated, I needed three nominators, not including myself. For some reason, I asked one of my direct reports if he would consider nominating me. He did willingly and said I deserved it.
However, now I'm feeling guilty about the whole thing. I have a decent chance to win the award, but having asked my direct report may have created a conflict of interest. Was he really going to say no to his boss? I'm thinking about removing myself from consideration. Am I overthinking it or is this a real ethical dilemma?
I don't think you need to remove yourself from consideration, but I do think you're right that you put him in a position where it would have been really difficult to say no. That said, there are plenty of people who genuinely think their boss is great and would be delighted to have the chance to write this kind of nomination. If you know for sure that you have that kind of relationship with him, this isn't terrible. (But it can also be hard to know for sure. I'm certain there are bosses out there who think this is the case for them when it's not.)
Is it too late to get a fourth nominator? If not, that might be a good way to handle it. And either way, it wouldn't hurt to go back to him and say, "I realized after I asked you that I'd put you in a potentially awkward position, given the power dynamic in our relationship. I'm sorry about that, and I'll be more cognizant of it in the future." Either way he'll probably tell you it's fine, because that's what most people would say to their boss. And he may really mean it! But if he did feel a little weird about the request, he'll probably really appreciate hearing this.
4. How do I reject candidates when we're going to re-list the position?
I'm currently hiring for an open position on my team. I narrowed it down to two finalists and did reference checks on them. While reviewing both their strengths and areas for growth, we are realizing that neither candidate is right for the position. How do I frame the rejection, knowing that we will be re-listing the position? I can't use my typical response of "Thank you for your interest and taking the time to apply and interview with us; ultimately we went with another candidate."
I write something like, "I really appreciated the time you spent talking with me about the X role. You clearly bring a lot of strengths to the table, but unfortunately I don't think the match with this role is as strong as what we're looking for." Or as an alternative, I work with someone who sometimes writes something like this to finalists who aren't getting an offer: "The bottom line is that I'm not going to be offering you the position, but I wanted to say a bit more" (and then talks about their strengths and notes that it was a hard decision).
However you word it, the key language is some version of "the match isn't as strong as what we're looking for" or "we've decided not to move your application forward" (or "not to offer you the role").
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