Why more job hunters cry foul

Growing pool of applicants triggers a rise in dubious hiring tactics by some firms

After Mary Faith McConville interviewed with Global Payments Inc., an Atlanta-based payment-authorization company, the firm promptly offered her a job in human resources at their office outside Chicago.

What's more, Global Payments felt that Ms. McConville, previously an HR manager, was capable of filling a greater company need, so they expanded her responsibilities.

"They turned it into my dream job," she says. "I was star-struck that they wanted me that much." Soon after the October interview, McConville and a company representative agreed to a start date a few weeks away.

But two weeks after the interview, she still had no written offer. Numerous attempts to follow up were ignored. "The day before I'm supposed to start work, I still don't have any paperwork - no contract, no offer letter - and no one is returning my calls or responding to my e-mails," McConville recalls.

That evening, she contacted the recruiter who initially put her in touch with the company. "When she told me it wasn't going to happen, my stomach dropped. You work so hard to get an offer, and ... then suddenly, it's gone. It was devastating."

The Global Payments HR representative who oversaw McConville's recruitment did not respond to three requests by the Monitor for comment about the incident. McConville has since accepted a management job in human resources with Home Depot.

Experiences like McConville's are not uncommon, according to job seekers and employment experts. An October survey by Chicago headhunter Wendy Tarzian found that 80 percent of survey respondents had experienced at least one "bad" interview - in most cases during the past one to six years.

Experiences included:

• Interviewers telling interviewees that another candidate had been selected, but that the firm required that they conduct interviews nonetheless.

• Interviewers asking questions illegal under state or federal antidiscrimination laws. These include probes of a candidates' marital status, plans for conceiving children, religious beliefs, and political views.

• Interviewers providing no resolution regarding a job search and ignoring candidates' attempts to follow up, even after multiple interviews with the company.

The plentiful labor supply created by the country's rising unemployment rate - 5.8 percent in December, the highest in 6-1/2 years - coupled with uncertainties caused by the recession have made the interview process a breeding ground for the unprofessional treatment some job seekers are now experiencing, experts say.

"What you're seeing are people who are panicked, and they're acting the way human beings do in the worst of times, which is badly," says Suzy Wetlaufer, editor of the Harvard Business Review.

"Most [hiring managers] do understand that they have candidates' hopes and dreams in their hands. It's not maliciousness, but the extreme uncertainty of these times," she says.

Tom Beeson, a manager with Aeon Intercultural USA, which recruits English speakers to teach at 275 Aeon English-language schools in Japan, says he believes sometimes insincere candidate treatment is partly cultural.

"Americans frequently say things they don't really mean or can't back up, and that happens in interviews, too," says Mr. Beeson, who was raised in New York State by English parents and spent 4-1/2 years working for Aeon in Japan before returning to the United States to recruit for the company.

"Especially now, when there are so many good candidates looking for work, HR managers don't want to lose a person they may - eventually - want to hire, but it's cruel to treat candidates that way," he adds.

Based on his own early job-hunting experiences, Beeson helped establish an Aeon policy that requires recruiters to provide every interviewed applicant with a specific date by which they will be notified whether they will be offered a job.

Aside from concerns for basic civility, the way a company treats job candidates can have longer-term ramifications for its reputation and ability to recruit employees, experts say.

Eighty-four percent of respondents to Ms. Tarzian's survey who experienced a bad interview said it negatively colored their perception of the company.

Perhaps more significant for companies behaving badly: Eighty-nine percent told at least one colleague or friend about the experience, while 30 percent told as many as a half-dozen others.

In another study exploring job candidates' reactions to brusque rejection letters, Michael Aamodt, an associate professor of industrial psychology at Radford University, in Virginia, found that recipients were less likely to apply again or to do business with the company - and were also more likely to tell friends and associates about the perceived slight.

"Companies are probably less attentive to these factors in a labor market like the one we have now," said Steven Currall, associate professor of management and psychology at Rice University in Houston.

"However, the sophisticated HR professional is aware that supply and demand in the labor market is cyclical, so in a year or two, they may be pursuing the same folks they're now turning down," he adds.

As for unemployed individuals looking for work in this tough job market, experts advise them to do all that they can not to take the search process personally.

"Thick skin helps," says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, author and managing partner of Career Strategies, a career consulting firm based in Wilmette, Ill.

"You can make it your business to bad-mouth the companies who behave this way, but in the end, it won't have that much of an effect," she says. "People [looking for jobs] need to get on with it, and not stress over it."

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