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How do I know if a company is incompetent or just informal?
July 15, 2014 11:48 AM   Subscribe

What should someone coming from outside the tech sector know about HR practices in dotcoms or companies of that ilk? (Specific questions about communication.)

I’m making plans to move from the East Coast to the Bay Area for personal reasons. I applied for a job with a midsize dotcom you may or may not have heard of. (I am not a programmer or a web developer or anything tech-focused; for me this would be a change in sector but not job skills. Also, this isn’t a startup; they’ve already gone public.) A few weeks ago, I got an email asking if I’d be available on Day X for a phone interview. I replied yes and heard nothing back. Day X came and went, then over two weeks later I get another message—sent late in the evening—asking if I can interview the following afternoon. I sent back a polite note indicating that I was no longer interested in the position.

The truth (in part) is that I’m leery of pursuing employment with an organization that leaves such a questionable first impression—who knows what other HR issues might they have? But I am curious whether my expectations might be off: Is this kind of informality with respect to scheduling typical? Or should I have treated it like the red flag that I did? What else should someone coming from a more staid sector be aware of?
posted by psoas to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My experience has been that if companies give me weird vibes in the application or interviewing or offer stages, it's indicative of big problems.

I have a new rule that if I get bad vibes like that right out of the gate, it's not worth pursuing the opportunity.

That kind of incompetence translates to, in one particular example, a few hundred dollars of your first paycheck going into your checking account, and all the rest going to your kids' college saving plans, with tax penalties for early withdrawal, etc.

It's some kind of headache waiting to happen. Stay far away.
posted by colin_l at 12:16 PM on July 15

I think not even interviewing was a huge mistake. The rule with jobs is get the offer, then reject it. Don't reject out of hand. That's just dumb, hasty and pointless. Even if you decide you don't want it, interviewing is a skill like any other -- you get better with practice and you should see the value in interviewing for jobs. But a snap judgement because the person who screens candidate is HR is bad at their job is foolish, in my opinion.

Story time: I had a bad HR experience. I was told after some negotiating terms with HR that I was getting two of the perks I had asked for, signed on the dotted line, and then was later told it was an either/or situation and was asked to re-sign. It really pissed me off. But that was the HR person being incompetent. She and she alone messed up. I later found out she was new to the job. She didn't want to share her error up the chain -- I imagine if her boss knew she had told me I'd be getting both perks, they wouldn't have retracted one and would've honored it. But once she realized she was wrong in telling me that I'd get both, she rescinded the original offer so the terms she presented to her boss would be correct. I have been working at this company for a long time and I am very happy. Her isolated mistake was not indicative of the organization or my experience there at all.

To colin_l's point about bad vibes above, I wholeheartedly agree. But you didn't meet anyone at the company or see the office. You didn't actually speak to anyone. You didn't get any real vibes and you weren't in a position to evaluate the company. You had a single interaction with one person who is bad at their job. I interviewed with another place during the story I mention. This placed pulled something like that multiple times during the interview process. They called me at 6pm on a Saturday asking if I could a follow-up interview the next morning. That was after the first interview made it clear that it's 12-hour day, 7 day a week job. THEN, I decided to withdraw my interest because the pattern had emerged and it was clear what that place was about. I don't think you even gave yourself a chance to see if this is a pattern or not, in my opinion.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:19 PM on July 15 [9 favorites]

Well, companies are composed of people who are more or less trying to do their jobs, sort of. People miss emails, forget things, etc. If they're overworked, they'll forget more things. For software developer positions, I'd expect mistakes to be pretty rare. People would prioritize them and be less likely to mess things up. For non-software positions I'd expect HR to be relatively more flakey, unprofessional, and disorganized. I suppose this is a red flag. If that's how they treat people then they're probably either low-key, which might be good, or overworked, which might filter through the entire company, or not. It's really just hard to tell from a single datapoint. Sure, it's unprofessional and all-things-being-equal I would ignore them if I had that kind of flexibility in my job search, because no one should be treated like that.
posted by zeek321 at 12:20 PM on July 15

I'd treat it more like a yellow flag than a red one. It could be a communication breakdown between HR and the hiring manager, which probably isn't that big a deal. Or it could be that the hiring manager is overworked or disorganized, which probably is a bad thing.

The best approach, IMO, is to continue with the process and see if they have other problems, or whatever. The interview is just as much for you to get a sense of them as for them to get a sense of you. Having the interview is probably worthwhile, even if they don't convince you you want to work there, just to get a bigger sampling of the different kinds of companies out here.
posted by aubilenon at 12:22 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

IMHO you did the right thing. Companies that operate like this shouldn't be rewarded for unprofessional behavior. This isn't three guys in a garage - this is a mid size company that has gone public, as you mentioned.

Showing up anyway lets the hiring manager believe H/R is working and vice versa. It would have been one thing if you got a mea culpa and a "let's reschedule for next week". But a 12-hour notice? Screw that. Move on.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:18 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

My tech employer is extremely disorganized when it comes to candidates -- last minute rescheduling, weird interviews that have little to do with the job, zero recruiting. The reason is that there's an extremely minimal HR department so managers have to do all the work. The lack of bureaucracy has actually been pretty nice though while working there. So I wouldn't necessarily discount a company for screwing up their scheduling.
posted by miyabo at 1:18 PM on July 15

I agree with many of the thoughts above, so I will not reiterate them. In short, I believe this just one data point about the company - not a great one, but not a dealbreaker one. If the company proceeded to make a subpar offer or even on-par offer, cancelling an interview without notice would not endear me to the company. However, I would not reject them outright prior to that offer.

One further item not addressed above that I thought I'd mention is that in the companies I've worked for, HR doesn't actually necessarily schedule interviews, and is generally not involved at all in phone interviews. In particular, in my experience, HR merely provides a list of resumes to look at, and then does little until an in-person interview is conducted, in which case they are more involved in background checks and compensation rather than the actual logistics of the interview scheduling. The in-person interview scheduling would be delegated to an administrative assistant and phone interviews would be done ad-hoc by the team requesting the requisition. It could very well be the case that the people you are interviewing with are the source of the unnotified interview cancellation rather than HR. Again, that's not a great sign for the company, but it's one thing for HR professionals to screw up scheduling and another for non-HR professionals who may have accidentally left the meeting off their calendar to screw up scheduling.
posted by saeculorum at 1:33 PM on July 15

If they have grown quickly, they might not have the admin infrastructure in place to match their actual size and income. It could be a mistake to dismiss them just because perhaps the office manager is trying to recruit while ordering biscuits and fixing printers- it might be a bit chaotic but not necessarily a bad place to work.
posted by KateViolet at 1:38 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

I think it has less to do with the fact that they're an "informal" tech company and more that their HR department (or at least their hiring manager or HR rep or whoever did the scheduling) is disorganized. Sometimes that's indicative of larger problems and lack of professionalism, sometimes it's not.

I work at a small tech company (privately funded). We're often disorganized, and we only got an administrative assistant last year. But while the hiring process is not always streamlined, we'd be *mortified* if we scheduled a phone screen or interview and then dropped the ball.
posted by radioamy at 2:11 PM on July 15

I was about to be sympathetic as I was a hiring manager in a roughly 80 person software company and I had to write job descriptions, screen resumes, schedule phone screens, do phone screens, and interview on top of all of my other jobs. If stuff slipped I might have been sick. If emails were sent at 7 PM it's because I got in at 10:30. etc.

Then I realized that I shouldn't be sympathetic since I just got busy suing my former employer for discrimination because they couldn't deal with the fact that I got sick.

If I were a candidate, I would go ahead and do a phone screen with a company that blew off a first date but I would propose a new time with 24 hours notice. It is only courteous. Whoever it is that's doing the screening would likely accept an alternate time.

But yeah, it's a sign that pro HR is missing and that can have serious implications in the long term.
posted by shock muppet at 2:12 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

I'm responsible for hiring for my department at a small software company, and I regularly schedule and conduct phone interviews. We're based in San Diego, not the Bay Area, but our founders met at UC Berkeley and we have sort of a San Francisco vibe (super casual dress, open office plan, flat management, walking meetings etc.).

I wouldn't consider scheduling (or kind-of scheduling) and then blowing a phone interview to be evidence of a benignly informal company culture; I'd consider it a major red flag. If I personally did this to a candidate I would be mortified and would send an apology email. I certainly wouldn't, without apology, try to schedule a follow-up appointment with less than 24 hours notice. That's just tacky.

I don't think tech companies are some magical other realm in this regard. I think that how a prospective employer treats a candidate during the interview process says a ton about that organization, and I think what you're describing is disrespectful and probably indicative of a similar lack of respect you'd experience were you to be hired by that place. I think your instincts were good here.
posted by The Minotaur at 2:12 PM on July 15 [4 favorites]

This reminded me of recent articles by SV data engineer Carlos Bueno on SV startup interviewing : Inside the Mirrortocracy and its followup
posted by Bwithh at 2:38 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

Completely skipping a phone interview is unprofessional, not to mention really inconsiderate; emailing you late at night shows that the company culture doesn't embrace work/life balance; and wanting to schedule an interview in fewer than 24 hours shows that they expect you to bend over backward to accommodate them at a moment's notice. It was smart of you to listen to your instincts. Either they're not that into you as a candidate and are just trying to check the box of "X number of people interviewed" or else the staff is so overworked and/or incompetent that they can't handle simple tasks. Seconding what The Minotaur said above about how the hiring process speaks a ton about the company culture.

Sometimes you just don't have that many options -- I've accepted jobs despite red flags and have lived to tell the tale -- but usually the same kind of problems that came up in the job application process come up tenfold once you're hired. I do think in tech startups there can be an exaggerated distaste for HR/"bureaucracy" but that distaste can be a way to justify disrespecting employees and a "management by crisis" leadership style.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 2:42 PM on July 15

Thanks for the answers so far--just to clarify a couple of things: one, I did consider going ahead with the interview anyway but my search has been going in a different direction recently and I didn't really feel like the time it would've taken would be well spent, and two, this is a place with 500+ employees and a decade on the books so I can't imagine they don't have the infrastructure.
posted by psoas at 2:50 PM on July 15

If it was a polite note stating that you were no longer interested in the original position but not bad mouthing the company - then you're fine if you're still interested in the company but not the position.

The truth I've found especially with IT companies - is the left hand usually doesn't know what the right hand is doing. I would have sent a follow up note 2-3 days before the interview date asking if that time/date works or should it be rescheduled. You are also coming off for many companies, the second quarter of their fiscal year so alot could have happened (big project, under-performing fiances, surplus budgets, etc.). Then you have the fact that sometimes managers just forget (especially true in technical positions) or just never respond to the email until follow up emails are sent.

Let your search take you where ever you want, I don't necessarily know that I would write the company off - it really could just have been bad timing.
posted by lpcxa0 at 3:15 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

Completely skipping a phone interview is unprofessional, not to mention really inconsiderate; emailing you late at night shows that the company culture doesn't embrace work/life balance; and wanting to schedule an interview in fewer than 24 hours shows that they expect you to bend over backward to accommodate them at a moment's notice.

To me, it sounds just as likely that this is one recruiter fucking up, and trying to quickly take care of it before anyone else in the department catches it.
posted by spaltavian at 3:21 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

If I put aside time to be available for a phone interview, got myself into the right frame of mind, etc., and they didn't call, then emailed two weeks later, sent late at night when I might well be asleep, asking me to be ready the next day..I would be hard pressed not to laugh. A lot. I have worked in a number of industries (although not the one mentioned, except for an ISP), and ~none~ of them would have considered that acceptable. Neither the skipping the interview, the lack of an apology/explanation, nor a late night email demanding me to be ready the next day. I think you made the right call.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 3:44 PM on July 15

I have a close friend who, back in the mid 2000s went through the most drawn out, error-laden hiring process for a non technical position at a tech company. It took over six months from application to offer. She stuck it out anyway, and accepted the offer. The company is Google, and it worked out VERY well for her.

Some tech companies aren't good at hiring, and even more are bad at hiring for roles other than software engineer. It doesn't mean they're bad to work at. I'd give some leeway.
posted by primethyme at 4:23 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]

> Some tech companies aren't good at hiring, and even more are bad at hiring for roles other than software engineer. It doesn't mean they're bad to work at.

Every high tech company I've worked at in the last 22 years in the Bay Area has been hopelessly flaky with scheduling interviews (as an interviewer, not only interviewed) or getting back to candidates and all we're at least OK to work for. All but one of the ones I interviewed at but didn't work for were flaky too.
posted by morganw at 4:39 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I wouldn't write off a company because of this -- it's not great behavior but maybe the original recruiter got sick, went on vacation, changed jobs, whatever. I also think you kind of dropped the ball by not contacting the company at all to ping them about scheduling the interview when it was Day X - 1 and they hadn't sent you an interview time (not to mention Day X + 1, or Day X + 14).

The "following afternoon" thing was probably the result of a thought process like this: "Oh no! We dropped the ball on this candidate! We should move fast to make up for it!" I disagree with some other respondents that they were *demanding* that you interview the next day, they were asking if it worked for you, and you probably could have scheduled another time with them.

Anyway, you make the call for you, but I could easily imagine a fuckup like this happening at my current (Bay Area tech company) place of employment, and I couldn't be happier working here.
posted by phoenixy at 4:57 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

Silicon Valley is kind of notorious for slightly flaky HR. (Search for Google application process and you'll see many horror stories of slowness and missed connections.) Did you send them more than one response to the initial request? I've had e-mails get dropped or missed from all kinds of businesses (including HR in banking, which is about as staid as you get), friends, and family.

I recently had a followup from a startup fall through the cracks - I waited a week and sent another note to the recruiter. They apologized and the ball is rolling nicely on what could be a really good opportunity for me. If you've only interacted with one person and let that bias you against an organization, I'd say that's a little premature, startup or not.
posted by Candleman at 5:39 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

I had a member of a hiring dept call me for an unscheduled phone interview on Easter Sunday morning. Granted the man was Jewish and might not have known, it was a major turnoff, and a clear indication the dept did not have a clear line between company time and family time.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:52 PM on July 15

Sounds like somebody in their recruiting department screwed up. I wouldn't indict the company over that, but that's just me.
posted by grudgebgon at 6:16 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

This is just a recruiter making a mistake. Maybe it is a crappy recruiter in a crappy department of crappy recruiters, indicating a crappy company. Or maybe it's one crappy person. Or maybe it's a decent but overly busy person who scheduled 100 interviews in the week they scheduled yours, and yours was the one that they forgot to to put in the system. Or maybe the person who forgot is on vacation and someone else is trying to get a handle on their workload. I wouldn't let this be a reason not to interview.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:36 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

^That. First line recruiters (especially for non-tech positions) are often interns or new hires bonused on pure numbers who get lost in the weeds very easily. This was just a screwup by them. Feel free to reject or not, but I think you made a mistake not seeing what a conversation with an actual hiring manager might bring.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:46 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

Something else I'd like to add: a lot of people are saying this is a problem with "HR." Strictly speaking, that's probably true. But in every tech company I've worked at, staffing/recruiting are completely different departments than the HR group you deal with as an employee. They often don't meet up organizationally until the VP level (or even higher). They are very different functions, and separate groups of people. Dysfunction in one is not at all predictive of dysfunction in the other. YMMV.
posted by primethyme at 9:12 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

I also think you kind of dropped the ball by not contacting the company at all to ping them about scheduling the interview when it was Day X - 1 and they hadn't sent you an interview time (not to mention Day X + 1, or Day X + 14).

That's not bad advice in general, but I was originally contacted on Day X - 3 (a Friday) so there wasn't much reason for me to reach out again before Day X (a Monday). After that, I figured the ball was in their court.
posted by psoas at 5:45 AM on July 16

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