Michelin coporation job applicant testing
December 6, 2008 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Are these bizarre stories about Michelin corporation true?

Two reliable acquaintances have told me some incredible stories about job applicant testing that Michelin corporation used to do for potential executives. For example, in one test the applicant is brought into a warehouse containing a disassembled airplane and a crew of mechanics and given a certain amount of time to direct the assembly of the plane. And at the end of all the tests, the applicant is brought into a room with two doors and handed an envelope with either Door A or Door B written inside. Open one door, and the applicant is welcomed into the company, open the other door and the applicant finds himself literally outside of the building and is done for. Can anyone confirm or negate this story?
posted by Jackson to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to the second story, but the first story doesn't sound plausible to me (at least in the US or the EU). The problem is that all airplane work has to be done under an approved quality system, and untrained, inexperienced managers directing the work wouldn't cut it. So, Michelin would have an airplane *just* for management testing? That seems expensive to me.
posted by printdevil at 5:19 PM on December 6, 2008

That was my thought. I know a lot of places have weird testing procedures, but for Michelin to have a private airplane hangar with a disassembled airplane? Nah. Sounds like a Boeing thing.
posted by sanka at 5:45 PM on December 6, 2008

Yeah, it would be expensive. But what kind of plane is it? A jumbo jet? A Cessna? A kit plane? Who are the mechanics? Skilled people who know their way around planes, hired for the week, or mechanics who repair Michelin assembly lines? I think that part of the rumor is the most believable. Put a potential exec (who as already been groomed for a time) in a unique situation and see how the manage strangers under stress. That's odd, but entirely doable and relatively believable. Then take the plane apart, and store until the next promotion. It doesn't actually have to be flyable.

The second part, the door part, I think is ridiculous. What multinational corporation would summarily fire workers in the executive pipeline (greatest potential to make a fuss in the media, or move to a competitor with bad feelings for Michelin) without going through every loop, crossing every T and dotting every I that the corporate lawyers and HR admins required for a justifiable termination? That just asking for trouble. And for the number of people in the pipeline for a relative few exec positions in such a large corporation means there'd be a lot of annoyed and fired people with connections to make this well known.

The oddity and legality and vagueness of the two premises shout 'urban legend' though I haven't found even a single mention of this.
posted by Science! at 6:01 PM on December 6, 2008

I had no problem believing the firing part. I know several stories like that regarding a world wide known company stationed in my hometown with an eccentric owner.
posted by sanka at 6:17 PM on December 6, 2008

Something bothers me about the second scenario. When did the salary negotiations take place? If was before the envelope ceremony (which, btw, seems like a cheesy reality show conceit), that means Michelin put together a compensation package some time before or during the series of tests -- before they knew whether or not candidate would pass the tests. If it was after, then the applicant wouldn't necessarily be (literally) "welcomed into the company" since they may or may not be able to meet the applicant's salary expectations.

Keep in mind, in many situations, interviewing is not nearly as one-sided as this. As much as the company is trying to determine if they want to hire the applicant, the applicant is trying to determine if they want to be hired by the company.
posted by mhum at 6:46 PM on December 6, 2008

I know several stories like that regarding a world wide known company stationed in my hometown with an eccentric owner.

However, Michelin is a publicly-owned corporation. This kind of eccentricity is easier to get away with when the person in charge is accountable only to himself and not to, say, a board of directors.
posted by mhum at 6:57 PM on December 6, 2008

This is a fascinating question, in that these seem to be contemporary folklore or 'urban legend,' but I have never seen them documented. I'm going to ask a foklore listserv about it and get back to you if anyone knows of anything.
posted by Miko at 7:32 PM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: Here's some additional information. The first time I heard these stories was many years ago in a class taught by the designer Victor Papanek, who claimed to be personally familiar with the Michelin program. More recently, an entirely reliable friend of mine corroborated the stories - he actually knew someone who went through testing, and when he opened the door he found himself outside on the street - with no handle on the door for re-entry. Even allowing for elaboration, I am inclined to reject the urban myth hypothesis, but on the other hand I'm surprised I have never seen any of this described in print.
posted by Jackson at 7:49 PM on December 6, 2008

when he opened the door he found himself outside on the street - with no handle on the door for re-entry.

I don't know the truth of any of this, but you'll never tell from the OP's "question." Why would the job applicant step all the way outside and let the door close behind him? It would have been obvious to a normal person that he had gone through the wrong door and he would have gone back inside without closing the door.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:09 PM on December 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

an entirely reliable friend of mine corroborated the stories - he actually knew someone

Interestingly enough, this level of acquaintance occurs so frequently in folklore research that it's almost an inside joke -- friend of a friend. FOAF was (still is?) a common acronym on the alt.folklore.urban Usenet newsgroup.
posted by mhum at 8:17 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Neither of them really seem to pass the smell test. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if both had a kernel of truth in them somewhere though.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:33 PM on December 6, 2008

Agreeing with JimN2TAW. If I opened a door and saw daylight I would immediately close it in front of me turn around and find out what's up, as would most people.

The airplane assembly just doesn't make any sense. Either the people already know how to assemble it, in which case you're not really managing much of anything. Or they don't in which case you are even more useless. (And even a small plane would take days to assemble, which would involve being held hostage inside of an aircraft hanger for several days... And if the crew is in on it, they know thet they're doing already. If not, are they hostages too? *boggles*)
posted by Ookseer at 10:57 PM on December 6, 2008

Well, I poked around in Google Books, finding several titles that devote a paragraph or the entire book to the Michelin company, such as The Michelin Men. The Michelin CEO(s) seem to fit the description of "eccentric" to some degree and the company seems to have crazy secrecy about its industrial processes dating back to the earliest times. Employees have to sign over-the-top NDAs and were often subject to whimsical firing, at least in the first part of last century. But no stories like you've recounted.
posted by dhartung at 12:46 AM on December 7, 2008

when he opened the door he found himself outside on the street - with no handle on the door for re-entry.

Patently absurd. Recruitment advertising and assessment costs for executives would run in the thousands, even back in the day. Why would you spend thousands of dollars to advertise for and assess someone, only to have them be hired or not based on what is essentially a coin toss? Nonsense.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:24 PM on December 7, 2008

Happy Dave, the OPP specified that the 'A' or 'B' was written inside the envelope so presumably the person handing it to the recruit already knew what the message was. Which is still kinda nuts, but not so much a coin flip necessarily.
posted by mattholomew at 5:13 PM on December 7, 2008

So I did some asking around on a folklore listserv I frequent, and got some very interesting responses through one folklorist who knows a current and a former employee of the company. Results suggest that the specifics of the story are probably apocryphal FOAF stuff, but the general statement made by the stories is true - Michelin did have some eccentric and especially stringent interview methods. I will post what details I can without giving away details about the sources, and I have to edit a little to do that.

But also, this fits into a body of occupational lore that others mentioned - the 'job interview as initiatory rite,' as one person put it. One example fits into this story, collected on Snopes boards, about Admiral Rickover testing the resolve of candidates for sub school. With regard to the "Door A, Door B" story, others mentioned the structural similarities to the "Lady or the Tiger" tale and to old riddles about figuring out whether Road A or Road B led to a destination by asking liars and truth-tellers.

One former Michelin employee stated: "Historically, Michelin was known for some unusual testing and hiring practices. An evaluation test such as the one described is not beyond therealm of possibility. However, the very cold technique of using envelopeswith Door A, Door B , especially without explaining why one is not hired ,is one I have never heard about."

A current employee said:
"Very interesting and amusing, but, alas [Miko's] "nose" to this iscorrect -- urban legend. But I can relate some stories that I know from personal experience which may have helped develop the legend.

In France, Michelin has a long tradition of a program for newly hired employees to "enroll" them in "SP Stage." It's aimed at those coming right out of the grandes ecoles and headed for a managment career. SP is short for Service Personnel (the HR department) and a "stage" is a step-wise program...in SP Stage, they take people and assign them a project that has nothing to do with their university degrees. Then it's "sink or swim" to see how they can work their way through it, muster support from people, and get something done. Those who excel and impress (maybe more the latter) get the choice jobs and a high career "trajectory; those that do OK fill the rest of what's needed, and those that wash out, get fired. In French, to fire someone is"mettre a la porte" or literally "put at the door," or as we say "show you the door." I'll bet your urban legend has some kind of root in an imaginative embroidering of "mettre a la porte!"

Personally, my hiring interview with Michelin in [the early 80s] parallels the legend. I reported to the ...campus...at the security gate. They showed me to a small room with a table and two chairs in a small building OUTSIDE the gate. The building had a sign VENDORS on the door. OK, I was warned that Michelin [was extremely concerned about corporate] secrecy, so I thought this was a waiting area. Nope, I spent the whole day there as each interviewer came out and saw me. [I was] asked a lot of...questions like calculating some complex trigonemetric relations or calculus demonstrations -- very little about what I really knew or what I would do there.

At the end of the day, the guy who it turned out was the hiring manager came back with a big grin (previously he did his best to intimidate) and announced they were going to make me an offer.... Things are much different, more normal, but maybe less interesting

I guess I opened the right door."
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on December 15, 2008

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