Food Poverty and malnutrition – manufacturers to blame again?

 

"Let 'em eat Aldi Crisps!"

“Let ’em eat Aldi Crisps!”

 

There’s an article on the BBC Website here it is highlighting a report by the Faculty of Public Health which has identified a link between food poverty and malnutrition. 3rd world health conditions like rickets are being seen in hospitals for the first time in decades and last year there was a 17% increase in hospital admissions for malnutrition. Now I am sure I am not alone in thinking that whatever your place on the political spectrum this is an absolute disgrace in a country like the UK. I’m waiting for the inevitable ‘It’s the food manufacturer’s fault’ interviews. I’m surprised that at no point does the reporter link food poverty to obesity, for which the industry is also blamed.

Increasingly those in poverty have issues affording nutritious and fresh food. In Aldi you can buy 30 bags of flavoured crisps for about £2-£3 depending on where you are in the country. If you are trying to feed a family of 4 on £25 a week then this sort of offer is very tempting. Obviously there is fresh food available but one thing you never read about is the cost of preparing the food. Yes, you can buy a kilo of lentils for £2 and yes it is nutritious and will do several meals but you also have to boil those lentils for 40 minutes. That’s 40 mins of gas or electricity. On top of this, have you tried to get a 4 year old to eat dhal? When folk are so skint their main issue when buying food is to make sure no one is hungry and that often leads to 30 bags of crisps going into the trolley. I wonder how many of those who judge the diet of the poor so harshly have had to live on the income of the poor? Recall, with amusement, the well meaning but utterly unrealistic campaign that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched in 2007 when he campaigned against the mults to get them to stock properly bred, free range chickens rather than the mass farmed thai type. Yes, he had some really good points – a quality chicken bought from a butcher will taste fantastic, it will probably last more than 1 meal BUT it costs £10. It is easy to see why his arguments fell on deaf ears and became archaic when, a few months later the Great Recession hit with full force.

Time and time again it is the food manufacturing industry that gets the flack about obesity for making food that has too much salt and too much sugar etc. when the real culprit is poverty. Cheap food has always been highly flavoured, there is nothing new here. French Cuisine is sauce and flavour based because historically, the quality of their meat and fish wasn’t up to much and hence it needed flavour. Your Georgian Briton would sneer at the French and proclaim the excellence of British beef which didn’t need such flummery. It is wrong to blame the food industry for these issues, processed and preserved food was always only meant to be part of a diet and to be eaten when fresh food was not available. Aldi don’t expect you to live off crisps. The real issue is the price of fresh food and with the increased competition from emerging markets it is unlikely to drop in price rather than blaming the industry we should be focusing on making fresh food more readily available and cheaper to cook.

This sort of information used to be provided by Ministry of Food films and perhaps it should be again as it is a matter of education around what to eat, how to buy it and how to prepare it without it costing the earth. My grandfathers both grew their own vegetables and some fruit as well. How many of us, with access to some space do this? Yes, to the educated person those public information films were cause for amusement but they did carry important messages. You cannot assume that your values are those of others and you cannot assume that people understand the harm in liquidising a hamburger for a baby. But there is no point in increasing availability unless you back this up with how to cook it and the benefits of doing so. Food programmes are hugely popular but many of them are food porn – yes Mr Roux that dish looks fantastic and how much would I like to eat it, however, I’m just going to shovel another forkful of Asda lasagne down my gullet because it was £3.00 and I can feed the whole family on it and I’ve had a 12 hour day at work so in the grand balance of things, given the ready meal costs about the same as the raw ingredients to cook, am I going to delay dinner by 90 mins whilst I prepare the lasagne or am I going to bung this Asda special in the microwave? Convenience food was and always was meant to be a stopgap, however we have filled the time it saves us in preparation with other activities, and in a time of fiscal pressure, that is usually work. So the convenience food is now a necessity.

It’s obviously easier to get the message across in centralised economies. In Cuba they understand this and the power of educating people. Fuel has always been an issue and over the last 30 years the emphasis has been on saving fuel and especially in cooking. So the Cuban government made cheap pressure cookers available to all households. It is simple arithmetic, after a hard day of Stakhanovite labour on the collective farm those lentils that take 40 minutes to boil can be cooked in 10 minutes in a pressure cooker. Extrapolate the arithmetic, the majority of Cuban households have pressure cookers, the saving in fuel and carbon emissions must be huge. Now I remember a pressure cooker being used by mum in the 1970s, they were popular before the advent of the microwave but how many of us use them now. I only learned about the advantages of using one by listening to the Radio 4 Food Programme last year. I work in the industry and I didn’t know this – what chance do others have unless lucky enough to have caught the programme.

In our house we recently invested in a Halogen oven, a device that sips the leccy. Together with a microwave and a pressure cooker we now only use the main gas oven perhaps once a week and our power bill has gone down considerably. Halogen oven = £30, Pressure cookers start at £12.

So please, let’s not have a pop at the food industry for these issues when the real culprits are poverty and the lack of education as well as the culture towards food that we have allowed to emerge in this country over the last 30 years.

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What are the consequences of the rise of the discounters for coeliacs and others requiring a special diet?

Most Sainsburys Sausages contain gluten

Most Sainsburys Sausages contain gluten

Our daughter, 5 years old, has coeliac disease. For those of you who don’t know what that is, coeliac (spelt celiac in American English) is an auto immune disease where the body attacks itself when gluten from wheat, barley or rye is eaten. The amounts of gluten that can provoke an attack vary from patient to patient but we are talking small amounts. A grain of flour is usually enough. When she was diagnosed we had to learn how to cook without gluten, we shifted our main carbs in the family to rice and spuds and separate cooking utensils, toaster, pots and pans, cutting boards and cupboards were needed. We are fortunate to have a reasonably large kitchen and keep a section of it totally gluten free. I used to bake all the family bread, now we only bake gluten free cakes and biscuits, the risk of aerial contamination from traditional four is too high. Consequences of provoking the disease are unpleasant for her and for us. Pain, illness, explosive vomit and diarrhea. Prolonged exposure results in weight loss, swollen abdomen, deficiencies in minerals and vitamins, pain, depression, mood swings, stilted development. There is assumed to be a 1% incidence in the UK population, however, diagnosis rates are much lower.

We had to learn how to shop again. Gone was the weekly trip to Sainsburys, we now had to track down the gluten free products we needed to buy from different stores. Not only to the shops carry different products but they don’t have consistent ranges from store to store. One Tesco may have a superb range of gluten free frozen products whereas another may not stock them at all. It makes the whole experience very tricky. It’s not just limited to specific ranges but to all sorts of items. Read the ingredients of many products and you will find they contain wheat, barley or rye gluten. In Sainsburys all own label sausages apart from the Toulouse ones seem to contain gluten. In Tesco it’s the opposite. Own label table sauces and ketchups frequently contain gluten as a thickening agent, Heinze Tommy K doesn’t. HP Sauce is a no no, Red Lion is fine etc etc.

In our town, Hexham, Northumberland, we are fortunate to have quite a choice of retailer. In addition to good market in the square every week there is a large Tesco, Aldi, and good mediums sized Waitrose, M&S and Iceland. 5 miles away is a Sainsbury, 20 miles away a huge Asda. Our shopping habits are usually – Aldi for 75%, Waitrose for 25% with fruit and veg coming from the market, when we are around, and dog food AND gluten free products coming from Tesco. Aldi is hopeless for specific gluten free products, although most of their own lable products are gluten free. Waitrose can be good but our store isn’t. So when we want to buy gluten free fish fingers, pizza, chocolate bikkies, croissant, chicken nuggets etc we go to Tesco. (Wait a minute, we shouldn’t be feeding our kid junk food – of course we don’t but in the real world time constraints and special teats mean that on occasion the kids do get pizza and why shouldn’t she be allowed to enjoy what her brothers and friends are eating?)

I do have a concern here. The average big 4 supermarket carries 30,000 different products on its shelves. The average discounter (Aldi/Lidl) carries about 1500. The discounter’s business model is to carry own label brands and to buy up and shift on quickly surplus branded products, hence the open pallet and cardboard boxes you see in the shop floor. Their own products are sold across Europe and benefit from a cultural lack of using gluten as a thickener/binding agent (remember the British Banger war Jim Hacker got into in Yes Minister?) However, stocking specific gluten free versions of food containing gluten is far removed from their business model. The big 4 have become community services, with dry cleaners, banks, insurance, clothes, chemists, and post offices they sought and seek to be everything to everybody. One of these services is to dedicate shelf space to specific free from foods giving those who suffer from food allergies and auto immune diseases as wide a range of ambient and frozen basic and luxury products as possible. They have been getting good at it and with the investment companies like Tesco, Genius and Warburtons have made in their gluten free ranges in the last 5 years we know that we can always get out hands on a loaf of fresh gluten free bread in a reasonably sized supermarket. This was never the case 5 years ago. Now whilst these products are considerably more expensive than normal products and you never see BOGOFs or discounts on them, the smaller turnover of them means that they won’t be large profit makers and the high cost of the ingredients and production means that they are expensive for the retailer to buy or make and are very unlikely to offer the potential margins that a discounter will be looking to make. Despite the increase in availability I’ve already mentioned that ranges stocked are not consistent across stores but it is improving.

Over the last 12 months, all the big 4 with the exception of Asda have seen a drop in their profits. An estimated £3billion less has gone through their combined tills during that time and has been spent instead at Aldi and Lidl who have seen sales growth of over 30% for the former and over 25% the latter. Meanwhile the big 4 are caught in a price war, with each other and with the discounters. They continue to slash prices of electronics, clothes etc to try and tempt back customers as they are unable to compete with the discounters on food and grocery. All this is having a knock on effect on suppliers who will be increasingly squeezed to cut costs, NPD etc. Analysts are concluding that this is now a fundamental change in retain behaviour by the British consumer and that gone are the days of the big weekly shop – people are now asking if the hypermarket be a sustainable model in the future?

As a customer who requires to buy gluten free products I’m concerned that not only NPD but also the availability of off the shelf gluten free products may well suffer. Ironically, more customer choice in terms of price will lead to less customer choice in products. It’s not as simple as transferring our loyalty and our 75% from Aldi to Tesco either, as I have already mentioned, only very rarely do Aldi and Lidl own label brands contain gluten in the ingredients. We can pretty much put anything in our trolley without having to read the ingredients to see if gluten is lurking in there. This isn’t the case at the big 4 but if we want to buy specific free from products we have to go to Tesco as whilst Aldi stocks gluten free bread and some products, the range and quality varies. (Gluten free bread, unlike wheat bread, has a huge variety in price, taste, quality and consistency from stuff that you could sole a shoe with to almost un noticeable from the real thing). If the continued rise of the discounter leads to the inevitable conclusion of big 4 closing stores and cutting back on ranges, off the shelf choices for those who require these foods will become less and less available. New product development, requiring subsidising from other ranges could fall when the financial pressure is felt. Aldi and Lidl are starting to stock these products.

glutenfree lidl

Lidl Ireland’s 2013 Gluten Free Promotion

As already mentioned, Aldi carries a bread and in 2013 Lidl stores in Ireland had a large gluten free promotion and published a booklet. It will remain to be seen if the discounters start stocking large and comprehensive quality ranges of free from fresh, ambient and frozen products. To me it seems so removed from their business model I cannot see it happening rather, those requiring a reliable supply of these products will have to resort to web based specialist retailers and won’t be able to pop out for a packet of biscuits of a quality loaf of bread. If this isn’t the case, I would be very interested to hear from Aldi or Lidl about why it isn’t and what we could look forward to.

How to Choose a Head-Hunter

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Thus article is aimed at HR Managers and senior hiring managers and will hopefully give you some value and insider information when selecting a head-hunter for a specific task.One of the periodic headaches for any HR Manager or hiring manager is who to choose when a retained Executive Search is required. It’s a tricky one, I have both commissioned searches (up to £350k salaries) and sold search services. Based on my experience as a customer and a head-hunter, here’s a brief guide:

First thing to consider is when it is appropriate to use retained search over success based recruitment. Definitions, retained search is when a supplier is solely appointed to a project and their fee is split into an initial project retainer and one or more other payments either at stages or on success. Contingency or success based recruitment is when one or more suppliers are given the vacancies to fill and their work is paid for on successful delivery. A general definition is that a ‘Recruitment Consultant’ tends to work on a contingency basis and a “head-hunter” or “search consultant” tends to work on a retained basis. However, that is not always the case as depending on sector you get RCs who also offer, and are very capable head-hunters when appropriate and head-hunters who will be willing to work on a success only basis when it is appropriate. Choose on specialisation and reputation and not on job title.

When to use retained search?

A general rule of thumb I have always followed is consider retained search when the position is either business critical, senior, a very rare skill set or where confidentiality is required. If it is absolutely critical that you have the best available candidate in the market at that time in the job by a certain date then retained search is definitely the route to go down. Search and Selection Consultancies essentially sell risk management.

What service to demand/expect?

You are not just paying for the role to be filled. You are paying for the role to be filled by the best candidate available (when compared to their peers) at that moment in time and who is interested in the opportunity. This means that when you hire Mr Snooks you can rest easy knowing that Snooks has been selected against a thoroughly vetted shortlist that was based on a quality long list of potential candidates initially approached. Depending on the service level agreed as a minimum you should expect to be:

1/ provided with a shortlist of candidates selected from a long list (which should also be provided)

2/ comprehensive report on the reaction of candidates in the market to the client’s position and brand both positive and negative

3/ detailed interview and personal notes on each shortlisted candidate, unless exceptional circumstances occur the head-hunter should have met and extensively interviewed the candidate at least once.

4/ reference and document checking as well as qualification checking should be provided

5/ management of the candidate throughout the offer stage and throughout the notice period

6/ professional communication to all unsuccessful candidates

7/ evidence of the activities carried out during the search

8/ some after sales service.

 

 

Who to choose?

I’m going to make myself unpopular with some of my colleagues here. If you don’t do anything else, choose the head-hunter and not the company they work for. Head-hunters are like lawyers, they get to know their area of specialisation, they become respected within that area, they become trusted in that sector and within the pool of professionals within that sector, when they move their business tends to follow them. Appoint on this reputation and expertise of the delivering consultant. Remember, big names and fancy brands are OK if you want to make a big noise in the market and keep shareholders happy but if this isn’t a requirement, time spent finding niche experts will pay dividends. Over the last 8 years, more than at any other time, there has been huge churn within the search industry. Many household name companies have struggled and as a result, many of the expert consultants and head-hunters who worked for them have either left to set up their own businesses or are working with sector specific companies who, due to their smaller cost base, will be more willing to pay higher rates of commission to the best head-hunters. Ask your colleagues, who would they recommend as a head-hunter in the sector? Check on LinkedIn, it’s now a highly sophisticated source of information of this type. Another benefit is the smaller cost base of the independent specialist company means that your fees are usually less. You are not paying for Mayfair offices, a fleet of powerful cars, teams of researchers and admin or expense accounts, these businesses will be lean and mean and have seen a growth in recent years at the expense of the ‘big boys’. Above all remember that the amount of money you throw at the search doesn’t necessarily translate into successful delivery.

What to pay for?

Ensure you know what you are paying for. In the past some companies have charged excessively for additional expenses. Phone bills, paper, photocopying, secretarial support, travel are all extras which some search companies will charge you for. One business I had dealings with in the past (no, I won’t tell you who it was)once hit their client with a ‘supplemental recruitment charge’ of £10k as they were a few K short of their target that month and bolted the  charge onto the back of a search, the client paid it without question. Now sometimes these extras will be necessary and the search company might genuinely require assistance to pay for them. For example, you decided to take a suite of rooms at The Connaught for candidate interviews or there is a requirement to interview candidates in Australia etc. However, all these additional expenses can and should be discussed and agreed on before the search starts. Go through the terms of business with a fine toothed comb, if you feel it is necessary, get a procurement or commercial expert to help you with the terms and negotiation. You are the customer here.

 

Guarantee and after sales support

Most companies involved in recruitment offer a rebate scheme should the candidate leave . This is typically on a sliding scale and can be ayting from a week to 6 months. I offer a 12 month free replacement if the person I headhunted and placed decides to leave the business within the first year of employment. It is beyond me why this is so rare in the industry. Surely if you are doing your job properly then you should put your money where your mouth is. It also ensures after sales support. A new employee is a change in the business environment and change is always an issue. It is very important that the head-hunter, with the agreement of all parties, remains in touch with the individual hired after they start the new role. I have seen and experienced several incidents when after sales communication has prevented the hire from leaving or failing in the role, especially when the new hire is not given the support required, it often takes a 3rd party to highlight the issue to the employer or make HR aware so they can take action. This is after sales service and it can be highly effective if professionally used. I always offer it, it beats me why it’s so rare in the industry.

 

Which method you choose and which search company you appoint always ensure it and they are fit for purpose. High risk, confidential, senior, business critical, rare skills or bum-on-seat-by-definite-date then absolutely consider retained search. Otherwise contingency should do.

 

Next episode – “How to set up an In House Search Function, The Basics”

 

 

The end of the UK Big 4?

big4

In the last 12 months we have seen a fundamental shift in the retail food sector in the UK. With the big 4 losing £3 billion in till receipts and the discounters seeing phenomenal growth, industry analysts are announcing a tectonic shift in the FMCG market in the UK. How is this going to affect our industry? Is this a threat or an opportunity?

Inflation hasn’t been followed by wage packets. Our economy is growing but our earnings aren’t. For years in the UK the consumer was happy to purchase from an increasingly smaller pool of suppliers. In energy and banking our options are limited, competition is nonexistent, anger and frustration rife, the only  recourse the consumer has is government backed industry enforcers. Mrs Thatcher, love her or hate her had one thing right when she identified two biggest threats to individual freedom being big government and big business. By big business she meant companies that were so powerful they totally dominated their markets killing choice and competition. The reality of the credit crunch has changed consumers, whilst their options in banking and energy markets are limited, the one sector where they can show their new muscle is in their grocery bill and flexing them they are. Is our sector becoming the whipping boy for the frustrated consumer?

In the last 12 months £3 billion has left the tills of the big 4. Consumers are far more cynical, their shopping habits have moved from the convenience of a big weekly shop at one store, a new breed of canny shopper has emerged. Worryingly, for the big 4, there is evidence that the professional classes are now leading this anti-consumerism; the basics are bought in discounters and the luxuries in Waitrose and M&S. A recent Channel 4 Despatches Documentary last week identified this trend and anger in consumers who, rightly or wrongly, feel that they have been ripped off by the big 4 for years. Those doing a one stop weekly shop are now seen as wasteful, it’s fashionable to be canny. It’s a fundamental shift; probably the biggest in the last 20 years and it shows no sign of slowing down or changing.

So, what does this mean for those of us who work in the food manufacturing sector? Is this an opportunity or a massive threat? Whatever it is, the speed of the change will have huge implications.

Are our business models fit for purpose?

The average big 4 superstore has over 30,000 products on its shelves, the average discounter, 1,500. What does this mean for the manufacturer? Our business models have been honed to service the demanding buyers of the big 4. Customer auditors have lorded it over our factories. The demands of the big 4 have been brutal and the level of control such that they have been able to effectively dictate to suppliers for years. We all have war stories of how the big 4 have enforced their demands. The problem is, that we have, through necessity, complied with these demands. This has created models that are ideal for servicing the big 4 but with the disintegration of their power, how relevant are they for the future? The consumer seems to want basics that are more basic and luxuries and fresh that are local, have provenance and high quality. Those suppliers wholly dependent on big 4 supply contracts could be in for a very nasty time.

 

The big question is, what can we do about it? Are our businesses sufficiently savvy and fleet of foot to cope with the changes in the market?

 

 

Why do I offer a 12 month 100% rebate on my placements?

moneybill

 

I’ve sat on both sides of the ‘recruitment fence’. I have been both poacher and gamekeeper. I understand the pressures that recruitment consultants face and I also understand the issues that the busy HR Manager has to deal with on a daily basis. The friction between both is well debated and obvious to all of us who work in either role. However, what is less examined is what can we do to make life easier for each party?

You see, as recruiters, we share the same goal. That is to ensure that the individual hired is the best person available for that role at that time and that the person hired remains in the role and adds value to their new employer by fulfilling and hopefully exceeding expectations. Which is why I often find it odd that such a great deal of time is spent negotiating rebate periods. In my entire 20 years in the industry I have never had to issue a rebate credit nor have I had to demand a rebate from a supplier. It is a rare thing but it is a valid concern.

We all know that recruitment is often about risk management. For an HR or Procurement professional, it’s very important to have peace of mind around after sales service, often missing from many agencies services.

This is why, for the last few years have offered a 12 month guarantee on my placements. I started doing this, not as a sales gimmick but rather to allow me to become more involved in the recruitment process, if I could demonstrate to my clients that I had a personal vested interest in getting the hiring decision right then they would be far more willing to trust my opinions and utilise my experience beyond that of a CV shuffler. As a buyer of recruitment services, I have never understood why more agencies don’t offer this. As an agent I know it is because it doesn’t often fit into the traditional agency business model. However, I take the approach that I’m not doing my job properly if I am not willing to offer this. Yes, it takes longer and delays sales but it ensures professionalism, and builds trust and that can only be a good thing.

With the advent of systems like Linkedin and the growth of in house recruitment specialists it has become increasingly important for recruiters to offer a level of service that goes beyond merely that of a CV shuffler. Any organisation can subscribe to one of the myriad of CV databases out there. Recruitment fees for what is essentially shuffling these CVs is hardly value for money. No matter how much you wish to automate a recruitment process, the more experience and expertise you can bring to an assignment the better. By offering this I am putting my money where my mouth is and from a professional point of view, ensuring that the client gets the benefit of their cash investment.

 

If you are in the business of hiring staff and you’d be interested in a 12 month 100% rebate on your hires then please drop me a line.

Never make a hiring decision alone!

car towards cliff

The hiring cliff, entrepreneurs are so focused on getting where they need to that they often miss the lethal drop of a poor hiring decision.

Here’s one that might seem obvious but is a banana skin especially for smaller and owner managed businesses and especially for the entrepreneur, so driven and focused on success.

Despite the well known catastrophic costs to businesses about making the wrong hiring decision managers and especially owner managers routinely make the mistake of not being thorough in their hiring process. The easiest way to do this is to ensure you involve someone else in the hiring process.

I’ll let you into a secret, one that I am far from proud of – I’ve been involved in recruiting and hiring both as an HR Manager and as a headhunter for nigh on 20 years and about 2 years ago I blithely wandered into this trap – one that I had been highlighting to clients for years. I thought that my years of experience would protect me from making a bad decision, after all, I have interviewed thousands of people over the years, how could I possibly make a mistake? At the time I was running an engineering business. Like many entrepreneurs I was snowed under, literally, with huge demands on my time. When it came time to hire someone I knew the dangers of getting it wrong but arrogantly assumed with my vast experience that this was unlikely to happen. So I hired a guy based on the recommendation of an associate for whom he was working for at the time. The interview process was, in reflection, quite shocking. Like many business people I was so caught up in my todo list and in the plans for the company that I didn’t do the basics, I relied on the recommendation of the third party without questioning their motives. I was too busy to give this the time I needed to.

I ended up eating a huge slice of humble pie as the individual we hired ended up being a disaster that cost the business tens of thousands, and has resulted in a criminal court case being pursued against the individual in question for theft.

So, what did I do wrong, how could I, with so many years experience of this, got it so wrong?

Now, in hindsight the reasons were obvious but it is very easy, especially with your own business to be so focused on the success of that business to end up falling into these very obvious traps. The mindset you need to succeed as an entrepreneur is one of optimism and positive attitude, you want to bring everyone with you and you will use your sheer force of personality to succeed. However, the mindset you need for interviewing is to temper this with a huge dollop of cynicism, yes sell the candidate your idea and your passion but do not expect that person to share your drive, ambition and passion. They are not you and their motives are not yours, you need to be quite hard on yourself and on them. This is a lot more difficult than it seems.

So, how can you easily avoid making the wrong decision?

The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure that you have at least a second opinion. Here’s some ideas of where to get that from:

– Professional HR Consultants are a very cost effective way to do this. Many offer a service that includes, writing a job spec, helping you shortlist, designing an interview schedule and supporting you with the interviews. They usually charge by the hour or day and you’d usually be looking at a few hundred for this support. Given the potential cost of getting it wrong, it’s money well spent and the time it will save you in process more than pays for itself. I provide a service for small local businesses that gives this support, many others do as well.

– Trusted colleagues, these must be appropriate, it would be inappropriate to ask a potential report of the new candidate to interview for their boss. If you are a small business think laterally,

-a non executive director (get them to earn their stipend!),

-a business consultant who might be working with you in another capacity,

-a friend who knows your business and who might run their own business.

– A family member with an interest in the business, your spouse for instance

-Consider using a headhunter/recruiter and putting the onus on them to support you. As a headhunter I offer a 100% rebate for the first 12 months. This allows me to become far more involved in the selection of the RIGHT candidate to the extent that I have supported client interviews. I have a vested interest in getting it right, not just in placing any old candidate. Very few recruiters offer this level of guarantee, if they don’t, ask them why not?

Whatever you do, make sure you get that second opinion on every candidate and do those checks.

Remember – the point interviewing is not to assess how well a candidate interviews

How many times have you sat in room with colleagues after an interview and someone has turned to you and said: “well they interviewed well”?

I’ve lost count. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I have reminded my fellow panel members that we are not there to assess how well someone interviews, we are their to work out if they are the best fit for the vacancy we are recruiting.

The pressures on ensuring consistency of assessment, especially in competency based interview there is always a danger that a gem of a candidate gets rejected because they didn’t shine at interview. I have always believed that it is the job of the HR manager on the panel to ensure that this doesn’t happen and you don’t end up missing the best candidate just because they are having an ‘off’ day. This can lead to absurd situations and can result in the wrong hire being made just because a candidate is a ‘good interviewer’ I’ve seen panels discuss this and still make the wrong decision “well, I thought ‘x’ would be our hire but she interviewed dreadfully and waffled on for ages and was nervous. ‘y’ however, he’s a superb interviewer and scored highly on the assessment form because of his answers”. As an HR professional you will likely be the most experienced interviewer on the panel. Therefore it is your job to ensure that you get the information you need to make a decision from each candidate no matter how nervous or stressed they are. Yes, an interview is a formal process but you are dealing with humans at the end of the day. We all have ‘off’ days.

I can distinctly recall one interview I managed some years ago. The interviewee was highly nervous, he’d been out of work for 6 months, had a family to support, was under huge financial pressure. The interview started and he was terrible. The first half dozen questions he made a total mess of and the more he could see we were disengaged the worse it got. After forty minutes of this I interrupted proceedings and said “would anyone like a cup of tea?” This stopped the candidate and the hiring manager, who had resorted to roasting the candidate, in their tracks. The tea arrived and we had a general chat. During this chat I confided in the candidate that I could well sympathise with his predicament. I’d been made redundant some years before and, despite being a professional interviewer could not get past second interview. I had a family to support and as under huge pressure and I couldn’t help this coming over in interview as nerves and desperation. My confidence was shot. Eventually I got a job but it was a miserable time which got worse and worse. Was he finding the same thing in his job search? From then on the candidate started to open up and relax. We started again and by the end of the interview all on the panel knew this was the guy for the job. We offered him the role and within the first 6 months he had won 400,000 Euros in new business for the company and opened up Benelux where they had no presence before.

car towards cliff

I’ve found that a bit of preparation with panel members can pay dividends. Pre empting the above situation by understanding a candidate’s personal circumstances and motivation can avoid this and saves everyone time.

 

I’ve found the following steps essential to ensure this doesn’t happen:

  • Spend 5 minutes before each interview running through the CV and circumstances with the line manager. Point out potential areas of concern and also whether or not the candidate is likely to be under stress sufficient to effect their interview conduct.
  • Ensure that you understand any apparent ‘weaknesses’ in the CV. For example: candidate made redundant 3 years ago, unemployed for 6 months, takes the first job that he is offered because he has a family to support but it didn’t work out. A candidate should not be judged too harshly for this. Get the line manager to put themselves in the candidate’s shoes, there is a world of difference between someone who is flaky and someone who had no choice but to take the job
  • Bear in mind the economic conditions out there. If a candidate has been unemployed for a year and has had dozens of interviews despite having huge experience and a lot to offer the chances are that his or her confidence has gone and that they are under huge stress in their personal life due to financial pressures etc. You must bear this in mind and look beneath the nerves. Such a candidate will frequently be an excellent hire because they are so grateful that you had the imagination to see beneath their stress
  • When conducting a Competency Based Interview, should the candidate answer a question with a poor example, ask them for another example, explain the reason for the question. e.g.” We are trying to ascertain how good you are in a crisis, can you think carefully about your career to date and tell us of an event which you believe best demonstrates your ability to ‘x’.”
  • By the same token, if a candidate wanders from the point of the question. Don’t sit there with a fixed grin on your face. Interrupt and being them back on track. What you interpret as lack of focus is often just nerves or even enthusiasm.
  • Desperation in candidates is not a bad thing. There are many things that can motivate it. If someone has a family to support and are unemployed, yes, they will be desperate. You need to see through this and understand and empathise with them. “didn’t like ‘x’ he was too desperate” is not an acceptable reason for rejection.
  • Remember that those who have only interviewed a few times in their career or are coming back from a long career break (back to work mums etc) will tend to be less slick at interview. Bear this in mind.
  • Above all, empathise with the candidate and don’t judge too harshly, there are often reasons for behaviour and interviewing is very stressful.