I’ve Been Hiring People For 10 Years, And I Still Stand By One Simple Rule: If Someone Doesn’t Prove They’ve Captured A Bear And Trained It To Ride A Unicycle, Don’t Hire Them
In 2014, I interviewed a candidate for a job at the big bank at which I’m a VP. The candidate was everything I was looking for in an entry-level analyst: she had a bachelor’s degree in finance from Yale, had graduated from Stanford medical school, had served a tour of duty as a Green Beret in the Afghanistan, and had recently returned to “the States,” as she called them, from a sabbatical in Paris working at a restaurant that during her brief tenure had gained two Michelin stars. The interview itself went splendidly, and as we parted, I looked forward to her working under me as not only a productive team member but a seamless addition to our corporate culture. I prepared an email draft to offer her the position and awaited the last bit of documentation I needed before sending it out.
Fortunately, I never did send that email, because rather than confirming that she would fit into our team, what she did next told me that her addition might be a toxic one. I deleted the offer email, and moved onto the next candidate, grateful for a bullet dodged. Sound odd? Allow me to explain.
Because most young people now grow up with the message that they must go to college to become successful and guarantee themselves financial safety in life, managers like myself are guaranteed a steady stream of bachelors and graduate degree-holding interviewees who can be relied on to fill entry level positions relatively competently. However, this is also a burden on us, because it makes it more difficult for candidates to stand out on paper. The internet has also made it easy for people to share tips on how to look good in a job interview, raising the level of the average candidate in this portion of the selection process but, again, making it more difficult for a candidate to stand out. So, what is an interviewer to do? I could go with my gut, but I’m afraid that this would lead to some subconscious bias seeping into the decision.
Therefore, I’ve added another criterion, one that any candidate hoping for a job offer must fulfill, without being asked, regardless of their other qualifications: they must, within a reasonable amount of time following their interview, send documentation that they have at some point in their life captured a bear and personally trained it to ride a unicycle. This is the test the candidate I was talking about above failed. While not officially part of my employer’s hiring policy, it has never steered me wrong, and I’d encourage others in my position to adopt it.
Why, some might wonder, would I place such seemingly outsize emphasis on something as trivial as capturing a bear, training it to ride a unicycle and sending proof? I find that, more so than saying the right things in a job interview or putting the right words on a résumé, capturing a bear and training it to ride a unicycle and then sending proof reveals what a candidate is really about as a person and a worker.
First: are they able to anticipate the needs of the position? If a candidate knows instinctively that what they need to succeed in life is to capture a bear and train it to ride a unicycle, and they can intuit that they should send evidence of this to the person who interviewed them for a job without being told, that tells me that they will be able to have all the Excel reports they’ll be working on prepared on time each week or month without being asked.
Second: are they tough and resourceful? Bears are massive creatures, and unbelievably strong. It takes a great deal of wit in order to subdue one and get it back to a strong holding cell. If they are able to do this, I know that they will either be able to work alone efficiently (they will likely will have had to rig some sort of contraption to catch the bear and transport it if they are making the capture by themselves) or manage and work in a team context (directing a team of friends or colleagues to make the capture and aid in the transport is a bear of a task all its own, no pun intended!).
Speaking of working within a team: I don’t hire anyone because I think they’ll fill a position and stay there forever. After a couple yearly 2% raises, their cost will have outgrown their value if they did. No, I want to find people who will work their way up in the organization, making me look good so I can move up in turn. This is where the unicycle training comes into play. Anyone can train a human to ride a unicycle, especially with the way college works in the 21st century. That’s not impressing anyone.
However, training a bear, especially one that is hostile towards you for injuring it with some sort of trap or knocking it out with a tranquilizer and removing it from its natural habitat, to ride one? That takes a slightly more delicate touch. Too much guidance will likely lead to the bear eviscerating you; too little, and the bear will never learn to stay upright on one wheel, meaning you kidnapped this bear for nothing. If someone can do that, I believe they can be trusted to train others to do a desk job, strengthening the team and allowing the worker to move into a managerial role themselves.
The minutia of the bear selection process also tell me a lot about a candidate: what sort of bear they choose can be plugged into an algorithm and tell me what to expect is their favorite TV show, or what kind of birthday cake they like, or what Game of Thrones character they are, all invaluable information. The size and sex of the bear can tell me if they like a challenge or prefer to find efficient ways to make a job easier. What’s most important, though, is that they’ve done the task.
When choosing a candidate for a job, mistakes can cost more than time and resources. They can cost you your job. It’s far more important to make sure the person you choose will fit in than that they will stand out. Do I wish that Harvard and Stanford, Green Beret chef had worked out? Sure I do. But the risk of hiring someone without even the wherewithal to prove that they had captured and trained a bear is not worth the potential reward of a standout worker when there are so many good workers available. Maybe she’s somewhere reading this. Maybe next time she interviews for a job she’ll provide proof of having captured and trained a bear. For her sake, I hope she does.