What’s right (and wrong!) about Zappos’ customer service hiring and HR

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One of the terms that gets thrown about a lot today in discussions of hiring strategies is ‘‘fit,’’ as in, ‘‘How well will this candidate ‘fit’ into the culture of our organization/company and exemplify our brand and our mission?’’ It’s not so easy to directly and definitively answer this question.

Nevertheless, there are ways companies try to ensure an outstanding fit between individuals and the company. At Whole Foods, after a candidate has completed a lengthy probationary period (thirty to ninety days), the candidate’s coworkers vote to determine whether that candidate will be hired permanently, or be sent packing. Zappos uses an array of unique activities and questions (‘‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?’’) in its hiring process to ensure each candidate is going to be ‘‘one of them.’’

 

On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?

 

If you didn’t know how agile at hiring Whole Foods and Zappos are, you might think this sounds like a process that veers awfully close to old-fashioned hazing for membership in a fraternity or sorority.

(And it’s a process that at Zappos manages to sometimes involve nearly as much alcohol as hazing: ‘‘I had three vodka shots with Tony [Hsieh, Zappos’s CEO] during my interview,’’ runs one jaw-dropping comment, from their now-head of human resources, Rebecca Ratner.)

This is why I want to clarify what we should mean when we talk about ‘‘fit’’ as it pertains to recruiting and hiring customer service professionals.

My own assessment of well-intended strategies for testing ‘‘fit’’ is that, in hands less capable than Zappos or Whole Foods, they can be as hit or miss as black versus red on the roulette wheel. Peer evaluations, for example, run the risk of devolving into an assessment of whether a given candidate is a good drinking buddy or a worthy World of Warcraft adversary, not to mention doing an end run around the antidiscriminatory safeguards that traditional human resources procedures have evolved to support.

 

Peer evaluations run the risk of devolving into an assessment of whether a given candidate is a good drinking buddy

 

The psychological literature here is highly cautionary

People have an instinctive propensity to hire those who remind them of themselves, and one has to imagine that this tendency is even greater in people who aren’t trained as human resource professionals.

People have an instinctive propensity to hire those who remind them of themselves

 

Properly handled, fit assessment always focuses on what is needed to be a contributing member of the organization. Anything that might stray into ‘‘hazing’’ territory is handled with care, forethought, and precision, as it is in the application process at Southwest Airlines.

Southwest, which, by the way, receives more applicants per spot than Harvard, uses scenario-simulation exercises that, while certainly stress inducing, use problem solving, creative thinking, and collaboration skills similar to what may later be required in-flight.9 Southwest also has the process and results monitored and reviewed by seasoned professionals. There’s no room here for hiring by fiat or hunch.

Fit is a great concept, at least in theory, but so is what diversity experts like Global Novations’ Michael Hyter call inclusion: ‘‘ensuring that . . . there is a fair consideration for jobs for people who happen to be different.’’

As Hyter explains,

The word ‘‘fit’’ in the absence of that support factor can easily be misinterpreted as ‘‘being like me,’’ instead of what the position requires. Many organizations make the mistake of assuming that those tasked with selecting new hires are equipped to do so fairly because they are nice people or good workers. But failure to ensure the selection process is based on standard criteria with trained interviewers can result in unintentional bias in the spirit of looking for someone who’s a perceived ‘‘good fit.’’

The incomparable wit Dorothy Parker was once asked the first thing she noticed in a person. Her answer? ‘‘Whether they’re a man or a woman.’’ Parker had a more direct connection to her subconscious than most of us, and in her quip lies the problem with ‘‘fit’’ in its raw state. You can substitute whatever obvious—and perhaps legally actionable—superficiality you like into Parker’s line, and you’ll find the unfortunate truth: Superficial differences and similarities are often the first things we notice. It’s important to get beyond them.

© 2013 Micah Solomon. Portions of this article have appeared in previously published work by the author.

 

Want more? Read the next post in our series: All I Know About Customer Service I Learned as a Paperboy

Connect with Micah

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Micah Solomon, business keynote speaker and author on customer service, the customer experience, leadership and marketing. His latest book is High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service (American Management Association/ AMACOM). Reach Micah directly at micah@micahsolomon.com or 484-343-5881, on Twitter at @micahsolomon or on.

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By Micah Solomon, a customer service and marketing speaker, strategist, and bestselling business author. His latest book is High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service. (American Management Association/AMACOM). He’s also the founder and “Dean” of the free online business resource, “College of the Customer.”

  • http://garywinters.com/ Gary Winters

    I’ve seen several stories lately about interviewers looking for candidates they feel are a “fit” for the company’s culture. I can’t help sometimes thinking that you’re out automatically if you aren’t young and hip. What if you’re simply an introvert but great at what the job calls for, and using the example above, what if you don’t drink? I wouldn’t want to work with someone that everyone liked but was a novice at his job. I know “fit” is supposed to be more than popularity, but it still seems a suspicious way to judge a candidate. And as you say, a lack of diversity is a real concern.

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  • tmagman1

    I think Whole Foods would be a great company for which to be employed. I’m beginning to think I stand a better chance at being accepted into an FBI or CIA training program than Whole Foods. I’ve applied for every position possible on their career website, willing to work part-time or full-time any hour of the day, have tons of management experience, even worked in grocery retail for five years. I’ve gotten turned down for such a simple and entry level position as part-time cashier. Seriously?

  • http:/www.micahsolomon.com Micah Solomon

    Working backward:
    I don’t know why Whole Foods has been turning you down; you may want to do something extraordinary like post a video resumé to get their attention? I agree they seem like a potentially remarkable place to work.

    Nathan: As far as good and bad management having little to do with hiring practices, I have to disagree. hiring practices are one of the most important managerial decisions.

    Gary: I share your concerns. Zappos requires (they say on their site suggest but it’s not true) video resumes and interviews from even local candidates. Any HR professional will note the pitfalls of potential discrimination against the old, the disabled, and of course the visually impaired, for which such a process is a nonstarter.

  • Nathan

    Companies require a certain level of harmony in their workforce, if you’re working together a lot, then you need to be able to communicate well and get on.

    This is nothing new, and not unique to any industry.

    If you’re hiring people because they’re young and hip then you’re missing out, but this also isn’t a hiring practice encouraged by anyone (I’m an employer, by the way)- so you;re right to be worried by that – but it’s also not something likely to occur with any company that knows what they’re doing.

    Diversity is incredibly important, and it’s crucial to be able to recognise the difference between someone bringing something new to the table, and not ‘fitting’. The problem comes when employers seek people who’d tick all the same boxes, which is pretty dumb anyway as it’s not how people work. Whether someone enjoys drinking booze or tea has little todo with how well they’ll work, or even socialise together.

    At the end of the day the only question here is of good and bad management, very little to do with hiring practices.

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