19 August 2016

Banjo PR Disaster: The well-meaning but incompetent interviewer

Two weeks ago, Sydney advertising agency, Banjo, found itself in the middle of a social media storm when one of its hiring managers, at the end of an interview, said to the candidate (of Sri Lankan origin): "the client might be alarmed by having three brown skin people attend a meeting."

SmartCompany reported as follows:

Banjo chief executive Andrew Varasdi declined to comment when contacted by SmartCompany. However, the company said in a statement the situation was an "unfortunate understanding", and the interviewer, "who is of similar ethnicity to the candidate", made a "casual remark at the end of the interview", which was intended to make the applicant feel "at ease" ... There has been a lot of media attention on the issue of equality - including race, gender and sexual orientation, and age - in recent times and we acknowledge that emotions can run high."

As always seems to be the case when these sort of issues blow up in public, the offending company labelled the matter an "unfortunate understanding" ie it wasn't what we said that was bad, it was the fault of the hurt party for "taking it the wrong way."

I thought ad agencies prided themselves on, and were engaged by clients for their skill of being able to communicate a clear message?

At least Varasdi acted promptly in contacting the candidate to arrange a meeting:

"When I learned of the situation I immediately contacted both the candidate and our staff member to offer my empathy and support. I have arranged to meet with the candidate first thing in the morning (Friday 5 August) to reassure her of our policies on recruitment."

Varasdi's statement went on:

In Banjo's seven-year history, the agency's recruitment policy has always encompassed not only hiring the best possible talent, but also ensuring that the staff spans all ages, genders and ethnicities.

Varasdi said: "We couldn't possibly deliver on our promise that our clients come first, if our own staff did not reflect the Australian community. We are always prepared to offer our clients the best advice to connect with their customers."

Banjo's current staff includes 50% women in senior management and 50% women overall, and half of the staff are from ethnic backgrounds including India, Asia, UK and South America.

"We are extremely proud of the make up of our talented staff, which is reflective of the diversity of Australia. We hope that we will be judged on our record, and that all candidates who consider joining us at Banjo will do so too," Varasdi said.

That's all well and good; I am sure Varasdi was truthful about Banjo's recruitment policy and the diversity of his company's staff.

But in my view there was something significant missing.

Where was the statement about reviewing their interview training? One of his hiring managers had just demonstrated herself to be incompetent at conducting an interview; well-meaning but incompetent.

Varasdi may think the problem was an "unfortunate misunderstanding" but I call BS on that one. It's a skill error. No trained and skilled interviewer should ever make such a howler. Making a ‘casual remark' such as the one Banjo find themselves apologising for is as ignorant and stupid as making jokes about "a bomb in my bag" to airport security staff.

What interview training has been undertaken by the hiring managers at Banjo? If training has been undertaken, how recent was this training? What follow up has occurred? What auditing of recent interviews has taken place to ensure that the training is being consistently followed?

I suspect that, like most companies, no formal interview training has taken place. If such training has taken place, then I would almost guarantee that no meaningful follow up has occurred.

How many companies of Banjo's size would allow an untrained person to run their IT system or be responsible for the Banjo finances? Would Banjo seek legal advice from a self-taught lawyer? Of course they wouldn't.

Yet how many companies allow almost any employee to conduct an interview regardless of their skill or training? I would bet my house that a vast majority of companies make few or no enquiries as to the skill and training of their hiring managers before those same hiring managers make decisions worth tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars as they interview potential employees and make hiring decisions.

Memo Andrew Varasdi: Your recent PR disaster was caused by an employee's skill error. Unless you recognise this and take the appropriate action to rectify this skill error across your company then you are not fixing the real cause of the problem that your well-meaning but incompetent hiring manager highlighted.

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