how much does the hiring process reflect the organization?

A reader writes:

I have been offered a job that I’m really excited about and can’t wait to get started in. At least, that was the case a few weeks ago, but now my enthusiasm is starting to wane. The reason? The incredibly long, bumbling recruitment process. In total, if I get the contract in the next few days, by the time I start work it will have taken five months to go from first contact to starting work. Almost half a year!!

I’m starting to think that if this process represents the organization fairly, I’m not sure I still want to work for them. In your experience, does the recruitment process reflect the organization as a whole? I’m worried I’m going to spend my working life frustrated by slow and inefficient processes. Its not a question I can really put to them without alienating them, but they don’t really explain the long delays, although they do often apologize for them.

Well, first, a five-month hiring process isn’t necessarily indicative of a problem, particularly if it’s a fairly senior position and especially if that’s the time from when you first applied to when you’d start work. Plenty of places move slowly and deliberatively (which is a good thing when hiring because the right fit is crucial), and plenty of places have to iron out budgets or other issues that come up unexpectedly and need to be resolved before they can move forward.

However, let’s assume for the sake of answering your question that it’s not just the length of the process that’s troubling you, and that you’ve seen additional red flags (which seems likely, since you characterized the process as “bumbling”).

In that case … I wish there were an easy, black and white answer to this, but there’s not.

Often, yes, a disorganized and chaotic hiring process does reflect what it will be like to work there. But other times, weirdly, it’s not entirely representative.

One thing to look at is whether you’ve been dealing with HR or the manager you’d be working for. If it’s been the manager, then yes, assume that this is a fair representation of what she’ll be like if you take the job. Even if she’s not the source of the disorder herself and is instead at the mercy of a bumbling HR department, you’ve got to assume that she’s either not able or not willing to assert herself when another area of the organization is impeding the work of her own department. If you’ve ever had a manager who won’t stand up to another department that’s getting in your way or won’t push back against policies that are impeding your work, you know how frustrating this can be. (And yes, sometimes a certain amount of bureaucratic nonsense just needs to be tolerated, but stuff that affects hiring is serious and worth pushing back against.)

On the other hand, if your sense is that the problems are all coming from HR, the picture is harder to figure out. It’s possible that the people you’d be working with would be great and that HR is its own isolated island of incompetence. But there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that an organization that allows a department to be an island of incompetence has a culture that’s problematic at best. Great cultures don’t produce or allow that kind of thing — in any area, but especially not in hiring.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that what you experienced was a fluke. The fact that they were apologizing for the delays might support this, since it indicates that they at least recognize that it’s not something people should expect.

So where does that leave you? Two things might help: First, what else do you know about how they operate, based on what you’ve observed about their culture while interviewing? Aside from their hiring practices, do they generally seem on the ball and like they’re running a tight ship? Are they action-oriented and reasonably decisive, or more wishy-washy? Do they seem to have a high bar for performance, or do you get the sense that they’re not especially rigorous?

And second, why not just ask about your concerns? If you get an offer, why not simply say something like, “I wonder if you could tell me more about the culture there. I noticed the hiring process took a while. Was that anticipated from the start, or if it took longer than you had originally expected, is that pretty common? What I’m wondering is about is whether you’re generally able to move pretty quickly when decisions need to be made, or if it’s a slower, more deliberative culture?”  This is a completely reasonable question to ask when you’re considering taking a job, and if you can’t ask it without alienating them, that in and of itself is a big red flag.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Clobbered*

    I once was in a fabulous department in an organization with bumbling HR. All I could tell people was “don’t judge us by the recruitment process, and once you start you will almost never have to deal with HR again”.

    While it is true I am sure that sometimes that reflects the culture of the organization at large, other times it is just a case of HR being an afterthought to the rest of the organization, and not really managed as closely as core mission activities.

    I have also dealt with great HR departments in an organization where it was otherwise hard to get things done. There are often micro-cultures in organizations, and you never entirely know what you are going to get – unless you are dealing with a totally together or totally dysfunctional organization.

    1. OP*

      Thanks so much everyone for your comments, I’m replying up here because the very first comment echoed exactly what the hiring manager told me since I wrote to AAM. I have been (finally!) offered the job, signed the contract, and start in a week. And the hiring manager rang me shortly afterwards and said, essentially, HR are a law unto themselves and I really apologise for everything that happened during that process.

      I could write a very long post on all the issues that arose, and I suppose reviewing them in my head it came down to not paying attention to basic and quite fundamental details (for example, this is a company with offices in a number of cities, and they consistently thought I lived in another city than the one I actually live in. This created some very unfortunate misunderstandings when it came to scheduling interviews), and also just being epically slow. I would have pulled out of the process numerous times were it not for the fact its honestly just about the most perfect job for me right now at this point in my career. It is also a project based job that is only 18 months, after that I will have a great springboard to a new job and no obligation to stick around if it turns out that the whole place operates like this. I also – and this is a really good point from AAM – feel like the hiring manager is organised and extremely talented, and also a good person, so I do have confidence in her. Thanks again for all your comments.

      1. Crazy for TEAPOTS!*

        I am so sorry for your experience. That really sucks.

        As someone in HR, we are often “blessed” with the opportunity to serve our organizations by coordinating schedules of 5 different people that can be in 5 different departments. It is especially maddening for us when all we really need is a box checked and a signature.

        But alas, these are not our decisions to make so when 5 people coherently get their ducks in a line, things finally get done.

  2. LK*

    This is great advice. The best job I had also had the best hiring process, and on the flip side my worst job ever had a disorganized hiring process (handled by my manager, there’s no HR department), so I think it’s wise to do some digging around if the hiring process is making you uncomfortable.

    On a related note, when asked where I work I shall now answer “The Island of Incompetence.”

    1. Marie*

      “The Island of Incompetence” very aptly describes my (now former) workplace. Ultimately, I was voted off the island.

  3. Joey*

    Whats really tough to ascertain is who to raise those concerns to.. Frequently the hiring manager blames the HR department (or vice versa) for her own mistakes. Of course it’s more subtle than that, but don’t be surprised if its someone else’s fault no matter who you ask.

  4. LondonI*

    As someone who has worked for a couple of multinationals, I can assure you that in very large organisations the HR department can be a law unto itself. My company’s recruitment and hiring process is drawn-out and painful, but my department has a great management structure and runs effectively. (Also, yes, good managers can and do push back against HR but in these situations even managers are tiny cogs in very large, bureaucratic wheels.)
    I’ve also worked for very small offices with just a few people in the entire company. My experience suggests that the smaller the company, the more likely it is to be indicative of the office culture.

  5. AG*

    Looking back, the slow hiring and poor communication at my last job were completely indicative of the disorganized nature of the company. The hiring manager never even extended a formal offer to me – I only found out I got the job when HR called to schedule my new hire paperwork! The company turned out to be very slow moving to do anything, there were no timelines for projects, and it was a total mess.

  6. AnotherAlison*

    There are so many variables to consider that I would have a hard time assuming that this was indicative of what working at the organization would be like. As a candidate, there is a lot that they can’t – or don’t need to – share with you.

    Just a few things that come to mind. . .the manager or a key person in that reporting chain being sick with a major illness, away on unexpected overseas travel, or even passing away. An internal candidate may have appeared and disappeared. They could have hired one new position and then decide they would add two, which opened the door for you a little later than orginally expected. Also not knowing the industry makes it hard to judge if it’s normal or not.

    1. Anonymous*

      the manager or a key person in that reporting chain being sick with a major illness, away on unexpected overseas travel, or even passing away

      Well, a well-run organization should have a succession plan to address that sort of thing. If not, then they’re evidently careless enough to let people become irreplaceable.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Sure, but while going into crisis management mode and the replacement getting their feet on the ground, a slight delay in the hiring process would be reasonable.

  7. books*

    I think we need more examples of bumbling to make a good judgement and also a better sense of time – when you applied 5 months ago, how long before you had an interview? Or has it been 4 months of we’ll make you an offer. Depends on the type of position/size of company, and if this is a federal agency, well, 5 months is short right?

  8. Sasha*

    Just to add more aggravation to the whole process…at my current job, I applied, was interviewed, and offered the job within about a month. I was even offered the job the day after I interviewed. Does this mean my company is expertly efficient and moves at lightening speed? Oh hell no. Every position on my team that has been filled after myself has taken MONTHS. It has to be approved by the VP, then the hiring committee, then the job is posted, then we accept applications, then we did interviews, then my manager sits around and thinks about whom to hire for weeks. Other things move at glacial paces as well. So it could be a fluke…or it could be business as usual. I would pay more attention to how you are treated, if they are forthcoming with answers to reasonable questions, and if they keep their promises.

  9. Anon*

    I’m not sure how much you can fault a manager for not standing up to HR. Often, HR has the legal trump card, and I’ve seen them play it many times in hiring. Specifically, I was told that I had to be sure to interview the right number of minority candidates to remain in compliance with something-or-other, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t true, but I’m not the expert. I rely on HR to know this stuff, and listen to what they tell me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But legal cautions are one of many considerations. If they’re getting in the way of running a business effectively, that needs to be pointed out to HR so that they come up with (legal) alternatives that will meet the business’s needs.

  10. Rob*

    I’m not sure this is something that can really be answered prior to being in the organization. There are great companies that have horrible HR departments, just like there are horrible companies that have great HR departments.

    However, you can treat your hiring experience as something to look as how the company as a whole is. If you are that concerned about it, decline at this point and continue your job search. Otherwise, you may want to proceed forward with this company, but be mindful of what may be in store and be prepared to move on if things continue to be bad.

  11. Nanc*

    Does anyone know what asking me my astrological sign as part of the interview process says about the interview… and no, I wasn’t in a bar.

  12. Anonymous*

    In my experience, every single time there has been something a bit ‘off’ with the recruitment process I have found it to be indicative of some systemic problem at the company. However, it would be rare to find a perfect company, therefore you can expect to run into troubles during the process. I guess you have to decide if it’s a problem you can live with once you’re working for them…

  13. jesicka309*

    Ugh the worst is internal interviews…because you can see the hiring process in action!
    It really makes me reconsider changing departments when HR rings me at my cubicle to schedule an interview (hello, I gave you my mobile, and I’m surrounded by coworkers right now!), or they schedule an interview in the boardroom right next to my office!
    They actually started interviewing candidates in the boardroom next to my office…so I could hear what was going on. This was before I’d even gotten a call about an interview! I was completely disheartened, thinking I had been passed over for the interview.
    Currently I’m waiting to hear back from another internal application, where they specified in the ad that they wanted the candidate to start before the Christmas period. You would think they would have gotten onto things quickly, considering many people have to give notice, and an ad posted early November still allows time for a quick hiring process and month’s notice, which I could negotiate with my current supervisor to be shorter.
    Alas, I’ve heard nothing for three weeks. So either: I didn’t make it to interviews, in which case, they haven’t notified me (ouch). Or I am still in the running, but because of their delays, I will be quickly eliminated as I have to give a month’s notice (as per their own company policy).
    Either way, it blows. I know there is a difference between company time vs. candidate time, but come on.

  14. Not So NewReader*

    OP, it struck me that you felt everything was great about the job until the HR part of the story. I love Alison’s suggestion of reviewing the in person interviews and reflecting on what you saw when you were inside the building itself. I don’t know if it is possible (some companies are too big and to spread too far) but if you can try to figure out what the recent successes are for this company(branch). Do they show evidence of recent and accomplishments? (This how employers view us potential employees… fair is fair.)
    Do you remember the hiring manager saying anything to the effect of “I really need you to start soon” ? Comments of that nature maybe cuing you that the stumbling block is HR.
    One last thought. Does your position allow you to hire people? If yes, that could be your in-road to opening a discussion on their hiring process. “If I need to hire someone, what can I expect as standard operating procedure and time frame?”

  15. Anonymous*

    Do you like big process? If so, you’ll probably love working in a company that takes months to make a hire.

    Do you like nimble? If so, you’ll probably love working in a place that takes days to make a hire.

  16. H*

    I’m not the OP, but how’s this for bumbling? I submitted my resume for a job posting with the local chapter of an international nonprofit organization in the middle of August. I played phone tag with the HR manager for two weeks to get an initial interview scheduled. When we finally connected, she discussed salary range right off the bat. It fit my desired range, so I moved forward and had my first interview, with the entire development team. I got a call a few days later, scheduling an interview with the CEO for the following week. I interviewed with the CEO, who told me to send my references to the HR manager that evening when I got home. I did that, and didn’t hear a WORD for a month. One month later, the HR manager emails me to set up a third interview with the CEO. I go, ask for the CEO, turns out I’m meeting with the HR manager instead. She apologized and explained that this is a brand new position so they’re still working out the details of the job description and responsibilities. That was over a month ago, and I haven’t heard a word since. Sigh. Sad thing is, this is my dream job, and dream organization. I’ve sent follow-up emails twice, and haven’t gotten a response. I know the position hasn’t been filled, and I know I nailed the interviews. My references have never even been contacted. So, there’s my experience with bumbling :)

    1. J*

      H, I am in a very similar position. My dream company has been all over the place with their timelines and I had 3 interviews over the course of a month and a half and I am now waiting to hear back hopefully on an offer. When I checked up with the guy I had been interviewing with they said they are waiting for an internal approval from their Board of Directors and who knows how long that will take but I hope it’s soon! I hope you hear back soon too — the process can be incredibly frustrating but I think sometimes things just get in the way and especially with a new position the company probably wasn’t as organized as they thought they would be. Good Luck!

      1. H*

        So frustrating, especially when it’s THE dream job. Good luck to you as well! I’ve been applying to and interviewing for other positions, so I haven’t totally quit my job search. But I am thinking it may be time to move on from this one.

  17. Kelly*

    I’ve had jobs where the hiring process was two interviews and an offer within 2 weeks and the company was completely disorganized and a nightmare to work for, and jobs where the hiring process took 3-4 months but the company was very organized and a pleasure to work for. (In those jobs I was also told a number of reasons for why exactly I was hired vs. the other applicants. They had done their homework as much as I had.) Because of this experience, I’d be more wary of the super fast process than the lengthy one.

  18. MadHatter*

    I used to work for one of the big computer companies. It was a fantastic place to work, but our recruiter was a nightmare. Due to the size of the organization, things were set up in a way that made sense to the senior management, but for those of us on the groundfloor, not so much. Our recruiter reported to a group in another state, our HR was another group entirely who reported to a different state, and the recruiter was at odds with HR. This was complicated by the fact we worked on a government contract, and the government customer moved slowly at the best of times. It frequently took a year to hire someone. There were nine, yes, NINE levels of approval inside the company alone, all of whom were executives and vice presidents who traveled frequently. That was after several customer approvals and approvals from other parts of the government due to the contracting position. And that was for any position, senior management on down to secretary. Once you made it through the gauntlet though, it was a dream job. Great benefits, great people, just a heck of a bureaucracy. So don’t give up.

  19. Jill*

    I work in government and our hiring processes are always slow. My particular position took me a year and a half to get, from start to finish! So in some industries, it’s not uncommon.

    I think you also need to consider the level of the particular position. When recruiting executive level officers, for example, many organizations purposely do a nationwide search and have several levels of interviewing before choosing a final candidate which can slow down the process.

  20. anon-2*

    I had mentioned this before – one company in my area, now defunct, was notorious for it’s three-ring circus during the hiring process.

    It had me running away from them, holding my nose, thinking, “I do *NOT* want to work THERE…”

    In a later life, I remembered when that company tried to sell my company products.

    In an even later life, when that company “gas piped”, I remembered further — the people I dealt with there, especially when they came into OUR office looking for a job.

    And an even LATER life, I remember going in to interview at another company- hearing the obnoxious manager’s name called over the PA speaker that I interviewed with at the “circus” — picked up my resume from the reception desk and walked out.

    Managers – keep all this in mind if you choose to abuse…. applicants….

  21. Mike*

    I backed out of a dodgy job offer from A Very Huge Corporation. It was a temporary, back office job, which likely would have ended in six months when I reached the “1000 hour rule” annual limit. I wasn’t even certain why they contacted me, since my background covered maybe 75% of the skills they needed.

    Just the same, 7 different people at the company interviewed me by phone in dizzying succession, set up by HR. I was never invited to meet any of them, even though I lived within walking distance of their office. A conditional job offer arrived the next day.

    I accepted warily (my gut told me that something was “off”), and was quickly drawn into the corporation’s creepily Kafka-esque, pre-employment “background check” phase that made me increasingly uneasy. I was bombarded daily with HR emails, voicemail messages, and ever-more-complex online forms, which had to be submitted within 24 hours.

    There was also pressure to quickly name my “start date” (even though my lengthy background check had barely begun, and they had no idea if I would even pass). I discovered, too, that I was required to submit to drug testing and fingerprinting (even though the job didn’t involve working with money, heavy machinery, sensitive data, or kids).

    Things never reached that point, however. I finally received an HR email, instructing me to submit W-2s and other tax materials from the past 5 years before the background check could move forward. This, for a temporary, hourly-wage job.

    At that point, I called the HR person and told her that I was no longer interested. In fact, I had to leave a voice message. And I never did meet anyone face to face.

  22. R*

    There’s a particular employer in my area (the central belt of Scotland) that I frequently get calls about through agencies. These days I know just to politely tell the recruiters in question that I’m not interested in being considered. If I know them well enough, and they want to know why I feel that way, I also advise them of the reason for my disinterest: that the company in question’s recruitment processes are slow, needlessly bureaucratic, disrespectful of the candidate, and tedious beyond belief when compared with other options that pay just as well or better.

    This particular employer is a well-known investment bank that frequently laments that lack of skilled workers in Scotland with the exact technical abilities I happen to be an expert in. The truth is there are plenty of other people in my area that are every bit as good as me, and I know most of them, but none of us are interested in waiting weeks to be interviewed, being put through round after round of telephone screens with people that seem only vaguely aware of what it is that we do, only to eventually be called many weeks later to take things forward (by which time we’ve invariably been snapped up by other employers that pay just as well but that are more decisive).

    Having seen some of the code that ends up getting written by the people such investment banks end up recruiting with inefficient hiring processes like this, I can’t say I’m surprised that the global financial crisis happened. I sometimes wonder how they’d have fared if they’d had people like me on board to drive the technologies that underlie their business, rather than being left to choose from just those people that were still looking for a job months after first sending their CV?

    Broken recruitment processes cost companies the best candidates. Sooner or later that adds up to costing them their profitability as well.

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