The Executives' Man

The reliance on forms and on psychological testing by personnel interviewers has contributed to the standardized thinking prevalent in our large, corporations. ALAN HARRINGTON used his writing fellowship from the Fund for the Republic to study the environment which management creates for its young recruits. The article that follows is the second of two excerpts from his book, LIFE IN THE CRYSTAL PALACE, which Knopf will publish in September.

A BANK, said Bob Hope, is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it. Similarly, a corporation prefers to offer a job to a man who already has one, or doesn’t immediately need one. The company accepts you if you are already accepted. To obtain entry into paradise, in terms of employment, you should be in a state of grace.

To make sure that you are a graceful person, and to screen out potential malefactors, a company’s personnel and placement specialists use all kinds of pretesting devices. These vary in detail from one corporation to another, but they are likely to involve a series of interviews, your résumé, a searching employment form in which you account for yourself from high school and college years to the present, psychological tests, and, at many companies, cunningly contrived spot checks of your behavior under stress.

Some of these obstacle courses offer reasonable challenges. Others actually treat the job applicant as though he were a mental patient. All corporate hiring practices, it seems to me, whether they are reasonable or not, have two characteristics in common:

1. They represent an extraordinary downgrading of the intuitive faculty that keeps the relationship between man and man alive and exciting; 2. they tend to fill a company with the same kinds of people, to maintain a slow parade of mediocrity through the corridors, and to produce a standardized intelligence that must eventually weaken through continuous inbreeding.

Only in a limited sense do corporations like the company I shall call the Crystal Palace formulate their own hiring policies. Instead they follow (and modify to their own needs) policies developed by industrial psychologists. These specialists in turn shape their systems to meet the corporations’ requirements. But the form into which we must fit has been determined by someone at the Mt. McKinley Business School.

This is the sad thing: seldom in job interviews can we be ourselves and have a straight relationship with one another, because all the forms and tests and specifications get in the way. Occasionally a personnel officer, through his own warm qualities, can break through the “human engineering” paraphernalia that surround the interview. At the Crystal Palace we have one such man. He really tries to know you; he has a generous intelligence. But even he must take into account the standardized thinking of the people upstairs. He can’t afford to recommend too many unusual characters. All of us who hold jobs at the Crystal Palace are screened people. We are the pretested, predigested people. Many were called, but we were chosen. How? And what is the thinking behind this selective process?

The downgrading of intuition. Once, long ago it seems, hiring was done in a rough-and-ready way. It still is, by firms that are too small to maintain an employee relations staff, or by companies that expect a certain amount of turnover.

When my friends and I started looking for jobs in 1940, most of us were accepted or turned away on the basis of a personal interview and our record of experience. That was all. The interview was of the greatest importance. I talked to you. We sized each other up. We did what is now called a take on one another. Eventually the decision was, in effect, “Sorry, but you won’t do,”or “Young man, I like your style. We’ll give you a tryout.”

Employer and applicant made an intuitive connection. By intuition I mean perception through unconscious logic. Beyond the things we said, behind the polite formalities, each of us sought to discover what the other was really like.

Naturally the hit-or-miss hiring system had uneven results. Frequently the new employee couldn’t do the job, or a good man was hired for the wrong job. If he failed, he was let go. It was as simple as that. This unscientific procedure at its worst wrought a good deal of misery. Bang! One was out of a job. It created clash and anger, and that great American line: “You can’t fire me! I quit!” (Who hears that any more; it has gone, along with Fourth of July firecrackers.) But these intuitive hiring methods also produced a dashing, vigorous conduct of business. Above all, it was personal. There was no system interposed between us. If I rubbed you the wrong way, we rubbed. If we became friends, we earned our friendship. We were not pretested associates fitted together by employment counselors like so many blocks.

In an intuitive situation, you do the work. In a scientific milieu, you feed data into machines and formulas, and they do the work. This is all very well for computing the trajectories of missiles — but a man is not yet a guided missile.

The mania for pretesting. The hiring practices we have now reflect a trend in American life that has been developing through the 1950s. This tendency involves a growing distrust of imagination. We see evidence of it everywhere. In advertising and public relations, distrust of imagination has been fashionable for some years. The familiar motivational research has done away with the intuitions and visions of the copy writer in many agencies. Why have a man do the work when a survey, or a fast depth analysis, seems to hit the target with hardly a margin for error? Oscar Wilde’s perception that life imitates art must be amended. Today life is imitating science.

At the Crystal Palace you may see the predigestion of mankind going on week after week in the form of multiple interviews and multiple testings of job candidates. No one, it seems, dares to be wrong any more. Or perhaps the idea now is that no single person can be right about anything, that the decision must be made by a group in order to be valid. At any rate, when the poor cob comes up our front steps everybody must get into the act of evaluating his resources. This also helps spread responsibility if a mistake is made.

Tom, Dick, and Harry interview him in turn and scribble their own chicken tracks on his various forms. Each of the sorcerer’s apprentices naturally feels that he must earn his salary by adding his own modest but shrewd appraisal of the soul before him. So the applicant is viewed through a half-dozen lenses. As he is being chatted with, the dimensions of his personality are matched against the cardboard cutout, or the slot, which is the job. A multiple judgment, a dossier made up of opinions, forms, and tests, piles up around him. The net result: he is observed and tabulated to such an extent that this man, the one with his hat in his hand, you, me, John McGee, is really seen by nobody. His capacities and aptitudes are seen, but he isn’t.

Knowing a person is a two-way process. You have to kick things around a bit, with both of you giving, both of you open, both being yourselves. Pattern interviewing is purely extractive. It is scientific. Now this may be fine for the psychologist, for he has no intention of associating with the patient, either as a friend or as a business acquaintance. He will not have to live with him or work with him.

Once a man is hired, the corporation will associate with him, presumably for the next twenty-five to forty years. This indeed is the major reason why hiring practices have become so formalized science is called in to guard against a dreadful long-term mistake being made. But observe the two-fold irrelevancy of judging an applicant by standardized interviews, nondirective techniques, forms, and tests.

You have an interviewer pretending to be a person, and an applicant pretending to be what he is not. They are both talking past each other to the Mt. McKinley Business School. The average applicant, after all, is not so stupid. He can usually sense whether he is talking across the desk to a man or to a servant of somebody else’s method. Therefore, to land the job, he does his best to turn himself into the image that the job wants.

The reliance on forms. No one can reasonably object to an employment form as such. It would be foolhardy for an employer to hire you without first checking your record of experience. Good enough. But what we often encounter nowadays is an overreliance on the forms and misuse of them. There is a danger that a person may become his form and be trapped inside of it.

Here are three questions on a corporation qualification record: “General condition of health; any serious illness? When? Any physical defect or weakness?" These inquiries are perfectly proper. But if my health were not good, I wouldn’t admit it to the company. How can they expect a straight answer?" I know perfectly well that a history of illness would work against my being accepted for the job, if only for actuarial reasons. Such a record might indicate that I would not live to receive my thirty-year button. On the other hand, steady employment might improve my health. But since I am dealing with a medical form, I can’t say that.

The same goes for the question regarding marital status. There is a square provided for “Divorced.” I would not care to admit that either, not because I am ashamed of it but because, for the corporation form sheet, this is one more indication of instability. A divorced person is likely to have fewer ties than the married one, less likely to have property, such as a suburban house, to tic him down. No, it would be wiser to make good on the job and tell them about the divorce later.

The trouble is that forms crowd us so. There is no room for maneuvering one’s personality around inside of them. Naturally they want to know about your previous positions, the dates, your title, your supervisor, nature of work, and so on. Again, well and good. But why must they ask ‘ Reasons for leaving?” Who cares to answer “Fired” or “Dispute with my superior” or “Office politics”? Once more we may be forced to misrepresent the facts.

Some questionnaires ask you to turn informer on yourself. I remember one: “List your principal weaknesses.” My answer was: “None pertinent.” I still don’t have a clue as to what the psychologist who thought that one up considered the proper response. It seems to me that anyone who would hand his weaknesses on a platter to his future employer is a fool.

Another technique used at many corporations is that of simulated stress. The idea is that you will normally encounter certain tensions on the job; therefore, why not simulate these tensions in a mild way while you are being interviewed, and see how you will react? I can imagine that the simulated stress method is often effective. Yet one feels an instinctive resentment against it — even if it works. A friend at the Crystal Palace, an exceptionally able man, told me a story about being courted by a large company. They paid his expenses to cross the country for an interview, and he saw that they were pleased with him. They requested that, “as a matter of form,” he sit down with a psychological test. It took him about an hour to complete the questionnaire, and they asked him to wait while it was being scored.

His interviewer came back with a long face. It seemed that my friend had flunked. The interviewer said, “We like to be fair. Let’s go through some of your answers and see what went wrong.” They did, and my friend calmly justified his responses. He was about to go, when the interviewer’s face lit up. “I congratulate you,” he said. “We want you to come with us.” He then explained that the business of flunking the test had been part of the game. It was a stress situation imposed on all candidates. My friend had in fact made a high score. “When can you start?” asked the interviewer.

“Never,” said my friend. “I don’t want to work for anyone who cheats in the first round.” Although they heaped offers on him, he didn’t change his mind.

The worst thing about overreliance on forms is that, to an important extent, they can determine the course of a man’s career. That is, through the medium of forms, a man may be pursued by his past, and his future with the company may be already indicated by his past, though he is no more than thirty-five years old.

Once at the Palace we needed a man in our department. Someone called my superior about an applicant, and he inquired at one point, “Is that the price level he wants, or what he is?” The employment form asks “Salary Desired?” This means “Salary to which, according to your record, you are entitled.” In other words, “What salary are you?”

In the corporate scheme of things, which is governed by forms, your present salary depends on your preceding one. The job that will be offered to you derives from the job you have just filled. One marches in salary fetters. Once in formation, you find it next to impossible to break ranks, since there is always this form of you, the personnel file that defines and limits your capabilities. Executive Development specialists extrapolate or project a man’s future on the basis of what he has accomplished so far, without providing for the marvelous and unexpected leaps we make, the comebacks, spurts, discoveries, revelations, and lucky hits that come to men when their spirits roam free. The result: after years of being tabulated and boxed in, a man tends to give up his own idea of himself and accept the evaluation from outside.

I THINK there are two strong arguments against massive testing: 1. more and more people are tending to accept and, worse, to seek and, worse still, to conform to outside evaluations of themselves; 2. the investigators are in danger of being swallowed up by their own techniques and machines, which can only treat people as dead souls.

Ask the corporation personnel specialists why they believe so profoundly in tests and forms. The answer, as always, would seem to be eminently reasonable. Tests are designed to lit round pegs into round holes and square pegs into square holes. Their aim is to eliminate the friction, unhappiness, and inefficiency that result when an applicant is placed in the wrong job or in the wrong company. The idea is that maladjustment is bad for the individual and bad for the company; hence, why not do everything possible to avoid it?

But from the standpoint of our best interests, is it necessarily a bad idea to have a square peg in a round hole? Certainly the rub produces friction, but then friction produces heat and sparks, and sometimes light. If a newcomer is uncomfortable in his job he becomes tense — nevertheless he is reactive. Something will happen, for good or ill. Assume that the job is a bit too much for him. Perhaps then he will stretch, surpass himself, become bigger sooner because of his maladjustment. Or he will fail, fold up, and have to be let go. He will in this event have gone through the experience of making a mistake.

Tests are aimed at depriving us of the experience of making a mistake. The assumption appears to be that it is better for us not to have this experience. Why is it necessarily better? Mistakes and risks build young people; profiting from mistakes makes us wiser than those who have never had a chance to be wrong. The round peg in the round hole is untested against adversity. Of course, the Crystal Palace hopes that there will never be any adversity if things are properly organized. If so, it forgets that there are always barbarians outside the walls. It forgets that complete security is a corrupting thing; that when the young people of the Palace have no chance to experience friction, tension, and selfish desire, and fear, the organization is going to start softening from within.

A dire symptom of this softening process is the willingness of young people to seek out tests in order to discover their “aptitudes.” Let’s say the findings are right, the tests are right. Taking them may still be wrong, again, because you haven’t done the work of self-discovery; they have done the work. The tests are also assuming a static you, as you are now. They gauge your potential, yes. But achievement involves the interaction of potential and challenge. “I didn’t know I had it in me” is the expression. Well, it is possible that the tests don’t know either.

We are in love with systems, yet often it turns out that they are not as sacrosanct as we pretend. It is probably not fair to bring this up, but the Crystal Palace, for instance, is filled with nephews and nieces. What psychology is used in hiring them?

And who arc the systematic, scientific gods who receive our obeisance? Perhaps they are not gods at all, but on the contrary rather unhappy and ill-adjusted men. What kind of person enjoys measuring the characters of others? Just as a guess, I would bet that the enthusiasts of measurement have fewer friends than most of us do. This bet would be made on the premise that those who seek to trap and tabulate the inner impulses of others, particularly by deception, have a basic contempt for these same impulses. (I realize that, scientifically, this is a foolish thought. How do we define “friendship,” and so forth?) He who thinks your self is capturable by machine must proceed from a basic (if perhaps kindly) contempt for you — seldom a starting point for friendliness.

I once heard a strong and good personnel man whose proper advancement had been held back by upstairs stupidity trying to account for his slow progress. He complained for a while about certain inefficiencies. But obviously he felt that his grousing wasn’t getting to the heart of the matter. Then he burst out: “I know I have faults, and they’re serious. They have hurt me. I’m too impatient. I let my personal feelings get the better of me. I try to control them — but when I’m not thinking they come out.” This was his confession to the gods of personnel. But his mea culpa was bunk. He had none of these faults. He was a good man precisely because on occasion he let his personal feelings get the better of him.

The curious self-denunciations we hear nowadays! The tyranny of forms has produced a new type of confessional. Instead of (or in addition to) confessing to God through his priest or confessing to himself via a psychoanalyst, the corporation man confesses to the form. He acknowledges his strengths and weaknesses as they have been defined by others and promises in his subdued heart to do better, to con to the form, or at least to appear to do so. And if you “appear” to think in a certain way for twenty years, the chances are that somewhere along the line you will be absorbed into your own disguise.