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6 Aug

Some thoughts around FedEx’s hiring strategy

“FedEx would interview candidates — supposedly, but it's true — where they'd put 20 people in a room and they'd say, “We're going to give you half an hour to craft a 5-minute talk to introduce yourself.”

And, this is a job interview setting. These 20 people all want to work for FedEx. FedEx is going to see how they do on their feet and how well they craft their speech.

And so, the people immediately start busily taking notes and planning their talk. And then they, one by one, get up and give their talk. And what FedEx does — supposedly — or did; I don't know if they still do it. But, what they do is, they don't grade the people on the quality of their talk. They grade the people on the quality as audience members. They are looking for people in the audience of the job applicants to see how they signal to the speaker that they are empathetic, that they are rooting for them, that they are trying to be helpful.

The people who, during the other people's presentations, keep scribbling and polishing their 5-minute talk are actually hurting themselves, because FedEx is noting, “Oh, they are just self-interested. They just want to use this time to the maximum. They don't feel any camaraderie with the other speakers.”

That's just an amazingly clever thing on every count. I just love that.”

— Russ Roberts, in an interview with Ryan Holiday

I have a few counterarguments to this approach.

1. Firstly, why would you put a group of people in a zero-sum situation and expect positive-sum behaviour? An interview for a limited set of openings is a zero-sum situation. One seat for you means one less seat for me to vie for.

2. People who FedEx recruiters consider undesirable are people who are actually learning from the pitches of others who came before them, in order to improve upon their pitch. That’s not undesirable behaviour by any means. In a zero-sum situation, you would want to indulge in self-interested behaviour in order to win.

3. Via this approach, FedEx is selecting for people who genuinely play along well with others but aren’t necessarily the best at winning games. The approach works well if the highest priority for the role FedEx is hiring for is the ability to play along well with others. But it doesn’t work if the opening is for a role where a competitive attitude matters to learn and improve.

4. Once this approach is leaked to the public, it totally collapses and fails to work. People feign empathy and a supportive attitude in order to get in. Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to rate candidates on performative metrics that can be easily gamed once known. Interviews are best for assessing candidates on costly signals that are very hard to fake — like extensive, high-quality proof of work, or the depth and the detail they go into when talking about work they’re proud of.

5. Ignoring the quality of the pitch and just focusing on who is more empathetic is a recipe for building a team that’s mediocre but lovely to hang out with. Such people are the hardest to let go, but they have to be, if the business is to prosper. The weightage you put on being nice to work with, of course, depends on the kind of role. In roles where being empathetic is the entire job description, this strategy might work well. But in roles where skills and competence matter, this is a bad strategy.

I know that a lot of what I’ve said here is debatable and you are free to have countering views. As always, it’s hard to capture the intricate nuances of a specific hiring requirement in a generic article. In any case, you can write back to me and I would love to hear your thoughts!

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