On Doing the Numbers and the Names


NAME DROPPING | Michael Moffa

“Knowledge is power.”—Francis Bacon

All jobs that have a high flow-through of people, such as recruiter, hospital emergency receptionist, used-car lot salesman, airport immigration officer,  Secret Service agent, and even disparate occupations such as nightclub doorman and U.S. president are like Ph.D. programs in human psychology and sociology—albeit highly specialized for their respective job niches.

In these lines of work, names and faces may be forgotten, but the lessons extracted from and about them endure.

Doing the Numbers, Noting the Names

By dint of the sheer volume  and numbers of people processed by the point-men and women at the frontlines and in the field in each of these occupations, deep insights into and useful generalizations about the behavioral patterns, mind sets, attitudes,  experiences, emotions, strategies, gambits and values of the human traffic under their professional purview can be triggered and extracted.

Accordingly, any profession that, like recruiting, requires “doing the numbers”, i.e., processing and otherwise interacting with large numbers of people one or a few at a time, provides a kind of “learn by number” education in human psychology and sociology.

However, unlike scientists and researchers who are expected to and do keep and eventually share meticulously detailed records of all the data points underlying their discoveries and results, you probably do not even consciously formulate or articulate many of them, much less archive or decimalize them (in either the librarian’s Dewey Decimal System sense or the mathematician’s).

Nonetheless, along the way you are likely to have formulated, tested and confirmed quite a few of your own, even if none will ever be peer-reviewed in any journal of recruitment psychology.

For example, and one taken from a field with a comparably heavily trafficked field of observation,  virtually every L.A. body-builder doorman squeezed into a tux quickly learns that virtually every dazzling knockout squeezed into a very short dress expects the “4Fs”—to get into the club free, first, fast and with all of her friends.

Inductive Learning

This kind of learning—also one of a recruiter’s core learning methods—is called “induction”: a process of arriving at a generalization, such as “ All/most/80% of applicants (club-goers) who have characteristic X are also likely to have characteristic Y”, from repeated observations of some correlation or lack thereof—each thereby tending to suggest, confirm or disconfirm a hunch or hypothesis about the individuals who make up the traffic, and perhaps about the traffic as a whole.

Advanced by the 16th-century philosopher of science and Lord Chancellor of England,  Sir Francis Bacon, the inductive method was the reported immediate cause of his death: In attempting to determine by wintertime experimentation and observation whether a gutted chicken could be preserved by stuffing it with snow, Bacon contracted pneumonia and died shortly thereafter at the age of sixty-six.

Hunches about Names

Consider this additional and recruitment-related example of such an inductively formulated hypothesis to be tested (if not yet deserving to be proclaimed an inductively discovered “law” of psychology): If, during the initial handshake, a candidate corrects you and insists on being called by her or his full multisyllabic name, e.g., “Robert” or “Dominique”, rather than by shorter forms such as “Bob”, or “Dom” that you tried to greet them with, the chances are pretty good that it is socially and/or psychologically a big deal for him or her. Ditto for the reverse preference for the contracted or diminutive form and likely correction.

A secondary, related hypothesis, which I am still testing (repeat: still testing), is that this preference correlates with whether or not his or her self-image is that of a “regular Joe” or “regular Jane”—the kind of uncomplicated, tribal egalitarian extrovert who loves sweatshirts with numerals and shouting “woo-hoo” whenever the opportunity arises.

This is the “Mike”, rather than the “Michael” and the “Dom” rather than the “Dominique”, who also love their tribal teams the jerseys represent and who enliven a great and goofy Miller’s weekend at the beach with the tribal gang and hot dogs—as opposed to a non-tribal tete-a-tete.

On this hypothesis, Roberts and Dominiques are more likely than Bobs and Doms to enjoy a weekend with a good book, a Mozart CD and fine wine in a fine French restaurant—preferably only with each other, if with anyone else at all. The only Dominique I know told me the shortened form conceals the rich “cultural” associations of her full first name, even though she is Chinese. The only Robert I know who despises “Bob” thrives on solitary pursuits, including gourmet cooking for one and solo walks.

It should be noted that it may be that such preferences are more likely to be rooted in preferred styles of interaction with others, than in snobbery or cultural elitism. Specifically, the hunch (hypothesis) I am inclined to float is that the long-form types prefer one-on-one or one-on-none communication to group or “tribal” interactions. However, even if this is statistically a valid observation, it cannot possibly be categorically true of everyone with such name preferences.

For example, an applicant may correct you, not because of any anti-tribal bias or elitist tendencies, but because the uncontracted, full first name is that of a loved parent or grandparent, or because of some pronunciation issue, e.g., a confusing ambiguity in or nursery-rhyme Peter-Piperish childishness connoted by “Mike Nike”, resolved by “Michael Nike”. Or it cold be an unwanted association, e.g., of the kind shortening “Lady Gaga” to “Lady Gag” may evoke.

The Inductive Evidence for Caution

As suggested at the outset of this discussion, it seems that addressing someone by the alternate name form they dislike can be a “big deal”. For an illuminating blogger dialogue about these personal preferences, resistances and their personal and professional implications, check out this blog: http://metachat.org/index.php/2007/03/29/p21722. It includes some clear protests against having the preferred name disregarded professionally or socially. Examples:

  • “Some of my clients call me by my formal name. Inwardly, it feels like biting on tinfoil. Sometimes I’ll jokingly tell them that I only get called that when I’m in trouble, but given the nature of my work it’s usually not worth correcting them.” (Posted by “bmarkey”.)
  • “I don’t answer to Dave, but will respond instantly to David. I don’t get nasty about it, but I get annoyed by people arbitrarily deciding what my name is.” (Posted by “dg”)

You’ve been warned.

Correlations Between Job and Name Preferences?

This may have implications for the kinds of jobs such long-form applicants will prefer and for their suitability for these positions. Test the idea this way: Try to recall any applicants or colleagues who corrected you when you addressed them by the less preferred form of their first names. Then try to recall the kinds of jobs for which you flet they were most suited or which they expressly preferred. After that, compare notes with colleagues.

The Long and Short of Footmen and Kings

To cite an extreme example and to get a feel for the differences between the two forms of address and occupational correlations, an analogous distinction can be drawn between the announcement of the arrival of a footman serving the Spanish crown, who would probably be summoned as “footman, here….now!”, and the arrival of the monarch himself.

For example, consider the official full name of the ruling Bourbon King of Spain: “His Majesty Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias, King of Spain, of Castile, of León, of Aragon, of the Two Sicilies, of Jerusalem, of Navarre, of Granada, of Toledo, of Valencia, of Galicia, of Majorca, of Seville, of Sardinia, of Córdoba, of Corsica, of Murcia, of Menorca, of Jaén, of Algeciras, of Gibraltar, of the Canary Islands, of the East and West Indies and of the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, of Brabant, of Milan, and of Neopatra, Count of Habsburg, of Flanders, of Tyrol, of Roussillon and of Barcelona, Lord of Biscay and of Molina, Captain General of the Royal Spanish Armed Forces and its Supreme Commander, Sovereign Grand Master of the Celebrated Order of the Golden Fleece, Grand Master of the Royal Distinguished Order of Charles III, Grand Master of the Royal Order of Isabel, the Catholic, Grand Master of the Royal Military Order of St. Hermenegildo. Grand Master of the Order of Montesa, Grand Master of the Order of Alcántara, Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava, Grand Master of the Order of Santiago, Grand Master of the Order of Maria Luisathe…”

Would you dare introduce or address him as “JC” or even by his baptismal name “Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias” for short, or expect him to chuck a frisbie as well as a beer? If he is “tribal”, his tribe is not likely to include you or yours.

In at least this one instance, the job and preferred form of address seem closely correlated. In any event, it does illustrate the fact that those who demand respect as a superior also demand that they be addressed by longer rather than shorter appellations, “God” being the most notable exception.

[Note: Before anyone gets blustery about this name-preference conjecture and protests, please note again that I have identified it as a hypothesis to be tested, not as The Eternal Truth.]

Discovery vs. Confirmation

The longer you have been in the business of recruiting—or in any other business, the more pet hunches you’ve been able to test and the more insights that have dawned on you, like blinking light bulbs unexpectedly rising over the other horizon.

However, although the process of coming up with these conclusions is pretty much always the same—repeat, repeat, repeat….infer and conclude—the conclusions come in a number of distinct forms, the most interesting and unexpected being the sudden insight, rather than the added decimal of certainty to a preconceived hunch that merely needed a bit more confirmation before being elevated to a Truth.

The “inductive insight” as a discovery, as opposed to “inductive confirmation”, is like a line that suddenly, unexpectedly connects lines of dots that previously seemed unrelated. The “inductive confirmation”, on the other hand, just adds the extra dot that proves all the dots are what you more or less suspected they were.  You are very likely to have framed both sorts of hypothesis from the vantage point of your desk, phone, emails and business luncheons.

The name-preference hypothesis above could be framed either as an insight or through a process of gradual confirmation, depending on how it was arrived at. In my case, I’ve always preferred my full name and never wear numbered jerseys, rarely eat carcinogenic hot dogs (a redundant concept, if there ever was one), think beer tastes like chilled pennies and hardly ever spend a day at the beach with anyone I already know when I get there.

When a close friend, a former CNN reporter who also prefers Mozart to hot dogs, took me to task for calling him by the short form of his name, the flashbulb flashed brightly enough for me to frame the hypothesis—a special case of ostensible insight, rather than confirmation, in which after only the second dot appeared, the line connecting the two dots was drawn.

Office Research and the “Hunch Lunch”

What might be a very useful exercise for you, as a recruiter, is to reflect on what lessons you have learned by “doing the numbers”—doing numerous interviews, making innumerable phone calls, meeting multiple and multifarious clients and reading what feels like millions of resumes. You can then “test” these for their professional and personal usefulness and accuracy, by “comparing notes” with other recruiters. This entire discussion of names serves merely to illustrate the possibilities.

If you are curious enough, you may consider formally pooling such “discoveries” and hypotheses in monthly lunchtime HR meetings, to test, announce or otherwise evaluate what you believe you have learned from your professional observations and interactions. To formalize this informal research, you could call it a “hunch lunch”.

As for a suitable hunch-lunch menu for the gourmand Roberts and Dominiques, and the fast-food Bobs and Doms: Bacon…

….and lots of him.

in Recruitment and Selection]
Michael Moffa
Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers,The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).