TWO WATCHES/Image: Wikipedia (modified)

There is an old, simple riddle that poses the question, “Which works better: a watch that has stopped, or one that is a little slow?”—to which the unexpected answer is, “the one that has stopped, since at least it gives the correct time twice a day.” The implied distinction in this puzzle that has implications for recruiting is the difference between something that is not functioning at all and another that is malfunctioning.

Non-Functional vs. Malfunctional

Not functioning vs. malfunctioning: Although these may sound the same, they are not; and to fail to see that is to fail to understand when and how your recruitment methods are failing—even if only from the perspective of job seekers. It is easy to see that a watch that is not functioning may, from some standpoint and set of priorities, e.g., accuracy, rather than precision, be “better” than a watch that is running slow. However, it may be harder to grasp that a recruiting practice or method that isn’t functioning at all may also be better than one that is malfunctioning, i.e., is “malfunctional”.

To better appreciate this distinction, you need an illustration of it:  One recruiter collects resumes, but sends out no replies to the unsuccessful applicants. From the applicant standpoint, the recruitment process, like what should be a smoothly running watch, has stopped—It’s non-functioning. But a second recruiter does reply to them, although misleadingly—for example, suggesting that they come in for interviews for additional positions available, when, in fact, there aren’t any, just so he can pad his database of applicants and save his time later at the expense of theirs now. From the viewpoint of these applicants, the second recruitment process is worse than one that has stopped, because it is actually doing harm, by wasting their time, misleading them and by deflecting their job search from more constructive ones.

Watches, Physicians and Recruiters

That is analogous to the difference between a physician who has stopped working for the day by the time you arrive, doubled over in pain, at his office and one who will see you, but who, through laziness, misdiagnoses you and prescribes a wrong and dangerous treatment (something that happened to a dear friend of mine who was prescribed antibiotics by a walk-in clinic doctor who performed no tests to determine the cause of her abdominal pain and to “cure” what turned out to be her early-stage pregnancy. A consultation with a second doctor was prompt enough to prevent any real harm coming to her or to the couple’s full-term son, born almost eight months later). At least the unavailable physician communicates the helpful message, “Find another practitioner”, whereas the careless one creates the dangerous illusion that there is no need to do so—much as recruiter silence and recruiter mischief do, respectively.

Interestingly, if the etymology of the prefix “mal” is understood, it will be seen that it, unlike “dys-“ and “non-“, has its roots in the concept of evil and badness, evident in the concept of malpractice, which is bad practice, not non-practice.

The Ambiguity of “Dysfunctionality”

A second analogy, this time with the plethora of predictably tedious Hollywood movies about “dysfunctional” families, makes the same point, but with additional clarification and insight. Why do virtually all the synopses of movies about families that fail describe them as “dysfunctional”? Why not “non-functional”, or, to coin, as I did above, a word that needs coining, “malfunctional”?—especially when the family is not merely failing to achieve normal healthy goals, but is also and instead pursuing destructive ones. That’s the difference between not having food for your kids and poisoning them.

If sociologists, psychiatrists and social workers replaced the ambiguous “dysfunctional” with the more discriminating pair “non-functional” and “malfunctional”, their diagnoses, assessments, treatments and policies might be more accurately and precisely aligned with the needs of those under their gaze and authority, and, as a consequence, more effective and less frequently harmful.

The same applies to recruiters. If you carefully review your practices and policies, scrutinizing them for any that may from the perspective of your candidates and clients constitute apparent non-functioning or malfunctioning—and thereby also create the impression that you are “dyssing” them (a useful hybrid of “dysfunctionality” and “disrespect”), you may gain valuable insight, save your reputation and protect your clientele base.

Of course, that assumes, as it in general correctly does, that you want to be a responsible recruiter or consultant, rather than the kind of consultant defined and recruiter implied in the answer to a second riddle: “What is a consultant?”

Answer: “Someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time.”—even when it has stopped or is running slow.

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