February 17, 2011

The Wisdom of Using the “3-Rule” in Recruiting

“Three on a match is bad luck”—infantryman’s and sniper’s wisdom

“Three strikes and y’er out.”—baseball rule

“Under Islamic law, a man may repudiate his wife simply by saying ‘I divorce thee’ three times. Islamic religious scholars have now decreed that a text message is a valid way of ending a marriage.”—Dubai news report, the Telegraph, June 27, 2001

“On your mark!…Get set!…Go!”—racing start

3/Image: Michael Moffa

“Three bits of information are the minimum necessary to ensure error-free transmission of one bit.”—fundamental IT communications and information theory principle

There is a valuable recruiting lesson to be learned from baseball, snipers, Santa Claus, race starts, beeping photo copy machines, Islamic divorce rituals, U.S. courtroom protocol, beer songs, Japanese wedding rituals, even perhaps from the U.S. government’s tripartite “separation of powers”, and—above all—from the information theoretic concept of a coding error check.

Each of these is an illustration, application and consequence of a very simple principle of information coding that, despite its utter simplicity, has profound—sometimes life-and-death—implications and impacts—including an impact on your reputation as a recruiter.

Before the essence of an error check is explained, you should, if you are a recruiter, be forewarned that to disregard its most basic application in information coding is to risk souring the applicant spread on your professional bread by alienating your base. This you will understand shortly.

The Big “5C”s of Recruiting

Although this is obvious to all applicants, it may be news to some recruiters: If you don’t mind antagonizing, confusing and alienating a job applicant, just appear to ignore the application. It’s easy: simply never respond, except to the lucky few who make it through your filters.

On the other hand, if you’d like to ingratiate yourself with applicants, by providing them a modicum of confirmation, clarity, confidence, collegiality and closure—the big “5C”s—you really must reply at least once to every applicant (and as will be argued, in general, twice, after you post your ad), after receiving an application—even if it is only the standard automated “no-reply” mass-mailed confirmation of receipt of the application and acknowledgment of receipt of all the required documentation and of the fact that you are unlikely to be responding again.

What is truly fascinating is that the wisdom of this advice can be proven with elementary mathematical logic. But, before the very simple proof, examples of some applications of it are in order.

The Big Effects of Small Numbers

Nature and its most conspicuous, cherished spin-off—culture—are replete with small-number patterns: 10 finger/toes, and base 10 mathematics; the 5 extremities of humans/starfish, the five kinds of shark fins and the Pentagon’s pentagonal shape; the twelve solar months and the 12 disciples of the Son/Sun(?); the 2-fold cycle of night and day, and the duality of good and evil; and the pervasive presence of the “golden section”/”golden ratio”  of 0.618 in the proportions and shape of spiral galaxies, fish, flowers, human faces that babies like, Renaissance art, Greek statues, the Parthenon,  the pentagram of witchcraft and the design of the now twice-mentioned Pentagon—to mention but a few of many illustrations.

“3” is no exception, save for being exceptionally pervasive in daily life and in diverse cultures: Why is it that Santa Claus merrily shouts “Ho, ho, ho!”, instead of a single “Ho!” (apart from the likelihood of getting punched for shouting that in a Macy’s Christmas crowd of couples and kids)? Why not two “Ho!”s or four, five or six? What’s special about 3?

The answer is that what makes “Ho, ho, ho!….Merry Christmas!” special is also what makes all of the following have the triplet-pattern that they have: “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye…Court is now in session”, your photo-copy machine that probably beeps exactly three times—beep..beep…beep—confirming warm-up has been completed; a night sniper’s shot only after the third enemy soldier has lit his cigarette with one shared match; the beer party chant “for he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow…which nobody can deny!”; a provision under Dubai Islamic law that expands the traditional right of a man to divorce a wife, now by text messaging as well as orally communicating to her “I divorce thee!” three times; the Japanese wedding ritual of drinking from a set of three cups, three times (in addition to their custom of “te jime”—a hand-clapping pattern of three sets of three claps, ended with a single clap); and the sprint start commands “On your mark!….Get set!….Go!”

SIC ‘em

What all of these examples of 3-ness have in common is a 3-step sequence: stimulation, identification and confirmation—“SIC. Your kids are asleep. Suddenly they are stimulated by the sound of “Ho!” coming from the snow-covered roof of your house; then, upon hearing the second “Ho!”, they tentatively identify the source as Santa. Finally, after the third “Ho!”, they are sure—they’ve gleefully confirmed that it is Santa Clause and not someone from the cast of “Westward Ho the Wagons” (Note: General Mills’ Jolly Green Giant’s “Valley of the Jolly—“Ho, ho, ho!—Green Giant!” jingle is merely a rip-off of Santa’s triplet and unlikely to be confused with it on Christmas Eve).

The same pattern and purpose defines the sniper shot: In 2005, I wrote an article for Field & Stream magazine outlining how SIC works in hunting and war. In both, it’s a bad idea to shoot before the third step is completed. An enemy soldier strikes a match—“stimulation”; he then passes it to his comrade-in-arms—“identification”, since the smooth horizontal motion of the flame suggests a human source.

When the match is then passed over to the third soldier, the sniper gets his confirmation and shoots the unlucky third infantryman of the trio. The same reasoning applies to hunting: There must be no mistake in taking the shot; hence the three steps are indispensable. (In my case, I would make absolutely sure that I was, indeed, shooting a tofu moose and not a real one.)

Baseball is no exception: “Strike one!”—A strike? (stimulation) ; “Strike two!”—Yes, this seems like a strike-out in the making (identification); “Strike three!—y’er out! (confirmation).

The case of “On your mark!..Get set!….Go!” and the others’ being just as clear or even clearer in their use of SIC, and, in virtue of its transparency, require no further explanation here.

But, what is the connection with recruiting?

The Key Message: “You May Get a Job.”

When an applicant submits an application, that is the stage-1 stimulation for both the applicant and recruiter. If you, as a recruiter, are smart and polite, you will send a reply acknowledging receipt of the application—as identification of yourself as the correct recipient and, by implication, of the applicant as not in error in submitting it.

From the applicant’s standpoint, the entire process is about confirming whether or not an interview or job will be offered, not merely about whether the application has been received. That’s because information transmission confirmation is always not just about whether a message has been received. It’s also about the content of the message—in this case “yes” or “no” about the interview or a job offer. The root and key message you are sending, from the time you post an ad, is, “You may get a job.”

The 3-step application waltz, viewed purely from the applicant’s side is this: the recruiter posts the ad—stimulation, then replies to the application—identification of the recruiter as the source of the ad, followed by a decision regarding an interview or job offer, confirmation that the entire process has been completed, confirming the root message, “You may get a job.”

It needs to be recommended that the usual stage-1 caveat and disclaimer in the ad that says, “Due to the volume of applications, only those selected for further consideration will be notified, blah-blah…” be moved from stage 1 or at least incorporated into stage 2. That’s because companies and recruiters who put it in their stage-1 ads are far less likely to provide any stage-2 message at all.

Failure to do so triggers the cascade of, at best, confusion or, at worst, deep resentment among applicants. Left in the stage-1 dark, the applicant doesn’t know whether his application has been rejected, or whether it just hasn’t been received, or whether all the documentation has been received in proper form. Very, very frustrating.

The Recruitment 3-Step Waltz

The recruiter’s reputation and the good will that could have been created by sticking to the 3-step pattern are compromised every time one or two of the stages are ignored. Sending applicants only the stage-1 message sends the ambiguous message “application received, maybe” and the unambiguous message “We don’t care.”

That mistake will cost the recruiter or the client firm big-time, in terms of the 5Cs: No clarity, no consideration, no confirmation, no collegiality, no closure. I am tempted to add a 6th—“compassion”, but suspect that would be seen as superfluous in more than one sense. Limiting responses to applicants to step 1 is like holding a starter’s pistol and shouting, “On your mark…!”, and leaving it at that and putting the race in recruitment limbo.

Surely you can manage an email auto-reply “no-reply”, viz., a simple notification that the application has been received and even maybe that all required documents are in hand (assuming they are). The “no-reply” format ensures you won’t be flooded with follow-up emails from the applicant in response to yours.

The Math Behind Preventing Corruption of Your Message and Your Image

If you can send all three messages—the initial job posting, the acknowledgment of receipt of the application and the final decision regarding an interview or hiring, even when it’s “no”—your corporate message and image will have been transmitted in an “uncorrupted” form. This is where the concept of “coding-error check” and the mathematical logic behind it come into play, with stunning simplicity.

Imagine you want to send someone, say, a job hunter the simplest possible message. What would it be? A simple “0” or a “1”—corresponding to “no” and “yes”, respectively, given the basic binary menu. So, suppose you want to send a “0”. The applicant receives it, but doesn’t know whether there’s been a mistake. It may have been mistakenly entered as a “0”, when it should have been a “1”, she thinks.

So to ensure that it is unmistakably clear there is no error, you send “00”. This helps a lot. But what happens if there is still one mistake and you accidentally send “01” or “10”—on the key assumption that there will be at most only one mistake in transmission? Now, even though the applicant can be sure there is or is not an error, if there is one, she can’t tell what the error is.

To prevent this confusion, you have to send “000”—three independent bits as elements of your message and as a check that ensures the message is not corrupted by an error. Now, if there is an error, viz., “010”, “100” or “001”, the applicant will immediately understand that the real message was “000”, since two out of the three digits are zeroes—the majority vote wins, two zeroes to one “1”.

As a rough analogy, receiving “010” would be like receiving “Ho, cough, ho!…Merry Christmas”. It may be argued that the second and third bits or stages are there for redundancy and message integrity protection as coding-error checks. Hence, even though the intended message is merely “Ho!”, two more “Ho!”s are included to be on the safe side and for crystal clarity.

Of course, “000” is one message, not three. Moreover, “110” in recruiting does mean “no”, at the last step. But it does demonstrate that the 3-bit message is an absolute precondition for clarity—and by implication, the rest of the the 5Cs. If this is still not clear, consider “111”. In recruiting terms that would mean “yes/yes/yes” or “Yes, we have a position to fill”, “Yes, we have your application”, “Yes, we want to meet you.” “110” means “Yes we have a job; yes we have received your application; no—sorry no chance.”

Those are the three stages of stimulating, identifying and confirming the core message “You may get a job.”—the middle stage serving to identify the contacted email as the true source of the ad and the correct target for the application, while the third stage confirms/disconfirms interest in the applicant.

Code for a Jilted Bride

Accordingly, even “110” (yes/yes/no) is better than “11” (yes/yes/?), both being much, much better than just “1/?/?” (“Yes, there is a job opening”). If somehow this is still not clear, think of an applicant who gets at most “11/?” as being a bride left at the altar: Yes, she dated the guy—metaphorically speaking, you (the recruiter) or the company you represent; yes, he proposed. But she’s at the church waiting ….and waiting….and waiting.

A thoughtful “no” in advance would have triggered much less initial confusion, attendant rage, resentment and ultimate damage to your reputation.

You think “bad things come in threes”? No, no. Much worse can come in ones or twos. So, if you are an independent recruiter, are  in an HR  department or otherwise do the selection or hiring,  do the right thing: if you want to “call off the engagement”, i.e., if you can’t offer the applicant anything, let her know, even if you must be indirect. Send her the “110” message.

That way, you will be more likely to bat something closer to .1000 in her estimation and among all your applicants you treat the same thoughtful way,…

…which would be 1-derful.

Read more in Recruiting Help

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).