Recruitment Lessons from a Missile Launch

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“I’m not the man they think I am at home…Oh no no no I’m a rocket man…”—Elton John, “Rocket Man”

Being a rocket's ride from a recruiter is always a gamble.

We'll Call You/Image: Michael Moffa

There is an ongoing debate between those who argue for/against the usefulness or necessity of in-person interviews—some maintaining that such interviews are an anachronism, a throw-back to the 70s, back where and when they should have been left. Given that wrangling, it is worthwhile to undertake a close cost-benefit analysis of exclusively long-distance contact between candidate and screening recruiter.

Recruiters can learn something about the costs and benefits of (exclusively) remote recruiting from the launch of a guided missile—“remote” meaning not in-person face-to-face interviews or selection. That’s because there are some instructive analogies between the features of the launches and the methods of remote screening.

The Missile Launch-Analogous Costs and Benefits of Long-Distance Screening

Eric Fromm, noted psychoanalyst and popular writer of the 20th-century, speculated that one reason war has become so massively and increasingly lethal over the millennia is that it has become so distant and impersonal. He maintained that launching a guided missile from miles away is less likely to trigger whatever conscience and fear-based inhibitions may be experienced in hand-to-hand combat—especially since one’s enemy or his family is too far away for potentially life-saving submission or helplessness signals to be detected,  recognized and accepted.

With an eye on Fromm’s analysis, what are the analogous or corresponding observations to be made about exclusively remote screening? In particular, what are the analogous costs, benefits, cautions and lessons to be learned?

For example, the relative safety of long-distance missile launches has as its analogue long-distance one-dimensional screening. By long-distance “one-dimensional” screening is meant exchanges such as email, to cite one of the most obvious and common formats. No messy, door-to-office-door, face-to-face complex “booming, buzzing, blooming” multi-sensory, multi-tasking assessment process here—just 1-dimensional linguine lines of information abstracted from 2-dimensional typed text.

What makes remote recruiting like a guided missile launch includes:

1. Lag Time: Whatever delays are allowed, e.g., by the communications technology, between query, proposal, instructions and the sought response can provide a clear benefit and a safety net for at least one party, and maybe both. For example, lag time that can be very useful in dispatching nose-cone recovery ships can comparably benefit an emailed applicant who is unprepared, not quick on the feet, has something to hide, otherwise needs to stall, needs further information or authorization, and/or who might an be betrayed by incongruities of facial expression and verbal response in a live in-person or quasi-in-person video interview.
Such lag time can be beneficial to both, yet for different reasons, e.g., the recruiter can be spared the embarrassment of embarrassing the unprepared candidate with regard to some particular question, when he’s otherwise very interested in the candidate. On the other hand, the candidate can prepare an answer. In missile launches, lag time may also allow one side to mobilize its defenses or flee, if the alert is timely and lag time is sufficient.

As for costs, lag time in both missile launched and recruiting can be very costly, although on vastly and tragically different scales:  Correlative to the idea of escaping troops is the evasive candidate or recruiter: The normal delays inherent in the medium of communication in recruiting can be exploited and played to get a reprieve that buys time for competing job-searches or recruitment efforts.

Moreover, when the lag time between contact and response begins to exceed what is normal, say, for technical reasons, an unsettling ambiguity of the non-message can contaminate the relationship and understanding between candidate and recruiter, especially when the delay is unintentional. When the prolonged delay is intentional, it still carries big backfire risks, much as “playing hard-to-get” can subvert the goal of being “hard-to-forget”.

JOB-MARKET LESSON TO BE LEARNED FROM GUIDED MISSILE LAG TIME: Be aware of how long-distance lag time can help and hurt you, and always weigh the costs and benefits of utilizing or being stuck with it. The in-person interview provides limited lag time, save for trips to the washroom and other ad hoc interruptions, and therefore carries few lag time costs, benefits, risks and/or opportunities.

2. Mission Recall/Abort: Another safety-related benefit in a guided missile launch would be—unlike the limitation of cudgels and truncheons—having the chance to abort launched strikes, e.g., after it’s realized the retaliation will be more massive than expected.

In recruitment, an analogous abort situation could be created if it could be specified by a client that acceptance of a job offer sent by air mail shall bind both parties only upon acknowledged receipt, not upon mailing. If the acceptance is not sent by registered mail, it could “get lost” and, along with it, the job.

JOB-MARKET LESSON TO BE LEARNED FROM GUIDED MISSILE RECALL/ABORT OPTIONS: When there is any net upside to having and using a recall/abort option, and if one is available, consider exercising it. Otherwise, create one, even if just for backup. The in-person interview will offer fewer such options.

3. Multiple Targeting: A missile control room can, unlike two knights with truncheons, easily manage not only multiple targets, but multiple targets within each of those targets. The long distance recruiting counterpart is mass emailings, website blogs, online resume uploading, etc.—all of which allow the launch of multiply-targeted messages on a massive scale.

Great benefits, but, as with the guided missile launch, not without analogous associated risks, if not costs: Just as the multi-missile or MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicles) launch can cause collateral damage, harmlessly go off target, waste precious resources and multiply the failure of a key component,  the multi-target recruitment effort can seriously misfire.

For example, the mass-mailed recruitment information or online resume upload can inflict an analogue of “collateral damage” in the form of unreceptive and annoyed recipients or release deflecting “chaff” in the form of subpar, off-target resumes that waste HR and other recruitment resources. Worse, a single defect in the design and launch of the recruitment vehicle is likely to contribute to failure at each target.

A recent look at the recruitment information at, one of the most popular health and nutrition sites on the Net, revealed a serious flaw: the initial job information invites application for jobs, but the post-registration information discussed only potential jobs.

Because this disappointing disparity (from an applicant’s standpoint) can have several causes, including, but not limited to an innocent omission of information, it can have counter-productive consequences, especially given the extreme likelihood that the possibly annoyed job applicant is also a newsletter subscriber, tweeter and/or among the site’s many customers. Recruiters must be very careful when the same people submitting job resumes are also customers or clients. Antagonizing or alienating them in their applicant mode as a result of flawed remote screening design can hurt the corporate bottom line.

This example demonstrates that although, in both missile launches and recruiting, multiple-targeting is only a first-stage step, it can be the last, if misconceived or misexecuted.

JOB-MARKET LESSON TO BE LEARNED FROM GUIDED MISSILE MULTIPLE TARGETING: Always consider the “collateral damage” and “chaff” that may result from remote multiple targeting. Make sure that the multiple launch, such as a mass mailing, street flyer or resume upload is a first step, not a self-defeating last step.

This lesson also applies to in-person screening: If you are conducting in-person group interviews (very popular in Japan, when I was there), you must be aware of the associated costs, e.g., applicant resentment in being forced to compete face-to-face with other candidates, inhibited or exaggerated responses from applicants, alienation of applicants used to being or expecting to be treated as “special”, missed opportunities due to the group interview’s built-in handicap for perfectly qualified shy people, or misallocation of per/applicant time caused by overly lengthy responses.

4. Broken and Limited Feedback Loops: The most obvious, but nonetheless perhaps one of the most important consequences of the absence of face-to-face (or hand-to-hand) engagement is the loss of both one-way and round-trip information.

Single vs. Multiple Modality Information Loss

This loss takes several different forms: First, “single-modality”information loss. A ballistic missile launch with on-board infra-red or other cameras still pretty much eliminates most of the up-close visual feedback from a terrified, helpless and possibly ready-to-surrender enemy just before it eliminates him. This can be considered degraded visual feedback, relative to in-person, boots-on-the-ground interaction

This means degradation of the quality of information transmitted along one channel. Even if a candidate can be heard on a phone or Skype, problems with transmission quality, distractions of multi-tasking—such as driving, background noise, speaker limitations, inconvenient or non-private venues can easily result in truncated conversations and information loss within that single modality of audible speech.

The result: an incomplete or incorrect impression of the candidate or the job. Equally importantly, exclusively long-distance communication reduces or eliminates “multiple-modality”, correlated communication, e.g., of the kind a recruiter would get in an in-person, face-to-face interview with a candidate or client whose body language is out of whack with his or her words—e.g., one who says, “Yes, I’m interested” while displaying contraindicative nose rubbing, mouth covering or suit buttoning. Likewise, recruiter, client or candidate email eliminates the background, yet crucial and otherwise available spoken tone of the text information—only feebly compensated for by the use of emotocons and colon faces.

One guided missile analogy is the loss of audio information from a target that is otherwise monitored through thermal imaging—the kind of loss that can lead to “friendly-fire” losses.

JOB-MARKET LESSON TO BE LEARNED FROM GUIDED MISSILE BROKEN AND LIMITED FEEDBACK LOOPS: Non-face-to-face communications between recruiters and applicants, candidates or clients carries a high risk of decision-relevant information transmission and feedback degradation, if not outright loss in one or multiple channels.

Although technologies such as video conferencing restore some of the multi-modality of in-person interviewing, namely, visual data added to the audio, they—like a WWIInavigator’s bomb-sight—will fail to capture subtleties that could change the course of the encounter…

…if not of history.

Read more in Interview Techniques

Michael Moffa, writer for, 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).