PracticeAccounting FirmsHow to recruit: a bad example

How to recruit: a bad example

The return of BBC’s The Apprentice has made for some great TV viewing – but Alan Sugar’s recruitment tactics are not altogether conventional and should probably be taken with a large pinch of salt

Last month saw the return of BBC’s The Apprentice, a show that has
been credited with making the recruitment process an entertaining spectacle for
everyone, from the casual viewer to the young, would-be entrepreneurs who take
part. Sir Alan Sugar’s hunt for an apprentice certainly makes for great viewing,
but it is hardly representative of how the recruitment process really works.
Here’s my low-down on Sugar’s recruitment blunders.

Are You Hard Enough?

It’s obvious to any viewer of the show that Sugar prides himself on his
aggressive business style. However, this is not a fair or effective way to
select a candidate for a role in an interview situation. The very fact that the
contestants quiver at the thought of entering the dreaded boardroom where Sir
Alan waits perched on his overly-tall chair should be enough to demonstrate
this. That he starts the conversation with such welcoming lines as “I’ll tell
you this as sure as I’ve got a bloody hole in my arse!” is simply the icing on
the cake.

Although this makes good television, I doubt that Sir Alan actually adopts
this tone when taking on new recruits; otherwise he would have difficulty coming
across anyone who actually wanted to work for the company. And if he repeatedly
called someone a “bladdy natter” in a genuine interview situation he may very
well end up in court. In real life the interviewer should make the interviewee
feel as relaxed as possible, so that he or she will be comfortable enough to
reveal their true personality.

Death of a Salesman

Almost every task that Sugar sets for his contestants revolves around finding
the ‘perfect salesman.’ Unfortunately he seems to have a rather nostalgic view
of what it takes to be at the top of the sales game, which probably harks back
to his humble beginnings in the 1950s.

A previous episode, for example, has seen the potential recruits reduced to
selling rotten fruit door-to-door in an effort to defeat their opponents. Being
able to sell ‘ice to Eskimos’ is one thing, persuading someone else to do it
willingly, enjoying doing it and seeking to learn from the experience is quite

Sugar does not actually specify the role for which he is recruiting, but I
would be willing to guess that working in any capacity at Amstrad would involve
a good deal of teamwork. The tasks that Sugar sets leave him with little more
than a glorified door-to-door salesman, and the reason that a door-to-door
salesman usually travels alone is that it is a one-player game. The leadership
and teamwork scenarios in the show are better, as they create situational
examples of the participants’ skills, business style and communicational
abilities that will be relevant to the eventual job.

Last Man Standing

Sugar’s recruitment process creates an environment that encourages the
contestants to get to the top of the ladder by trampling over everyone below
them. As a result the ‘last man standing’ is invariably the person who can
survive weeks of one-upmanship and back-stabbing as a result of the unnecessary
pressure put on the group. It is a scenario in which only an avid reader of
Machiavelli (or a repeat viewer of The Godfather) will prosper.

In a real scenario the recruiter would be looking for someone who could not
only perform well themselves, but also bring out the best in their team. Sugar
does not seem to condone deceitful behaviour, but the tasks he sets often leave
it as the only option for victory. Recruiters are particularly sharp on picking
up candidates’ character traits, and someone who is driven only by individual
victory over their peers would rarely, if ever, be viewed favourably.

The Spanish Inquisition

At the end of a gruelling boardroom session, each unlucky member of the
losing team is constantly asked by Sugar to tell him why they should stay. I
recall an episode in the last series of the show when mouthy salesman Syed was
asked this very question, and responded, “Because I’m a winner.” Sugar very
quickly put him right – “You’re not a bloody winner, you lost!” Sugar almost
resembles a member of the Spanish Inquisition in these boardroom sessions,
firing questions at the candidates that make them feel increasingly

Predictably, these questions do not encourage the recipient to give answers
that reveal their full potential. Most professional recruiters would now use
what is known as a competency-based interview to learn the most about their
candidates. This assesses behaviour in a previous role or situation and how it
can contribute to performance in the job being recruited for. Therefore
candidates have to give actual examples of their skills rather than giving the
generic answers – “I’m confident,” “I’m proactive”- that we so often hear in The

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

At the beginning of the new series, Sugar warns the new group of contestants,
“The worst kind of schmooze that I can’t stand is ‘Sir Alan I’m just like you –
I came from a humble background and worked my way up.’” This is strange,
however, because the winners from the first two series were clearly both
favoured because they had worked themselves up from modest beginnings. The point
here is that Sugar often undermines his own credibility as an interviewer by
saying one thing and then doing another.

The whole idea of the recruitment process is that there is honest
communication between both parties from the very beginning. The recruiter must
come away with a true idea of whether the candidate will fit into the employer’s
corporate structure, and the candidate must be happy that he or she will be
appropriate for the job. If Sugar’s actions continue to contradict his words, he
will give mixed messages about what is required in his potential recruits.
Invariably this forces people to second guess what he is looking for and put on
an act to fulfil this requirement.

Steve Carter is managing director of accountancy and
finance recruiter Nigel Lynn

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