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I Looked Greatness in the Eye, and Decided to Look Elsewhere

Answering to Nobody

This is a guest post by Mary Paynter Sherwin.

 

Dear Goodby, Silverstein & Partners,

A good friend of mine, along with roughly half of the Internet sites I visit, provided me with a link to the application to be Rich Silverstein’s executive assistant. I’m writing this letter to provide an administrative assistant’s take on the application tests, because I respect the amount of honesty displayed in your tests about your requirements. I also wanted to write about why I find the application one of the more disheartening things I’ve encountered in my career as an administrative professional.

First off, I’m dismayed by the number of people calling this application brilliant. I’m also dismayed by the number of people insulting Rich Silverstein by calling him names. Accolades and insults both ignore how honest you are being about what you want and what you deem acceptable. The whole thing speaks to how we view and engage in constructive dialogue about the place where we spend a third of our lives.

Is the application brilliant? Yes, at first. The underpinnings of some tasks are ingenious and informative. And as a branding statement, the application certainly caught the attention of the press. But in your search for the right assistant, you serve up some ugly insights about the acceptability of certain behaviors and attitudes in advertising, about corporate culture, about the cult of personality, about teamwork, and about respect.

The application isn’t funny. It’s dead serious. Here's a test-by-test analysis of how I read things:

 

Be Organized

1. Pencils
I need to be able to tolerate mundane tasks. I also need to be an adaptive thinker. Even the most straightforward task may have another solution. I can either sort the pencils by eye or check the source code. And if I know how to check source code for color, that knowledge indicates all kinds of things to you. Is the source code reliable? Probably. Making a legitimate case that a good assistant can’t be colorblind would be tough.

 

Sweat the Details

2. Explosions
I need to be a hearing person for this job. The test tells me to listen closely. So sure, I need to listen to the entire thing to get the right answer: you’re looking for a demonstration of my patience and engagement. But this test is also a good measure of how much general knowledge I can exploit. If I pick a particular explosion, I should be able to explain it based on something more than my gut. Can I bring everything that I’ve learned so far in my life to bear at my job, even if it doesn’t seem related to advertising? Because that’s what advertising people do.

 

Manage Contacts

3. VIPs
I need to have a decent set of researching chops so I can find out that Carla is Rich’s wife and that Jeff is Rich’s business partner. But how do I organize them? This depends on my own principles, because I haven’t met Rich yet. Do I look for some interviews with Rich to see whether he values business over family? Or do I just express my preference for family over business, or vice versa? Great test. However, if you can come up with a snarky webpage response within minutes of getting sassed by @BetaRish for not having this application available on mobile, you can probably switch Kim Jong Un for someone whose ex-girlfriend wasn't just executed by firing squad along with eleven of her coworkers, ostensibly for making a sex tape. Did I mention that their families were required to watch? Either you don’t keep up with current events, or you do but don’t care because advertising should be edgy. Neither option is appealing.

 

TakeaMessage

4. Mailroom
I need to not be a bot filling out this application, and I need to be fluent in English. This test is also where you may lose a few more candidates, because we’ve got different priorities about how to get the job done. If I can’t understand a message from a fellow employee, I’m going to call him back. Curious, though: there’s no option for “Demonstrate follow-through and engage fellow team members to prevent miscommunication by either calling Mail Room Guy or walking down the hallway to talk to him.”

 

Remember Names

5. Names
I need to have a really good memory. The best way to remember people’s names is to match them with their faces, because you don’t see how people spell their names when you meet them unless they’re wearing nametags. Oh, but the faces are all the same! The test doesn’t represent how we meet people and remember them. Like the other tests, there’s something else at play. The variety of names in this test can show you how much exposure I’ve had to other cultures, where people’s names aren’t always Tom, Anne, and John. If I want this job, it probably helps if I’ve been outside of my backyard two or three times. Or if I know how to take a screen capture.

 

From the Twitter feed and responses to @Work4Rich

6. Twitter
I need to sell myself in a tweet, which proves that I know how social media works. I’m not certain why you need your assistant to be able to pitch, but perhaps this is also about thinking fast.

I went over to @work4rich to see what other people were saying. I needed to check the market. And the more I read the feed, the more I realized that the Twitter test told me more about what you’re looking for in a candidate than all of the other tests combined, because it’s checking my ethics. And this is where I got sad about the current state of affairs.

I’m surprised at the number of candidates who equate being a good assistant with being mean, or more bluntly, being a bitch. Not surprising, sadly, is how many people still seem to think it’s ok to treat an assistant as less than a person, that it’s ok to view people as tools and cogs, or that it’s ok to joke about any of those attitudes. @work4rich, while dutifully responding to seemingly everyone who imperfectly tweets about why they’re perfect for the job, doesn’t do a lot to combat this. Each tweet from @work4rich enables and reinforces those attitudes, simply by their tone and approach. Those tweets show anyone who’s listening that… hang on a minute.

Twitter is a public forum, which means anyone anywhere will be able to read my tweet about this job. And then anyone anywhere will be able to watch @work4rich promptly rip me apart in 140 characters or less.

If I’m supposed to believe that you’re using this application to actually find viable candidates, then if I didn’t make my exit with the VIP test, I’m completely out now. My experience as an assistant, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, has been that we’re supposed to be essential, yet invisible. Assistants usually don’t tweet about their bosses unless it’s part of the job description. We get paid to have strong boundaries. The Twitter test runs counter to this.

Your application, and especially the final Twitter test, tells me exactly who you’re looking for. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners wants an EA who is willing to go through the fire in order to get a job. You’re saying you want an advertiser, not someone who knows about advertising. You want a candidate who has a sense of humor about bullying. You want someone who has no problem being in a culture that excuses public humiliation if people aren’t snappy enough or strong enough. You’re saying that you want someone who thinks nothing of compromising her privacy and the privacy of her boss for the masses.

If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re doing a great job. I applaud you for your transparency. If only what you were showing weren’t so savage.

Sincerely,

Mary Paynter Sherwin

P.S. I did not finish the tests. But I do have a tweet for you:

"@rich4work I wish you the best of luck in your search for an assistant. #honesty"

Comments

Harlequinn

Mary,

I have read this posting a few times, and wanted to submit a few items for you consideration. Please note that this is not a defense of people that I don't know - it is merely a different perspective on the available information.

1) The job application is unconventional to say the least. Sorting images of pencils, taking a best guess at who ranks where in terms of contacts - not exactly what one would anticipate when looking for gainful employment. However, if you take a look at the body of work produced by GSP, (and I admit that while I knew much of it, I had no idea that I knew much of it) the unconventional is pretty much what they do. The thing with being unconventional is that oftentimes, controversial is par for that particular course. Not only that, but its often the part that many people focus on, which is a shame because the firestorm of criticism that generally ensues ends up discouraging unconventional thinking and ostracizing unconventional thinkers. Can you image a world where everyone bowed to convention? What progress would be made? It takes courage, strength and, as was made repeated mention of in the ad, intestinal fortitude to be unconventional when the world at large would generally be happier if you weren't. It is my supposition that above everything else, the application website is geared towards identifying the unconventional candidates, as they would probably be the ones with the best chance of success at GSP.

2) Could the Kim Jong Un image and failure to change it be considered in poor taste? Possibly - but, in all fairness, I am very up on current events and I hadn't heard about the firing squad story until Saturday, which was two days after the wor4rich website went up. It could be argued that changing the image would change the conditions of the test, which would not necessarily have been fair to the people who took the test before any change was made.

3) It has long been held that any time a job seeker connects with a potential employer, the goal is to "sell themselves" into the job. When you interview for a job, you are letting the employer know why you are the best candidate for the job, that the decision to invest their time, energy and resources into retaining you and training you is the best decision they could possibly make. If that is true, I am not sure that there is a fundamental difference between selling yourself in that context and selling yourself to someone in front of an internet of your closest friends via Twitter. You stated cited the invisibility of the assistant, and that tweeting about one's boss or oneself is a breach of confidentiality, but in this case, a) Rich S. is not yet any of the candidates' boss, b)a lot of EA and AA positions are actively seeking candidates where knowledge and use of social media is highly desired because those they would be supporting want engagement on Twitter, Facebook, etc., and want someone trusted to handle that responsibility, c)I am not sure how being asked to tweet an "elevator pitch" is tantamount to asking someone to compromise one's privacy, unless you and I have differing views on what privacy consists of.

4) Like you, I have been reading the twitter feed, and like you, a few of the tweets have certainly given me pause, mostly because I found some of the choices people were making interesting to say the least. However, I can also tell you that I think there is a fair amount of sarcasm and oblique references to other sources (TV shows, movies, books, etc.) in the responses that people, perhaps in some cases yourself included, may not be catching. (There were two statements made in tweets from W4R that if they weren't obscure references to books that I happened to have read, I would be shocked). As to those who you say seem to think that being a good assistant requires being mean or a bitch - I don't disagree that that is far afield of what I and most of those in the profession have always tried to be. At the same time, I suspect that people who think that would probably think that being mean or a bitch is the hallmark of a good anything. I don't know if the responding tweets are reinforcing that idea as much as they are mocking it.

6) At the top of the article, you mention that you were provided with the link to the work4rich site. What wasn't clear to me was if you had a chance to see the accompanying craigslist ad, but you did indicate that you didn't finish the tests. I mention this because the CL ad provides a bit more insight into the sense of humour behind the assistant seeking campaign, and the end of the application, after the "elevator tweet" asks for a link to the applicant's webpage and/or linkedin profile. If you were not aware of this, know that the tests are not the only determining criteria for potential candidates - they look at the resumes, too. I felt I should bring this to your attention as it does provide additional and, I think, relevant, context.

If I did not make it clear, you have some valid points - or at least, I can see how you arrived at some of the points you've made. Maybe it's a little naive of me to opt to think that most times people don't mean for things that come off as awful to be awful. Everyone in advertising could all be horrible people as a rule, for all I know. But, I like to give the benefit of the doubt and take things as I find them. In this case, it seems that work4rich.com is a way of making the recruiting process less tedious for everyone, QED.

Mary Paynter Sherwin

Hi Harlequinn,

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Some answers to your questions, though I have to admit, I’m a little puzzled by a few. Yes, I looked at the craigslist ad; my headline directly refers to its lede. Yes, I know they look at résumés; I have a good working knowledge of HR law and general practice, and to not look at résumés would expose the firm to legal risks. From a legal perspective, the website is very well considered. I am also an ethical editor; no responsible critique could proceed without working knowledge of the entire application, and you don’t need to complete the tests to get to all of the stages of the application.

Yes, the way in which they are able to deduce certain skills is unique. I’ve got no problem with the unconventional nature of the application, if you actually believe it’s an application for a job and nothing more. The number of skills that they can deduce from the tests, like I said, is ingenious, and most people don’t have a working knowledge of what these things actually measure. Even if 99% of the visitors aren’t qualified candidates, the amount of data GSP can get from the application itself is staggering. That’s another article entirely.

I’m going to politely put aside your first point as I believe you’re greatly oversimplifying the complicated relationship between robust critique and unconventional thought, how all of it relates to advertising, and how that relates to the administrative work required of someone who supports an advertising community.

No, I don’t think people are awful just to be awful. I do believe that people often don’t think about what their actions say about them. However, I can assure you that the hundreds of people employed at GSP are smarter than most of us combined. They get paid to think four or five levels deeper than the rest of us about everything. They make lots and lots of money, for themselves and for their clients, by doing so. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt by proceeding in my article as if GSP knows exactly what they’re doing (and then I’m ignoring one huge chunk of what they’re doing, but more on that in a bit). They are an unbelievably intelligent firm.

My VIP assessment stands, but please note that I didn’t say it was in poor taste, just that another option might have been better. Possibly someone less prone to polarizing an audience. You’re right about the change. It absolutely can't be done. From an HR perspective, changing the application after it’s launched skirts legal issues. From an advertising perspective, too many changes to the original launch make it ineligible for awards consideration. For whatever reason, they picked Kim Jong Un, and they’ve got to live with the repercussions. It's sad that they probably picked him because it was edgy.

Your note about making the recruiting process less tedious: I’m not seeing how a public outreach campaign with accompanying website and coverage in most of the major advertising outlets makes the process less tedious. HR still has to review and cull the résumés which is a time-consuming process by nature, and because of exposure, I doubt that the application is netting fewer résumés overall. But if by tedious, you strictly mean boring, then sure, it’s not boring. GSP is busy, and to think they’d lavish this kind of attention on the assistant of one of the partners is not only interesting, it’s also kinda sweet.

Except that it’s not.

There’s a very obvious branding component tied in with this. It’s clearly an integrated self-promotion marketing campaign. Which is the answer to another question, yes, I have also studied advertising and have a great love for it. The breadth of the tweets and their references (I’d be disappointed if they did otherwise because nothing in advertising works in a vacuum) is beside the point. The GSP employee running the feed showing his or her witty repartee doesn’t have a direct correlation to attracting good candidates. Also, you can be clever and not be mean, just like you can be controversial and not be cruel. Using a feed as a hatchet to slice through people who don’t “get it” is what saddens me. The sarcasm, the attitude, the tone, all of these things are cultivated. Because it’s an advertising campaign. But back to pretending that it’s about finding a candidate…

It doesn’t matter that Rich isn’t the candidate’s boss yet. What matters is the candidate’s attitude towards privacy and social media. If you have no problem publicly tweeting your pitch on their feed, then you have a certain attitude around visibility and exposure. You must have that attitude, or be willing to conform to it to get a job, in order to complete the test. It has nothing to do with gauging ability to use social media. But you are, by the very definition of the words, compromising your privacy when you Tweet publicly. You reach an agreement with GSP about who sees your words. If you Tweet on their feed, everyone sees it. If you’re ok with that, then you’re a better candidate than someone who isn’t ok with it and doesn’t Tweet to the feed. I tip my hat to the intelligence of the GSP staff for this bit, too: you technically aren’t a candidate until you give them your LinkedIn profile or résumé, which comes after the request to tweet, so any legal issues around the advertising nature of the application are avoided.

As for the marketing chestnut of “selling yourself”…I have no problem using digital media to find a job. But tweeting from your handle that you’re looking for a job is very different from direct-response tweeting to a company’s feed, and the risks for not understanding the implications (good and bad) of speaking on social media are very high. Because…

To think that this website is for actually finding candidates is, to use your word, naïve. That was the thing that I had to put aside in order to write the article. It’s why I said that the letter was about the tests and not about the application/website/press response as a whole. If you take it to task as an applicant test, as I did, then there are a lot of things that it indicates about how people deduce information about candidates and about how people broadcast their attitudes and opinions in subtle ways.

But, if people are paying attention, then the one thing GSP is broadcasting most clearly is that the entire thing is advertising, which is the only reason that I would consider for someone calling the darned thing genius. Advertisers frequently get called liars, but that’s a myopic and misinformed view of the industry. It’s just that the truths they tell aren’t always pretty. The application, the Craigslist ad, the Twitter feed, and every single tweet in it (including mine) are all advertising for GSP. It’ll probably win an award or two. If you’re on board with having your application for a job be completely subservient to a marketing campaign, that’s fine. Personally, I find it a little gross.

Best,
Mary

Sylvie

I'm with you, Mary

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