When Confidence Turns to Arrogance: Navigating the Fine Line in the Recruiting Process

Recently, a conflicted candidate turned to Quora as a way to crowd-source his hiring decision: should he accept an offer from prestigious Uber or from the up-and-coming startup Zenefits? The method backfired, however, when the entry-level engineer then received a message from the Zenefits CEO himself—in the form of a rescinded offer, coupled with some biting criticism. But whom did the public display backfire on, exactly?

Many think that the Zenefits CEO, Conrad Parker, possessed a certain cockiness that prevented a potentially good candidate from joining his team, and also reflected badly upon the company itself.

Parker wrote back to the candidate:

“Definitely not Zenefits. Mostly, it seems like where you really want to work is Google (“I think that [Zenefits] isn’t as exciting a brand name to have on your resume when applying to the likes of Google.”). You should just apply there. If you’re able to pass our engineering interview, I’m pretty sure you could get a job there… there are enough ppl [sic] out there who do want to work here that we can afford to be selective.”

Parker’s behavior is indicative of a larger problem: more and more employers are now approaching the recruiting process with an arrogant attitude.

Danilo Campos, a freelance developer who responded to the post, believes that a ubiquitous and toxic trend in the startup industry that the job must be some sort of religious calling; “that the company has to be this thing that came down from high; that you are the most excited person in the world for this specific gig.”

He says that this attitude can lead to problems with retention, which will inevitably lead to problems within an organization’s internal talent acquisition.

“Chasing all of this outside validation makes your issue seem like an affront to their story, and therefore to their personal investment in the organization,” Campos wrote in his Quora comment. “That’s an understandable blind spot, but remember: it has toxic effects. This sort of unchecked hubris means that if, later on, you have a problem in the workplace, getting it fixed will mean touching the very same third rail.”

His takeaway? “Lack of humility is a bad signal,” says Campos, who believes that the candidate process is a two-way street, and both employers and candidates have reasonable expectations to be reading each others’ signals. When those signs point to a cocky attitude, what the employer is actually saying is that they don’t feel a reciprocal responsibility to the employee to give a good feel for the company.

Campos refers to the phenomenon as “cult employment,” and argues that it’s retroactive to the company’s branding.

Apollo Sinkevicius, a Boston-based startup veteran who works as the COO of Robin Powered, Inc, points out that recruiting talent is all about marketing, and that arrogance doesn’t lend itself well to a successful sell.

Sinkevicius, who also commented on the Quora post, says that employers have to do a good job of selling their client’s brand so that the right candidates want to ‘buy.’ On the other side of the coin, he points out, every person an employer turns away should feel that they’ve done so with dignity and respect. He believes that Parker ignored this key aspect of the recruiting process.

“I genuinely hope Parker slipped up and got himself into the corner he could not get out of,” Sinkevicius says. “It made him look awful and put a black eye on their hiring brand…He probably should have checked himself to see if his reaction was ego-driven.”

On the other hand, at least Uber treated the candidate with respect and took the debate as an opportunity to sell the brand. A representative from the company commented with a comprehensive sales pitch about Uber’s positive qualities.

“I think that in the context that was created by Conrad, all Uber had to do was show up and not be an a**hole, and they got to win the day,” says Campos. “What’s most important about that was the fact that they demonstrated they weren’t afraid of questions being asked and a candidate making sure they were getting the very best.”

However, Uber didn’t provide the perfect candidate experience either, as Katelyn LaGarde, a talent specialist at OpenView Partners pointed out in her article, “RescindGate: Zenefits, Uber, and the Quora Job Offer Debacle.”

The confused candidate—whose anonymity didn’t prevent him from getting in trouble with his potential employer—had listed pros and cons about the two companies. He wrote, “Uber has a really good reputation…the biggest con for Uber is…they don’t really seem to care as much, and I can understand why. Uber attracts top talent and they can easily find someone to replace me.”

LaGarde believes that this should be a huge red flag for Uber’s management team.

“They need to look at their hiring process…and figure out what happened to make a candidate feel like they weren’t needed or respected,” LaGarde wrote. “Then they need to fix it—fast.”

So in a way, both companies suffered from some form of arrogance. While Zenefits’ negative response hurt their brand, Uber’s apathetic attitude deterred the candidate from getting too excited about his job offer.

We can learn from this instance by understanding that it’s important to maintain a balance between enthusiasm for your brand and humility. If you can be confident about your company without an air of superiority, then your candidates will recognize and appreciate you for it. And perhaps most importantly, keep an eye on the goal: hiring the best talent. If there’s a step in the process that doesn’t contribute to your ultimate goal, then it’s time to revaluate your candidates’ experience.