word of mouth

I’ve been involved in a fair bit of recruitment recently. In an attempt to challenge my own practices, I’ve also been reading a lot about recruitment bias, and observing how effective or otherwise I’ve been experiencing the different phases of the recruitment process.

I’ve also been asked to provide references for quite a few ex-colleagues in the past months. I’ve never been employed by an organisation that refuses to provide references for previous employees, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the friendly phone call and structured Q&A session will be a thing of the past for all of us.

This brings me to a practice I have real difficulty with. It’s common practice in Melbourne, and I believe in much of Australia, for recruiters or employers to mine their networks to get informal references for a preferred candidate before making a final decision. This is usually done without telling the candidate, and is an unofficial step in the recruitment process that the organisation rarely owns up to.

Most of us in the corporate world are subject to a documented formal recruitment procedure that sets out the usual steps: developing a position description, advertising via certain channels, requiring candidates to address key selection criteria, longlisting, shortlisting, interviewing (maybe twice) and perhaps even a formal presentation or psychometric testing to add to the body of evidence for each candidate.

We then get down to a preferred candidate or two, and request the names of some people – usually ex-line managers – who will provide a reference for them.

So far, so predictable.

In a sense the whole references thing is a little pointless, as it would be strange for somebody to give you the contact details of somebody who is not going to give them a glowing reference. But’s it standard practice and very few if any Australian companies are willing to recruit without them.

So because we can, we view the candidate on LinkedIn, read their CV again, see where our networks cross, and make a few quiet phone calls to people we know to see what they know about our potential employee. Too often this part of the process is never declared to the candidate, even after we hire them. It’s then hard not to give the same weight to the opinion of a network contact as we give to the other steps in our official process.

So what, I hear you ask? I know my network, they are trusted sources, and it’s useful to get a different view on a candidate. Culture is important, you argue. It’s critical to hire people who will be a good team fit. We have to be sure.

My argument is two-fold.

Firstly, if we’re going to undertake this practice, we have to be transparent about it. We should write it into our procedures, get Executive sign-off that it’s acceptable and then declare to all candidates up front that we will get feedback about them from whatever mutual acquaintances we can find, without the candidate’s approval or right of reply about our choice of contact. If we are uncomfortable declaring this, or if we find that candidates are unhappy about this, then we have to ask ourselves why.

Secondly and perhaps most importantly, this practice poses the very real danger of limiting our talent pool to more of the same. If we are more inclined to hire candidates who have received the OK from people we know – maybe people we’ve worked with before – then we will turn our company and perhaps even our industry into an echo chamber. Our recruitment processes will rely more on who you know and not what you know. And that’s how things used to be in the bad old days.

Our echo chamber will lock out potential new talent newly arrived from another country, people returning to work after maternity or paternity leave, candidates with amazing transferable skills coming from another industry, young guns trying to get onto the next rung of the ladder. All of these people bring with them the potential to enrich our organisations with new perspectives, different knowledge, and innovative ways of working that will be lost to us if we only hire from the same pool.

Most importantly, this process will limit the diversity of our workforce as we unconsciously filter out all those whose school or university we don’t recognise, whose corporate experience doesn’t intersect with ours, whose name is perhaps difficult to pronounce, whose gender is hard to determine from their first name. And then we’ll spend time wondering what went wrong, and money commissioning a Diversity Strategy to redress the balance.

the politics of health

The Limerick Leader posted an interesting article online this week.

University Hospital Limerick’s ‘colossal spend’ on hiring ambulances

Limerick Leader 6 July 2017

The growth in spend quoted in this article makes for good politics but it doesn’t get to the bottom of the story. What kind of private ambulances were hired? Staffed by what level of clinical qualification?

TD Quinlivan says four fully equipped ambulances could have been bought with the spend since 2012 – I assume he means emergency ambulances with fully qualified paramedics or EMTs on board.

But it’s far more likely than non-emergency patient transport is needed in Limerick far more than emergency ambulances. Managed well, this is a good clinical decision and good business too. And this is very likely what this private ambulance spend was used on.

Non-emergency patient transport is staffed by people with lower clinical qualifications using a vehicle with far fewer pieces of expensive equipment and little or no drugs on board. The majority of people requiring ambulance transport in any country need it not because they are a critical emergency case requiring high-speed transport by highly qualified (and relatively expensive) paramedics. They are the chronically ill or injured who cannot make their own way to hospital for regular appointments – chemotherapy, dialysis, rehab – because of the nature of their illness. They need a certain level of assistance and perhaps monitoring en route. And there are far, far more of these journeys needed every day in every city than people needing an emergency ambulance.

Funding four new emergency ambulances will not get these people to their hospital appointments on time and safely, but it would make a good political headline.

Investigating the need for this spend – the real people behind the headline – would have been a good piece of investigative journalism for writer Fintan Walsh, but I suppose that takes time and he probably doesn’t have the luxury of delivering that kind of good journalism these days.


the write words

I know we mostly hire people for their technical ability, management skills, professional knowledge and networking capabilities, but good business writing skills are worth their weight in gold for any management role.

In the week before a Board meeting with a crammed agenda, there’s nothing more infuriating than receiving a critical report or discussion paper from a senior staff member with grammatical or spelling errors, badly-presented arguments or no real conclusion or recommendation. Sadly, it happens far more than it should.

This month I gave a colleague special dispension to get a project report in just hours before the deadline, because an important meeting was happening the day before that could have completely changed the project status.

With just a couple of hours to spare I opened the document with a little trepidation. It was almost perfect: well thought through, perfect spelling and grammar, plenty of white space and sub-headings for easy reading, compelling arguments and clear, concise update points.

Whilst that person was not hired for their business writing skills, they sure made her invaluable on a stressful Friday afternoon.

australia day… my way

This evening, down at Altona Beach, I strolled in the evening sunshine and literally watched the world go by. Australia Day had brought everybody out to enjoy the beach, and the council had put on a festival to help.

A small number of Aussie flags were flying on cars and transferred onto sunburnt cheeks, a few green-and-gold sports shirts were in evidence, and two mounted police officers flew the Boxing Kangaroo flag from their saddles.

On the boardwalk people wore hijabs and chadors, beach towel turbans and long-haired topknots, bikinis and board shorts, saris and sarongs. There was Greek baclava, Italian woodfired pizza, vegetable samosas, New Zealand “fush, chups and igg”, SES sausages in bread, all for sale within a hundred metres. Young muscle-bound men showed their Polynesian tattoos with pride, and one brave soul rocked a bleached-blonde flat-top and bandana.

One end of the Esplanade had live Country & Western music, the other Tongan reggae blaring out from a huge speaker. Kite surfers hung out down the western end of the beach whilst kite flyers dominated the east.

I saw Africans of every stripe, Japanese tourists and Vietnamese families, three generations of Pacific Islander at the same all-day picnic, young and old from sub-continental Asia, Italian nonnas with gaggles of grandchildren, a handful of mix-race couples of various flavours. Not many pale-skinned, freckled people like me though.

There was no “love it or leave” slogans, no “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” chants, just people being people, chatting and laughing, running after two-year-olds, drinking coffee and beer, ignoring boys and posturing in front of girls. This is the Australia I subscribe to, the Australia I belong to.





onsen etiquette

If it’s your first visit to Japan, you might be put off visiting an onsen because you are not sure of the correct practices or etiquette. Don’t be. Onsens are casual places for Japanese people, and once you have a grasp of the basics you’ll fit in perfectly.

what to bring

Bring your towels with you: one large bath towel for your body, and a smaller one to bring inside the onsen with you. Your hotel may provide these towels for you – the smaller towel is British hand-towel sized but finer, almost like a muslin cloth.

If you have long hair, bring a hair tie with you. If you have particular shampoo, body wash or other product you prefer to use, bring that too, although all onsens have plenty of (cheap) body wash, shampoo and conditioner available. Don’t expect to do anything particularly personal like shaving your legs in an onsen – keep to the basics.

on arrival

Pay your money at the counter, remove your shoes and take a pair of indoor slippers from the floor in front of you. There will be lockers in reception where you leave your shoes and take the key with you. Access to the changing rooms is usually through a doorway with a red noren (curtain) for women and a blue one for men. All onsens are gender separated.IMG_8367

the changing room

Choose a locker with a number or location you will remember. Try not to stand in front of your locker whilst you are getting changed, as you might be blocking access to others. Use the benches. Strip naked and put all your belongings, including big towel and slippers, into the locker. Only bring with you any toiletries you need, your small towel, a hair tie if needed and your locker key which is usually on a wrist band.

Use the toilet before entering the onsen area – as soon as you get into the water you’ll want to go!

If you have a tattoo it may be necessary to cover it up with a plaster – some onsens do not allow people with visible tattoos due to the connection with gangs. Best to ask beforehand.

Don’t visit an onsen with any kind of open cut or wound on your body.

before bathing

When you enter the onsen area, you may see a large container of water with ladles – use a ladle to rinse off your feet before moving further inside. One or more walls will be lined with individual washing areas, each with a small stool, a basin, hot and cold taps, a shower head and a mirror.

Set your things up and give your body a good scrub (you can use your small towel as it’s going to get wet anyway). You don’t need to wash your hair if you don’t want to, just tie it up.

Rinse your body well. You can pop back and leave your personal toiletries back in your locker at this stage if you wish.

If you do wash your hair and plan on leaving conditioner in your hair while bathing, make sure all of your hair is carefully tied up. It is not acceptable to contaminate the water with any type of toiletry product.


Move gently so as not to disturb the water too much. Bring your little towel with you but never, ever let it enter the water. In many onsens, people use the towel to cover parts of their body as they move around outside the water (draped down their front, for example, or folded and held across the pubic hair area), but in other places people move freely. Watch what others do and copy them. When in the water, find a spot to leave your towel on the side, or fold it and place it on your head.

Typically the water will be around 40-45 degrees celsius, but some are cooler and some even hotter. Be careful you don’t stay too long and get an “onsen hangover” – plan to stay in the water no longer than twenty minutes before cooling down. You can do this by heading back to the shower area and showering with cool water for a minute, or if it’s a cool day at an outdoor pool, just hop up on the side and let the air cool your body for a while before hopping back in.


after bathing

Don’t shower after bathing – the minerals in the onsen water are supposed to be good for your skin. Use your small towel to dry yourself off a little before leaving the bathing area. There are usually hairdryers available to use in the locker room, and mirrors to help with getting dressed and ready.

Drink plenty of water afterwards, as the onsen will dehydrate you. There are always plenty of vending machines in the reception area.

Soon, you’ll be a natural, and you’ll pop into every hotel onsen wondering how you managed without them!

onsen town

First thing I realise is that I’m going to get the footwear thing wrong. We arrive at our beautiful little ryokan on the main drag of this little hot springs resort town, and immediately our sturdy, Gore-Tex lined walking shoes are spirited away in favour of some plain brown guest house slippers. When we reach our room we must remember to walk no further than one or two steps inside before removing even these items of footwear, and offer nothing to the fragile tatami mats but bare or stockinged feet.

I have chosen a special yukata, or summer kimono, to celebrate Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. My bright pink floral creation is at odds with the regulation ryokan muted greys, but I love it. A staff member shows me how to dress myself correctly. Hitch the yukata up so that the bottom of the long diagonal collar is aligned with the hipbone. Always fold the left over the right side, never the other way around unless you are dressing a corpse. Tie the first narrow belt tightly around the waist and fold the extra fabric down over it, making sure the lines are straight all around the body. Take your wide obi belt in appropriate contrasting colour and wrap it twice around the folded-down fabric, finishing with a bow to the front. Fold the tails of the bow around itself so that they fall neatly over the front of the bow. Twist the obi around 180 degrees so that the bow is at the back. Voilà.
In Orlando’s case it’s a little easier: put on yukata, folding the left side over the right side. Tie with narrow obi belt around hips. Voilà.

Braving unseasonably chilly weather in a yukata without an under-layer of thermals is unwise, especially if nursing a cold. Happily, both of us have packed some warm undergarments so we are good to go. We pop a traditionalhaori jacket over our yukata, navigate our feet into a pair of tabi (toe socks) and clamber on board a pair of geta (wooden clogs). We are ready.


We clip-clop our way awkwardly down the street until we realise that nobody is paying us a blind bit of notice. Everybody else is similarly dressed and focused more on not falling off their own geta as they promenade. Different ryokan have different yukata colours and patterns, so you can recognise your fellow ryokan-dwellers and check out what other patterns you like on others.

The canals of the back streets are lined with willows and cherry blossoms. Ignoring the misty rain, we stroll arm in arm along the streets and laneways, peering down an alley here and into a shop window there.

IMG_8283 IMG_8279 IMG_8431

One or two nooks and crannies have foot onsens, where the tired or timid can sit fully clothed and soak their feet in the hot, healing waters.


Kitsch gift shops jostle for position with old-fashioned rifle ranges and pachinko parlours, where kids of all ages appear to be revelling in the chance to shoot ancient rifles at dodgy-looking plastic figurines of gods and goddesses. Nearby more modern games parlours are almost completely empty by comparison. There aren’t too many dining options, probably because most ryokans offer full board, but there are plenty of ice cream parlours and coffeehouses to pop into between dips.

Our first onsen is, fittingly, Kono-Yu (Hot Spring of Stork), the first bathing house in Kinosakionsen. Legend has it that storks used to bathe their wounds in the marsh on this spot, before the onsen town was founded. On a Monday lunchtime the place is quiet enough. We deposit our geta in a locker in reception before going our separate ways.

The ladies changing room could be that of any municipal fitness centre or swimming pool. I carefully disrobe, folding my haori, obi belt and yukata, locking everything into a second locker. Eyes down and naked, I tiptoe to the door.

The indoor onsen is in the same large, high-ceilinged room as the wash stations. I sit on a small plastic stool and use a basin and shower to wash myself before bathing. I slide into the waters of the large indoor pool, the hot, slightly sulphurous waters a welcome change from the chilly conditions outside. I share the pool with an older lady who alternates between the pool and the wash point, using basins of cold water to refresh her body and lengthen her stay.

The outdoor pool is a few steps away, surrounded by trees and under a large wooden structure which traps some of the steam and keeps the rain away. I sit with two or three older women, staring out at the drizzling rain, breathing in the steamy air and exhaling all my worries and anxieties. Now and again I hop up onto some large stones and cool down before immersing myself again.

Somehow an hour passes in the leafy quietness. I gather my thoughts and cool down with a few basins full of cool water over the body before slipping quietly away into the changing room. There, I expertly (by now) don my yukata, tie my obi, slide the ornate bow to the small of my back and wander out into the cool air, ready for a pot of green tea before doing it all over again later in the afternoon.

a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.