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.

same same, but different

Twelve months ago I ranted about how private sector people often perceive those who’d spent time in the not for profit world, how things were often much the same in both theatres despite the efforts (on both sides) to differentiate.

In the year since then, I’ve navigated the waters of the private sector and reflected on what I miss the most – and least – about the not-for-profit world.

The IT support is still woeful: I am still looked after by a bunch of blokes (yes, they are all men, unlike in Red Cross) who bend over backwards every day to do what’s needed on a shoestring and without any obvious IT strategy. Tick.

I am still working for an organisation talking about a flash new e-recruitment process that still hasn’t arrived. Tick.

I still work in a small, committed team whose mutual support and comedy banter is a joy and inspiration most days. Tick.

I still do a week of duty officer (a little more frequently with a lot more to do out of hours). Tick.

I’m still known as Darth Doyle.

Performance management is different. Holding people to account is not only talked about here, it’s expected. In the past year I’ve handed down countless first warnings and a handful of final warnings, and I have fired a couple of people. You don’t perform, you’re out. We have no room for passengers. At Red Cross we huffed and puffed quietly about poor performers until they left: not hugely helpful to the rest of the team or to the quality of our services.

I travel much further to work, but at least when I get there I have my own office, my own quiet working space. No more open-plan working. So I don’t work from home as much – I don’t need to. I can be hugely productive in my work environment.

Finance management is not too different. I steward my labour budget with a rod of iron and question every request to put another shift on the road; but in my not for profit role we counted the pennies obsessively too.

The business intelligence is much, much worse. I managed a $7 million budget with almost no BI at Red Cross. Now I manage a significantly larger budget with absolutely nothing apart from what I can pull together myself with my less-than-adequate Excel skills. It never ceases to alarm me how little analysis support I have, and how much relies on my long-winded workings.

I sit back at the end of each day, week, month, like every General Manager, and look at the numbers. It’s winter, so patient activity is up. This means more work, closer logistics management, worse traffic, but more revenue too. If my P&L matches budget and my productivity levels look good, I stop fretting and look ahead to the next month.  Job done. It’s that simple.

At Red Cross, it was a little different. Of course we carefully counted the financial cost of putting a thousand volunteers in the field, delivering hundreds of meals across dozens of towns, managing dozens of evacuation centres in flood-affected regions, doing outreach to hundreds of households following a devastating bushfire. We had funders and philanthropic donors to satisfy. We had to prove that we were a trustworthy steward of scarce relief and recovery funds, to demonstrate that we could make those funds go far and touch as many people as possible.

But we didn’t sit back at the end of the day (or summer) satisfied that we did what we said we’d do and stayed within budget. We worried about the outcomes of our actions. And I mean worried.

We visited disaster-affected people in their homes, providing information and practical support. We provided a safe place to sleep for people who’d had to evacuate their home. We took thousands of calls from people trying to locate their loved ones after the bushfire raged through their neighbourhood. We kept detailed spreadsheets and produced reports to show how many of each action we did.

But we also asked: did that visit, place to stay, phone call actually help those people in a meaningful way? Could we measure in some specific way exactly how our assistance hastened their psychosocial recovery? How could we be sure we did no harm to anybody, ever? How would we be able to measure our contribution in terms of long-term outcomes, not short-term outputs? Because if we couldn’t, chances are the funding would dry up, the donors would walk away.

Looking at my current job through that lens, it would mean that not only would I be concerned that we had moved every patient on time with no overtime, but I’d have to do research on how the quality and timeliness of my patient transport materially affected their healthcare pathways and by how much it hastened their recovery.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Perhaps it’s as easy as saying that governments and large corporates outsource only simple tasks, but we all know that’s not true. Across the world every day people are cared for in hospitals, kept secure in prisons, fed in schools, trained at work, looked after in nursing homes, given home help and cooked meals, all by armies of workers employed not by the government or the company being paid, but by outsourcing companies like mine.

We are not required to measure and be paid according to the health outcome of the patient we care for, the rehabilitation prospects of the prisoner we secure, the adult fitness and health levels of the school-child we feed, the quantitatively improved career prospects of the worker we train, the quality of life of the elderly, vulnerable lady we look after every day.

We deliver good service, on time and on budget, we record the data, we send the bill, we deliver the budgeted amount of profit, we switch of our laptops off and go home, we do it all again tomorrow.

But everything we do will have had some impact on the lives of the people we have served.

And yet…. and yet. The private sector is still seen as more complex, more difficult, more challenging, the real world. The private sector is where the real workers are, the ones who know what they’re doing.

The not for profit world is perceived as softer and fluffier, populated by well-meaning, left-leaning, sandal-wearing social workers who are probably still being bankrolled by Mummy and Daddy. Those who can, do. Those who can’t will probably be able to get a job in a charity somewhere.

I look back at the strategic planners, the IT service delivery gurus, the change managers, the logistics people, the departmental heads I’ve worked with in the not for profit world. All of them could run rings around many of the people I’ve come across in the private sector, in terms of intellect, strategic approach, long-term focus, commitment, ethics and sheer hard work. But most of them will never be considered for a role in the private sector, because their skills are not believed to be transferable.

And you know, it’s probably true. Many of their skills won’t be transferable, because they would not be used or valued. Many of them would see their skills wither away in the private sector, with its often shortsighted focus on this month’s bottom line, this quarter’s results or the exec team’s end of year bonus.

So do I regret my move? Not at all. This is not a polemic against the private sector world, just another small attempt at levelling the playing field. Most working environments, most teams, most organisations have more in common than divides them.  They are all less unique than they believe they are. And that’s across the board.

Private sector workers coming into the not for profit space will have some valuable short-term tactical focus, pretty robust people management skills, a fair amount of less-thinking-more-doing attitude to contribute.

Not for profit workers taking on a private sector role may have the ability to look a little further out and a little further up, consider the unintended consequences a little more, understand reputational risk and how to avoid it a lot better. They’ll sure as hell know how to make a little go a long way and still look good.

Same same, but different.


return to christchurch

Twelve Red Crossers from all over the world – Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Malaysia – have come together ahead of a Disasters In Developed Countries workshop in Melbourne. We visit our NZ cousins and hear the wisdom of their words following the tragic earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.

A flying visit to New Zealand takes us from Auckland, to Wellington, to Christchurch in less than thirty hours. On the hotel courtesy bus from Christchurch Airport we look at each other, trying to remember how long ago we met, and realise it was only the morning before. It already feels like we have been through so much more than that together.

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11 highlights of 2011

It’s been a hell of a year. Tough at times, full of adventure, travel (some work, some play), hard work, sorrow and joy. Here are my eleven highlights of 2011.

1.  Queensland

The year started busy. I spent most of the first three months hanging out in Brisbane with an army of Red Crossers, responding to event after tragic event. The staff in the Grand Chancellor come to greet me every time I checked in with a “Welcome home, Ms Doyle!”. The night before Yasi hit, I sat in a hotel restaurant with colleagues trying to understand the enormity of what was about to hit, the only Irishwoman at a table of battle-hardened Aussies. In Emerald, I met the Governor-General and got a lesson in looking elegant in tropical heat. Some of the people I worked with developed into an amazing support network that I still have today, and one or two deep friendships have developed from the times spent together. I gained four kilos and none of my summer clothes fit anymore, which didn’t matter as I spent the whole of the summer in a white Red Cross business shirt and black cut-off cargo pants.

What I learned: Just because it’s disaster season doesn’t mean you need less fibre – or more alcohol – in your diet. FitFlops are the only footwear you need. Talk about how you are feeling often, and use others to gauge how you are going. Forgive. Hydrate. Never go anywhere (even a disaster zone) without eyeliner: you never know who is going to drop by.

2.  Christchurch

Ten days in ChCh working with the NZ Red Cross after the earthquake was some of the most challenging but amazing time I got to spend this year. I slept in a tiny room in the friendliest little B&B in the world, and got used to the ground shaking beneath me. I saw regular people turn into heroes and find resilience in themselves they never thought existed. I feel privileged to have been able to help in my small way.

What I learned: Always leave your boots by the bed in an earthquake zone, and keep your phone fully charged. Leap instantly to a doorframe when the ground doesn’t stop shaking after five seconds. Be ready to accept help as well as give it. Take a break. And don’t watch live footage of horrifying tsunamis right after coming home.

3.  Lorne

A chunk of normality at the end of summer: the Easter/Anzac weekend down the Great Ocean Road in Lorne with Orlando.  Arriving Good Friday evening with a roast dinner in the boot. Long walks by the beach in unseasonably warm weather. Mid-afternoon naps just because we could. Watching the surfers and browsing second-hand book stalls in the market. A cosy Spanish dinner in a lovely tapas bar on Saturday night. Time to heal and rest and recover and reconnect.

What I learned: Heal. Rest. Recover. Reconnect.

4.  Barbados

A week in Barbados in June, spent mostly staring at the waves (or floating in them) at Maxwell Beach, near Orlando’s parents’ house. Amazing Caribbean food. Weekend nights at Oistins fish market. Plenty of good Mount Gay rum in our afternoon rum punch. Chefette’s legendary all-beef rotis just because they were there. Spending time with Orlando’s Dad. Shopping for jerk seasoning and pepper sauce in the local supermarket. Scuba diving with Orlando in the sites where he learned to dive.

What I learned: One dive is never enough. One all-beef roti is never enough. One box of seasoning shipped home is never enough. One week is never enough.

5.  Mexico

Nearly three weeks travelling through the Yucatan peninsula, visiting Mayan ruins, climbing ancient pyramids, staying in great little guesthouses and eating proper Mexican food. Diving Dos Ojos at last after twelve years of waiting. Gazing out across the jungle with Orlando from the top of a crumbling pyramid in Coba. Margaritas and good tequila. A long walk.  Discovering cochinita pibil.

What I learned: There are only so many tacos, tortas, empanadas, burritos and quesadillas you can eat. The green chilli salsa is the hottest and the best. The Mexicans keep the good tequila for themselves. Never walk home at night through the jungle.

6.  Tasmania

An August weekend with Mena in Tasmania, our favourite state. Gourmet food at Bruny Island and Salamanca Market. The Goddess of Russell Falls at Mount Field National Park. Driving through God’s own country to Lake Gordon. Discovering the secluded beaches of South Arm and falling in love with Opossum Bay.

What I learned: There is not enough time before we die to explore Tasmania the way we want to. You will always buy more cheese than you can possibly eat at the Bruny Island Cheese Company. You don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to discover the hidden gems of this small island; you can do it in a Class A hire car. Always bring layers to Tasmania – the weather can surprise you.

7.  Fiji

What more does a body need than ten days on a tropical island, with a little bungalow, a pristine beach a few feet away, a comfy hammock to swing in, a reef full of fish on the doorstep and more Fijian curry than you can shake a stick at. Diving in clear blue waters with more marine life than I’ve ever seen. Snoozing on a hammock under a palm tree, whenever I want to. Watching a wedding take place on a low-tide sandbar out at sea: the wedding party appears to be walking on water. The graceful hand movements of the women and men as they dance for us after the lovo feast.

What I learned: Never go anywhere without nuclear-strength Baygon. Two swimsuits are not enough for one week. There is always time for a little more snorkelling.

8.  Ireland

Ten days in Ireland might seem short, but when all you want is to visit family and get a little Christmas cheer, it’s all you need. Shopping on Grafton Street with the lights twinkling above. Meeting an old friend by chance in a city cafe. Twenty-four hours in the UK just to catch up on all the gossip with Katharine. Putting up Mum’s Christmas tree one morning, listening to old cheesy Christmas tunes and reminiscing about Christmas trees past.  Christmas present shopping with Ashling and Connor. New puppies to adore. Turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Creating new Christmas family memories, even if they were a few weeks early.

What I learned: Don’t wear your precious Links bracelet over your winter gloves. You will always get a good winter coat in Dublin. Melatonin really helps with jetlag. You can never buy too much Newbridge Silverware jewellery.

9.  Darwin

They asked if I was going to Darwin to see Obama. No, I replied: he is in town to meet me. Memos from the hotel asking us to behave on our balconies (in case the Secret Service shot us) didn’t stop me waving enthusiastically at the Black Hawk helicopter that kept flying past. A lovely dinner with Julie Groome at Pee Wee’s. Celebrating the opening night of Darwin Pride with Chris Power. Power walking early in the morning, then trying to catch up with Hydralyte for the rest of the day. Dragging the living room furniture out onto the balcony for a Friday night feast, because they had taken the balcony furniture away at the start of cyclone season.

What I learned: Behave on your hotel balcony if POTUS is in town. Buy more Hydralyte before you travel in the wet season. Always pack one more white singlet top. Try not to turn into a comedy double-act when presenting serious stuff with Julie.

10.  Altona Beach

The one constant in my year: the boardwalk at Altona saved my sanity more than a few times this year. Park up near the Seaholme end of town, on with the Walkman and the sunvisor (not trendy, but it keep my hair at bay), get some UK garage going and power walk to the other end of the beach or maybe right into the park at Truganina. I know every step of the route and its familiarity soothes me, music or no music, sunshine or no sunshine, high tide or low tide.  It helped me get fit and healthy after the Summer of Love – both in body and in spirit.

What I learned: You can always walk just a little bit faster. Carry another layer with you in the boot of the car unless it is January or February. Sometimes it is best to leave the headphones behind and listen to the waves.

11.  Home

Sounds silly, but with all the travel I did this year, a Christmas and New Year holiday at home in our own house was the perfect getaway. No worries about what shoes to pack. Guaranteed comfy bed and perfect pillow. Only the best local red wine and bubbly served. Friends and family close at hand. The best travelling companion in the world. Excellent wi-fi. No air travel or packing or taxis or travel insurance to worry about.

What I learned: There’s no place like home.

Hobart ramblings

A warm spring evening in Hobart. It’s been a long two days, delivering pre-disaster-season briefings with Julie to a lively bunch of Tasmanian staff and volunteers. We finish a little earlier than expected and I dump the laptop and participant evaluation sheets, change clothes and head out into the late afternoon sunshine.

The Radiance of the Seas cruise ship has dominated the waterfront since we watched her dock at eight this morning. I stroll past, photographing the bulk of her, wanting to board just to have a look around, never to be a passenger.

Past Mures and the moored fish and chip shops at Franklin Wharf, past our favourite Fish Frenzy (The Frenzy of the Fish, as Julie calls it), a fire alarm spilling post-work drinkers, waitresses and short-order cooks out onto the pavement in good-natured bewilderment.

I walk behind three young women, dressed to the nines. One has the dangerously short red lycra dress and the substantial thighs I myself had in my early twenties. The look didn’t look great on me either. Her friend is stick-thin: she is having trouble keeping her tiny tight skirt covering her barely-existent behind. The one in the middle has a few more pounds on her, and a few more acres of fabric. Despite everything, she looks better than the other two who are just trying too hard.

Aurora Australis, the Australian Antarctic Division’s exploration ship has gone south for the summer, leaving a gaping hole at the dock beside Shed Number One on Prince’s Wharf. I head down Castray Esplanade, past the beautiful homes once owned by harbourmasters and ships’ captains. I detour briefly through Prince’ Park and continue on through the historical Battery Point area. The sandstone houses and single-storey artisan cottages transport me back to Dalkey, to Sandymount, to Malahide, to Wicklow Town. These few nineteenth-century streets are part of the reason I love Hobart so well – it reminds me of home.

As I pass the Franklin Dock the Radiance of the Seas gives three long blasts of the ship’s horn. Her engines are going astern, and she is off to the next port. I stand with a young family and a handful of tourists as the mammoth cruise ship floats imperceptiby away from the dock. The captain gives another three blasts of the horn, then another, and finally she is off. I continue along the waterfront towards the Henry Jones Art Hotel, passing lobster fishing boats, back to my hotel to freshen up.

Later I retrace my steps through even larger throngs of people out for the evening. The HoTown crowds are out in force, the balmy evening producing even shorter skirts on the girls and even fancier shirts on the boys. I am stopped by a gang of six women looking for a good place to eat. It’s the third time in twenty-four hours I have been stopped on the street in Hobart and asked for a restaurant recommendation. Luckily, I have plenty of opinions. Salamanca Place is buzzing as I stroll past, and I opt for Ciuccio’s, a frequent haunt of mine and a perfect place for this early summer’s evening.

A couple of glasses of McLaren Vale shiraz and one garlic chill prawn pizza later, I brave the crowds once more. It is after nine at night, not quite dark and still over twenty degrees – not at all typical Hobart November weather. The atmosphere is party-like and the crowds belie the fact that is merely a Wednesday night. It feels more like Christmas Eve.

I wend my way back along the waterfront to my hotel room, feeling lucky that I can visit this town as often as I can and that I am almost always blessed with perfect weather when I do.