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TRG in the Board Room Blog

The waiter rule and how to reveal a job candidate’s true self

Posted by Huy Tran on

What do a job interview and a first date have in common? They both could be high-stress situations where people try to hide their true self. We constantly have to wonder how we know who he or she really is. Contrary to popular belief, most interviewers are not particularly good at assessing people via traditional job interviews. It turns out there is an old trick that can really be helpful in both situations: the “waiter rule”.

It is no coincidence that first dates often take place in a restaurant. In the 2014 annual survey of 5,000 singles by Match.com, 97% said rudeness to service staff bothered them, which made it the worst in dining etiquette.

In a book published in 1999, Dave Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, wrote: “If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.” Steve Odland, Chairman and CEO of Office Depot from 2005 – 2010, who was also a waiter as a teenager, said: “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she treats a waiter.”

How does the waiter rule work?

People are most likely to reveal their true self when they are protected by a mask of anonymity. Or as Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish writer, put it: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Waiters in restaurants rarely know the names of whom they serve unless they are regular guests. And the guests always have an option not to return to that restaurant again, which provide additional protection to their anonymity. And when we take into account the “customers are always right” rule, it is clear that the guests, unlike the waiters, have little to fear of repercussions for their actions. Such circumstances create a perfect mask of anonymity through which their true nature will shine.

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Reinventing candidate assessment

In the context of evaluating job applicants, the waiter rule can sometimes be referred to as the receptionist rule. Unsuspecting applicants may assume a receptionist plays no role in the hiring process. But when a smart recruiter is unsure about whether the applicant would be a good fit, they could solicit feedback from the front desk staff to see how the applicant behaved when they arrived, how well they treated the receptionist, or even what they were doing in the waiting area.

Read more: Most job interviews are unreliable

Some companies set up their hiring process to formally include those whose opinions do not seem to matter. These people are often able to observe the applicants when they think they are protected by the mask of anonymity.

In a 2012 The Wall Street Journal article, Andy Ory, CEO of Acme Packet Inc., data-delivery company, estimated that feedback from the receptionists factoring into the hiring decision between 5% and 10% of the time. Rusty Rueff, who was the head of HR at PepsiCo and Electronic Arts, also said: “Smart recruiters ask for feedback from the travel agent, the driver from the car service that picked you up at the airport, and the admin that walked you around all day.”

Read more: A case study of Heineken on hiring the right person for the right job

If you have been hiring long enough, you may have recognised issues of the traditional approach. Highly polished CVs and carefully rehearsed answers make assessing candidates increasingly challenging. You need to break the mould and reinvent your hiring process. For a start, you can download our white paper “The interview addiction” to find out how you can make your job interviews more reliable and effective.

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Topics: Talent Management

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 Rick Yvanovich
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