Amazon and the Myth of the Bar Raiser

  Narcissus  by Caravaggio, 1597-1599

Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597-1599

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Greg Bensinger addressed Amazon’s practice of using so-called “bar raisers” to vet potential employees. Amazon believes the use of these uber-interviewers protects its corporate culture and ensures a workforce that will do well anywhere they are placed. How does it work? Each candidate is interviewed by multiple employees, including the bar raiser, whose role is to push a candidate into areas he may not be as familiar with as those that got him the interview in the first place. There are notes taken and debrief meetings held, in which every interviewer has a say. In the end, however, if everyone is impressed, and the bar-raiser is not, the candidate is not hired.

This wouldn’t be the end of the world if every potentially valuable aspect of a candidate could be taken into account by the bar raiser, providing an almost clairvoyant assessment of that person’s possible future at Amazon. It cannot be done. Nonetheless, Amazon empowers its bar raisers with the power of the veto. Bad idea. Here’s why it should should be “all hands on deck” when it comes to making a hiring decision:

“I LIKE YOU. WANT A JOB?”

It’s no surprise that we’d rather work with people we like; it’s more fun to build a culture and share success if everyone is rowing in the same direction, after all. But as far as the interview process is concerned, it can be problematic owing to what’s known as the affinity effect. A candidate is trying to make a good impression. He wants to be liked. He wants to create a connection and be remembered. Known as social affinity, this coalescing around common interests and ideals is how it is accomplished. If every interviewer gets a vote, a more realistic picture of the candidate will result, mitigating any possible bias from any one person.

“CAN YOU DRAW ME A PICTURE?”

There are as many ways to learn and know something as there are people to learn and know it. These myriad methods have been quantified into what are known as learning styles. If you’ve ever heard someone say “I’m more of a visual learner” then you have encountered one such learning style. The other broad categories are logical, verbal, physical and aural. In the context of a job interview, identifying a candidate’s strength in this area decreases the chances of dismissing your company’s next software genius because she is a logical thinker and you asked her to draw a picture, since that’s how you learn best. Presuming a plurality of learning styles among any given set of interviewers, it would be wise to leave the final hire/no-hire vote to the group.

“SPEAKING OF AIRPLANES…”

Tech hiring in America is more competitive than it’s ever been, and with colleges the world over cranking out more computer science majors each year, it’s tempting for many companies to view them as interchangeable widgets - put ‘em in, burn ‘em up, pull ‘em out (rawhide!). The idea of fostering and maintaining domain expertise over time is seen as costly and wasteful, when a “broader” range of knowledge can be brought to bear across multiple areas. Maybe, maybe not. It is worth fully and carefully considering a candidate’s passion and experience in any one area before throwing out the expert with the bathwater. Allowing every interviewer a vote forwards this cause.

Like most corporations, Amazon certainly has in place internal training, processes and procedures meant to hone its hiring practices, and the bar raisers must gain valuable experience with each interview they do. As for the hiring decision itself, however, there is little logic in the group deferring to the individual. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island.”