Hold the front page: why personalities should count at job interviews – Sarah Todd

PERSONALITY was what got this correspondent her first job as a trainee reporter.

The Apprentice winner, Sian Gabbidon, celebrates with Lord Sugar after winning the latest series - but to what extent should personality matter when employers make recruitment decisions?

The compulsory spelling test had been failed but this flame-haired 17 year-old got chatting to the editor about horse racing at Doncaster – where he was originally from – and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Fast-forward 30 years and this award-winning journalist and former magazine editor can’t even get an interview. The reason? No degree.

Sarah Todd's passion for horse racing - and big meetings at Doncaster - helped her to land her first job in journalism.

After that first interview, in the slightly shabby but oh-so-atmospheric newsroom of the sadly now defunct Scarborough Evening News, A-levels were finished and a place taken on a newspaper-sponsored training scheme.

Three years long and including the likes of politics, law, shorthand and typing (not one of those awful recorders thrust under your nose if you’re ever interviewed by yours truly). A proper grounding, starting at the bottom with golden wedding reports and results from the fish market.

Columnist Sarah Todd believes employers should take more account of the personalities of candidates at job interviews.

The spelling soon improved; a combination of being repeatedly hit on the head with a hard-back dictionary and angry family members coming in to complain about anniversary celebrations being ruined because of ‘that daft young lass getting everything wrong’.

At 21, there was a move to the metropolis of Bradford and the dizzy heights of The Yorkshire Post, our farming family’s bible.

Eventually, after a couple of other moves, the editor’s chair at Yorkshire Life beckoned. Circulation rocketed. Just six weeks were taken to have my children; a much-loved job only left after seven years to go freelance and fulfil an ambition to write for national newspapers and magazines.

To what extent should job interviews be determined by the personalities of candidates?

This was done, with the likes of the Daily Telegraph, Country Life, Country Living and the good old agricultural staples of Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian. Along the way, there have been forays into helping lecture journalism students and commissions to help with marketing and public relations. One constant, like an old friend, has been The Yorkshire Post.

But now, as my own daughter is the same age as the trainee reporter at the beginning of this piece, the time seems right to secure some sort of ‘proper job’. Just a bit of an additional interest, away from the hard slog of selling stories.

The point of this piece is that over the intervening three decades employers now no longer give two hoots about personality. Instead they have a ‘personal specification’ that candidates must meet. In this 40-something’s experience, the question box that is standing between me and jobs I could do standing on my head is ‘degree?’

If this box isn’t ticked, somebody (doubtless with zero personality) in a windowless, centrally-heated human resources department presses delete. All that experience counts for nothing; even for the most menial of jobs.

The aforementioned daughter is unsure about university. On one hand there are so many unemployed graduates – after all those years of hard study and debt – and then, on the other, there are these blessed application forms that mean companies won’t even talk to you if you haven’t got a degree. Like her mother, she’s more personality than pen-pusher.

The other thing that’s so upsetting, is that these companies don’t even show the courtesy of writing a rejection letter. If that’s progress and the kind of modern, forward-thinking companies that we should all be falling over ourselves to work for they can stuff it.

Maybe not even a letter; how many seconds does it take for some degree-level whiz to rattle out a pleasant one-line email? Ah yes, they won’t have the personality to think of something to say. It’s just Rude (with a deliberate capital R).

Pootling along, it’s not the end of the world if nobody ever invites this applicant for an interview. But what about those from the same era – when you didn’t need a degree to so much as blow your nose – who have been made redundant or need to get back into work after illness, bereavement or marriage break-up. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a point when the older generation should step aside; perhaps into voluntary roles to pass on skills and keep that sense of purpose that working brings. But surely there is a happy medium to strike?

The sectors that are an obvious match for this journalist are agriculture or equestrianism. It is beyond belief how many companies in these rural areas have graduates in their marketing departments who don’t even pretend to know about the product being sold or the lifestyles of their customers; they meet the “minimum degree level educational requirement”. They have a piece of paper.

Our lives and the world we live in are all the poorer for the near-extinction of personality. The 17 year-old from down that farm lane thought she could do anything – and she could. Yes she couldn’t spell, but she rang the editor up off her own bat, went in for a chat and came out with a job. Now some miserable (but doubtless highly-qualified) personnel person would reject her based on the absence of a tick in a box. Not a single word spoken. Is this progress?

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.