Lucy Kellaway: Recruitment McKinsey Style – hen parties for top students

The FT's top columnist, Lucy Kellaway
The FT’s top columnist, Lucy Kellaway

Something that fascinates me about research into global business is how major corporations always list “securing talent” among their greatest challenges. Which implies companies are unable to grow enough of their own stars and/or universities are churning out the wrong product. There’s probably truth to both, but the reality remains – worldwide, top skills are in higher demand than ever. This week the Financial Times of London’s best columnist, Lucy Kellaway, looks at some crass approaches professional firms are adopting to entice the brightest young minds. Consulting firm McKinsey, her punching bag three weeks ago, leads the charge. – AH  

By Lucy Kellaway*

At Stanford business school, one of the hardest to get into in the world, the female MBA students are hot property. Everyone wants to hire them. The problem for an employer is how to get their attention.

McKinsey has come up with an answer and has sent all women a cute little pink invitation to a lunchtime “mani/pedi” event in Palo Alto. Thus, last Wednesday, various ambitious MBA students gathered together to have the hard skin rubbed off their heels and their nails painted cerise and blue while at the same time being told how great it would be to work for the world’s most formidable management consultancy.

As it is a mere three weeks since I wrote a whole column about McKinsey’s crass attempt to predict the future, I would normally have passed up the opportunity to write about it again so soon. Yet such crassness in the present makes me feel obliged to return to the fray.

A few months ago Goldman Sachs caused a fuss with similarly dodgy gender stereotyping, giving out goody bags to potential female recruits containing mirrors and nail files with the bank’s logo on them. The mani/pedi event strikes me as even more ill-judged than the nail files, which, though stupid, required no active participation and could easily be chucked in the bin.

McKinsey is not alone in trying to ensnare Stanford women in this way. Not to be outdone, Bain is next month hosting something even more crass – a female-only cooking event. At a time when “get back to the kitchen” has become the sexist taunt that school boys throw at bright girls in the classroom, such an event seems awesomely unfortunate. What next, one wonders? An event sponsored by BSG involving ironing and dusting?

Both Bain and McKinsey tell me that these events are part of a range of activities designed to help them get to know the students. Alas, it seems students do not especially want to be known in this way. The man who kindly emailed both invitations to me said they were “excessively heteronormative”, a view he said was shared by many female classmates.

However, it’s a fiendishly tricky area, and not all students feel the same. One contacted me to say that McKinsey should be congratulated: it was breaking the taboo that says women can’t be overtly feminine at work. The consultant was making it acceptable for women to gather together and do something enjoyable and girly – just as corporate men have for years gathered together to be blokes and watch sport.

I can (just about) see her point. There is an unfairness in the way that hitting and kicking balls into nets and holes – which serves no purpose at all – is seen as an activity worthy of corporate attention, while putting shiny colour on your fingernails – which generally makes them look better – is not. The most successful businesswoman I know delights in telling her boardroom colleagues about the trauma she feels when she has broken a beautifully polished nail; I have delighted in watching her embarrass and wrongfoot her male audience as she does so.

But to introduce nails to a hiring event is all wrong. For a start, anything to do with your body should be kept private. I do not want to have to look at the calluses on the feet of women who might be about to give me a job, and neither do I want them to see mine. It’s over familiar and there is no knowing where it will end. If consultancies are offering recruits pedicures, it can’t be long before the banks retaliate by offering bikini waxes. Recruitment ought not to be a hen night.

The worst thing about such events is that they discriminate. Golfing events are unfair not to women (some of whom inexplicably enjoy the sport) but to non-golfers. Mani/pedi events discriminate against those of us who think manicures are boring and would rather read a book.

Yet this leads me to the most depressing finding of all. I have just spoken to a friend who works in corporate America, and when I told her about my objections to the McKinsey event she told me I was out of date. Professional women in the US, she said, all have good nails.

Apparently, getting a manicure isn’t like playing a round of golf, which is optional. Instead, it is a compulsory activity for women and is becoming one of the top ways in which they bond at work. She frequently pops out with her mentor for a pedicure, over which they discuss leadership style – as well as the Q2 earnings figures.

So McKinsey may be offering these young women something of value after all. If they want to get on in the world of business, especially in the US, and if they think that having their nails done is something they can take or leave, the consultant is warning them that, whatever their grade average, they are not going to succeed in the job market.

* Lucy Kellaway is an Associate Editor and management columnist of the Financial Times of London. For the past 15 years her weekly Monday column has poked fun at management fads and jargon and celebrated the ups and downs of office life. Follow her on Twitter at @lucykellaway

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited

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