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Why Did Thomas Edison Watch Job Applicants Eat Soup?

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Thomas Edison has a reputation that few people in history have, being a household name around the world many decades after his lifetime. A prolific inventor and entrepreneur, Edison’s work still widely impacts most people to this day. 

What were the secrets to his incredible success? One key is that he had a large and talented staff working in his research labs over the years. He couldn’t complete all the research and development himself, so he made sure he was getting the right people to work for him. 

These days it is just as imperative to ensure that you can attract the right people to join your organisation. As recruitment specialists, we like to start with a detailed job brief and helpful benchmarking. It’s essential that we know your non-negotiables vs the nice to haves within your image of an ideal candidate so we can attract and sort applicants appropriately. These aspects also help us to choose the most appropriate creative advertising channels to attract ideal candidates, so that we’re not just reliant on job boards.

Edison liked to be personally involved in choosing staff. When new positions opened for research jobs at his labs, he was there to give the candidates a thorough vetting. A favourite method for Edison to use in finding the right people was to invite them for lunch at a restaurant, offer them a bowl of soup and then watch them eat it.

Given the shift in people’s willingness to regularly meet in person and a tendency to receive higher applicant numbers than most, our initial screening methods are purely digital. Checking up on working rights, licences, qualifications etc. ‘sorts the weed from the chaff’ so to speak, and gives us a solid short list to drill down on.

The reason for Edison’s soup test was to see if the applicants added salt and pepper before tasting what was in their bowl, or if they waited until they tasted it before proceeding with the seasoning. Edison immediately rejected premature seasoners, as he didn’t want employees who relied on assumptions. In his opinion, those who were satisfied with a predetermined idea had no place in his business, as innovation can be stifled by a lack of curiosity or desire to ask questions.

For Edison, the best employees were those who made it second nature to approach life in a consistent manner. If a potential employee acted impatiently or rushed to judgement while eating, Edison could only imagine the damage they may do with the projects they'd be entrusted to design and bring to fruition.

Depending on the industry and role we are recruiting for, we may request an assessment for applicants to complete. Often clients have helped to put together the questions so we can determine the best fit, much like Edison’s outcomes above.

Soup wasn’t the only obstacle job applicants had to deal with when it came to Edison. He also wanted to have an idea of the level of general knowledge and intelligence of the person he was considering hiring. Accordingly, he liked to ask random trivia questions like where prunes came from, what exactly is felt and who invented printing.

In this digital age, we can also employ video screening to see how applicants think on their feet and give them an opportunity to give real examples of their background and fill in any blanks. There’s not necessarily any right or wrong answers to this screening, but it provides valuable insight into an applicant’s motivations, desires and achievements. 

While his methods may have been a bit out of the ordinary, it seems that Edison was successful in hiring the best fitting talent. His company’s record of innovation speaks for itself, while our record of successful hires and happy clients speaks for us.

With over 25 years living and breathing all things recruitment, we have worked on both the client and agency side - so we know most of the tricks of the trade and don't suffer fools gladly. We love a challenge and have developed our business to cover Recruitment, Headhunting and Consulting services, so please feel free to get in touch to see how we can assist you!

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