Friday, December 11, 2015

So Long Tandy

tl;dr: Tandy doing bad things, won't be shopping there, probable changes in prices/hardware with 2016

Tandy Leather is a bit of a monolithish in the leathercrafting industry.  It probably wouldn't be too far to go to compare them to Wal-Mart in that context, or maybe Michaels would be a better comparison.  They have hundreds of stores spread over dozens of countries and it's probably safe to say that most lay persons get their start in leatherwork through a Tandy store.  Among the leatherworking community they've earned a pretty mixed to poor reputation.  On the one hand they're a principle supplier for a quite a few crafters and generally good way for new people to enter the field (such as I did six years ago).  On the other hand the quality of their materials is sometimes suspect and their support can be hit and miss.  They also have a justly earned reputation for high prices that keep going up year after year.

My personal experience for the past six years had until, recently, been pretty good.  I've been a regular at the store first in Portland, OR and then the store in Surrey, BC.  Some of the folks at the local store were the first people I'd met in Canada that I'm not currently related to in some way.  They might be a tad over zealous to sell from time to time but they're good peoples.  For the past couple years I've generally shown up there at least once a month.  I'm sure I'm not their biggest customer but according to my own records they make up 2/3s (65.6%) of all my business expenses.

Precisely because I do have that relationship with the local store I'd dropped off a resume with them back in April, just in case they needed a part timer.  My own shop is successful enough on its own but working at Tandy would have given me an opportunity to expand my skill set and the store would have had someone with experience in running an online store (something they're currently lacking).  So it was pretty exciting when the manager called me on 16Oct and we set up an interview on 20Oct.  As interviews go it was pretty informal and the whole thing took 10 minutes.  Afterwards I was given a verbal job offer, a handshake, and a link to a personality survey that the corporate office down in Fort Worth is requiring all employees to complete.  I had to sign a piece of paper saying that I would take the test but it was never actually made clear to me what Tandy intended to do with the information.

There's dozens of personality surveys out there and all of them have a few things in common.  The Myers-Briggs is the one most people are familiar with and the one most often used for research purposes.  It's a bit lengthy and grades individuals along four different spectra fully acknowledging that there's a significant margin for error.  You can take the Myers-Briggs multiple times and it won't be uncommon for you to score a bit differently each time.

Tandy's test, the Predictive Index Survey, doesn't really have anything in common with the Myers-Briggs.  It's two questions ("What do think people expect of you" followed by "What do you expect of yourself") with 85 adjective responses for the tester to choose from.  It was developed in 1965 and has seen a rather few revisions since then, the last being in the 90s, that mostly just updated some of the wording.  It scores testers by giving them a specific, numerical value on four factors (dominance, extroversion, patience and formality).  The company that sells the survey (because, of course, it is a product) sells it as being a silver bullet to solve a company's personnel complications.  They claim that a company can use this survey to identify the traits of an employee so that you can place them in just the right position.  They're a bit vague on the mechanics of how that works but they're eager to site "over 500 criterion-rated surveys" that prove the test works.  Translated from research-speak it means that (presumably over the past 60 years) they've retested subjects at least 500 times and gotten the same or similar results as the first time the subject took the test.  There is, of course, absolutely no peer reviewed evidence or Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) even testing this survey.  The only studies I could find that even included PI as a variable were studies the company itself was conducting. 

The survey is, in two words: absolute bullshit.  At best it gives an idea of how the subject views their own personality at the time the test is taken.  That's assuming the subject is responding earnestly since it isn't a difficult survey to influence the results of.  The test has no way to verify if the subject's impression is accurate or not.  And basic psychology is pretty clear that while surveys can be useful for identifying an individual's traits in the general sense, they're nowhere near reliable enough to predict the individual's actions.  People are complicated, especially on the individual scale.  It's sometimes possible to predict how a group of people will react if they some traits in common, but the same doesn't hold true for individuals.  No code of 4 letters is ever going to be able to describe an individual with enough clarity to predict their actions or abilities.  The very basic premise behind the survey is, to the very best of my ability to discern, fraudulent.

Getting back to the story, I didn't really hear anything from Tandy for awhile.  I was supposed to start that Friday (23Oct) but got a call from the local store letting me know that the corporate office hadn't sent along the paperwork necessary for me to start.  I was told that the corporate office was probably backlogged and everything would be sorted out in due time.  Then on 03Nov the local store's manager emailed me to let me know that I hadn't "qualified" on the survey.  He also mentioned that he and the Regional Director were rather upset and were trying to find a way to work around it.  He didn't go into any detail and never responded to my request for more information.  And that was when I figured out that Tandy was using the PI survey to actively screen applicants.  If the applicant doesn't score the way they want then the applicant's work history, personality, or interview are considered moot and, of course, they aren't permitted to retake the test (probably because it would be so easy to manipulate).

I've since gathered that it's not such an uncommon thing these days but it seemed so unconscionable that it hadn't even occurred to me until just that particular moment.  I did note that PI doesn't usually advertise it as a screening tool in their promotional material and it's easy to imagine why.  At least in the US, screening applicants based on a personality survey is generally illegal.  According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (yes, that Civil Rights Act) the employer would need to show A) that the test is accurate and B) that the property the test is checking for is necessary (or at least relevant) to the work at hand.  I'm extremely skeptical that Tandy or PI could meet either of those criteria.

You might be wondering what the problem is exactly, or why this would be an anti-discrimination issue.  Just for the sake of argument we could assume that the survey is 100% accurate and everyone who takes it is being 100% earnest.  In this hypothetical scenario we might say that the company decides that only people who test high on the "Peppiness" factor can be sales people.  Overtime this results in a sales department populated entirely by "peppy" people and anyone who isn't "peppy" won't be hired.  The "non-peppy" applicants are rather clearly being discriminated against.  Whether or not that's legally valid would depend on whether or not the "peppy" factor really is relevant to that particular position.  But either way, you wind up with a department that's selected for a single trait.  That makes it harder for that group to adapt to their conditions.  Continuing our hypothetical example, we could stipulate that at least one of these stores is in an area where "peppiness" is seen as being culturally insensivitive, perhaps even rude.  Instead of drawing customers in, the peppy sales clerk repels them.  This is an apocryphal example though I would argue that you could replace "peppiness" with any other perceived value (including dominance, extroversion, patience and formality) and get the same result.  Phrased another way, from a scientific point of view these policies are no different than a company saying "We won't hire you because you have blue eyes and blue eyes can't fill the position we have open."

So it would certainly seem like I have grounds for a lawsuit.  Based on what I'd turned up it seems like an open and shut case.  But getting the courts involved is a big step and I reasoned that perhaps Tandy just hadn't thought this whole thing through.  It was easy for me to imagine a scenario where the ol' fellas (of course, there's only one woman among their executives/senior management) in Fort Worth were duped by PI's marketing and went overboard with a policy that would only hurt them in the long run (if not the short run).  I figured that if I could just talk with them, explain why this policy of screening applicants with the PI wasn't a good idea, then everyone would be better off.  By this point I'd given up on working at the local Tandy store so it had become a moral issue.  Yes it sucked that I'd been apparently rejected on flimsy grounds but I have the shop so it was never a critical deal for me to begin with.  But the longer any company maintains a policy of screening applicants with the PI the more they undermine themselves, not to mention the applicants.

So on 20Nov, one month after my interview, I wrote to the woman listed as the contact for the Survey.  I tried to explain my position and asked who I could talk to about this policy.  This particular woman also happens to be the company's PR contact (and apparently the Executive Assistant) so I'd written her previously on an entirely unrelated issue.  I wasn't particularly surprised when a week went by without any response because it was the same week as Thanksgiving.  Still, I wrote back the following Monday (30 Nov) just as a reminder.  When another week went by I figured perhaps this particular woman just wasn't the best at responding to email so I sent a message directly to the CEO (4Dec).  I went over my points again, underscored why I thought this policy was not in Tandy's interest, and requested to have a candid conversation about it.  It's been another week and to date I haven't heard anything back.

This whole incident has done a lot to change my impression of Tandy as a company.  Four months ago I might have described them as "occasionally error prone but generally well meaning".  After all this I would be hard pressed to provide any justification that this is a company which behaves ethically.  I keep trying to give them the benefit of a doubt but so far, at least when it comes to the corporate office, I've been disappointed every time.  I feel obligated to look into a lawsuit if only to provide another reason for Tandy and other companies not to use similar policies.  Interestingly, on the business side of things such lawsuits are generally the first reason given not to adopt these policies.  At least I assume they'd find a lawsuit more difficult to ignore than a customer.  As often as I've spoken up for Tandy, not to mention all the business and personal interactions, it has been very disappointing to just be outright ignored.  If nothing else it's disrespectful.  I would've been happy to speak with the PR/Survey Contact/Executive Assistant that I first wrote to or anyone that they directed me to but all I've gotten is silence.  In that silence I can only make assumptions as to what their motives and justifications really are, and those assumptions aren't terribly complimentary.

Going forward I'll be spending my money there as little as possible.  I'm not comfortable with relying on a company as my principle supplier when I know that company to be behaving unethically.  It's a bit of a shame since the local shop will be the most directly affected by that and they haven't really done anything to merit anything like a boycott.  They are good peoples, but the people who they ultimately work for don't seem to be.  Logistically this will be a challenge since there are a number of things I only know of Tandy's as a supplier of.  There's a few leather stores in the greater area so I should still be able to get the raw material in person (which is my primary concern).  And there are plenty of places online to provide hardware, particularly if I buy in bulk.  So for the client it's unlikely things will change all that much.  Prices will probably fluctuate a bit and the hardware might look a bit different but I'll still be offering the same workmanship.  I'll do what I can to keep things from being as disruptive as I can, and odds are the quality might very well improve.  It's going to be an interesting challenge in 2016.

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