Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Sophisticated:The Magazine. All rights reserved.
The young applicant was ushered into the top-floor office of Mr. M. J. Kirk, Vice President of Personnel.

"Please make yourself comfortable," said the secretary, speaking in hushed tones. "Would you care for a cup of coffee?"

Still nervous from two days of interviews and a battery of examinations, the applicant strode across the carpet. A huge window commanded a view of the river and the city beyond. "That's quite a sight," he said. "Uh, black will be fine."

"Staff meeting ran a little over this morning," the secretary apologized. "Here is today's Journal."

This office like the others was paneled in dark woods. A glass case on one wall was filled with company trophies, and the credenza by the window held a brass lamp. A skating-rink desk dominated the room, gleaming mahogany, clear -- except for one folder. The young man was glad to have a moment to relax before the last of the interviews. He sank into one of the side chairs and began scanning the financial headlines.

"Thank you," he said, as the secretary poured from a silver pot.

In walked the Vice President of Personnel, Melvin J. Kirk. "Sorry to be late," he said after a firm handshake. Mr. Kirk was older than the others, with wisps of white hair. The young man noticed hearing aids built into his horn-rimmed spectacles. "Damned staff meeting! I see you have been seen to. No coffee for me. Not anymore. Blood pressure. As you were, please."

The secretary closed the door. Mr. Kirk took his place in the immense chair behind the desk and opened the folder.

"That's quite a sight," said the applicant.

"I beg your pardon? -- oh, you mean the view," Mr. Kirk said. He began flipping impatiently through the documents in the file. "You will excuse me, I haven't had a chance to go over these test results." About half-way into the stack, he pulled out one sheet and closed the file.

The young man took a sip of coffee. Mr. Kirk, studied the page. He rotated in his chair and absentmindedly put a foot onto the credenza. He looked out the window for a moment. "When I retire, that view is the one thing about this job I'm really going to miss."

Mr. Kirk sat up and turned around again. He was smiling warmly now. "Won't miss staff meetings, that's for sure." Kirk slipped the test page back into the folder. Amenities over, the final interview was about to begin.

"You'll do very well in our little company," said Mr. Kirk. "What questions may I answer for you about the ERP? -- the Executive Rotation Program?"

"When do I start?" asked the young man, in a perilous attempt at humor.

"Sooner the better," said Mr. Kirk. "You know about the benefits program?"

"Someone gave me a booklet."

"Yeah, that's reasonably current." Kirk stood up. The interview was already over.

"Mr. Kirk, don't you have any questions for me?"

"You have answered enough questions for one week." Mr. Kirk tapped the folder on his desk. "We've got it all right here."

"Well, sir, you may not want to tell me, but there is just this one thing I'd like to know."

The older man sat down and folded his hands. "Shoot," he said.

"What was on that paper you just read?"

r. Kirk laughed. "You're right, I don't want to tell you." He laughed again. "Oh, what the hell. Want some more coffee?"

"I'm fine, Mr. Kirk."

"The ERP is kind of my baby. It's been good for the company and good for a lot of careers. Hasn't been perfect, though. Selecting the right people is the whole shootin' match. Back a number of years ago, I hired a bunch of testing experts. What you've been through for the past week is the result. How many different tests did they give you down there? -- Twenty?"

"At least. But you didn't seem to look at --"

"-- at any of them except one," interrupted Mr. Kirk. "I didn't intend to be so obvious about it."

"If you hadn't been delayed for our appointment, I might never have known, Mr. Kirk."

"Why don't you call me Mel. Damned staff meetings. I'll be retiring in five weeks. No more meetings, for sure. Anyway, those testing experts -- psychology types, for the most part -- they wrote all these different tests: aptitude tests, intelligence tests, preference tests. Those fancy tests are supposed to tell us the best executive candidates -- supposed to keep us from wasting time rotating people into jobs all over the company, grooming them and training them and later finding out they're no damn good."

"And the tests don't work, Mr. -- uh, Mel?"

"Might as well write the answers on toilet paper," said Kirk. He opened up the folder and took out a score sheet at random. "Now, you take this one. We've had guys score really high on it. Then we get 'em out into a production control job or somewhere and they screw it up. Here's another one. Based on the score made by one applicant, we almost turned him down. He's our highest performer, running our plant out on the Coast. And so it goes. These so-called profiles just don't match up to reality. What do a bunch of psychologists know about running a business, anyway!"

"No correlation, you're saying."

"Except for this one," Mel said, holding one sheet in his hand and admiring it through his bifocals. "If a candidate scores high on it, he's more than okay. Just as certain, a low score says 'watch out'."

"You want me to guess, Mel?"

"We give all the rest of those tests just for show. You're not supposed to know that. This score is the only one I have any confidence in. And, no, you probably won't guess in twenty tries. It's vocabulary."

The applicant squinted. "Vocabulary," he mused. "Why vocabulary?"

Mr. Kirk stood up. He stretched and turned again toward the window. "I've asked experts and I've given that question a lot of thought, myself. We can only speculate, my friend. You're not born with a big vocabulary. Having one later means that the brain is at least connected up inside. Better students, I expect, have better vocabularies -- hah! -- for whatever that may be worth. It says something about your upbringing, too. Having a large working vocabulary also means that a person has reasonably good powers of observation. That may be what we need most in management: People who pay attention."

The young man followed Mel Kirk to the door. "There were several words I wasn't too sure about," he said.

"You only missed one."

"It started with an 'e,' I'll bet."

"Don't bother to learn 'eleemosynary'," said Mr. M. J. Kirk, Vice President of Personnel.  He clapped the applicant on the shoulder and grinned. "That word has no place in business."


The unnamed character in the above narrative is Dan Lockwood McGurk.  He related an original version of the incident in 1956 during a meeting at TRW with his new colleagues, which included the author.  After allowing a handful of wrong guesses, Dan delivered the denouement with an understated flourish, “Vocabulary.” 

Born in Alabama in 1926, Dan McGurk graduated from West Point in 1949 and from Oxford in 1952 with majors in philosophy, politics, and economics and served as a navigator in the Air Force.  In 1956, Dan endure several days of tests and interviews at the Overseas division of General Motors and was offered the position of Assistant to the Plant Manager at Opel Works in Wiestbaden.  He turned down the offer from GM and joined TRW instead.  His distinguished career as a venture capitalist followed top management positions in Scientific Data Systems and Xerox. 

Over four decades, Dan’s story kept returning to my mind, influencing my own decisions and shaping the advice I have given others.  In 1996, after taking a few liberties with the specifics, I published “Eleemosynary” as an entry in 101 Words I Don’t Use.  In 2009, a dozen years later, I was honored to find myself on a board of directors alongside Dan McGurk and obtained his permission to disclose his identity to the thousands of readers who have until now known him only as “the young applicant.”

eleemosynary, adjective
    1. Of or pertaining to alms or the giving of alms; charitable.
    2. Dependent upon or supported by alms.
    3. Contributed as alms; gratuitous. {Return}
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