Have you ever heard of the “Brown M&M” clause? The band Van Halen used to issue a contract rider for its shows. In it, they requested a supply of M&Ms for backstage but specifically excluded any brown ones. Van Halen reserved the right to cancel the show if any brown M&Ms were found.
Superficially, this may sound like a particularly obnoxious and entitled rock star request. However, there was a deeper motivation for this contract stipulation. As articles in recent years have revealed, Van Halen’s “no brown M&Ms” clause acted as an early warning system that alerted the band about potentially unsafe venue conditions.
Steve Jones of Entrepreneur writes:
In now-departed arenas such as Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the original Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, Van Halen was loading in massive amounts of staging, sound equipment and lighting. Unfortunately, these buildings were never built to accommodate a rock band of Van Halen’s scope. Without specific guidelines, old floors could buckle and collapse, beams could rupture, and the lives of the band, their crew and fans could be at serious risk.
To ensure the promoter had read every single word in the contract, the band created the “no brown M&M’s” clause. It was a canary in a coalmine to indicate that the promoter may have not paid attention to other more important parts of the rider, and that there could be other bigger problems at hand.
Whenever the band found brown M&M’s candies backstage, they immediately did a complete line check, inspecting every aspect of the sound, lighting and stage setup to make sure it was perfect.
This kind of smart business check isn’t limited to large-scale traveling productions. JF Poole of Primate Labs was telling me the other evening about a similar approach he uses for recruiting Quality Assurance engineers.
“What I love,” he said, “is that pretty much every cover letter we’ve received for the position has cited the candidate’s ‘great attention to detail’ but almost none of them include the candidate’s favorite primate.”
Odd detail, right? But Primate Labs specifically asks for that as part of their recruitment process. The job listing says, “Please, mention your favorite primate in your cover letter.” For a position whose foundation is careful adherence to detail through every stage of production, it’s the perfect test.
Like Van Halen’s brown M&M’s, the recruiters at Primate can quickly scan incoming applications for one unique signifier. Even better, that request tests a candidate’s intrinsic suitability for the position: a rigid and fanatical adherence to detail. When an applicant doesn’t pay attention to the job listing, they probably won’t pay proper attention to your software. It’s a genius approach.
In some cases, sophisticated tells aren’t exactly needed (for example, “I, $NAME (sic), have come across an opportunity for the position of Software QA Analyst for your esteemed company.“) but it’s helpful to adopt a quick indicator, allowing HR to set aside resumes for more serious consideration.
When I mentioned how sad I was that I couldn’t write up a post about this, John assured me that it would be okay. (“You’re overestimating the set of people who would a. read your blog, and b. apply for our job. Go for it.”) Can you think of any other job category that can so easily hide stealth “tells” for qualifications outside of, maybe, “profreader” (sic) and other consistency-driven positions?
For what it matters, my favorite primate (outside of my husband and kids) is the Slow Loris. Isn’t it cute?
(image via International Animal Rescue)
Potential hires in interviews should test managers by throwing curveballs in response to ANY canned ‘problem tests’ read off index cards.