M&Ms Recruiting Test: How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything

“There will be no brown M&M’s found in the backstage area or the promoter will forfeit the entire show at full pay.”

This famous clause, known as article 126 in rock band Van Halen’s concert contracts, has widely been touted as simple millionaire rock star ego and excess. In an interview, lead singer David Lee Roth explains that in reality there was a very legitimate reason for this clause.

Van Halen was the first band to bring 850 par lamp lights (think huge stadium lights) to concerts around the country. As a result, in smaller, older venues the girders might not support the weight, the floor may sink in, and the doors may be too small to move this heavy, highly technical equipment through. Set up and break down time became lengthy, taking 8-10 hours more than budgeted.

As a result of the crew being over budget and behind schedule, things were rushed, corners cut, and people often lost focus on important details. (Is this starting to sound a little like your workplace?) Additionally, concert promoters frequently didn’t read the contract rider very carefully and Van Halen would have structural and physical issues with the stage lighting and props. This posed a potentially life threatening risk to Van Halen and their audiences.

What was his point with the M&M’s?

If Roth went backstage and saw the bowl was missing from the backstage catering table or that there were brown M&M’s in the bowl, Roth knew the promoter did not read the technical portion of the contract rider carefully enough. Although it was food, he listed this particular demand among the technical portion of the contract as a test.

This small test indicated that other things were most likely missed as well. (How you do anything is how you do everything.) If the M&M’s were wrong, more important aspects of the performance such as lighting, staging, security, and ticketing also may have been bungled by an inattentive promoter and his staff.

Van Halen stuck to this policy, once cancelling a show in Colorado because the promoter didn’t read the weight requirements and the stage would have sunk through the arena floor. (It is interesting to note that this has become a standard practice among acts in the entertainment industry.)

How does this relate to your business or team?

Every customer, new hire, and prospective employee has a similar test whether they realize it or not. They are more often looking to see what is wrong with your company than what is right, and if a little thing is wrong, it is deemed symptomatic of an overall problem.

For a customer example, I recently booked a flight to Florida for a speaking engagement and I intentionally avoided American Airlines. (The same flight on American would have been significantly cheaper financially yet potentially far more personally expensive.) American Airlines made international news recently when it had to ground 48 planes because the seats came loose on three of their U.S. flights.

If I can’t trust you to make sure the seats are secure, how can I trust that you’ve checked the engine, landing gear, oxygen, lights, or passenger security and baggage?

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The genius of this brown M&M’s clause is that Roth was fiercely protective of his brand’s good name. He understood that because Van Halen was the name on the show bill, they were ultimately responsible whether the concert went well or went poorly. It is a great lesson in accountability for business leaders and not being afraid to walk away from a dicey business arrangement.

I believe how you do anything is how you do everything. Attention to detail has a direct impact on the bottom line. What’s your brown M&M’s test, so to speak? What is your customer’s?

My two tests

When I was a college coach, my little test was how a prospect treated his mother during a home visit. I would observe how much respect he showed her and how well he followed her instructions. Sometimes before I ever even asked a question, I would rule certain kids out. If he was not showing respect for his own mother or following her directions, he won’t be respectful and coachable with his professors, teammates and coaches.

In my consulting business now, I know if a prospective client contacts me and their initial inquiry is based purely on price I can say with a fair amount of certainty that their primary driver is not finding a solution and making improvements to their business or themselves. These two tests are great early warning systems before you commit to working with someone. Little things can show you how to handle big things.

The most famous test

Henry Ford made it a practice to take prospective employees out to lunch and if they reached for the salt before tasting their food, he declined to hire them. Why? Ford wanted people to test their assumption instead of blindly falling into habit.

Please share with me any similar tests you’ve found useful in your job function, recruiting or hiring process, personal (think locked door test from the movie Bronx Tale) and professional relationships.

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and author. Using a multidisciplinary approach, he helps organizations and individuals develop their competitive edge. Brubaker is the author of The Coach Approach: Success Strategies Out Of The Locker Room Into The Board Room, and co-author of the book Leadership: Helping Others To Succeed. He's also the host of Maximum Success: The Coach Bru Show on WWZN AM 1510 in Boston. Contact him at john@CoachBru.com.


25 Comments on “M&Ms Recruiting Test: How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything

  1. Outstanding article John!

    You are so right on about people looking for and noticing clues about whether they want to do business with you, work for you, etc.

    What makes “little mistakes” even more serious in the initial contact stage are two aspects of human nature:

    1. Human Beings are “Meaning Making Machines” – We are hard-wired to make sense out of any situation. When we are in new situations, we strive to make sense of them. We seek clues to understand the rules of engagement, what the people we will be dealing with are like, etc. Research by Dr. Ellen Langer and her colleagues has shown that in situations of ambiguity or anxiety, people are prone to Premature Cognitive Commitment–which is basically Jumping to Conclusions. Thus, in any situation where you’re dealing with a “newbie”–whether a new hire or a potential customer/client–your “little mistakes” in the beginning take on HUGE importance, because they will shape evey perception thereafter (think of the power of the First Impression)

    2. Human Beings Are Pattern-Making, Pattern-Seeking, Generalizers– Another facet of human nature is our innate desire to see patterns and generalize, as a way to make sense out of the complex world. This is extremely problematic when the new hire experience you deliver is slipshod, or the first person a potential customer interacts with, is inconsiderate or clueless. That “little” moment of truth becomes generalized to being a statement about who you are as an organization.

    If you want to dive into this more deeply in the new hire onboarding realm, I wrote an article at ERE.net about this:


    In the meantime, thanks again John for a fantastic article. I recommend everyone involved in hiring and onboarding share this with your colleagues who are also involved in this.

    Best regards,
    David Lee


    1. Thank you for the feedback David. I agree, we are pattern-making/seeking, generalizers. Alot of times it is our subconscious mind that discovers the pattern or “mistake” before our conscious mind has an opportunity to notice.

  2. Lots of people hate meetings, but managers should be able to participate in and lead effective meetings.  I learned a great test of my potential management team.  Following the first status meeting I have with a new team, I’ll ask for feedback on making the meeting better, as well as ‘Was this useful to you?’ and ‘Should we do this again and how often’.  Those who don’t want to participate in a regular status meeting don’t belong on my management team.

  3. John, those are great takeaways for hiring managers. A simple test for hiring managers looking to screen a job candidate is asking why a job candidate wants the job. As you mentioned, if a prospective employee is focused solely on salary and not on the nature of the job, this should be a red flag. I do wonder how more accountability can be built into our management and hiring systems. Thanks for the anecdotes! Cheers!

    1. Thanks for sharing your hiring test. Funny you mentioned that, during my first job interview the interviewer pointed to a stack of resumes on his desk (must have been a foot tall stack) and said “This is your competition, why should I hire you?”  I was caught a tad off guard to say the least.  Ever since, I’ve used a variation of that same type question.  BTW, Following you on twitter now & really enjoy your content!

  4. I certainly agree with the insights of this post.  There is another lesson to take from the Van Halen example.  The unfortunate reality with David Lee Roth and their so-called fierce protection of their brand is that while they may have used the brown M&Ms clause to their advantage with the promoters, Roth forgot that the ultimate product was what they put on stage.  When he was falling down drunk and couldn’t remember the lyrics (as he was at one show I recall from my teenage years), the lighting rig falling down probably would have resulted in a better show.  Attention to detail has to carry through to the entire product.

    1. Daniel, Thanks for your response. I bet you’re referring to their Monsters of Rock tour, I saw them at RFK stadium (I believe it was around 1988) and had the same thoughts. I agree, both during the tail end of Roth’s time with them and some of the “Van Haggar” years they did indeed let their performance slip.  BTW, I’m following you on twitter now, lets stay in touch.

  5. When a candidate comes in for an interview there are forms to complete.  If he/she ask for a pen to complete the paperwork I have doubts about their ability to be prepared.   

    1. Perfect example: We are trying to hire a Sales Person. They show up in jeans and ask to borrow a pen and a piece of paper to take notes. Tells me that they are really not serious and have no attention to detail.

  6. I am an adminstrative assistant.  I have managed to weed out many candidates for my company just by how they act when I pick them up for their interviews.  If you can’t be respectful and decent to the admin, then you aren’t good enough to work for our company.  And, BTW … admins can make your life He**.  They are the frontline and backbone of every company 🙂

      1. Kristen, I’ve said this for years and happy to know it happens in other areas. I had a VP that put much value in the Admin Asst take on candidates and her assessment was spot on.  No resume or testing came close to finding out how a candidate treated ALL employees.

  7. Hi Kirsten,
    I completely agree with you. When I was a Receptionist / Admin, I would get calls from hiring managers wanting to know how someone acted when they came in. They had the same philosopy as you stated that if they can’t be nice to the Receptionist, do you really want them on your team.

  8. One judge of character I have always found effective is to see how people treat the staff in a restaurant or hotel.  

    1. Kevin, I love this suggestion. The amount of time it takes the interviewer to give you their response probably tells you more about the prospective employer than the answer itself.  I am adding this to my list.

  9. I couldn’t agree more, the little things can make it or break it.  In fact this is age-old wisdom spoken by Jesus as recounted by Luke: “The person that is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much, and he that is unrighteous in what is least is unrighteous also in much.” Thanks John for reminding us of this. 

  10. Very interesting post, and it’s good to remind employers of this idea: “Every customer, new hire, and prospective employee has a similar test whether they realize it or not. They are more often looking to see what is wrong with your company than what is right, and if a little thing is wrong, it is deemed symptomatic of an overall problem.”
    If you have a bad review on Glassdoor, or call into a phone interview 15 minutes late, the candidate is wondering what else is wrong with your organization. It’s so important to keep an eye on your employment brand and candidate experience, or you will have a hard time hiring talent. 75% of Americans would not work for a company with a bad reputation, even if they were unemployed. And you can sure bet that top job seekers wouldn’t even bother to apply.

    I’m doing a webinar about how to increase your quality of hire with employer branding on 11/7 (http://bit.ly/SlfATq), and will definitely be using this story – it’s such a great example! Thanks for the inspiration.

    Jen Picard
    Marketing, Bright.com

  11. John, great, great post. Thanks.  It reminded me on the book “The Customer Comes Second” and a story that Diane Peters tells of taking Rosenbluth candidates for a drive – and letting them drive – they way they drove was indicative of a lot of other aspects of their life.

    I personally put a lot of stock in the way people write and the attention they pay to the details – in their CV, on their blog, in email communication.  Complete thoughts in writing generally means complete thoughts in other aspects.  If they tend to start in the middle of a thought, or don’t draw conclusions out, it shows their organizational approach to many of the things they do.

    Again, thanks for the great insights.

  12. During an interview a while ago, I was asked about the custodian at my last position (she was on staff, not contracted). It was clearly a question designed to gauge how I interacted with what some might consider the “lowest echelon” of our organisation (not me…I know that just like a receptionist, angering a custodian is asking for a world of hurt). Thankfully, I knew her well and consider her a friend, so it was an easy question to answer. I reflected afterwards that it was a very astute question to ask. If I wasn’t taking the time to get to know our custodian, who I work with and see on a very regular basis, how would I be interacting with the clientele I only saw once a week or less? It was the only time I had been asked a question like that, but I have certainly made similar questions a staple in my interviews.

  13. Fascinating article, and an excellent illustration of the importance of seemingly small details. I am currently job-searching for a senior-level administrative position and it is surprising how many potential employers will leave me in kicking my heels in the reception area, sometimes up to a half an hour. These individuals may be busy, but they invited me to meet them and they chose the time slot.

    Some employers forget that most people are motivated by more than just money. A culture of disrespect is not going to result in employees who are committed to their organization and who will enthusiastically act as company ambassadors. While I sit and wait in the reception area for my interview I can easily read the indicators that my potential co-workers are ambivalent about their workplace.

  14. Alyson, Thanks for the feedback. I concur, too many employers either dont realize it or forget that the interview is a 2-way street. You’re leaving them with lasting first impressions and they are doing the same. If they don’t value & respect your time before you’re on their payroll, imagine how little they will value it (or anything else) after you’re on their payroll.

  15. Really great example of how to determine candidates who actually are “detail-oriented” and the others who just scribble it on their resume.

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