Steve Jobs & Your HR Career – Could You Survive His “Elevator Ride” From Hell?

By Alan Collins

Steve Jobs was an icon. 

He created a legacy not only with Apple…but also how he dealt with people.

He had high expectations for both.

Nothing illustrates this more than a story told by Ed Niehaus.

Ed was hired by Steve Jobs as a senior executive at Apple.

He remembers “the elevator ride” that has become a legendary tale in the Silicon Valley.

Now, I don’t know whether this story is fact or fiction. But people still talk about it to this day.  Here is the source and the story anyway in Ed’s own words:

“An employee got on the elevator with me and Steve Jobs.

Steve was then in his first week as the CEO at Apple.

I could see her go, ‘oops, wrong elevator.’

And Steve said, ‘Hi, who are you?’ and introduces himself to her – ‘I’m Steve Jobs’.

Then turning on the charm he said, ‘What do you do?’

She then explained.

After 15 seconds, the door of the elevator opens, and he says…’

‘What you do is NOT essential to our business.
We are not going to need you.
You’re fired.’

And we walk away.”

End of story.   End of the elevator ride.  End of her career at Apple.

Though this is not a warm, touchy-feely story…it clearly illustrates Steve’s brutally high standards in action.

And, in the aftermath of Steve’s passing, it leaves us as HR professionals with some important key questions we should ask ourselves if we want to make a difference and attain success in our organizations.

And those KEY QUESTIONS are these…

1.  As an HR professional, could you survive the “Steve Jobs’ elevator ride” if your CEO was in the elevator?

2.  From your CEO’s perspective, is what you do in HR essential to the business?

3.  If so, what would you say on that elevator ride?

If you can’t answer these questions well, you’re not adding enough value or making the kind of difference you should.

And, you’ve got work to do.

Just being honest.

R.I.P. Steve.

You are missed.

(Now, here’s my caveat: As an HR guy, I’m personally not a big fan of what Jobs did in this situation.  Though he was truly a genius, giving the old “surprise goodbye” without prior notice, candid feedback and a rigorously candid performance evaluation is not my cup of tea.  And it’s also not good for company culture and it’ll give your Legal Department fits.   However, that’s not the point here.  The point are the KEY QUESTIONS noted above.  So what say you?)


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Want more tips for excelling in sticky HR situations, then check out:  WINNING BIG IN HR: 100+ Powerful Strategies For Accomplishing Great Results Faster & Getting Your Clients To Rave About You As A Human Resources Professional!   For more detailed information about this book, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including WINNING BIG IN HR.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.


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25 Responses to “Steve Jobs & Your HR Career – Could You Survive His “Elevator Ride” From Hell?”

  1. Ursula Wittner Says:

    Spot on! Knowing how your position and the duties of that postion, contribute to the overall success of business is crucial! Don’t wait for that inevitable elevator ride… start researching your organization’s business and figure out what value you add!

  2. Alan Says:

    Spot on, Ursula.

  3. Kim Holden Says:

    This is a great example of how important it is to be prepared at all times to deliver a phenominal elevator speech. We should all be able to ‘spit out’ at a moment’s notice the financial value we add to the company. Now, you ‘ll have to excuse me while I create my own…….!lol

  4. Thomas Schellerer Says:

    If we’re not able to communicate how we add value to the success of the company, we deserve to be outsourced … or even more. This is of such vital significance that – especially in HR – we should never forget and always be prepared.

  5. Charles van Heerden Says:

    Alignment is the biggest contributor to individual and business performance.

    With clear context and role clarity every employee should understand and be able to articulate their contribution.

    I also believe it is not just what we say, but also what others are saying about our contribution.

  6. Rogue Trader Says:

    Yeah right.
    The God Almighty, Mr. Steve Jobs, who made the judgement and the verdict all within the 30secs of the elevator ride. So big an “ego”, the legendary super brilliant wow-thinking and so forth “mega CEO”, who makes your annual payment in a day and has a legeon of thousands working for him and obeying his every wish, no matter how peculiar or unconventional .
    He was able to fire the lady in 15 seconds,
    you don’t say….
    Big deal.
    Hope he has the chance to become more down to earth , more humble and more humane,
    now that he is facing again his health issue.
    Feet on the ground, mr “CEO”. You are not God, i guess you must know by now…

  7. Richard Davis Says:

    Our company’s motto is “We take care of people”. As a healthcare provider, that is easy to define. As VP of HR for our company, I have also found it easy to define….not for our patients (for whom I also have a responsibility, but for our employees. If the story above is true about Steve Jobs, I may disagree with his method, but certainly not his action. Every position must be able to show financial benefit or the position and the person holding it are dead weight.

  8. Barbara Trulby Says:

    My sister worked for Apple for over 20 years, the last 5 in their headquarters and this story is true. She told me it years ago. Steve Jobs does not want to hear your title & job description. When he asks “what do you do?”, he wants to know how you impact the business, how your skills & efforts impact the bottom line, or improve the products. He’s just as tough to interview with. Only the strong survive in Apple but isn’t that what every CEO/company wants and needs?

  9. Sophia Galvin Says:

    I was asked recently by our VP of HR what I was working on. On the surface it was a seemingly casual and innocuous exchange – she walked by my office and stopped to ask the question. It caught me off guard and took me about 2-3 seconds to realize that this was a Steve Jobs elevator ride moment. Fortunately, I was able to catch myself and respond appropriately. Needless to say, I have dusted off my elevator pitch ready at any moment response.

  10. Alan Says:

    Sophia – Great story. Congratulations on recognizing the moment and being ready. Nice job!

  11. Femi Says:

    You are all looking at it wrongly! Why should the lady be fired? The Head of Recruitment and the lady’s Head of Department should be the ones fired! What this shows is that the recruitment process is faulty. If she is not adding value to the organisation, why was she employed in the first instance? By firing her Steve has diminished her confidence and de-humanised her.

  12. Maria Grant Says:

    First of all, may Steve Jobs rest in perfect peace. The eleator ride is quite something. If the lady has been working with Apple then obviously she must know what she contributes to the success ofvthe company. If she does not know that or has not yet figured that out then mat be she needs to reassess the values of whatever she is doing.

    I have always considered HR to be strategically aligned to the objectives, vision of the company to be able to provide the required functions specifically recruitment and training – always looking at direction the company is taking.

    It is only a pity that she has to be fired in the way Steve did. To be frank people like Steve Jobs are so much involved in getting people who are not only interested in their profession but are also capable of aligning their functions to those of the company and as such did not think that he has done something wrong.

  13. Maria Grant Says:


    I agree with you, I believe Steve would subsequently inform HR of the situation. But whatever she does in the company did not convince Steve that her functions add any value to the success of the company.

    I would like to believe the lady was not the only one fired but many others faced the same situation.

    HR would also take care of the humiliation the lady faced in the elevator.

  14. Karen Griffin Says:

    Obviously, this story isn’t about appropriate HR behavior, how to keep employees, boosting morale, or current laws concerning employee rights. This is a story of being able to be quick thinking and about always being aware of how your performance helps your company everyday. The story doesn’t tell how many lawyers he fought with, fired, or paid when they disagreed with his “Kingly” attitude when employees brought suit against him, which they may have had the right to do. I certainly would not want to be working in an HR office that had to deal with a CEO with his attitudes. It makes me wonder what types of contracts his employees had to sign…perhaps something that said, “can be fired at a moment’s notice without cause”. Watch the fine print!

  15. Alan Says:

    As I mentioned in the caveat at the end of the article: As an HR guy, I’m personally not a big advocate of what Steve Jobs did in this situation.

    Though he was truly a genius, giving the old “surprise goodbye” without prior notice, candid feedback and a rigorously candid performance evaluation is not my cup of tea. And it’s also not good for company culture and it’ll give your Legal Department fits…and it IS demoralizing.

    But most HR folks know all this already. So, that wasn’t the point of the article. This wasn’t an an article about the proper way to terminate people.

    This was an article about a far more important point…which is contained in the KEY QUESTIONS in the article.

    So what say you: Could you survive the elevator ride?

  16. joven san pedro Says:

    I too would not be a convert to the “culture” exemplified by the elevator story.But the key questions are undoubtedly important. HR people in every organization should have a clear and commonly understood answer.Not that there should be one answer. Organizations vary in their needs and stages of development. Therefore, what is a very critical contribution of HR in one organization may not have the same value/criticality in another.
    I think though that regardless of the content,form or name of HR work/thrust, it must be seen creating or enhancing the organization’s capacity and readiness to perform excellently and be competitive in its business on a sustained basis.At the end of the day, organizational leaders want to see their companies 1)achieving their goals, 2) getting better than competition
    and 3)becoming ready for more wins in the future.

  17. John Says:

    Is is Steve’s fault for firing her?

    Or it is her fault for getting fired?

    I think the latter.

    Just being real.

  18. Carolyn Phillips Says:

    Kudos, Mr. Alan. You made an excellent point with the “elevator story”. Whether the story is true or not isn’t important. What is important is that it reinforces the fact that each of us, whether in a job search or not, should be prepared to talk about the value we bring to the organizational table. And we should be ready and able to do so in a straightforward, relevant, no buzz- words manner. Keeping our “elevator pitch” sharp and up-to-date forces us to do a self-assessment about how we are contributing to the organization’s bottom-line on a consistent basis. I agree with many of the previous comments- if you can’t articulate what you do and the value you bring to the organization, then perhaps- the organization can do without you…

  19. Frank Says:

    There’s a good chance she wasn’t fired for her lack of positive contribution, but rather for her lack of ability to articulate that contribution. That makes it even more unfortunate.

    I would pose this related question: If you were the HR Director and were in that elevator when it happened, what would YOU do? Could you summon the courage to do the right thing?

  20. Jacque Vilet Says:

    CEO’s want to know that every employee in his/her organization creates value. There is no place for someone who doesn’t know what “hard” results they bring to the table. CEO’s want results — not activities. Right or wrong — that’s the truth.

    Frankly if I were him, I would tell the story myself at the next all employee meeting and let everyone know they need to know their value and what results they create for the company. And if they don’t —- they need to figure out a way to “make it happen”.

  21. Ibukun Says:

    This is a wake up call especially to people who can not tie thier positions to contributions that result in the succes of the organization.

    I don’t think it’s the recruiting process that is faulty.It was just unfortunate that the woman could not justify her position as contributing to the succes of the organization convincingly.

  22. Kristi Says:

    This seems to be political rhetoric to me. I agree that we all need to know the value we bring to the business: In the same token, if someone in the elevator asked me what I did I would not be trying to sell myself. I would simply state a generic overview of what I did. If was on a job interview it would be a different story.

  23. John Says:


    I agree with you that the Head of Recruitment and her line manager should be fired if the lady is not adding value to the business. But this can be a chain that never ends and decision was just made by Steve – quite decisively when I may not agree with approach.

    In fact, it is possible that the lady was fired because she failed to articulate her value to the business.

  24. kart Says:

    Well I agree with all of you folks steve is perfect.If I was there I would have told him back **** you, mother *****.Who cares your shoot job.Just give me 3 months paycheck.End of day how much you get paid counts.I dont care a hair about the company .If he wants to take the company in that direction.Then fine just because you hired me and wasted my time here in this shooty company.Hence I request you to kindly payback with 90 days of my paycheck.This would have been my claim and I would brought the department of labour ,department of state ,Every legal federal organisation into picture…..

  25. kart Says:

    Thank God.God gave that heavy blow at his head by firing him from apple.That day it would have million times heavier than what the girl felt when he fired her….