The Jobseeker’s Manifesto

What’s in a job application, really?

Resumes are full of bullshit, stuffed with elaborate, painful explanations that make a chef gig sound like the Vice Presidency of Demand Solutions. They are easily gamed – just think of all the LinkedIn recruiters who barely read CVs and go after jobseekers anyway.

Resumes aren’t even meant to be read, a fact that trips up jobseekers with humanistic backgrounds – maybe skimmed, but not read. Hell, even cover letters are frequently ignored, with anything more than two paragraphs getting the TL;DR glaze-over – welcome to reddit the evaluations committee.

To compose literary masterpieces for either of these requirements is to produce something that maybe 2 or 3 people will read, probably cursorily and maybe angrily. In other words, it’s like churning out academic writing (almost – there’s good writing in the academy, but there’s also a lot of gobbledygook).

The expectations around the jobseeking process and its actual characteristics couldn’t be more different. I know they were for me – I once naively thought that a simple resume submission would net at least a response, favorable or otherwise, and that writing mattered for getting a job. Maybe it does at select companies such as Basecamp (“When in doubt, always hire the better writer”) but by and large writing is undervalued.

It’s something that everyone can do, and as such everyone erroneously thinks he can do well (in contrast, not everyone writes computer code or flies an airplane). Sure, some writing does pass for good with certain audiences – pepper anything with enough instances of “operational,” “solutions,” and “efficiencies” (ugh, that word shouldn’t really be plural, ever) and it gives off the noxious air of sophistication, but it’s just more of the same me-too dreck.

Form letters alone are evidence that writing too often doesn’t matter when seeking jobs. Think of how the classic TBNT letter is both long, vague, AND meaningless – an impressive trifecta.

How did jobseekers, especially on the humanities side, get in the situation of fighting an uphill struggle against hiring committees? Part of it is of course “the economy,” a euphemistic term for humans and what they value – tomes could be, and have been, written on how the cult of shareholder value, for example, has destroyed interest in things such as public investment and progressive causes.

But another part is, I think, the ongoing degradation of respect for labor at large. Giving a job  to someone is treated almost as a gift or conferring of privilege, rather than as reward for merit.

How else to explain “entry-level” jobs that demand multiple years of experience? This disconnect grinds my gears because it shows that organizations don’t value language. You can tell so much about the ethics and value of a company by how they use words, how they frame job searches, and how they treat candidates. Saying “entry-level” means “5 years of experience” is dishonest and likely a sign that someone is trying to be cheap – pigeonholing an experienced person as just another rung on the totem pole. It’s a lot like how we’re (I’m speaking primarily to a U.S. audience here – apologies to international readers) there’s a persistent “skills gap” in hiring, or an “achievement gap” in education, both of which, unsurprisingly, are as spuriously and manipulatively motivated as the “missile gap” from the Cold War.

Similar aversion is kindled by the use of the word “technical” to mean all sorts of random shit, from “jargony” (in relation to writing) to “math-like” (in regard to skills). Clear, expressive writing is a sign that you’re thinking and trying to solve a real problem or fulfill an urgent need, and most job postings fail miserably. They’re overloaded with cliches that deaden the language, they’re not about real things (yes, I said “things,” not “entities,” “stakeholders,” “solutions,” “interests,” or “competencies”) and are essentially giant walls meant to keep applicants out rather than invite them to take a shot.

There is of course the angle here that HR departments are overwhelmed with resumes and should be pitied, especially as they try to deal with the “skills gap” phantom. That would be a plausible argument if these same sorts of practice hadn’t contributed to the problem in the first place. Dishonest postings give applicants, especially inexperienced ones, false hope – not everyone is going to be able to parse through the bullshit and see that what lies before them is not a doorway but a giant wall. Many will try to scale it nonetheless because they have no choice, so excuse me if I pity the ones making that effort rather than their counterparts who laid the brickwork.

How can job postings and processes be improved? There’s no catch-all answer, especially since hiring is not a meritocratic process much of the time and is fundamentally political. Organizations can and should hire applicants that it likes; but if possible they shouldn’t give off the air of objectivity, which pollutes the entire process and comes off as the worst possible lip service to fairness (and yet the same people who came up with these unfair constructs would probably resort to the ‘life’s not fair’ cliche if pressed). Maybe they could start with some of these changes:

Write the job ad in a voice and style similar to what you expect back from the applicant
Don’t write a huge wall of text about how someone needs “excellent written and verbal communications skills” for a writing job. It’s a writing job; you should be asking for samples, and good writing is so hard to fake, especially if requested on-demand or short notice (it’s not a resume). No one says “excellent written and verbal communications skills” in real life – it’s robot-talk. It undermines the concept it’s trying to communicate.

And don’t do this.

Basically, know your audience.  Many job ads are written in a style so obtuse that it’s like trying to describe agile infrastructure automation, when the topic at hand is, um, “entry level data entry specialist” or something similarly euphemistic. Get real.

Come prepared to the interview that you’re conducting
Applicants are always told to do their research and be ready for the interview, and many of them do – they have to. The problem is, sometimes even the best preparation gets foiled by the interviewer’s lackadaisical approach to proceedings.

Too many interviews begin with long, awkward pauses. Ok, you say, this is the cue for me to just start spewing about what I do, who I am, where I see myself in…

This is an awful way to start things off. Maybe it separates the good from the bad, but it also puts the applicant in a bad position, as if she’s playing a guessing game.

Sometimes this awkward start gets followed up by some throwaways about “would [x] be ok?” and “are you ok doing [y]”? No one is going to say ‘no’ to these questions and they’re a waste of everyone’s time. If the responsibilities aren’t clear by the interview stage, something is wrong.

Keep things short
I once interviewed with Uber. In the process, I learned an enormous amount about how the company really operated. No, I wasn’t made privy to any of its earnings. And I didn’t get wind of UberX before it rolled out. Rather, I saw how Uber was a company set up to cross all sorts of ethical boundaries and step on people’s toes, based on how they treated job applicants.

The entire process lasted something like 50 days. That’s insane. An initial generic application was supplemented by a scenario exercise that in retrospect seems like unpaid labor on behalf of the company’s idea-starved managers. The on-site interview was a carousel of “fit” questions about how comfortable I would be meeting their demand schedule, which afaik was just tweeting generic replies to customers.  I was given credits to take a few rides and evaluate them. I attended a holiday party full of awkwardness. I had to write emails to them with my feedback on the party. There was interminable radio silence, followed by a form letter. The same job was posted again and again, and plenty of people had the same experience as me – just check out Glassdoor (sign-in may be required).

Yes, I was disappointed for some reason when I was rejected, but looking back it feels like I dodged a bullet. Any company willing to drag things out that long and play cat-and-mouse with applicants is prone to, oh I dunno, spam-call users in a fake grassroots effort, or interfere just a little bit with the “free market” principles it espouses.

Treat applicants with respect. They’re already respecting you by even sending an application.

Grow a thicker skin and have some guts
Maybe that’s a bit harsh, and I admit that it feels like something that applicants, rather than companies, should be told. But just think about how spineless something like a form letter is.

These insults to the English language exist so that bad news doesn’t have to expressed directly and humanely. The standard TBNT letter twists itself into such knots that its writers make fools of themselves – have you ever seen the phrase “while our response cannot be more positive?” What does that even mean? It seems like the writers are going for “we want to be more positive, but gosh darn it we can’t” (itself an oddly helpless, defeatist position to take), but they leave themselves open to an alternate reading that would interpret the sentiment as “we literally couldn’t be happier with what we saw.” Would you want to work for a company that greenlit that letter?

Of course, “want” is a luxury for many jobseekers, and the sad part is that they often have to put up with this as they struggle to find anything. Still, many of them have probably grown thicker skins as a result of all of their rejection, thicker than hiring committees that can be set off by the smallest possible thing or red flag. There’s so many listicles out there such as “Top 10 Things I See On An Application That Lets Me Know I Should Immediately Reject That Person” or “5 Things to Never Ever Do On A Job Application.” When did things become so hair-splittingly insane? What happened to taking a cover letter seriously and trying to have a real conversation with an applicant? If something such as the phraseology of a question, or the usage of a common term, is enough to set you off, then maybe you’re too sensitive. Of course, many applicants will never know what participle, mannerism, or gesture stopped them from getting a job, and some of them will probably stay up at night thinking about how disturbingly capricious and opaque the whole process is.

A job interview isn’t an ambush
On the opposite extreme from the unprepared interviewer is the the interviewer that comes armed to the teeth with gotcha questions. Blame Google. At least Google eventually revealed that asking someone how to get out of a blender after being shrunken down to the size of a nickel isn’t really a good indicator of how good a candidate is.

These tactics are sort of like “parlor tricks” that seem like good ideas in theory but are mostly a waste of everyone’s time. Like all the other affronts here, they’re a layer of abstraction on top of what should be a straightforward, humane process. The fact that many organizations can’t even have a civilized conversation with applicants is a pretty damning indictment of the culture at large.  It’s the corporate equivalent of not making eye contact or ignoring someone’s text. Something needs to change.

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