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New Year, New Gig: How to Master the Modern Job Search

It is paradoxical that as job coaches, video interviewing, resume-sifting software and sites like LinkedIn and Indeed have added new maneuvers for HR and job seekers alike, finding the right person is as hard as ever. The tools for matchmaking, it seems, haven’t so much sharpened as they have merely proliferated.

“People are being tested and evaluated on things that have more to do with whether they are good at getting a job, and less about what skills they need for having the job,” says Ilana Gershon, author of Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today. “In some sense, the problem within the structure is that in order to get past it, you have to learn to be good at managing those parts of the process that are particular to the ritual. Until people change how they hire [employees] and bring them into a workplace in a way that allows them to show their skills, it’s going to be a perennial problem. How many times will writing a persuasive resume be something you have to do in your job?”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Technology was hailed as the answer to the pitfalls of subjectivity, as well as a way of handling the crush of incoming resumes. But firms have become overly reliant on technology for meeting all of their needs, says Wharton management professor Stephanie J. Creary.

“In some ways, big data facilitates more effective decision-making, but in other ways, big data hinders it,” Creary says. “While a match between a job-seeker and a job-granter might be algorithmically correct and might help to reduce bias, substantial information can also be gained through human connections.”

In this respect, technology is great for helping to define a field of applicants or potential employers using a well-defined set of criteria, she says. “However, a certain je ne sais quoi element is often also important to both job seekers and job granters, which, by definition, is hard to articulate. Thus, finding a good match requires that job seekers and job granters be adept at engaging tools that allow for ease of search while also harnessing those that enable meaningful connection and the procurement of more in-depth insight.”

Indeed, hiring seems to have grown dysfunctional, “with job seekers trying all kinds of strange tricks to have their applications noticed, and hiring managers not paying attention to the fundamental issue of how to find candidates who will be good workers,” writes Peter Cappelli, management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, in a forthcoming review of Gershon’s book in ILR Review. How has this happened? “First, we are still coming out of the worst job market for applicants, alternatively the best for employers, in 80 years, and the problem for hiring managers has mainly been to sort through all the applicants who appeared on paper to be qualified to do the job.”

Second, he writes, “as organizations have gutted the recruiting function, many players with different interests weigh into the hiring process, and individual ‘hiring managers’ who will be the supervisors have disproportionate influence. Recruiters are specialists in understanding recruitment and selection. Hiring managers are not, and they are ‘going with their gut’ to sort through candidates. The reason that job seekers do not know what to do in order to be hired is because hiring managers do not know what they are doing, and as a result, they all do something different.”

“While a match between a job-seeker and a job-granter might be algorithmically correct … substantial information can also be gained through human connections.” –Stephanie Creary

Minimizing the Mistakes

Whatever flaws exist in the system, and there are plenty, job seekers fall into mistakes in the process that, if avoided, might give a potential employer a clearer path to saying yes. “I think the most perilous portion of a job search is the interview — whether in person or by phone or video,” says Jean Dowdall, recently retired senior partner at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. “Even the strongest candidates can stumble in that part of the process, failing to show the hiring officer how qualified and capable they really are.”

It’s important to learn as much as possible about the organization and the position ahead of time. “You don’t need to find hidden information,” she says, “but you do have to master the information on the website and in the press and other media. Be knowledgeable about the issues facing the organization. And you should try to understand the organization’s mission and character. Your main task in the interview is to show how you can serve this organization and fit into its culture, and you can’t show that if you don’t understand the organization in the first place.”

In the interview, “ask thought-provoking questions that model the kind of insight you’ll bring to the job if you’re hired,” she advises, “and listen carefully to the answers, showing that you would listen well if you worked there.”

Research shows that interviewers often over-estimate their ability to make accurate judgments about candidates, and there isn’t much the interviewee can do about it. Regardless, says Dowdall, “the interview is the moment when you will be judged. How you speak, shake hands and dress are key elements in that judgment. You should be yourself — but be your best self. Don’t slouch, don’t fidget, listen carefully and don’t interrupt. Speak as clearly as you can and don’t go on for too long.”

Candidates likewise misjudge their own strengths, and much hinges on an accurate self-assessment. When confronted with elements of the process that may be off-putting — such as a video interview or being pressed for salary history — it’s important for job seekers to see clearly the way they are being perceived as candidates. “These are tough issues and you may want to push back,” says Dowdall.

“The reason that job seekers do not know what to do in order to be hired is because hiring managers do not know what they are doing.” –Peter Cappelli

“If you are really interested in the position, you might consider how strong a candidate you think you are. If you are just average in terms of preparation and fit, the hiring officer will likely drop you from consideration when you balk. But if you are a really strong prospect — great experience, familiarity with this type of organization, and so on — they may cut you some slack. So before you decide whether to push back, think hard about what you bring to this job and try to gauge where you probably stand.”

Does it pay to play hard to get? Job seekers should err on the side of zeal. Says Dowdall: “In my experience, organizations like to hire people who are excited about working there. Conveying reserve and ambivalence carries more risks than conveying some enthusiasm.”

On the list of common and serious mistakes for job seekers is settling, says Creary. “Career-minded job seekers are often under enormous amounts of stress and, as a result, can become unilaterally focused on achieving one goal — that is, getting a job. Challenges arise, however, when we try and convince ourselves that any old job will do. That’s not true for most of us over the short or long term.”

Not talking to people either on or off the record who currently work or have worked at the companies in which one is interested is another common mistake, she says, since “getting an insider’s perspective is key to understanding the culture and whether or not that company would be a good home for you or a place where you can grow.”

It is also a mistake to treat a job prospect like a project to be completed rather than a venture to be explored. “It’s easy to think about a job prospect in terms of what it can do for you today rather than what it can offer you tomorrow,” says Creary. “After all, we now live in a world where information is readily available, most of what we desire is just a click or two away, and the urge to check things off of a list is high. However, a successful career is built over the longer-term and develops not only because someone demonstrates the capacity to do good technical work, but also because they have the aptitude for building strong mutually beneficial relationships.”

Of course, just getting a foot in the door is the most elusive part for many. How can an applicant get his or her resume pulled out of a stack of many? “Become so effective at networking and relationship-building during the application process that HR wants to look for your resume in the high-volume stack,” says Creary. “In other words, don’t rely on HR to do the work. Job seekers should be focusing on building relationships with decision-makers in their target companies who will encourage HR to pull your resume for their review.”

It’s also important for a resume to go beyond just a listing of professional experience, says Kelly Marinelli, president of Solve HR, Inc. and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s talent acquisition special expertise panel. “Those resumes and cover letters that clearly describe the results a candidate has accomplished — not just experience they’ve had and tasks they’ve completed — and how they can use their skills to meet the company’s unique needs in the position are the ones that always stand out from the crowd,” she says.

“Your main task in the interview is to show how you can serve this organization and fit into its culture, and you can’t show that if you don’t understand the organization in the first place.” –Jean Dowdall

It should go without saying that inaccuracies in resumes are not looked upon kindly. Only 11% of the more than 400 HR professionals polled in a 2014 SHRM survey reported “rarely” finding inaccuracies, with 81% saying they found them “sometimes.” These inaccuracies — which include spelling and grammatical errors, as well as gaps in employment history — often negatively affect the decision to extend an interview invitation. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said inaccuracies “sometimes” affected the invitation decision negatively, with 20% saying it “always” resulted in a negative effect.

Mitigating the Flaws in HR

If job seekers have their share of pitfalls, they also have just cause for concern about how accurately and fairly the applicant-sifting process is. Does HR give careful consideration to resumes and cover letters? While job recruiters have claimed that they spent between four and five minutes reviewing each resume for a fit/no-fit decision, one study put the figure closer to six seconds.

In Eye Tracking Online Metacognition: Cognitive Complexity and Recruiter Decision Making, published by Ladders job-search subscription service, researchers followed 30 recruiters over a 10-week period and found that they spent 80% of their time looking at just a few pieces of information: name; current job, company and start and end dates; previous job, company and start and end dates; and education. Since a decision was based on these data points, “detail and explanatory copy became filler and had little to no impact on the initial decision making,” the study found.

Why might this be a problem? An HR screening process may not be designed to capture as broad and diverse a candidate pool as the organization really wants or needs, says Creary. “Stated more simply, screening only for educational affiliation, GPA, and past work experiences may lead to a short list that reflects a rather homogenous candidate pool. Instead, HR could consider screening also — or only, to be really bold — for the characteristics and qualities that make candidates stand out from the pack. Job seekers shouldn’t be afraid to list these characteristics and qualities somewhere on their resume.”

One of the biggest mistakes job seekers make is to view the outcome as anything resembling victory or defeat, validation or reproach.

“I think people often take things too personally,” says Gershon, who is an assistant professor in the anthropology department of Indiana University. “The actual hiring doesn’t seem to revolve around whether you have the skills or not, but rather around this nebulous question of cultural fit. In assessing cultural fit, organizations are trying to figure out what you are going to be like in your group, and they don’t necessarily have enough information about this, and people feel lousy about themselves because they weren’t able to pass a very weird test of people coming together and asking, ‘Is this what we think our group is?’ which may be different from what the group really is. I’ve seen people on the hiring side using cultural fit as a way to get consensus, and they don’t know who you actually are.”

“Challenges arise when we try and convince ourselves that any old job will do. That’s not true for most of us over the short- or long-term.” –Stephanie Creary

The job-search apparatus as it has developed also sometimes fails to account for searches that should be very specifically tailored to the quirks and vernacular of particular sectors and job types. And so sometimes the best advice for job seekers may be to know when to not take any advice at all.

“One of the problems is that advice is far too standardized, since the people giving it want to sell as many books and job seminars as possible,” says Gershon. “But every industry and workplace has its own way of working out how they want to hire. If you want to go into a particular industry, figure out how those people in that industry represent themselves and reverse-engineer. It’s not like everyone uses a resume in the same way or every industry has the same kind of LinkedIn profile. People develop their own way of doing things.”

Gershon would like to see a system in which applicants can spend trial time in the job itself, to help give the job granters valuable information that might not be obvious in the artificial-by-definition format of a job interview. In some orchestras, for instance, rather than relying on the audition process alone, audition committees ask a musician to play in the ensemble for a week or so, to hear how that player fits in and works with others. “You need to find ways to figure out how to watch people interact with people as they do the job,” Gershon says. “There may be jobs in which you don’t need them for a week, but you give them tasks in which they do the job with other people.”

This test also risks missing aspects of character and ability that would be important to know. But in terms of finding the right person, she says: “It gets you closer. And often the people you’d never want to work with become apparent.”

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