One of the first use cases of the early internet was to move classified listings for employment online. Think Craigslist, early job boards, the careers section of corporate web sites, etc.
We thought we’d be entering a golden age where everyone was able to find job opportunities online, and easily apply, all without leaving their desk or pickup the phone. However, an unintended consequence of this online growth was more applications. Lot’s more. It turns out when you let everyone easily apply, everyone does. This paradox was best exemplified by a clever ad from The Ladders.
When you let everyone in, the best people can’t stand out.
Now, let me say this before anything else: I don’t agree with a LOT of the message of this ad. It’s elitist and even mean-spirited in some ways. In my opinion, ANYONE should be able to apply for ANY position they want and have an equal opportunity to get the job. Period. (more on this in Part 6)
That said, I’ll bet there were a lot of talent managers, hiring managers, resume screeners, and recruiters who just watched this ad and said to themselves, “yep, I deal with this EVERY day.”
And the unfortunate truth is this ad is right in an important way: when you let everyone apply, the best people can’t stand out. So what are we to do?
I submit that we need to change our definition for what it means to “apply.” Right now, apply equals sending in a resume, or the equivalent thereof. And that’s too easy to do. And that’s why everyone does it. Instead, if apply meant “complete an assignment to demonstrate your capabilities”, an immediate consequence would be fewer people would apply for each job because they wouldn’t be willing to do the assignment required to apply. But the ones who do complete the assignment would likely be the most interested and capable candidates, and thus best suited for the job. So we’d end up with a system where anyone could apply, but the reality would be most people wouldn’t apply. Equal opportunity? Check. Let the best people stand out? Check.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
Since it’s so easy to apply for a job using online job boards, SO many people do. You’ll hear people say, “in order to get 1 job, your need to apply to 100” or “it’s a numbers game” or similar kinds of things. So what happens? A company posts a job, and they get lots of applicants. Now what? How does a talent manager or hiring manager even begin to respond to this flood of people? ANSWER? In most cases, they don’t.
For competitive jobs with lots of applicants, many companies pay little if any attention to candidates that apply online, instead focusing on 1) people they’ve sourced themselves 2) people who they know or are connected to on LinkedIn/Facebook or 3) people that were referred either via another employee or via an outside recruiter.
Translation: If you want to get noticed, you gotta know somebody.
Think on that for a minute… Do we really believe that your personal connection(s) at a company should be more important than how talented or capable or passionate you are? Do we really?!?
That idea sounds a lot like the 1950s to me (heck, maybe even the 1750s), and I for one could not more vehemently disagree with it. TALENT and ABILITY and SKILLS and PASSION FOR THE JOB should always be more important than who you know.
TALENT and ABILITY and SKILLS and PASSION FOR THE JOB should always be more important than who you know.
But right now, they aren’t. For a lot of companies, no matter how talented you might be, if you don’t know the right people or can’t get to know them, you are completely invisible, and never even considered even if you apply.
Do you have an “in?”
But wait, there’s more. Because candidates have begun to get wise to the situation I just described, some are going to great lengths to “network” their way to someone at a company in the hopes of getting some “inside track” on the job. They know that NOT knowing someone at the company will likely prevent them from being considered at all, so they take steps to get to know someone.
Ok, fine. Here’s the problem with that: it results in a system that optimizes for one’s ability to network, not their ability to do the job. And, it perpetuates the ‘unfair playing field’ sentiment that many job seekers who didn’t do that end up feeling. Lastly, it puts company employees in an awkward position of having to connect (or not) with so many potential candidates that have done nothing more to demonstrate their interest in the job or capability to do it than click the “connect” button. #FAIL
Now, if ability to network is the key skillset for the job, like in a sales position for example, there’s some legitimate justification for this approach as the activity is a good proxy for the actual work the person would be doing if hired. But those roles are the exception, not the rule. Currently, we’re treating them as the rule, not the exception.
The network > talent reality is troubling in other ways too. By optimizing for ability to network over ability to do the job, many highly talented people are getting missed, many less talented people (who are superior networkers) are getting hired, and many hiring processes are horribly biased, as I’ve written about in the past. These biases perpetuate the sentiment of exclusion that many feel. While this chorus of exclusion is being sung the loudest by women and minorities, I’d argue that the problem is far deeper than race or gender discrimination alone. Whether intentionally or not, what employers are doing is creating a “clubby” type of environment where personal connections and friend status have become more important than talent, ability and passion for the job.
In perverse ways, this structure is even celebrated in Silicon Valley. People are often described as “ex-Google” or part of the “PayPal Mafia” or some similar company affiliation. People from those groups are seen to be more talented, more capable, and more employable than others irrespective of their actual contributions at their affiliated companies, simply due to the name recognition. On the other hand, non-mafia members — irrespective of actual talent and abilities — are viewed with skepticism or not considered at all.
If we play all this out, what we’re doing is creating a 2-class system: the connected and the not connected. The not-connected people follow the rules and apply for jobs via online job boards believing that they will be reviewed fairly and equitably. Meanwhile, the connected people know that rules don’t really matter. Rather than “apply” for the job, they “connect” with someone at the company in an effort to network their way to the hiring manager or talent manager. The intention of this activity is to get some sort of preferential insider status and outmaneuver the people who went to the trouble of applying.
I don’t blame the candidates who do this. They’re only acting in their own self interest, and I would do the same thing if I were them because it’s more effective. But as employers, we need to realize a few things. First, by allowing this sort of thing, we’re perpetuating the clubby, exclusive, insiders system of hiring that results in an unequal playing field. Second, candidates are trying to “hack” the hiring process in the first place because the user experience of the current system is so bad. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this approach does NOT produce the best candidates. It merely produces those candidates that are well-connected.