How Finding a Job is Like Losing Your Keys


Christopher Carr

Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar Brian Taylor says:

    I understand exactly what you’re going through because it’s been my reality for the past 3 months. After submitting your materials, you settle in for the long 2-6 week wait, hoping that you’ll receive a reply. When the phone finally rings, the cheery headhunter on the other end says all the things that Mr. Carr outlined in his piece: you’re resume’s impressive, they’re eager to interview you, you sound like a good fit for their open position.

    Once the appointed hour arrives, you find that half the interview is spent rehashing information that’s printed in plain language on your resume. It quickly becomes apparent that what the interviewer is looking for does not match the experience or skills that you’ve just spent a half hour re-summarizing for him. Worst of all, it usually takes two weeks or more to receive a communication confirming what you knew the moment the interview ended.

    That’s if you get a response at all. More than once, I’ve gone through an interview process and prepared work samples for companies that never even had the grace to send me a short rejection.  I’ve had recruiters tell me to prepare for a second round of interviews, only to be suddenly and inexplicably told that they were no longer interested even though the position remained empty. I’ve had executives roll their eyes impatiently at me after I’ve waited patiently for someone’s last minute scheduling conflict to resolve itself.

    In short, the companies know that they hold all the cards, and they have no regard for how dehumanizing this process can be. It doesn’t bother them that they misrepresent their needs or don’t know what they’re actually seeking. Wasting your time doesn’t matter, because, like Mr. Carr says, there’s nothing you can do about it. Hey, you’re the one looking for the job, after all.Report

  2. Avatar Joecitizen says:

    What really ticks me off is when they have already chosen a person. The interviews are to give the higher ups some impression of diligence about the decision. I tend to let my peers know of companies that engaged in this.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Temple Grandin has it all wrong. We understand how spears evolved: the archaeology and anthropology is fairly good on this subject. Loren Eiseley is a fine place to start. In a pinch, people sharpened spears by hardening the tip in a fire. Necessity, not neurosis, drove man to become a toolmaker. Within small nomadic groups, everyone’s a specialist: the toolmaker earned his keep.

    If you’ve lost your keys, start finding them by cleaning up. Iterating over the same ground is the hallmark of someone who’s lost, in any circumstances. Orienteering is learning to get your bearings and proceed in a straight line, looking back over the path you’ve traveled so you remember what it looks like on your way back.

    Perhaps there’s some measure of truth in noting we become acclimated inside our cultures, only perceiving differences as deltas from our own norms. There’s a problem, though. All perception is a process of identifying such transients. Consider your foot. There it is, inside your shoe, sitting at the conference table. Unless it’s got an issue, say, an ingrown toenail or suchlike, you don’t “think” about it. Intelligence is mostly a process of filtering, sifting through the torrent of incoming signals for what matters now. The retina has a layer dedicated to motion of objects. Optical illusions play on the shortcuts the brain must take to give us a working frame of reference.

    Consulting has given me a rather larger picture of American, European and Japanese corporate cultures. A few aspects of job search are constant across all of them. You put forward a dialogue in which you come across as a passive supplicant. I interview on maybe six gigs before I take one. Before I come into an interview, I’ve done my homework. I know the current stock price. I’ve googled the people who will interview me. Most importantly, I have a statement of purpose: I know exactly how I’m going to provide them value for money.

    It comes as no surprise to anyone most interviewers have no idea how to manage the process of candidate selection. It’s incumbent on the candidate to interview the interviewer. It’s not just a matter of you needing a job: it’s mostly about why you should get the job. Another little truth about interviewing: you’ll never do the job for which you’re interviewing.

    Another signature truth of corporations: they’re not immoral. They’re amoral. Forget this recession. If they can get away with something, corporations will do it. Corporations are under no obligation to tell customers the literal truth: nobody should be signing contracts or entering into business relationships without a lawyer anyway. People make stupid decisions and the slow and stupid have ever been the lawful prey of the fast and clever since life first evolved on this planet.

    You can love Jeebus and your wife and kids and your dog and the way the sun sets off Molokai. Do not love your job. It will never love you back. If ever there was a Lazy Placebo, it’s the notion wherein people are not responsible for what happens to them in life. Lost your job? Go back to community college, get a few certificates and learn a skill for the job market as it is, not as you’d like it to be.

    There are two sides to the coin of success: doing what you want to and getting paid for it. Maybe go to job counseling, do some honest self-appraisal, see yourself as you are seen. And for godsakes, quit blaming the Grey Men for trying to improve yield: that’s their job and if you have any sense, it’s your job, too.Report

    • BlaiseP, on the micro level – the level of the individual – you are almost certainly right. Nevertheless, when this is extrapolated out to the macro level – the level of the society – and this really is what my column is about – institutional/structural analysis – the unprofessional behavior of corporations (bordering on outright fraud) and our generally being okay with it leads to wasted lives plus major society-wide social and economic problems.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        What’s a society?    It’s a sum of vectors.   Corporations try to get away with all sorts of disgusting things and we should expect society to pass laws to keep them from selling us rotten meat and out of date medications.   I suppose, insofar as we have any responsibilities to society, say, filing a tax return or driving the speed limit, we view these laws as appropriate and binding on everyone and don’t get all huffy for getting a ticket or getting audited by the IRS.  I’ve said it before:  morals are what we can get away with, when nobody’s looking or through power over others, we can escape the consequences of our actions.   Ethics is me telling you something’s immoral.

        But you’ve chosen a strange adjective in “unprofessional”.   Professional just means you get paid for it.   There’s a factory just down the road which took its disk drive component factory to Thailand.   It got flooded out, the machinery’s coming back and now the company’s trying to hire back all the people it fired.    Corporations, like persons, operate on their own behalf:   moving a factory to Thailand might seem a bit heartless to the people who got let go and who now find themselves re-employed.    The Thai workers who got flooded out, they’ve got feelings, too.   Corporations aren’t guided by feel-good philosophies, it’s all about the bottom line and we can’t expect them to act any differently.   Nobody weeps for the stockholders who took the hit on that flood.

        Do you want a better society?    It’s not much different than wanting a better corporation:  you have to invest in it.    If society has endemic ills, so do corporations which refuse to adapt to reality.   Wealth accumulates according to the laws of gravitational attraction:   money makes money and soon enough most of the wealth has accreted in the hands of the few.   That’s capitalism for you.   Eventually it terminates in a banana republic, with a few rich people who own damned near everything and they have to live behind fortress walls.

        If we want a more egalitarian society,  the people who constitute that society must decide how best to adapt to changing times, investing in themselves, backing winning propositions and not perpetuating money-losing boondoggles.

        Look, I’m a Liberal.  I measure society by how it treats its most-vulnerable members, from the ground up.   If we want to better the lot of the unemployed, we will not do so by condescending to them but by transforming them into taxpaying citizens, worthy of good jobs by dint of their qualifications.   Damning the corporations is simplistic and unproductive:  if we want the corporations to behave ethically, pass laws against perceived unethical conduct and enforce those laws.Report

        • That’s all fine and good, but my focus is on the facts on the ground: it is rational for corporations to string me along until I’m no longer of potential use to them, and it is rational for me to simply stop applying to jobs once I’ve had enough of it. This is what’s going on: resources are being misallocated all over the place, and the reason is because there is no accountability for individuals. If this were back in the day and we were living in communities of populations approaching Dunbar’s number, everyone would know what Brian from HR did, and everyone would disapprove of it. Brian from HR would suffer the consequences of the judgment of the community against him.

          However, now, since we have organized our society in a corporate structure where there is no community to enforce moral codes, we have none. Your idea that “morals are what we can get away with, when nobody’s looking or through power over others, we can escape the consequences of our actions.” is undoubtedly true, but do you want to live in a society where people are allowed to get away with all sorts of things because we have created structures that allow them to do this. I don’t. I want accountability. The only problem is, what do you think would happen to me if I started publishing names and company information of all the corporate types who lied to and misled me? I’ll never get an interview again. In fact, just this series of articles alone is probably enough to convince some HR pussy that I’m not worth the risk.

          Does this have anything to do with my ability to perform the task I’m presumably being hired for? No, it doesn’t.

          Now, I’ll proffer that these perverse incentives are going to contribute to persistent unemployment for years to come. You’ll have guys like Herman Cain and Ben Stein who feel the center panel as only cold saying that the unemployed are unemployed because they suck at life. But I’m pretty sure I don’t suck at life: I’m back in school part time and doing as well as anyone can in my courses, I’m planning on applying for one of the most prestigious and competitive programs in the country in a few years, I’m fluent in a profitable language and can translate faster and for less than the market-clearing equilibrium levels, and yet, despite massive efforts, a wide range of approaches, and a pretty solid network of successful friends and family members, I can’t find an income to save my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to bus tables four nights a week.

          I’m pretty sure after this much time and effort spent engaging with the labor market that there is something that’s (A) structural, and (B) correctable going on.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

      It comes as no surprise to anyone most interviewers have no idea how to manage the process of candidate selection.

      I would add that most applicants/interviewees also have no idea how to sell themselves.  (I was one of those folks–I’m lousy at interviewing and I know of at least two jobs that I lost that way.)  To sell yourself you have to know what the employer wants, and sometimes they don’t know that and need to be told–and that’s a damned tall order.

      Just as general tips in a tough job market (this is not directed at Christopher, nor meant to undermine his argument in any way, it just seems like a good place to stick this stuff): 1) get professional help on your resume and make sure the damn thing is perfect.  Anyone looking through hundreds of resumes is going to use their first run-through as a weeding-out process.  Too much white space (suggesting you’ve not done much), typos, grammar errors, all will lead to your resume getting chucked instantly.  Get practice interviewing (your alma mater should provide this service, otherwise it may be worth it to pay for assistance).  I’ve seen people go into an interview acting smug and arrogant, thinking that’s how to impress people.  Usually it just pisses them off.  I’ve seen people try to suck every cock and kiss every ass in sight during an interview; that makes you look weak and pathetic.  Learn how to shake hands properly; no dead fish and no strength contests.  Learn how to look people in the eye without engaging in a stare down.  Get a book like 101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions and thoroughly study it and practice.  Do your homework about the company before you submit your resume and before an interview–show them that you know where you’re applying and what the business’s interests, opportunities, and challenges are.  (You’ve got a college degree, you should be capable of doing your homework by now.)

      No, it won’t help if a company is just stringing you along.  But if the company is seriously looking, this will give you the best chance of being one of the people they look at.  And to be blunt, the odds are that you–whoever you are that is reading this–are not doing all this.  Not because you’re bad or lazy, but because you’re probably pretty normal.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

        And remember to Smile! Be excited, this is a great opportunity!Report

      • James, I did all that stuff when I first started applying for jobs and thought that something like eight applications was more than enough.

        “No, it won’t help if a company is just stringing you along.  But if the company is seriously looking, this will give you the best chance of being one of the people they look at.”

        That’s the kicker. In my experience, maybe three or four of the hundred companies I’ve applied to seriously considered me. Why should I go through all that effort for 3 or 4 percent?Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

      BlaiseP? Where ya been man? The communitariat misses you. BTW you make some good (*albeit harsh) points but are in line with what I would have recommended. Carr is obviously too smart to be idling on the bench, he needs to be in the game. As I posted yesterday (but am too lazy to find today),when I was in his shoes I “became” a consultant (ultimately a consulting company with about 14 employees). Every single thing about that experience made me a better person than I was before. The money was secondary, considering what people spend on education the idea that you can be /paid/ to essentially do live case studies on active companies is mind boggling.

      That’s my 2 cents, leave the money under the sofa cushion – I’m sure to find it later, when I’m looking for that remote control.Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Great piece Christopher.  Just out of curiosity, you mentioned Philly, are you residing in one of the surrounding burbs?

    Also, my temp post is coming to an end and I’m re-entering the job search.  Like a well paced race, I’m hoping to get as many resumes/apps out as I can before my optimism and brimming confidence completely dissipates.


    • No, I reside in Boston. I went to Philly for an interview and then got blown off.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        Christopher, as a headhunter meself, my take is that nobody’s going to do squat until the 2012 election.  I’ve been equally mystified by the behavior of my clients: one moment go-go-go and the next, no word.  In the olden, swaggering days, the HR functionaries couldn’t wait to call in and say my candidate wasn’t good enough to lick their firm’s spittle.

        There’s something going on, and it’s not you.  My own—admittedly subjective—take is that top brass authorizes expansion plans for the good of morale, since everybody is overworked on what has become a skeleton crew.  In between the interviews and actual hiring, top brass gets skittish.  Hires are put on hold.

        Not just from my own business, but chatting with other folks in my professional building—the consensus is that nobody’s going to do squat until after the 2012 election. Uncertainty.  You’ve no doubt seen such chatter around the internet [I have], but it’s what I’m hearing too on the ground, and seeing with my own eyes. The “uncertainty” riff isn’t a partisan fabrication.Report

        • That seems to square with my experience.

          So, why do you think the 2012 election makes so much difference?Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Christopher Carr says:

            Uncertainty, Christopher.  Business hates uncertainty, esp my clients who are established.  Not only do they represent Big Business, some have revenues ~$1B, which makes them Big Businesses themselves.


            And established gravytrainers are more risk-averse than risk-takers, regardless of political philosophy.  As it turns out, Big Law, person by person and even firm by firm, tends more toward the left/Democrat fold in campaign money, pro bono causes, etc.

            But business is business.  You represent Phillip Morris, then give to Obama, but don’t hire anybody.  It’s complicated, man.  Conflicted…


        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          The “uncertainty” riff isn’t a partisan fabrication.

          “Uncertainty” is not a fabrication of the chattering classes, certainly.  It’s definitely out there.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t to a significant degree largely a byword for preference for the widespread preference among business owners for Republican rule.  There will be more uncertainty about health care going forward, not less, if a Republican is elected president.  On the other hand, there may be policies or general policy direction that people with the power to hire and fire wish to give positive reinforcement to.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

            …this is one reason, combined with a new interest in using Keynesian approaches to stimulating growth and employment that we are likely to see emerge among Republicans under a Republican president, why the election may well make the kind of difference that Tom suggests.Report

            • Well, what does that tell you about our economic system then? That it’s dependent on politics? Would anyone disagree with that?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                If what I suggest is true (and I very much consider that an if – it’s speculative, though I think supported anecdotally, and I would like it to be otherwise) I don’t think those facts are described better by using abstract language and then saying that the information in that abstract language is mundane.  Yes, it would be mundane if I had only asserted that politics affects the economy.  But people can have different views about what it means for that to happen via one kind of mechanism rather than another.  And I think, by and large, they would have a different reaction to cases where that mechanism is basically the  partisan preferences of the ownership class, rather than basically a bottom-line, realistic assessment of the effects of policy on business prospects.  For you, is that distinction completely without salience, and the only interesting implication from any of these cases that “our economic system”… “is dependent on politics”?Report

              • If you go back and look at the history of economics, there was a paradigm where economists believed everything proceeded from political structures, then there was a paradigm where economists believed everything derived from self-evident axioms. Can you guess which one prevails today?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                I don’t understand what this has to do with my description of the phenomenon I am talking about.  Nothing rides on these generalities you’re interested in talking about.  I don’t know what this last question is getting at, and I don’t see where there is any case being made that it would be worth it to try to figure it out.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                …You’re welcome to explain it to me further, though.Report

              • Well, what it has to do with it is that it basically renders absurd any discussions of “more” and “less” regulation. Our economic structure is defined by the rules of the game. The economy is fluid. It will fit into any shape we devise for it.

                It is wise, I think, to fix the rules of the game so that no particular concentration of power or wealth can arbitrarily interfere in the economic order; this while simultaneously devising structures to prevent unwelcome concentrations from occurring in the first place. I’ve said before (I believe in a discussion with you) that I prefer more automation in the economy. Let me reiterate that here: we need automatic stabilizers – rather than political bullshit – to affect the economy.

                Ricardian equivalence exists, investment banks put far more resources into responding to government policy than towards investing in promising ideas, uncertainly is a factor in the failure of the present economy to grow. The cause is, as is the cause of dictatorial regimes in Africa and the Middle East, that we’ve created (or our system has produced) these absurd power vacuums that oscillate one way or another and everything responds in turn.

                We were never meant to care about what’s going on in the Capitol. We shouldn’t, and yet, here we are, all of us waiting for one man to do something about it all.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Michael Drew says:

            Perhaps, Mr. Drew.  Me, just reporting from street level to Chris Carr, that he’s not crazy, and the fault isn’t his.  It’s my opinion that a Romney presidency, like Reagan’s, will more quickly pull capital out of the mattresses than the re-election of the incumbent.

            This is poetry, not prose, but I suspect that so is much of economics.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              I don’t necessarily differ about the effects.  Moreover, it may not be the case at all that partisan teamsmanship will be what gets the holders of capital to pull it out of the mattress under Romney.  But my intuition is that it will indeed be a nontrivial part of the true causative mechanism.  I’m just expressing that intuition and registering some distaste for that kind of mechanism driving decisions that affect so many people’s lives.  On the other hand, if it’s what needs to happen for money to start moving, then it needs to happen – I can easily swallow my pride enough to welcome the outcome regardless of the cause given the circumstances and stakes we face right now.


              In any case, thanks for giving the idea a moment’s consideration (“Perhaps.”)  I frankly wouldn’t have blamed you if you had filed this one in your circular file labelled “Drive-Bys.”  This nagging suspicion i describe is definitely in part an epiphenomenon of whatever partisanship I have in me, though, as I’ve said, I do believe that it is not without some basis is anecdotal evidence.


              To be clear: by no means do I think this is the main driver of any business’ decisions, nor do I think it is even a small partial consideration in a large majority of them. But I do think it is a partial consideration in some nontrivial minority of business’ decisions.  For example, I think it is likely completely absent from almost every large coastal corporation’s decisions, with their diverse boards and huge shareholder groups.  But I think this phenomenon does exist among owners and boards of directors of the medium- and medium-large (and medium-small) size companies in the industrial Midwest that really have a huge impact on the overall direction of the American labor market.  Obviously, YMMV.Report

  5. Avatar Kimmi says:

    1) I have heard from … two headhunters. Period. They were sorta cheery, but mostly in a “someone else told us to be nice to you” sort of way — which always led to an interview.

    2) I tend to have the problem of “doesn’t have the degree” — meaning that instead of looking perfect to HR, I look like some dipshit who doesn’t know what to apply for. Notwithstanding my actual job experience, and that most people in the field would be impressed. Nothing more disheartening to me than a “we didn’t even pass this on to the hiring manager.”

    I probably apply to larger organizations than you do.

    And I’ve lost jobs because of funding — it sucks. I’ve turned down excellent positions because of Predictions of Loss in Funding (aka the dread spectre of Republicans cutting funding for wheelchair-using vets).Report

  6. Avatar Steve S. says:

    “Ever lose your keys? It sucks.”

    You know what sucks worse?  Being around people who lose their keys.  Ye gods, that drives me insane.  You shouldn’t have opened your post with this because now I don’t care about the rest of it.Report