The Job Search is Broken, But We Can Make It Better (Part 2)

I promise I’ll return to my usual posts about gardens and food and family life soon. I crave that, actually, but between moving away from our homestead of 10 years in the beginning of May and losing my job later in May (combined with historic inflation), there has been no bandwidth to plan the new homestead, let alone to actually grow anything. I miss it all terribly, but I cannot even focus on that right now. My entire being is fixated on What Comes Next. What have I learned in the past 5 years at my previous employer. What do I want to take with me in the future? What do I want to leave behind? Where do I fit outside of academia?

My previous post was raw and vulnerable, which makes it potent and true, at least to that moment in time. It encapsulates me coming to some kind of end and searching for a new path forward. As years of scholarship and experience have taught me, however, no story is ever completely finished while we’re living it, meaning that “truth” is a lot messier than we like to believe. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He said it live during the Q&A portion of a lecture I attended at the University of Indianapolis several years ago, and I found it so perfectly stated and relevant to my scholarship I wrote it down: “Allow something to be more than one thing at a time, and the nuances of the universe will be yours.”

So today, I thought I’d complicate my previous post a little by offering broader perspectives with more specific insights and sources. My post served a useful purpose of allowing me a safe space to express what I was feeling, so this is not to say no one should ever just be where they’re at emotionally and vent, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I’m ready to move forward into a more complicated space–perhaps, even, to find some possible solutions that could help. And in so doing, continue to figure out What Comes Next.

The main point of my previous post was to illustrate that the hiring process is inherently biased. All people are inherently biased–this is not new information nor is it some kind of assignment of a character flaw, merely a statement of fact. Our brains are constantly looking for shortcuts to lessen the cognitive load so we can get more stuff done. It’s a lighter cognitive load to make decisions and judgments based on previous information and experiences, which come loaded with culture norms and feelings (and even hormones!), and thus, bias. We all do it. (For a much more in-depth discussion on how we behave as a function of biology, please read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a wildly accessible yet also incredibly detailed explanation about why we do the things we do).

Psychologists report hiring biases occur based on whether they perceive someone is a “natural,” their gender (unsurprisingly, women are judged against more criteria than men, including appearance and perceived likability), and any other identity category such as race, socio-economic status, neurodivergence, disability, and political leanings, and other “flawed” personality traits such as “introversion.” Indeed, it’s even been proven that hiring managers have a difficult time assigning context to a prospective employee’s previous experience (which circles back to my complaint that the entire process is too general to be effective), meaning that the most qualified person isn’t getting the job but the person who performed the best quantitative metrics.

That particular psychology synopsis article by UC Berkley gives a stellar example as to why quantitative data divorced from context is such a big concern:

“John and Dave are applying for a senior management position at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). John works at the Oakland International Airport (OAK), and David works at San Francisco International (SFO). They offer comparable experience. One key measure of performance for the LAX job is the percentage of flights that leave on time at the applicant’s airport. SFO is considered to be the more difficult airport to land planes, in part because it has more overcast days and only two of four runways in use. Therefore SFO rates lower in on-time departures, and John from OAK gets the job.”

John was not necessarily more qualified than Dave for this position. It’s honestly hard to judge based on this information who should have gotten the job because all we have is one metric–we need more context ourselves to make that determination. Dave has probably landed more planes in dangerous and difficult conditions than John. Which is more valuable to LAX? We don’t know. What’s interesting here is that Dave was automatically excluded from being considered the best candidate based on the metric alone.

These biases are inherent only because they are unconscious. Thus, if you make a bias conscious, it’s much easier to move beyond it. There are two ways to accomplish this, and I contend they both need to happen in the hiring process. The first is quite simple and obvious: make bias a part of the process.

In a study linking “beauty bias” to “perceived masculine jobs” for women, when women made the bias a part of the conversation, the interviewer was more able to focus on her qualifications. Now, this study is disturbing, in all honesty. Setting aside the fact that there is a legitimate psychological study on how a woman’s level of perceived attractiveness is an obstacle she must navigate during the hiring process, let’s focus more on the fact that the solution is for the woman to bring her attractiveness out into the open to placate the interviewer. In other words, this is proving true my claim, “You don’t recognize your own inherent biases to judge how I’m “a good fit” are largely based on how comfortable I make you feel while I’m experiencing extreme discomfort,” in my previous post. In this scenario, the responsibility is on the woman to somehow interpret the male interviewer’s – what? His body language? His discomfort? His lack of focus? What exactly clues her in to proclaim something to the effect of, “I know I’m beautiful, but let’s focus on my experience?”

Placing the responsibility on the subject of bias reminds me of the article titled “How Can Introverts Overcome the Barriers to Employment” in Forbes which claims, “Unlike disability status, race or gender, shyness is not a protected class.” (Also) Setting aside how scientifically invalid it is to equate introversion with shyness, let’s focus on the purpose of the claim, which is essentially saying we only overcome bias because we’re told we have to. It has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not getting an accurate picture of the candidate, nor are you hiring the best candidate for the job.

I. . . I just. . .

Thank you, Forbes, for illustrating so perfectly why we need to make bias conscious and conversely how difficult it can be to actually undo and overcome our inherent biases.

In the most academic of terms, overcoming biases is called “delinking,” and the most effective method for delinking is to orient ourselves as humans as always being “in relation to.” (For more on this see an article I co-authored titled “Listening Across”).

In less academic terms, this means that we enter into any human interaction needing to understand:

1. Our position–who are we to the people we’re interacting with and in the purpose of the interaction. This includes things like titles, roles, and identities.

2. Our orientation–how we understand the purpose of the interaction and our own experiences and feelings about it. This includes things like past experiences and emotions.

3. Our relationality–How our position and orientation relates to others’ position and orientation. This includes not just tangible relationships between people but to ideas, events, things, etc. . .

It sounds obvious and simple, but I can assure you, learning to pause to interrogate ingrained norms is uncomfortable, messy, and difficult–which is why a lot of us simply don’t do it. It’s how the study about beautiful women I cited above could still be about the women and not the invisible male gaze on those women. The male interviewers were not asked to stop and ponder their own discomfort or distraction and to bring the bias appropriately into the conversation–that responsibility lied solely on the women. This is where the male should have used orienting, positioning, and relationality to help move the bias to the conscious.

To help us continue to move biases to the conscious, we can spend time in self-reflection, especially in writing so that we can gain distance and perspective. Reading others’ self-reflections and comparing them to your own is even more useful. In other words, write and share your story and listen to others’ stories, and instead of figuring out who’s right/wrong, valid/invalid, allow something to be more than one thing at a time. Both can be true. (For a more thorough explanation on this, you can read my graduate thesis titled “Wayward Stories.”)

A benefit of orienting and positioning is it helps create context, which not only helps us delink from bias, but it makes everything more purposed and specific. One of my loudest complaints in my previous post was about how vague the questions are in most hiring interactions. You may think your question is clear and specific, but a prospective hire has very limited knowledge of your company and what the job entails, especially if, like me, the prospective hire is shifting from one industry to another.

Seeking a deep understanding of the metrics and the job description is useful in making hiring more equitable and accessible. Ask for the exact materials you will actually engage with in the job description. If you require a cover letter, tell me, but also give me parameters so I know what you’re expecting–is it no more than a paragraph? A page? If you hate cover letters and won’t read them, then why am I writing a cover letter? Tell me where in the materials I should give you my argument for the position, instead. Do you want a concise, bulleted resume of no more than a page, or do you prefer specifics with lots of impact examples? How are we supposed to know what magic formula each hiring manager wants (because they vary wildly) if they aren’t specific and clear in the document that even begins the conversation?

Define your terms in the job description. How do you define “culture fit?” Be specific and write it down, then review the list. How does someone prove they are these specifics? And then, do these specifics exclude or disqualify certain kinds of people? For example, if you say someone needs to be a team-player, you might ascertain that a prospective hire can demonstrate this through both qualitative means–perhaps an example–or quantitative–how many team projects have they been assigned and successfully completed? However, remember that successful completion does not really explicate whether the prospective hire was a team-player; they could have been controlling and condescending to teammates, or even the opposite, someone else could have done most of the work. Quantitative data gets valued more than qualitative because it is seen as objective, however you can’t understand the quantitative data without the context of the qualitative, just like our example from John and Dave.

If the interview truly is a conversation, then transparency is the only way to even the power dynamics and establish reciprocity.

Likewise, the prompt, “Tell me about a time you were a team player,” does little to help me as a prospective hire understand how to answer the question with enough specifics to help the hiring manager recognize the metrics necessary for me to land the job. Much like acknowledging and even talking about our biases can help us better overcome them, the second way we can improve the hiring process is: transparency. If the interview truly is a conversation, then transparency is the only way to even the power dynamics and establish reciprocity. I need to know the metrics, otherwise I’ll guess and feel like I’m leaving important things out or saying too much, or some odd mixture of both as I try to estimate based on body language from the hiring manager whether I’m taking too long to answer.

My preferred question format for maximum transparency is:

1. Reference a bulleted item on the job description.

2. Expand on the bullet–give necessary specifics for context.

3. Why do we need to know this? Provide the answer to the question–what am I looking for in asking this?

4. Ask the question in two ways and allow room to respond in between, one that is more conditional and abstract and another that requires concrete thinking through example. The conditional and abstract must come first because it primes the respondent to provide a high-quality concrete example.

Returning to our example of being a team-player, it would look something like this: “On the job description it says we’re looking for someone who is a team-player. This position will work on teams of 5 that are project-based, meaning your team will shift with each project, so we’re interested in understanding how you understand and operate in this type of flexible group dynamic. How do you think you might navigate team dynamics when team membership is fluid? Can you share with me an example from your experience that you think illustrates your approach?”

From this question, I, as a prospective hire, can determine the hiring manager needs to understand how I can manage effective team relationships that are temporary and fluid but that are likely to be intense due to the high degree of focus required to complete the project. I am more able to provide a successful answer that meets the required metric. Furthermore, I am more able to provide two ways to respond, strengthening my answer and the hiring manager’s understanding of my answer.

If you’re screening for “culture fit,” and screening out, you will only ever screen in the people who are most like you.

Which brings me to my final, albeit “unofficial” point: if the interview really is a conversation, then why is the onus on prospective hires to physically practice ahead of the conversation? Prospective employees are told to review potential interview questions ahead of time and rehearse answers. Does this not sound like a performance rather than a conversation? If it was a conversation, there would be more shared responsibility for carrying the conversation forward to its objective, which is why the hiring manager needs to bear equal presence.

My suggestions have turned common interview advice around back onto the hiring manager not because I wish to demonize these people (who are humans, probably tired, may be distracted by family life, etc. . . ) but simply because we have taken the care to call what we do in the hiring process a conversation. If it isn’t to be a conversation, then none of this truly matters and it is a performance. In which case, it most definitely privileges a certain kind of person, especially if I am to show-up and perform without prepared comments–a script. How we label what it is we do in this process matters to our understanding of how we show-up and interact and communicate and make-meaning together. And it takes two to have a conversation.

I’ll leave you with a final word about human behavioral biology, bias, and the system we’ve designed to hire people. I’ve been seeing a lot of wise and worthy calls on LinkedIn from recruiters, jobseekers, and content creators for hiring managers to “screen in” instead of “screening out.” This isn’t just hyperbole, but biology. When our brains label someone as “out” or “them” or “not in,” our brains go to work in all sorts of unconscious ways that impact everything from how we feel to how we make decisions about that person (see, again, Robert Sapolsky’s Behave). If you’re screening for “culture fit,” and screening out, you will only ever screen in the people who are most like you, whether that’s race, gender, class, or any other identity or category marker.

If we’re humanizing the process by undoing our inherent biases through creating context and transparency, then we’re also asking how this person fits instead of how they don’t. In a healthier hiring process, we understand our own biases and the relationship we have to the work and the people. We understand our definition of who fits and who doesn’t and are transparent about our expectations. In a healthy hiring process, we work hard to try to bring people in instead of keeping them out.

Published by kelinmchull

Wife, mother, teacher, dreamer/doer, adventurer, wannabe farmer, writer, and all around curious gal.

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