Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Employer Culture

I recently applied for a job in Wyoming. It was an entry-level reporting position in a small town, and it was advertised via an unusual posting that seemed to encourage a unique cover letter from me. I delivered that, received a response that may or may not have been a form letter, and, on its request, replied with a confirmation of my sincere interest in the position.

The original ad put more emphasis on the setting of the job than on the job itself, and the response really drove that home, emphasizing that the remote location was “not a romantic getaway by any means,” which “might not suit everyone.” My cover letter clearly outlined how I had always hoped to live and work in a remote location after graduating from college in the big city, and that the job seemed perfect for me. In my confirmation of interest, I disputed the notion that it wasn't a romantic getaway, and made it clear that in any event it was a place I could see residing happily, especially if I had a career to build upon there.

The editor sent a form letter to all still-interested applicants to the effect that she would have more time to go over the applications after a specific date. A week after that date she wrote to me directly to confirm that I was not to be interviewed, and in that brief message, she emphasized yet again the apparent insecurities of her entire organization regarding its setting, and explained that she had found someone who she thought would bring a lot to the paper while also enjoying the surroundings.

When I actually hear back from no-longer-prospective employers these days, I am no longer shy about pushing them to the limits of their patience in pursuit of explanations, and in this case I was really confused. I wrote to ask her if I had somehow given the impression that I wouldn't have been able to tolerate living in the sort of remote region that I had just used two sincere letters to explain that I specifically wanted to live in. She kindly pointed to a specific line in my second message. This was the comment that sunk my application:

Speaking more generally, I'm not so concerned with what the job or its surroundings can bring to me, as with what I can bring to them.

Am I crazy for being nonplussed by her reaction? That line came after two solid paragraphs of explaining why the job and its surroundings appealed to me, which followed upon an entire prior letter of the same, and yet all of that was apparently wiped from this editor's short-term memory by my decision to make the point that my values make me more interested in doing a perfect job than having a job I consider perfect.

I can't interpret this in any other way than that I was refused an interview for yet another job that I would have done fantastically well because I was insufficiently selfish. The briefly-prospective employer has given me the distinct impression that the job went to somebody whose application placed more emphasis on how much he wanted someone to give him that job, and less on how well he would perform its duties.

It's another example of the seemingly backwards hiring practices that have been dogging me for six goddamn years, and I took the opportunity to press this person on it, writing back:

I've gotten a certain impression many times over from people responsible for hiring. In your capacity as such a person, which goal would you rank ahead of the other, if you had to choose between them? 1) Finding someone who will do the best job. 2) Finding someone who is least likely to leave the job.

I give her a lot of credit for having been so communicative with me overall, but her response to this question was pathetic:

It depends. I try to find a good balance between the two.

Did I not make myself clear? I know she tries to find a good balance between the two. What I asked was which one was more important, and she simply dodged the question, avoiding any acknowledgment that there is a fragile value system at play in hiring practices. And though I can't wrest a confirmation of this from anyone in a position to give it, I consistently get the impression that human resource departments and hiring managers are interested in finding people just good enough for the open position that the company won't have to do anything to keep that employee on board, because they'll probably never get a better offer.

Other people that I've known have been crippled in their job searches by this employer culture, as well. Acquiring more qualifications often seems to harm job seekers more than it helps – such as teaching at the college level when one is looking for a career in early childhood education. It's evidently not worth taking the risk on hiring a good educator, a good writer, a good anything, if there's a good chance that their ambitions extend beyond the position one is looking to fill.

Obviously no one has admitted to this outright, but this most recent editor rather distinctly suggested it. Her rejection of my application was phrased so as to directly contradict the line that sunk my application, the one in which I said it was most important to me that I bring value to the organization that hires me. She wrote, “The job and its surroundings are to me much more important.”

Much more important than what? Than the person you hire being a good worker, a talented writer, a committed journalist, a person of decent character? All of that takes a backseat to believing that the job and its surroundings are exactly what the applicant wants and that nothing will tempt him away from whatever you're to offer him?

Anecdotal evidence doesn't count for much – you can always find some example that supports what you believe about the world – but at the same time that I and others I have known seem to absorb the damaging effects of these employer practices, I know of one person who appeared to be decidedly on the good side of them.

My ex-girlfriend never graduated high school, having gotten a GED instead. When I met her she had not been working for a longer period of time than I. During the time that I knew her, she routinely quit jobs without notice. I later found she took the same approach to relationships – find something better, sever ties immediately. Despite the fact that her resume didn't suggest impressive qualifications and the fact that she probably didn't have great references from prior employers, she had little problem walking out of one job and into another.

Why on Earth was she capable of being hired immediately, whereas if I applied for the same jobs my resume would be rejected without so much as a phone interview? The only logical conclusion I can come to is the same observation about employer culture. I can easily imagine hiring managers looking at her past history and deciding, “this girl doesn't have a lot of prospects in front of her; we'd be offering something that she should be truly grateful for.” They may have been wrong on both points, as to her graditude and her future outlook, but her mediocre resume gave them good reason to believe that hiring her wasn't a gamble.

With every job I've had, my managers have regarded me as having a work ethic that exceeds that of my coworkers. My performance and responsiveness to training have been roundly praised. The one time in my life that I got to work in an office, I received a year-end bonus that exceeded that of the person who had been promoted out of my position, even though I had only been there for six months. Despite all of this, actually finding a job is damn near impossible for me. I don't have a bit of doubt that I would perform the responsibilities of any job that I applied for with more competence and conviction than just about anyone competing with me for it. But I'm nearly as confident that that's not primarily what employers are looking for.

Of course, it could be that I'm taking too positive a view of myself. It could be that I'm just a terrible applicant. But I'm not about to assume that explanation in absence of evidence for it, and I'm certainly not getting any from the sorts of employers from whom I'm seeking jobs.

Previous to applying for this job in Wyoming, I was rejected without interview for another one that I was even better qualified for, and which was also out of my area. When I asked why, the editor did see fit to get back to me, but her response was utterly meaningless on point of qualifications. She said only that the person she hired "had what she needed." But she also pointed out that he had grown up in the area of the job, so I rephrased my question and asked whether, if I'd had the same qualifications I do now but had grown up in that region, I would have been at least interviewed.

Her response still makes me angry, and I expect that it will for as long as I struggle to have a legitimate career before the end of my twenties. She wrote back with one line: “Ed, I'm sorry. I'm not going to break it down.”

I had asked a straightforward yes-or-no question. I was looking for some indication, even if perfectly vague, as to whether my inability to secure a simple interview was attributable to being underqualified, overqualified, or simply having qualifications different from those that match the sorts of jobs I apply for. I didn't ask her to answer to any of that, though. All she had to do was say “yes,” “no,” or even “maybe.” To do so would have taken less effort than it took to type what she did.

To date, I can't conceive of any reason why she would respond that way, other than to be deliberately rude. This is my entire life we're talking about, and all that a person like her needs to do to give me a little more insight into why it remains so far off the rails is to say either “yes” or “no,” and she couldn't even do that.

I guess in light of that I should feel very pleased with the Wyoming editor for putting forth the effort to dodge my question in a way that at least seemed like an answer. Maybe that counts as progress.

No comments: