Thursday, October 09, 2014

What's a Résumé?

David Brooks complains that kids today, at least those coming out of elite colleges, are too perfect. A big part of his lecture to prospective employers is about their résumés and cover letters:
If you work in a white-collar sector that attracts highly educated job applicants, you’ve probably been flooded with résumés from people who are not so much human beings as perfect avatars of success....

When you read these résumés, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity....

Reward cover letter rebels. Job seeking is the second greatest arena of social pretense in modern life — after dating. But some people choose not to spin and exaggerate. They choose not to make each occasion seem more impressive than it really was. You want people who are radically straight, even with superiors.
I don't want to overstate the case, as traditional résumés and cover letters still play a role in a lot of hiring, but the trend is toward having an initial review of job applications performed not by a person but by a computer, and also toward LinkedIn, a site where employers and recruiters can look for people who may be interested in a position, see their experience, review endorsements, and look for connections who they might trust to give a candid appraisal of how the person is likely to perform on the job. And that's on top of the long-standing issue, "It's not what you know, it's who you know", with roughly 80% of jobs being obtained through connections.

As others have argued, one of the reasons why the graduates of elite colleges have résumés that are similar in documenting certain forms of high achievement is that the colleges have defined those classes of achievement as the path to admission. If colleges and employers change the criteria, applicants will conform to the new criteria.
Would you prefer that applicants have lower GPAs? Ask it, and those students will show up at your door. Do you want them to not have any global travel experience? Ask, and the next batch will assiduously avoid or hide it. If you control something incredibly valuable and name a price, don’t be surprised when those willing to pay show up at your door. Make “experienced a major life setback” a requirement for admission to Yale, and you can be sure that parents will get their kids hooked on meth so that their kids can explain how they struggled with and eventually overcame the problem. Businesses will set up summer meth camps to make it easy. The next David Brooks column will complain about applicants being uniformly perfect avatars of success in this newly defined way. “The I learned I lot from my meth habit” will become the new “I learned a lot from helping those people in Mozambique.”
Brooks also misses the primary reason why arbitrary criteria are used to distinguish between job applicants. Employers cannot interview everybody, so when swamped with applications they will find ways to narrow the applicant pool to a reasonable number of candidates. It may be that the criteria are in many ways arbitrary and unfair, that a job doesn't actually require a college degree or a high GPA to assure good performance, but if you're looking for a quick way to reduce a stack of applications setting a minimum education requirement or a minimum GPA is one way to do it, and may be better than the alternatives. Sure, that may mean that somebody who has overcome significant life obstacles is ruled out, even if he might be a perfect fit for the job, but how can you (or your keyword-scanning filter) identify such a candidate as a promising applicant from hundreds of other candidates applying for one job? Odds are, even if you were to look for it, that information won't even be present in the candidate's résumé or cover letter.

As Brooks has previously pointed out, there's another side to the coin -- the "perfect" résumé may indicate that the applicant is a good cultural match for a job. Now it may be true that getting some new blood, some different ideas, into a stiff and moneyed workplace could actually improve the workplace, that's not necessarily what employers want:
Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities. When they get there they often find a culture shock.

They’ve been raised in an atmosphere of social equality and now find themselves in a culture that emphasizes the relentless quest for distinction — to be more accomplished, more enlightened and more cutting edge. They may have been raised in a culture that emphasizes roots, but they go into a culture that emphasizes mobility — a multicultural cosmopolitanism that encourages you to go anywhere on your quest for self-fulfillment. They may have been raised among people who enter the rooms of the mighty with the nerves of a stranger, but they are now around people who enter the highest places with the confident sense they belong.
Back then, Brooks was describing this as the result of meritocracy, with students striving to distinguish themselves through their accomplishments. Now Brooks is arguing that the very same students are not distinguishing themselves, but are conforming to an arbitrary and often meaningless set of standards that may not mean much in the workplace. He may be correct about the standards, but it simply cannot be the case that the students are simultaneously distinguishing themselves and rendering themselves indistinguishable. As Brooks then noted, the brand name of the institution can be more important than the relative qualification of the graduate -- an arbitrary standard that Brooks does not touch in his new essay.

There's a message for employers within Brooks essay that is valuable, and I think it can be boiled down to this: Don't focus on arbitrary criteria instead of figuring out if you're hiring the right person. Particularly with college graduates, odds are you're hiring somebody who is going to grow into the job, who will have to do a lot of learning during his or her early years of employment to become a significant long-term asset to your company. If you focus on other factors, even those that seem objectively reasonable, you can end up with a highly qualified person who simply isn't a good fit with the job, the company, or both.

Law school graduates may appreciate this argument:
You could argue that you don’t actually want rich, full personalities for your company. You just want achievement drones who can perform specific tasks. I doubt that’s in your company’s long-term interests. But if you fear leaping out in this way, at least think of the effect you’re having on the deeper sensibilities of the next generation, the kind of souls you are incentivizing and thus fashioning, the legacy you will leave behind.
In many law firms, being able to document that you are an excellent drone is what gets you your first job, and large law firms require a constant inflow of new drones. You can worry about your soul if you make partner.

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