“You have a gap in your CV. Why?”
“So what did you do in those six months in between?”
“Aha, I see that you were self-employed for one year. Ehm, ehm…”
“This sequence of employment does not make any sense to me. Why did you switch from Promoting Rotten Cabbages to Demoting Jigsaw-Edged Pineapples?”
Guest post by Meursault, Part 1.
Most of us want to have a job. We need it to earn money, which provides us with access to basic resources. We aim to satisfy the lowest level of our Maslow-pyramid: to have shelter, water, food. Even sex. But we want more than this: a job shall provide us with a social status.
When they ask you at a party “What do you do?”, it is more reassuring to respond “I am a corporate lawyer in Rockbottom Bank, Inc.” than to say “well, I am not sure, I’m trying to figure out myself”. People at a networking event with brains numbed after the consumption of two glasses of chilled & cheap rosé wine will only resonate with strong company brands (Fortune 500, preferably). If you need to explain it, they will not understand or care. Or worse, you will say “I am between jobs”. No man’s land. You want to be IN a job, not outside of it. You get an awkward smile and an “I see”, then embarrassing silence.
First, a job gives you the illusion of financial stability (the dream of steady and ever-growing income). Having a job, you feel safe. You can enter into long term financial obligations (buying the newest smartphone on debt or take on a mortgage). You can apply for an Amex card. Bad news for you: the circle of the “elite” is getting smaller (and richer), while real wages in many developed economies are stagnating or decreasing. You can’t even count on the prospect of a steady cash-flow anymore, as job security has been demoted to the level of fairy tales. You can’t just aspire to be middle class, as you risk aiming too low.
I call the desperate quest for finding a Job in today’s automated and crowded environment the Curriculum World, which is mainly a numbers game. Success is based on how much you can rig the system. The basic tools of the game are well-known:
- To play, you first need a CV (Curriculum Vitae, résumé): a one-pager that enlists some of the activities you have been carrying out in your life under codename work. The CV helps the recruiter to put you in a box and never let you out of it again. Certain experiences (or the lack of them) will frame you for a lifetime. Even worse, most CVs — as it is a commonplace — will never be read by a human being, but trashed by an automated application tracking system. Wording will matter: you might be a super skilled in dealing with clients, but if the position title is “account management”, you will be eliminated as quickly as a plumber for that position.
- The cover or motivational letter is an artificial piece of text you would normally never write and no one would ever read. The system makes you write it, and — in theory — makes someone else read it (funnily, this is the opposite of literature: written for pleasure, read for pleasure). The cover letter serves to reinforce the initial box you landed in thanks to your CV and to further explain why you had your gap year, emphasizing how much you appreciate and how honorable you find the great possibility and that they spared those 20 seconds for you to open that otherwise useless document, etc, etc. After spending hours writing and editing your piece, you will receive an automated rejection letter anyway — or no response, ever.
HR is called HR for a Reason
According to the system’s logic, people are treated as “human resource”, with their main attributes summarized on a single sheet. Mr and Mrs Bullet Point are measurable. You will be categorized with the help of pseudo-scientific methods like Myers-Briggs (almost as efficient as hiring based on zodiac signs); compared and eventually FIT to a pre-defined role. They might also make you calculate the area of triangles and the angle between two arms of a clock at 14:33 PM in order to complete your humiliation, but these pleasures are mostly reserved for consultants.
You are required to use “skills” to describe your “strengths” and the various “activities” that you have been carrying out in your employee life. Preferably all you did is “measurable” and “actionable”. You can be a “team player”, possess “outstanding communication skills”, be an “advanced user in Microsoft Excel”, “an avid lapdancer” and “obtained 45.5% of revenue growth in the course of 3 months”. What matters is a sense of achievement and the degree of match with the job description, which was born in the recruiter’s head.
“I will ask my friend in the Bazooka-Booming Department to FIT your PROFILE to the role”
— told me a helpful friend of mine regarding an application to a supposedly modern-era & thus theoretically enlightened start-up. The representatives of the Bazooka-Booming Department said they need someone with “native Italian” language skills.
They never bothered to call me to confirm that I actually speak Italian fluently. It was the actual tag that mattered. Someone deep in the HR department runs the algorithm, and if most of the keywords in your papers matches the ones outlined in the position (and your application otherwise “makes sense” for them, i.e. no gaps, too large or unexplainable deviations from the average), they will give you a call.
Otherwise they don’t. But it is not all their fault.
We are all Instant Meals
Tags help the recruiter instantly put you in a box, which will be your final destination. Bankers go to the bankers box. Auditors go to the auditors box. Bakers join bakers (sometimes bankers join bakers, but only because the recruiter made a typo). Et cetera.
She needs to put you in a box to make his or her life simpler, as she receives 1,000 applications a day and does not have the time to ponder the uniqueness of each candidate. Thus the baker talented in adding numbers and dreaming of becoming an accountant will most likely always remain a baker, even if he completed a part-time accounting course next to his pastry-making activities. Why? For instance, he does not have “work experience” in accounting.
Today it is only one click for you to send your application, and one click for the recruiter to send it to the black hole of non-existence.
There is no time. You spend your lunch at the desk. KPIs are ticking and waiting. Shareholders are looking at quarterly numbers. Your boss is asking “how you are doing”. Quarterly numbers are both driven by and drive targets. Targets are allocated by management and divided between teams. Team heads hand out the targets to individuals. They land on the recruiter’s desk as well, who needs to meet a weekly allocation of accountants.
No time for stopping to ponder whether the baker has a point. Who cares? They will be remunerated for a successful placement, and results need to be produced before the end of the quarter. We are all running in the same gigantic hamster wheel that never stops. You can never run fast enough.
The Human Source
HR departments should choose a new name, something that respects the human aspect of HR’s role and the essence of why you work with people (and not robots, at least for the moment). I could not agree more with the adjective “Human”. Let’s keep it. However, “Resource” sounds like a Harvard-Soviet buzzword that treats employees as mere building material that can be divided, multiplied and optimized.
True, changing words is one thing, but truly altering the meaning requires more effort. People started to use “issue” instead of “problem”, in order to express a more optimistic approach. As a result, the word “issue” gradually started to mean “problem”. No one uses it anymore, especially not in discussions with clients. It means there is a pending shitstorm that has 100% probability to hit us in the face.
Another naming “issue” that drives me crazy is when employers say of a good performer: “He is a valuable asset.” Frontline soldiers in the meat-grinder of the trench war or the builders of the Great Pyramids were treated like assets. Human history has been the constant fight of elevating humans from being treated as assets to becoming individuals. If a slave carrying stones all day at the construction site of Khafre’s pyramid had a great voice and dreamed of becoming a bar singer, or had world-changing thoughts on arithmetic, chances are he brought his aspirations not to the X-Factor or Harvard, but to his early grave.
Individuals are messy. They are peculiar, have their own whims and needs. They are non-standard. People naturally know what they like and what they don’t like. Most of them are naturally creative and enthusiastic in their own way, only to be broken down by standard processes and frameworks.
The breaking-in process starts in kindergarten. One of my earliest childhood memories is that we were obliged to go to sleep in the afternoon. I did not want to sleep, I wanted to play. I want to sleep now, but I am obliged to sit in front of a monitor. Thus the system grinds us, and thus the light in the eyes of most fades by the age of 18, slowly reducing our aspirations from becoming astronauts and world explorers to the level of paying bills and “to make a career”.
“You need to convince yourself!”
— told a friend of mine (who applied to banking) told another friend of mine (who was contemplating to apply to banking), when the latter expressed his doubts whether he should go for the role.
He never went to banking.
It is easier to adjust our preferences and values to the circumstances, rather than shaping our circumstances according to our needs, by creating our own alternative way of living. At one point we made a compromise: “It pays quite well, above the industrial average” — “It is not so bad overall, they pay for coffee and parking space” — “In the end I always loved to make phone calls to complete strangers” — “It pays the bills…”
To tell the truth, I have been doing the same. Most companies want us to do things we would not normally do. We accept whatever they put on our plate — for money. This is exactly what prostitutes do. As the late Péter Záboji said once in one of his presentations:
we should find our vocation and do something we would be willing to PAY FOR doing.
Corporations do not like individualism, but their fate eventually depends on human creativity. The eternal management challenge is the following: how to make people work together efficiently in some sort of a structure for the same purpose, without turning them into brainless, burnt-out foot soldiers, who in the end can perform only 3 functions: duck, shoot, run and mercifully/pathetically die?
You will never have a soldier trained to perfom these 3+1 functions to paint a Chagall for you. A soldier can also get into trouble for daydreaming, finding his brains on his sketch of a singing-bird. Viewing the company as a military organisation is an outdated approach, as the complexity of the economy requires adaptability and space for creativity. But most companies still can’t challenge their own status quo.
A Chagall. Don’t expect it from your Borg unit born and raised in the Hive
NEXT: What can be done?
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Featured image: Hendrick Van Cleve III: The Tower of Babel (16th century)