Sunday, 21 July 2013

Paper aeroplanes in space

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with my friend Nikki about unemployment. After discussing the painful process of job seeking, she composed a sonnet in honour of her desire to work in fast food.
O, trap of grease
How you both fill and fulfill me
Thine stench and texture
Both excite me and envelope me with desire

Of course it was all very amusing, but it got me to thinking about how vile the process really is and hence, this post was born. As an ode to the odious process of job seeking, I have compiled a list of the four worst things about job seeking and unemployment.

Sending a job application is like throwing a paper aeroplane into the void of space and hoping it will crash land on an inhabited planet. You know when you write one that the chances of anybody reading it are vanishingly small, yet you still must spend hours hatefully crafting your work experience into action oriented sentences liberally peppered with offensively bland key words. You hope your flimsy creation will navigate itself through the minefield that is the key word seeking software. This software is like a rapacious, mindless beast, happily rooting for the truffles that are your words. Of course, everyone else's resumes are likewise splattered with these meaningless pieces of jargon so the truffles are more like undergraduate degrees, too common to be interesting to, or even acknowledged by most HR professionals. Which leads to depressing fact the first; It has been estimated that 75% of applications will not be acknowledged in anyway.

Your application has been successfully launched into the empty vacuum of space

Now I will acknowledge that unlike the majority of the statistics I provide on this site, I do not have an academically rigourous source for this statistic. The Googling I did however, kept coming up with this figure and it tallies pretty well with my own experience, so I invite you to think about whether it tallies well with yours as well. Considering that with an electronic application system it takes exactly zero effort to acknowledge you application and send out a generic email when the position has been filled, I think there is no excuse for this egregious breach of basic human etiquette. I may not be your ideal candidate, but if I have spent 3 or 4 hours on an application for your company, the least you can do is set up an automatic notification system to let me know I am going to continue to live on baked beans for at least another week. Psychologically speaking, this whole process of sending a resume and getting no response is totally non-reinforcing. In human and animal learning, if a behaviour (say posting a Facebook status) is consistently paired with something you like (Facebook likes), this will increase the likelihood of your performing the action in the future. But if you perform a behaviour and receive nothing at all consistently, you stop doing it. Even worse, people hate being ignored. It is why ostracising is such an effective social punishment. So hearing nothing becomes a punishment. The behaviour of submitting a resume actually starts becoming associated with a punishment, making you even less likely to submit resumes in the future. That is why studies have consistently found that the longer you are unemployed, the fewer job applications you do. This total lack of basic human etiquette is actually damaging to psychological well being and motivation.

Which brings us neatly to the second depressing reality about job seeking and unemployment. Long term unemployment is extremely bad for your psychological and physical well being. There are numerous studies showing that long term unemployment is associated with increased incidence of major depressive disorder, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being and poor self-esteem ( They are also six times more likely to commit suicide ((Bartley et al, 2005) and one author has estimated that the effect of being long term unemployed is equivalent to smoking ten packs of cigarettes a day (Ross 1995). Stop and let that one sink in for a while. Unsuccessful job seeking is actually toxic. Of course, the correlation runs the other way too, with the unemployed more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours (Waddell and Burton 2006). As Mansel Aylward, director of the Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University so elegantly said "“Sickness and disability are among the main threats to a full and happy life; work incapacity has the most significant impact on individual, the family, economy and society."

I love you sweet desk job

Of course to get a job, you must go through the process of applying for a job, which brings us full circle and to the third depressing reality about job seeking an unemployment: Resumes are written in a totally revolting and inauthentic style. There aren't many things as depressing as pretending to be enthusiastic about things no sane human could ever have a legitimate interest in.  Could anyone ever write the following sentence “I am passionately dedicated to statistical analysis and generating actionable insights” without wanting to punch themselves in the nose? I wrote that gem myself and felt dirty afterwards. The language you have to use in crafting these masterpieces of doublespeak. Resumes and cover letters require a revolting stylistic mix of self-aggrandisement and slavish servility that most people rightly feel is artificial and ridiculous. There is nothing authentic about the way you express yourself in a resume, right down to the bizarre syntax you have to use to being every sentence with an action word. Here are a few choice extracts from my resume:
• Pioneered several bespoke statistical calculators for use by all analysts
• Created innovative analytic technique for analysing data for a major medical device company
• Successfully presented results to a variety of international clients
Reading this makes me hate myself. It makes me hate anyone who could hire me after reading it.

This collection of words may be single handedly responsible for preventing intelligent aliens contacting earth

The final depression reality about the job seeking process is probably the most depressing one on this page. The system of resumes and cover letters can be as effective in picking the correct candidate as picking at random. That’s correct; depending on how you conduct the process, you are as likely to pick a good employee by flipping a coin or throwing a dart at a bunch of resumes stuck to the wall, as using the cumbersome HR machine. This finding comes from a meta-analysis examining the efficacy of a number of inputs into the selection process (Schmidt, F. L. & Hunter, J. E . (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin,  pp. 262-274. As an aside, a meta-analysis is a sophisticated statistical technique that uses studies as individual points of data instead of individual people as a standard experimental study would. They are an extremely powerful technique that can give a good estimate of the real size of an effect in the general population.
This study of studies found that out of 20 possible information sources, the information contained in your resume including reference checks, job experience, years of education and interests ranked 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th at predicting job performance. The only things worse were your interests, graphology (the defunct science of analysing your handwriting) and your age. The best predictors were work sample tests (performing a test run of the main tasks you will be required to perform) and your general intelligence. Structured employment interviews came in third, with unstructured coming in 9th. In an ideal scenario, employers are picking the 13th-17th best predictors of job performance to whittle down a list of potential candidates, and the 3rd (or 9th) best predictors to make the final decision. You could set up a psychic hot line recruitment business and perform as well as the standard process for employee selection. On second thoughts, forget that, I have a brilliant idea for a new business.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who should be my PA?

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