Recruiting Needs an Update: A Q&A with Ilana Gershon

An anthropologist studies the strange culture of corporate recruiting.

By Tamara Lytle Mar 22, 2017
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gershon Anthropologist Ilana Gershon usually has to go far afield to study baffling new cultures. But for her latest exploration—into the foreign world of corporate hiring—she didn’t even need to leave the country. Gershon spent a year in the San Francisco area among HR leaders, hiring managers, recruiters and job seekers. “All I had to do was talk to people in HR to feel like Alice in Wonderland,” she remarks.

Gershon, an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, found that there is plenty of upheaval in today’s hiring processes, which she details in her book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today (University of Chicago Press, 2017). A new order has emerged where employees are no longer bound to companies and vice versa. Rather, people have become businesses of one, offering employers bundles of services on a temporary basis. This shift, and the boom in recruiting and hiring technologies, might sound empowering, but it has brought discontent to many in the hiring chain.

How has the employer-employee relationship changed, and what does it mean for hiring?

The long-term relationship between a worker and a company that depends on loyalty isn’t part of the deal anymore, so technologies designed for recruiting full-time employees are frustrating to HR professionals looking to hire for short-term contracts. LinkedIn tries to address this by encouraging people to imagine themselves as businesses independent of the companies they work for.

What’s driving workers to take short-term stints?

Economic pressures. People have been told they can’t have long relationships with companies. This began happening in the 1980s and 1990s, when business leaders decided they didn’t want to invest in employees because they were more focused on short-term profits and pleasing shareholders. This is the major change. It has transformed what it means to work and what commitments people have to employers and what obligations organizations have to employees and communities.

Your book devotes an entire chapter to LinkedIn. Why has that platform been so dominant?

Every job-search expert will tell you that you need to be on LinkedIn. The platform lets you stay in touch with people with whom you’re connected through work but don’t necessarily want to be friends with on Facebook. It also helps you stay in contact with individuals who aren’t in jobs for long and therefore are frequently changing e-mail addresses.

Have technology and social media increased the likelihood that a business will hire the right people?

They’ve made hiring more complicated. Online job boards have changed how people find out about jobs, so today there’s a wider pool of applicants. But someone has to sort through that list. So HR has developed tools that force standardization based on superficial factors such as keywords—and that frustrates job seekers and recruiters alike. 

On the hiring side, HR professionals aren’t satisfied with applicant tracking systems because, without the sensibility of a human being, the technology often screens out candidates that are absolutely fine. Job seekers are irritated because it’s such a guessing game to figure out which keywords they should put on their resume or application to get noticed. What they really need is someone who can vouch for how they work. People—and workplaces—are much more interesting than our current tools reveal.

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What’s the best strategy for processing online applications so that good candidates aren’t missed?

Start by thinking about what your workforce needs and then sort the applicants based on that. Think about the actual work you are asking someone to do, especially the parts of the job that will be an issue if the person isn’t doing them well. Is there a way to create a short test case of how an ideal employee would tackle a particular task? It might look different for every company.

But coming up with your own playbook takes time and resources.

It’s saving you a penny and costing you a pound when you hire the wrong applicant or you’re not getting candidates who fit the dynamics of your workplace.

What’s the worst (but commonly given) advice for job seekers?

To develop a personal brand. No recruiter or hiring manager I talked to seemed to care about that. You’re supposed to define yourself by three or four words and make sure your online presence reflects those [words]. That takes time away from other things you could be doing to develop yourself as a job applicant.

How does hiring in academia differ from hiring in corporate America?

In academia, I see examples of how candidates would do in a potential job at each step of the way. I get writing samples. I observe teaching demonstrations. I see how they interact with students.

In corporate America, I was struck by how difficult it is to decide who you’re going to hire when all you have in front of you are resumes along with notes from brief phone calls from references. Corporate recruiters find the use of resumes to be an extremely inefficient way of determining whether someone is a promising candidate. They need to see evidence of how people accomplish things, rather than brief, puffed-up metrics that don’t explain what people were actually doing. I ended up with a lot of sympathy for people who have to hire.

You interviewed dozens of HR people and recruiters. What’s the most surprising thing you heard from them?

Someone told me she got a resume that said, “May the force be with you.” She hired him. She said maybe that meant he had a sense of humor that would fit well in the workplace. People are happy to have any glimpse of who they are hiring. 

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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