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Editor's Blog ,

Employers: Mind Your Attitude (A Rant)

Recently, I applied for a job online. No, I’m not looking for a change. I was following up on a tip from an online acquaintance who had described her own experience applying to this organization. The process of applying, she wrote to me in an e-mail, squelched any enthusiasm she might have had about working there. I was curious, so I tried it.

When I talk about applying online, I’m not talking about registering on a Web site then uploading a cover letter and CV in pdf or Word formats. I’m talking about a Web app where you fill in several pages of forms and answer multiple-choice questions. It took me a couple of hours to complete the application.

My conclusion: I agree completely with my online acquaintance. The process was disheartening. Even though I’m not looking for work, there’s always a little thrill that comes from new possibilities. But by the time I was finished, I knew I didn’t want to work for that organization. Here’s why.

Looking for a job is a stressful and difficult business, but it has its rewards. It encourages you to think hard about your capabilities and to reinvent yourself. You’re called upon to present yourself at your honest best, which can lead you to look at yourself in new ways. When applying for a particular job, you have to think hard about how you might fit the position, an exercise that allows you to see how useful your skills could be in a new context. It’s a creative process. It can all be very encouraging, and it can make you more productive and employable.

Dave Jensen has often encouraged job applicants to customize their applications to match particular openings, and I concur. This may mean rejiggering a CV or resume, but mostly this work happens in the cover letter. The cover letter is where you put on your best face. It’s an opportunity for reinvention, to reintroduce yourself to the world (OK, strictly speaking, to reinvent yourself for a particular employer). And a cover letter, of course, is not a work of fiction: It’s a genuine rethinking of your capabilities, an honest attempt to bridge the gap between the work you’ve done before and the work you’d like to do. It’s a creative act.

As I worked my way through this online application, I kept wondering: When do I get to the point where I submit my cover letter? When will I have the opportunity to make my best case, to present myself on my terms?

That opportunity never came. There was no cover letter. First, I filled in some personal information. Then I described my educational experience, and then my work experience, via a series of multiple-choice questions and online forms. The core of the application was a series of very specific questions aimed at discovering whether I had ever done precisely the kind of work the new position would require me to do. The cumulative effect was skeptical and severe. When I was done I felt I had been raked over coals.

Have you ever had an interview with the interviewer didn’t seem to respect you — who seemed suspicious about all of your claims and challenged everything you said? Just replace the human being on the other side of the desk with a Web app, and that’ll give you an idea of what it felt like. I was being called on to justify myself, not on my terms as I would have done in a cover letter, but on theirs. To a Web app. 

Hey, I get it. I can see the advantages for the employer. It’s probably a rather efficient way of screening out applicants who don’t have the necessary education or experience, and they probably get lots of those. It may also screen out people who don’t really want the job. There’s something to be said for hiring motivated, job-seekers, but read on.

What they don’t seem to realize — or perhaps they just don’t care — is that they do not hold all the cards. Job-seekers have some say in the matter. Just as employers decide who they want to hire, job-seekers decide where they want to work. Smart, creative scientists have opinions and options. If you use an alienating online job app, the desperate will still apply, and perhaps take the job if offered. But those with alternatives and self-respect will look elsewhere for work. This organization is likely to lose its best candidates.

Furthermore, the application process sets the tone for all that follows. I understood clearly from this exercise that if I were to go to work for that organization, I would be expected to stay in line, to do exactly what I was told to do. I understood — or at least inferred — that creative work would be discouraged. I doubt that’s a message they want to send to their future employees. 

This online job app sent me a very clear message: We do not respect you or your experience. We are going to dictate the terms here. If you have a problem with this, work elsewhere.

Which is precisely what I intend to do, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.