Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Job Hunting - The Two Things You Need to Demonstrate To Get Hired


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My background has included years of personal job hunting experience. I've pivoted careers multiple times. Along the way I attending numerous workshops seminars, read dozens of articles, and tried to find an answer to that very common question - what does it take to get hired in the modern job market?

After going through all of that, here's my single favorite characterization of what the job hiring process ultimately boils down to. In broad terms, getting hired is about two things...

1) Can you do the work? Can you show you have the right skills?

2) Do we know you? Do we like you?

And that's basically it. That is, in general, what a hiring process is. Getting answers to those two main lines of questioning. 

Some obvious caveats apply. This is industry specific. A doctor needs a medical degree and, in most countries, to have a medical license. Many jobs, especially in the public and academic sectors, have certain "check the box" minimum requirements including advanced academic degrees or professional certifications. Certain fields are so in need of help that it barely matters what your background is. 

Beyond those fairly obvious field to field differences, I find that the above generality works extremely well as a baseline for how to think about what a given employer is looking for. Your goal, as a job applicant, is to show how you best answer those two lines of questioning.

If that's feeling a little under-explained, here's some additional detail on this idea.

Criteria 1 - Can You Do the Work?

At the end of the day, what is a job? Some sort of task needs doing. It could be more abstract. It could be more concrete. But some task is involved. So the person doing the hiring wants evidence that you can either perform, or in some cases capably learn to perform, that task or set of tasks. 

Somewhat shockingly, it's very rare that a degree or training program, in and of itself, actually meet Criteria 1. Degrees help with bureaucratic minimum requirements, especially in government positions. Beyond that though, people want to see relevant, applicable direct experience. They want to see or hear about specific coursework (whether it's part of a degree program or not). They want to see or hear about specific example projects.

The classic trope of entry-level job, "two years experience desired" makes a lot of sense with the logic of Criteria 1. Almost never does someone want to cover the risk and cost of a new trainee. Experience demonstrates that you can do the work, and that's exactly what Criteria 1 cares about.

So the advice here is acquire real-world experience however it can be acquired. Try to use real-world scenarios in school projects. Volunteering, while exploitative from a social justice perspective, is nonetheless a potential avenue for this. 

If you want to do the work - show you can do the work.

I really, really wish training was more directly supported from a social structure viewpoint. In modern Western culture, we've placed responsibility on the individual. Culturally, it is your job and your responsibility to figure out how to show an employer the answer to Criteria 1. It also explains why privilege, systemic barriers, and inequality becomes such problems and factors in the reality of the inequitable playing field. We do not live in a meritocracy of opportunity for skills training. 

Criteria 2 - Are You Trustworthy and Likeable? (Why Networking Matters)

It can be sometimes easy to forget, but jobs aren't just about tasks. It is, fundamentally, also a social endeavor. Even the most introverted and isolated jobs still involve occasional contact with other humans. Given that context, the other part of jobs is an employer deciding which types of people they want to work with.

That could mean many things, but one model to at least start to approach this idea with is two key parts of the social relationship - trust and likability.


Hiring people is an odd thing because, in many cases, you're interacting with total strangers. You typically don't decide who to marry after a one hour interview. But it's just the briefest of social interactions that determine who you're spending 40+ hours a week with?  Very odd. Very risky. 

To avoid hiring strangers, many employers will, well, not hire strangers. They want to hire people they already have a relationship with. And can thus trust more than a stranger. Or, if not the direct hire themselves, they hire someone who was recommended by a trusted colleague. In fact, many job opportunities never make it to the stage of being publicly posted. There's enough colleague-built recommendations that a recruit is picked solely from that pool of pre-existing relationships.

This is why, and what, the idea of "networking" is about at its core. It's a large part of maneuvering oneself into a more advantageous position for meeting Criteria 2. And that doesn't have to be some outright nefarious or manipulative plot. It's the reality that it's more comfortable and less risky to hire people where there's some pre-established relationship instead of a total stranger. It makes sense from a basic human nature perspective.

It's also then, given this idea, extremely odd how little of the education process involves networking components. There is, to my mind, shockingly little interaction between employers and schools. Yes, within that, there's a debate about academic freedom versus education serving industry. But education is, very much, in part about equipping oneself with an ability to be employable. Networking is part of employability and is mostly missing from "career preparation" as a socially-supplied commodity. 

While we wait for a social revolution, what can be done in the meantime? Since society deems it our personal responsibility to generate networks for ourselves?

It won't always be easy, but a lot of creativity can go into this. Informational interviews are a good tool. Meaning - you can a stranger and ask them about their job. Great way to learn more about what skills matter to better meet Criteria 1. And, after the conversation, if it goes well that's one more person who's now not a stranger and has potential to assist with Criteria 2.

Other options include going wherever professionals are. Information booths. Career fairs. Conferences. Volunteering. None of it's guaranteed, but there's a lot of humans out there to potentially meet. You'd be surprised who you can outright directly email in this modern, connected, digital age.


Still in the category of "work as a social endeavor", but separate from trust is likability. I hate to say it, but if you thought popularity contests ended in high school, well, they don't. Leaving aside social justice equitability and fairness for a moment - it makes some sense. It's nicer to work with people who you mesh with. It's unpleasant to work with people you don't mesh with or worse. So, human nature will favor likability. 

The management-speak term for this is "workplace culture", and one bit of common advice is trying to find a workplace where there's a culture match. 

To be clear, likability isn't an outright prerequisite for a job. People need someone skilled (Criteria 1). Not everyone gets along. Plenty of people wind up in jobs with people they can't stand. But, we're kidding ourselves if we think likability isn't a huge factor in hiring.

At its worst, this includes outright discrimination. Even with legal protections in place, it's abundantly clear that discrimination is still an issue. It's yet another challenge to the myth of a meritocratic (a.k.a. fair) work environment.

Short of outright identity-based discrimination, there's also a complex ethical question about fairness and where the line is between "having to learn to get along" versus not forcing personality incompatibility and instead trying to build a workplace of people who generally enjoy each other's company. Lots of middle ground there that could be its own article series.

Apologies for going a bit deep there on the question of which aspects of this are just and which aren't. The takeaway for this article is - a fact of the hiring process is that a key part of selecting job candidates is getting judged on which are most socially likable to the person or team doing the hiring.

Regarding advice on this front, two things to note might be..

1) Criteria 1 can absolutely supersede likability issues. The more skilled you are, the harder it is to base a hiring decision on Criteria 2 judgements.

2) Trying to aim for jobs, or even entire generalized career paths, where you're a better fit with others doing that type of work. That is advice strictly and solely from a "hireability" perspective. 

Concluding Thoughts

This is a first draft attempt at writing this article. May come back and adjust. Always up for hearing lived experience feedback on whether this rings true or not. Might include some other tips or resources (for example, could add a link on how to conduct an informational interview).

Also, for a reading recommendation critiquing career advice culture, I highly recommend the recently published book The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality by Erin Cech (link to book overview from the publisher).

Good luck in your job hunts, and remember that society is constructed to blame you and you alone for job hunt failure. That does not fully align with the reality of the situation, and we can keep ask and pushing for accountability beyond just the individual. While trying to still do our best in the meantime.

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