Not What You Know

Freddie, now on his own blog, is worried about hiring practices:

The last couple of years have seen my friends begin to start their honest-to-goodness careers, as opposed to jobs that were by design short-term. I’d say that among people I would call friends, a good two dozen have gotten long-term/serious jobs in the last couple years. And here’s the thing: literally none of them got there jobs without some sort of “in”, a personal connection that got them the job.

Now, look— I know that this is about the worst way to assemble evidence, and I’m not trying to make any kind of scientific point here. But I do think that this is a common phenomenon, and I imagine if the average reader asked around, he or she would find something similar. I have to think that this is an error in a classic capitalist sense, and hurts the efficiency of markets under which businesses are supposed to operate. I’d like to know what a more enthusiastic capitalist than me thinks about all this.

A couple points to make: I got my first job in Washington as an editor at a think tank right out of college with no connections, no internship, no friends in the business — nothing but a resume and some work samples. I didn’t even live in D.C. when I applied. That was in 2005. So anecdotally, anyway, it’s still possible to break into competitive fields without schmoozing.

On the other hand, my sense is that, yes, it is really difficult to get many jobs without some sort of personal connection. But is that really so unreasonable? On one hand, when hiring for a mid-career or senior position, employers will almost always end up looking at people with multi-year track records in their field. It’s entirely understandable, I think, for employers to give preference to those people who they can find out about in advance. Why go with an unknown quantity if you can get someone who’s been vouched for by a reliable source?

This is an even greater problem when hiring for the entry level/junior positions which Freddie seems to be speaking about. How in the world is an employer supposed to make a good judgment about not just talent, but reliability and social compatibility, based on an interview or two, a few work samples, and a resume? The fact is, those just starting out in a field simply don’t have the work history on which to make a judgment about their abilities. So employers end up seeking additional information, and that usually means trusted sources who can vouch for their character/talent/reliability. It’s true that this isn’t always fair. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable for employers who’re risking an awful lot of time and money on someone to go with the safer bet of someone who’s been given a good reference.

Additionally, I suspect it’s often not even that those with connections get preference so much as it is that they get inside knowledge of the details of the system — they’re coached on how and what to say. Talk to person A, make sure to mention that you’ve done this, bring up your time with Professor Blahblahblah, tell him all about your experience in L.A., he loves that sort of thing, etc. etc. The hiring practices and mechanisms of many companies can be labyrinthine, and those with connections often succeed not because of some malicious or lazy favoritism but simply because they’ve got a willing guide to the hiring gauntlet.

The problem, I think, is when employers mistake their friends — golf partners and drinking buddies — for good judges of talent and reliability. Coming from a friend who knows little of your field, “My son’s got a friend who’s very interested in that sort of thing” probably isn’t the best guide to talent. Nevertheless, it often results in a response of, “Oh yeah? Well, have him call my assistant and we’ll set up a time to talk.” So the trick, I think, is smarter nepotism, based on ability rather than friendship. Employers ought to strive to be better judges of who’s qualified to recommend new hires.

(By that same token, all of us should take care when we recommend people within our fields, and not simply give them a pass because of some pre-exisiting friendship. And on that note, I’ll finish this post by recommending Freddie’s blog. Because it’s good!)