The Modern Job Search: A Dehumanized Insult

Comparison, they say, is the thief of joy. LinkedIn, where the modern jobhunter is inevitably diverted, is all about generating professional comparison. Amid the infinite scroll of your network’s promotions, new jobs, and attendances at the latest nugatory conference, there is a new sidebar where LinkedIn fills you in on a grab bag of encouraging and discouraging news, to keep the balance.

Recently, one of the news items on my sidebar was something about the applicant tracking systems (ATS) widely used in hiring by ever-growing human resources departments. I had heard about these, but decided to do some more research to find out how exactly they worked.

When looking for a job, much “expert” advice focuses on getting people to craft specific resumes for each job posting. And at this point, the conventional job search wisdom that cover letters should be written anew for each job posting goes without saying. With these guidelines in mind, anyone interested in applying to a job they care about will spend at least an hour, likely more, parsing through their resume to choose what stays, what goes, what needs to be added, and what needs to be rewritten. Additional time goes to crafting a new cover letter after researching the relevant person in the department he’s applying to work in — another standard piece of terrible advice.

Then, once the resume and letter are ready, you often have to go through the tedious task of filling out the exact same information contained in your resume in a proprietary system, i.e., name, education, experience, and so on. Remember, as the cautionary note goes, submitting your resume does not mean you’re excused from this bureaucratic tommyrot.

After the mind-numbing task of copy-pasting everything from your resume to the application form, you waste additional time cutting the characters to fit the arbitrary limits some programmer instituted in the page’s text fields and deciding whether it would be easier to just type out certain things instead. Finally you click the SUBMIT button and naively expect that given the hours you’ve spent on this single application, you’re going to receive the civilized, common, decent courtesy of having another human being read your application.

No, you sap! That’s not how it works.

Enter the ATS. That whole long application you filled out is sent to a computer that processes and grades it according to criteria that you will never know. Besides the question of whether you have the right sex, color, or education level, you are also graded on whether you used the “right” keywords the HR bureaucrat who set up the system decided you needed to use, coincidentally or deviously, in order to get a passing grade.

If you get a passing grade, you may be put in a pile that further processes the desirable traits of the worker and selects out any flaws. You’re on your way to becoming the viable employment candidate version of a Chicken McNugget.

Or maybe you finally gain the distinction of having your resume viewed by a real human. If you do, research shows they probably cast their eyes over your application for about six seconds.

The length of time spent on resumes that get through to HR bureaucrats means that the “human” has trained herself to scan for keywords, like a computer. This exercise is performed in the hope of gleaning information that might escape the binary rigidity of a computer algorithm. In effect, your sincere, laborious effort to provide all the information required of you in the most customized format for that specific position you can manage requires all of a mere moment of algorithmic analysis and scoring to decide if you’re worthy. That’s all you get.

The time you spent, the effort you made, the interest — passion, even — you have for the work must be convincingly conveyed to someone from HR. That person conceivably has little idea what the job requires, beyond the job description grudgingly and always-verbosely prepared by the hiring department head’s secretary, trusty thesaurus in hand.

This process is immensely difficult to undertake.

Some time ago I applied to a large multinational company. Just a few minutes after submitting my application, I received an email saying that they didn’t believe I was a good fit for them. I was astounded that they were able to read and reject my application so quickly before realizing that it was an automated response based on an evaluation of my credentials and keywords by a computer.

It bugged me, sure. But I much preferred this to the pretense other companies perpetuated in taking weeks and sometimes months to respond with an automated rejection, making it seem like they went through a process equally laborious to mine in deciding that I wasn’t the right fit. If you’re going to use an ATS, at least make the blow of the sword swift.

More likely at the slow-responding company is that the already superfluous HR bureaucrats are busy avoiding reading applications by hand. They’re focusing instead on modifying one of their evaluation forms that rate humans on a scale of 1 to 5, after returning from a recent offsite training session on the benefits for HR bureaucrats of participating in regular offsite training sessions.

The HR industry is a lucrative one, and as it’s modernized and professionalized, it’s done what many fields in business today have done: swap souls for silicon. Hiring professionals now use a bewildering arsenal of strategy consultants, efficiency matrices, and algorithms to eschew human judgment and interaction for the “efficiency” of an industrialized, codified assembly line.

Maybe I’m just a bitter Millennial who’s found yet another thing to complain about. Or maybe I’m a throwback who values the notion of personal reciprocity: if I make a goodwill effort to convince an employer that I’m the right person for the job, I expect that the employer will extend me the courtesy of giving my application an honest look before tossing it in the trash.

Maybe if I’m not laughably underqualified, they could be so human as to write me a brief note with a trite but believable lie as to why I was rejected, and sign off with a “keep your chin up,” not worried by HR bureaucrats that including such a closing might offend me were I someone without a chin.

Originally published at Arc Digital on February 15, 2020.