April 17, 2017 @ 2:26 PM

An Anthropologist's Peek into Behind the Scene of Hiring

By Ilana Gershon, Professor of Anthropology at Indiana UniversityIlana Gershon

I recently published a book on the hiring ritual, Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don't Find) Work Today (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo25799564.html). There is always a risk of disappointing readers when writing an anthropological book about hiring for the general public. Anthropologists like to analyze how social interactions take place, and they don't like to give advice about what people should do. But what most people want to know about hiring is how to get a job, which is perfectly reasonable. I have been spending time since writing the book trying to think of what insights I have from interviewing hiring managers, recruiters and HR people that might be useful to job seekers, even if it doesn't come neatly packaged as advice.

One of the more interesting things I learned from interviewing the people involved in hiring is that they often struggle with a common problem in the workplace - that sometimes doing your job as well as you possibly can means that you are preventing someone else from doing their job as well as they can. This is very obvious when you think of medical examiners who are trying to determine a person's cause of death. Emergency medical workers are always frustrating medical examiners, because in the process of trying to save someone, they are often destroying the evidence that the medical examiners want. At the same time, medical examiners are often frustrating morticians, because in doing autopsies, they often have to dissect the body in a way that gives morticians a lot more work when preparing a body for a funeral viewing. As people are doing the best jobs they can in dealing with a body, they are making it that much more difficult for others to do their job well. It has nothing to do with people's personalities - it is the nature of the jobs.

A similar dynamic can happen in hiring. For HR people to do their job as well as they can, they have to make sure that all the hiring processes are legal. This takes time, and often slows down the process. The recruiters meanwhile don't care that much about legality, they want to fill job recs as quickly as they can. At the same time, hiring managers often have to focus most of their attention on the other tasks at work - they don't necessarily have as much time to devote to the details of hiring as everyone else would like them to. After all, they are hiring because they need more people to do many of the tasks at work that might currently be falling on their shoulders. So while everyone is trying to do the best job they can, they are often getting in each other's way. The conflicts aren't about personality, although people often think it is, the issue is everyone's structural role in the hiring process. All of this tends to be invisible to the job applicants, who may be left to wonder why there are some mysterious silences when everything seemed to be going so well. Just remember, it may be about some predictable tensions in the workplace.