Is the Job Candidate “Experience” a Thing?

It’s enough of a long shot for a company to care about the “experience” of its employees—a long shot because, despite the great examples set by our Training Top 125 companies, too many companies still don’t. But how about companies caring about the experience of job applicants?

Training company Fierce Conversations, in its predictions for the New Year, thinks more companies will focus on how their job application process is perceived by candidates: “As the market heats up for talent across industries, ensuring those applying to work at your organization are accurately vetted, and have a positive experience during the interviewing process, is becoming increasingly valuable.” Fierce predicts that in the New Year there will be a renewed focus across organizations to improve the experience of the recruiting and hiring process for both the hiring organization and candidates by asking the right questions, understanding that the hiring process is a two-way relationship, and veering away from more traditional interview styles. “Organizations should continue to solicit feedback from candidates, both those they hire and those they don’t, and look for ways to continually improve their process,” the company says.

Oh, the experiences I’ve had as a job applicant over the last 20 or so years, and the experiences my friends have had! I wouldn’t call it so much an experience, but rather a trial or travail. The classic negative experience job seekers encounter, which progressive companies might want to avoid, is the practice of suddenly going incommunicado with applicants. It’s the opposite of medical testing, in which no phone call from the doctor’s office is usually good news. Most experienced job seekers know that no call or e-mail from a prospective employer is almost always bad news. We have that knowledge—that no response is a bad sign. And yet not hearing anything is still excruciating. It’s not excruciating when you’ve simply sent a cover letter and resume in. It’s excruciating when you’ve applied, gone in for an interview, which went well, came back for a second interview, which seemed to go well…and then nothing. You send thank you/follow-up e-mails to show you’re still interested in the position, and nothing.

In one case, 13 years ago, I went for a successful first interview at an art magazine, completed an assignment of making recommendations on how to revamp the publication’s Website, and then was asked back for a second interview—with the president of the company that owned the magazine. The man I had originally interviewed with, who headed the Website, liked me so much he even encouraged me to ask the president for more money if the topic of salary came up, because he felt my original request was so low that I wouldn’t be taken seriously (no prospective employer since then, by the way, has suggested I ask for more money). The second interview didn’t go like gangbusters, I felt, but it also didn’t seem damaging. And yet, I heard nothing. Having gotten so far, I suddenly was cut off, the way a person might cut off without further explanation a friend they believe to be toxic. The man who originally recruited and interviewed me—my supporter—eventually sent me a cryptic e-mail that said something like: “No word yet, but it’s all good.” I never heard anything further from him, or anyone else at the company.

Are there ways of reforming this practice? I have to tell you, it’s very inhumane, and even traumatic, when it’s a job you really want, and have gotten close to getting.

The next job application experience I believe needs reforming is cutting back on the chances that an applicant will be judged on the basis of crazy things. I wish I could call the factors my friends and I have been judged on something more scientific than “crazy things,” but I’m not sure I know what that more technical term would be. First there’s what happened to me. I interviewed for freelance writing opportunities with the new boss of an editor I had previously written for. He liked me, and thought I would be a good freelance addition to his publication, which was under new management. I had what I thought was a pleasant and productive meeting with him and his boss, the publisher. I didn’t hear anything for days afterward, and became less hopeful. After repeated e-mails, the editor called me, and told me his publisher didn’t like my writing. When I calmly questioned which aspect of my writing, and explained that I could change the style of my writing in any way necessary, the dark truth emerged—his publisher didn’t like one of the bags I was carrying! Before you start imagining that I was carrying in a bag with pornographic images on it, or another design that might be shocking, I’ll tell you: I was carrying a red bag with “Ray-Ban” printed across it, which I got at a trade show. Coming directly from work, I was using it to help carry a few things that didn’t fit in my usual work bag. It was a nice, clean-looking bag. Apparently, she had taken offense that I would bring a bag I got at a trade show to a job interview (even just a freelance job interview). My sister experienced something similar, with a headhunter telling her that a prospective employer was put off by the tiny shopping bag she carried, along with her purse, into a job interview. As far as the employer was concerned, we were both literally and figuratively carrying baggage.

One of my friends took a job interview question too earnestly, and had the nerve to answer honestly when the employer asked her what she would write about if she could write about anything. It was a technology magazine, and by that time she had already discussed in detail her knowledge and preferences regarding technology writing. But when asked that question about her dream writing job, she said her dream would be to write about elephants. And that was the end of her job prospects with that publication.

What can companies do to ensure applicants do not fall prey to the judgmental whims of hiring managers? Is there any safeguard that can be put in place, so hiring managers focus on determining whether the person is capable of delivering the work that needs to be delivered, rather than getting sidetracked by nonsense, or in some cases, looking for nonsense to dismiss an applicant? Sometimes hiring managers who cite nonsense or inconsequential minutia as reasons to dismiss an applicant are looking for something to justify a prejudice. My editor friend told me that the hiring manager who fixated on my bag has a track record of not liking to work with women younger than herself. When she works with a younger woman, with whom she feels competitive, she torments the younger woman (her perceived rival) until the younger woman quits or is made miserable. I wonder: Would my bag have mattered to her if I were 10 years older than her?

With all the recruitment and hiring metrics you track and analyze, do you also evaluate the experience from the perspective of the job seeker? What improvements do you feel you could make?


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