One reason why you didn’t get the job you were perfect for: can we ask companies to stop the fake job Dog & Pony Show process?

CATEGORY: EconomyMillions of Americans are looking for jobs, and they’re using a wide range of approaches: want ads, online job boards, headhunters and recruiters, networking, these are common approaches. But in an environment where there are far fewer jobs than candidates, none of them are working especially well.

Sometimes, though, you wonder how you missed out. In the past 10-15 years I have seen and applied for plenty of jobs. Some I was qualified for (based on the posted requisites, anyway). Some I was marginally qualified for, at best. And some I was perfect for. In a number of cases I was so perfect that it seemed like the only difference between the job posting and my résumé was my name and contact information at the top of the page. This may have happened to you, too.

But … you didn’t get the job. You didn’t get an interview. A lot of times you didn’t get so much as the courtesy of a form rejection letter. How is it possible that you could be so ideally qualified and not even get a sniff? Well, there are several possibilities:

  • Competition: when they get 500 applications for one position, there are likely a lot of other people who look as good on paper as you do.
  • Self-delusion: sometimes we’re not as qualified as we think we are. Unfortunate, but true.
  • Failed communication: crafting a winning rez and cover letter is an art, and your submission may not tell your story as well as you think it does.
  • Human Resources/Staffing: even when you do everything as well as it can be done, there’s no telling who’s reading on the other end. I don’t want to overgeneralize or unfairly demean an entire profession, but my experience with HR folks through the years has left me underwhelmed. I know some talented exceptions, but as a rule corporate HR and staffing managers aren’t rocket surgeons.
  • Misleading job descriptions: being perfect for the position in the posting isn’t always the same thing as being perfect for the actual job they need done. Last year a recruiter sent me something she thought I’d be good for and asked if I might be interested. I said maybe, but I’d need to know which of the two people the ad was describing was the one they really wanted, because in all my years in marketing and communication I had never seen anyone – anyone – who fulfilled all the required and desired qualifications. I was golden for the communication half and would be solid for about 60% of the strategic functions it outlined, but that’s the best I could do. Too often, the people writing reqs put down everything they can think of that would be nice if they could get it and wait to see what comes through the door. Other times there’s less correlation between what they need and what the ad says they want than there ought to be. And in some rare cases (I went through this a few months back, too) the hiring company simply has no clue what it wants or needs.

There’s also another phenomenon that results in a “perfect” applicant not getting the job (or the interview), as well, and it’s entirely possible that you have been victimized by it. I’m talking about what I like to call the Dog & Pony Show Process, where there isn’t really an available job at all.

Oh, there’s a job. They’re accepting applications and everything. But the truth is that the job is already filled, usually by an internal candidate. The only reason they posted an ad is because the company has an HR policy requiring them to. These policies are standard in government organizations and just about every corporate entity of any size does it, too.

Not only does it suck that companies waste our time with a put-up application process and faux-interviews, it’s actually not a great feeling if you’re on the other end, either. Back in the late ’90s I took a position with a contracting firm providing services to US West. After a few months USW decided to bring me inside, so they went through the prescribed process for new hires. I was told explicitly by the Director of Employee Comm, whom I’d be reporting to, that the job was mine but that they had to jump through the hoops. So I sat at my desk one day and watched two “candidates” walk down the hall to his office for their “interview.” I never met them, but they were probably sharp, qualified, and acting in good faith.

Unfortunately for them, they were on the wrong end of corporate America’s version of a pig party, and if you don’t know what that is, look it up. I was glad for the opportunity, but I felt terrible about how the company was jerking these innocent people around.

Dog and Pony Show policies are designed to serve an important purpose, but they fail. If you don’t know why companies behave this way, the answer is actually fairly noble. I’m sure we’re all familiar with good old American know-who – the old boy network, it’s not what you know it’s who you know, etc. We’ve seen people handed opportunities based on connections and relationships despite the fact that others might be more qualified. To some extent this is natural – I don’t bid out every possible project when I have a vendor that I know I can count on, for instance, and there are companies out there who know that when they call me they’re going to get everything they need and more. When we have professional relationships with friends, that exaggerates the effect.

Smart companies want to make sure that they’re getting the best candidate for the job, though, and not just the one with the best pre-existing relationship with the hiring manager. So they institute policies that require an open search, that three candidates be interviewed, and in many cases that a minority candidate be included. When managers in the company need to hire an agency or a vendor company for a project, the same kinds of strictures apply – you may have to solicit bids from three providers, etc.

All of which is appropriate – organizations with processes that lead them to retain the best talent are going to have an advantage in the marketplace.

The problem is, as we’ve already noted, the policies don’t work. They don’t keep Director Bob from hiring his old buddy Fred, they just require Bob to put on a good show before hiring his old buddy Fred.

Meanwhile, several hundred people took the time to apply. Many of them are currently unemployed. Many of them are working full-time trying to find work, and there are opportunity costs associated with the application. It takes time to send off a résumé. Depending on the application process (which with some companies is simply ridiculous anyway) it can take an hour or two to do it right. Really dedicated candidates, the ones doing it the right way, take longer, customizing cover letters and the rez so that their application materials speak directly to the company’s needs. It’s not hard to imagine that in many cases, these are the ones selected for the fake interview, which means the Dog and Pony process victimizes the best and most dedicated the worst.

For all these applicants there is an investment – in time, and in hope. When the unemployment rate is 10%, hope is about all some people have, and few things are crueler than fostering false hope in those who need opportunity as desperately as so many in our society do.

Dog and Pony Show job postings are unethical, at best, and it’s easy to carry the question further, into realms that are explicitly about morality. It simply is not right or fair for a company to intentionally and systematically waste the time of potential applicants when the position is already filled. That the process is the result of noble intentions is irrelevant.

If a company is genuinely committed to open application processes, then it’s up to leadership to endorse and enforce the philosophy, and it begins in the C Suite where the CEO makes a point not to hire his/her running buddies. If the company wants to slot an existing employee into a new position – a perfectly defensible move in many cases, as these people usually know a good deal about the business already – then just do it. It’s the company’s right to act in this fashion and it may be the best idea.

Just don’t insist on the D&PS.

What can you do about Dog & Pony Shows? Obviously you don’t want to be a D&PS victim, so when applying for jobs here are some things to consider:

  • Review the job posting carefully. Are the requisites a little too specific? Many organizations that are required to conduct a D&PS will tool the job posting so that it’s very specific in ways that almost no outside candidate can hope to meet.
  • What is the company? Government agencies and larger corporations will have D&PS requirements, whereas smaller companies are less likely to inflict the cost and inefficiency of a put-up job on themselves.
  • Do you know somebody at the company? If so, they may be able to tell you if it’s a real job or not.
  • What the heck – pick up the phone and call HR. You may get lucky, if you’re nice. Say that you’re very interested, but the wording of the ad makes you wonder if the job is already filled. You may get an off-the-record hint one way or another, and the call will take less time than the application process.

One more thing: copy this post (or the URL) and send it to every HR manager you know. And every senior executive you know. And every middle manager you know. And every businessperson you know. Make them think about the implications of their actions.

And ask them to stop. Things are bad enough for job-hunters in America already. Piling on is inexcusable.

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16 replies »

  1. I’ve wondered about this myself. At the public university where I work we just went through several of these. The President retired. Why didn’t we just promote the Provost to Pres, the Dean of Arts and Sciences to Provost, the Chair of English to Dean of A&S, one of the English profs to Chair, and then open a search for an English prof? Instead, it took about 3 years as each search opened up, we hired the in-house person, and then had to open a new search for the newly vacated position, rinse, repeat. Now I was not on any of the hiring committees so I don’t know how seriously they looked at the “outsiders,” but it’s obvious the insider had the advantage.

  2. I work for a state agency that I will not name/mention. At this point it is actually a LEGAL requirement that we open every job search and cannot just directly hire someone internally. The other part of this though is that we may have to hire someone less qualified than the internal person because vetrans/disabled people get preference (by preference I mean auto hire), again by legal mandate.

  3. there is another reason, since human resources managers need to assure fair and non-discriminatory practices are maintained, many companies are implementing automated system with complex algorithms because when somebody submits an application it is better at making sure each person is held at the same standard. I was told this by a guy who was my dad’s doctoral student. When I was laid off and was not getting anywhere, he was giving some resume insight. In the end, it all comes down to who you and even that is not enough because somebody else might know somebody at higher level than your side guy.

  4. Pretty much every federal job above the entry level peon stuff is like this. We were recently converted to GS employees from contractors and we were on a hire by name list. I was told at the end of this process that I was the ‘most qualified applicant who applied’ – yet I’ve applied for 20-30 almost identical jobs in the same field and never heard anything more than ‘referred to hiring official’. On the down low I heard they passed over a PhD (in our field) with 30 years experience to hire my boss who has no degree and 10 years experience.

  5. Excellent post. Working in research circles, you see this a lot. So much so that you get to wondering if searching outside of your department is even worth the effort knowing that there’s a good chance they have someone already lined up. I’ve never heard about the phenomenon explicitly described or brought to the public’s attention so good on you for pointing it out. I’ll be sure to pass this around.

  6. Weird. Having never ventured into corporate or government employment, this is news to me. It’s like the opposite of union rules…or the book printer i worked at that wasn’t union but functioned just like there was a union. In those cases, job openings are always opened internally first. Only if they can’t be filled does the posting go outside. (that pretty much never happens)

    America…such a weird, fucked up place.

  7. As job postings get more and more specific and the process becomes more and more automated, more people can be considered at length. As the mundane hiring rituals like resume reading are transferred to optical character recognition software and what-not, more focus can be placed on finding legally defensible reasons to reject more people. The only way to get to the HR persons heart it to show you are a risky person to NOT hire. Mentioning your lawyer in the resume is preffered! In reality, a good programmer should be flooding the e-resume services just to make the point for people.