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October 02, 2005

  • For Demonstration Purposes
  • In hindsight, I should have seen that it wasn't just right.

    Recently, I was interviewed for a position. That is, as they say, a good thing, but there was something kind of…fishy about the whole process.

    The job, as near as I could tell, was hardly advertised at all—it wasn't even posted on the organization's own website. And the interview itself was so soft as to be less an interview and more a conversation. I was being interviewed by solely by the executive director (I've never had an interview that hasn't had at least two people present representing the organization), and the conversation seems to be a pleasant chat about my past job experiences. There's not a single question that asks me how I handled actual situations or how I might handle theoretical situations. There were no questions about work style, group dynamics, or actual testing of aptitude beyond a proofreading test. And although I was asked to bring writing samples they were read while I was doing the proofreading test and given back to me just before I left.

    It was no surprise to me when I received an e-mail informing me the position "has been offered to another candidate whose experience is even more closely matched to our current needs". Maybe they did find someone who was more closely matched. Maybe my interviewer was simply not very good at interviewing. (The interviewer seemed smart and she had clearly done some research on me.) But my suspicion, based on past experience, is that's just code for "We hired the person we had in mind in the first place but thank you for helping us go through the formality of demonstrating we had searched widely". I was, in fact, the demonstration interview.

    Ah yes, the demonstration interview. The real candidate has already been chosen but due to internal HR process, or internal politics, or immigration procedures, they need to have someone else apply and often interview for the job just so they can say they looked.

    I'll never forget the worst incident of this. I was interviewing for a job I really wanted for an institution I practically idolized. I bought a new outfit for the interview. I spent the entire week researching the organization. The interview went well enough, too. But then came the phone call telling me I didn't get the job. That was disappointing, but what really galled me was that the interviewer telling me I didn't have the job was actually honest with me. "We really liked you, but we went with the internal candidate who's been doing the job."

    That was hard, but by that point I had least had some experience of this, starting with the time I was passed over in favour of a candidate who was being laid off by a sister organization and was guaranteed a job within the organization I was applying for. And another one, where I later found out that they hired someone who had done contract work for the organization for years.

    Most of the time, this doesn't get as far as the interview stage. Usually, they just want the demonstration resume. An organization will advertise for a job with an already-anointed internal candidate and just use the resumes for comparison purposes. The last time I was unemployed, a number of the positions I applied for and never heard back from were (I later learned from people with connections), in fact, never in serious contention to begin with. They were there to stave off an HR process or internal politics.

    I've seen the other side of the fence for this as well. One organization I worked for had a position opening with an internal candidate—the internal candidate really wanted the job, the direct supervisor really liked the internal candidate, but internal politics were such that the organization nonetheless advertised the position and even interviewed for it…before giving the job to the internal candidate.

    The process stunk in my mind, but I'm hardly one to point fingers. When I lived in Britain, my employer made an ultimately futile effort to get me a permanent work permit to stay in the country (I was working on a temporary visa). To do that, they had to demonstrate that no one else in the UK could do what I did (and given that I was a common-garden administrator that was an uphill journey) they had to advertise for my position in the Times. Twice. And so twice I had to sift through resumes for my position, knowing full well none of these people stood an actual chance of getting it, and watch my supervisor have a conversation with the two or three ‘candidates' we selected. I felt shitty about it then, and that experience has always stayed with me.

    Perhaps I'm karmacally getting payback for this now. Or, as a repentant sinner, I truly see the sheer injustice of it. Whatever the case, I'm askance when employers waste the time of people who are honestly seeking employment. A good job application takes time to prepare if you factor in writing a decent cover letter that actually responds to the job ad, and any tinkering you might do with your resume to suit the job. I would rather spend that time on a job where I actually have a chance, however slim, of possibly getting it.

    And this is the crux of what bothers me: I don't mind putting the 2 or 3 or more hours into crafting a job application if there honestly are better people than me. That's just life. I mind when it's a fait accompli and they're just using my well-crafted job application and resume to justify hiring the person already doing the job. Likewise, I don't mind if they choose someone who's a better fit than me after interviewing; I mind if the fit was already there to begin with.

    To my mind, this is a fundamentally deceitful practice on the part of employers that perpetrate it. But what really, truly, troubles me about this is the fact that I most encounter this with non-profit agencies who should, to my mind, know better.

    In some ways I can see why this is done: the HR processes in non-profits are so dedicated toward making the hiring process fair. That often means every job needs to be advertised, regardless of any internal candidate. What then happens is that these organizations have to concoct bogus job postings and bogus interviews as a way of justifying why they want to hire a person that really should get the position due to merit.

    Merit is a dirty word in most non-profits (and in many for-profit companies with well-developed HR departments). I've never understood why. A person is the best person to do a job, hire them. If that's unjust toward the faceless mob that never gets a shot at it, well I'd rather that happen than the fraud that can be perpetrated by employers. Of course I want non-profit agencies to have fair hiring practices, but I want them to have honest ones too. That organizations dedicated to improving the welfare of others give such little thought to the people who are wasting their time and energy applying for already anointed positions seems at best cynical and at worst hypocritical in the extreme.

    In the end, all I can do is keep applying for jobs and keep showing up for the interviews. I recognize that the job application process is something like gambling—the house always wins. I just don't want the house to be rigged. I don't think that's too much to ask for.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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