Why the Job Search Is Like ‘Throwing Paper Airplanes into the Galaxy’

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Matt Nager / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Job seekers work on computers at a Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas employment center in Irving, Texas, Nov. 19, 2009.

“Wanted: smart, creative, dedicated individual to design efficient system that matches companies’ job listings with people looking for work. Contact the HR industry.”

It’s a tough assignment. On the one hand are job seekers who submit hundreds of applications online with little effort, but also with little hope of receiving a response. On the other hand are companies, inundated with resumes, that resort to blunt-edged tracking systems to quickly weed out candidates, including potentially qualified ones who don’t conform to established criteria.

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It’s not surprising, then, that the process can be frustrating for both sides. As Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli notes, “Applicant tracking software makes it almost impossible for [a job candidate] to stand out, at least at the initial screening step. It is a binary process” — requiring yes/no answers — “based on searching for key words associated with credentials and experience. If you learned Java programming in Antarctica, it is no better than learning it in your local community college from the perspective of the software.”

In addition, says Cappelli, the fact that “there is virtually no feedback from these systems” on the part of employers “makes applicants feel helpless. They don’t know what it means not to hear back. If they are rejected, they don’t know why. It can easily seem random.” Or, as one job applicant recently put it: Sending out resumes is like “throwing paper airplanes into the galaxy…. they seem to go into a big, black hole.”

As for companies, “they have been a victim of their own success in using social media tools” to advertise their job listings, notes Christopher Ellehuus, managing director of the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), an Arlington, Va.-based research and advisory services firm. “They built a bigger pipeline than they need,” which ends up drawing applications from far too many unqualified candidates. “Now these companies are paying the price of having to sift through them all.”

For Job Seekers: ‘Broken’ from the Beginning

According to Gerry Crispin, co-founder of CareerXroads, an international consulting firm focused on recruiting technology and staffing strategy, the hiring process “has pretty much been broken from the candidates’ perspective” for decades. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, he says, many companies believed that the process should include informing applicants when their applications were completed and also notifying them when the job had been filled. In an effort to determine whether this still holds true, Crispin and his partner every year apply, under assumed names, to positions listed by employers of the “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For” list. In 2011, 27 of those companies informed Crispin or his partner when the job was filled, which means that 73 of the companies didn’t.

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Why not? After all, as Crispin notes, “almost all companies have the capacity to search for every applicant and send each one an email response in literally 90 seconds…. The problem is partly laziness. They have built systems, but failed to tag these kinds of issues.”

Last year, Crispin and two others formed The Talent Board, a non-profit foundation focused on recognizing companies that provide job applicants with an “elevated” — i.e., positive — application experience. As part of the effort, the Board announced the start of annual Candidate Experience Awards, which are determined by surveys and interviews with both employers and job candidates. Fifty-eight corporations applied for the award, and more than 11,500 candidate surveys were collected in the process.

About 20% of those candidates who were finalists for jobs “said they were ignored by the company” during the application process, says Crispin. “So even among the finalists, we see this loss of connection to corporations that have not felt it necessary to engage the applicants.” And that, Crispin notes, can have consequences. “In these days of social media, consider a retail firm that has 100 applicants for every opening. It interviews maybe four or five candidates. It hires one but ignores the [other 95]. What is the likelihood that some of those left hanging will stop buying their products” and tell their friends to do the same? “Companies are beginning to calculate the cost of poor candidate experience.”

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If large corporations continue to treat applicants poorly, “then the best and the brightest might spurn them as well,” suggests Crispin. “I think an increasing percentage of these people are saying they don’t want to work for big companies, but [would prefer] a startup or a small company. How we treat people — from the moment they start thinking about applying to a company — matters.”

One caveat to discussions of job hiring etiquette, according to Wharton management professor Iwan Barankay, is that companies have “strong legal limitations on what they can say.” A concern that job candidates might file lawsuits claiming discrimination in hiring means that companies “tend to give only very general feedback. That isn’t going to change,” he says. “If applicants want to know why things didn’t work out for them, the obvious answer is that other candidates were better qualified. If you get the job — that’s positive feedback.”

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