A Shortage of Fairness in a World of Jobs

“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.”

“I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”

In fact, in job seeking—in industry at least—it’s usually the rule-breakers who get ahead.

― Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury

Why is it that scientists—who work daily among the chaos that exists in every aspect of nature and the universe—seem to require an orderly and fair process in their job search? Why the focus on fairness?

After my last column, “The Path of a CV, 2014 Edition,” was posted, I had a few exchanges with a postdoc who wasn’t comfortable with the process I had described in the article. He didn’t like the fact that the candidate who got to know the hiring manager bypassed the large pile of applications and ended up among the finalists, with an advantage. “It’s not fair,” my correspondent insisted. “It’s gaming the system, and it’s just not right. Such practices should be discouraged,” he said.

I couldn’t help wondering: discouraged by whom? By me, presumably, but I’m not influential enough to change standard hiring practices, and I’m not about to advise my readers to make bad career decisions just because the process isn’t 100% fair. Beyond their basic legal obligations—not to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, age, disability status, and so on—companies must always focus on hiring the best person they can find for a job. If fairness means that everyone plays by a shared set of rules, the idea that the process was ever fair is just a naïve assumption.

In fact, in job seeking—in industry at least—it’s usually the rule-breakers who get ahead. This is reasonable because rule-breakers show that they understand that what matters most isn’t the process but the achievement of a desired goal. In industry, that’s golden.

Academic job search vs. industry job search

It’s true that in the academic job-search, it’s important to at least appear to be following the rules. It would be foolish to pick up the phone and try to “network” with the department chair. The academic job search is rooted in history and tradition, if not always for the better.

In industry, though, anything goes, as long as it’s skillfully done. There’s a formal process, sure, but you get to turn it creatively on its head. As long as you come off as serious and professional—and not like an idiot or a shameless self-promoter—no one in the company is going to get peeved at you and you won’t lose credibility. You may even win some respect.

The focus by academic scientists on fairness is hard to understand. It’s not as though unfairness is alien to the typical academic. You deserve to be first author on a paper because you did all the work, but your adviser lists a postdoc instead. You were left off the author list entirely. Or, you are seeking a particular postdoc position, but it goes to a less accomplished scientist from a more famous lab. These things happen every day.

And don’t expect the academic search to be fair, either. True, an academic hiring committee is more likely to ding you for trying to subvert their process, so it’s a good idea to be cautious. But they, too, intend to hire the best candidate they can find, whether they meet her first in the hallway or in a pile of paper. There, too, the hallway has advantages over the paper pile.

Your Span of Control

Years ago, I wrote an article that included a number of the “C’s of Control.” Three of the “C’s” are worth revisiting here because, by putting the focus on what you can control, they make it easier to accept what you can’t control.

When you think back on how you got where you are today, you’re likely to think first of hard work and innate talent—and then picture mentors, colleagues, and friends who have helped you. Every day is an opportunity to add new faces to that gallery, people you may someday look back on with similar gratitude.

Some people will do what is listed in the job ad and no more. Others will use LinkedIn, e-mail, and the phone to establish real, human contact and to set themselves apart from the large pool of applicants who exist, for the hiring manager, only in electronic form. The importance of this can’t be overstated.

Accepting what you can’t control

Anyway, I find this basic claim, about the unfairness of the system, unconvincing. It would be profoundly unfair if those industry jobs were going to candidates whose only real talent is an ability to game the system. But that rarely happens in industry. What does happen—often—is that a qualified candidate is hired instead of other qualified candidates because she finds a way to get her qualifications noticed.

Yes, it is possible that someone with superior on-paper qualifications was overlooked in the search, and that may seem unfair to you. But think about it this way: The candidate who got noticed demonstrated resourcefulness and an admirable focus on the process’s ultimate goal: a hiring transaction that benefits both candidate and employer. Instead of dwelling on the process—on its fairness or unfairness—she found a way to get to the bottom line. That’s an important professional skill, one that no competent hiring manager is likely to overlook.

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