Employers Forced To Judge Job Candidates' Career Trajectory

Analysis of freelance jobs suggests employers are conservative when it comes to hiring, and dislike candidates who have done a lot of different things.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to look at some research this morning into how employers pick the people they're going to hire. When firms look for workers, they obviously look closely at the resumes of candidates. But it turns out one thing they're looking very, very closely at is the trajectory of the jobs that someone has done in the past. NPR's Shankar Vedantam has seen research looking into this and joins us - as always, Shankar, good to see you.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning David.

GREENE: So you're telling me that the order in which I have done different jobs is what - almost as important as what I've actually done in the jobs?

VEDANTAM: And, perhaps, even more important, David. That's exactly right. I spoke with Ming Leung. He's a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. He's just finished this big analysis on how jobs get filled. And he's looked at one conundrum. Candidates who have done a lot of different things in their careers can be seen as flexible and adaptable and you can think of them as being renaissance men and renaissance women. But it's also possible that if someone has done a lot of different things, it could mean something else. It could mean that they are a dilettante. Here's Leung

MING LEUNG: A dilettante or a renaissance person could compile a series or collection of jobs, which may seem unrelated. So in a sense, you're a dilettante because you move and work between lots of different jobs. Or you're a renaissance person in the sense that you're able to. The interesting thing is it's difficult to actually ascertain ahead of time whether someone with a collection of jobs that don't seem related is really just a dilettante, in the sense that they've never been able to do anything well, or renaissance person, in the sense that they're able to do several things well.

VEDANTAM: What Leung seems to be finding, David, is that if you have a trajectory where each job is somehow connected to the job you did before, even if you have covered a lot of terrain, you're more likely to look like a renaissance person. On the other hand, if you have a career trajectory where you have jumped around a lot without a lot of incremental steps, employers are more likely to think of you as a dilettante.

GREENE: And this seems like it's a matter of perception for an employer - kind of creating a narrative, here, as to whether jobs are related and sort of build a nice path or whether someone's all over the place.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and, you know, my impression would've been that in the current day and age, it's actually OK for people to have done a lot of different things, because we hear those stories all the time. There's been previous research in the labor market that suggests that doing lots of different things is not an advantage. If you're an actor, for example, it helps to be identified with a certain kind of role. It might lead to typecasting, but at least it leads to work. The same thing with people who make wine or people who give investment advice. We tend to like people in groups who specialize and stick to doing one thing. What Leung did was he looked at this massive database of jobs on Elance. It's a platform where employers can find freelancers for work. It's a very specific part of the labor market, but it's enormous. So he looked at nearly a million applications for more than 100,000 jobs. And his big conclusion was even though it might appear that lots of different kinds of career trajectories are welcome, employers, in reality, are very conservative. And they're very wary of people who've jumped around a lot.

GREENE: Well, Shankar, I wonder if he answered what seems to be a key question which is, if people have jumped around a lot, sort of all over the place, does that make them less reliable when they actually take a job?

VEDANTAM: That's a great question, David, because it could be that these people who jump around a lot actually are incompetent. Leung looked at the performance of people labeled dilettantes and he found that, in reality, their performance was no different than the people who got labeled renaissance men or renaissance women. In other words, employers are making a big mistake and they're overlooking candidates who might be potentially very good. Here's Leung again.

LEUNG: Hiring is very, very hard to do and very hard to do well. What happens is most of the research finds that employers get fixated on very specific things that may actually not predict overall job performance.

GREENE: So I suppose if you're applying for a job, it's good to think about that these narratives might be coming up in the minds of the potential employers. Is there a way for the employers to stop letting these biases get in the way of potentially good people?

VEDANTAM: I think you're right on the money in thinking about how these biases are coming about, David. Leung also thinks that employers are making this mistake because they're telling themselves stories about who the candidate is, based on a very limited set of information that you can get from a resume. And because human beings are biased, when you look at five things a person has done in the past, it's actually not a very good predictor for how they're going to do in the future. His advice to employers is come up with a specific list of things you need for this job and ask yourself, can the candidate in front of me do those things?

GREENE: Interesting stuff, as always. Shankar, thanks a lot.

VEDANTAM: Thank you David.

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