17 January 2010

LinkedIn & Other Failures

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Let me be bold: we are hiring. How’s that for an opening declaration amidst a sometimes gloomy, recession-bound America?

Yet we plan only to hire the best, most qualified people. This statement, ordinarily unnecessary, is apparently demanded by the present circumstances, particularly the weak comprehension of the job application process amongst those currently seeking employment. Here is a brief catalog of some recent failures by applicants:
  • A consistent mis-attribution of my gender. “Dear Ms. Freudenheim” is not offensive, merely wrong. Among applicants who bothered to use such a formal salutation, 95% missed this one. Oops. To be clear: the issue is not my taking offense, but rather that it indicates you have not spent much time with the firm’s website or my bio.

  • In our casual day and age, many people skipped a formal salutation altogether, going with a simple “Dear Hiring Manager.” Well, fine … but not really.

  • Many applicants noted talents with social networking systems like Facebook and Twitter: it was rather faddishly mentioned in many cover letters, in addition to being listed as a “skill” on resumes. This is like saying you know how to use a fax machine. Time to point out the obvious: these systems are tools, means to conveying a message but not capable of developing the message itself. From a communications perspective, if there is a skill here, it will be in knowing what to say and when. (Back in 2003, I noted some other fake “skills” people listed.)

  • If you want to address your “core skills”—whatever they are—it is better if you emphasize those that are most relevant to a particular job. Recent applicants have highlighted skills as a LAN administrator, an ad buyer, an “M&A” specialist, and a certified mortician (yes, really). Of those four, only one is even close to relevant.

  • Words like “proven” or phrases “demonstrated success” are instant red flags. We want people who know what it means to be successful, but the applicants who toss these words around usually aren’t. One applicant—with not a single full-time job experience to her credit—noted that she is “comfortable in a leadership role.” Listen up: if you're just a few years out of college, have accomplished a few internships and your first full-time job, then writing of a “proven track record” (or some such nonsense) is a signal ... and not a good one.

In all of this, however, I want to vent some particular frustration at LinkedIn.com. If you’re not familiar with it, LinkedIn describes itself as “an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world, representing 170 industries and 200 countries. You can find, be introduced to, and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals.” For more information about the site and its goals, you can also read this recent feature piece from The Wall Street Journal.

In an effort to broaden the pool of candidates from which we typically draw, we posted our job listing to LinkedIn, along with our other, regular sources. The job listing at LinkedIn makes clear that we are looking for people whose background and skills combines both communications (public relations) and the arts. This is not a whimsical combination drawn up for the amusement of job seekersit is essential to our business, which is communications in the arts.

Yet a paltry 5% of applicants managed to mention both sets of qualifications in their cover letters; an even smaller 2% have resumes that actually reflect this combination of work experiences. Why are the other 98% wasting their time and mine? A friend suggested that I should be happy: this self-winnowing pool of candidates makes it easier to focus on the relevant folks. That’s truebut it would be nice to have a broader pool of relevant folks on whom to lavish some attention and possibly to hire!

For any job listings site, including LinkedIn’s own, the software is only as good as the humans who develop it. So here’s an idea: let employers put in a list of keywordskept hidden from job-seekerswithout some combination of which applications will not be forwarded. This process could be weighted, so that two words in a cover note might count as one word listed in someone’s resume, reflecting a ranking of interest versus experience. This would screen out the people who use the ease of push-button application processes to dump resumes on employers who will never hire them (like the paralegals or accountants who have no skills or interests that match our needs), and prioritize the “account executive’ who mentions the arts over the one who does not. Applicants might learn something too: if not every application is even accepted for review, they might have to start paying closer attention to the jobs in which they are interested.

Sadly, most of what I have written here is not new: see previous postings from 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. It isn’t as if I have made a secret of the failures of past applicants, in order to aid future ones. To little effect, it seems.


02 January 2010

On the Reality of God

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Initially, I found John Avant's book If God Were Real to be … terrible. A brief catalog of complaints: The language is sometimes repetitive and unsophisticated, and initially the ideas seemed similarly simplistic and unevolved. The introduction to the book—a story about the capacity for love and desire for a father figure in a much-abused little girl—seemed to be there solely to condition the reader, to manipulate emotions in order to preclude rational judgment. The inclusion of a long statement from the author's (adult) daughter, about her experiences as a committed Christian in the New York theater scene, felt naïve.

Then there's the devotion to god—or, more accurately for Reverend Avant, Jesus—that continued to present problems for me. I’m not a Christian, or even a Jew for Jesus; while I respect many of the principles Jesus espoused, I have never been able to get over the intellectual hurdle of the whole “son-of-god-in-man is god who died for our sins” construct. (Yes, yes, I know: it’s about faith.) To be fair, it must also be noted that I am clearly not Avant’s intended audience. This is a book written for Christians, so Avant's repetitive refrain that “we should all love Jesus” is, I can only assume, more appealing to a Christian audience.


However, my view of Avant and his book began to change, and rapidly, as I got further in. After the first chapter, Avant writes as a strong, passionate individual with a very definite, out-of-the-mainstream perspective on “organized” religion. He frames very clearly his objections to the contemporary "church" of Christianity: not the religion itself, but the ways in which it is interpreted and applied by the institutions that wave the banner most loudly. (This short poem, by a friend, gets the sentiment just right.) This is where the book is most successful, in aggressively engaging with the way that religious institutions often become more focused on themselves than on the values they espouse. While I will never share his passion for Jesus, I came to respect his faith and his logic.

Avant calls for a new “Jesus Movement,” his preferred term in place of Christianity. He writes: “Can we see a new Jesus Movement in America? Probably not in traditional, institutionalized Christianity as I have described it. It’s too absorbed in guarding its turf and protecting its turf lords. Institutions tend to protect themselves at all costs, and I see no sign that the institution of Christianity will move toward Jesus.” (Page 54)

This is the meat of Avant's argument. He carefully builds this out, exploring a range of issues, from how modern American Christianity deals with drugs addicts (there’s a chapter titled “If God Were Real … the Church Would Be Full of Addicts”), to the risk-averse nature of churches and communities and a sense of expectation of using religion as a means of achieving prosperity (there’s another chapter, titled “If God Were Real … You Would Be Really, Really Rich”). (For more on the concept of the prosperity gospel, see these two articles from the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic.) His section on the absurdity of Christian attacks on J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series is sharp and insightful.

All this reminded me of my own feelings about much of contemporary (American) Judaism, where the importance of institutions—and institutionalized beliefs and perspectives—sometimes feels like it has overtaken the importance of the values at the heart of Judaism. Everything from the “Yom Kippur appeal” fundraising tactic to the American Jewish fetishization of Israel is driven as much by a commitment to the status quo as anything else. Rare is the organization (religious or otherwise, to be sure) that boldly embraces downsizing in the face of diminished resources or audiences. Instead, external problems are blamed, and used as foils to generate support. (Surely it isn’t simply that some young Jews find modern Judaism less-than-compelling, perhaps because of the relentless focus on the trifecta of the Holocaust, Israel, and intermarriage to which we have been treated for the last five decades.)


Now, like the rest of us, Avant is not free from certain contradictions. He criticizes organized Christianity’s focus on political hatred as a distraction from Jesus’s call to love everyone … and then makes some rather strong statements against homosexuality and gay marriage. Oh, well.

But, as someone famous once said, let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone. Overall, Avant has written a strong book, one worth reading for contemporary Christians or others interested in the role and ongoing development of the largest religious denomination in the United States. Avant even includes a section on atheism towards the end of the book—a book littered with quotes from atheist or questioning friends and commentators—that again represents the value of an open mind, and is evidence if needed that a believing individual can co-exist with a non-believing one, without necessarily feeling threatened. The subtitle is “A Journey into a Faith That Matters” and it’s Avant's ongoing journey. I wish him well.

FCC idiotic disclosure notice: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, via LibraryThing, as part of its Early Reviewers program.

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