Why your career dream may already be dead

By Neil Patrick

We don’t just have a global jobs crisis, we have a career progression logjam…

Today I woke to a BBC Radio 4 news item which reported that CEOs were complaining (again) about talent shortages and their difficulties with attracting and retaining good people.

There was much talk about “talent acquisition”, “agile organisations”, “human assets” and a good deal more management psychobabble. But whilst I yawned at the language, there was no doubting the veracity of the message.

In October 2015, PA Consulting issued a report which attributed this problem to poor use of HR data:

“There is a mismatch between chief executives’ desire to get talent management activities right and their investment in technology; only 3.6% of CEOs and HR directors had a coherent approach for analysing talent-related data”.

Report author Jennifer Cable said: “The say-do gap is huge. It seems that talent management is belief led rather than metric led, but you name me another critical area of competitive advantage where activity is not being backed up with concrete data.”

I would go even further. The problem isn’t just about data and beliefs. It’s about culture and action. Or lack of it. 21st century HR leadership is broken. It no longer serves either employers or employees well. I have nothing against HR people. And I would point out that HR is by no means the only function which has failed to transform fast enough to keep pace with what Jeremy Rifkin calls "The Third Industrial Revolution". Marketing, sales, finance, even IT in large organisations are similarly lagging.

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that the US middle class was now outnumbered by the poor and upper classes. This is another indication that the traditional career ladder structure has bottlenecked in the middle of society.

This strategic failure is also evidenced by my own mailbox. Almost everyday I get emails from professional people who despite having great qualifications and work experience report that they cannot get interviews, let alone get hired.

If we have lots of skilled people looking for jobs, AND organisations frustrated in their search for good people, how come this problem exists at all?

What on earth is going on?

I am not going to fall into the trap of blaming one party or the other. But organisations have to accept that the old model of recruiting and hiring is failing faster than they’d like to admit.

This isn’t news to some I know. It’s the maturation of trends which have been going on for at least a decade.

The root of the problem isn’t useless job applicants or wicked HR people. The root of the problem is how both employers and jobseekers think about jobs. What they are, who does them, how they do them, how they are managed, how they are rewarded.

The current model of recruitment has not suddenly materialised. It has had decades of refinement, all designed to assess, quantify and rank the suitability of individuals for a particular job. Organisations like processes and procedures. They help them feel in control. And able to defend themselves against potentially hostile regulatory or legal threats.

Recruitment and selection processes and procedures have now inevitably become hard coded into IT systems called applicant tracking systems. Large employers have invested millions in their adoption and deployment. I have written about the consequences of these systems here.

HR teams are not to blame either. But they have become servants of the machine. The catchphrase “Computer says ‘No’” could have been written just for them…

The problem is that the whole recruitment industry and HR profession has been getting better and better at doing what can now be seen to be the wrong things.

They have become experts at creating boxes and then matching the boxes with the people that apparently best fit into them. These boxes specify everything, much of which is irrelevant or at least a distraction. Things like:

  • Hours of work which reflect traditional norms not operational or employees’ needs
  • Cut and paste competencies which are generic and often based on lazy thinking
  • “Acceptable” levels of sickness which assume everyone’s health is the same
  • Holiday entitlements which reward length of service rather than accomplishments and workload
  • Rates of pay pegged to outmoded concepts of seniority and status.

These boxes haven’t really adapted very much to reflect the huge changes which have been going on in the world. They perpetuate some very old ideas about what a job is and how it should be done. These ideas are a legacy of the old command and control structures which originated in business and organisations in the industrial age.

People were increasingly reduced to cogs in a giant machine. This direction of travel has now reached a breaking point where unless an employer is desperate, hardly anyone can match their over-specified expectations.

If we add in instinctive personal biases around gender, age, appearance, race, we start to get a glimpse of just how much the system is broken. Yes, I know such things are illegal, but they are so easily fudged that hardly anyone worries about them.

Meanwhile the very nature of work has massively transformed in many jobs over the last ten years.

Organisations talk a great deal about becoming agile, yet their procedures change really slowly. Many aspire to being disruptive, yet are effectively paralyzed by risk aversion and legacy structures. They seek to be flexible, yet find change difficult. They espouse how they are customer-centric, yet shareholders' interests always trump customers'. They keep on doing the same old thing when it comes to specifying job roles and finding people to put in them.

Jobseekers are rightly and understandably frustrated and incensed by this. The explosion of  digital communication, means anyone who is looking for a new job can find hundreds almost instantly online. The result – organisations are bombarded with on average up to 200 applications per vacancy.

And since humans cannot possibly be expected to accurately assess such a deluge, automation has been adopted to screen, sort and rank resumes and choose candidates. Except these systems are at best only partially effective. In one test carried out by consultants Bersin Associates, a ‘perfect resume’ only scored 43% on the applicant tracking system…

Organisations aspire to respond and adapt to these problems, but very few are making real headway. This is because they are playing around the edges, when what they really need is a complete rethink of how they can reconcile their need for talented people with an admission that the current way of doing things is no longer fit for purpose.

So we see the continuation of cut and paste job descriptions. Of largely discredited psychometric assessments. Of idiotic interview questions and competency ‘tests’. Of overly rigid terms and conditions of employment.

The future won’t be owned by organisations which perpetuate the status quo. It will be owned by those that can grasp the nettle and figure out how they can live by these ideas not merely talk about them.

For millennials, this fragile career environment is one they have grown up with. They’ve never known anything else. For older generations, it’s nothing short of a catastrophe for which few are equipped.

Organisations will eventually transform. They have no choice. The trouble for people seeking jobs and career progression is that this transformation is going to take a very long time. And the trouble for organisations is that this key strategic requirement is so low on their agendas that they are at risk of organisational obsolescence which at best will hamper every aspiration they have, or at worst kill them.

Happy New Year! ;-)

Pity the Twitter Zombies

There are a lot more zombies than trolls lurking online...

This morning I intended to write about the economic situation in Japan. But as sometimes happens, I got distracted by social media. So I am sorry if you are dying to read about the Japanese economy, but I promise I will get back to that asap (stop groaning!).

Yesterday evening I spent an enjoyable couple of hours drinking beer with Katrina Collier of Winning Impression. Katrina is one of a small elite band of people I consider to be true experts on social media for recruitment and HR. If you are in either of these fields, you really should be connected with her. Here’s a link to her website.

As we chatted, both watching our social media feeds at the same time, Katrina was laughing as she observed Twitter trolls tweeting all sorts of hate to her after she retweeted the petition to keep Donald Trump out of Britain.

Katrina’s an Australian and if I know one thing about Aussies, it’s that they are not easily intimidated. When you grow up surrounded by countless species of creatures which are mostly looking for people to kill, I guess this is understandable.

Yet this was also an instructive situation. The more the hate poured in, the more she laughed. And I ventured that this explosion of Twitter troll activity would do her Twitter metrics no harm at all. Algorithms do not care whether we are generating online love or hate. They just count impact.

The trolls were inadvertently boosting Katrina’s online influence scores with every drop of bile they spat at her. She could laugh with good reason.

When the mainstream media is full of stories about cyber-bullying, the popular message is understandably that we must protect the vulnerable from such things.

But if you are big and grown up enough to take such things in your stride, if you are not easily intimidated, trolls and bullies do us no harm at all. In fact they help us for the simple reason that AI cannot yet always distinguish between love and hate.

This little story came full circle this morning as I reviewed my new followers on Twitter.

This is a daily task for me. Every day there are 30 or 40 new followers. Most are what I call “randoms” – people who are following as many people as possible in the hope that a percentage will follow back and artificially make them look more popular than they actually are. I have written about these ‘binge and purgers’ here and what you should do with them (tip…Don’t follow back ;-))

Another friend of mine, the ever clever Matt Ballantine tweeted the other day:

Matt is bang on the money I think. Most people like to feel popular, but many are in reality terrified that engaging in real dialogues on social media could:

  1. Stir up hate – (don’t worry, at least you believe in something) 
  2. Expose them as not being an expert on everything (don’t worry, no-one is) 
  3. Meet people they’d rather not (don’t worry, you can block them) 

As I reviewed my new followers, I looked at the ones who looked genuine and interesting and then looked at who they were talking to and about what.

And this is where most fall down. I don’t expect anyone to spend hours and hours every day chatting on social media. Not if they have any sort of life. But I do expect to see something that shows they are not a zombie.

Time and again, I see tons of tweets, but zero conversations. It’s as if these people would rather stand there talking to themselves than risk the imaginary terror of the things I describe above.

If you like talking to yourself, be my guest. But really what’s the point? If you are doing this you have become a zombie.

We shouldn’t be afraid of trolls. And we should pity zombies.

All of them used to be people, once.

PS. More proof of this trolling backfire emerged this morning when The Daily Telegraph featured Katrina's tweet in its piece about the Donald Trump petition. Nice one Katrina! :