“The one serious conviction that a man should have is that nothing is to be taken too seriously.”—Samuel Butler, Victorian satirist, author of Erewhon

SERIOUS/Image: Michael Moffa

In matters of personal professional performance and job and applicant selection, “serious” is generally considered to be a generally good thing—unless the job is clown or court jester. Across the gamut of jobs and in one way or another, having a “serious” attitude is taken very seriously.

On more than one occasion—and probably in more than one sense—you’ve described your attitude, approach, your applicants,  your commitment and the headaches of your recruiter’s job as all being “serious”. However, apart from whatever Victorian killjoy stuffiness gets larded onto being “serious”, the problems with being serious include the following:

1.       CONFUSION OF GOOD AND BAD: Being “serious” in a good way tends to gets confused with being serious in a bad or irrelevant way, to the detriment of client servicing, recruitment efforts and of professional and personal performance, e.g., mistaking being serious as  “solemn”, “sober” or humorless for being serious as committed and diligent. That’s a transparent confusion and ploy I’ve seen office staff use to convince the boss they are working hard, as though only slackers smile and have an on-the-job chuckle.  Their bogus logic is “If I am working too hard, I will look utterly cheerless; I look utterly cheerless; therefore (the boss will think) I am working too hard.”

2.       MISCOMMUNICATION: Because “serious” means different things to other people as well as to oneself, there are serious risks of miscommunication and mis-executed screening and placements. A commonplace example follows in the next section, “A Serious Misunderstanding”.

3.       CONFUSION OF EARLIER AND LATER: An applicant’s being “serious” at the screening stage is no automatic measure of being serious in the on-the-job, post-hiring role, and vice versa. By listing “serious attitude” as a desired job “qualification”, you may obscure the difference between these two independent forms or stages of seriousness and fool yourself into thinking that you’ll be getting the second because you’ve gotten the first.

4.       CONFUSION OF CREDENTIALS AND ATTITUDES: A “serious attitude” is very different from an M.B.A. as a qualification, even under those very few interpretations of “serious” that warrant considering seriousness as any kind of a credential. Attitudes can change, be acquired, tweaked or be lost within minutes; M.B.A.s cannot. Hence they should prima facie be given unequal weight in screening, with the M.B.A. tipping the scales, if the attitude is neither clearly nuts, dangerous nor incorrigible.

5.       “TIGHT-TANIC” MIND SET: In general, and reflecting Samuel Butler’s observation, quoted above, taking being serious too seriously is a professional, emotional and existential pitfall. In seafaring terms, running a tighter ship doesn’t preclude carrying a lighter load. Even though every journey must end, it doesn’t have to be on the “Tight-Tanic”.   Try to lighten up, even when you have to tighten up.

A Serious Misunderstanding

A client tells a recruiter that the company wants a “serious go-getter” type to fill a sales manager’s job. The client actually means the company wants a manager who is “deserving to be regarded as highly qualified and ranked” as a “go-getter”, like a “serious contender” (sense #2 below). Unfortunately, the recruiter adds to this requirement his own understanding of “serious” as “sober”—sense #5, or, worse, “solemn”—sense #4, with overtones of great decorum and professional “no-nonsense” Puritanical sobriety, with the result that he starts interviewing cheerless neo-Calvinists who deem dancing and Butleresque humor to be abominations in the sight of God or who are former morticians who’ve changed jobs.

Even though, in its mildest form, this kind of seriousness as sobriety may be associated with an absence of levity or frivolity, there is an enormous risk that it will morph into the oppressive presence of a dour and icy front, as it did with the Puritans. Moreover, there is the broader risk that no matter what sense of “serious” is intended, a gray cloud of humorlessness will somehow drift over the job,  the employee or the office, once being “serious” is made part of the job description or work climate.

For example, in a recent conversation with the proprietor of a major Fortune 500 recruiting franchise, I was told that apart from recruiter trade fairs, the franchise’s humorous promotional giveaway of recruiter fortune cookieswould be “unprofessional”, which screams for the question, “Why are humor and playfulness incompatible with professionalism?” Has your doctor never comforted you by cracking a joke?.

Other likely misunderstandings of what is expressed or elicited by describing an applicant as “serious” involve confusing the following pairs, presented as four of many possible illustrations:

  • “Strongly motivated”  vs. “sincere” (#3 and #6, below)
  • “Committed” vs. “not obviously disqualified” (#14 and  #8)
  • “Sober” vs. “solemn” (#5 vs. #4, cited above)
  • “Not browsing” vs. “Committed” (#1 and #14)

The Many Faces of Seriousness

Despite the obvious risks of misunderstanding which of the multifarious sense of “serious” is intended or applies in a screening/placement scenario, the applicant has to indicate he is “seriously interested” in the job. In return for this he may get “serious” consideration as a “serious contender” for a position with “serious responsibilities” to meet “serious challenges” so he can make “serious money”. Moreover, everybody seriously seems to imagine it is clear what all of these mean.

When a job applicant says she’s “serious” about the job and “seriously interested” or when an oil company says, “We are serious about protecting the environment”—in terms of conventional interpretations of “serious”—is most likely to be interpreted in one of the following commonplace and frequently unhelpful ways:  (Sorry—In the interest of clarity and thoroughness, this list has to be comprehensive and therefore lengthy.)

1.       Not just browsing: In this sense, a “serious” applicant is one who is not just window shopping jobs. If “serious” is defined as it is here as “not just browsing”, it is indeed something useful to know about an applicant—but only at the pre-placement, screening stages, not after placement and not as a valuable on-the-job attitude or attribute.

In this sense of “not just browsing”, being “serious” cannot count as a job qualification or credential, even if relevant to the job screening process ( although “browsing again” may be a related disqualification after hiring).

Don’t forget, a job “qualification” should be a qualification to keep a job once you’ve got it, not only a qualification for being considered for it. “Not just browsing” is only a qualification for being considered, not for being hired. Bottom line: Proving that a candidate is not just browsing, i.e., is “serious”, proves nothing about her being “serious” in any other sense.

2.       Deserving to be regarded as highly qualified and ranked: An example of this is an up-and-coming boxer who is a “serious contender”. In recruiting, this is important, but neither as an attitude of the job candidate nor as a job qualification. Seriousness, in this sense, matters only as a screening qualification and only as a consequence of being adjudged qualified, not as a cause of being deemed so. It is not important as an attitude, because, as a self-assessment, it may be unwarranted and evidence of arrogance, conceit or  delusional megalomania, e.g., when an job applicant says, “I’ve got some serious skills.” Saying it or believing it just doesn’t make it so.

This latter distinction is crucial and warrants being repeated: A screening qualification and job qualification are two different things.

To grasp this point, compare the grueling, often disillusioning, presidential candidate screening processes, including primaries and their effects on the eventual victor’s qualifications and ideals. In analogical recruitment terms: “Screening corrupts, hiring corrupts absolutely”.  The ideals that carry a nominee through the primaries are unlikely in the extreme to survive the run through the Realpolitik gauntlet on the path to high office.

Moreover, as a screening qualification, being a “serious contender” for the job is the result of being qualified for further consideration, not a cause. Once the candidate is placed, it makes no sense to ponder whether the employee should be considered for the job as a “serious contender”—at least not until the first job performance review and/or next hiring drive.

3.       Strongly motivated: Although this seems to better approximate what “serious” should mean, it has a fatal flaw.  The flaw is that a “strongly motivated” applicant can, in some instances, be the worst.

To see this, compare a job interview with a nightclub conversation:  If everyone, e.g., a job applicant, who is strongly motivated is therefore “serious”, a hustling disco pick-up artist would not be lying if he said to the 10th woman he’s hit on that he’s “serious” about seeing her again—just so long as he doesn’t say why or that he’s also serious about playing the field.  He may laugh, he may crack jokes and otherwise be playful, but the hustler is just as “serious”, viz., strongly motivated, about his goal of avoiding commitment, as each of the women is about hers, e.g., making that commitment. Hence being “serious”, in the sense of being “strongly motivated” can result in disaster for a woman or a recruiter who equates these.

The parallel in recruiting is the applicant who is strongly motivated, but not for the reasons the client is hoping for, e.g., to gain a little more experience before quitting and trading up. Likewise for a desperate applicant who will take any job, even one she hates, when she says, “I’m seriously interested in plucking chickens.” It may be true, but isn’t usefully true from the standpoint of the meat-packing company’s needs and expectations of a long-term and otherwise deep commitment.  Main point: Don’t equate an applicant’s seeming to be strongly motivated with being serious in the way you want her to be.

4.       Solemn: No. This sounds far too gloomy—unless the message is intended to frighten people. But who, apart from a funeral home director or an oil company making dire predictions about solar energy, wants an image, message or an employee that is solemn? Professional sobriety and solemnity, in addition to being cheerless legacies of the Puritan work ethic,  are often nothing more than tricks of intimidation to maintain a “professional distance” and mystique, much as the splendid fortified seclusion of medieval feudal lords in their castles and cloistered ecclesiastics did to deter exposure as over-reaching and overrated mere mortals. Or, as noted above, they are “serf” tricks to deceive the boss into thinking they are ceaselessly tilling and toiling.

5.       Sober: Milder than “solemn”, this Puritan virtue means—besides “not drunk”—“balanced” or “subdued”, the latter as in “sober attire”. Again, this is something that an applicant or a client need not and should not say, e.g., “I’m on the wagon”, “I dress boringly”, or “I am not unbalanced in any way.” Moreover, companies like IBM that for many years transformed the white dress-shirt to monk-couture became the poster-child for fashion-policed employees everywhere. Like being solemn, sobriety tends to get overdone and become cheerless, constricting, unattractive and counterproductive.

6.    Sincere: This conveys the message of being “without deceit, pretense, or hypocrisy; truthful; straightforward”. Of course, even if this is never explicitly mentioned in an interview, it’s always something all parties to a hiring should confirm. But notice that to the extent that being sincere should be a prerequisite for every job, save that of a spy or politician, it is as much of a screening or placement qualification as is “not having a criminal record”. No more, no less. Hence, evident sincerity is no reason for (self-) congratulation or hiring, even though a lack of seriousness-as-sincerity is a likely and good reason for not hiring.

This point is subtle: Consider the following posting. “Qualifications: M.B.A., 4 years’ experience in medium-size company, management of critical-path analysis-based projects, serious attitude”. Whereas in this instance, having an MBA is both a reason for hiring when the applicant has one and a reason for not hiring when the applicant lacks one, seriousness-as-sincerity, like “has no criminal record”, should carry weight only in the negative instance, i.e., when the applicant fails that test.

7.       Earnest: Apart from adding an element of zeal or intensity, This is literally a synonym for “serious” and is defined as such in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, so it adds nothing to our understanding. If you don’t know what “serious” means, “earnest” is not going to help you understand it better, and vice versa. Probably it is best understood as a close variant of “sincere”.

8.    Not obviously disqualified: Although not a dictionary definition of “serious”, this is one use of the concept by some people. In this sense of “serious”, there is nothing special about a “serious” applicant or a “serious” job offer, apart from ruling out nutty, drugged, drunk, totally mismatched or malicious applicants. Be sure that when you are told that a candidate should be given serious consideration that this means something more substantial than that the candidate is “not obviously disqualified”.

9.       Requiring careful consideration: For example, a “serious proposal”. But how could any but the most arrogant applicant mean this when he says, “I’m a serious applicant….” , meaning “I’m an applicant requiring careful consideration”?  Even “serious consideration” can’t mean this: “Consideration requiring careful consideration”? Peculiarly self-referential.

 

As far as a recruiter’s thinking that a candidate is a “serious” one, in this sense, meaning he or she “requires careful consideration”, once again, this is only a screening qualification, and only a result, not a cause of being deemed qualified for the job. It is not an on-the-job post-placement qualification—which is, in the final analysis, the kind of qualification that matters most.

10.   Cause for concern: A problem can be serious in this sense, e.g., a serious budget shortfall or illness; but people are not. If they were, “I am serious” would mean “I am a cause for concern.” So this sense is irrelevant as a job qualification or approach, except as an obvious disqualification.

11.   Complex: Some “serious engineering” means this: complex, advanced and/or difficult engineering. But “serious attitude”, “serious offer”, “serious candidate” can’t mean “complex, advanced or difficult. It makes no sense or fails to convey what the speaker thinks she means in saying, “I’m serious about this position”—“I’m complex”?

12.   Not playing a game: The alert reader may say that the disco playboy is not serious because he is “playing a game” or “playing around”. Although this is one of the most common interpretations of “serious” in the context of social interaction, it fails in the context of recruiting. Very serious business and even deadly military interactions are routinely modeled in terms of a very sober transactional analysis “games-people-play” framework, or in terms of equally serious “game theory” with its pay-off matrices and hardly playful strategies.

To the extent that all around the recruiting table there are rules, payoffs, penalties, strategies and concealed information, the recruiter, the applicant and the client are all playing games—and very serious ones, with serious consequences for all.Hence, “serious” does not mean “not playing a game” and shouldn’t be used to mean that when recruiting.

13.   Not joking: Of course the company and the applicant are not joking. That goes without saying; so, why bother to point that out by noting in an add you are (or are looking for) someone who is “serious” in this sense? Would you ever say, “We are looking for a software engineer who is not joking about wanting this job”? Would you even think it?

14.   Committed: Whether being serious in this sense is a good thing or not for your company obviously depends entirely on to whom and to what the applicant or company is committed. If an applicant truthfully tells you she’s “committed” to the job, meaning devoted to it,  making it her primary focus, etc., that isn’t necessarily going to work to your company’s advantage.

She could be making it her primary focus only because of the pay, without regard for whether she is advancing the company’s interests.  To be an assured plus, commitment requires the additional meaning of being committed to your company’s goals and mission.

Hence, if you ask an applicant how she feels about making the commitment, you may misconstrue her determination to succeed on her terms with the determination to succeed on yours—even if the fuzzy word “serious” doesn’t enter the conversation at all. If it does, the staggering ambiguity and vagueness of it renders her reply even less useful.

Importantly, it is essential not to confuse “serious” in this sense of “committed to the job”, especially on your terms, with “not browsing jobs”—despite the ease with which some may infer the former from the latter. Clearly, it is unreasonable to expect that, just because an applicant is not browsing, she is therefore committed or even willing to commit to the job. Nonetheless and however obviously different these are, ask yourself whether you have never ever made the mistake of inferring “serious” as “committed” from “serious” as “not just browsing”.

Apologia

I can easily imagine the flak and clamor the length and depth of this analysis are going to spark. Yes, it’s much longer and deeper than the “make-your-fortune-cookie” bite-sized bits of bottom-line wisdom that are the ideal of Web business writing. However, this time, it is not my fault. I didn’t start this. I’ll tell you who is responsible.

The Butler did it.

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