March 17, 2011

Natural (Initial) Selection: The Job Applicant as Gladiator

“Nos morituri te salutant! (We who are about to die salute you!)”—gladiator salutation to Caesar in the “games” arena of the Coliseum

“As a game it is comic. The woman sets up the competition, and while the two men are fighting, she decamps with a third. The internal and external psychological advantages for her and her mate are derived from the position that honest competition is for suckers, and the comic story they have lived through forms the basis for the internal and external social advantages.”—Eric Berne, describing the game “Let’s You and Him Fight”, in his book Games People Play

MAKING THE CUT/Image: Michael Moffa

How annoying for applicants should your application procedure be? The orthodox recruitment and commonsense view is not very or not at all. Complex, invasive, ambiguous, vague or otherwise time and energy-demanding application forms and procedures are generally thought to work against recruiters, by alienating, frustrating, annoying, taxing and discouraging applicants.

From the applicant standpoint, application steps such as requiring fitting a detailed employment history into a small, impossible to format online box; completing an invasive questionnaire about the circumstances of and reasons for leaving the most recent job; having to list every job you’ve ever had—including part-time, or having to find an inconveniently located convenience store from which to fax the completed application are like a draconian Skull and Bones or even a less occult frat initiation and hazing. At least that’s how they have seemed to me when I’ve encountered such requirements.

Applying at Caligula, Inc

The application process at Caligula, Inc for a job as a Roman gladiator to be assigned to the arena of the Coliseum was arguably the worst in history, and most likely required killing or maiming other applicants, while risking and often incurring horrific injuries—which may have ended all future employment prospects in that sector, if not in any industry whatsoever, for one or both applicants.

After your chuckling about this subsides, think about it as a serious business and recruitment model. Why should only warriors, Olympic athletes, astronauts and their ilk have to be put through severe trials as part of the application process? The expected reflex reply is that this process is “screening”, not “application”. Applying is easy, screening is tough.

But how sharply are and should these be delineated? Such a 2-stage application-screening model obviously involves more upfront costs in terms of time, energy, manpower and money than does a 1-stage consolidated Coliseum model. The gladiators line up outside the Coliseum and two at a time go through the gate. They fight. One lives, one dies (unless both do). Next.

Where is the demarcation between application and screening? There isn’t any.

Consolidation of Application and Screening

The consolidation of the application and screening processes into one step doesn’t have to be lethal to be effective and economical. However, such a melding of these two steps into one does fit into the defining framework of gladiator and almost all recruit placement: Darwinian natural selection.

That job placement is one face of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” may be obscured by the more civil and disguised practices of more “civilized” modern recruitment. Instead of forcing two applicants to go toe-to-toe like gladiators, you interview them separately—thereby softening and concealing the underlying and frequently ferocious competition. You, as a recruiter, are like a girl on a date with one guy on Friday night and another on a Saturday. Even though this sequential dating seems much less romantic and exciting than simultaneously dating, e.g., the girl and two rivals go out for dinner, a movie and drinks, it is still highly competitive, albeit less obviously so.

“Let’s You and Him Fight”

Transactional Analysis, the pop-psychology craze sparked in the 1960s and 1970s by psychologist Eric Berne, whose popular books Games People Play (1964) and What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1972) made “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” an interpersonal diagnostic ideal, is highly relevant here to understanding what is going on in such 3-party interactions and “transactions”.

In terms of TA’s “PAC”—“Parent”/”Adult”/”Child” model and its dynamics of “crossed transactions”, “ulterior duplex transactions” and the like, the 3-handed “game” played by two gladiators and the overseer, the two beaus and the belle on a date and two applicants and the recruiter are variations on the game that Berne called “Let’s You and Him Fight”.

In all three scenarios, there are payoffs—including big ones for the overseer, the belle and the recruiter. This script is not only Darwinian in promoting the survival of the fittest; it’s also profitable for the third party running it, irrespective of which of the other two loses or wins. Moreover, “Let’s You and Him Fight” (“LYAHF”) applies not only at the micro-level of staged gladiator or dog-fights, where “the house” always wins as the gladiators, dogs and bettors struggle to avoid losing, but also possibly at the macro-level of entire nations and civilizations, according to LYAHF models of simulated or actual history.

Not nearly as benign as conventional job recruitment, the macro-LYAHF (theoretical) game model involves getting two or more nations, classes, tribes, religions or races to fight each other for supremacy and maybe for simple survival, while funding both sides and collecting interest on the war and battle loans, gaining better positioning for future activities through political influence, etc. (Some say this is history, not theory.)

Your Recruiter Ideals and Ideal

The moral superiority of modern recruiting over Coliseum and macro “global dog fight” recruitment resides in the fact that contemporary job recruiters always want someone, ideally everybody, to somehow win and wish all applicants well, even if in specific instances, the outcome is “zero-sum”, i.e., somebody has to lose. In the ideal job recruitment case, the perfect applicant applies for the perfect job, with nary a competitor in sight.

Were this kind of dream recruitment to have a name in classical economics, it would be called “perfect non-competition”, a kind of “natural monopoly”,  in contrast to the “perfect competition” of fully informed, fairly competing, well-matched rivals in a laissez-faire economic model and busy recruitment agency.

In the broader (theoretical) “global dog fight” model, if both or all opposing sides, e.g., nations, lose and suffer, so much the better, since their devalued lands, infra-structure and other assets can then be acquired at literally “fire-sale” prices or rebuilt by the flush conflict-sponsoring parties and their associates. This is the world as Coliseum.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that all three models—gladiatorial, global dog-fight and recruitment models have one feature in common: profit through competition, modern job recruitment being most like Adam Smith’s benign competition in which micro-losses of individual companies or people are offset by macro-gains for the economy, including rising standards of living, as a whole.

The Virtue of You,  the Recruiter

The beauty and virtue of contemporary competitive recruitment is that it replaces the sanguinary herd-thinning outcomes of the Coliseum and dog fights  (micro or macro) with the sanguine expectations of professional success for as many applicants and recruiters as possible.

Accordingly, if the recruitment industry were to broadly consolidate the application and screening processes into one step, e.g., by making the application process much more challenging, if not annoying, there is reason to hope that whatever escalation of competition it may engender, or however many less determined applicants it may discourage, it would be much more like the benevolent and healthy competition explained in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations than the cynical and cruel “placements” of the Coliseum and global dog fights.

The only snag in making the already rather Darwinian job application process more annoying than it is already is that it may end up selecting for only one trait: a tolerance and even fondness for being annoyed.

….a trait that, I hope, despite your having read all of this, you don’t possess.



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Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).