Traumatized by Your COVID Job Search? I Know the Feeling.

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stressed job seeker

Hi, my name is Sarah — [Hi, Sarah!] — and I suffer from COVID job-search PTSD.

I do understand how challenging it has been for HR over this tumultuous period, but recruitment has broken somewhere and candidates are feeling the pain. So settle in for a spicy vent about my recent recruitment trauma.

A Little About Myself

I was recently unemployed for nine months. Feeling jaded by my job loss, I took the first two months on unemployment insurance as a relaxing family sabbatical, during which I completed a little in-house DIY and updated a bunch of my expired certifications so I could get back in touch with what I loved about marketing. By the time I started circulating my resume in March, the coronavirus pandemic had hit and the market was flooded with thousands of furloughed workers from my industry. The jobs dramatically dried up as businesses put recruitment on hold until after lockdown.

During this time, I applied for at least 200 positions for which my practical experience was a perfect match — including some that were way below my experience level, which I was willing to take to get back in the game. I received almost nothing but white noise in return.

As summer approached, I finally secured virtual interviews at nine companies, some of which had me interview more than five times over 2-5 months with various execs, most of whom asked me the exact same questions in each interview. I was one of the final two candidates for four of those companies. Two made job offers, one of which I accepted.

Of all those close calls, I received feedback from only one HR department about why the other candidate was chosen. (Someone on the hiring team had worked with her previously and had advocated hard in her direction.) The rest of the HR departments completely ghosted me. Some of them went no contact for 3-6 weeks before suddenly setting up the “next stage” in my recruitment cycle. Some didn’t even bother to send a “We’ve gone in a different direction” automated rejection email.

Dirty Recruitment Tactics Abound

I should add that, as part of the hiring process, all seven of the companies that did not hire me gave me “an assignment,” which consisted of such things as creating full go-to-market strategies and timelines for launching new data solutions or research reports. Two of them wanted full six-month marketing strategies to help create new categories.

These requests were not a problem for me, as I have vast experience in these areas, but these are companies I had to research before developing and presenting the plans. Each plan required at least 30 hours of work (usually more), which was a big ask considering that I was typically given four days to complete an assignment.

Each (*cough* unpaid *cough*) strategic “assignment” was presented to the executive team, who often asked questions about how to put the plan into action. I eventually started to create my plans on Google slides and spreadsheets so that I could delete them if I received an automated rejection email. Most of the businesses, I noticed, would still be viewing my documents well after I had presented them.

Many of the applications I submitted asked pre-vetting questions up front, which makes sense, right? But some of these questions required about 45 minutes of small thesis copywriting, all before you could even submit your application. And all of this in advance of the pre-interview “assignment,” which I had to complete before a human would even speak to me directly.

When I stalked the companies and successful candidates after being rejected (lockdown can leave you with a lot of spare time), I found that half had hired people far more junior than their job descriptions had outlined. It certainly seems like these companies had hired less experienced people to execute all the free strategic plans they had collected during their recruitment processes. The other half were still advertising their roles several months after my rejection, perhaps still searching for unicorns to match their magical requirements checklists?

A Recruitment Technology Fail

I should note here that both the job offers I received came from companies where a previous colleague had put me forward. They knew me, the quality of my work, and what I could bring to the business outside of the role’s requirements. Not one of the non-referred applications panned out in my favor.

Am I bitter? No. Frustrated? Heck yes! I’m frustrated for all candidates and all recruiters right now. Something is fundamentally flawed in the recruitment industry, and the offending directive is coming from somewhere higher than the recruiters who have to interface directly with candidates.

I’m also frustrated for the hiring companies employing these lazy recruitment tactics. It was near impossible to get an interview for a role unless my previous title exactly matched the prospective title. It didn’t matter that I had 10 years of practical experience doing everything the job required!

I know from my network that I’m not the only highly experienced and passionate candidate being held back by technological gatekeepers and checklist auditors who have lost touch with the skills that actual humans can bring to a role. Employee churn is set to continue, and extremely talented senior workers will continue to be shut out from ideal opportunities. That means employers will miss out on some of their best potential hires.

It’s Time for a Recruitment Revolution!

Let’s go backward to a time when media, advertising, and marketing recruitment was a people-science that matched people with the hard and soft skills of a job, aligned human potential with career growth, and de-commodified the recruitment process.

Let’s ensure that ticking off the right keywords on an applicant tracking system’s checklist is not the only way for candidates to unlock an interaction with an actual human in HR. Let’s make sure hard and soft skills are prioritized over previous job titles.

Let’s have more human interaction with candidates, including when you decide that a candidate is not quite suitable for the role. These candidates could be future customers and business partners; your HR team may have created an unforgettably poor brand experience which could come back to haunt you. Take it from the person in marketing who has been responsible for corporate reputation: If your bad Glassdoor rating is one of the first search results to appear when a prospect Googles your brand — and it usually is — that will definitely have a negative impact on their decision.

Let’s find better ways to vet the practical capabilities of candidates and make these 30-hour “assignments” a thing of the past. It’s not just marketing candidates who are being hit up for free strategic planning; tech companies have a terrible reputation for making engineers and developers build apps, debug code, and create things from scratch just to prove their value.

Experienced engineers have started to fight back by refusing to do the work, as it has turned into a dirty tactic to extract unpaid labor. Sure, assignments can be helpful in gauging the proficiency levels of fresh grads, but more experienced candidates should be able to let their past work and results speak for themselves. References can fill in any other gaps.

With high numbers of unemployed people and businesses at a delicate economic point, the present time seems perfect for a recruitment intervention. Who’s with me?

Sarah Calkin-Ward is head of marketing at WorkReduce.

By Sarah Calkin-Ward