The Moccasin Mile

There is an old saying, attributed to Native Americans, that states “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”  Nowhere does this need to be more in peoples’ minds than in the hiring process.

Commentary these days is raging – literally! – in online forums, networking groups, and all the way up to state and even federal legislatures about the open and blatant discrimination against the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed.  Numerous articles point to thisThe Terrifying Reality of Long-Term Unemployment is one such article.  Another article, The Unemployment Bias: The Long-term Unemployed Face Severe Discrimination, confirms that hiring managers and HR are strongly biased against people who aren’t working.  And these just scratch the surface.

The conventional wisdom is that those who have no job must have lost their job for performance reasons, and therefore are less desirable than those currently still working.  This is naïve at best.  It might have been true 20-30 years ago when people’s average longevity at a company was more than the current three years, and the new mentality of both employers and employees is pushing employment towards short-term swarms of at-will free agents, as outlined in and commented on in my essay Mercenary Workforce.

In discussing interviews, I often state that there are two principle reasons for a face-to-face interview.  Both are simple.  Job seekers make claims of accomplishments on their resume – can they talk to those accomplishments?  Two shameless self-promoting items from my resume:

Cool, yes?  I’ve got others in my on-line portfolio.  But what’s important is that I can talk about these things.  How I went about achieving them.  With whom I worked to develop and implement them.  In other words, I can put these in context and fill in both background and details cogently and consistently.  Looking at these – and my career is filled with such accomplishments – does it appear like I’m an underperformer, or that I am unable to learn new things or adapt to a new industry?

The second reason for an in-person interview is “fit”.  Will you fit in with the team?  Are you perceived as someone who can get along with the others already there?  Culture is as critical to many managers as subject competence.  A google search for “culture and firing” finds numerous articles about companies firing people, not for performance at all, but because they didn’t fit in.  A person who doesn’t fit in one place could easily fit in another.  (Side note: I commented on some thoughts on how job seekers can investigate a company’s culture in Cultural Splinters.)

Personality conflicts are also grist for being unemployed.  A person can be performing fine, and get along with their co-workers, but they can just rub the boss the wrong way.  Or they could be perceived as a threat to the boss’ position – which is one reason some people don’t get hired to begin with… or bosses could fire people to keep fear present in the minds of the survivors.  This last was in an article I just found, 21 Types of Bosses, see Number 3.  (Truth to tell, I can’t imagine anyone being so insecure and nasty to do this, but apparently it happens.)

Blackberry just announced a downsizing of over 4,000 people.  It is inconceivable that all of these are “poor performers”, yet doubtless in this economy many will pass that magic six-month mark and therefore be considered untouchable.  Even smaller companies letting people go onesie-twosie, or firing them, are not necessarily getting rid of “bad employees” but could be pushing people out who don’t fit their culture – hence the title of my essay “Cultural Splinters”.  Sometimes people just don’t fit the culture; these things happen.  Not everybody works out in every job or every company, as highlighted in the article How Employers View You Being Fired:

Many employers understand that a bad set of circumstances is not necessarily an indication of future performance. In some fields, like radio hosts, it’s an exception rather than the rule for someone to NOT have been fired. So, this kind of employer has the perspective of a termination as only a small piece of their entire evaluation process.

Fortunately, there are some people out there who understand this, and the whole article is worth reading – especially if you are a job seeker.

Equally important, though, is a little empathy on the part of the hiring manager.  Not everyone will follow the same career arc; if a hiring manager has spent their entire career in one company, they need to understand that the “new normal” is one where people change jobs.  If they’ve never been unemployed, they need to understand that in any economy companies now release people “at will” – whether in layoffs or firings, and in a weak economy like we have now, there are a lot of people vying for small numbers of positions in an oversupply of candidates (or at least a perception of an oversupply) that’s likely to not be resolved for years… resulting in a lot of people out for long periods of time.

Nobody expects a person to be hired because they’re a hard luck case who is out of work.  A person still needs to have appropriate skills, knowledge, education, capacity to learn, as well as “fit” into a company’s culture.

But as potential bosses and other interviewers evaluate candidates, might I humbly suggest – given the multitude of reasons someone might be unemployed, e.g., tenuous economy, internal politics, etc. – that one phrase be considered as they talk with someone who has been unemployed for a while, and even possibly was fired from their last position?

“There but for the grace of G-d go I.”

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

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