TOC Can Nobody be looking for a job? Your Turn

January 27, 2009

Shakespeare had it right. Real life jarringly mixes comedy with tragedy. We followed the formula last month, apropos freedom of speech. Today reality takes over. The inauguration of the new US President should inspire us to rise to the challenge of the current economic crisis and assorted foreign powder kegs. Meanwhile we are offered two hilarious instances of information run amok.

Because Chief Justice Roberts did not faithfully follow the letter of the US Constitution in leading President Obama in his oath of office, Jeff Zeleny tells us "the two men [re]convened [...] to administer the oath again" (*). Such "an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence" sends shivers down my spine. So many lawyers, so much superstitious zeal do not augur well for the future. Next, will President Obama, before taking any vital decision, ask an official bird watcher to go count eagles flying past the Capitol?

The suspect oath was itself preceded with music merely mimicking reality, an event so aptly foreshadowed by President Obama's campaign slogan, "yes we can". As Daniel J. Wakin records (**), a spokeswoman declared "truly, weather just made it impossible" to play piano and strings live without mishaps. I watched the performance on a television screen and, conscious of the freezing temperature in Boston, thought about that very foolishness. Now I know better. Those well known artists smiling and playing for the camera were dummy, dispensable puppets, just for show. But wait, if the prelude is a fake, can the main movement be for real?

In an Information Age where exquisite exactness thus coexists with masquerades for the masses, what should we make of President Sarkozy's recent call for anonymous resumes (***)? While the desire of the French President to fight discrimination is sincere, while recruiters' knee jerk reactions to names betraying eccentric origins are an unfortunate fact of life which has not escaped Mr Barack Hussein Obama's attention, are anonymous resumes nothing more than a pet project even Presidents are powerless to lead to fruition?

Four years ago the French Prime Minister pushed the same idea, relaying a 2004 initiative by Mr Didier Leschi, a civil servant then posted in Lyon. At the time Jacques Trentesaux recorded the scepticism of the Vice President for Human Resources at a large international company (****). Today it is a job candidate, Ms Alykhanhthi Lynhiavu, who expresses a similar pessimism (*****). Both opinions are rooted in the reality of the hiring process. When they delay disclosing facts which, of necessity, recruiters learn during the job interviews, what can candidates gain?

Nothing, certainly, if practical implementation is allowed to water down the idea. Whether in Paris or in Boston, recruiters can and do discriminate on "bad addresses", in neighborhoods where minorities are the majority. Similar statistics can taint schools and even previous employers. Since most jobs are advertised and filled locally, the name is far from being the only field to hide.

The devil indeed lurks in the details. In 2005 the Human Resources VP of Axa France set up a two-tier system. Headquarters simply hid the appropriate fields from ordinary recruiters, a good intention worth a mile of pavement in Hell. For what a powerful incentive for the newly minted privileged class of guardians to trade on their secret knowledge. High rollers may find profits too small but idle hands will oblige for small favors.

A third issue lies in wait. In the restaurant and the healthcare industries for instance, shift schedules and availability of public transportation often show poor agreement. Other things being equal, best recruiting practices give the preference to the candidate whose address guarantees the more reliable commute. But what is a recruiter to do if the candidate's address is blanked out?

Assume however these practical problems have been solved, as they can using ePrio's technology. Delaying part of the data flow works by enabling the more relevant facts to take precedence. This is indeed the goal Mr Cyrille de Montgolfier assigns to his implementation at Axa: "helping the recruiters to look at resumes from a professional perspective and only from such a perspective". Once a recruiter has consciously preselected the best candidates for the job at hand, he or she will, on belatedly learning their names, be reluctant to lose them to unavowable biases.

To clarify how one benefits from anonymization is to reveal the real challenge. If resumes do not contain the relevant facts, Axa recruiters will be unable to develop reliable opinions before the interview unveils all incidental facts, and Alykhanhthi Lynhiavu's pessimism will be vindicated.

Unfortunately few resumes contain the relevant facts. In what is but the first move in a high stake negotiation, lack of confidentiality is reason enough for candidates to be less than candid. Even more crucial is the fact recruiters and candidates do not share the same language. Candidates write in terms of past achievements, whether diplomas, positions or results. Recruiters think in terms of tasks to be performed. Stuffing resumes with keywords, whose value decreases with their abundance, is hardly a solution.

Real communication should deal with objective skills and requirements, yet neither party speaks this language fluently nor has access to interpreters.

For anonymization to be more than scoring political points, independent specialists must thus create formal sets of criteria, "grids" in our jargon, one for each type of job. Grids at once help and compel both candidates and recruiters to share a language and account for all relevant, verifiable facts. Codified job titles and job requirements, professional diplomas and recommendations from reputed experts are practical short cuts. But whenever traditional terms, be it a diploma or a job description, fail to convey little more than generic names, they must be translated into more specific skills.

Were President Sarkozy to heed my advice, he should resist the temptation of setting up a new Académie. A Dictionary would take too much time. Instead he should prioritize jobs, starting with the ones most exposed to discriminatory practices. Give public prizes for the best grids, help the winners open independent, competing, matching services on a truly confidential platform such as ePrio's and require recruiters to select all interview candidates through one of these services. Beyond anonymity, this would promote fairness in recruitment, a level playing field by design.

Let the French President beware though, lest recruiters faithfully mimick the expected music to save their precious resume data bases from snapping under the strain of effective anonymization and safely resume past practices once his attention is drawn away.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... I Really Do Swear, Faithfully: Obama and Roberts Try Again, by Jeff Zeleny (New York Times) - January 22, 2009
  • (**) ....... Frigid Fingers Played It Live; Sound on the Mall? Recorded, by Daniel J. Wakin (New York Times) - January 23, 2009
  • (***) ..... Sarkozy veut faire du CV anonyme "un réflexe pour les employeurs", (Les Echos) - December 17, 2008
  • (****) ... Faut-il promouvoir le CV anonyme?, by Jacques Trentesaux (L'Express) - February 12, 2005
  • (*****) . Le CV anonyme, cette fausse bonne idée, by Ms Alykhanhthi Lynhiavu (Libération) - January 6, 2009
January 2009
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