Games Job Seekers Play

In the United States and Israel, unemployed job seekers have to navigate two very different -- and flawed -- systems in their pursuit of work, according to researcher Ofer Sharone.

Monday, March 10, 2014
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In his recent book, Flawed Systems/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences (published by the University of Chicago), MIT Sloan School of Management Assistant Professor Ofer Sharone points out that unemployed white-collar professionals in both the United States and Israel have at least one thing in common: They understand that job loss is outside their control, often the outgrowth of events such as corporate restructuring.

But once the job search begins, Sharone writes, the differences become much more pronounced.

Drawing from extensive interviews with unemployed professionals in both the United States and Israel, Sharone found that the experiences of unemployed job seekers are largely shaped by the structure of the labor-market institutions in those countries. In turn, he says, these individuals have little choice but to engage in very different "job-search games" as they seek out a new job.

In the United States, job seekers, he says, engage in the "chemistry game," where the "chemistry" between the applicant and interviewer matter significantly more than a person's resume and skill set. "In this game," he writes, "hard skills are understood to be important for getting one's foot in the door, but not ultimately determinative."

Those who fail to land a job, Sharone says, often end up blaming themselves for their lack of success.

In contrast, unemployed job seekers in Israel encounter an entirely different experience, one Sharone calls the "specs game" -- with specs referring to specifications. This game, Sharone says, focuses more on "depersonalized and objectified skills and credentials," and a rigid set of characteristics (such as the applicant's age or the existence of a gap in their resume), rather than any interpersonal chemistry.

Unemployed Israelis who fail to get a job offer, he says, are much more likely to feel a sense of anger and blame the system, not themselves.

HRE recently spoke with Sharone about his research and the takeaways for HR leaders. Excerpts follow from that discussion follow.

What led you to research the job-searching experience, and how it differs between the United States and Israel?

At around the time the tech bubble burst, I was doing my graduate work at Berkeley. In talking to a lot of tech professionals and managers in and around Silicon Valley, I noticed that the conversations about careers very much focused on security; people were worried about getting laid off, or they may already have been laid off, and were trying to find a new job. The way my Israeli friends talked about it was very different from the way they talked about it here in the United States. [Sharone was born in Israel and moved to the United States at age 10.]

Like those in the United States, the topic of security was huge among Israelis, yet they talk about it in very different ways. It became obvious to me that something is really different to the way people think about their careers, their jobs and difficulties when they're unemployed, and I was really curious to get to the bottom of this.

Can you explain a little about the meaning of the "chemistry game" versus "specs game" mentioned in your book? What kind of impact do these two games have on the candidates who are involved in looking for work?

Well, in the specs game [being played out in Israel], employers are basically looking [for talent] to purchase, just as they would [shop for] a computer. It's a very rigid and, in a way, a very superficial process of vetting candidates and filtering them through staffing agencies.  If one makes it through that filter, [he or she] then goes through a second filter of tests that looks at both hard skills and soft skills.

In the chemistry game [being played out in the United States], American job seekers -- and here I'm talking about white-collar workers -- have this understanding that the specifications are the threshold requirement needed to get your foot in the door, but what really matters is the ability to develop rapport with the hiring manager. If you can connect with that person, that chemistry becomes [the most] salient [aspect] of the job search in America.

These are obviously very different ways to think about what it takes to get a job.

As for the second part of your question about how this affects the unemployed: If you think you're being excluded from a job and being turned down [in Israel] because of this rigid filtering, you're going to focus on all the ways in which the filters apply to you, are unfair or arbitrary, and are missing your skills and underlying potential.

In the United States, you have some of that, but you also have in most job seekers a sense that "something is wrong with me" -- that not just the hiring system [is at fault], but that maybe you're flawed or something [occurred during the interviewing] that made it difficult to connect. For the job seeker, this can be very discouraging.

So is one environment healthier than the other?

It's complicated. First, what I'm talking about here is the job seekers' perception of the hiring process, and those perceptions are rooted in the way job hiring works. In both cases, I think employers are looking at chemistry factors and hard factors, so there's not necessarily a 100-percent mapping to what job seekers perceive and the actual hiring process.

In Israel, the rigidity of the hiring system by no means creates a [better] unemployment situation. Unemployment is really tough in both places, and the outcome in the case of Israeli tends to be more externalizing, resulting in a lot of anger and feeling betrayed. This is an unintentional effect of the way hiring works in Israel. But it does have the consequence of being less discouraging for job seekers, because if you don't see yourself as the problem and feel it's more arbitrary, you're more likely to keep playing the game. Like the lottery, you never know when you'll get lucky and your number will come up.

I'm not saying that this makes for a better hiring or healthier hiring system, but it does have this unintended effect. I think the main point here, as far as the Israel case is concerned, is to shine light on the American case to better understand why it is that you see such discouragement among unemployed job seekers. As you know, we're seeing huge numbers of people dropping out of the labor force.

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I think it just kind of highlights the challenge job seekers face in looking for work in an environment where it's so easy to personalize the outcome. We don't really do a great job of combatting that feeling of vulnerability -- or the tendency of people to personalize things. Greater focus needs to be placed on developing ways for job seekers to become more resilient and to contextualize the difficulties of larger structures that are outside their control. This would make it much easier for them to keep going.

In your book, you reference the use of pre-employment testing in Israel and the United States. Can you tell me how the approach differs in the two countries?

In Israel, pre-employment testing is now routine for medium and large companies. Basically, they do it for every single person they interview. The only people who aren't tested tend to work for very small companies -- so it's pretty much standard procedure there. I have not done any studies on how it's done in the United States, but my perception is that it's increasing there as well.

Did you get any sense what part, if any, outplacement services play in the process?

I didn't study outplacement, per se, but my sense is that outplacement support could be better at equipping job seekers with a broader conceptual understanding of the labor market and of the challenges they face to ensure, [particularly in the United States], that they don't internalize [the process no matter how long it takes]. There's a tendency to tell [American] job seekers that they can be in control of their job-search outcome -- that if they execute all the moves correctly, they will win the game. It oversells how much of it is in the control of the job seeker -- and that overselling, I think, contributes to the perception that "something is wrong with me."

In the research, did you gain any insight into the role HR departments play in the process?

In Israel, HR and recruiting generally outsource the first screening to staffing agencies. So it's not done in-house. I think this contributes to the greater rigidity in hiring. Also, those staffing agencies used relatively untrained screeners, who weren't specialists in any particular occupation, for the first round of screening, which also added to the rigidity.

In the United States, the perception of job seekers is that HR plays a diminished role -- that the interviews that really count are the ones with the hiring manager.

Are there any particular takeaways here for HR leaders in the United States?

One thing that comes to mind is that the people who have been unemployed for more than six months report getting zero response to their applications. [Consequently,] there's a tremendous waste of talent [that never gets hired]. The people I studied are college educated, with 10 years of work experience. They have much to contribute. It's not surprising, then, that they're discouraged.

My message, then, to HR executives is don't assume that if someone has been unemployed for more than six months, they don't have something to offer your company.

The other thing I would say is to examine the way the hiring process might be focused on assessing a personal connection instead of the talent and ability of that person and whether [he or she] can do the job. This leads to missing out on some very talented people.

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