A Known Quantity

I was talking to A. (smart man) about his reading preferences, and he said that he likes to read writers whose books he’s liked in the past. So do I; so do a lot of people. There’s certainly nothing to fault — reading is a time-consuming activity, and it’s costly to spend the time to find out that a book isn’t to taste — but the inevitable consequence of this preference for a known quantity is that it’s terribly difficult to break into the market.

This is as true for first-time writers trying to get published as it is for job seekers looking for that first job on which to build the Experience section of their resumes. I’m a brand-new, first-year student getting my master’s in library science. This means that in a couple year’s time, I’ll be looking for that vaunted first full-time job to begin my career as a librarian. On top of all that, I’m a worrier, and so I worry about getting that first job.

I worry when I see that all job postings require 2-3 years of experience. (Note, this is 2-3 years of experience on a full time job, and not something that can be fulfilled by internships or work done while in school.) I worry, and I wonder about the logical feasibility of everybody asking that somebody else will have taken a chance on an unknown. Isn’t this a classic example of social loafing, of a beggar-thy-neighbor policy, of the “not in my backyard” sentiment? Yes, I understand the value of a reputation; I understand how onerous it is to go through the process of hiring somebody only to have to go through a twice-as-onerous process of firing him later when he’s already wrecked havoc on work flows of the organization due to euphemistically “not being a good fit”. My understanding, however, does not convince me that it is optimal, even if it were possible, for the entire profession to demand experience.

I feel the same when I see people advocating for “promoting from within”, that is, hiring somebody who already has a job in the institution. “How is this possible?” is my first reaction. Unless HR is considering constant churn, or playing musical chair with the twist that there are at least the same number of people as chairs, it’s simple not feasible for every position to be filled by hiring from one’s ranks. Secondly, I’d like to argue that although on-the-job training is essential for about every position (and indeed is what makes taking a new job exciting; think about learning all those new things, meeting new people, doing new tasks), “promoting from within” means exactly that one is putting somebody in a job for which his original qualifications did not suit him. Of course, skills are transferable, and the person may have acquired a lot of skills from his current job that prepare him for the new one, but this is equally true of somebody who’s applying to the organization anew. In fact, that a person within the organization has the right qualifications is not the reason a lot of people advocate for placing them into a new position. Instead, it is that that “we know this person”. “We know he’s not a psychopath. We know he can work with people. We know we can trust his references (i.e. ourselves).” When this is the case, then we’re back to everybody in the organization asking somebody else to take a risk in hiring a new face.

Of course, I’m biased when objecting to this. I’m new. Nonetheless, I don’t think that I’m simply speaking out of self-interest or uttering complete nonsense. I would also like to be constructive and point out a different principle to hiring that balances the risks of trying a new face against the benefits of getting a terrific employee. It seems that the main reason that mangers are conservative in hiring, thus relying greatly on reputation, and putting a huge weight on getting a known personality is that hiring is such a long, complicated process whose burden is only outweigh by trying to let somebody go. So the alternative should be that hiring is done quickly, a probation period of work is made explicit, and letting somebody go from the job any time before the probation period expires is a straightforward process. This encourages an organization to try, seriously evaluate, and retain new employees who prove their mettle.

In a bureaucratic-heavy, unionized organization, this philosophy may prove difficult for any hiring manager to put in place. This should be an argument against bureaucracy and heavy-handed unions. It should be argued passionately that the organization risks losing out on talent when it insists on narrowing its pool of potential employees based not on what the employee can do but on who knows him and where he has been.

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2 Responses to A Known Quantity

  1. Forest says:

    I think my advice would be just to work on making yourself the best candidate possible. Obviously some things are beyond your control. Try to identify your strengths, and note the observations of others. I fretted a great deal in library school as well. I expressed my lack of confidence to a mentor once and was told “you’ll be fine, because you care about the patrons.” That gave me something to focus on, and something to build around. Just from reading a few of your posts I can see you are a strong writer and a critical thinker. There are some well-crafted little essays here. If I worked for Library Journal I’d have you on the recruitment list already!

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