Why haven’t employer expectations changed?

A couple weeks ago LinkedIn announced a new feature offering people a new way to “explain” a career break or other gap in their resume.

According to the Adweek story linked above, the “Career Break” feature was driven in part by the pandemic and the large number of people who were either laid off or quit their jobs because of illness or the need to take care of loved ones who got sick. It solves the problem of having an extended period of time between actual jobs, something that often comes up during job interviews to the detriment of the interviewee.

It’s a noble idea, but it’s rooted in the idea that a career gap is something that needs to be rationalized, or at least be spun and presented in the most upbeat possible manner.

If the goal is truly to remove some of the negative connotations traditionally associated with these sorts of gaps in work experience, the burden falls on the company doing the hiring, not the applicant hoping to be hired.

Just because someone chose or was required because of circumstances to take an extended period of time off doesn’t automatically mean they are inherently less qualified for a position or job.

And that’s not even mentioning the people who quit, as many did in 2021, for work-related reasons such as palpable lack of advancement opportunity, low pay or lack of general respect in the workplace.

Unless there’s some hint of an actual problem – embezzlement, theft, fraud or something similar – why an individual left their last job and what they’ve been doing in the meantime should be of no importance to the company interviewing that individual.

No matter what the answer is it opens the door to some form of subjective, even moral, judgment being made. If they left because of a hostile work environment or because they weren’t being promoted, they could be labeled as “difficult” and not hired. If they left because they lacked alternatives for child or parent care, they could be seen as “not sufficiently committed to work success” and not hired.

broader applicant pools

LinkedIn’s new feature comes about a month after a study was released finding employers are in the midst of a recalibration of their hiring criteria, one that emphasizes skills over a degree requirement. That comes after two decades (or more) of “degree inflation” where very specific degrees were the thing companies were looking for, excluding those without them from consideration. Now a tight labor market has them broadening their search of applicants.

That raises the question: Why were they being so restrictive in the first place?

From the HBR recap of the report:

Perhaps because they believe that college graduates possess more-refined social, or “soft,” skills — the ability to work in groups, say, or to communicate efficiently in real-time, or to prioritize tasks. These skills are far harder to assess, and our analysis strongly suggests that as a result many employers are using college degrees as a proxy for them. Employers who eliminated degree requirements, we found, frequently added more-detailed soft-skills requirements in their postings.

Here we go again with “soft” skills, which isn’t a thing and has never been a thing but which continues to linger like a fart in a small conference room.

hiring is looking for the wrong things

In my experience, the hiring and interviewing process is focused on three things:

  • Skills
  • Experience
  • Degree or certification

All of that is how the application-submissions systems filter out the applicants who don’t have the right keywords in their resume.

None of those, though, focus on what it seems companies should actually be looking for, which is the ability to creatively solve problems.

Creativity is constantly cited as the skill companies most want in their current and future employees. But If they’re just looking at the three categories above, they’re missing out on finding people who can actually find new and innovative ways to achieve corporate goals.

In fact, the kind of creativity companies say they want is often the kind that’s not welcome in the workplace because it has a tendency to question the status quo a bit to frequently, wonders why it can’t install a piece of software on their company-issued machine and generally ruffles feathers.

It’s the creative individual, though, who could come in and point out a unique and unprecedented path to achieving a goal or finishing a project.

And that kind of creativity often comes from those who have been out of the workforce for a period of time. They may have had to figure out new ways to balance childcare and visiting elderly parents and how to revise a budget when the household income has been halved or overcome some other significant problem.

don’t worry, though, because none of this matters

All of this, as well as other stories in the last few months about job searches and related topics, doesn’t actually matter, though. That’s because, according to a recent Department of the Treasury report, individuals have little power when it comes to the labor market as well as how they’re compensated once they have a job.

Mergers, non-compete clauses and other tactics whose use has accelerated in the last 20 years or so have depressed wages by an estimated 15-25%, according to the report.

Anticompetitive practices thrive when there are fewer competitors. If workers have many potential employers, they might still agree to sign a noncompete clause, but they could demand a pay increase to compensate.

So, in short, you *have* to adequately explain why you were out of the job market for X months, or face the consequences for not doing so. And you *have* to fit nicely in the corporate box. And you *have* to return to the office when your employer says it’s mandatory, even if your productivity and quality of life have improved since you went remote. Because you have little to no power in the conversation.

All of this is yet another reminder that the burden to make improvements, explanations or adjustments almost always falls on the individual, not the corporation. That’s backwards.