A two-line email popped into my inbox: ‘I regret to inform you that your application for the post of communications officer has not been successful on this occasion.’
Two decades as a national journalist, plus experience as a ministerial and corporate press adviser, and yet again, I’d failed even to secure an interview — this time to be a part-time communications officer in a college.
If you have not applied for work in the past few years, ‘human resources’ — or HR as it is known — may be unfamiliar. But it has stealthily turned job-hunting into an ordeal, and my experience is far from un-usual. Forget simply sending off your CV to secure a vacant position. Forget your track record speaking for itself. Forget the bleeding obvious.
In the world of HR, CVs are ignored and applications are scanned for bias. Job-hunters are warned that just because their CV shows they have, say, a research degree, it will not go to show they are capable of research. Nor does a long career in journalism suggest the ability to communicate. Instead, skills must be stated clearly and in very specific HR jargon.
When a position becomes vacant, no matter how humble the role, HR will draw up a list of some 20-30 responsibilities along with essential criteria. In their applications candidates need to demonstrate, with examples, that they have achieved everything on this list. An English graduate may need to explain that they have the ability to ‘read and interpret written documents’. A long-standing financial professional could be required to give examples of dealing ‘effectively’ with financial issues. Effective (as opposed to useless) is a favoured word in HR circles, along with energetic (a code word for ‘young’), excellent (again, young), impact (young) and challenge (young).
Before I became fully HR-aware, I thought my CV would speak for itself. But I have learned that evidence is not enough. No statement is too obvious, no claim too immodest. Your career may show a high degree of flexibility. You may state ‘I am flexible’. But HR want to see examples of you being flexible. One seasoned finance director told me he has repeatedly failed to get past HR for an interview on the grounds that he does not have enough experience of… being a finance director. His 30-year career was insufficient proof. At least he received some ‘feedback’. In most cases, candidates never hear anything once they have despatched their application.
HR professionals tend to congregate in the public sector. Civil service applications are a masterclass in obscurity. Only a particularly determined candidate will even know what they are being asked. Many civil service positions require candidates to demonstrate ‘behaviours’. One of the favoured behaviours is ‘delivering at pace’. Does this mean you need to talk about working at pace? No. When it says ‘delivering at pace’, what the civil service actually means is that candidates need to ‘show a positive approach to keeping the whole team’s efforts focused on the top priorities’.
Even if you do make it to a real interview, the ordeal is not over. The dead hand of HR hangs heavily over recruitment boards. You face an hour-long panel of up to four interviewers, even for a junior office position. Nothing you say will impress. You will end up burbling nonsense.
You will then be rated on your responses to questions such as ‘Describe an occasion when you have gone above and beyond’ or ‘Describe an occasion when you have made a mistake’. An answer can never be too over-the-top or obsequious. Why do you want the job? The right answer is that it is your life’s ambition, nothing would delight you more. The birth of your children pales into insignificance beside becoming the new part-time administrator for a charity’s bereavement hub. And after all that, you still don’t get the job.
Would you have been given your first job, if you’d had to face the HR ordeal? In my case, I think it unlikely. As a 21-year-old graduate, I was put in charge of seven staff and a government pay and pensions office. But as they like to say in HR, I rose to the challenge.