The Superb Lyrebird is a small ground-dwelling Australian bird that is most notable for its superb ability to mimic almost any sound. During an excellent special that I watched recently on the Discovery Channel, a Superb Lyrebird demonstrated this extraordinary ability by mimicking not only the sounds of many animals, which also included the human voice, but also various musical instruments, power tools such as drills and chainsaws, electronic devices such as car and fire alarms, and even some incredibly realistic sounding gunshots and explosions.
Male lyrebirds use this ability mainly during their song and dance courtship rituals.
As fascinating (well, I find it fascinating) as this information is, you are probably wondering why I am blogging about it.
No, despite the rumors circulating the Twitterverse, I am not auditioning for my own primetime show on Animal Planet.
However, I have recently been participating in the song and dance courtship ritual otherwise known as job interviews.
I have always found the very concept of a résumé (or a curriculum vitae or far more often nowadays, a LinkedIn profile) to be truly fascinating. The idea that a well-written document (printed, electronic, or online) that provides a mixture of summarized and detailed information about your professional experience, career goals, job history, academic qualifications, and references, can somehow encapsulate what kind of employee you would make is highly specious—at least in my humble opinion.
I think that the Superb Lyrebird is an excellent metaphor for a résumé because the job seeker is essentially attempting to mimic the sounds that the employer wants to hear. Do you have an academic degree in a discipline relevant to the job opening? If not, did you at least graduate from a prestigious college or university? Does your job history include professional experience relevant to the job opening? If not, did you at least have some past jobs with either impressive descriptions or titles? Are your career goals ambitious enough—but not so ambitious that they could be considered potentially threatening to your new direct manager?
I am not suggesting that these questions are completely irrelevant, nor am I suggesting that some level of screening can’t be effectively performed using them. However, is it really difficult to make sure that your résumé at least sounds good?
Gaming the System
Although you can’t embellish your education, you can easily get quite creative with the rest, such as using the right keywords in your job descriptions. A cursory review (either manual or automated) of keywords is still a very common practice performed by human resources (HR) during the preliminary screening to determine what résumés will reach the desks of hiring managers.
So it would seem that “gaming the system” is what you have to do if you want to secure gainful employment. In fact, it could be easily argued that the system is purposely designed to be gamed.
This is akin to my university literature professor not really caring what I actually thought about Don Quixote. If I wanted to pass the final exam, then I had to mimic the professor’s belief that Miguel de Cervantes intended his wonderful novel to be an allegory for the critical but sometimes dangerous role that an active imagination can play in the human experience.
Telling my literature professor what he wanted to hear doesn’t mean that I truly appreciated or even understood the brilliance of the novel. Although I gained the experience of reading it, passed a course that contributed to my graduation, and can sound good at a dinner party where guests have an interest in discussing the novel with me, does that really qualify me as an expert?
I can play buzzword bingo with the best of the best. I can quote from the books and blogs of industry thought leaders. I can customize my résumé so its loaded with all the right keywords. I can use my Internet prowess to wow you during a telephone interview by using Google and Wikipedia to sound like the smartest man on the planet. I can cram for the in-person interview like I crammed for my literature final exam because if I do my research well, I will know every question you are going to ask, and I will know exactly how you want me to answer them.
A Superb Lyrebird is a Superb Liar
Just like a Superb Lyrebird convincingly mimicking a lion only makes it sound like a lion, and convincingly mimicking what my professor wants to hear only makes me sound like a great student, convincingly mimicking what you are looking for only makes me sound like a potentially great employee. But how many “lions on paper” or “lions during the interview” have you or your organization hired only to end up with a mostly flightless bird incapable of doing anything other than sounding impressive?
The reason that this happens is incredibly simple—a Superb Lyrebird is a Superb Liar.
However, my point is not to suggest that either job seekers are deceptive or that employers are easily deceived.
My point is I believe that the system is fundamentally broken because it actually encourages job seekers to act like lyrebirds and actually encourages employers to hire lyrebirds.
In my career, I have been on both sides of the interview desk. I have made hiring recommendations that resulted in terrible employees, as well as disagreed with hiring decisions that resulted in excellent employees. I have performed poorly during interviews that resulted in getting hired anyway, as well as performed brilliantly during interviews that resulted in no offer.
I acknowledge that some truly qualified people, who would make great employees, simply do not interview well. Some people (including so-called “professional students”) excel at interviews (and in the classroom), but at absolutely nothing else. Also, some interviewers simply do not know how to conduct a truly effective interview (or in some cases, how to conduct a legal interview).
Therefore, I completely accept that there is no way to perfect the process (and that I am also making sweeping generalizations).
Tilting at Windmills
Recently I have been very disappointed with both the questions that I have and have not been asked during an interview.
I have also been very disappointed to observe interviewers getting frustrated with me for telling them the truth as opposed to telling them what they wanted to hear.
Perhaps I should just play along like a good little Superb Lyrebird? It certainly sounds like that is what is expected of me.
After all, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha is really an allegory about deception, both self-deception and the deception imposed on us by others—and about acknowledging not only the negative, but also the positive aspects of deception.
My good friend Sancho has just arrived, meaning it’s time once again to do battle with the hulking giants and try to slay them.
Even though I know that I am really only tilting at windmills, for whatever reason, it still always makes me feel better anyway.