What if everything we were taught about getting a job was a lie?

Finding a job is a painful experience. Like contortionists, we are expected to twist every experience we’ve ever had into a cohesive story that will persuade our prospective employer that we have been passionate about their company since we were 11 years old. Not merely interested, but passionate.

In a recent interview at my staffing agency, I was told that I couldn’t be considered for a temporary position making coffee and pushing paper at one of the Big 4 accounting firms unless I could convince them that I wanted to pursue a career in accounting. I should downplay the three years I spent in Europe getting a Master’s degree in global health and working for an international nonprofit agency so that I could spin some story about how my lifelong dream has always been tax accounting. I refused and the job went to someone who was more willing to stretch the truth.

In many interviews, we will be asked, “where do we see ourselves in 5 years?” The only acceptable answer is some variation of the following: “Toiling away at this dead-end job and doing the same menial tasks with greater productivity and efficiency!” Answering anything else will ensure that we get rejected. It’s an offense worthy of termination to mention any future ambitions or dreams to an employer. It’s not a sign of enthusiasm or leadership potential. It’s taken as warning sign that you are likely disloyal and untrustworthy.

I have a friend who was fired from an engineering firm early in his career for mentioning in casual conversation that he was thinking of getting a Master’s degree someday. To add insult to injury, he was unemployed for months because being wrongfully terminated was viewed as a black mark on his resume. This type of unfair work practice fosters disloyalty that causes a rift between workers and their managers. If companies wonder why millennials don’t trust their supervisors with details of their personal lives and career ambitions, it’s because all of us know someone who has been fired for saying too much.

When it comes to interviewing, we have been taught that potential employers will want to see our attitudes, enthusiasm, passion, and teamwork. Great companies will hire for attitude and train for skill. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you read job postings closely, you will notice a common trend. Employers can be as selective as they wish, requiring that all new staff have previous experience because this should guarantee their success. If you want to sort mail at the airport, previous experience in a mail center is a must. If you want to drive a delivery truck with fresh produce, previous warehouse experience is required. If you want to be a project manager at a healthcare company, Project Management Professional certification is required, as well as 5 years of experience managing projects in a healthcare setting.

We have been told that we should demonstrate our enthusiasm for a job by printing off a copy of our resume and cover letter and hand-delivering it to the company. A few days later, we were encouraged to phone the manager to see if s/he had any questions about our application. This type of personal interaction is now completely off-limits. Today, we spend hours researching the companies where we want to work, crafting customized and engaging cover letters and submitting them through online application systems. In return for many hours of hard work, we receive a generic email from an unmonitored email address with the following message:

Dear Michael Johnson,
Thank you for expressing an interest in the following position(s) submitted on 2015–09–01:
 Job ID: 161–204: Health Systems Researcher, Global Health Division
If selected for further consideration, a representative of ____ will contact you.
Sincerely,
Human Resources

It’s no accident that there are no names or phone numbers in the email. The purpose of the email is to inhibit and discourage any further communication.

The message that this sends to prospective employees is clear: We don’t care at all about you. If you have questions, don’t call. If you want to check on the status of your application, don’t bother. If you want to show your enthusiasm and interest in working for this company, don’t waste your breath. We know what we’re looking for, and we will tell you when we find it. We are in control here, and you aren’t.

The nameless, faceless HR Department will decide who is the best fit for their company culture and who has the best potential to contribute to the mission and vision of the organization by data-mining your electronic submission and assigning a ranking based on a secret algorithm that may or may not include your credit history, your criminal background, and the number of connections that you have on LinkedIn and Facebook.

This is not the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship, this is a financial transaction. You give your time, your energy, and your life’s history, and in return they provide you with nothing.

I recently visited a company in a beautiful renovated brick building in Boston’s Waterfront district. This consulting firm boasted about their passionate staff and their workplace culture, so I thought I would go see for myself. I printed a few copies of my resume on high-quality paper and put on my best suit. When I arrived, the security guard informed me that I must speak to the receptionist on the 7th floor. So she dialed the number and handed me the phone. The receptionist asked me if anyone was expecting me. When I told her no, that I was only here to drop off my resume, she informed me that she was not allowed to let me past security and I would have to mail the letter instead. To whom should I address the letter? She wouldn’t say. Could I leave it here at the front desk with the security guard? No. The security desk is not allowed to accept any packages that are not addressed to anyone.

The whole experience made me feel terribly uncomfortable and unwanted. I was guilty of some social faux pas that the more informed and well-educated applicants out there knew to avoid. But I’m an extroverted person, meeting people is what I do! Dejected and confused, I walked to the South Station Post Office, just a few blocks away. It was closing time, so instead of going up to the desk and talking to a real person, I paid $0.98 at the postal vending machine to mail a letter to a business that was standing in just moments earlier. I can’t imagine anything more impersonal than that.

Is this the future that we want, where we are discouraged from human interaction and admonished for doing anything to distinguish ourselves from others? Is this the result of the great technological progress that we have been working toward? It doesn’t feel like progress to me. It feels lonely, isolating, and utterly lifeless.

Since the economic crisis in 2008, HR departments have been in a difficult position, dealing with an onslaught of applications for every open position that is listed on their website. I understand the logistics of this challenge can cause them to take shortcuts and eliminate any potential distractions. But hiring new staff is the most relational aspect of their job, and eliminating the human interaction completely from the process is not the answer. It discourages talented and qualified applicants from engaging with your company, and it drives them toward smaller organizations that appear to have a more healthy and inviting workplace culture, whether or not they actually do.

As a relentless optimist, I will continue searching for the right job. I will continue writing cover letters that disappear into black holes and going to networking events in hopes of making a connection. I truly believe that someone out there will see that my experience and skills are worth something. Every good job that I’ve ever had started with a personal connection, so I’m going to keep putting myself out there and keep taking risks. Even if everything I learned about getting a job was a lie, I can unlearn it and start anew.