Illana Gershon discusses her new book: Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find and Don’t Find Work Today

down-and-outWhat does it take to get a good job in today’s ever-evolving economy? Some people looking for that next position believe that networking is a key to success — whether through social connections or websites like LinkedIn. Others focus on crafting the personal brand they think will appeal to hiring managers. But a lot of those job seekers are way off the mark, says Illana Gershon, who has researched what works best and has reported the results in her book — Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find and (or Don’t Find) Work Today. Gershon, an Indiana University professor of anthropology, discussed her findings on the Knowledge at Wharton Show, which airs on Sirius XM channel 111. She summed up the pervasive myths and out-of-date techniques, and offered advice for taking the pain out of the job-hunting process.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s start with some of the best things people are doing right now in their job searches, and then also some of the biggest mistakes. What are you seeing?

Ilana Gershon: People are becoming extremely canny about doing research on the companies that they are interested in being hired into, and they’re thinking more carefully about what kinds of jobs that they would like to have. This is the thing that I’ve been really impressed by: People are getting more and more clever about figuring out whether the workplace that they are perhaps about to join is really a workplace that they want to be a part of.

What are the worst things that they are doing? There are two things that people seem to be spending a lot of time doing, that as far as I could tell, was wasting their time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that they’re doing, but the question is, what is going to make the job search take longer? One of the things that seems to be taking up a lot of people’s time and not getting as much in the way of results as they would like is personal branding. People are putting in a lot of time in to making sure that their online presence reflects what they see as their authentic self, and on the hiring side, nobody seemed to care about personal branding. But personal branding, as you know, takes a lot of time.

“On the hiring side, nobody seemed to care about personal branding. But personal branding, as you know, takes a lot of time.”

The other thing that people seem to be doing — and it took me a while to realize why and how this was taking up a lot of people’s time — was focusing on weak ties or weak links in order to be able to get jobs. Weak ties and weak links used to be the ways that people were getting jobs. It used to be very effective in the 1970s, but nowadays, technology has changed so much that the pain point in getting a job has really shifted from trying to find out that the job exists in the first place to figuring out how to have hiring managers or recruiters notice you amid a pile of resumes.

It’s more a question of getting noticed rather than finding out that the job exists. Weak ties aren’t so helpful for that. It turns out that workplace ties — having someone who knew you from a previous job and can talk about what you are like as a worker — was very helpful for people.

Knowledge at Wharton: How effective do you believe LinkedIn is right now? It has seemingly become one of the go-to locations for people to be able to connect with others, and obviously, as you alluded to, in this digital age you need to have that component to your job search, but I don’t think it can be the be-all and end-all.

Gershon: No, absolutely not. LinkedIn was something that everybody who I was talking to was a little bit baffled by, actually, and they wanted it to work a lot better than it did. I think what happened is that if you’re trying to get a job in a social community where people are actively using LinkedIn and willing to respond to LinkedIn messages, then it’s really productive. But it’s not necessarily just about LinkedIn — it’s how people you know are using it, and whether it’s working well. Part of the reason Facebook works so well is that it’s a social community that people are using to make it work well.

LinkedIn seemed to work very well as a recruiter database. So if you’re looking for a job that you could get if a recruiter notices you, then writing your LinkedIn profile so that recruiters will notice you, in terms of making sure that you have the right keywords, seemed really important.

The other thing that LinkedIn seems to do that’s important is, it serves as a directory. People now are constantly moving from company to company, and if you know someone, but you don’t know them well enough to have another way to contact them outside of the company contact, LinkedIn worked very well as a Rolodex.

Knowledge at Wharton: Personal branding is quite an investment financially and time-wise. You went to some seminars on personal branding — what did you learn there?

Gershon: I was really trying to go see what job advice is circulating out there right now, so I ended up going to a lot of free personal branding workshops for job-seekers to learn how to do this. What people were saying is that what you need to do is figure out what three or four words reflect your authentic self, and then make sure that your online presence and your offline interactions all line up with those three or four words.

The other thing that people kept talking about as being very important was that these words really reflected your authentic self, and that they weren’t just any words that you thought might work or that seemed comfortable for you to use — it had to work because of authenticity. This was something that just really baffled me, because I couldn’t figure out why it actually had to reflect your authentic self. People are quite good at creating personas in this particular situation — a character that they will perform as in a workplace, or perform in a particular context. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fundamentally true to who they are for it to be really effective. But this is part of what the idea of personal branding was supposed to be.

Knowledge at Wharton: Part of this is because companies not only want somebody who is a good fit from a business perspective, but also someone who is a good fit from the corporate structure perspective. They don’t want to hire somebody who is going to be really grating on the other employees.

“The pain point in getting a job has really shifted from trying to find out that the job exists in the first place to figuring out how to have hiring managers or recruiters notice you….”

Gershon: Oh, I completely agree — I just don’t think that personal branding is a good way to figure out whether someone is going to be grating or not. One of the things that I find interesting is that in my life, the people who are most consistent, who are the same from context to context, are really the most unpleasant.

Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about how this can be a regional issue. Going after a job and making contact with people in Seattle is obviously going to be a little bit different than in New York City or Missouri or Montana.

Gershon: I found that that was really true when it came to the length of time that people expected employees to stay at a company. In San Francisco, where I was doing most of my research, people expected a job tenure of two or three years; in the Midwest, people were expecting more like five to eight years. So when people in the Bay Area were looking at a job applicant from the Midwest they would say, “But wait a minute, you stayed too long. You were too static.” This was really a problem. Then I talked to people who were interviewing for jobs in Chicago, and they found it really frustrating because they kept being told, “But you’re a job-hopper, you don’t commit.” And they would say, “But this is the right length of time in my region.”

Knowledge at Wharton: I find it interesting because people are basing their opinions about that on what they see in a profile, but there can be a variety of different reasons why somebody was a job-hopper, or why somebody wasn’t a job-hopper.

Gershon: Absolutely.

Knowledge at Wharton: Family, health issues, etc. — those are the things that, in the end, really can only be determined when you actually sit down and talk to somebody.

Gershon: Or being really happy at your workplace.

Knowledge at Wharton: Right. To a degree then, do people need to be their own marketing agency when they are trying to go for that new job?

Gershon: I hope not. I really, really hope not. I think that this is something that we’re being pressured into, and I think that there are a lot of ways in which the people who are being pressured into doing this are really not very happy with it. Like I said, it takes a lot of time, it makes the job-search process so problematic that it’s very hard for people to look for a job and have a job at the same time, and yet that’s what you’re supposed to do. As a society, we need to figure out a different way to hire so that we’re not putting these impossible pressures on people.


Knowledge at Wharton: Google is starting a new venture in this arena — a Google for jobs.

Gershon: That’s very interesting. I wonder what they are going to be doing that is different than what is already available — because a lot of the information that you actually need about jobs is not necessarily information that you can get from online interaction. I think Glassdoor is very, very helpful for people in terms of offering insights into what workplaces are like, but job descriptions and the information on the site that companies carefully manage as though it is a recruitment portal are not necessarily as helpful for job seekers. I don’t know what Google is actually doing on this front, but it would be interesting to see what ways they allow people to share information about what is actually happening in a job.

Knowledge at Wharton: Marty is in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Marty, welcome to the show.

Marty: A comment and a question. My thoughts are that in terms of the job search, intentionality in my mind is the most important thing. Having a plan, no different than you would have a business strategy: What kinds of jobs you want, where do you want to be, who do you want to work with. There’s so much information out there that you can learn all of this, but to have an intentional plan – unfortunately, that does take work.

“When people in the Bay Area were looking at a job applicant from the Midwest they would say, ‘But wait a minute, you stayed too long. You were too static.’ ”

Gershon: I think you’re absolutely right. I think that’s what I began with. When asked what are people doing that they are doing really well, they’re getting better and better at researching the companies, thinking through what they actually want, and figuring out how to tell whether a company is really going to be able to offer that for them or not. I think you are right being thoughtful and intentional in that particular way, and knowing how to do good research is really helpful.

Knowledge at Wharton: It feels like more people just have that expectation of having to do the work of developing a strategy.

Gershon: I think they do have to do it. Yes. What was very interesting for me was that the workshops were divided up based on the level of job one was seeking, in terms of whether they were getting this kind of advice or not. People who were trying to be upper-level management were getting the advice that they needed — to do a lot more research and think very strategically about which business they wanted to partner with, and to imagine their hiring as partnering with a business instead of becoming an employee, if you know what I mean.

At the workshops for just anybody — and especially, for lower-level, white-collar work — people were being told, “This strategy is just for getting any job.” Sometimes people would talk about being more strategic about it, but it would be helpful if everyone was thinking more strategically about whether particular workplaces were the right places for them.

It also might put pressure on companies to deal with their job applicants in a better way. Because there isn’t that much pressure on companies right now to do as well as they can by their job applicants — to give them information about when the job is no longer available; to give them enough information about what the job will actually be like. There are a lot of complaints among job seekers about how badly they are being treated in the hiring process.

Knowledge at Wharton: That would require a shift in the HR dimension of this, part of which would be around the connection, and also, I would imagine, partly in the technology behind it.

Gershon: Yes, possibly. I think you could have a technology solution that would let all the applicants and job sites know when a job had been filled.

Knowledge at Wharton: Right, but there are companies out there that still don’t do that these days, which is kind of surprising. As advanced as we are technologically, you will see jobs actively posted that were filled a month, two months, three months before, and they’re still out there showing up as potential jobs for people.

Gershon: Right. I think that this is deeply frustrating for people.