Steven Libman
is President of The Libman Group with 30 years of experience leading major arts organizations. The Libman Group helps arts organizations build audiences, maintain relevance and stability, and improve quality of governance.
Career in arts management

The Dignity of the Job Search

To be treated with respect and dignity throughout an entire application process surely is not too much to ask for. However, this sadly isnt standard practice. The poor treatment of job applicants is not a rare event. Steven Libman proposes an Applicants Bill of Rights.
Dear Applicant, we regret to inform you. Dear Applicant? Dear Applicant indeed!

After reading the rejection letter a few times I became more and more incredulous. I had applied for a very important position at a prestigious university. I had also supplied two reference letters, as requested, from prominent individuals in my field each of whom was also from important and esteemed universities. And yetthe rejection letter began with Dear Applicant. I supposed I should be pleased that it did not begin with To Whom It May Concern, but one would think that after a 30+ year career running some of the largest and nationally significant arts organizations, I would deserve more than a, Dear Applicant.

Am I wrong to assume that I should be treated with dignity and respect throughout the entire application process? How hard would it have been to input the data of all applicants and respond back with a Dear Steven or a Dear Mr. Libman? Respect should be shown to applicants for every position open in an organization, from those applying for their first job out of college to others embarking on a new career.

Of course, as one colleague told me, consider yourself lucky. Would you really want to work for an organization that responds to people in that manner?

I suppose I would not focus so much on this issue if this was an isolated event. But sadly it is not. As the worst economic downturn since the great depression enters its 4th year, I feel its crucial that employers take a step back and consider the huge toll it takes each day as people apply for jobs. With the advances we have in technology there really is no legitimate excuse any employer can have for not properly communicating with people who apply for jobs.

In the last 11 months, I have witnessed a few wonderful stories where employers and executive search firms communicate often and with compassion to those of us not fortunate enough to advance to the next level in the search process. I had one board chair write to me and say, Im old fashioned, so I intend to keep all applicants fully posted on the search process. How refreshing!

And yet, that is the exception and not the norm. Here is just a small example of what I (and I am sure millions of other job seekers) have encountered:

Sorry, we never received your cover letter and resume, our servers were down that day, and can you please re-send it. I did and I checked back a few weeks later. Oh yes, we did receive the information and I passed it on to the search committee. Im surprised that no one has been back in touch with you. Let me see what I can do And then a few weeks later I checked back. What? The chair of the search committee never contacted you with any information? I am so sorry, let me look into this. And then I eventually read on line that the position was filled. By the way, I never received any official communication. Nothing. Nada.

Universities are often the worst offenders. They use outdated software that required you to re-type your resume into little boxes after you have successfully uploaded it into their system. And then you often receive, Thank you for applying, if you do not hear anything else from us you should assume that you have not been selected to advance in the search process. REALLY? Is that the best you can do? Are your computer systems so ancient that you cannot communicate back with applicants? Do you care so little about the dignity of the people applying for jobs that you cannot issue any form of communication back?

Of course, there is also the HR department that seems to employ people, but they cannot answer phones or return messages about the status of a search. And this is the HR department! In many large organizations, the HR department initially screens all resumes it makes one wonder if the hiring department even sees many applications?

How a company handles the job application process speaks volumes about what it will be like to work at that company. Why companies do not understand that crucial leadership point just confounds me.

Now, I work in the non-profit performing arts, and I can see how my tale can appear as just an angry rant. But there is a larger point, which gets to the management and leadership of organizations. Is this problem the poor treatment of job applicants a metaphor for the larger issue of poor management? If an organization is going to behave this way with some of the most critical decisions an organization can make the hiring of key leadership - than what does this say about the approach an organization may make to things that are perceived as less important? Do we really understand and value management? Perhaps its no wonder the arts are in trouble. Do we assume that patrons and the public who we ask to support us are treated with the same high handed manner that we treat our potential leaders and those who we want to make a part of our organization?

Here is what I proposean Applicants Bill of Rights:

  1. Every person who applies for a job is told that his or her resume has been received and is informed of what the search process will be.
  2. Candidates not selected to advance to the interview stage they are informed of that fact via a letter or email.
  3. Candidates not advancing beyond a phone or personal interview, they are informed by a phone call from the search firm or the prospective employer and they are told why they are not advancing.
The process of seeking new work when one is unemployed is challenging. Is it really asking too much for a prospective employer to be a bit more sensitive and not respond with Dear Applicant?

Finally lets explore the issue surrounding compensation and experience.

Often, a posted job description states that the employer wants an advanced degree plus 10 years of experience or advanced training on special equipment plus 10 years or more of direct experience. Then of course, it goes on to state, salary competitive or Salary commensurate with experience.

Sadly, the reality is that the actual compensation offered is not anywhere close to what is appropriate for someone with 10 years or more of experience. Rather, what is offered is more appropriate for someone right out of college or just starting a career.
I wonder why employers do that? Are they trying to take advantage of people during a recession? Research demonstrates over and over that underpaying never results in increased efficiency and productivity and that firms that continue to pay appropriately for talented employees reap the benefits of increased productivity and profit.

Are they trying to attract key employees with the language salary commensurate with experience, and then will offer the job to the one candidate willing to accept the position at the salary offered?
Why not act honestly? Prospective employees would understand and self-select if the employer publicizes a salary range AND is honest about the number of years of experience they are seeking. An employer will always look unprofessional when advertising that they are seeking someone with 10+ years of experience but in reality have no intent ion of offering compensation for someone with that much experience.

I have also noticed that, prior to the recession; discussions or negotiations over salary took place during the final interview. Now, most prospective employers want to engage in that discussion during the first interview after they have already posted that they are seeking someone with 10+ years of experience, with a salary that is commensurate with such experience.
I have begun to challenge, diplomatically of course, search firms and employers when they begin an interview with a discussion about compensation or end up offering a salary that is far more appropriate for someone with no experience as opposed to 10 years of experience. Why are you advertising that you are seeking a highly skilled and experienced employee, when in fact you are not? The response is often we are testing the waters. To which I often respond why waste the time of people seeking employment?

What happens today is that the discussion for compensation occurs in the first interview. Why? Because having not advertised truthfully about compensation in a recruitment ad, prospective employers want to eliminate candidates based solely on compensation during the first interview. Prior to the recession, negotiations over salary took place during the final interview, when the employer and applicant had reached an understanding that they were well matched.

Employers who act this way hurt the reputations and brands of their companies. Employers who attempt to nickel and dime new employees end up not recruiting the finest employees they really need and, in the end, do not attain the level of growth or market penetration they profess to seek.

My experience has demonstrated time and again that offering a competitive wage and benefit package attracts highly skilled and motivated employees who perform at a top level. They remain loyal and in the end achieve measurable results that expand the mission of the organization.

In summation, the global recession and the lack-luster recovery should not be used as an excuse to treat job applicants without the dignity and respect they richly deserve. The finest companies already understand that. Its time that all employers began treating job applicants with respect and then demonstrated why working for their company will be a wonderful experience.
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