Signaling Strategies and the Quest for Employment

For fairly obvious reasons, the issues of signaling in the employment context have been heavily on my mind lately. It has been clear for some time now that I am in dire need of a new strategy for my own signaling methods, but knowing that something needs to change is a good deal easier than knowing what to change. But as it stands, I am failing to send potential employers a clear (and hopefully accurate!) indication that I’m a worthwhile candidate.

This post on snap judgments and taking superficial first impressions seriously summarizes the basic situation nicely:

If you’re applying for a job, you want good credentials so your resume doesn’t go straight to the circular file. The key elements in this story are (a) high rewards, and (b) high search costs. Since the rewards are high, lots of people try to win; and since lots of people are trying to win, it’s too expensive to carefully study all of the candidates. The result: People try really hard to make a good impression, and anyone who fails to make a good impression pays a heavy price.

There are a lot of people “trying to win” right now, so employers are forced into ever greater reliance on arbitrary filters, in order to pick out a rough list of the candidates for whom spending more on search costs is most likely to offer a good ROI. While conducting the initial screening, employers know there’s a high rate of false negatives, but accept this as a necessary cost; even if the “best” candidate is accidentally overlooked in favor of a candidate marginally worse, the company is still better off, as it is not efficient to spend ten times more in search costs merely to find the candidate that is just a tiny bit better.

This is a problem for me, as, unfortunately, I am pretty sure I am not making it through that initial sorting. That is, right now, I am doing a poor job at signaling to employers my potential value.

I look decent on paper: decent class rank at a decent law school with the usual decent assortment of accomplishments and attributes on my resume. Not a rockstar by any means, but nothing that should flag me as a potential axe-wielding sociopath to be avoided at all costs. However, to an employer sorting through resumes and making a couple hundred snap judgments, I would imagine I also look pretty boring. Boring is not necessarily bad — if I looked like I had all the personality of a box of Shredded Wheat, that might actually count in my favor so long as I boasted an editor position with a law review and a couple summers at Skaddington McKirkland & Jaworsknight.

But I don’t. So as it stands, there is very little reason for an employer, in an initial evaluation, to tag me as a candidate worth expending additional search costs on.

To make things worse, right now I have another factor working against me: it has been more months than I care to count since graduation, and I still do not have a job. To employers, this can be taken as a strong indication that I am not likely to be a good employee, and may have some hidden flaws that my resume is not revealing. It makes sense for someone hiring to assume that, “Well, if this young lawyer has been unable to secure a job from anyone she has previously applied to, that raises an assumption she was not good enough for any of them, and therefore is likely not good enough for me either.”

Effectively, I am pre-screened as a candidate who likely should not be hired by all of the many employers that have previously failed to hire me. It is simply not worth it to an employer to spend extra resources on giving me a closer look, when presumably other firms already have given me such a look and found me to be wanting.

So my problem is this: I need to find a strategy that increases the odds of an employer deciding to invest further time and money on obtaining a closer evaluation of me. Once they do that, they will, hopefully, discover that I am a capable and effective lawyer, and worth hiring. I believe this to be true; if it’s not, well, I have far bigger problems to deal than merely getting hired, and addressing the whole signaling issue would be kind of unnecessary. So for discussion purposes only, I am just going to stipulate that I am in fact the employee that any firm or agency making a hiring decision might like to find. How, then, can I quickly signal to employers that (1) I am worth taking seriously, and (2) the signal is very likely to be truthful?

I’ll be discussing this more here, both how it might particularly apply to my own situation and strategies for employee signaling in general. And who knows, with a good deal of luck, maybe in the near future I’ll even get some first hand experience on what signaling strategies work.