Bryan Caplan  

Two Mock Interviews

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Imagine interviewing the following two job applicants.

Applicant #1: Currently unemployed.

Applicant #2: Currently employed.

Question: For each applicant, would you expect him to be (a) more productive than the average currently employed worker, (b) less productive, or (c) as productive?  Why?


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
dave smith writes:

I'd expect the currently employed worker to believe he was more productive than average, or he wouldn't be seeking a different job. Of course this is a generality.

Randy writes:

Applicant 1, currently unemployed would most likely be less productive. I've seen a lot of people laid off over the years. The people laid off first are those that are the least necessary and/or those that are the least able to perform multiple duties. I would also expect applicant 2, currently employed, to be more "stable" as many of the people I've seen fired or "quit" over the years have a common characteristic of letting what should be trivial matters spin out of control.

Yes there would be exceptions, but it better be a damn good resume.

Mark V Anderson writes:

OF course on average the unemployed will be less productive, at least if one accepts the judgements of others as to the employability of these individuals. But there are so many caveats to this, that I don't see the point in being prejudiced about the employment of each. I will list several of the possible caveats:

1) Was the unemployed individual employed in a weaker industry or firm, and so not their fault that they were laid off?
2) Did the unemployed individual leave an intolerable situation, while the employed one is so risk-averse he has stayed in a bad job?
3) Were the previous employers dolts where one laid off a good employee and the other kept a bad one?
4) Is the employed individual simply better at sucking up to his bosses?
5) Perhaps the unemployed person was in a bad fit before, but would be a much better fit in my own firm? And vice versa, the employed one might currently have a good fit, but would not work in my firm?

When I hire people, I normally don't pay a whole lot of attention to whether one is employed or not, other than to do my due diligence to find out the situation for any employment gaps. The applicant could be unemployed for good or bad reasons. And that is especially so in today's economy, when so many people don't have jobs.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Maybe I should fire myself, with my poor skill at handling these comments, managing to get my posting up there twice.

[I removed the duplicate for you. One of my hypotheses is that sometimes when we are besieged with spammer attempts to post comments, there can be a momentary delay before legit commenters' comments are posted, which may cause people to hit the Post button more than once. 'Course, sometimes it's just an accident to hit the button twice! At any rate, no harm done.--Econlib Ed.]

Nathan Sumrall writes:

Assuming I have other things to do or other positions to fill, I would practice standard statistical discrimination.

Applicant 1: below average

Applicant 2: average

I know that, especially during a recession, there are many cases where Applicant 1 does not warrant such an assumption. I also think it's plausible that Applicant 2 warrants less credit based on the fact that he is seeking advancement at a new firm, meaning his current employer has apparently not seen fit to promote him.

While such factors give reason to doubt my assumptions, I still trust them more than my ability to accurately assess their relative productivities based on a resume and an interview.

Bootvis writes:

Depending on how you measure productivity double posting can be a good thing ;)

Stan writes:

As applicant #1, I'm beginning to think job interviews are a myth.

Ted Levy writes:

I would think the duration of unemployment might be a significant issue, not merely in the baseline level of competence, but in terms of waning of prior level of competence.

Glen Smith writes:

In the SE field, the currently employed worker interviewing will likely be above average unless he/she is "going down the ladder" or is obviously just a step ahead of being let go.

blink writes:

The question is a bit of a red-herring. Sure, the applicant's employment status matters for one's prior regarding the applicant's productivity, but the whole point of reading resumes and interviewing is to elicit better signals. Considering the cost of interviewing, etc., I expect employment status to matter for hiring decisions only in cases very near the margin.

Nathan Smith writes:

Applicant #2 is likely to be more productive, but asking about productivity misses the point. Better to think of match quality. Applicant #2 is probably very well suited to the job you're offering, otherwise he wouldn't be applying when he has one already. Applicant #1 will apply for anything and is probably not a good match. And Applicant #1 has a lot more time to manipulate his resume to make him LOOK like a good fit when he isn't.

If the government bans discrimination against the unemployed, you might decide not to create the job at all.

Justin writes:

As others have noted, there are a lot of other factors besides employment status that will influence expectations and outcomes. Painting with a broad brush here...

Based on what I've seen from hiring over the past couple of years, for #1 I expect (b), hope for (c) and cross my fingers for (a).

The reason for this, at least in my limited experience, is that it's hard to come into a new job and exceed the average worker when you are in all likelihood learning on the job from other average workers. (Sure, your official trainer is probably not an average worker, but that person only represents a small portion of the exposure you get to the norms and common practices of others in your position.)

For #2 I expect the answer to be (a). People who are employed elsewhere and looking to move are exhibiting relatively uncommon drive. They tend to be above-average workers at their current employer who do not feel their achievements have been adequately compensated, and they will work to show they are worth every penny of whatever compensation increase comes with their new position.

Unlike the unemployed applicant, who often is looking for "a job, any job" (even one that underemploys him/her), the employed applicant is looking for a specific job which better fits his/her professional goals and desired compensation.

Noah Yetter writes:

d) completely irrelevant

Yes, sometimes when layoffs happen the least productive employees are let go, or at least let go first. Just as often it's the employees some director or VP doesn't like, or the newest employees, or perhaps the oldest (age, not tenure) employees who are offered buyouts. Or the unemployed individual could have been attached to a particular project that was cancelled. Maybe the firm went out of business entirely.

I have personally interviewed people in all of those situations.

My point is that employment status, all by itself, is all noise and no signal. Dig deeper, and you might find something. Were they fired, rather than laid off? Have they been unsuccessfully seeking work for many months? Are they starting down a new career path?


I don't mean to be rude Bryan, but this is a very "ivory tower" way to think about it (cf. your recent post on education as magic). The productivity of a candidate relative to the current average? That relation means nothing. The average itself means nothing.

My own 8 employees have at least 3 distinct job descriptions. Are my PL/SQL developers more or less productive than my Java developers? What does that even mean? Are the DBAs I've been interviewing this week more or less productive than my stable of HTML/CSS/JS developers? Completely meaningless.

Even if you narrow the question down to the same nominal position, you're going to get different levels and patterns of experience, and different degrees of cultural fit (which is arguably more important). What your applicants look like in those terms is effectively random, with little relation to the properties of your existing employees, and no dependence on their current employment status.

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