Bryan Caplan  

What You Say When You Don't Call an Applicant

What You Say When You Throw an... On Bubbles and the Benefit of ...
"If your phone doesn't ring, it's me."  When a potential employers doesn't call about your application, they're telling you something about you - but they're also saying something about themselves.  My friend Perry Metzger explains:
[Reprinted with Perry's permission.]

BTW, one effect I notice few people talk about, perhaps because they haven't done much mass searching through resumes...

When I've been the person going through hundreds of resumes, one thing that one is wary of is getting on the phone with someone who turns out to be a total waste of time. Why? Because it is really difficult for human beings to just hang up on someone three minutes in to a conversation. We're conditioned to be polite. So, even if you realize very fast that the person is totally unsuitable, you have to keep talking.

It is better from a personal sanity standpoint and a time management standpoint to risk throwing the resume out early than to be caught talking to an extra 80 people for an extra ten minutes each. That's a lot of depressing waste of time...

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

Or, it could just mean that you're lazy.

If you are an HR recruiter, it is you JOB to talk to people 10 minutes each on the phone. Many of whom are going to turn out not to be suitable.

What you are saying is that you'd prefer not to do the parts of your job that aren't as fun. You'd rather take a short cut and talk ot fewer people if it makes you job easier even if it raises the risk of overlooking the best candidate.

Spoons writes:

@Hazel But you don't need to find the best candidate. Just a stable one that is good enough. Anything above that is just a bonus points. No one else is likely to know if there was some better person out there unless this is some high profile position like CEO or a department director.

Becky Hargrove writes:

The phrase, "It's not you, it's me" comes to mind! Once not so many decades ago, business firms and other hiring institutions were still a normal aspect of economic life in many places. Now, what remains of them is not really the best way to capture valuation of human skills. What's more, we have yet to arrange better arbitration measures to capture knowledge skills use in a wider economic setting.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Hazel, not everyone does recruiting through an HR department. Sometimes the people doing the phone screens are real employees with real jobs they need to get back to to meet deadlines.

Hazel Meade writes:


So, noone else is likely to know that you didn't do the best job you could have done. See? Lazy.

@Alex: True, but does that mean their entitled to not really put that much effort into the search? If they're tasked with finding someone to fill a job, does that mean "do a half-assed job using a bunch of lazy heuristics, and come up with someone adequate but not optimal"? (In some cases that might actually BE the best option, but I don't see why it's the default state).

jsylvest writes:


(a) Despite what one might hear from my father, my old football coach, or legions of motivational speakers, you can't give every job 110%. Priorities need to be considered and trade-offs made. The person doing the pre-phone call resume screening has other responsibilities whether they're in HR or not. That doesn't mean they can slack off on everything, but it's very possible that an hour talking to perceived weirdos is not the best use of time.

(b) Not getting caught spending 30 minutes on the phone with someone you think is unlikely to fit gives you an extra 30 minutes to speak with some other candidate. It's not like you save a few minutes by not calling an applicant and then just spend those minutes sitting on your hands and daydreaming.

I don't think there's any reason to believe tossing out a resume means you're lazy. It just means you're confident you have better candidates to pursue.

That confidence may or may not be correct, but that's a problem of decision making, not character.

Hazel Meade writes:


I totally get that. But by using a heuristic "Don't bother calling anyone unemployed more than six months", they are reducing the liklihood of finding the optimal candidate. It may be labor saving, but the cost in terms of poorer candidates should be recognized. You're saving time but doing a worse job. That's the literal definition of cutting corners.

For instance, you could spend a few more minutes perusing those resumes more thoroughly before tossing them in the trash. Maybe you would discover one or two candidates who are actually really qualified. That would improve the overall quality of your search.

Tossing out resumes based on a cheap heuristic about the length of time a person is unemployed is just that, cheap and lazy. It might sometimes be BETTER to do the cheap lazy thing, but it doesn't make it not cheap and lazy.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Hazel, it sounds like what you call "cheap and lazy" could just as easily be called "efficient and smart". Why are you so determined to attach negative affect to it?

nzgsw writes:

Hell, during the depths of the downturn, I was brought into two separate, full-day interviews. I didn't get either job.

However, nobody from either company ever told me I didn't get the job. I called the recruiters for each job a half dozen times with no response. I had to tap some friends in different departments to confirm that I was no longer under consideration.

People don't like having unpleasant conversations, so much so that they'd rather treat people people poorly as long as it doesn't involve talking to them.

eshan writes:

Often management won't let you hire until your team is visibly and obviously at the breaking point. In this scenario, you're already overworked and you just got a new responsibility added on. Small wonder heuristics are applied.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Alex, let's at least consider the possibility that it *could be* because they are just being lazy.

Just because lots of people are doing it doesn't necessarily mean that it is efficient and smart. Lots of people bought mortgage backed securities.

Glen Smith writes:


Sounds like they were involved in a part of the teaching the horse to sing strategy of management. Do you know if they actually ended up hiring anybody for the position you interviewed for?

Curtis writes:

So we mitigate our propensity for being polite by acting like a jackass?

Some minimal amount of communication is simple courtesy. It doesn't have to be a phone call. Even an obvious form notification is better than nothing, in my opinion, at least in the early stages of the process, because it alleviates the ambiguity. If you had the person come in for an interview, a rehearsed, few-minute phone call seems in order.

In my own ongoing job search, I've developed – well, you can call it a rationale or a coping mechanism to handle rejection or whatever you want (it's probably both of those and more) – for dealing with the companies that don't respond to my applications/resume submissions. Basically, if you don't reply, that's cool, I don't want to work for your company anyway, because I assume you run the rest of your company the same way. I'd rather not be associated with a company that chooses to ignore intelligent people just because there might be other (possibly more) qualified candidates. I know, I sound like the unattractive person who just got dumped (or, rather, never got the first date to begin with...), but hey, the dating analogy someone else used above isn't far off.

Richard writes:

When I was applying to grad school, I got a call that went like this...

"Hi, we were looking at your application and just wondering a few things. Thank you, have a nice day."

I was waitlisted from that school. But I didn't expect a long conversation because of the way she framed it, as if they were considering me but wondering whether they should accept me.

I don't see why businesses can't do the exact same thing. Frame it as "we'd love to have you out here for an interview, but there's just a few things we'd like to ask before we get back to you."

The point is if the desire to be polite is preventing this kind of efficient screening, then that's completely irrational. There are socially normal and acceptable ways to work around the problem.

Mike writes:


I'm the same way. I don't want to work for anyone that doesn't at least send out a machine response thanking me for applying. Of course the trick is to know if they tell the others they don't want when you get invited in for an interview.

HR systems are awful. It amazes me that the HR systems don't send that automatic form notice as a matter of course. I am a potential customer of each firm I apply to.

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