Is the Ideal Job Candidate Flexible? How Flexible?

Linked In

by Ilana Gershon

For the past two years, I have been researching hiring in corporate America. One of the things I am trying to figure out is if in practice people truly value or accept all that a neoliberal self is supposed to be – maximally responsible for one’s own fate and circumstances, flexible, embracing risk, ever enhancing their skills, experiences, and alliances, and so on. When you turn to moments of hiring, you are turning to the moments when people are supposed to be thinking of themselves most in market terms – they are supposed to be present their selves as though they are a product or a business that another business would like. LinkedIn these days is the social media tool that many people throughout my fieldwork insisted was essential for this self-presentation. Yet even LinkedIn, in its affordances, can reveal that for the neoliberal job-seeker, flexibility sometimes comes into conflict with legibility. As I found out by attending Bay Area workshops on how to create your LinkedIn profile, LinkedIn’s very interface can discourage you from presenting yourself in as general a way as possible.

This came up in the first job seeking workshop I attended. Aurora, a middle school substitute teacher, wanted to start working for non-profit organizations instead of teaching, she thought that maybe working for Doctors Without Borders might be more satisfying. But she wasn’t sure, there were other job possibilities she was willing to explore instead. She went to the workshop to learn how to start using LinkedIn. The workshop was filled with seven or eight women, most of whom did not have a LinkedIn profile before the workshop. Bella, the instructor, had to explain step by step how to fill out each part of the profile. One of the first things that you have to do in filling out your LinkedIn profile is to choose the industry with which you would like to be associated. When Aurora realized that LinkedIn only allowed you to choose one industry, she asked if there was a way around this.

Aurora: Okay, it is making me choose an industry.

Bella: Yes, you have to choose an industry.

Anastasia: Okay, I have another question – the industry, there are a lot of, uh, I can see a lot of industries. What if I want to put three, four, five industries?

Bella: No, you have to pick the one that is most closely associated with what you are looking for. . . .

Orli: I am wondering about Aurora’s question. My recent jobs were in personal training, but that’s not what I am looking for at all.

Bella [stares at the projected image of her own LinkedIn profile and points to the section immediately under her name]: Okay, your headline. It is important what you use for your headline. Think a little bit about Match.com. It is a little bit like you want to give them a good idea of who you are, so not just a job title. It doesn’t have to be just one job title. It can be more. So like I have trainer, instructor, facilitator, and I think I say, um, social skills, curriculum design and social skills. So I have a pretty long title that gets everything in there. So other people will do like more, I guess, creative titles. So you’re a program coordinator, right, so you could do “program coordinator serving the non-profit arena.” Right, unless you don’t want to limit yourself, but if you want to limit yourself – say, that is my goal and I want people to know, then you can put it right in the title. Right? So your title is kind of a way to catch people’s eyes. It is going to come up in the searches, you know, keyword searches. So your title is important.

Aurora: So having a lot of things won’t turn people off?

Bella: As long as they are all related. If you say: “I want to do landscaping and administrative assistant” then, you know, that would like “what???” So mine are all related. They are different names for the same thing – trainer, instructor, facilitator. It’s a different name for the same thing. And because of that, I kind of have to put all of them in there in order to come up in searches.

Aurora: Okay. So it is possible to have, um, more than one LinkedIn account?

Bella: No. You can have two LinkedIn accounts but when I search your name, they are both going to come up. And when I see two, I am going to go: “what the hell is wrong with this person?”

Aurora began almost immediately to see a mismatch between how she wanted to use LinkedIn to help her find jobs, and the type of user the LinkedIn menu options presuppose. Aurora thought that there were a wide range of jobs she would be happy to take, she didn’t want to restrict herself to an industry in advance. She also quite reasonably saw classifying herself in terms of an industry as a statement about the kinds of jobs she was looking for, not the kinds of jobs she had in the past, and she wanted to keep as many options open as possible. The LinkedIn interface, by contrast, in requiring people to choose an industry, is asking users to classify, and thus limit, their professionalizing commitments. In short, problems about how flexible you can be as a job-seeker came up within minutes of trying to fill out the profile.

Bella, the workshop leader, and LinkedIn are in accord on the need to limit oneself (at least in the LinkedIn of 2013) – you should only focus on one industry when you are looking for a job. It is in these workshops when widespread expectations about how to use LinkedIn will get stated clearly and firmly to people frustrated by the ways in which the LinkedIn interface might not allow them to represent their distinctive circumstances the ways they want to for potential employers. Aurora wants to be maximally flexible in terms of the jobs she might want to take. And Bella uses LinkedIn’s limitations to re-affirm what she also strongly believes – too unfocused of a job search wastes time. Even in the moments when an overarching ideal of the flexible multi-skilled applicant is in the air, when actually constructing a LinkedIn profile, asserting this type of flexibility can be undesirable. Being flexible can clash with being an identifiable category, in this case, an easily interpreted potential employee, causing some job seekers to puzzle – how should you use LinkedIn? How flexible can you in fact be in the contemporary U.S. imagination of the “job market” where a person must create, above all, a “marketable” self?

Ilana Gershon is a professor in the anthropology department at Indiana University. She is interested in how new media affects highly charged social tasks, such as breaking up or hiring in the United States. She recently published an edited collection of imagined career advice for real jobs around the world, including chapters on how to be a professional wrestler in Mexico or a journalist in Buryatia — A World of Work (Cornell University Press, 2015).

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