by me, Dan D., 7/5/16

I was happy to see the New York Times Opinion Pages publish Darren Walker’s “Internships are Not a Privilege” today. I particularly loved this passage. I really love the bolded part.

Still, it’s a reminder that America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.

We are largely terrible at assessing and developing talent. A ton of us (including an uncomfortably large quotient of folks who run things) equate a freshly pressed suit, a winning smile, and a personality type that doesn’t make us uncomfortable with talent. In the context of Walker’s op-ed, talent = your last name, where you’re from, and your ability to forgo compensation to prove to a manicured ape in a sports jacket you’re worth a $60k salary and an outlandish job title.

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, yes, I am, admittedly; I need to keep you interested. Consider, though, that:

  • My first job out of college was an admin support position at a small law firm. When I put in my two weeks, no interviews were conducted for my replacement. Rather, the firm offered the job to someone who had interviewed for a secretarial position that had been vacated shortly before I decided to leave. The only commonality between our positions was that we both used a telephone to talk to people and typed on a keyboard. In talking to one of the firm’s longtime staff members a couple of months later, I learned that this person was hired because she reminded the partners of a former secretary they loved. They fired her about two weeks after she started because she refused to remove a nose ring.
  • I was put in charge of screening applicants/conducting initial interviews at the end of a gig several years back. I screened out a guy who wrote “LOL” in his cover letter, only to find out later that his application had somehow made it through and he was being considered for the job.
  • Lest you think I’m over here throwing stones, consider that I chose my replacement for the aforementioned “LOL job” because I was really attracted to her. That said, I initially recommended someone who was better qualified…my boss, however, passed over her because she didn’t own a car.
  • A couple of years and a new career track later, the executive director of the organization at which I was employed relayed a story about how he got his foot in the door: his former boss thought he was gay (he wasn’t) and that ended up being the determining factor in her decision to offer him the job. Within 5 years he had moved up from that entry level position to ED (it was a small nonprofit, and stuff like this isn’t atypical, but still). I should note that I’m 100% for giving marginalized populations opportunities typically afforded to straight white men; however, the ED’s well-intentioned maneuver backfired, ensuring that the road to leadership was paved for yet another straight white man. Another thing to note about this story is that even after five years spent working for a home rebuilding operation, he wasn’t very well-versed in construction.
  • Later on in said career track, during a stint as a construction manager, I found myself dealing with an employee who had missed several weeks of work without a legitimate excuse, mouthed off to me on a site and refused to discuss his issue in a constructive way, and who was impossible to communicate with. My supervisor and I strongly recommended his termination; we were told by the executive director of our org that this toxic employee who was of no benefit to our operations needed to remain because the ED didn’t want our retention numbers to look bad on a future grant application.

If you read through what most hiring managers are looking for, it quickly becomes evident we have granted a lot of responsibility to people who have no business making important decisions. Even the folks who describe their methods in the most intricate detail can be TL;DR’d down to “I hire who I like”.

There should be a more scientific approach to hiring, or at the very least a thorough and detailed analysis of each person’s skill sets, possibly asking scenario-based questions to ascertain a person’s ability to process information and make decisions (some companies do this, but I’d wager more than not ask stupid stuff like “duh, tell me about yourself!”). Reading these first-hand accounts, however, it seems that we’re still back in third grade, picking our friends for the kickball team, leaving the weirdo last for no other reason than they make us feel icky.

If you’re confused as to how this relates back to the NYT op-ed, here it is: We like to think we know what we’re doing when we give workplace opportunities to people, but we’re at best delusional and at worst narcissistic with our decision making. This is bad. We are better than this.

Your ability to detect talent is flawed, though don’t despair. We’re bad at recognizing people who are different than us and who possess attributes that we perceive as being in conflict with our own. If you aren’t able to give a chance to someone whose ideas are novel, at least acknowledge that the talent you’re so good at identifying is really you finding yourself in another person.