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The Startling Reasons Why Job Hunting Can Be Sociopathic

Work culture, labor exploitation, hustling, and the grind

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 11 months ago 13 min read
Photo by Tech Nick on Unsplash

The majority of people have had to apply for a job, yet it's probably not the most enjoyable thing you've done. Most people routinely cite dissatisfaction, not just with their jobs, but in the job application process, especially for online applications where it is seen as very opaque. To quote a rant on Reddit: "Applying for jobs is actual hell. I hate this. [I'm] sick of the constant anxiety, nearly being successful and getting excited - but then turned down at the last minute, being ghosted... it's just horrific isn't it?"

However, the necessity of jobs means that rarely do we examine this dissatisfaction earnestly. Defenders of work always bring up some other factor like your "boss" or your "work environment," never the system itself. When unemployed, applying for jobs sometimes seems like drinking water or breathing air. It's something you have to do.

When we step back and look at the norms around job-seeking, however, we see a system that is very toxic and sociopathic: — i.e., it encourages the dismissal of other people's emotions and desires. It's not that the people who process job applications and interviews all have Antisocial Personality Disorder (I can't make that claim, nor do I think it's appropriate). Rather the systems they are a part of our setup to callously disregard the value of human beings.

And so, let's examine the common wisdom given to job-seekers and how that encourages a very sociopathic system.

"Don't Quit Your Job Before You Have Another One"

A pearl of wisdom offered by many career coaches and job experts is to make sure that you have another opportunity lined up before you give in your notice. In the words of Alison Doyle from The Balance Careers: "If you can leave your current position on your terms, when you're ready, the transition to new employment will be much smoother."

This is a classic piece of advice, but can we recognize how cold and calculating it is?

Their recommendation is to essentially lie actively to your existing employer, secretly arranging with other firms on the side until you are in a secure enough position to cut the cord. At that point, you put in a token amount of hours until you can leave forever (a period where workers are traditionally not invested in their job). This is being done all while trying not to say anything too drastic, so you don't ruin a future recommendation (more on this point later).

This norm of dishonesty exists because employers pay our wages (i.e., what allows us to survive in the world), and historically they can act very pettily with that power. As Susan P. Joyce writes in the Job Hunt: "Understand that your employer may terminate you (or subject you to a very unpleasant conversation) if they know — or even suspect — that you are job hunting."

And she's not wrong. There is little to insulate an employee from such retaliation. As Alison Doyle clarifies in another The Balance Careers article: "As unjust as it might seem, most employees in the United States can be fired for looking for another job. Why? Because the majority of U.S. workers are at-will employees."

Yet paradoxically, research routinely indicates that people are more likely to get work if they are already employed. According to Quartz, one 2017 study found that the "…response rate from employers was four times that of unemployed applicants. [Employed applicants] got more than twice the interviews and three times as many offers per application."

And so, we don't tell our employers that we are leaving because that would involve a level of honesty that most firms do not wish to give. The current job-seeking process begins and ends with lying. Many workers start their searches in secret, and they don't tell their employers they are looking for work until the process is well underway.

It's a custom that is systemically very sociopathic, and we don't consider it so merely because of how normalized it has become.

"Screen Your Social Media"

Another gem on the job hunting message boards is always to make sure that your socials are "professional." "Looking for your next job?" begins David Cotriss in Business News Daily. "Make sure your social media profiles are safe for work because employers are screening candidates' presence online."

Yet social media has become such an integral part of our identities. For better and worse, our socials are the primary way many of us interact with the world, and the standard advice is to censor that information to make our employers comfortable. In essence, we are being told to preemptively protect the reputations of our employers and potential employer's brands.

I get why individuals scrub their socials (I do it too). If employers have been known to fire employees for posts they make, then they certainly aren't above denying an applicant advancement because of something they've done or said online. Many companies conduct extensive social media screenings that comb through sites like TikTok, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram to see if you have done anything to impact their brands.

Most workers don't want to take that risk. We exist in a culture where the leverage is in the hands of the person who pays your wage. For this reason, many job hunters are not comfortable publically making systemic critiques of the working order because that would place them at a disadvantage career-wise. In the words of Sophie Deering in the Undercover Recruiter: "Expressing strong political views or controversial opinions can be dangerous. It's likely that a lot of people may not agree with what you are saying, and it's possible that someone may take offense."

People have to worry about this constantly. Literally, the statements I am making right now in this article will hurt my career because I am opening myself up to criticism from entities that do not like to be held accountable.

As a result, we end up with an overly curated workforce that is afraid to make statements that are too challenging. The outward-facing brands of working "professionals" are filled with posts and comments that do not challenge the status quo. Typical LinkedIn posts are devoted to bland comments about perseverance, hustling, and other aspects of professionalism (see my piece “LinkedIn Is A Toxic, Capitalist Meme Generator 👊🏻”).

I ask you: "If a partner or family member were so possessive that they dictated what you could or could not say online, we would categorize that as abusive, no?".

When an entity, however, permeates our society so much that we are afraid to be ourselves for fear that it will interfere with our ability to subsist (what we would label on an individual level as "financial abuse"), then we brand that as "professionalism."

"Your Labor And Time Are Expected"

An aspect of job hunting that is quite unsettling is the amount of free labor that companies expect you to do before they even hire you: cover letters, interviews, examines, contests, thank you cards, and more. Some advice writers even suggest that you volunteer in the hope of it turning into a job. Alison Doyle, writing: "Volunteering can also be a way to enhance your job search. With some patience, passion, and hard work, you may even be able to turn a volunteer position into salaried employment."

Yet rarely do companies compensate you for this labor. Stories of firms mailing you checks for interviews or exams you've done are shocking for their infrequency. When it comes to the job search, it's merely expected that you do whatever your potential employer requests or you will not be considered for the position at all.

There have been horror stories of applicants being asked to do entire projects that the company then uses without compensating them. An article from Slate gave several examples of this phenomenon. One story had an applicant's writing sample stolen. Another had one candidate prepping for events on the company's calendar. Neither of these individuals was hired for these positions, nor were they paid for this work.

The dynamic between employer and job seeker is ripe for abuse, and from a market standpoint, this abuse makes sense. You want to make as much money as you can, even if that means taking advantage of your potential job seekers' free time and labor. While "working interviews" (ones where you are officially doing the job for your potential employers to see how they will perform) often force employers to pay minimum wage, branding something as an exercise is a simple way to get around this dilemma.

Now not every firm engages in the more extreme abuses we've listed here, but even the "nice ones" expect applicants to spend hours in unpaid efforts on applications and interviews. They push people to spend a lot of time and energy on applications that will lead nowhere, which is still an attempt to squeeze as much value as possible from their applicants.

"Apply even if you're not fully qualified"

The advice to "apply for jobs you don't seem qualified for" is everywhere, both on and offline. "You may not be the best candidate or have all the requisite qualifications," goes one article, "but you'll never get a job if you don't try." Another one from Indeed states: "There is no rule that you can't apply for jobs you're not fully qualified for, and often applying for jobs you're not qualified for may lead to new ways to innovate in your career."

As a job seeker, this advice makes sense. You do not know if the job listing was written appropriately or even truthfully. If the company is one you want to work for, it is perfectly rational, under the logic of current market conditions, to work on an application anyway. You never know if your efforts will be rewarded.

Yet, when we look at this from a birdseye view, it only makes sense when you look at it from the lens of your potential employer's mendacity. The expectation is that they are lying about the qualifications and requirements they put in their job descriptions. As Cate Murray writes: "The Requirements section listed may not be all true…[It] is often a laundry list of tools, technologies, certifications, education, and so on….[It] often portrays an ideal candidate in a perfect world."

Again, from a market standpoint, this logic makes sense. As a capitalist firm, you want to push for as much value as possible. By being honest about the baseline skills you are looking for (assuming you even know what they are), you place yourself at a disadvantage in negotiations. Those who have more to bring to the table can push for a higher salary (note: this is also why companies conceal salary information as well). For businesses, it makes an exploitative sense to pad the requirements of a job description to get the most skills for the lowest possible price.

For reasons we have previously discussed (see section "Don't Quit Your Job Before You Have Another One"), many of these negotiations are happening in secret. While job hunting, numerous workers must not only lie to their existing employer about leaving, but they must also anticipate that they are being lied to by their future employer. All applicants are engaged in a game of 4-D Chess against their employers —people trying to exploit them for as much money as possible.

It's a system where lying is built into the profit and loss statement.

"Don't Burn Any Bridges"

We hear this advice a lot. It's a euphemism that boils down to not ruining your relationship with your existing employer as you head out the door to another firm. As Heather Kinzie, owner of an HR and leadership consultancy firm, told Monster: "It's easy to get swept up in the excitement of getting a new job. But you'll still want to be on your best behavior with your soon-to-be-former colleagues and bosses, not to mention the people who served as your references."

It's advice I certainly have tried to follow when I'm able to because, as Heather says, references are vital to future work prospects, and there is always the fear that one wrong word might ruin years of work history. As we've already established, companies can be very petty about receiving feedback. Workers have been fired for everything from union organizing to blowing the whistle on discrimination.

The same logic applies to references. Even if unlisted, a good HR staffer will often track down other people in your work history. If your manager doesn't like you, that can hurt your future work prospects. To this end, the Allison Taylor blog notes: "it's not just an overtly negative reference that can be problematic. A simple "not eligible for rehire" from Human Resources can also doom an applicant's prospects for future employment."

And so, this creates a chilling effect. If you can be fired at any time, then only the most documented offenses hold any scrutiny in a court of law. It might be hard for more privileged workers to understand, but the truth is that many of us only pretend that previous working relationships were okay because we don't want to hurt our future job prospects. It's far easier just to swallow your pride, and move on to the next firm.

Many traditional managers honestly don't realize how shielded they are from criticism. The glowing reviews most, if not all managers have, are reviews of omission. If they are brought up at all, many workers frame the flaws of their managers in the best possible light. We do this because the fear of retaliation is always there. It doesn't matter how "nice" a boss is. In our current at-will environment, workers are always one conversation or email away from being terminated and having a permanent ding on their record.

Unsurprisingly, this creates environments ripe for abuse. All the claims of racism and sexism that have emerged in workplaces in recent years aren't because workplaces have suddenly become more toxic, but rather because workers have started to expose the problems that were always there.

Managers and bosses have continually been dousing bridges in gasoline, unaware of the buckling beneath their feet. Many of us are just brave enough to finally light the match.


When I call the system of job hunting sociopathic, I don't want to suggest that all people looking for work are sociopaths. Nor do I want you to walk away with the belief that all HR departments are run by people who have Antisocial Personality Disorder. That would be an inappropriate and ableist claim to make.

Instead, I want to emphasize that the current norms around job-seeking actively encourage lying, manipulation, and the callous disregard for applicants' resources and time. The advice we see repeatedly is to not only overextend applicants but also insulate the administrators of this system so that they do not receive proper feedback.

Part of the reason "The Great Resignation" has been so brutal to the managerial class is that they are finally receiving feedback that they have consistently ignored. Many of us were never happy with the status quo. We just didn't feel confident enough to give that feedback without suffering consequences that interfered with our ability to survive.

Again, the managerial class controls our ability to pay for essential resources. Their swift termination of our jobs impacts our lives more than any hasty exit could ever impact their bottom lines.

The question becomes what our society will do with this information. Will we pass reforms that stop this process from being so abusive (e.g., greater unionization, more worker co-ops, reducing the wealth of capitalists, etc.)? Or will we continue to uphold a system that encourages us to keep lying to each other and ourselves?


About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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