Joseph Lemien

2648 karmaJoined Pursuing a graduate degree (e.g. Master's)Working (6-15 years)Seeking work

Bio

Participation
7

I have work experience in HR and Operations. I read a lot, I enjoy taking online courses, and I do some yoga and some rock climbing. I enjoy learning languages, and I think that I tend to have a fairly international/cross-cultural focus or awareness in my life. I was born and raised in a monolingual household in the US, but I've lived most of my adult life outside the US, with about ten years in China, two years in Spain, and less than a year in Brazil. 

As far as EA is concerned, I'm fairly cause agnostic/cause neutral. I think that I am a little bit more influenced by virtue ethics and stoicism than the average EA, and I also occasionally find myself thinking about inclusion, diversity, and accessibility in EA. Some parts of the EA community that I've observed in-person seem not very welcoming to outsides, or somewhat gatekept. I tend to care quite a bit about how exclusionary or welcoming communities are.

I was told by a friend in EA that I should brag about how many books I read because it is impressive, but I feel  uncomfortable being boastful, so here is my clunky attempt to brag about that.

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, opinions are my own, not my employer's.

How others can help me

I'm looking for interesting and fulfilling work, so if you know of anything that you think might be a good fit for me, please do let me know.

I'm looking for a place to be my home. If you have recommendations for cities, for neighborhoods within cities, or for specific houses/communities, I'd be happy to hear your recommendations.

How I can help others

I'm happy to give advice to people who are job hunting regarding interviews and resumes, and I'm happy to give advice to people who are hiring regarding how to run a hiring round and how to filter/select best fit applicants. I would have no problem running you through a practice interview and then giving you some feedback. I might also be able to recommend books to read if you tell me what kind of book you are looking for.

Sequences
1

How to do hiring

Comments
442

I think this post serves as a very good reminder. Thank you for writing this.

I like the EA community a lot, but it is helpful to have a reminder that we aren't so special, we don't have all the answers, and we should be willing to seek 'outside' help when we lack the experience or expertise. It is easy to get too wrapped up in a simplistic narrative.

if they’re so smart, where are the nobel laureates?  The famous physicists?

This seems like a variation on "If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?" The responses to these two prompts seems quite similar. Being smarter tends to lead toward more money (and more Nobel prizes), all else held equal, and there are many factors aside from intelligence that influence these outcomes.

There does seem to be some research supporting the idea that non-intelligence factors play the predominant role in success, but I have to confess that I have not studied this area, and I only have vague impressions as to how reality functions here.

It may be half-baked, but it strikes me as valid.

This is tricky, and for exactly the reason you would expect. The less networking is involved, the more fair/neutral/unbiased hiring tends to be, and the more fair/neutral/unbiased hiring tends to be, the higher quality employees you will hire (in expectation, of course). However, personal recommendations tend to result in higher quality employees than applications.

I hate the idea that John Doe doesn't get a chance for a job simply because he couldn't attend a conference, or because he wasn't allowed into a gatekept group (a reading/discussion group, a student club, or even an informal social group). But I also hate the idea that organizations ignoring a source of high quality candidates, simply because they happen to be better networked/resourced than the average person.

There is a sort of a trade-off to notifying people immediately or notifying them after a couple of days. My best guess is that it generally won't make a difference for someone's planning to be rejected from a job application in less than 24 hours or to be rejected within a few days. But there is probably a lot of variation in preferences from one person to another; maybe I am impacted by this more than average.

I've had a few job applications that I submitted and then got rejected for an hour or two later, and emotionally that felt so much worse. But at the end of the day I think you are right that "your mileage may vary."

if I stand no hope of getting job X, no matter how much I improve, I do really want to know that

Good point! I hadn't thought of that, but that would be very helpful feedback to have.

This is a sloppy rough draft that I have had sitting in a Google doc for months, and I figured that if I don't share it now, it will sit there forever. So please read this is a rough grouping of some brainstormy ideas, rather than as some sort of highly confident and well-polished thesis.

- - - - - - 

What feedback do rejected applicants want?

From speaking with rejected job applicants within the EA ecosystem during the past year, I roughly conclude that they want feedback in two different ways:

  • The first way is just emotional care, which is really just a different way of saying “be kind rather than being mean or being neutral.”[1] They don’t want to feel bad, because rejection isn’t fun. Anybody who has been excluded from a group of friends, or kicked out of a company, or in any way excluded from something that you want to be included in knows that it can feel bad.[2] It feels even worse if you appear to meet the requirements of the job, put in time and effort to try really hard, care a lot about the community and the mission, perceive this as one of only a few paths available to you for more/higher impact, and then you get summarily excluded with a formulaic email template. There isn’t any feasible way to make a rejection feel great, but you can minimize how crappy it feels. Thank the candidates for their time/effort, and emphasize that you are rejecting this application for this role rather than rejecting this person in general. Don't reject people immediately after their submission; wait a couple of days. If Alice submits a work trial task and less than 24 hours later you reject her, it feels to her like you barely glanced at her work, even if you spent several hours diligently going over it.
  • Improving. People want actionable feedback. If they lack a particular skill, they would like to know how to get better so that they can go learn that skill and then be a stronger candidate for this type of role in the future. If the main differentiator between me and John Doe was that John Doe scored 50 points better on an IQ test or that he attended Impressive School while I attended No Name School, maybe don’t tell me that.[3] But if the main differentiator is that John Doe has spent a year being a volunteer for the EA Virtual Program or that he is really good with spreadsheets or that this candidate didn’t format documents well, let the candidate know. Now the candidate knows something they can do to make become a more competitive candidate. They will practice their Excel skills and look up spreadsheet tutorials, they can get some volunteering experience with a relevant organization, and they can learn more about how to use headers and to adjust line spacing. Think of this just like a big company investing in the local community college and sponsoring a professorship at the college: they are building a pipeline of potential future employees.

Here is a rough hierarchy of what, in an ideal world, I’d like to receive when I am rejected from a job application:

  • “Thanks for applying. We won’t be moving forward with your application. Although it is never fun to receive an email like this, we want to express appreciation for the time you spent on this selection process. Regarding why we choose to not move forward with your application, it looks like you don’t have as much experience directly related to X as the candidates we are moving forward with, and we also want someone who is able to Y. Getting experience with Y is challenging, but some ideas are here: [LINK].”
  • “Thanks for applying. We won’t be moving forward with your application. It looks like you don’t have as much experience directly related to X as the most competitive candidates, and we also want someone who is able to Y.”
  • “Thanks for applying. We won’t be moving forward with your application.”

That last bullet point is what 90% of EA organizations send in my experience. I have seen two or three that sometimes send rejections that are similar to the first or similar to the second.[4] If the first bullet point looks too challenging and you think that it would take too much staff time, then see if you can do the second bullet point: simply telling people why (although this will dependent on the context) can make rejections a lot less hurtful, and also points them in the right direction for how to get better.

  1. ^

    I haven't seen any EA orgs being mean in their rejections, but I have seen and heard of most of them being neutral.

  2. ^

    I still remember how bad it felt being told that I couldn't join a feminist reading group because they didn't want any men there. I think that was totally understandable, but it still felt bad to be excluded. I remember not being able to join a professional networking group because I was older than the cutoff age (they required new members to be under 30, and I was 31 when I learned about it). These things happened years ago, and were not particularly influential in my life. But people remember being excluded.

  3. ^

    Things that people cannot change with a reasonable amount of time and effort (or things that would require a time machine, such as what university someone attended) are generally not good pieces of feedback to give people.

  4. ^

    Shout out to Centre for Effective Altruism and Animal Advocacy Careers for doing a better than average job. It has been a while since I've interaction with the internals of either of their hiring systems, but last I checked they both send useful and actionable feedback for at least some of their rejections.

I'm been mulling over the idea of proportional reciprocity for a while. I've had some musings sitting a a Google Doc for several months, and I think that I either share a rough/sloppy version of this, or it will never get shared. So here is my idea. Note that this is in relation to job applications within EA, and I felt nudged to share this after seeing Thank You For Your Time: Understanding the Experiences of Job Seekers in Effective Altruism.

- - - - 

Proportional reciprocity 

I made this concept up.[1] The general idea is that relationships tend to be somewhat reciprocal, but in proportion to the maturity/growth of the relationship: the level of care and effort that I express toward you should be roughly proportional to the level of effort and care that you express toward me. When that is violated (either upward or downward) people feel that something is wrong.[2] The general idea (as far as it relates to job applications and hiring rounds) is that the more of a relationship the two parties have, the more care and consideration the rejection should involve. How does this relate to hiring in the context of EA? If Alice puts in 3 hours of work, and then Alice perceives that Bob puts in 3 minutes of work, Alice feels bad. That the simplistic model.

As a person running a hiring round, you might not view yourself as having a relationship with these people, but there is a sort of psychological contract which exists, especially after an interview; the candidate expects you to behave in certain ways.

One particularly frustrating experience I had was with an EA organization that had a role with a title, skills, and responsibilities that matched my experience fairly well. That organization reached out to me and requested that I answer multiple short essay-type questions as a part of the job application.[3] I did so, and I ended up receiving a template email from a noreply email address that stated “we have made the decision to move forward with other candidates whose experience and skills are a closer match to the position.” In my mind, this is a situation in which a reasonable candidate (say, someone not in the bottom 10%) who spent a decent chunk of time thoughtfully responding to multiple questions and who actually does meet the stated requirements for the role, is blandly rejected. This kind of scenario appears to be fairly common. And I wouldn't have felt so bitter about it if they hadn't specifically reached out to me and asked me to apply. Of course, I don’t know how competitive I was or wasn’t; maybe my writing was so poor that I was literally the worst-ranked candidate.

What would I have liked to see instead? I certainly don’t think that I am owed an interview, nor a job offer, and in reality I don’t know how competitive the other candidates were.[4] But I would have liked to have been given a bit more information beyond the implication of merely “other candidates are a better match.” I would love to be told in what way I fell short, and what I should do instead. If they specifically contacted me to invite me to apply, something along the lines of “Hey Joseph, sorry for wasting your time. We genuinely thought that you would have been among the stronger candidates, and we are sorry that we invited you to apply only to reject you at the very first stage.” That would have felt more human and personal, and I wouldn’t hold it against them. But instead I got a very boilerplate email template.

Of course, I'm describing my own experience, but lots of other people in EA and adjacent to EA go through this. It isn't unusual for candidate to be asked to do 3-hour work trials without compensation, to be invited to interview and then rejected without information, or to meet 100% of the requirements of a job posting and then get rejected 24 hours after submitting an application.[5]

If this is an example of the applicant putting in effort and not getting reciprocity, the other failure mode that I’ve seen is the applicant being asked for more and more effort. A hiring round from one EA adjacent organization involved a short application form, and then a three-hour unpaid trial task. I understand the need to deal with a large volume of applicants; interviewing 5-10 people is feasible, interviewing 80 is less so. What would I have liked to see instead? Perhaps a 30-minute trial task instead of a three-hour trial task. Perhaps a 10-minute screening interview. Perhaps an additional form with some knockout questions and non-negotiables. Perhaps a three hour task that is paid.

  1. ^

    Although some social psychologist has probably thought of it before me and in much more depth.

  2. ^

    There are plenty of exceptions, of course. I can’t obligate you to form a friendship with me by doing favors or by giving you gifts. The genuineness matters also: a sycophant who only engages in a relationship in order to extract value isn’t covered by proportionally reciprocity. And there are plenty of misperceptions regarding what level a relationship has reached; I’ve seen many interpersonal conflicts arise from two people having different perceptions of the current level of reciprocity. I think that this is particularly common in romantic relationships among young people.

  3. ^

    I don’t remember exactly how much time I spent on the short essays. I know that it wasn’t a five-hour effort, but I also know that I didn’t just type a sentence or two and click ‘submit.’ I put a bit of thought into them, and I provided context and justification. Maybe it was between 30 and 90 minutes? One question was about DEI and the relevance it has to the work that organization did. I have actually read multiple books on DEI and I've been exploring that area quite a bit, so I was able to elaborate and give nuance on that.

  4. ^

    Maybe they had twice as much relevant work experience as me, and membership in prestigious professional institutions, and experience volunteering with the organization. Or maybe I had something noticeably bad about my application, such as a blatant typo that I didn't notice. 

  5. ^

    None of these are made up scenarios. Each of these has happened either to me or to people I know.

I love that you spent the time to do this investigation and speak with people and consolidate the info here. I am biased (because I love hiring and social psychology and thinking about power dynamics and inclusion) but I really appreciate you putting in this work and sharing this post.

"Hundreds of people apply, and then it’s re-posted again. What was the problem?"

It does sometimes occur that lots of people apply to a job, and none of them perform well enough to convince the organization to hire them. So while it is possible there is some sort of malfeasance going on, I suspect that the more likely scenario is simply that organizations have very high (or very specific) requirements.

We could certainly discuss to what extent this implies the organizations are being too picky, or the organizations are overly risk averse regarding false positives (making a hire that ends up not working out), or if the candidates really do lack the skills, or if something else is a major factor here. But I would be hesitant to suggest that the org is posting a "fake" job posting without additional evidence.

A quick note regarding people who want help preparing for an interview: I'm happy to do a mock interview/practice interview, give feedback, and bounce around ideas. I've done this with a handful of people already, and they seemed to find it helpful.

Note that this would not be some kind of "divulging secrets that let you cheat/game the system," but more along the lines of allowing you a practice your responses, getting frank/honest feedback, and to provide some suggestions for improving your chances.

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