Friday, 6 September 2013

Dance to Your Daddy

The tale of the man asked to dance as part of his interview for a job at Currys is a multi-faceted gem of modern manners. Initial reports have veered between shock at the callousness of the interviewers and glee at the comedy of David Brent-style corporate bollocks. Some are already (correctly) pointing out that the humiliation of the interviewee is an inevitable transaction cost in an economy with high unemployment, but this will be drowned out by the stock commentaries shortly bemoaning the crass irresponsibility of managers on the one hand, and the inflexibility and sense of entitlement of candidates on the other - i.e. people are to blame.

We can also expect the candidate, Alan Bacon, to experience both fleeting fame (apparently the Sun have tactfully offered to pay him to recreate his dance moves for posterity) and a backlash for his temerity in complaining. In fairness, what he has obviously displayed is the unworldliness of a 21-year old graduate, as indicated by this: "They told us there would be five minutes to talk about our hobbies, and I like astronomy so I had spent some money printing off some pictures I had taken through my telescope". Having lost count of the number of CVs I've read over the years, I remain bemused that some candidates still put down this totally irrelevant data. No one gives a shit what you do in your spare time, any more than they care that you've got a swimming proficiency badge.

What the vignette should emphasise is that most interviews are a farce, whether they involve role-play, Powerpoint or psychometric tests. Despite the best endeavours of snake-oil salemen to convince us that the recruitment process can be made objective and empirical, it remains more art than science. Experienced interviewers always seek to challenge the interviewees, because you learn more about them when they are discomfited than when they are reading a script. That said, the ability to think on your feet (or just bullshit) isn't in itself sufficient qualification for any job. In truth, putting the candidate on the spot is in large part a way of staving off the bordeom of listening to another career resumé ("and then I decided I needed a fresh challenge ...")

It's clear that the Currys interviewers had prioritised being a "good team-player" and a "fun guy" in their selection criteria, and that Mr Bacon was not a good fit for a frontline sales job where a thick skin and an ability to "have a laugh" (i.e. suffer daily humiliation) would be assets. To that extent, the interview process was actually successful, and probably more effective than the traditional routine of unenlightening CV walkthroughs and presentations ("what I can bring to your business") in separating the sheep from the goats. In light of Currys decision to re-interview everyone, I wonder what the successful candidate(s) must now be thinking ("I'm an easy-come, easy-go kind of a guy, but with a passion for consumer electronics").

The wider significance of this spectacle is not just the revelation that business has the whip-hand over labour, which has been obvious for some time, but that the fetishisation of labour surplus ("going the extra mile") has extended from the workplace (presenteeism, wage restraint etc) to the application stage. Day-long "interviews" are now common, and "trial starts/working intrerviews" (i.e. working for free for up to a week) are not unusual. If the claims of the right were true, that there are plenty of jobs out there and candidates are simply reluctant to take them due to over generous welfare, then we would not be seeing these developments. A 10-minute phone interview followed by "can you start tomorrow?" indicates a market where the demand for labour is high. A day spent jumping through hoops for the amusement of others does not.

Recruitment has always tended towards ritualised humiliation, particularly where labour is casual and can be treated more obviously as a commodity, such as the daily hiring processes of the building trade (the "lump") or pre-container docks. This has gradually crept into the world of white-collar jobs, slowly relegating the traditional modes of application that were signifiers of class: writing, wearing smart attire, speaking "proper". Some of the anxiety at the David Brent nonsense stems from a belief that middle class workers should not be treated in this way (notice the emotive word "forced" in the reports). Of course, Mr Bacon's humiliation is trivial compared to that still experienced by casual manual labour, where intrusions of privacy and presumptions of guilt are the norm during one-sided interviews.

The boundary between blue and white-collar has long been blurred, as call-centres and other low-pay service industries have turned a desk job into the modern equivalent of operating a machine loom. The real boundary in the world of work is now much higher up the pay-grade, at the point where these symbolic humiliations disappear. Interviews are a "chat", "soundings" are taken rather than references, and the institutionalised humiliations of performance reviews are "inappropriate for someone at your level". Being asked to dance to Daft Punk is just business's way of saying you're not a member of the executive club, as much as you won't "fit in" at a shop in Cardiff.

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