The New Job Search: Lots Of Interviews—And Then Silence

Alina Tugend|The New York Times

IT has happened to so many job seekers.

They’ve sent out their dozens — maybe hundreds — of résumés and finally get the call to come in for an interview. They’re asked back for a second round. Sometimes there’s even a third call. They’ve met practically everyone in the company. They don’t have just a foot in the door, they have their whole body.

Laid off woman

Or so it seems. Suddenly all goes quiet. In a week or two, or a month or two, they get a message, if they’re lucky, telling them that someone else was picked for the job. If not, it’s just deadly silence.

“I am currently waiting to hear back from two positions,” said Katie Murphy, who has been looking for a job in public relations in New York for almost a year. “One I’ve now interviewed with four times, they’ve offered me a contracted three-month position, but I’ve yet to receive an official offer. And they’ve just asked to do another interview.”

While there is no hard data, recruiters and academics who follow such trends agree that more people are being asked to do more interviews before being offered a position. They also say it has become ever more common to ask prospective employees to work temporarily for a few months, with the possibility of a permanent job at the end.

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“Hiring managers are increasingly prone to shopping,” said Todd Safferstone, managing director of the Corporate Executive Board, a research company. “The perception is that there’s lot of great talent out there, and even if the person across the table is great, there might be someone else even better.”

While the current recession may have intensified the trend, the hiring process had already become more protracted over the last few decades for a number of reasons, said Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University.

Human resource departments have become more professional, he said, and employers now need to diversify and justify their hiring processes to meet affirmative action and civil rights laws. Technology has also made it easier and less expensive for companies to conduct background checks and personality tests, Professor Katz said.

But there is little doubt that the current gloomy economic climate — with job seekers outnumbering openings six to one — makes it more likely that companies will think long and hard before hiring.

“We’re definitely putting people through more paces than ever before,” said Michelle Robinovitz, a recruiter for AGH, a midsize accounting firm in Atlanta. “In better times, we did one or two interviews. Now we really want to make sure someone will fit and we do a minimum of four interviews.”

I hear stories all the time. A friend of mine in publishing was one of 100 people interviewed for a position. She got the job about five months after her first interview. I ran into an acquaintance recently who told me that he had had eight interviews for a position and was still waiting to hear.

Erin Slattery, for instance, is looking for a position as an account executive after leaving her job in Kansas City to move to Arlington, Va., to be with her boyfriend. She said she had been searching for almost a year and interviewed with a public relations firm twice in July. She was waiting to be called back for Round 3 when she heard the post had been filled. She is still hoping another position may open up at the company.

“The hardest part is that it never leaves your mind,” she said of the endless waiting. “Every single morning and every single night, I think: ‘Will I hear from them? Should I call them? Should I wait?’ You don’t want to come off as desperate, but you want to make sure that you’re still on their mind. It’s like dating — do I follow the rules, or am I scaring them away?”

While she looked for something permanent, she decided to do some temporary work, and even that had a more extensive screening process than she expected.

“I had to do two phone interviews and one in-person interview to land my current temp position,” she said.

From the outside, the hiring process can seem arbitrary and even cruel. But it’s important to see where companies are coming from, said Alec Levenson, a research scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.

“In an up market, say the late 1990s, the cost of making a bad hiring decision was low,” he said. “The company could be a lot more cavalier about hiring, because if the worker doesn’t fit, the chances are that he’ll move on soon.” But with jobs scarce, an employee is more likely to cling to a job, even if it isn’t the best. So the employer has to take the steps to fire that person, which usually involves a lengthy documentation process, warnings and meetings. It consumes a lot of time and energy, Professor Levenson said.

Ms. Robinovitz said her company, like most nowadays, was very lean and no longer had the capacity to absorb a new employee who turned out to be mediocre.

In addition, fear of wrongful termination lawsuits makes firms more leery of hiring someone who may not seem perfect.

“There’s been gradual erosion over the past 30 years of pure employment-at-will as more and more people have come under employment protection laws,” Professor Levenson said. “It’s become more and more difficult for companies to cavalierly hire and fire. Even if 100 people are eligible to sue, only one or two might, but that’s all it takes” to scare a company.

That’s one of the reasons hiring people on a three-month trial basis — usually without benefits — has become increasingly popular, he said. It’s a way for both employee and employer to see how things work before committing. Think of it as moving in together rather than marrying.

But more interviews don’t necessarily mean better people are being hired, Mr. Safferstone said. In 2003, his company asked 28,000 new hires across all fields how many interviews they had to get their current job. The researchers then used performance management data and interviews with managers to evaluate the performance of those 28,000 hires.

Controlling for all other factors, it turned out that those who were interviewed four to five times were considered the best workers — better than those who had been interviewed one to three times or six or more times.

That may be because as a company does more and more interviews, the best people drop out, Mr. Safferstone said. “Another theory is that if an organization needs to do six, seven or eight interviews, there might be a large question about that person or about the position.”

Even though economic times have changed since the information was collected, Mr. Safferstone said he believed that the findings would be similar today.

There are other reasons the hiring process may drag on and on. Human resource departments have often been downsized, so there are fewer people available to do all the work involved in getting someone new on board, said Karen Danziger, managing partner at the Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, an executive recruiting company.

Also, the concept of fit — not only must the person be able to do the job but her personality, priorities and work style must complement the workplace — has become more and more important, Ms. Danziger said. Having a potential employee meet as many people in as many departments as possible is a way to try to ensure that the fit is good.

But even if there are substantive reasons for companies to take so long to decide, many job hunters ask why so many employers interview them once, twice or more — and then never get back in touch. And for that question, no one had a good answer.

Rejection, whatever form it comes in, is always hard to take. But those who have successfully navigated the process say that as difficult as it is, you should try not to take it personally. And more important, don’t stop looking for a job until you have that signed contract in hand.