A few of us non-traditional, mold-breaker, non-conformist, square pegs in a land of round holes occasionally jokingly refer to ourselves as unemployable. And, in certain ways that isn’t far from accurate.

If we look throughout history we find plenty of well-known business and leadership success stories that wouldn’t have been possible if those responsible didn’t push boundaries or shake a big stick in the direction of the status quo.

Yet examples like that tend to be anomalies in modern society.

As much as the concept is glamorized by prominent keynote speeches, in reality there doesn’t seem to be much tolerance for being different or thinking differently.

In the mainstream game we play in order to earn a paycheck to sustain ourselves, only the upper echelon of any given organization structure is permitted that type of behavioral leeway.

So why is it on the one side of the spectrum we celebrate, even worship innovators and brave souls that build, change and create, and on the other end, we force compliance, value complacency and foster a go-along-to-get-along mentality? The former certainly sounds more valuable to society as a whole. However the latter is more of a true reflection of the comfort zone we cling to in our contemporary work world.

That begs the question: beyond having a decent work-ethic and requisite knowledge, skills and abilities within one’s chosen occupation, what else does it take to obtain and maintain employment?

The majority of us would probably agree that most (perhaps all) final hiring decisions are primarily based on subjective criteria. Once the above baseline “qualifications” are established through analysis of objective data, all that remains are intangible factors that we process through our personal filters.

All else being relatively equal among available candidates that cross the initial threshold of proving their job-worthiness through ability, motivation, attitude and aptitude, open jobs eventually go to whoever is deemed the best fit. As in the third part of: who can do the job; who will do the job; and, who will we enjoy/tolerate working with in that job?

While the first two segments correlate to a reasonable assessment of employability, hiring decisions tend to be heavily weighted on the last part which is usually predicated on several ambiguous attributes ascertained through limited exposure. That being the case, what DOES it mean to be employable?

Views: 1072

Comment by Will Thomson on March 12, 2014 at 8:36am

Hey Kelly, 

Good post.  Tough topic.  You know, I think it is good to be a contrarian.  Someone who doesn't always say "Yes" can be seen as a negative.  For many larger organizations, saying "No" and not conforming to their ideas may lead to a wrong "culture fit".  All I have to say is "Thank God" for the people who go against the grain.  Where would our world be if we always agreed with status quo?  Unemployable?  Maybe for certain organizations.. Forward thinking companies though will see that you are not "unemployable" but a diamond in the rough and could help better the company.  Thanks for writing.  


Comment by Derdiver on March 12, 2014 at 10:35am

Great read. Reminds me of the story of crabs in a bucket.  Whenever one tries to escape the others drag it down. Fear is based on not being normal by the very people who are afraid to be different. Brilliant, Kelly. Brava! 

Comment by Matt Charney on March 12, 2014 at 10:48am

As someone who's unemployable, I want to thank you for an awesome post. I take a little solace (and hope you do too) that while companies are increasingly using "culture" as another word for "corporate clone," they're also increasingly looking for great content and think this is proof that you can't have your careers cake and eat it, too. Let's hope they end up eating it, period.

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on March 12, 2014 at 1:39pm

Thanks, Kelly. Let's see if any of US are invited to speak at major recruiting conventions (except maybe you, Derdriver, and Matt).

Meanwhile, employers say they want independent and creative thinkers but what they really want are:

"Self-starting, hard-charging, team players who go for the brass ring and not just the low-hanging fruit.

They should be passionately disruptive while boiling the ocean and eating their own dog food.

Finally, they should have wills of iron, nerves of steel, but not feet of clay."

Almost EVERYBODY wants to have people like them around, and/or people they can feel superior to.

That's one of the reasons I like the idea of telework (though I come in everyday myself)- it's a lot easier to tolerate all sorts of people when they aren't around you very much...



Comment by Amber on March 12, 2014 at 3:28pm

The best thing someone ever said to me in the workplace: "Don't expect all your employees to be just like you". From there, I started to learn how to figure out what the weak areas in my team were and find people who had the ability to be strong in those areas. Sometimes that meant looking beyond my sometimes-narrow line of vision and choosing someone that wasn't what I (or the company) "normally" looked for. And letting go of fear, like Derek mentioned. That fear comes out for lots of reasons, none very good and frequently unfounded. Some of the people I hired against the grain were perceived as "unemployable" initially, but most worked out very well.

Comment by Sandra McCartt on March 13, 2014 at 1:08am
The problem is most managers would prefer to manage people who are a little bit insecure rather than herd a bunch of innovative, hard charging, game changing cats. The reason the military dresses everybody alike and has the structure they do is they have a mission to accomplish and a master plan. Employable in the private sector in the corporate sense doesn't leave a lot of room for the free thinker or it makes the corporate mission more difficult to accomplish. Thus , I think the growth of the ranks of those who prefer to work on a contract or consulting basis with no requirement that they embrace the corporate mission. I think there may be a differential to be made between "employee" and "employable".

Some people really do like structure, it makes them feel safe even when they bitch about it. Some of us find safe really boring. The best race horses are more than a little bit crazy. They are fun to watch but owning one is a pain in the butt.
Comment by Kelly Blokdijk on March 13, 2014 at 1:33pm

Thanks, all for adding your thoughts

@Will - I've had my share of culture clash experiences due to not being a "yes" person. 

@Derdiver - that's a great analogy about being dragged down. I don't have much knowledge of crabs, but they tend to all look alike and act alike from what I can tell. 

@Matt - it does seem that finding another "corporate clone" is exactly the point of many selection processes. 

@Amber - so true. It's human nature (yet mostly illogical) to fear what we don't understand. I've also had great results facilitating placements of those that didn't appear on the surface to match whatever the typical standards may have been. 

@Sandra - unfortunately, there are indeed many managers that prefer managing followers that just do as they are told, no questions asked, and no suggestions offered. Rigid structure is absolutely essential in certain contexts and is also a perfect arrangement when predictability of established procedures, policies and tasks is required. That's what helps prevent medical staff from operating on the wrong limb or body part. Or, all cars from accelerating simultaneously from a 4-way stop intersection. I'm sure we're all on board with those type of examples. Then there are cases where structure should only exist to prevent chaos, but it goes WAY beyond. 

Thanks again for commenting. 

Comment by Kelly Blokdijk on March 13, 2014 at 2:04pm

@Keith - didn't mean to skip you! Usually tele-work isn't an option in overly controlling environments. It is my understanding that you need to "HR famous" to get invited on the conference speaking circuit. Or work for in a prominent leadership role at an employer of choice. 

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on March 13, 2014 at 2:08pm

@ Kelly. Thanks again. I agree; there are some things where a rigid, formalized structure is needed to efficiently get the job done. (Medicine is a good example you gave). At the same time, I think that low-touch, highly-structured tasks are often ideal for automating. I believe that structure is a means to an tohe end of accomplishing a task, and not an end in itself. I think it might be fair for many of us to say:

"If you need a ******* robot, hire a ******* robot. We don't need/are too old for this ****."


Comment by Keith D. Halperin on March 13, 2014 at 2:56pm

@ Kelly: Crossed signals! *No need to worry over little things like that.

Yep the places that would probably most benefit from it are the ones that are least likely to use it- micromanaging control freaks don't like to cede control. You, Matt, etc. are known and respected by tens of thousands of recruiters, sourcers, etc. Why aren't you folks invited to these things? Is it because you're not telling the people creating the problems (high-level Staffing Head convention attendees) what they want to hear so they can pretend they're actually addressing the problems, instead of asking those of us who actually do the work what we need/want to improve our work and really address the problems?



Se if I leave YOU in my will!  ;(


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