Over this last month, my wife and I searched for and hired a new nanny, as ours had decided to learn programming and move to The Bay.

We ended up with a wonderful woman we found through a personal recommendation on a local mailing list. Her previous employer posted saying, hire this woman, she’s fantastic, and this was indeed the case.

Before we realized we’d found her, various people encouraged us to post a job listing on a website, so we did so on Sittercity.

That went… less well.

We got over one hundred applications.

The majority of them had profiles that did not match the requirements of the job. About half were only available for a few months or for part time work. Many others wouldn’t work with multiple children, or had higher salary requirements than we listed.

The vast majority of them had major spelling and/or grammar errors in their profiles. Also in their messages to us.

From the remaining profiles, we reached out to a few dozen applicants.

The majority of them did not respond to us at all. 

Of those who did respond, several did not answer the phone for the initial interview and provided no explanation.

Of those who did answer, several were actively rude on the phone. 

Of those who were not rude on the phone, several did not engage with the questions being asked or show any interest in the job,

Of those who passed that screening and were asked to come for an in person interview, fully half of them failed to show up, most with no warning or cancellation. In all such cases, they didn’t contact us again. In other cases, they cancelled, but failed to make any real effort to reschedule.

As a result of all this, we only ended up doing two in person interviews. Because it turns out that getting people to show up, at all, is super hard. One of them seemed acceptable in a punch. The other we hired.

The vast majority of people who were on a job site, seeking a job, were not capable of tasks like: Write a profile page in English without major mistakes. Respond promptly when an employer contacts you to respond to your application. Talk politely on the phone and sound like you are listening and care about the job. Show up to your interview.

Yes. Standards are that low. 

You are much more employable than you think.

If you’re wondering why employers say it’s so hard to hire people despite getting a hundred applications for every position? That’s why.

If you’re wondering why many people can’t find work? I can’t help but wonder if it’s because they can’t do the very basic things even at high leverage points like the interview process. Things like showing up and responding to emails. Being on time. Being polite. Making sure the profile you show the world doesn’t have major errors and matches the jobs you’re applying to. Acting like you actually want the job.

Those are standards that 98% or so of applications we got failed to live up to. Presumably the same people, failing to live up to them, apply again and again, failing those standards again and again, wondering why they can’t get hired.




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Sounds like you used the perfect hiring strategy - offering a salary low enough to get exactly one good applicant from the whole pool - and then were surprised that the ratio of good to bad applicants was near 0, which is an expected result of that strategy regardless of the pool. That's why employers always complain that hiring is hard, even when there are throngs of people begging for jobs.

Maybe they should be thankful to the applicants who changed the requirements, because there was a good chance that they had misjudged the market and would get zero good applicants.

Zvi posted the following comment:

Yeah, I likely should have been more explicit about the whole ‘the ones who are any good already got hired’ thing. Which has the same implication, of course – that if you can simply display what we’d instinctively think of as ordinary competence, you’ll get hired reasonably quickly once you start putting in effort. Which matches my experience on both sides.


To put it mildly, the above does not match my experience at all. And I know a ton of rationalist programmers having trouble finding a job. These people are usually not super expereinced and didnt go to the ICPC final. But they certainly seem at least 'ordinarily competent'.

FWIW I had similar frustrations but as an applicant - when I tried to apply to jobs using the procedure of sending my CV and covering letter in response to job postings, most of the time there was no response at all: no acknowledgement or rejection communication.

Same experience. I was applying for software jobs for what its worth.

You are much more employable than you think.

Employable in what capacity and for what compensation, though?

For example, I’m sure I could get a job flipping the proverbial burgers, if I really wanted to (or perhaps even managing people who flip said burgers). However, jobs that pay very well, such as coding / development / design / etc., generally have obstacles that look more like “pass a bizarrely contrived coding interview” than “show up on time or at all”.

Then again, it’s not just high-paying jobs that have this issue. Here’s the key bit of your post, in my view:

As a result of all this, we only ended up doing two in person interviews. … One of them seemed acceptable in a punch. The other we hired.

Consider that first of these two people. Would you tell this person, “you are much more employable than you think”? Consider the matter from their perspective. I gather from your post that they did everything right, like having a profile without errors, responding to phone calls, not being rude, etc. Yet it seems like they turned out to be less employable than they expected. Hmm.


We ended up with a wonderful woman we found through a personal recommendation on a local mailing list.

Now imagine—as seems like it plausibly could’ve happened, and no doubt does happen many times in analogous situations—that you got this personal recommendation before you went to Sittercity. Consider, then, the situation from the perspective of an aspiring nanny who reads this post, takes your message to heart, and makes a profile page on Sittercity, spelling and grammaring everything correctly, intending with all sincerity to be polite to inquiring callers, to respond promptly, to arrive punctually to interviews, etc.

In this plausible scenario, this person has zero chance of being hired by you. Hm.

As I understood the post, they ended up hiring two people (presumably for two different time periods), one from sitter city, one from personal recommendations, though I might be mistaken here.

Note that there's a very significant selection effect at play. Incompetent and unmotivated (for instance, those wanting to signal that they're seeking a job but who don't actively want it) people will apply for many positions, while the competent get hired relatively fast, after having applied only a few times.

Your point remains that there are a LOT of people who don't have the conformity, conscientiousness, and/or social skills needed to get and hold a standard job. It's really unclear, as a society, how to get them into a position where they can provide as much value as the resources they take.

It's really unclear, as a society, how to get them into a position where they can provide as much value as the resources they take.

Harvest their reusable organs, and melt down what remains to make a nutrient paste suitable for livestock and the working poor?

(Kidding! But that sort of thing is always where my mind wanders when people put the question in such stark terms, perhaps because I myself am a chronically unemployed "taker" (mental illness). Anyway, one of the long-term goals of AI and automation research, as I understand it, is to turn everyone into takers ("full unemployment"). Meanwhile, one of the long-term goals of transhumanism is to be able to cure all of the various disorders and disabilities that render a large fraction of currently umemployed people unemployable. Until at least one of those goals is achieved, we will continue to have an unemployable underclass. I guess progress towards the transhumanist goal, or better public policy, could make that underclass smaller, but right now more people seem to be worrying about progress on the AI/automation front making it larger.)

Apologies for the stark terms if it felt judgmental or degrading! I have a LOT of sympathy for people who temporarily or permanently aren't a good fit for the corporate standards of common high-paying jobs. I'm lucky enough currently to be well-employed and providing enough value that I don't feel bad being highly paid, but that wasn't always the case and I recognize the that combination of talents and skills that work for me are pretty much pure luck for me to have. The ability to focus for many hours and work my ass off is mildly rare and incredibly lucky for me to have.

I don't mean any blame in my recognition that resources are limited and it's FAR easier for those lucky enough to be smart and conforming to get some of those resources. I recoil from the label "taker" - it's an unhelpful model, more about social status than about understanding or problem-solving.

I do honestly believe that one of the biggest challenges for humanity's moral and economic growth (which I see as correlated, if not causal) in the medium-term (next 2 generations, modulo singularity) is how to make more people's contributions larger and more legible so it's trivially obvious that we should give a much higher percentage of humanity more resources and status than we do today.

Apologies for the stark terms if it felt judgmental or degrading!

No worries! I mostly just wrote that comment for the lulz. And the rest was mostly so people wouldn't think I was using humor to obliquely endorse social Darwinism.

Do you know anyone who got a job via SitterCity?

The vast majority of people who were on a job site, seeking a job, were not capable of tasks like: Write a profile page in English without major mistakes. Respond promptly when an employer contacts you to respond to your application. Talk politely on the phone and sound like you are listening and care about the job. Show up to your interview.

If there are several jobs open, and the chances of being hired after jumping through the hoops is 50%, some of the candidates probably found something better, and stopped wasting their time on a lower position.

There are some other factors that might justify their behavior as impolite, but not incompetent. For example: If there is no expectation of an answer if you failed to progress to the next step, the candidates might use their silence/unresponsiveness to signal that you "failed" as a hirer.

It also feels like a waste of the hirer's time to have to read a notice that you dropped out of the selection, if you expect that they have other candidates and you haven't set an interview.

It also looks like there are no costs to apply to several positions (in monetary terms and also as a punishment for future hirings), and the best strategy is to apply to anything and then select the best one later.

Hiring is about as pure a one-shot prisoner's dilemma as is encountered in daily life. Both sides almost always defect.

Out of curiosity, how did you handle delivering the news to people that they did not pass a given step? Did it get boring or tedious? How did they take it?

Wait, what? It's neither one-shot nor prisoner's dilemma.

Hiring, like almost all real-life interactions, has many sub-games, some of which are zero-sum and some of which are positive sum. In fact, the main payout for both sides is the opportunity for many positive-sum (and some zero-sum) games in the future of an employment relationship. Also, there is legal recourse for the more egregious kinds of defection.

I've never had any future employment-related interactions with a company to which I have applied but not been hired to work for. I am confident Zvi will have no future interactions with the people whose applications he rejected. How is that not a one-shot? Intuitively I would be inclined to say that if both sides cooperate, then the sequence of games would continue; it looks to me like 'cooperate' basically means 'commit to more games'. I'm happy to be wrong though, and if there's a solid examination of the subject you can recommend I will certainly check it out.

The players (presumably) expect that there's a chance of future interactions, even if that chance does not obtain. Zvi will have no future interaction with the un-hired applicants, but neither party knew that when the interaction started. It turns out to be one-shot in those cases, but it wasn't known to be one-shot in advance and there are some outcomes which are not one-shot.

More importantly, the payout matrix doesn't match the PD pattern - defecting does not pay more than cooperating. Actually, I'm not sure exactly what actions you're mapping to cooperate/defect when you assert PD-like qualities. Is cooperating "try to get hired" and defecting "don't answer your messages"? Or something else?

Is cooperating "try to get hired" and defecting "don't answer your messages"? Or something else?

Good questions - the actual reasoning I used went approximately like this:

1. Hirers (Zvi) and applicants (everyone else) both complain about how terrible the process is.

2. Behavior from the other side you hate is probably defection.

3. This means both sides almost always defect.

4. PD is the famous case where both sides always defect. This is probably some form of PD.

I didn't actually assign what the payoffs were, but while reading Zvi's complaints I was focused largely on the question of courtesy, like phone etiquette and ghosting. So I guess the best approximation of my feelings would be to model cooperate as be courteous and defect as do not be courteous.

Courtesy takes effort and attention; ignoring it does not; therefore defect yields a better payoff. Both parties prefer to be treated well by the other side without exerting any effort themselves. I don't see any motivation to treat each round as a different game because there's no reason to expect that people will vary their choices - I expect ghosty people to ghost all the way through, and courteous people to be courteous all the way through. Being discourteous is in this way not meaningfully different from a prisoner ratting on his colleague over three interviews with police rather than in one interview.

I experienced a C-C outcome by those lights that still was not me getting hired; the company in question kept me informed about the state of the process, and followed up with me after another candidate was selected. This is not a predictable scenario though, because it was driven by their expectation of being able to hire two people, and then learning after I interviewed they could only hire one.

Ah, I think I see. The comfort/pleasantness aspect has a PD-like payoff (defecting saves effort, but hurts the other participant). I'd argue that the fact that D-C (you defect, opponent cooperates) is smaller payout for you than C-C (you both cooperate) makes most insights from PD not applicable here.

I do an annoying amount of interviewing and hiring for my employer (which I do not represent and for whom I do not speak), and while we do somewhat often miss on candidate experience simply due to scale and internal miscommunication, we STRONGLY expect that even for no-hire cases there will be future interactions with candidates (for different roles in our company and as the candidate grows over time), and with their friends/family/coworkers. This leads us to absolutely expect that interactions are repeatable rather than one-shot.

Candidates likewise often realize that even if they don't get this job today, they may want to apply to a different or future opening. Also, people move around to different companies, so even if it's a different employer, you might meet the same person. That probably doesn't hold for extremely tiny employers for high-turnover low-skill positions, but each employment world is shockingly small, and reputation has more pathways than one might naively think.

Agreed with this to the point that I think hiring is a pretty excellent example of how interactions that look one-shot actually turn out to be iterated.

(I'm also not sure whether iterated PD is meant to refer to "repeated, and you explicitly have a reputation" vs "repeated, and even without reputation explicitly taken into account there are ramifications and selection pressures of what sort of strategies survive over the long term." I was under the impression that the latter was included in the term)

I'd argue that the fact that D-C (you defect, opponent cooperates) is smaller payout for you than C-C (you both cooperate) makes most insights from PD not applicable here.

Oh, that's a very good point! I had put the weight on the expected outcome of D-D, but nobody chooses the outcome they want, only the move that seems to have the best payoff. I will dedicate some time to adjusting my intuitions on this, because I suppose the next natural question is, if C-C is higher payout than D-C, why does it so often seem to end up that way?

Based on your experience, I guess this to vary heavily by industry; skilled labor and professions have a much smaller hiring/applicant pool, and often have communities set up around their work besides. By contrast, the number of hirers/applicants for unskilled labor is much larger, and there usually aren't communities built up around it. On the other hand, I would also expect unskilled labor to be more closely tied to the actual physical communities in which people live, on both the hirer and applicant sides. On still a third hand, the job-related reputation seems fairly low priority in my physical community. Hmm.

I'm also reminded that the payoffs (or costs) aren't equal in real-life games. It is a lot more effort to send "Thank you but we are moving forward with other candidates" emails to 99 people than it is to send "Thank you but I have accepted another offer" emails to 2 or 3 hirers. Also, the effort involved in correctly formatting applications and avoiding grammar/spelling errors is much higher for poorly educated people than it is for me.

But the immediate takeaway is, I gotta shift my focus from D-D outcome to D-C move at the intuition level.

A friend does advertising for small businesses in Massachusetts. He says that his clients have trouble hiring people for low skilled jobs who are not on drugs.

So wouldn't this be solved by requiring people to pay for the chance to apply?

Isn't this basically the pitch of the Luna people, but for employment relationships instead of romantic ones?

Our course is clear - we should start a blockchain-enabled job site. Call it Rational Hiring. Issue git-coins.

Given how the norms of the sector go, the good candidates likely wouldn't want to pay to apply.

I've never heard of anyone doing this directly. Has anyone else? If not, there's probably a reason. I suppose occupational certification programs serve a similar filtering function. Anyway, your suggestion might be more palatable if it were in the form of a deposit refundable if and only if the applicant shows up/answers the phone for scheduled interviews. You would also need a trusted intermediary to hold the deposits, or else we would see a flood of fake job-interview-deposit scams. And even if you had such a trusted intermediary, I suspect that, in a world in which job-interview deposits were the norm, scammers would find all sorts of creative ways to impersonate that intermediary convincingly enough to fool a lot of desperate, marginally employable marks.

Also, the deposit would have to be quite small for low-wage entry-level jobs whose applicant pool would include a lot of people who can't reliably scrounge up 20 bucks, and even then, some would be hindered by limited/expensive access to basic financial services like checking accounts and electronic payments. Maybe those are mostly people you're trying to filter out? Then again, who is the ideal applicant, from the minimum-wage employer's perspective? Someone reliable and competent, of course, but also someone who really needs the money, and so will be highly motivated. So, someone who wouldn't normally be desperately poor, but happens to be at the moment. Maybe access to those applicants is worth enough to some employers that they're willing to pay the price of similar-looking applicants flaking on their interviews and such.

> I've never heard of anyone doing this directly. Has anyone else?

There' s a Brazilian job website that requires users to pay, though I think it's on a subscription basis.

I'm curious if anyone has recollections of what it was like trying to hire for similar positions in recent years, when the unemployment rate was much higher. That is to say, how much of this is base-rate human flakiness, and how much is attributable to the tight labor market having already hoovered up almost all the well-functioning adults?

This is simultaneously horrifying and incredibly comforting. One would hope that people would be orders of magnitude better than this. But it also bodes very well for the future prospects of anyone remotely competent (unless your boss is like this...)

[+][comment deleted]4y -14