3 Rules Job-Seekers Must Know about How Hiring Really Works

Is Labor a Market or a Game?

Working with students, I'm struck by how logical their expectations of the hiring process are:

  • "First, I develop really useful skills."

  • "Next, companies see that I have the skills they need."

  • "And then I get a job based on the demand for those skills."

Which makes total sense - labor is a market and, like any other market, it's governed by supply and demand. Just think of a 21-year-old CS major making six-figures while her journalist father looks for work despite three decades of experience.

Stock Market

Labor is a market... right?

The only catch is that, like many markets, the labor market doesn't operate with perfect information and efficiency. Instead, it's populated with well-intentioned people making imperfect decisions based on limited information and time.

Which means that when you imagine the hiring process in your mind, ditch the vision of a highly efficient market and see it for what it really is: A game. Because just like a football game, you've got players scrambling around the field, trying to make sense of things in real-time, and aiming not for perfection, but just to eke out a win within the rules.


When you imagine the hiring process in your mind, ditch the vision of a highly efficient market and see it for what it really is: A game.

And so instead of assuming that a hypothetical perfect market will lead to a fair outcome for them, I teach my students to understand the real game they're about to play. Because the best way to win the civilian career game is to know the rules cold.

And here are the three most important ones:

Rule 1: Hiring starts with pain.

While winning your dream job at Google or Goldman Sachs may seem like pure pleasure, let’s be clear about the reason they’re hiring in the first place: Pain.

Specifically, a team inside the company has too much to do and too few people to do it. And while they may have been getting by for months, they’ve finally reached a breaking point. Which is why the team’s leader (usually referred to as the “hiring manager” - AKA your potential future boss) has broken down and gone to her boss to ask for more resources. And it’s why the recruiter is rushing to get the job description online and posted to a dozen job boards.

So, just like in the military, where understanding your commanders, teammates, and partners gives you an edge, start imagining yourself in the shoes of the key parties at the hiring company:

  • Hiring Manager: “My team is seriously stressed out. If we don’t find someone yesterday, people are going to walk.”

  • Recruiter: “The hiring manager is breathing down my neck. I better get this job posted, pronto.”

Sad Hiring Manager

While winning your dream job at Google or Goldman Sachs may seem like pure pleasure, let’s be clear about the reason they’re hiring in the first place: Pain.

Rule 2: Recruiters and hiring managers have different pains.

Now let’s complicate the picture a little bit. Notice that the need to hire creates pain for both the hiring manager and the recruiter. But it’s a very different kind of pain for each.

The hiring manager’s pain comes from the vacant chair in her department. While she would love to get the perfect candidate to sit in that chair, she really just needs someone who’s good enough at the job and nice enough to work with - since that would make her pain go away immediately.

The recruiter’s pain, on the other hand, doesn’t come from the empty chair itself. After all, his team isn’t the one that’s suffering from a resource constraint. Instead, all of his pain comes straight from the hiring manager. In fact, it comes from multiple hiring managers, given that each recruiter is typically juggling 10 or more searches at once. So the recruiter’s primary goal is to keep all these hiring managers happy - and off his back!


Want to be great at any game? Know who you're playing.

Rule 3: Hiring isn’t a meritocracy - it’s a pain-relief game.

OK, time to bring rules 1 + 2 together in the most important rule of all: Hiring doesn’t favor the best candidate, it favors the candidate who can best solve the hiring team’s pain.

To see how this plays out, let’s imagine two candidates for a big, complicated Project Management role:

Bonnie: Led a multi-million dollar project for the Air Force, including delegation of tasks to 500 service members.

Clyde: Served as a junior project manager at a small startup, overseeing a $50K budget and delegation to 5 team members.

In a meritocracy, it’s clear that Bonnie wins. But what about in the real civilian hiring world?

First, both candidates submit resumes to the recruiter. Bonnie’s resume is full of jargon from the Air Force and the recruiter, who’s never been in the military, isn’t quite sure what it all means. Whereas Clyde’s resume says “Project Manager” and includes all the same keywords from the job description - Gantt charts, Scrum, etc.

Now who do you think the recruiter chooses?

He picks Clyde because Clyde is the pain-free choice. The recruiter’s not going to have to dig into Clyde’s background, understand anything complicated, or explain to the hiring manager why he picked him. In other words, Clyde is the recruiter equivalent of an Advil whereas Bonnie is like a skillet to the head!

OK, but imagine that Bonnie managed to squeak through to the hiring manager after all. And now it’s Bonnie vs. Clyde in the final interview round. Bonnie interviews well, especially now that she has a chance to fully explain just how impressive her Air Force work was. But Clyde, having seen how hiring works before, has a mutual connection vouch for him to the hiring manager. So that when he walks into the interview room, the hiring manager is already primed to like him.

Again, who do you think gets the nod?

The hiring manager picks Clyde because he solves her pain. She doesn’t need to cross her fingers and hope that Bonnie pans out as well as her answers suggest. Instead, she knows that Clyde will make the pain go away because her friend has said as much. And who’s she going to trust more - the friend (Clyde’s reference) or a stranger (Bonnie)?


Hiring doesn’t favor the best candidate, it favors the candidate who can best solve the hiring team’s pain.

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Play the Hiring Game to Win

Now that you know the truth about the hiring game, it’s time to leverage your mastery of its rules in your search:

  • Instead of approaching the process as if it were a robotic talent allocation system, you’re going to empathize with the flesh-and-blood humans running the process - and especially their pain.

  • Instead of assuming that recruiters and hiring managers are all driven by the same incentivizes, you’re going to recognize their unique roles and modify your approach accordingly.

  • Instead of hoping that a meritocracy recognizes your talent and hard work, you’ll see the system for what it is - a relatively arbitrary process - and make that process work for you by speaking the recruiter’s language and getting referrals.

Because if you can replace the idea of a labor market with a clearly-defined hiring game, you can take command of your own career destiny. Whereas a market feels too massive and impersonal for you to control your fate, a game puts tremendous power at your fingertips. And by mastering the rules, this is one game that you definitely can win.

Chess King

Know the rules. Play the game to win.

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