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It's not just the economy: Why U.S. job seekers get discouraged

February 4, 2014: 10:35 AM ET

America's jobless tend to blame themselves rather than "the system," leading them to stop looking.

By Ofer Sharone

140204101443-blame-hopeless-620xaFORTUNE – As the release of January's jobs report will likely remind us on Friday, unemployment is a double whammy for white-collar American workers. In addition to experiencing financial stress, many unemployed workers end up fearing that something is deeply wrong with them.

I interviewed more than 170 white-collar job seekers in the U.S. and Israel between 2004-2006 and between 2011-2012 for my new book, Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences, and I was surprised by how many of the unemployed Americans confided that, in the course of their job searches, they had come to feel "flawed." Israelis who had gone just as long without finding a job didn't tend to blame themselves that way; they were convinced it was a flawed system that kept them unemployed. It didn't seem likely to me that Americans were inherently more self-blaming than Israelis. Instead, my research revealed how the particular and peculiar process of American white-collar job searching -- a process I call the "chemistry game" -- renders the players vulnerable to a debilitating self-blame.

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American white-collar job searching focuses a great deal on establishing rapport and interpersonal chemistry in the course of networking and interviewing. Chemistry, in turn, requires job seekers to present not only their skills, but also the self behind the skills. This means that when you are rejected for a job, it often feels like it's not your qualifications that have been rejected -- it's you, personally.

It's a whole different story in Israel. While American white-collar job searching involves a "chemistry game" that stresses intangibles such as rapport and fit, the Israeli version relies heavily on supposedly objective and definitely impersonal methods such as short screening interviews and pre-employment tests. This process is what I call the "specs game." It rigidly focuses on credentials and on factors that are assumed to be proxies for skills or the lack thereof, such as age, gender, test scores, and gaps in one's resume. Israeli job seekers often feel arbitrarily and impersonally excluded by tests and proxies that seem irrelevant either to the job or to their actual qualifications. So instead of blaming themselves for not having "what it takes," Israelis blame the system for being blind to what they do have.

While unemployment is a difficult experience in both countries, workers respond to employer rejection very differently in each. Job seekers in the United States, fearing that there's something wrong with them, often become deeply discouraged and cease searching. In Israel, they feel unfairly treated by a rigid and arbitrary system, but they continue in their search. To Israelis, the job search is like playing the lottery: Even if you lose repeatedly, it doesn't reflect on you, it's just the odds. But every time an American worker applies for a job in the context of the chemistry game, his or her sense of self is on the line. Since each rejection feels like salt on an open wound, the job seeker stops looking.

Given that the chemistry game puts white-collar American job seekers at risk for self-blame and discouragement, where can they turn for help? Job-search advice books and support organizations in the U.S. usually suggest effective approaches to networking and interviewing. However, some of the advice directed at unemployed American white-collar workers has the unintended effect of exacerbating their vulnerability to self-blame. Workers are frequently told that they can "take control" of their career by following certain strategies. The message of control may be motivating early in the job search, as job seekers are encouraged by the belief that their search outcomes largely depend on their own actions. But after months of rejection, the same belief often leads job seekers to start thinking that their difficulties must mean something is wrong with them, that some internal flaw does not allow them to network or interview well enough. By overselling the degree of job seeker control, advice books and support organizations often leave unemployed workers ill-equipped to see the role of external factors in their labor market difficulties.

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To help improve the support provided in the United States to long-term unemployed job seekers -- the group most vulnerable to experiencing self-blame -- I am now working with over 30 top-notch career coaches and counselors who are generously offering their pro bono assistance to experiment with a range of approaches beginning later this year.

The goal of this research is to identify the most promising job-search strategies and support mechanisms for long-term unemployed workers. One specific focus of this research will be to understand how unemployed American job seekers can be supported in a way that not only provides effective advice on search strategies but also builds the resilience necessary to continue searching over the many months of rejections that many job seekers will experience. The lesson from Israel is that resilience is greatly helped when job seekers can put their difficulties into a larger more impersonal context. It may be counterintuitive, but helping job seekers recognize the varied factors driving their search outcomes that are outside their control, such as a shortage of suitable jobs, as well as those within their control, may be necessary to address the devastating consequences of job seekers blaming themselves.

Ofer Sharone is Assistant Professor of Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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