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The Talent Show

These days, the traditional ink-on-paper résumé just won’t do

Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Carl Wiens


Adam Lewis isn’t a masochist, but two years ago, he willingly put himself through the ordeal of applying for sales jobs at a string of New York City retailers. For several weeks, he filled out in-store application forms, then waited for hours in a cattle call of applicants, an effort that, for the most part, resulted in a prolonged chorus of crickets.

“It was a terrible experience,” Lewis says—but this, in a way, was precisely the point. Rather than hoping for a job selling shirts, the entrepreneur, now 32, was doing research into how companies connect (or don’t) with potential employees. In 2013, his fact-finding mission at an end, Lewis launched Apploi, a job-hunting app that recently raised more than $7 million in private equity investment. The hours of misery paid off.

Aimed at those seeking jobs in the service industry, Apploi allows hopefuls to provide short video recordings along with their written applications. Employers, in turn, can watch a candidate’s demeanor when confronted with, say, an especially demanding customer (or, at least, an actor playing that role). “We give people real-life situations,” Lewis says. “For a bartender, you want a great smile while he’s making a Manhattan. There is no way you can get passion from a résumé.”

It might be premature to pronounce the traditional résumé dead, but technology has at least provided alternatives, some wackier than others. In 2011, for example, frustrated job seeker Matthew Epstein achieved fleeting YouTube celebrity with his “Google, Please Hire Me” video, in which he appeared in a fake mustache and boxer shorts to implore the tech giant to give him a job. Google didn’t hire Epstein, but he did land a position with a San Francisco tech startup and inspired a bunch of other people to post spoofy video applications.

Today, Epstein is on the other side of the table, interviewing prospective employees as vice president of marketing at Zenefits, an HR software company. He allows that his brand of self-promotion remains relatively rare among applicants—so far, no one has turned up without pants. “People don’t do this really crazy stuff,” he says, “because they are afraid of failure.”

They may be right to be. Employment coaches say that while creative gimmicks occasionally pay off, they can also turn you into “the office joke,” according to Dawn Penfold, president of career management company Meetingjobs. “I advise against YouTube résumés,” Penfold says. Instead, she suggests job seekers harness social media and personalize their applications with services like VisualCV, which allows users to embed colorful graphics and video components into their résumés.

While showmanship is seen as a risky way to catch the attention of prospective employers, personalization is seen as a must. “You can’t just have a general résumé,” says James Clift, VisualCV’s CEO. Job-specific video attachments on résumés are a good idea, Clift adds, as long as the applicant doesn’t get carried away. “It’s probably not good to be the second guy applying to Google by dropping his drawers.”

Job seekers are not the only ones getting more creative. Increasingly, tech companies are blindsiding candidates with queries like “How many gas stations are there in Manhattan?” and “How many golf balls would fit in a plane?” While such questions may appear frivolous, they do serve a purpose. “The idea is to show how you problem-solve,” says Barbara Safani, owner of career management firm Career Solver. “They don’t expect you to know the answer.”

While Google was once renowned for springing such brainteasers on applicants, the company has now disowned the practice. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, these mental curveballs are designed to put candidates off-kilter, which reinforces the imbalance of power that characterizes most job interviews. “At their worst,” he says in an email, “they rely on some trivial bit of information that’s withheld from the candidate and serve as little more than something to make the interviewer feel great about herself.”

The conventional power dynamic, however, may be starting to shift. As the unemployment rate drops and a potential talent crunch looms, companies are turning to the kinds of tactics familiar to users of Apploi. Using Match-Click, an online service launched last year, firms can record video clips highlighting their attractive working environments, interesting employees and exciting projects—thereby, the thinking goes, attracting the best candidates.

And yet, as Bock knows all too well, it doesn’t always pay for employers to get too clever. He recalls a billboard campaign Google ran a decade ago that featured a “cryptic puzzle” aimed at curious computer engineers. Solving the riddle led to a web page that invited the person to apply for a job.

“We hired exactly zero people this way,” Bock says. “Not every crazy idea is a good one.”

Pittsburgh-based writer Cristina Rouvalis is currently working on a YouTube version of this article, in which she recites recruitment statistics while juggling eight kittens.

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