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Job ads are not a logic puzzle: BBC Bitesize brainteaser may teach bad lessons

Google Cloud had an outage this morning so I was in a bad mood and decided to go to the BBC homepage instead of doing actual work. There I ran into a Bitesize brainteaser called “Who should get the job?”.

I think it teaches bad lessons about how hiring decisions are made and what jobs one should apply for.

The “Who should get the job?” puzzle

The brainteaser presents a job spec and a list of candidates that applied for the role, as well as the skills and experience of the candidates.

List of candidates

Once you start the puzzle the following job ad is shown:

Experienced Researcher required to run a project in the Arctic.

The successful applicant must:

  • Be available November to February – winter in the North Pole.
  • Be able to speak a second language.

It is helpful for applicants to have:

  • Good awareness of issues affecting the environment.
  • A keen eye for spotting polar bears that blend into their snowy surroundings.

Priority will be given to applicants who have experience in spotting polar bears.

It then states that Isabella is the best candidate for the job.

Requirements are not actual requirements

Just because a job spec says certain skills are required that doesn’t mean they won’t hire someone without those skills.

Sometimes this can be an internal communications problem. A team wants to hire a new researcher and sends a list of skills to HR or to an external recruiter. The recruiter creates a job spec based on the list of skills, and decides that some of them should be required. They might also add additional notes that are common for that type of role, like “Bachelor’s degree preferred”.

There’s this meme in tech that companies try to hire someone with 5 years of experience with a technology X when X was only released 3 years ago. Someone may just have translated “senior developer with X experience” to “5 years of experience with X”.

Not meeting all requirements doesn’t necessarily rule out a candidate. They may not be needed at all, or the company may consider hiring two people instead of one if that turns out to be a better way to get the job done.

HR and recruiters can be a problem here, since they often don’t understand the business needs and just filter based on a list of skills. If you think you may be a good candidate, consider directly messaging people on the relevant team to ask if they’d consider applicants who don’t have “required” experience. You can do that by email or over LinkedIn. You can also try calling the company to see if they can give you the details of the hiring manager in charge.

(This may not always work as the recruiter is in place to protect the hiring manager from getting inundated with emails.)

Does ability to speak a second language really matter?

The job spec says you need to be able to speak a second language? But why is that?

They’re not asking for a specific second language, so it doesn’t sound like you need to speak a language to communicate with other staff or suppliers. Maybe they’re asking because they want to research how communication between polar bears is impacted by environmental changes.

Suppose you only speak English but have been studying communication among polar bears or other animals for 10 years. You might be the world’s most experienced researcher of polar bear communication, but the job “requirements” would rule you out.

Skills are not binary

Elisha is classified as not an experienced researcher. Everyone else is.

But it might just mean that Elisha has two and a half years of experience while Jessie has three. If Elisha is fluent in polar bear that makes her a much better fit for the role.

“Helpful” and “priority will be given” are not logical operators

People don’t think in terms of formal logic when writing job ads.

Pritesh and Isabella both have all required skills. Isabella has polar bear spotting experience, which the job spec says means she gets priority, so allegedly she’s the best candidate.

In practice, organizations struggle to decide on what requirements are, and they won’t pre-commit themselves to making a decision based on formal criteria. Maybe Pritesh has much more experience than Isabella, or has a lot of academic polar bear experience without field work.

Large organizations may try to follow fixed processes due to corporate or regulatory requirements, but ultimately they’ll aim to hire the overall best candidate they can find.

I get that it’s just supposed to teach you logic

And it’s probably good at that.

But the Bitesize website targets children who probably don’t have much experience applying for jobs and hiring people. I worry that examples like this might lead them to make poor life decisions like not applying for jobs that they’re a good fit for or relying purely on job specs to decide what skills to work on instead of talking to teams who hire for them.

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