What Moby-Dick Can Teach Us About Recruitment (Part I)

One in a series of blog posts about management lessons derived from the classic novel Moby-Dick

Today’s Recruitment Lingo

In the 21st century, we breed buzzwords as surely as office cubicles breed germs and intrigue. Buzzwords help us believe in progress, in the idea that our modern management ideas are superior to those invented, say, a couple of centuries ago. Recruitment is a case in point, so let’s look at what Moby-Dick can teach us about recruitment.

We don’t just hire folks anymore, we recruit them. No, strike that. We engage in talent acquisition after burnishing the employer brand.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m as likely to engage in such language as the next business writer–in fact, considerably more so. What’s more, some of these notions–and accompanying technologies–are quite helpful. Nonetheless, many the ideas themselves, if not the exact language, have been around a very long time.)

In the realm of recruitment, things are especially complicated right now amid the outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve had the so-called great resignation in which lots of employees have left their jobs in search of greener pastures (that is, new jobs, self employment, or no employment at all). This means there’s great pressure to become an employer of choice (i.e., a place where people actually like their jobs), engage in social recruiting (i.e., seek out employees through social media, sometimes leveraging employees’ networks), and tap into the talent community (i.e., groups where we think we can find a decent job candidate or two) via recruitment marketing strategies. It all sounds very modern.

So, should we find it comforting or disturbing to find that talent acquisition wasn’t all that different back in the days of sailing ships and whale-blubber-powered lighting?

Hiring the Clueless Neophyte

To get a feel for this, we can turn to the chapter in Moby-Dick called “The Ship”. There, our narrator Ishmael pokes around the wharf the same way a lot of modern job candidates poke around Indeed.com. Like a newly minted college graduate with a liberal arts degree, Ishmael isn’t that picky. He wants any whaling job that smells of steady income. He is, in short, not someone that employers are willing to engage in a war for talent over.

Like many of today’s prospects, he relies on serendipity as much as anything else. Ishmael chooses from among the three whaling ships that, as luck would have it, are at the docks. How does he make a decision about where to apply? He just “looked around [the ship called Pequod] for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for [him and his buddy Queequeg].” Then he stumbles into a tent like a new graduate stumbles into any first interview:

“Is this the Captain of the Pequod?” said I, advancing to the door of the tent.
“Supposing it be the captain of the Pequod, what dost thou want of him?” he demanded.
“I was thinking of shipping.”
“Thou wast, wast thou? I see thou art no Nantucketer—ever been in a stove boat?”
“No, Sir, I never have.”
“Dost know nothing at all about whaling, I dare say—eh?”
“Nothing, Sir; but I have no doubt I shall soon learn. I’ve been several voyages in the merchant service, and I think that—”
“Merchant service be damned. Talk not that lingo to me. Dost see that leg?—I’ll take that leg away from thy stern, if ever thou talkest of the marchant service to me again. Marchant service indeed! I suppose now ye feel considerable proud of having served in those marchant ships. But flukes! man, what makes thee want to go a whaling, eh?—it looks a little suspicious, don’t it, eh?—Hast not been a pirate, hast thou?—Didst not rob thy last Captain, didst thou?—Dost not think of murdering the officers when thou gettest to sea?”

Okay, today’s recruiters may be a tad more subtle and considerably less hilarious, but the nature of the grilling often seems — at least from an emotional, impressionistic viewpoint — similar to the subjective experience of many inexperienced job candidates when the job market is tough: “So, you want a job, eh, supplicant…l mean applicant. What kind of invaluable experience do you have for us? Hmm, yeah, well, that’s pretty unimpressive. So, you’ll learn on the job? I wish I had a doubloon for every time I’ve heard that one. Besides, you look a little shady to me. You know we’re doing to do a background check, don’t you? We’ve also got a few personality tests and integrity tests for you. One can’t be too careful these days…”

Managing Expectations…and Then Some

Then there’s another similarity to our modern age. Captain Peleg, one of the owners of the Pequod, asks Ishmael the hardest question of all. Why do you want this job? Or, as he puts it, “What takes thee a-whaling? I want to know that before I think of shipping ye.”

Like any not-super-attractive, neophyte job candidate, Ishmael knows not to state the obvious answer:  “Cause I need food and shelter.” He intuits Peleg is looking for something more, as we’d say today, aspirational,  so he responds, “Well, sir, I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world.”

And this is where Peleg, like any good interviewer, delivers a dose of reality to this low-level applicant. Today, we call it “managing expectations.” Peleg orders a puzzled Ishmael to “take a peep over the weather-bow” and then report back to him. The baffled Ishmael takes a gander and then tells Peleg that he saw “nothing but water; considerable horizon though.”

This watery sight is all the world that Ishmael will see if he goes whaling, Peleg assures him. Ishmael is  “a little staggered” by this insight but perseveres in his job quest. Peleg finally hires him for a pittance after a wonderful good guy/bad guy discussion with his business partner, Captain Bildad. Together they teach us about recruitment circa 1800s.

As a leader/recruiter, Captain Peleg has done his job. He’s vetted a decent if desperate entry-level candidate even while making him feel a bit unworthy and downright lucky to land the job. (This is, of course, not recommended for today’s recruiters.)

He’s even done his best to disillusion the applicant about any unrealistic expectations.  After all, Peleg needs somebody who will fit the culture, as we’d say today. No manager wants to hire someone who will wind up feeling deceived and mutinous after the first week on the job.

As for Ishmael, notice that he never divulges the fact that he has been a schoolmaster. He doesn’t need the “you’re overqualified for this job” speech from Peleg. Some things are better left unsaid in the interview process. On the other hand, Ishmael does mention he has a friend who is also looking for a job.  “Fetch him along, and we’ll look at him,” says Captain Peleg, who knows full well the power of “social recruiting.”

Melvillian Management Lesson

The recruitment process was subject to stereotypes and satire back in the era of Ahab, and remains so. Much has changed but much remains similar. Recruitment is, by definition, a judgmental process, one that strikes many people as threatening. (The applicant is threatened he or she will be rejected and the recruiter is threatened that he or she will make the wrong decision or give the wrong impression and be blamed for it).

The trick for the recruiters and leaders of any organization is to make the process both more effective and more humane. At the moment, that’s all to the good. Many employers are hungry for employees. But what happens in the next recession? Sooner or later, many a job candidate will find out.

Featured image: Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction of photograph, frontispiece to Journal Up the Straits.

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Mark R. Vickers

I am a writer, analyst, futurist and researcher. I've spent most of my working life as an editor and manager for research organizations focusing on social, business, technology, HR and management trends. But, perhaps more to the point for this blog, I'm curious about the universe and the myriad, often mysterious relationships therein.

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