It’s a Jungle Out There: Power Balance and Job Applications in Public Health
The public health workforce is not okay. In this series of articles, I will share what it has been like to work on the public health frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these experiences have changed me forever. I will share the lessons I have learned and what I want the people around me to know, both inside and outside of the public health sector.
In last week’s column, I discussed the rapidly changing environment of the public health jobs market. This week, I will specifically consider the real-life experiences of candidates during the application process for employment in public health. Based on my own personal experiences of applying for public jobs and those of my friends, students, colleagues, and others within my network, I will focus on recent lived experiences from within public health recruitment. Ask any aspiring public health professional: we’ve all got stories. These are not isolated experiences. These are sector-wide practices.
Media coverage of the continuing Great Resignation since 2021 seems to suggest that job applicants currently have unprecedented negotiating power in the job market. Sadly, I have seen no evidence that this applies in public health, where the balance of power has long tilted in the opposite direction. With a high number of applicants applying to every advertised and funded position, job applicants have very little power in the employment market, and employers are getting away with behaviors that might be considered at best inconsiderate, or at worst nefarious.
Even the initial stages of a job application can be unnecessarily demanding, when applicants are often asked to manually enter all of their biographical information and employment history into a format convenient for the employer, no matter that this is entirely duplicative of the exact same information already submitted in their resume. Now that I have multiple qualifications and many years of work experience in various different jobs (due to the choppy nature of the public health job market as previously described), this data entry in non-standardized format can be a painstaking task. (Perhaps this labor-intensive double-data entry is a subtle clue to what lies ahead within epidemiologic data systems! Oh dear, an epi in-joke.)
Salaries and benefits are rarely quoted in job advertisements, which can lead to a waste of time for everyone involved. When subsequently asked to provide a salary goal, candidates face a daunting negotiation process: aim too high and lose out on possible opportunities, or aim too low and undervalue your skills. I’ve been told by an interviewer that my stated salary goal was unrealistic, even when I explained that it was based explicitly upon the salary I had been receiving for the past several years: “They were paying you too much,” sniffed the interviewer, whose organization has been a major recipient of federal grant funding. In a world where any of us deliberately choosing to work within the public or nonprofit sectors is knowingly taking a major salary cut from the rate at which the private sector values our skills, this assessment is insulting and comically out of touch. I can only hope that the recent move towards legal requirements to specify salary in job postings in some states will catalyze change. Meanwhile, a few benchmarks or standardized guidance tools for establishing salaries wouldn’t go amiss: I was just invited to apply for a position at less than half of my previous established salary.
Now that interviews are typically virtual, it has become common practice for employers to expect candidates to make themselves available for multiple rounds of interviews, possibly extended over several weeks or months, and often with very little notice; whereas previously interviewer schedules might have been coordinated for one (or maximum two) on-site visit for an in-person panel interview. Scheduling is a total pain, and I’m struck by the number of scheduling conversations I’ve had where the interviewer provides no options but expects me to drop everything to be available at a single timeslot according to their convenience. If this were genuinely a real dialogue, shouldn’t they be offering me multiple options to select from, not just as a matter of common courtesy but also as a pragmatic strategy? It’s not hard to set up an online poll, if required, even if coordinating among multiple panel members. I’ve recently been through an interview process that took 10 months and multiple rounds of interviews, during which time I applied to and was accepted for a fixed-term contract position, completed the contract, and found myself back on the job market again just in time for a final rejection. During the interview process, candidates might be asked to prepare a presentation: the type I resent most is the random PowerPoint deck required on an extracurricular topic such as gardening or cooking pastimes — who has time for this fabrication of such busywork? We both know you’re not interested in my sourdough technique, and we’ll develop a better rapport if you keep me on-task. Ask me about something relevant! But not so relevant that you are asking me to complete a time-consuming unpaid, uncredited work assignment on spec.
Another new phenomenon of the virtual recruitment process: the one-way interview. This term is used to describe an asynchronous interview process in which the employer issues a written list of questions for the candidate, who must then record and send their responses by video within the required timeframe. Presumably this technique was developed for purposes of efficiency, in order to avoid the hassles of finding mutually convenient interview times for candidate and interviewer, especially when seeking to schedule multiple candidates in a short space of time. However, the set-up of a one-way interview is a clear demonstration that the interviewer has zero interest in assessing or developing any rapport with the candidate, nor in answering any of their questions. Furthermore, the online recording technology is often clunky and unfamiliar, placing the burden of time and effort squarely on the candidate, who may find the responsibility for preparing, rehearsing, recording, and checking the recording process to be far more time-consuming and onerous than a simple online interview would have been. To me, the use of this approach, even as a preliminary screening tool, is a red flag indicating that the employer regards human engagement as a burden.
Similarly, another red flag is when emails from Human Resources about personal matters such as salary and interview logistics are signed off from a generic unnamed mailbox and no personal contact details are provided. How should the candidate address email correspondence, especially when it is sensitive: Dear HR Mailbox? To whom it may concern? They have removed the humans from Human Resources.
In a previous column, I offered examples of careers advice in public health that no longer rings true. Here’s another one: “Ask for feedback on why you have been rejected from a job.” Nowadays, you’d have to consider yourself lucky even to receive direct confirmation that you have in fact been rejected. After interviewing, it has become pretty much standard practice for employers to simply ghost unsuccessful applicants and fail to provide the courtesy of a simple rejection email. Even after the investment of several rounds of interview time, applicants are routinely left to wonder at what stage of the process to assume that they have been rejected. How hard would it really be to paste a standard rejection text into an email? Or, as I have seen overseas, to insert an anticipated interview date into the original posting so that applicants at least know when to give up hope.
Meanwhile, employers continue to exercise their prerogative to deliberately drag out the recruitment processes for months; yet once a job offer is issued, the applicant is expected to leap at the opportunity, give an instantaneous response, and start work immediately.
Evidently, the balance of power for #publichealthjobs is tipped firmly in favor of employers — what candidate would choose to damage their chances of employment by calling out these harmful recruitment practices? I’m speaking out in order to draw attention to these injustices — please join me in the comments to explore how we can advocate for change.
Next week I shall revisit the question of career advice in public health: given the features of the current environment that I have explored, what are the strategies for job search and career development that are actually helpful? Please share your suggestions in the comments or on LinkedIn.
Read all columns in this series:
- 5. Atrophy and Adjunctification: Changes in Public Health Employment Opportunities
- 4. Advice for Building a Career in Public Health — Does Any of It Really Work Anymore?
- 3. Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Public Health Professionals
- 2. Public Health Workspaces
- 1. The Public Health Workforce Is Not Okay: Lessons from the Public Health Frontline
- Dr. Katie Schenk is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health informatics specialist. She has been working on the public health frontline for governmental Health Departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Dr. Schenk is serving as a member of the US Medical Reserve Corps at COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. She teaches Public Health and Global Health at American University in Washington DC and George Mason University, VA. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a portfolio of social and behavioral research studies on children and families impacted by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa at the Population Council. Visit her website: https://kdspublichealth.com/about-dr-katie-schenk/ Follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenk-4a884b84
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