The Painted Veil of Hiring, Recruiting, and Job Seeking

Notes: Presented below is a long overdue article originally planned to be the first part of a three-part treatment on the problems and solutions that are mission-critical to three parties: the hiring company, the recruiter, and the job seeker. My focus has since switched to some other stuff, such as writing a couple of books. I currently don’t have a plan to work fully on the second and the third part. Someday I might just get back to it.

In a nutshell: The challenges in communication and the subtlety in the asymmetry of information have created a painted veil between any two of the three parties involved. And the core problem in hiring, recruiting, and job seeking is more about tracking the identification of the match than about identifying the match. Both the traditional way of in-person meeting and the abstraction of a job down to bullet points can not easily afford the tracking necessary for meaningful measurement. Although in-person meeting is still the best way to observe and probe via social interactions, a digital way of tracking is probably the only way forward. And that digital way would have to reprise the storytelling element essential in face-to-face social interactions, while enabling easier ways to track, measure, and fine-tune the process.


Three households, all alike in dignity,
In a fair market, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where the painted veil makes story unclear.
From forth the fatal loins of these three
A way of storytelling takes the stage;
Whose underserved attention’n’devotion
Do with their needs bury their petty wants.

Recognizing the Painted Veil

A discussion started as Elsawy Yehia commented on LinkedIn:

Why is it that job descriptions did not evolve past a text based list of responsibilities, skills, qualifications, brand messaging…etc?

I hear this all the time:

“The best way to sell a role is by creating a compelling story around it”

So, is a long text based description/laundry list the best way to create a compelling story?

Why not challenge orthodoxies?

–  A video featuring the future team describing what it means to work with them

–  A recruiter created podcast or live video stream speaking about the role


I bet many of us feel rather similar.

A textual list is the ultimate abstraction of a job. And with each level of abstraction, we lose both the context and the dynamics of reality to a certain extent.

That abstraction is like a painted veil between any two of the three parties involved: the company who wants talents, the recruiter who helps find them, and the talent who’s seeking jobs. Each party sees a vague vision of the other side, filtered by the painted veil. And sometimes, it becomes difficult to differentiate all the seemingly similar visions behind it. The more at stake, it’s often more difficult to tell.

We only remember and anticipate a job as a series of experiences, not a checklist.


  • Both the hiring companies and the recruiters (often in partnership with the former) find it hard to communicate anything beyond the trimmed-down responsibilities and skill requirements, which is in direct conflict with what brand identity is meant to achieve. They can surely talk with a job seeker as much as they can about the experience and feeling, but that’s costly and even harder to maintain the consistency of the narrative.
  • The job seekers, on the other hand, find it hard to envision that experience and feeling of what it’s like working in the respective position. They can surely talk with the recruiter and/or the hiring company as much as they can, but that’s also costly. The publicly available branding materials don’t always cover that experience with the level of details necessary for a job seeker to understand a specific job position.

So that’s the painted veil, made of abstraction via language, making everyone struggle to grasp what they really mean and expect, without knowing much about the necessary context and the experiential peculiarities. The unrefined prospect/proposition haunts all in the form of risks.

In fact, the situation is so unfortunate that some, including me, even agree that the most valuable part of a job is often not in the job description. (And you really want to read Why We Work.)

Why Not Challenge the Worst?

If a textual list is so troublesome to everyone, then why are we still using it to describe a job?

One possible reason is that lists take a far more tangible form and are much easier to measure or verify. Storytelling creates experiential and often subjective ambiguities, which is usually hostile to risk management. A company needs to make sure the recruiter gets it, and then the recruiter wants to make sure the job seekers get it. And the easiest way to ‘get it’ is to ‘get it as it is, down to the brusquest points’, rather than ‘get it as an experiential understanding (and then pray everyone interprets it in the way that doesn’t lead to later confusions and disputes)’.

Lists are criteria, the absolute backbones for measuring, not expressions of feelings and stories. Instead of thoughtfully creating expressions that catch both the criteria and the feeling/story, making a list is much simpler and set a much lower bar for both the companies and the recruiters.

Lists are troublesome, but are so convenient and so much simpler. It’s like regression to the mean. In the competition for talents, only the exceptional approaches can stand out.

The Risks of the Painted Veil

Both the companies and the recruiters surely want to tell great stories (some of them are doing just that), not only to attract talents, but also to manage risk by making sure all parties have a well-understood common ground, establish the right expectations, and make decisions accordingly.

But again, stories contain cultural and branding expressions, which need a far more holistic approach to afford consistency and cost-effective management. That often demands people to penetrate both upstream and downstream in an org in order to coordinate the effort to implement. Top-down approach often lacks the flexibility of aesthetic expression, bottom-up one often lacks the criteria-shaping authority.

As a side note, a very similar issue is present in the exploration of interactive storytelling: the challenge is plot control, while making a list of criteria for branching is so much easier than creating a model to generate plots. So branching tree based story structures is much more common.

Here’s something interesting: lists/criteria risk introducing biases derived from the abstraction (and the model of measurement behind it); storytelling risks bringing biases derived from perception and emotions. The former are created and managed internally, while the latter involves the external audience (it’s their perception and emotion after all) and is therefore much harder to manage. Companies and recruiters tend to go for the risk that’s easier to manage, even though the respective approach is not the better one.

The Problems of the Painted Veil

To point out the issues being observed, Elsawy continued the discussion:

Reading a list based job description does not lend to a mental model that describes how and what will you do in the opportunity. Because job descriptions look and sound very similar, it does not matter how many times you say how innovative, disruptive and different you are – if you don’t challenge habitual thinking by doing something different. It showing rather than telling.

The Challenges to the Painted Veil

To improve the painted veil situation, three challenges come to mind:

  • The top layer of challenge: general, public corp/team branding is usually not optimized specifically for potential talents (the discrepancies between corp culture and subcultures make it trickier).
  • The middle layer of challenge: recruiters have no convenient methods or tools to create the ‘stories’ that describe what a job is like, in as many forms as possible, and on a case-by-case and company-by-company basis.
  • The lower layer of challenge: the interviewers need an authorized framework to keep the process as flexible as the cases needs.

On another slightly relevant note: probably a similar issue on the other side. Designers being one example: portfolio works really well for displaying tactic skills but not so much for anything else. It doesn’t lend to a mental model that describes how and what a designer can handle the tasks as well as her processes. A recruiter can surely try to find all the clues to those qualities, but there has to be a different way to do it, and it can only be initiated by the talents themselves, even facing risks posed by the ‘list’ culture on the recruiter side. The job seekers also need methods and tools to tell better stories.

Challenging the Painted Veil

Here are what everyone wants:

  • Tell compelling stories in a manageable, measurable, and consistent way (company to recruiter and job seeker, recruiter to job seeker, job seeker to company and recruiter)
  • Make sure everyone understand the criteria and establish a relative accurate vision of the experience, which are the critical common ground
  • Ways to improve both tactically and strategically, and at the same time sustain it to be cost-effective.

And those may translate to:

  • Methods and tools to assist us to create and tell stories and align with the respective proposition
  • Models/frameworks that help us measure our storytelling performance and/or communication quality
  • Metrics to balance the communication across channels (offline, online)

Those are not easy problems to solve. A holistic, higher-level approach is needed to architect the implementation plan; and a bottom-up approach is needed to change the status quo.

Perhaps some answers can be found in a hybrid approach of predictive analysis and interactive storytelling, both involving creating, refining, and applying models that can help us tell stories in a consistent and manageable manner and with well-defined measurement in place to manage risk.

In my next post of the topic, Compromising the Painted Veil, I’ll elaborate further on such a hybrid approach.


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