Applicants – and Paintings Without Prices

Synopsis: A short piece on value.

If you ever get a chance to walk around an exhibition at an auction house it is an odd experience. The exhibits have a guide price – and you are essentially being told what holds more value than other things. The ugly piece that you can’t work out the point of is somehow worth ten times the price of the one that you’d love to be able to afford.

Value is detemined by the market

  • What did this piece sell for before?
  • What is the artist selling for currently?
  • What is in fashion?
  • Who else might be bidding?

The market is somewhat shaped by likes and dislikes – but they might have been hundreds of years old. A good example is this painting – the world’s most expensive painting – that maybe should or shouldn’t be the world’s most expensive. The market trends for it to reach that price have been set over time.

If you go to a museum or gallery the experience is different. Unless you are an art buff you are free to meander without the guidance and shackles of value. You know the works have been curated and are ‘valuable’, but beyond some of the more immediate suspects (the super famous ones) you are just there for the experience. And I bet almost all of us would rank 300 paintings in a gallery differently. But also place the obvious contenders (‘Look, I know that one!’) near the top of our lists. For more on why have a read of this.

The job market is a similar forum of strong and weak signals about value. I saw a post from a well regarded and experienced professional the other day bemoaning artificial standards in job descriptions.

Applicants are often expected to

  • Have a degree
  • Have degree or equivalent
  • Have relevant sector experience
  • Come from a role that paid at a similar level
  • Come from an organisation with a recognisable brand

These are all understandable (if not always suitable or desirable) shortcuts to enable us to give nominal value to people when we aren’t experts. I worked for an organisation a few years ago that was just starting out – as it has grown that looks better on my CV – despite my work there not being great and it disappearing into the distance in terms of recency. It’s familiar.

We take weak signals and seek to place value. We see this failure in the market and society in undervaluing caring responsibilities and overvaluing, arguably, poor leadership.

Similar to an art gallery I guess the challenge is discerning not just what other people would be happy to pay for something – but whether you, personally, would place the same value on it.

That’s the challenge of hiring in a broken marketplace – value is in the eye of the beholder.

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