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Business Commentary Employers should forget the ‘signals,’ do some background hiring legwork

Neil Seeman is founder and CEO of the RIWI Corp. He teaches about the Internet and health care at the University of Toronto, and is a senior fellow at Massey College.

My friend's nephew, a brilliant economics and business undergraduate student, asked me a question about whether he should apply for select summer jobs because the jobs offered "signals."

In grad school, Harvard friends would call them "badges." I've learned that most students (myself among them, once) desperately want fancy-sounding jobs that can "signal" to future employers that they deserve that elusive prestige interview. After graduation, it's a way to get around the black-box human resource algorithm at BigCo, or the human resources lead who might, say, plonk down an application stamped with "internship at Wall Street Investment Bank X" at the top of the heap.

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I have enough perspective now to know that "signals" are silly things to pursue. Life's too short. But I understand; I've been there. What drives a twentysomething "signaller" can be financial pressure, parental angst or simple peer pressure. Grades and the jobs you secure as an undergrad are revered and very public, especially in small, competitive programs.

Most people in the work force will tell you that there is truth to the adage that "Bs hire Cs, and As hire As." So the goal is to go around the HR department and network like mad to find the As.

Here's an example. Look for an article someone in a managerial position in a company you care about has written. Read it and contact the author to ask for 10 minutes to discuss it on the phone. Do some simple Google work first to see if that person is admired and respected by her peers. Only contact her if you find the article genuinely fascinating and you have tough questions about it. Don't ask for a job. Not doing so takes guts and tells people you're an A far more so than a potpourri of signals. You'll learn more from that one conversation and networking experience than you would from sending your CV to 100 prospective employers.

To me, signals plastered across a twentysomething's CV, especially in this turbulent jobs economy, are red flags that are dead simple to ferret out. In a research unit I used to run, one young woman applied fresh out of grad school and had a string of signals, summer after summer, in Fortune 1000 companies. I knew one of the managers at one of the companies, and e-mailed him. With a few Google queries and a gentle hint from my friend, I learned that she got those plum jobs because her family was highly connected.

An employer, especially an entrepreneur, likes to find "diamonds in the rough" – the lonely self-taught coder, the philosophy major who is a wicked saleswoman. Relying on signals is the way some lazy employers or HR managers work. Their laziness provides an awesome opportunity for startup disruptors, since it weeds out from the hiring pool the people who are neither risk-takers nor dreamers.

The BigCos also make the same mistake with undergrad "pedigree." One Fortune 1000 company I know has an internal indicator that tracks the number of Ivy Leaguers it hires compared with its competitors. White-shoe law firms are notorious for doing this, which may be part of the reason these firms keep imploding.

Yes, Harvard and MIT stand out – heck, they're excellent schools. But you need to go there for the right reasons. A Harvard grad with a bunch of signals might be smug for five years out of school. But then he's on his own, his Harvard badge will be worth less and less and those signals he once wanted so badly will come back to haunt him. He'll wish he started that scrappy business with his college floor mates.

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Ars longa, vita brevis.

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