Job Search Like an Anthropologist

Last Updated Apr 1, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

My long track record in journalism is built on studying people on two fronts: I need to learn what matters to the subjects and readers of the stories I write and edit, and (like everybody managing a career) I need to get a read on what matters to my colleagues at every tier of the corporate hierarchy.

That's why I consider my bachelor's degree in anthropology far more practical than it may appear to -- and why I'm especially fond of an article TheLadders recently ran by Phil Rosenberg titled "Why Good Career-Changers Are Anthropologists."
With rare exceptions (such as a very strong, influential personal contact), job seekers who want to change industries, functions or locations face far more challenges than those searching within their comfort zones. They have to identify their transferable skills that can add immediate value to the new situation, and they need to be able to articulate them to hiring managers who probably are considering competing candidates with resumes much closer to the job description.

According to Rosenberg, most career-changers are satisfied to formulate their answers based on publicly available information (i.e., Internet searches). That's not sufficient, he argues; success requires actual anthropological fieldwork. "Very few candidates take the time to research the people at the company, yet gaining insight into an organization's people can be a huge advantage," he writes.

Rosenberg's unorthodox tactics remind me both of my favorite anthro studies and my own efforts as a reporter to learn about companies in my beats. Besides social networks, he suggests making a practice of eating lunch and attending happy hour at gathering spots near your target company.

"Eat at the counter if there is one," he writes. "Tell the waiter that you're targeting a nearby company for a job and want to meet people from that organization. Leave a big tip because this process may take a few attempts, and the waiter is a great inside track. Stay away from formal lunch meetings; instead, target friends informally lunching together. Say hi and start a conversation."

Also make an investment in neighborhood happy hours, Rosenberg advises: "Check out the closest bars to your target organization, and go Thursday or Friday after work. Again, tip generously to find who works for your target company. You'll also find that buying a round of drinks builds trust and loosens lips. (Ever notice that people talk with less inhibition about their work week at happy hour?) The less you drink and the more you buy, the better information you'll find."

As someone who's gotten the professional scoop on many companies, I can verify that this approach is an effective way to cultivate new sources -- if you've got the moxie to follow through and the ear to listen for clues your new friends drop about how to break into the corporate culture.
  • Matthew TheLadders

    Matthew Rothenberg is editor-in-chief for TheLadders, the world's leading online service catering exclusively to the $100K+ job market. In addition to traditional job search services, TheLadders.com also provides a host of specialized career development resources. Previously he worked at Ziff Davis Media, ZDNet, CNET, and Hachette Filipacchi.

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