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Show Those Pearly Whites

Officially, things have rebounded since Wall Street collapsed and the world’s wealthiest and most rugged individualists turned to Washington for a bailout. Corporate America is now raking in more money than ever before, and unemployment rates continue to fall, inching back toward pre-2008 lows. Look closer, though, and it’s still a hirer’s market. Underemployment remains in the double digits, and the jobs that the unemployed are seeking pay less than the jobs they lost (not even enough to keep up with inflation).

Enter the video cover letter, the latest indignity dreamed up by the sadists in HR. There may not be enough work to go around, but there’s plenty of make-work, doled out to desperate job-hunters in no position to complain. Want to apply? Okay then, but first write, shoot, and edit a video to plead your case.

In the entertainment industry, headshots—black and white, with brick in the background—have long been de rigueur for actor hopefuls. But for most jobs, appearance was not assessed until the in-person interview, by which time the employer had already taken stock of the candidate’s experience and skills. Now, however, more and more employers are frontloading the visual; they’re skipping the headshot and going straight to video, requiring every applicant to be an actor.

Westside Nannies in Beverly Hills, for example, says a video cover letter is “HIGHLY PREFERRED.” Latitude 360, a bar and grill with a bowling alley in Indianapolis, asks those applying for an assistant general manager position to submit a video of themselves; so does Truly Yours Catering, for wait staff and bartender positions that start at $13 an hour. And to be a dishwasher at Willie Jane, a southern-themed restaurant in the heart of post-gentrification Venice, California? Lights. Camera. Action.

It’s not clear who started the trend, but Zappos, the online shoe giant, was one of the early adopters. “We have really been encouraging candidates to submit cover letter videos versus cover letters,” Zappos recruiting manager Christa Foley said in 2011. “For us this is key as we hire for both culture fit and technical fit—just having the experience/skills isn’t enough at Zappos.”

 Last year, the company went even further, launching Zappos Insiders, its own social network exclusively for job-seekers. “Insiders” are encouraged to “hang out” online with “team ambassadors,” network into the digital abyss, and generally affect a hirable persona. As Noah McCormack wrote last spring in The Baffler, if labor-intensive application processes like this one become the norm, “we’ll need no longer worry that the unemployed are idle.” Instead, the unemployed will be kept busier than ever before, “connecting with,” or rather mugging for, prospective bosses who, odds are, will never look them in the eye.

The in-person interview hasn’t gone away, but before you can get there, you have to prove, with a strained song and dance, that your personality is up to the corporate ideal—that it “fits.”

Maybe you can code, but are you cool? Zappos recruiter Kyle Wendel landed his job at the company after putting together a two-minute video that bites the style of a lesser Will Ferrell joint, with a roaring fireplace, aviator sunglasses, and a blinking lei.

“Hi, I’m Megan Mann, and this is my guide to being the most flippin’ fantastic solutions coordinator in the galaxy—nay, the universe,” goes the video cover letter of one Megan Mann, now a communications person for Zappos’ parent company, Amazon. “Many people don’t realize this, but I’m actually personal friends with the Twitter bird. Huge advantage.” She then talks to the Twitter bird and dances like a chicken.

“When company culture is as much of a priority as it is for Zappos, these pieces of the equation are so important,” says Zappos. So dance, Megan, dance.

Maybe it’s not all bad for everyone. For candidates who don’t write so well, it might be easier to convey personality and professionalism in a prerecorded video than in three clumsy paragraphs. Greg Mannon, a recruiter at ASAP Talent Services, argues that “Candidates Should Love Video Cover Letters.” One perk, according to Mannon, is the ability “to make a physical impression”—but now we’re getting to the heart of the problem. To a potential employer, says Mannon, “a candidate’s appearance, the tone of their voice, the location of the video, and editing quality are a direct reflection of the candidate.” Sure, but it’s not hard to see how such information (“appearance” could be “race”; “tone” could be “accent”) could enable prejudicial hiring practices.

It may very well be that discriminatory employers are going to discriminate anyway; if they don’t figure out an applicant is young or old or skinny or fat before an in-person interview, they will figure it out by the time it is over. But video allows bias to creep in at an even earlier stage; it enables conscious-or-not discrimination to take place before there’s even a hello handshake.

In 2003 researchers with the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research conducted an experiment, sending out five thousand résumés in response to job listings they found in Chicago and Boston newspapers. Half of the fictional applicants were given what are often perceived as “black” names, such as Lakisha and Jamal, while half were given stereotypically “white” names, like Emily and Greg. The researchers found that those with the “black” names were 50 percent less likely to get called in for an interview. If that’s the effect of a name on a piece of paper, what’s the impact of a face in a video?

Ultimately, it’s not the way information is gathered that matters, but the way it’s used. Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said that while federal anti-discrimination laws are silent on video screening (“No one even imagined a video résumé—no one even anticipated it when they wrote these laws,” she told me), the growing popularity of this kind of application “makes it impossible not to realize, I think, that when people apply to jobs there are often some initial reactions going on based on their personal characteristics.” 

“It’s so front and center,” Miaskoff said. “You can’t just pretend to yourself or anyone else that it’s not going on.”