Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Should unsuccessful job applicants be given feedback?

In the past year or so I've applied for precisely 111 jobs. Thus far I've managed to secure interviews with three of these - the Navy, RAF and, er, Asda - and been offered a position with the former, albeit with an expected start in around three year's time. It's only slightly ironic that I secured my current soul-destroying 9 to 5 via a recruitment agency and not by direct application.

By far and away the biggest object of my professional affections is the BBC, with the organisation accounting for around 10% of those 111 attempts and many more before that. All - bar one back in around 2006 I think - have been completely unsuccessful, not even getting past the initial stage in the recruitment process.

Like so many employers the BBC is incredibly reluctant to offer any semblance of a reason as to why a particular applicant has been rejected. Below is a fairly typical response:

The key get-out clause being: "...we are unable to provide more detailed feedback on individual applications at this stage in the process".

Now I've never been one to challenge what is a fairly typical shirking of care by an organisation towards those with a desire to work for it; because recruitment at the BBC - like so many other places - is utterly opaque I've always been worried of any repercussions should I choose to challenge these blanket rulings. Being seen as a troublemaker is not a good way to convince a prospective employer to take you on at a future date.

But, 111 applications on, I'm starting to get fed up spending several painstaking hours filling out forms only to be rejected without being told why. General frustration aside, it strikes me as simply being bad manners not to include any sort of explanation. Even a single sentence along the lines of "You don't have the required amount of experience" or "You have an inability to form coherent phrases" would suffice.

So after receiving the latest round of rejections from the Beeb - this time for the excellent Aim High Scheme which I would have dearly loved to have been considered for - and despite being told that feedback would not be offered I decided to ask for some anyway. I figured that since I clearly wasn't offering anything that might interest the Corporation in any meaningful way I didn't really stand much to lose by asking.

To the BBC's credit I received a response fairly soon afterwards. No, they wouldn't be able to provide any feedback. Too many applicants, you see. OK, I said, given that this Scheme is run in conjunction with external stakeholders would they be able to make an exception in this case? No, came the reply. My suggestion of initiating a system of feedback on demand also fell on deaf ears. They categorically refused to say why I had not progressed to the next stage.

So I decided on a change of tack. I asked to see the criteria used in making their selections; it occurred to me that I could at least try and work out by a process of elimination where I had been found wanting. Again came the prompt reply, this time with the original job application attached. I was informed that this was the only criteria used in selecting candidates.

It didn't take much to realise that this was complete nonsense; if it were true all applicants that met those criteria would at the very least make it through to the next round of the process. And there was nothing on the attached form to say how individuals would be scored or compared to each other. In short I felt like I was being fobbed off.

So yesterday I emailed back with these concerns. The following is the reply that came back this morning:

Essentially it's stating that any and all criteria used to discriminate between candidates that does not feature on the job description is confidential - a surprising admission for an organisation that prides itself on transparency and accountability. It's not that I'm not aware that recruitment is a select and secretive world hidden from the eyes of those that seek employment and based on the discriminatory whims of HR, it's just that I expected more from what is by a long shot the foremost and most desirable employer in British media today. I genuinely can't understand why this information is being hidden unless there's something untoward to hide. Needless to say I'll be emailing back with some feedback of my own.

Of course the great irony in all this is that it would have been far quicker to simply tell me why my application was rejected rather than engage in a monotonous dialogue for nigh on a fortnight. As I pointed out in one of these emails even the smallest amount of feedback would mean that any future applications would be a lot stronger and that the BBC would receive a consistently higher grade of applicant - a genuine win-win situation. It would also make for a much more positive experience for those on the receiving end of rejections.

I also have to admit that I've never really bought the 'excessive number of applicants' excuse so beloved of the BBC et al and trotted out whenever they can't be bothered to tell an applicant that - in their opinion - they aren't good enough. By way of example I received a rejection letter from the British Transport Police only yesterday, in which they state that they had over 4,000 applications. They've also included a four page document detailing exactly what criteria were used to select successful candidates and how they were applied.

Now it seems fairly obvious to me that if an organisation wants fewer applications to sift through they should openly apply more restrictions at the point of advertising the role in question. In fact I would go further; there needs to be complete and utter transparency in all aspects of recruitment so that everyone knows that their applications are being considered equally and fairly. Anything else is just darn rude.

I'll still keep applying for jobs at the BBC; I've no idea how much this recent exchange will have damaged my future prospects but given that I've nothing to go on in terms of feedback I guess I'll never really know. I desperately want to work for the BBC and as such I want to be able to submit the best applications that I can. It's just difficult to know that I'm doing so without being told where I've failed previously by the very people I'm trying so hard to impress.

Friday, 26 August 2011

New blog poll: should we be more involved in Libya?

It's easy to draw parallels between Libya and the Iraq of a decade ago; both oil-rich Arab nations under the totalitarian rule of a despotic military dictator. And whilst Libya's current upheaval is largely driven by a populist domestic opposition that was largely absent under Saddam Hussein's regime the tentative nature of NATO's involvement in the crisis is owed in large part to the harrowing experience of insurgency in the Middle East post-2003.

So the current DEM poll is a simple one; should we - whether in the guise of NATO or the UN or as a national military force - be getting more involved in Libya and having more input into the conflict's outcome, which appears to be nearing endgame? Or are we right to keep our distance and allow events to take their course, whatever they may be?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Are there too many cars on the road?

At the moment I'm lucky enough to be able to walk to work; it takes just over half an hour and the majority of the route takes me along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At the moment it's teeming with fish and the journey makes for a surprisingly pleasant commute.

Walking along roads, however, it'd be tempting to guess that the same can't be said for others making a beeline to the office. Leeds, like any other urban conurbation, suffers from terrible traffic problems particularly at those peak times when everyone is rushing to or from work. Cars crawling along barely make it out of second gear, horns are honked, expletives are shouted and profanities are gestured. Generally speaking it's not an overly fun experience.

And yet I can't fail to notice that the vast majority of cars only have one occupant. It was a phenomenon I first became aware as I sped past stationary lines of traffic on my bicycle; vehicle after vehicle with only a solitary driver to keep it company. Anecdotal, perhaps, but I suspect the situation is readily replicated all over the country.

I've never really understood this addiction to the car. Granted, some people will be genuinely unable to get to the workplace using any other method, particularly in rural areas where distances are large and public transport provision patchy or unreliable. People can and do insist on living a long way from work, or - in today's world of restricted job opportunities - be unable to find employment closer to home. But does every car on the road at 8:30am or 5:30pm really need to be there? I mean, really?

Cars cause a lot of problems. Other than the aforementioned congestion they also cause thousands of deaths and serious injuries in the UK every year; they reduce air quality and can increase the rate of respiratory illnesses, particularly amongst the young; result in the destruction of countryside to make way for roads and motorways; decrease the propensity for exercise; and ensure that our oil-thirsty governments remain dependent on despotic and undemocratic regimes that constitute much of OPEC's membership. Given that the price of petrol is also a staple concern of our overwhelmingly right-wing press you'd think that those would be plenty of reasons to leave the car at home.

Yet those same people who bemoan the cost of driving seem to be the ones most reluctant to give it up. It's as if motorists have a god-given right to indulge their addiction, even as it impacts so negatively on everyone else's quality of life in a way that no other form of transport does.

It's true that our roads are in many ways essential, not just so people can get from A to B but also to boost our economy and maintain our general wellbeing. It can't be denied that the car is in many ways the most convenient and liberating way to travel. What we need is a way to prise people out of their cars and encourage them to take alternatives whenever possible, particularly for journeys that are repeated on a regular basis. The commute is the most obvious of these.

Truth be told, cycling and walking aren't for everyone. At the moment the bicycle is collecting dust; my workplace is surrounded by an entrance to a motorway and simply isn't safe to get to on two wheels, another example of the prioritising of the car over all else. It's also fair to say that walking and cycling in bad weather can put most but the hardiest off even when there is adequate provision of pavement and cycleway.

Which all means that it is public transport that will have to do the most if we are ever to conquer the car - and that means making it affordable, accessible and comfortable. It'll be no easy task in this world of privatised public transport companies with their high fares, cherry picking of profitable routes, lack of cohesion between rival companies, addiction to subsidy and all the rest of it. Quantifying everything in monetary terms is not an accurate method of cost-benefit analysis.

Yet sorting out our public transport really must be a priority for any government. Our addiction to petrol simply cannot go on forever - it's a finite resource, after all - and the sooner we search for alternatives the better. If we could all just try to use our cars a little less we would all stand to benefit in so many ways...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A trip to Malta...

I've not long got back from a short trip to Malta, a small group of islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that constitutes one of the world's smallest independent nations. It was my first trip to the archipelago and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, even if daytime temperatures hovering around the 35°C-mark made for occasional discomfort for this Englishman more accustomed to cooler climes.

Yet for a lot people this heat is the very raison d'être behind any trip to Malta; the islands have developed something of a reputation as a destination for beach lovers and needless to say the place was packed. The summer holidays are by far and away the peak time for the tourist hordes to descend; for those seeking solitude or harbouring desert island fantasies it's probably best to look elsewhere.

But Malta has a fascinating and varied history and was this that made the trip worthwhile. Because of its strategic location it has played host to occupying Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, and British, in addition to being the home of the Knights Hospitallers for several hundred turbulent years. Each has had a significant and often profound influence on the development of today's idiosyncratic Maltese culture.

The island's relationship with the last of these - the British - has generally been strong, and evidence of the links between Malta and the UK are evident almost everywhere you look, from traffic that drives on the left side of the road to red post and telephone boxes to the official status afforded to the English language. A statue of Queen Victoria even stands proud in the middle of Republic Square.

This lack of general antipathy towards the former colonial power might have something to do with the events which led to Malta becoming part of the Empire on which the sun would never set. Fearful of French excesses during the Napoleonic wars the islanders actually petitioned the UK government for protection as a British Dominion. Thus began a 150 year link that only ended with independence in 1964 and the declaration of a Republic 10 years later.

For a Brit abroad this steady blend of Mediterranean and North European makes for a stimulating history lesson. What I found most interesting was the acceptance of the island's colonial past without any palpable sense of modern grievance; clearly the experience of a foreign administration is far from a globally uniform one.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The English riots 2011

Watching the riots breaking out across England over the last few days has made for a curious, almost voyeuristic experience; this feels like a once-in-a-generation event, and that's exactly what it is. I can't recall anything quite like it happening on such a widespread scale anywhere in the UK - Northern Ireland aside, perhaps - and once the disturbances have died down there will be a lot of questions asked about how and why this has happened and why this has been allowed to happen.

Now I want to be clear about one thing. The actions of the rioters and the looters is utterly disgraceful. This is not some English Spring modelled on the efforts of our Arab brethren earlier this year; there is no political agenda at work, nor battle for social and democratic rights. This is not a valid form of protest; it is simply a collective act of mass criminality that has long since overshadowed the tragic circumstances surrounding its genesis.

And yet, and yet...

Many have been quick to condemn the rioters - and rightly so - but have dismissed the entire saga as a completely spontaneous event, as if its unprecedented magnitude has been created from nothing. Others have focused purely on the punishment aspect, making that age old rightist mistake of prioritising cure over prevention and ignoring the root causes. Clearly something more than throwing people in jail or enacting repressive legislation is going to be needed to stop this from ever happening again.

But similarly it cannot do to simply blame adverse social conditions, budget cuts and unemployment, even if it is tempting to suggest that the most serious urban disturbances almost always seem to take place under a Conservative administration. True, these have a very real part to play - would these riots have occurred before the current recession? - but lack of social mobility cannot excuse opportunistic looting and arson even if it is a prime causal factor.

Something obviously isn't right here. Some have identified a lack of respect for the authorities as the primary motivational factor, but I see that as a symptom of our current malaise, rather than a cause. No, there is more to the story then that. It is capitalism.

Bear with me for a moment with this. Capitalism is the economic system that priorities competition and the profit motive, where the concept of private business trumps that of net social benefit. It is a system based on greed, that dictates that the means of production are to controlled by the few and that the greatest priority in existence is the unrelenting pursuit of wealth. It prioritises excessive consumption over all else and forces us into a state of eternal competition and mutual suspicion.

Such a system is inherently corrupt, morally or otherwise. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the greatest crime of capitalism is that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It's the paradigm that brought us the current financial crisis and the excessive actions of irresponsible banks that has caused far more economic damage - in monetary and social terms - than teenage thugs ever will.

But it is the emphasis on the primacy of the individual that is the most insidious aspect of capitalism. Ever since Thatcher destroyed the unions the utter dominance of the market has become institutionalised, dominating British politics and policy no matter who has been holding the keys to Number 10. It has created a society where this conspicuous consumption is to be coveted and where selfishness undermines any real social cohesion. It's the sort that worships celebrity, causes eating disorders, creates massive personal debt, and - yes - nurtures a disrespect for authority and anything else that stands in the way of that consumption or ideal image. It puts us all in competition with each other, rather than encourage us to work together. We have created a 'me first' culture that holds notions of shared values in contempt and renders David Cameron's idea of a Big Society a futile waste of time. We're stuck in a deep social rot that will never be cured whilst profit remains king.

The ultimate cause of the riots? It's the economy, stupid. But it'll need more than simply creating jobs to stop it happening again...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Tom Ruffles' blog

I like to think that I inherit some of my passion for writing from my father, who has penned quite a few articles for various publications over the years. These musings cover lots of different topics but in the main focus on paranormal matters and the cinema, two of his great loves that were ably combined in the book Ghost Images.

He's been gradually uploading his bibliography on his blog, which you can visit here; it's well worth a look if you fancy an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Comments on blogs

It's always nice to get comments on blogs. It shows that people people are not only reading your scribblings but that they deem your point of view engaging and worthy of discussion, even if it's to disagree vehemently with what you've written. It's this engagement with an audience that essentially constitutes the blatantly exhibitionist raison d'être of blogging; just how many people, after all, would continue to update their online writings if they knew no-one was watching?

But a lot of bloggers like to monitor the comments they receive, often requiring pre-approval before they are published. This is entirely understandable; not only can feedback be occasionally abusive but the proliferation of spurious spam comments - replete with links to dubious websites - often makes this prescreening a necessity. Hosts such as Blogger do employ a spam filter but they can still sometimes slip through.

And yet some authors continue to enthusiastically police and delete comments that are neither abusive nor spam. Léargas, the online persona of Sinn Féin President and Louth TD Gerry Adams, is a prime example. A quick trawl through Léargas' ramblings will reveal not one dissenting or disapproving comment on any of the posts contained therein. Some are nauseatingly sycophantic, others merely fawning; all, however, in agreement with the point or points being made.

Now it could be that only those people who agree with Adams' worldview read and comment on his blog, but I know for a fact that this is not the case. I've made around half-a-dozen dissenting submissions over the past few months and none of these have been published. I've posted nothing abusive, mind; just merely challenging some of the points of whatever is being discussed at the time. That other praiseworthy comments are published on these same posts suggests some discretion is being exercised, a peculiar stance for a politician who must deal with dissenting views on a daily basis out in the real world.

Comments, of course, can often tell you as much about the general readership of a blog as it can about the author. The Daily Mail website is a prime example; articles often attract hundreds of comments and each can be rated positively or negatively by other contributors. The frequent direct correlation between the ultra-reactionary nature of these comments and a high approval rating can make for surprisingly depressing reading. Interestingly I've also made critical comments on some of the Mail's articles which have subsequently not been published but this could possibly be down to the sheer number that they receive. Possibly.

But if certain blogs are attempting to stifle genuine debate by deleting comments that fail to tally with their respective author's narrow world view they are merely masquerading as a forum for the exchange of ideas. Blogs as mere propaganda tools are completely contrary to the spirit in which they should be held.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Travel bursaries

One of the things I like to do in my spare time is searching and applying for travel bursaries. There are a surprising number out there but needless to say they're almost always ultra-competitive and extremely difficult to secure.

So far it's been a reasonably busy few months, with a successful trip to Knoydart courtesy of Gore-Tex providing some respite from disappointment elsewhere. I've just fired off a proposal for the Royal Geographical Society's Journey of a Lifetime for the sixth time in as many years, with the suggestion of a trip to the Indo-Bangladesh enclaves. The deadline is not until the end of September so there's still a little while to wait.

I've also applied for a bursary from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust proposing a journey along Mali's Bandiagara Escarpment, spiritual home of West Africa's Dogon people. It was an idea rejected by National Geographic's Expeditions Council, the Gordon Foundation and the Timmissartok Foundation but I'm hopeful that the people in London might look upon it more favourably. Again the deadline is in a few month's time so fingers crossed.

The most disappointing rejections, however, are almost always in direct proportion to the amount of work that goes into an application. Most of the grants I've already mentioned often require little more than an outline of an expedition and how it will be achieved, presumably to ease processing of the sheer numbers that each organisation must receive. Some require a bit more than that.

Take the Finnish government's Foreign Correspondents' Programme. This scheme offers a month's living and working in Finland and although aimed at under 25s - I had to enquire beforehand whether I'd be potentially considered at the grand old age of 28 - I still spent many ultimately fruitless hours working through the application and writing the accompanying essay. It's perhaps one scheme that sadly I won't be able to apply for again next year.

But the biggest disappointment so far has to be the rejection I've just received from the Wyndham Deedes Memorial Travel Scholarship, run by the Anglo-Israel Association. Proposals have to not only include details of the study - in this case recording a radio documentary examining contemporary Christianity in the context of an Arab-Jewish state  - but also references and the contact details of organisations within Israel and the West Bank willing to support the study. Gaining these took many months of emails, telephone calls and follow up emails; I contacted colleges, schools and religious institutions and even securing references from the academic institutions I'd attended in the UK took an almost Herculean amount of patience but eventually I managed to get several extremely interested parties on board eager and willing to help. To then not even secure an interview is rather dispiriting but  as the Association said it gets "many requests and with limited funds it is not always possible to help." With contacts all in place I would dearly love to proceed with the project on my own but I simply don't have the money to do it.

But it is possible to take comfort in the fact that, just like me, there are many more dejected and unsuccessful applicants out there then there are successful ones and that organisations like the AIA have extremely limited access to funds. I'll keep plodding along in the hope that something might come up but in the meantime I'm going to start looking at the possibility of attracting funding for projects outside of the bursary model. Watch this space...

Monday, 1 August 2011

New blog poll - is too much attention being paid to phone hacking?

A new month, a new blog poll - this time asking whether too much attention is being paid to the ongoing phone-hacking scandal and (alleged) dealings between employees of the News of the World and other News International publications, the British political establishment, the Metropolitan Police, and various other figures now caught up in the public eye. Are we being subject to hyped-up overkill by vested interests? Or is it only vested interest that is telling us to turn our attention elsewhere?

The poll is in the usual place, at the top right of the page.