In his 15th-century book Littleton’s Tenures, Sir Thomas Littleton described the ceremony of homage, whereby a peasant would cement his bond to his lord: “He shall be ungirt, and his head uncovered, and his lord shall sit, and the tenant shall kneel before him on both his knees, and hold his hands jointly together between the hands of his lord, and shall say thus: ‘I become your man from this day forward of life and limb, and of earthly worship, and unto you shall be true and faithful, and bear to you faith for the tenements that I claim to hold of you, saving the faith that I owe to our sovereign lord the king’; and then the lord, so sitting, shall kiss him.”
Homage is gone, but not forgotten. Today, job seekers frequently bow their heads in submission by sending a thank-you email to their hiring managers, for the dear privilege of being evaluated for employment by our kind and honorable ruling elites. Since at least the publication of George Lyons’ 1942 book The Seven Keys to Getting and Holding a Job, job interviewees have been instructed to send a follow-up note of appreciation to interviewers. Lyons helpfully adds to make sure your letter has no lipstick smudges on it and not to write it on hotel stationary.
Jessica Liebman, the executive managing editor of Business Insider and INSIDER, recently published a trending tirade explaining why she refuses to hire job candidates who fail to send her thank-you notes after being interviewed. To Liebman, thank-you notes are favorable portents of resourcefulness, eagerness, and good etiquette. “As a hiring manager,” Liebman writes, “you should always expect a thank-you email, and you should never make an offer to someone who neglected to send one.” Liebman isn’t just advising other hiring managers in the field of journalism where, yes, being able to track down e-mail addresses is a legitimate skill, but all hiring managers across all industries — people hiring physicians, janitors, acrobats, and line cooks.
Apparently, Liebman isn’t alone in requiring a timely acknowledgement of deference from her would-be employees; in a survey conducted by TopResume, 68 percent of hiring managers said that thank-you notes had an impact on their selection process.
All this raises an important question: Why is a job candidate supposed to thank an interviewer, rather than the other way around? The interviewer is getting paid to conduct the interview, while the interviewee, generally, is not. Journalists who have gone through Business Insider’s interview process, like Peter Hess of Inverse and Hayley Cuccinello of Forbes, have claimed that they were asked to do a fourhour-long writing test, unpaid, in order to be considered for jobs at the publication, only to never hear from it again.
When I applied for a job at Business Insider, they had me do a 4-hour unpaid writing test and ignored my multiple follow-up emails. Maybe it’s not really fair to focus on whether your applicants are meeting an arbitrary standard of politeness? https://t.co/mwszMQWlfu— Peter Hess (@PeterNHess) April 7, 2019
It’s one thing to say that technology is not yet sufficiently advanced for the era of fully automated luxury gay space communism, and that in the meanwhile, we should all try to treat each other with kindness and gratitude for our respective contributions to economic production. It’s another thing to insist that workers signal appropriate gratitude for the privilege of, say, cleaning bedpans or writing listicles about the hottest IPOs of 2019. If you didn’t think workers should be grateful to their bosses for getting the chance to do labor, it wouldn’t make any sense to insist on a job-search ritual in which only the job-seeker sends a thank-you note.
Early pioneers of free-market thinking had other social arrangements in mind.
As philosopher Elizabeth Anderson explains in her 2017 book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It), Adam Smith and his pro-free-market predecessors imagined that replacing social and economic orders in which kings ruled over lords and guilds, and lords and guilds ruled over peasants and tradesmen, and peasants and tradesmen ruled over their wives and children would ultimately promote autonomy and dignity for the common person. Government-controlled monopolies ran nearly every sector of the economy; abolish the monopolies, the thinking went, and “self-employed, independent, masterless men” would proliferate and flourish. The free market offered an alternative to rigid hierarchies: people would come together on a completely voluntary basis, and as total equals, to exchange goods, money, and labor.
Being polite isn’t a substitute for being good, but being polite is an assumed precursor to being good.
Obviously, not everything panned out the way Smith expected. As Anderson notes, the famous pin factory Smith describes in The Wealth of Nations had only 10 employees, and Smith expected that most capital owners would still do manual labor alongside their employees. Today, Amazon packs thousands of workers into each of its warehouses, and some of those workers reportedly pee into plastic bottles for fear of getting disciplined if they “waste time” on bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is a millionaire, 151,000 times over.
Where we once had oil portraits of dukes and duchesses, we now have fawning profiles of corporate leaders that explain what they eat for breakfast and where they exercise. The serfs once handed over a portion of their grain over to their lords; now, Amazon pays negative taxes — their 2019 net refund was $129 million. In lieu of building our masters their castles, public funds finance the construction of glassy headquarters and sports stadiums.
In the interest of full transparency, I was once the “boss” of four or five people at a Fortune 500 company, and would conduct job interviews for prospective new hires. I am sympathetic to the idea that pragmatism might require some amount of hierarchy in modern corporations, advanced democratic governments, and sophisticated non-profits. Decision-making by consensus is exhausting. Proponents of “lottocracies” like philosopher Alexander Guerrero suggest that contemporary societies do require leaders, but we’d be best off selecting those leaders at random.
One could imagine corporations continuing to employ “hierarchies of authority” — in which higher-ranking members can give instructions to lower-ranking members, without what Anderson calls the “hierarchy of esteem,” in which occupants of a higher rank, like Liebman, “extract tokens of deferential honor from [subordinates] such as bowing, scraping and other rituals of self-abasement.”
If Liebman didn’t insist on a hierarchy of esteem, she might have written a very different article, one in which she described sending a thank-you note to everyone who comes in to her office to be interviewed, and hiring one of those people based on their credentials, rather than their apparent deference.
You could argue that we’re talking about nothing more than window dressing here. Does it matter if the executive eschews his corner office to sit out in the open office laptop farm with his subordinates, if he still asks that they iterate on versions of a powerpoint deck in the middle of the night? In some ways yes, in other ways no. Being polite isn’t a substitute for being good, but being polite is an assumed precursor to being good.
It’s also important to think about how ideology, norms, and real-world conditions for real-world people all reinforce each another. Consider, for example, the relationship between racism and slavery in the United States. Political scientists Mike Munger and Jeffrey Grynaviski have argued that the ideology of white supremacy arose because slave-holders needed a justification for holding other people in bondage. “The ideology of racism,” Munger and Grynaviski write, “allowed slave owners to live with the contradiction between owning slaves and seeing themselves as Christian.” By the argument of Munger and Grynaviski, white people in the American South in the first half of the 19th century were considerably more racist than white people 200 or so years earlier.
The serfs once handed over a portion of their grain over to their lords; now, Amazon pays negative taxes.
In America’s earliest forms of servitude, white indentured workers labored alongside black workers (of course, the former typically having boarded a ship to the Americas voluntarily, and the latter, having been abducted by mercenaries). Nevertheless, both groups generally were freed after a set term, and the children of both white servants and black servants were free people. Plantation owners needed an explanation for why they should be allowed to hold their servants hostage forever, why servants should never be able to earn their freedom, and why the children of servants should also be servants — in effect, why servants should become slaves. According Munger and Grynaviski account’s, white supremacy was invented to create that reason: that black people are stupid and bad, and hence, should not be free.
By the same token, indulging anti-egalitarian rhetoric like Liebman’s claims about thank-you notes makes it easier for corporate plutocrats to justify why a small number of people deserve nearly all the wealth produced by our economy.
Of course, there are other reasons why the practice of refusing to hire people who don’t send you thank-you notes is asinine. On a practical level, with the unemployment rate falling and wages starting to rise, bosses might find it helpful to try to woo would-be workers from their current employers by taking on a collegial tone, coyly hinting that they won’t be asked to clean their bosses dirty salad combs after every meal. One former employee of Business Insider with whom I spoke described the no-thank-you-note-no-job policy as “bullshit” — it only served to eliminate highly qualified prospective hires she and her colleagues referred to hiring managers “simply ‘cause they never knew this was a thing.”
Perhaps, to use Business Insider-esque lingo, some “top talent” would like to work at places where all human beings are treated with respect. And as journalist Muqing Zhang noted on Twitter in response to Liebman’s article, using arbitrary and obscure social norms to evaluate job candidates is does not square with creating the diverse and inclusive workplaces that we’re told that big companies purport to love.
Perhaps the controversy ignited by the article will cause companies to rethink their hiring practices. Until then, here’s a helpful tip to all job seekers: don’t forget to kiss the corporate overlord’s shoes on your way out.