We usually think of anthropologists bushwhacking through the jungle in search of uncontacted tribes, but in reality, every culture has complex unspoken rules and rituals to discover--even that of modern day American office workers. We just don't usually think about the ones we live with every day.

But Ilana Gershon does. An Indiana University anthropologist, she studies 21st century job seekers the way others of her profession might study remote villagers or offbeat subcultures, interviewing and observing hundreds of professionals on the hunt for a better gig to tease out the hidden realities of the modern job hunt.

She detailed her findings in her book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don't Find) Work Today, but also recently shared key insights with the Knowledge@Wharton podcast. Among her most startling discoveries--one frequently prescribed job hunt tactic is actually a total waste of time.

No one cares about your personal brand.

If you're looking for a job these days, one of the first pieces of advice you're sure to be given is to get your online presence in order. Make yourself findable and attractive, with a clear personal brand that conveys your unique strengths, a host of gurus will tell you. There's only one trouble with this advice, according to Gershon.

"On the hiring side, nobody seemed to care about personal branding," her research revealed.

It's not that a consistent and polished online presence is doing you any harm, she elaborates. It's got to beat hundreds of keg stand pictures or nothing at all. It's simply that painstakingly polishing your persona (as opposed to just erasing anything obviously embarrassing) is a giant time suck, and those precious hours can be put to much more effective uses.

Authenticity is overrated.

Gershon's takedown of standard personal branding advice doesn't end with a harsh questioning of the technique's ROI. In the interview, she also takes issues with another common component of the personal branding cult--the insistence that your online identity should somehow reflect your "authentic" self.

This is an argument Gershon encountered at a number of job hunting workshops she attended as part of her research. Her verdict: It's utter hogwash.

One "thing that people kept talking about as being very important was that [personal branding] really reflected your authentic self, and that they weren't just any words that you thought might work," she says. "This was something that just really baffled me."

Those who thrive at work often create a professional persona that's quite distinct from their personality outside the office, Gershon believes, and "it doesn't necessarily have to be fundamentally true to who they are for it to be really effective." In fact, she observed that a commitment to "authenticity" was often linked with truly annoying behavior.

"One of the things that I find interesting is that, in my life, the people who are most consistent, who are the same from context to context, are really the most unpleasant," she notes.

Do you agree with Gershon that time spent on personal branding could be better used on other job hunting strategies?

Published on: Jul 13, 2017
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