Working for Food

Work for Food
How did you get the money for your MBA then?

In our economics lecture on unemployment, we learnt that bidding for a lowish wage might be competitively sound but strategically foolish. From the efficiency wage perspective, the person carrying a sign saying “Will Work for Food” raises question on:

  • What’s his alternative option?
  • What is his health condition?
  • How much will he care if he lose the job since you’re offering him so little?
  • Will he take the next available job that offers just a tad bit higher?

And you quickly come to the conclusion that you can’t hire this person. Fact: You cannot ever hire anyone for food. The wage bid won’t work in the world of imperfect information because the wage bid sends out the wrong signals.

This is a worrying problem because it suggests that poor and desperate people end up without jobs and are consequently trapped in poverty while the ones who are better off easily have more opportunities and alternatives. But how common is this problem? On good days, how many unemployed on the streets are that desperate they bid to work for food? The fact is that these dynamics operates at higher levels, on more sophisticated work environments as well.

At job interviews, being too eager is off-putting; employers don’t want you to be desperate for the job because it raises questions about the alternatives you have and the quality of your conditions. They want you to accept the job not because it is your last resort but because you had some choices and decided that this one is the best for you. They don’t want someone with family or financial issues desperate to straighten out their lives with a job because they are worried that these personal problems would spill over into the work. There is probably no worries about efforts because the job can be well-paying; but still, being ‘desperate’ is not a good signal for your quality (much like in any other markets beyond the labour market).

So is this a justification for playing bluff at interviews? After all, once you land yourself in the job, the employer can see for themselves if you’re truly good but you’ll have to land yourself in that job first! Well, yes and no. Play bluff in terms of suppressing that nervous-ness, appearing relaxed and not so eager even when you’re so desperate for the job. But never exaggerate your prospects or lie about your experiences to make yourself bigger than you truly are. You don’t want to raise expectations only to send it crashing down later because you’ll have to meet expectations to stay on the job anyways.

Same, for scholarship interviews.