Sodexho avatars
Linden Labs
Food-service firm Sodexho was part of a virtual job fair held recently on the Web community Second Life.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/10/2007 4:48:32 PM ET 2007-09-10T20:48:32

Ray Giordano was able to land a job as a chef for a major food services company by not being himself.

In real life, the nearly 40-year-old Giordano has thinning hair, is 5 feet 6 inches tall, slightly overweight and sometimes stutters during job interviews.

In the virtual world of Second Life, he’s a strapping 6-foot-plus, muscular man named BellagioChef with a bushy head of hair and oodles of confidence when he comes face to face with a recruiter.

Giordano recently created a computer simulation of himself, called an avatar, allowing him to attend a virtual job fair, meet with a virtual recruiter and land a real job.

Your head is probably spinning. Mine was too when I first started investigating Second Life, owned by San Francisco-based Linden Labs. But this virtual community, which boasts of millions of inhabitants who meet and socialize, is also becoming a new way to get a job.

A few major companies have begun experimenting with this virtual world as an additional tool to find employees. In May TMP Worldwide, a recruiting firm, hosted its first virtual job fair called Network in World on Second Life.

“To date, more than 1,800 candidates have either registered for a NiW job fair and then applied for open positions, or have expressed interest in a position and then left their contact details for employers,” says Russell Miyaki, a vice president of the recruiting firm, adding that about 214 interviews have taken place and about four people have gotten jobs as a result.

Companies that have interviewed candidates at the virtual job fairs included Sodexho, the food management company that hired Giordano, as well as Microsoft and Verizon, among others.

"Competition on a global scale is forcing companies to look at innovative ways of both marketing and recruiting,” says Andrew Mallon, executive director of the Social Research Foundation, a consumer research firm that conducts opinion polls of Second Life members.

“Some industries will have a greater advantage or relevance in a virtual world like Second Life." he says. "For example, a high-tech recruiter in a virtual interview gets to see the initiative and interactive skills that job candidate put into creating the look of their avatar. But candidates should study the company in advance and come to the interview knowing what value they can bring to the employer. Following that standard rule still is a big plus. Then, instead of the old ‘Dress for Success,’ an avatar must ‘Impress for Success.’”

So you thought you had your hands full trying to figure out all the social networking groups out there like Facebook and Linkedin? Now you have to figure out how to dress fake computer people and how to impress hiring managers during virtual job fairs.

These job fairs are beginning to provide job seekers direct, albeit limited, access to recruiters at major companies. In most cases, a job applicant has to be invited in, but people looking for work can also just virtually walk over to a company’s virtual building in Second Life and drop off their resumes. You have to become a Second Life member first, although basic membership is free.

“When I first started looking into it I thought, ‘This is weird,’” says Giordano, who was a chef in Las Vegas and was looking for a job in California. But weird turned into a real job opportunity, and now he’s a Second Life cheerleader.

Giordano began his job hunt the old-fashioned way. He learned about a job opening at Sodexho online and sent off his resume. A recruiter then contacted him via a real telephone and suggested he join Second Life and attend an upcoming virtual job fair the firm was having on TMP’s island. (Many businesses have bought so-called islands in the virtual world of Second Life, for which they pay real money.)

Navigating through Second Life isn’t easy and requires some time playing around with your avatar to figure out how to make it move properly. It took Giordano about a day and a half to master the process.

He created his BellagioChef avatar fairly easily but the hardest part was moving the guy around. “I was walking into walls,” he says. But he got help from other avatars that move through the virtual world, communicating through instant messaging as they encounter each other.

When he was ready to attend the job fair in May he felt he had mastered most of the avatar’s movements and was able to follow the recruiter up a few flights of stairs to an office where he was virtually interviewed.

Not all the applicant-avatars Sodexho interviewed virtually were as adept as BellagioChef. There were some avatars that stood during the entire interview because they didn’t know how to sit down.

The recruiter who interviewed Giordano was Myra Rosa, also known as “Hula Bing,” her avatar’s name. “I originally spoke to Ray on the phone, and I thought he was a candidate I wanted to interview so I invited him to our career fair,” she says.

Giordano felt relaxed communicating with Myra through the avatars and instant messaging.

“I could joke around with her and she would laugh,” he recalls about the 90-minute interview. He realized things were going well when Myra invited a senior director to meet with him at the virtual office.

At the end of the meeting, Myra showed him out, and Giordano was feeling positive, although he admits he didn’t know how to shake her hand.

While the encounter may sound odd to many of us, some workplace experts say it represents  the future of the job search. Joyce L. Gioia-Herman, a strategic business futurist, predicts virtual interviews will become a mainstay in 10 years, especially for the younger set.

But others believe virtual interviews with avatars are just another Internet flash in the pan.

"In my experience, virtual interviews are more gimmicks than anything,” says career counselor Anna Ivey.

“They can be fun and sometimes funny," she says, noting that avatars are not always easy to control and can sometimes be seen floating above their chairs.

"But I have yet to hear about a virtual interview where anything meaningful was accomplished," she says. "You're basically just instant messaging each other with some cute visuals thrown in for fun — not a great substitute for a real interview."

Even advocates of virtual job fairs see avatars as unprofessional.

“We instead emphasize professional networking," says Brent Arslaner with Unisfair, a virtual event provider that uses icons rather than avatars. "The easiest way to think of this is we use the most business-applicable aspects of Web 2.0 and social networking to enable attendees at our event to be able to network professionally. There are too many stories of people showing up naked to interviews in other virtual job fairs, so Unisfair doesn't go there.”

For Giordano, his meeting of the avatars with Sodexho was just the beginning of the interview and screening process.

Myra told Giordano that he would contact him by a real phone, and a few days later did just that. “She said I scored high on the interview and that other people in the system were watching,” he recalls. That led to a few more phone calls back and fourth, and then a real-life interview with a district manager on the West Coast in late July.

On Aug. 20, he started his job as a chef in the senior services division of Sodexho and he says he loves it so far.

Having an avatar that didn’t look quite like him may have been the clincher for Giordano. “It gave me more confidence,” he says.

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