Undercover Bosses: Facilitating Meaningful Student-Employer Engagement Through Competency-Driven Relationships
By Gaeun Seo and Xiaotang Huang
Career development professionals are strong advocates for exploring diverse career opportunities that are not defined by students’ majors or degrees alone. Furthermore, a growing number of employers focus more on competencies in hiring (Hart Research Associates, 2015) as a competency-based model is reported to enhance effectiveness and efficiency in recruitment and employee retention (Lee et al., 2010, Peregrin, 2014). However, many campus recruitment events still employ the traditional credential-based approach (e.g., majors, GPAs), leading many candidates to avoid certain employers because they do not feel qualified. Also, students tend to pay more attention to employer brands rather than the career fit or skill matches.
Given these observations, especially among graduate students exploring careers outside academia, the Center for Career Development at Princeton University offered a competency-based recruitment event, “Undercover Bosses (UCB).” Going "undercover" is mainly to hide one's own identity to attain the trust of individuals or organizations to gather or verify undisclosed information (Wikipedia, 2022). The UCB event offers a unique opportunity where students and employers can build meaningful connections based on good skill matches instead of students’ educational credentials or employer names. To allow career development professionals to replicate it in their settings, we share the program in more detail as below.
The primary goals of UCB include:
- Create a safe environment where students feel a sense of belonging and are confident in connecting with employers due to their matched skillsets
- Increase awareness of various skills that employers appreciate
- Identify diverse career options aligned with the skills students possess rather than their majors alone
UCB Structure and Its Online Transformation
This successful in-person event was transformed into an interactive virtual event in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the authors share the original in-person event structure and major changes implemented for its virtual transformation so that career professionals can easily adopt and run such programs in their preferred format.
Regardless of the format, participating employers are identified by the top five competencies they look for without revealing their company names and job titles. Similarly, students identify themselves by the top skills they possess. After the event, an online resume book is shared with employers for further engagement.
The in-person UCB event was offered the night before a fall campus-wide career fair by inviting the employers participating in the career fair. Unlike the crowded booths at career fairs, the event was set up as a cocktail reception where students were encouraged to wear their favorite t-shirts, focusing more on their experience narrative and less on the concern for what they were wearing. Employer names were revealed at the end of the event. For its online transformation, the Center for Career Development implemented the following changes:
- The length was extended from one day to multiple days to reduce “Zoom fatigue.”
- Each day, the event began with a 30-minute intro panel to introduce participating employers, who only show their first names instead of their company’s names, followed by virtual drop-in chat sessions for each employer to increase one-on-one interactions with candidates.
- Employers revealed their company names during the chat sessions.
Unexpected challenges, such as COVID-19, provided an opportunity for the Center for Career Development to demonstrate the versatile nature of the UCB program as the virtual UCB hasn’t changed its core values as a win-win-win strategy for students, employers, and career services offices. In particular, our post-reflection survey data highlight that the UCB event created a safe space to build meaningful student-employer connections, as participants reflected below.
“It really went smoothly! I've been to the ones in person a few years ago, and honestly, this may even be a better format in many ways--pushing us to have a real (and lengthy) conversation with employers! Still, in person is invaluable…it's worth every year hosting one in-person UCB and one virtual UCB!” – Graduate Student A
“The session was organized well, and it gave us an opportunity to connect with graduate students one-on-one in a way that was effective.” – Employer A
Furthermore, such meaningful connections enable participants to avoid unconscious biases toward one another while identifying untapped talent and career opportunities:
"The students and staff were incredible! I found the idea to be a great way to encourage students to think past our sometimes unknown brand.” – Employer B
“It turned out productive and got me going on recruiting when I otherwise was shy to join events for any specific company... Obviously, there's a risk. There are no companies I feel are relevant to where I see myself after graduation; however, this wasn't the case for me. I enjoyed the conversations I had with the employers!” – Graduate Student B
Cultivating an Inclusive Space for Competency-based Conversations
The UCB event proved to be an effective platform for bringing diverse students and employers together and building meaningful connections based on skill matches. The UCB programs at Princeton mainly target PhD students who often face unique career challenges regarding connecting with employers outside academia. However, career development professionals can easily apply the UCB concept to develop safe, inclusive, and competency-focused spaces for students from underrepresented groups such as first-generation students, students of color, LGBTQIA, and international students.
Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. https://dgmg81phhvh63.cloudfront.net/content/user-photos/Research/PDFs/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf
Lee, J. G., Park, Y., & Yang, G. H (2010). Driving performance improvements by integrating competencies with human resource practices. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 23(1), 71-90. https://doi.org/10.1002/piq.20076
Peregrin, T. (2014). Competency-based hiring: The key to recruiting and retaining successful employees. Practice Application Business of Dietetics, 114(9), 1332-1335. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.07.016
Wikipedia. (2022). Undercover operation. Retrieved April 20, 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undercover_operation
Gaeun Seo, Ph.D., CCSP, GCDF, serves as the Senior Associate Director, Graduate Student Career Development in the Center for Career Development at Princeton University. She oversees diverse career development initiatives for graduate students to explore, design, experiment, and pursue their own meaningful careers inside and outside academia. Besides, she has published her work via a wide range of outlets related to the field of career and professional development. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Xioatang Huang serves as the Associate Director of Employer Outreach in the Center for Career Development at Princeton University. Xiaotang manages the tactical implementation of a strategy to expand employer relationships across several key industries. She creates new outreach initiatives guided by student interests and alumni connections, in order to source a broad range of meaningful internship and employment opportunities for students. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.