Absence Makes the Search Grow Harder – The Stigma of Extended Unemployment

I received the following email from a reader who is concerned about the current state of her job search:

“I don’t know if you’ve heard the recent debate/theory over whether companies avoid reviewing or hiring job applicants who are or appear to be out of work for a long period of time. I’ve been out of work since last November and I find as the months go on I’m getting fewer responses from companies I submit my resume to. What is your take on this? I try to keep myself current with professional development classes and side work, but wonder if I am missing something.”

I can tell you that I am intimately familiar with this school of thought, and have been guilty of subscribing to it from time to time. I’m not proud of the fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

In many circles, conventional wisdom dictates that in a healthy job market, the “good” candidates are employed while the “undesirables” remain on the market. This line of thinking is more prevalent than I’d like to admit, and is certainly responsible for keeping some very qualified people out of work longer than they should be. It’s a self-serving and self-sustaining principle, in that it can falsely create the appearance of a more severe talent shortage than actually exists – while employers are busy trying to poach employees from one another, a sizable population of unemployed and qualified candidates goes un-noticed. The longer this goes on, the more unemployable the unemployed start to appear and the more heated the battle for the employed becomes.

In long-term good economies, I think there’s certainly some validity to this theory – in a good job market, the qualified candidates will get jobs in relatively short order while the less qualified will remain unemployed. The past few years, however, have thrown a few monkey wrenches into the equation. In early 2010, for instance, it wasn’t uncommon at all to find very qualified candidates in a variety of fields who had been out of work since late 2008 when the market fell apart. These unfortunate souls were among the first casualties of the recession, and found that things only got worse as they remained unemployed. So as recently as a year ago, many of these long-term unemployed were considered readily hirable and perfectly untainted by their hiatuses. As the market began to pick up in 2010 and into 2011, however, the old thinking about the unemployed started to creep back into the psyches of recruiters and hiring managers alike. The thinking was “if nobody else wants them, why should I? I don’t want someone else’s rejects.” I know these are harsh words, and they may sting. But I want to make sure you know the reality of what you’re dealing with – it’s not pleasant, and it’s not an easy thing to overcome. I’m not saying that it’s right, mind you. I’m just saying that it’s there.

So how can someone combat these harmful negative perceptions? What can you do to not make yourself appear so unwanted? The answer is simple. Work.

“But HR Dave, it was as easy as that we wouldn’t be having this conversation!”

A fair statement, but I’m not talking about working in a regular job for a regular employer. I’m talking about finding a way to do something that’s worthy of putting on your resume. If you’re an accountant, offer to do your friends’ taxes. If you’re in marketing, find someone who’s starting a business somewhere and offer your services for free or almost free. If you’re a shepherd just go find a flock somewhere and tag along to make sure no sheep get away. Trust me, no matter your profession there are people who would love to take advantage of your services. Especially if they’re free.

Once you’ve found your opportunity, frame it in a way that will make employers take notice. At the top of the “experience” portion of your resume, put the company name “(Your Initials) Marketing/Accounting/Shepherding/Whatever it is that you do.” Then list your position as “Consultant.” Then put the dates in from whenever you became unemployed until present. Then bullet-point your tasks, responsibilities and accomplishments just as you did for your other positions. If you find more than one “client” to take on, you can list your multiple clients to make it clear that you haven’t just been sitting around.

Once you have this on your resume, you’ll never guess what happens. All of a sudden you’ve gone from the chronically unemployed to an entrepreneurial go-getter whose services are in demand. Now that’s something that companies are looking to hire.

In addition to the usual comments and questions I would like to open up the comments section on this post as a sort of classified ad. If anyone is unemployed and has a service they would like to offer, let it be known below. If anyone is in need of a service for your business of any size, let it be known. In the spirit of community, we can all keep our eyes open for opportunities to be matchmakers. We can do that, can’t we?

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on this site? Send an email to HR.Dave1@gmail.com.

Questions or comments about this topic? Please leave them below.


Opinions are Like Cover Letters – Everybody Has One, and Most of Them are Wrong

Ah, the magical cover letter. We slave over our sentence structure, we toil over getting just the right words. We stress over balancing the “what’s in it for me” with the “what’s in it for you”. We ask ourselves:

“What’s another word for excited?”

“Does it sound too forward to say that I’m positive I can make a contribution, or should I stick with confident?”

“If I say ‘seasoned’ does it make me sound old? Or like food?”

The age-old questions we ask ourselves are, for the most part, moot. I’ll tell you why.

First, let me qualify this opinion piece by stating that it’s exactly that: an opinion. I’m sure that there are plenty of experts out there who will disagree with me, and I hope they do (and I hope they comment – I love comments!) But for the moment I have the floor; so I shall pontificate.

In my opinion…

There are two Universal Truths about cover letters (and by universal I mean, well, more often than not. And I capitalize the words to give myself and my opinions an inflated sense of importance – don’t judge.) These two Universal Truths are:

  1. Cover letters don’t matter.
  2. A cover letter will never get you a job, but it can certainly lose you one.

I certainly don’t mean to say that if an employer asks you for a cover letter that you should refuse. (And if you needed me to tell you that, your problems are bigger than your cover letter.) I’m just saying that 9 out of 10 recruiters that I know don’t read them, and 10 out of 10 recruiters that I know don’t pass them along to hiring managers.

I’ve said before that if you have something specific you want to say, you should say it in your cover letter. If you’re relocating, especially at your own expense and very soon, this should be mentioned. If, um, well, I can’t really think of another example of something that would make a cover letter necessary, but I’m sure there must be one.

Amendment to Universal Truth #1: if you’re moving into the area where the job is, please disregard this truth.

Now, on to Universal Truth #2. I have NEVER read a resume of someone who was unqualified for the job and thought “well, if they have a great cover letter I’ll reconsider.” Never happened; never will.  However, I have on several occasions read a resume of a qualified candidate, then moved on to the cover letter out of curiosity, and have promptly removed that candidate from consideration. Maybe there was one too many typos. Maybe s/he had the name of the wrong company or the letter was addressed to someone I had never heard of. Maybe s/he couldn’t string two sentences together coherently or couldn’t conjugate verbs. Maybe s/he used a background on the document that contained butterflies, skulls, unicorns, stars, or any combination of these. The bottom line is that there are so many things that can go wrong with a cover letter that at times it hardly seems worth it. On the flip side, unless you’re an exceptionally gifted writer, your letter has very little chance of coming off as anything but generic. Wit is a dangerous thing in a cover letter – you never know who’s reading it or how they’ll take your jokes.  So if the best you can hope for is forgettable, is it really worth a ton or stress and time to make it “perfect?”

I know that, despite my efforts to remove cover letters from the business vocabulary, you’ll likely have to write several during a job search. With this in mind, here are my best tips for how to make your letter as good as it can possibly be.

  1. Address it to the correct company. Please.
  2. Keep it brief. No more than a couple of well thought out paragraphs.
  3. Outline two things: why you want the job and why you’re right for the job.
  4. Don’t repeat your resume. They’ve already read that.
  5. Try to keep it conversational – this is your chance to show your personality.
  6. Don’t show too much personality. Failed attempts at humor are deadly in cover letters.
  7. If your personality sucks, ignore #6 and stick to a very business-like tone.
  8. Read it out loud. If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it doesn’t look good in writing.
  9. Proofread it. Check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure. Spellcheck is your worst enemy. Just because there are no red squiggly lines doesn’t mean it’s right.
  10. Proofread it. Again. You missed something the first time. Trust me.

If you’ve followed these steps, you probably are now sitting in front of a document that is inoffensive, vanilla, and could have come from 1000 different candidates. If that’s what you have, congratulations! You have a perfect cover letter.

Now go send that puppy out – recruiters everywhere are waiting to not read it.

“Thanks for Applying, But the Job is Filled.” What’s the Deal?

A reader wrote in with a question about her job search experience. It’s an issue that many of us have probably faced, and the answer is more hopeful than you probably thought. She writes:

I’ve just started looking for a job and have applied for just a few, but I’ve already heard, “Thanks for applying, I reviewed your resume and you sound great! Unfortunately, the position was filled a few weeks ago. I will definitely keep you in mind for future opportunities…” Needless to say, I don’t want to waste any more time applying for jobs that have been filled. It’s frustrating and time-consuming, considering the time it takes to write cover letters, tailor resumes, etc.

First of all, bravo for taking the time to actually write cover letters, customize your resume to the specific job, and all of the steps that make a job search feel like, well, work. These steps are the difference between making the right impression and making no impression at all. Kudos to you for realizing what needs to be done and just doing it.

But HR Dave,” I hear at least one person thinking (yes, I’m a part-time psychic), “what’s the point of all the work if I’m just getting rejected anyway? Can’t I get rejected on a lot less effort?” The short answer is yes. The real answer is slightly more complicated.

The fact is that even though you’re getting rejected, the kind of rejection is what matters here. That a recruiter took the time to respond at all is a good sign that you’re applying to the right companies and the right jobs. The fact that you’re getting feedback like “you sound great” and “will definitely keep you in mind” should actually be very encouraging. You could just as easily, or more easily, be getting canned responses like “Dear Candidate, Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately we are not able to move forward with your candidacy at this time. Best of luck in your search. Sincerely, Auto-response.” Considering the fact that most people are getting the latter, you’re way ahead of the curve. The recruiter who sent that email is actually pretty likely to mean what he/she said. You will be kept in mind. You did sound great. These are things to feel good about.

The question about how to find out if a job is really open is a tough one to answer. There are a multitude of reasons that jobs you’re seeing online might not be current. Some companies and recruiters just forget to take postings down. Sometimes companies leave a posting up even when there’s no immediate need if it’s a position they think they’ll have open in the future or one that comes up frequently. Sometimes you’re just getting your data from bad sources. Third party job sites like Monster aren’t always up to date – A job could have been posted, filled, and just not taken off the site. Other job boards like Indeed aggregate postings from a multitude of sources and are often out-dated, since they’re drawing from third party sites and corporate sites alike.

So what are some hints as to whether a job is actually open? Some recruiters make it easier than others to find out. The more digitally active recruiters are easy to find on Linkedin or Twitter, and are usually posting and tweeting about the jobs they’re looking to fill. Other things to look for are fresh postings. If you check the same sites and job boards frequently, look for the postings that you haven’t seen before – those are the ones that are most likely to be the real deal. On the other hand, jobs that you see for weeks and months at a time, or job postings that seem to appear, disappear, and reappear the next week, are probably not worth a ton of your time.

The bottom line is that there’s no real way to know for sure if a job posting is current or actually available. But there are some definite signs to look for. The bigger take-away from this situation is that if you’re making good impressions and getting positive feedback, it’s really just a matter of time. The job search is a longer process now than it used to be. Every positive response is a step in the right direction. When those recruiters tell you how great you sound, make sure to send a response thanking them for the correspondence and reiterating your excitement about working for their company. Then make sure to save that email and stay on top of their activity. Follow them on Twitter; follow their companies on Linkedin; keep checking their corporate career sites. That way when the right position opens up again you can respond to the email, at once reminding them that they liked you, showing your enthusiasm, and getting yourself to the top of the candidate pile.

So if you find yourself in the same situation as this reader, take a minute to pat yourself on the back for a job well done so far.

OK, enough patting. Now get back out there and get a job!

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on this site? Send an email to HR.Dave1@gmail.com.

Questions or comments about this topic? Please leave them below.

Why I Do It

By far my favorite email in the HR Dave inbox right now comes from the reader who inspired my overqualified post. She writes:

Hi Dave,

Overqualified [name witheld] here–just wanted to give you the fantastic heads up that after following your advice and drilling in my willingness to do administrative duties beyond any level of reason, I very promptly landed a full time EA position at [a great National magazine]! I wouldn’t have thought that downplaying my experience and accentuating the opposite would be the key to finding success–thank you so much for your help and feedback. I can’t tell you what a difference it made and how much I appreciate it! This is something I’ve been working to achieve for over two years, despite constantly hearing the same things, so there’s no question your input made a big difference.

Thanks again!

It absolutely warms my heart to see someone’s hard work pay off like this. Kudos to you, and congratulations on a well earned victory!

Taking My Own Advice – The Job Search, Part 2

In the last installment of this piece I told you about all the things I had gotten wrong in my job search. As I said, it was a learning experience. Thankfully, however, I wasn’t wrong about everything. There were a few things that I had right.

What I knew I knew:

  1. One resume isn’t enough. True. Over the course of my job search, I had and used no fewer than 7 different versions of my resume. There were some that highlighted different aspects of my work (recruiting, management, digital experience, etc.) as appropriate to each company and job that I applied to. There were some that omitted certain unrelated job experience. There were purely chronological resumes and those in which I lumped together like experiences. Why do all this? One thing that I know for sure is that most hiring managers and recruiters don’t use a lot of imagination in their resume screening. They’re looking for almost spot-on experience and if they don’t see it in 30 seconds they’ll move on to the next resume. I got calls to interview based on each of the 7 versions, so I’m pretty sure I was on the right track.
  2. Not every job is the right job. True. As I mentioned earlier, I applied to about 25 positions throughout my job search. Perhaps a more important number is the jobs I didn’t apply to. I can’t say exactly, but I’d put the number of jobs that I decided not to pursue at close to 100. Why did I leave 100 seemingly appropriately leveled HR/Recruitment jobs on the table? Because they just weren’t right. They were jobs that were in industries I didn’t want to join, in companies that I had heard not-so-great things about, or just job descriptions that looked like they weren’t any fun. Managing a job search is a serious undertaking already – there’s no need to add to the workload by pursuing jobs you don’t even want. Besides, as a recruiter there’s nothing I hate more than calling a candidate who applied and that candidate saying “Wait, what job was that again?” That’s clearly someone who applied to too many positions. I don’t ever want to be that guy.
  3. There’s no such thing as too prepared. Interviews can be great if you let them be great. Know how to make that happen? Know everything you want to say and everything you want to ask. Have your talking points down to an art. A great achievement? No problem. A time you overcame an obstacle? Got it. Disagreement with a boss and how it was handled? Ready. Why I want to work for this company in this job? You betcha. In the dozens of interviews I had with several companies, I was almost never hit with a question I wasn’t ready to answer. It’s all about preparation. And it’s not enough to have your script memorized – you have to anticipate their script as well. Study that job description and customize your talking points to what they’re looking for. Does that job description stress project work? Get some good project stories together. Is it a management position? Be ready to talk about some times your management skills were challenged. A job description is so much more than just a job description; it’s a preview of the interview. The tone and the content can give you spectacular insight into what’s going to be asked of you once you’re sitting at that table. Don’t forget to use this valuable tool.

At the end of the day, I know I was one of the lucky ones. Not everyone has as much success or finds a great opportunity as quickly as I did. But as I’ve maintained since I can remember, half of luck is being lucky. The other half, you make for yourself.

Going forward, I’ve identified a new challenge that I’m excited to face. When I’m doling out advice or tips for getting a job, it’s easy to rely on the same answers I’ve been giving for years. They’re second nature to a point, and usually founded in some kind of experience. Now that I’m fresh out of my own career transition, however, it’s time to take another look at what I’m saying. Before I answer a question I need to make sure I still believe that my answer is true. Because there are some guns that I’m sticking to, and some that I’m turning in. And if I can keep them straight (which I’m pretty sure I can) then I know I can be a better recruiter, a better adviser, and a better coach than I’ve ever been. So thanks, life, for handing out those lemons. The lemonade really hit the spot.

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on this site? Send an email to HR.Dave1@gmail.com.

Questions or comments about this topic? Please leave them below.

Taking My Own Advice – The Job Search, Part 1

I’ve spent the bulk of my career filling jobs, telling companies whom they should hire and telling job seekers what to do to get hired. Recently, however, things took a turn. I found myself in the role of job seeker rather than adviser or hiring authority, and it was an eye-opening experience to say the least. At the end of the day, I had what I consider a successful job search. I got some good attention, had some surprising feedback, and landed an amazing position with an amazing company.

It’s been scary and exhilarating to go back to all of the advice I usually give, my stock answers and my core understanding about the job market, and see first-hand what I knew and what I didn’t. The results were mixed. Some of the beliefs that I previously held firmly were shaken to the core. Other philosophies I hold, I was glad to see, were proven to be well-founded.

What I thought I knew:

  1. There’s no such thing as too passionate. False. The most surprising piece of feedback I have ever received from a hiring manager was garnered well after I had been through the interview process and gotten down to the final two candidates. One of the reasons that I wasn’t chosen, I was informed, was that I came across as too eager for the job. My follow-up was too punctual, too carefully witty, too much of a sales job, and frankly came across as kind of stalker-y. It wasn’t like I was emailing every other day; I corresponded only when I was told I’d hear about next steps. My failing was that instead of a few sentences on how I was still interested and hoped to hear from them soon, I crafted treatises about the great things I would do in the role, the team I would create, how I would improve the company culture, the productivity, and basically transform the company into pure heaven. The lesson here? Less, apparently, is more.
  2. You can’t get a job by applying to postings. False. When I first decided it was time to start looking, I did what I have been telling people to do for years. I started working my network, which is quite robust in my industry and my function. I asked for and took informational interviews, got great referrals for open and posted positions within companies, participated in groups (both virtual and actual), asked for leads shamelessly, and everything else I could think of. But the single most successful avenue for me was none other than the blind job application. I submitted resumes to probably 25 posted positions over the course of my search, and out of those 25 submissions I was granted interviews with 12 companies. I’m no math whiz, but those seem like pretty good numbers to me. Some of the interviews were in my industry, some were in others. All called me after seeing my resume in response to their posted jobs. In fact, the position that I ended up accepting was a completely cold application to a job listing on Linkedin. The lesson? Networking is great, but don’t be fooled: when a company posts a job, odds are that they’re actually looking at who’s applying.
  3. Silence is deadly. False. In more than one of my interview processes, there were times that a company I felt was very interested would go completely radio silent on me. No calls, no emails, no responses to my emails, for weeks at a time. My assumption was that this meant they were no longer interested; they had found someone they liked better or were putting the position on hold – or something else that meant I wasn’t getting that job. So after what seemed like long enough, I dismissed these as dead ends. I stopped emailing and took them off my list of potential employers, figuring they weren’t going to call again. Wrong. After I had lost hope in more than a few opportunities, and even after I had accepted the position I now hold, companies I had all but forgotten about would reappear out of nowhere, asking if I was free to come back in next Wednesday to meet so-and-so. In one case, I received a call about 12 hours after submitting my resume, had a phone interview with the hiring manager, then nothing for a month. Finally I got a call from the hiring manager saying he was going to be in town the following week and was I available to meet. Not anymore. But as aggravating as it sometimes was, it was great to know that it really wasn’t me; it was them.

But how does it end? Did HR Dave decide to hang up his HR Dave-ness? Was he so wrong about everything that he ruined his career, lost his friends and joined the circus? Does he really think this melodrama is entertaining?

Want to see how it all goes? Click here for part two of this piece, where I say “I told you so.”

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on this site? Send an email to HR.Dave1@gmail.com.

Questions or comments about this topic? Please leave them below.