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Monday, June 25, 2007

job rejections and vitriol

My organization emails rejection notes to all applicants we don't offer a job to. It's a pretty damn nice letter, and we send it within a few days of knowing that we're not moving the applicant forward in the hiring process.

Sometimes we hear back from people thanking us for the notification since apparently more and more companies aren't bothering to get back in touch with candidates, but every once in a while a candidate sends a nasty email back.

I'm not sure if these applicants are just venting or if they genuinely feel a sense of entitlement to the job, but here are three real-life emails I've received in response to rejection notices.

1. "I am a graduate of [school redacted] with an excellent academic record and a degree in political science. I have over 6 years experience working with nonprofits in a leadership role at [redacted]. I would like to know what is wrong with my qualifications and why they do not even warrant an interview to get to know me. I am sure that I will not hear a response to this, but you should know that you passed up a candidate who is qualified, with excellent references and who would work hard for this organization. I am insulted because I know that I would be a fine asset who would fit in well at your organization."

I wrote back and explained that we were fortunate enough to be faced with a large number of qualified applicants for the position, and we interviewed only those in the top tier. (What I didn't mention is that receiving an email like this one confirmed we made the correct decision.)

2. "How disappointing to realize that I spent time interviewing with you when you were more interested in another candidate."

Does anyone really not know that the hiring process is competitive and someone else might end up getting the job?

3. "I'm not going to get into it now because it won't do me any good to pester you about it, but this just sounds like some BS you tell someone because you can't interview everyone. Perhaps you could have been honest with me instead of leaving me hanging these past few weeks."

Well, it's true that we can't interview everyone. But no dishonesty involved, and it's weirdly paranoid to assume there was.

I know it sucks to not get a job that you want. But we make a good faith effort to keep candidates informed about where we are in the process and let them know if they're not in the running. I can't figure out what these people think they're accomplishing, other than burning bridges and making themselves look naive and entitled.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I'm not even that nice

Apparently I am engaging in some sort of deviant workplace behavior.

I like to email short notes to people when they strike me as particularly awesome -- and cc their boss. I never do it unless it's sincere, but it's not hard to find opportunities; we have a great staff and examples of well done projects or just general greatness abound. Sometimes I send the note to their boss directly, with the person I'm talking about cc'd.

It's weird how unusual this seems to be.

Why aren't more people doing this? It makes people feel good, it pretty much guarantees that they'll keep up their awesomeness since everyone wants to be as cool as others think they are, they'll be more inclined to help you out in the future, and it might inspire other people in your office to start doing the same thing, which could actually have a not insignificant impact on how nice of a place it is to work.

Seriously, send a note today to someone who you think is a rock star. Stick their boss in the cc field. If you can't think of anyone who deserves this, send it to someone great who you deal with at another company (and then start plotting your escape from wherever you're currently working).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What does a good cover letter look like?

The Evil HR Lady, who I secretly worship, has shamed me into posting an example of a good cover letter.

But first, let's take a look at what I consider an example of how not to do a cover letter. There's nothing particularly wrong with this letter -- other than being an utterly wasted opportunity, and I'll explain why:

Dear Human Resources:

Enclosed please find my resume for the position of staff writer.

I currently work as a copy editor for Acme Company, where I am responsible for editing brochures, fact sheets, and Web content. Before that, I spent a year interning at Tiger Beat magazine, where I had the opportunity to write several articles for publication. I also majored in English in college, with a concentration in writing.

I am seeking a position that that will utilize my writing skills with opportunity for growth.

I hope to hear from you to schedule an interview.


Jane Doe

This letter doesn't add anything to the application -- it just summarizes information already available from the resume. That's just a waste of space, and space is already really limited! Plus, I hate this: "I am seeking a position that that will utilize my writing skills with opportunity for growth." Don't tell the employer what you want (and especially in such generic terms) -- tell them why they should want you. And be specific.

Plus, it might as well be a form letter, because nothing about it is specific to the job being offered or the company offering it. It's sort of the equivalent of a fax cover sheet.

Here's an example of a cover letter that would grab me:

Dear Ms. Smith:

I hope you will consider me for the position of staff writer, as advertised in The Washington Post.

I was particularly excited to see a position open at the Sierra Club, as I have long been a fan of your work. I'm impressed by the way you make environmental issues accessible to non-environmentalists (particularly in the pages of Sierra Magazine, which has sucked me in more times than I can count), and I would love the opportunity to be part of your work.

Reading over the job description for the position, I recognized myself. As you will see on my attached resume, I have more than seven years' experience in non-profits, writing everything from newsletters to Web sites to brochures to letters to the editor and op-eds. In addition to in-house publications, my work has been published in newspapers around the country.

Additionally, I am a fast, versatile writer, and I specialize in taking complicated information and presenting it in an easy-to-understand, upbeat format. I've never missed a deadline (in a recent performance review, my manager called me "the fastest writer on the planet") and pride myself on being able to juggle many different projects. My copy-editing skills border on the obsessive-compulsive; I have been known to correct mistakes on restaurant menus!

I think my skills and experience are an excellent match with what you are seeking, and I am excited about the chance to work with you.

If you would like to talk with me or schedule an interview, please call me at 555-555-1212. Thank you for your consideration.


Jane Doe

This letter does the following:

- It shows personal interest in working for this particular organization, and it's specific about why, which makes it both more believable and more compelling. It's human nature -- people respond when they feel a personal interest from you. Works in dating, works in job-hunting.

- It only briefly touches on the writer's work experience, giving just the upshot and leaving the details for the resume.

- Perhaps most importantly, it provides information about the writer that will never be available from a resume -- personal traits and work habits, and even a reference to feedback from a previous manager.

- It's far more interesting to read than the first cover letter. I want to call this person in for an interview, and I don't even have a staff writer position open ( nor do I work for the Sierra Club, for that matter).

Now, can you do this for every position you apply for? Yes. It's sometimes easier for non-profits, because you can talk about why you support their mission (so I admittedly took the easy way out in my example). But you can do it for regular companies too, with a little bit of research. No time for that when you're applying to 30 different jobs? Narrow it down and focus on fewer, take the time to write a truly compelling cover letter tailored to each specific job and company, and it's likely you'll find that five truly personalized, well-tailored applications will yield you better results than 30 generic applications.

Take my word for it: Your competition is sending in cover letters like example #1 (if they even bother with them at all). You will dramatically rise above the pack if you put in the time they're not.

Carnival of HR #9

The Carnival of HR #9 is now up at Gautam Ghosh's site. Check it out!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

9 ways to ruin an interview

1. Pretend you have no weaknesses. Or tell me that your biggest weakness is perfectionism and you work too hard. You might as well wear a sign saying, "I'm bullshitting you." Candidates who can’t or won’t come up with a realistic assessment of areas where they could improve make me think they're lacking in insight and self-awareness … or, at a minimum, just making it impossible to have a real discussion of their potential fitness for the job. I want to know about your weaknesses not because I’m trying to trip you up, but because I genuinely care about making sure you’re a good fit for the job. I don’t want to put you in a job you’ll struggle in, and I definitely don’t want to have to fire you a few months from now. Isn't it better to lose the job offer now than the job itself later?

2. Share too much personal info. I once had a candidate tell me way too much about the sex column she wrote for her campus newspaper. If I had been talking to her at a party, I would have been fascinated, but it was inappropriate for a job interview.

3. Answer your cell phone. If you forget to turn it off and it rings, apologize profusely and look mortified. Looking mortified will make me feel sympathy for you.

4. Ask questions about the company that could have easily been answered with a modicum of research. I've had candidates say, "So what exactly does the organization do?"

5. Badmouth an old boss. I'll assume that'll be me you're talking about some day.

6. Be as quiet as possible. It shouldn't be like pulling teeth for me to get information out of you. If you're shy, I empathize, but you've got to help me get a sense of who you are.

7. Don't ask any questions. I want to know that you're interested in the details of the job, the department you'll be working in, your prospective supervisor’s management style, and the culture of the organization. Otherwise, you're signaling that you're either not that interested or just haven't thought very much about it.

8. Interrupt. It's the kiss of death in my office.

9. Don't think beyond your desire to get a job offer. Too many candidates approach the interview as if the only goal is to win a job offer. But the wiser goal is to see if you’re a mutual match, emphasis on mutual. Think of it like dating: If you approached every date determined to make your date fall for you, you’d lose sight of whether or not you were right for each other. Don’t trick yourself into believing that the job offer is an end unto itself -- focus on what comes after it.

Job-searching when hard of hearing

A reader writes:

I found your article valuable and informative. I'm hard-of-hearing. I hear well with a hearing aid, however, I have difficulty hearing on the phone. I realize that selling yourself to potential employers on the phone is essential to job hunting. I'm intelligent, resourceful, and learn new materials quickly. How do I get around this situation in a cover letter?

I may not be the best person to answer this because, personally, I don't want job applicants to contact me by phone anyway; I much prefer email, as it allows me to respond when it's convenient, rather than having to stop whatever I'm doing to take a call. However, after an applicant's cover letter and resume draws me in, I do usually want to set up a phone interview as a precursor to a longer in-person interview. But if an applicant explained what you explained above, I would be happy to do would what normally be a phone interview in person instead. I would just need you to let me know it was necessary.

So I'd advise simply being straightforward about it toward the end of your cover letter, by including a brief blurb saying something like, "Since I know the next step may be a phone interview, I should mention that I'm hard-of-hearing. I hear well with a hearing aid, but I have difficulty hearing on the phone. This is pretty easy to get around by using free instant relay phone services or simply talking in person, and I've never found it to be much of an obstacle."

This should then be a non-issue; if your resume and cover letter indicated you were a promising candidate, we'd just talk in person next. (If you were a long distance candidate, I'd suggest using an instant relay service instead until we were ready for the formal interview.)

But of course, I don't speak for all hiring managers, so I would also recommend asking organizations like the National Association for the Deaf if there are other things they recommend to people in this situation. I'd also be interested in thoughts from others in the comments section, as I'm sure there are other good ways to handle this as well.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

What to do if you think you're going to get fired

If you suspect you're in danger of being fired, you don't just need to sit back and worry and wait for it to happen. If you're proactive about addressing it, you have a pretty good chance of making the situation better for yourself. I'm not saying you can magically keep your job, but you might be able to turn a pretty unpleasant situation into something much more manageable.

Start by asking your manager to talk honestly with you. Tell him or her that you know you're not excelling in the position -- or if that's not strictly accurate, that you know he or she isn't happy with your performance -- and ask what you could do to improve. Then -- and this is key -- ask for his or her honest assessment of whether you're likely to be able to make the improvements needed to succeed in the job in the long run.

Maybe you'll get helpful information that you can use to turn things around -- but if instead you get a bleak assessment of your future in that job, this is where there's a hidden opportunity most people don't use.

Say something like, "I appreciate you being candid with me. I wonder if we can make arrangements now to plan for a transition that will be as smooth as possible for both of us. I'm going to go on trying to do a good job, but knowing that you don't believe a positive outcome is likely, it sounds like I should also start looking for a new position. If that's the case, would you be willing to work with me while I conduct a job search? That obviously will help me, and it will give you time to search for a replacement and have a smooth transition, and I can be as involved as you'd like in bringing the new person up to speed."

Many managers are likely to hear this with relief. No one wants to fire an employee if it can be avoided, both for legal reasons and because, for most people, it can be emotionally draining. By making it easy for your employer to end the relationship and offering terms that help you both, you're maximizing the chance that they'll work with you in the way you've proposed. You get some grace time to find a new job, you don't have to explain a termination in future job searches, and you gain more control over the situation than you'd otherwise have.

Disclaimer: There's no guarantee your employer will take you up on this. You know your company culture and your manager best, and you should take those into account before proceeding this way. In some situations, some (not all) companies might respond with, "It sounds like you're resigning, and we'll accept that." So proceed with caution, and let your knowledge of your employer be your guide.