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Thursday, April 22, 2010

can I ask HR to better explain their application instructions?

A reader writes:

I've been looking for a position for a few months and I've found the advice on your site invaluable in my efforts.

I am finding that often requirements for the submission of an application are written very vaguely and I want to make sure that I get them right. However, most of the online applications do not list an email address to which I can address inquiries. 

So my question is this: If I am able to find a contact address through some kind of search engine for corporate contact information (which is unverified).  Is it acceptable to send an email there with inquiries if no method of contact for HR is given on the company website or on the application itself?

I really don't recommend this, for a couple of reasons:

1. First, depending on the company, your email may not ever reach HR if you just send it to a general corporate email address. I'm not defending that -- I think companies should have well-trained employees who can recognize who a query is intended for and pass it along to the correct division promptly -- but competence is often lacking in the world, particularly when people don't feel something is their responsibility. And if it does reach HR, you may not ever get an answer anyway because HR is often swamped and doesn't have time to answer every question from candidates they don't even know they're interested in yet (again, not defending, just stating reality).

2. Far more importantly though, I question the idea of asking for clarification about the application instructions in the first place, because I think you risk looking like a pain in the ass. Look, I know some job ads appear to have been created by someone with zero command of the written language. But they're rarely impossible to figure out how to reply to, and if you're finding this "often," that tells me that you're over-thinking this. If you write to them asking for help understanding what they want (when they're getting flooded with applications from people to whom the instructions didn't give pause), some managers are going to sigh and think you're going to need hand-holding every time they give you an assignment. You want to show self-sufficiency and confidence here.

Now, maybe I'm wrong and you're truly running into loads of undecipherable instructions. If so, post an example or two in the comments section and we'll see if we can help. But I think this is a case where the best advice is to make an educated guess about what they're asking for and push forward.


Anonymous said...

I think this is rare case where I might disagree with AAM, or at least offer a qualification. At my place of work (an academic setting) getting the application put together correctly is actually very important. We ask for information to be presented in a certain format so we can access it easily; if it's not, that part of the application may not get scored. (One key difference here from private-sector hiring: we have a committee for each hire that has to read and score Every. Single. Application. we get. I've had to score over 150 applications for a single job. That's why it's so important that the applications be uniform.) For our purposes, if something's not clear it's far better that the applicant call HR (they will get a real and competent person on the other end of the phone) and ask questions.

So I guess I'm suggesting that the answer may vary some for public-sector jobs--which is not what the OP is asking about, I realize.

Rachel - former HR blogger said...

I'm wonder if the real question here is WHAT to send. I get this question on occasion from applicants. If it's not specifically noted then I would say just send your resume. If they want more after that then they will request it.

Anonymous said...

What I would do:

--See if the job is advertised anywhere else. Sometimes employers have slightly different wording on different job boards, that may help illuminate what needs to be done

--See if you can find someone within the company--not HR--that can help explain the instructions. Maybe someone in your field or the department you would be working in.

--Consider if you really want to work for a company that can't explain their job application requirements. Vague job descriptions and processes are often red flags for scams or companies that are a nightmare to work for (disorganized, lacking direction or leadership, etc).

--Just do your best, its all you can do.

Anonymous said...

Adding to the above responses I would also like to say that part of the hiring/weeding process for applicants is determining if they are able to follow directions. On the job postings that I put out for my organization there is always a contact person and method of contact listed. The contact person is the hiring manager for the department that is doing the hiring, not HR. Many times I will get phone calls from individuals stating that they saw the posting and want to apply or I will get resumes for posted positions sent directly to me in HR, not to the contact person listed on the posting. If these applicants cannot follow simple directions as to where to send the resume or who to send it to then why would my organization want to move forward with their application and schedule them for an interview?

Organizations can use a complex application process as a method of weeding out those individuals who don’t want to bother jumping through all the hoops to apply for the job or aren’t able to follow the instructions properly. Calling someone at the organization and telling them you don’t understand the application instructions can be a signal that you might not be what they’re looking for.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that this is happening with all badly written postings, I’m sure that most of the time it’s just poor communication on the company’s part or confusion from their end. Just something to think about.

nuqotw said...

Anon 2:04 - I may be biased, but it seems that the job postings in academia are meticulously and consistently written, much more so than in the for-profit world. (I have no experience with non-profits, and I'm sure AAM's postings are exquisite.)

At the bottom of the barrel, I once saw a for-profit job posting that read, essentially "Wanted: Independent contractor who will work hard. No promotion opportunities."

raskal said...

The $60,000 question is .. do you want to work for a company that doesn't provide clear instruction?

I mean, really, this is a tell tale sign of things to come. Although some will argue the process is about following instructions, and it is to a point, the goal is to fill a need.

I wonder if the attrition rate is higher or lower in companies using the old school 'test' application method. Honestly, in my 2 decades of hiring I've seen application processes similar to putting a rat in a maze. Which brings me to: Are the rats finding the way out of the process really good employees or are they just really good at leaving?

TheLabRat said...

You'd be surprised how common unclear or ridiculous application instructions are becoming. I don't know if it's like this in other occupations/levels of the corporate beast, but in both Sacramento, CA and Portland, OR I have found MANY postings that either offered no clear instructions at all or so detailed and specific of instructions (including things that would get your resume thrown out in most places). The only conclusion I've been able to reach is that the latter is part of the ever increasing trend of hiring managers trying to get most of the interview process into the application itself. As for the former, I lay it off to a mostly harmless type of laziness; why tell your applicants what format to put their resume in when most people will just assume WORD anyway? I don't actually like this practice but it is mostly harmless.

Anonymous said...

Loophole: If you really wanted to, you could ask questions using a different email than what you applied with..( or phone #) so point # 2 doesn't take into effect.

I can imagine some hr folks not being happy to hear this tip.

aam point #1 may result though.

In my experience, I haven't ran into anything real confusing. If I had a question, I'd look up ideas online on how to deal with it...