Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How (Not) to Get a Job

I have interviewed many many job candidates over the years, and sometimes I'm just amazed at how clueless people can be about presenting themselves well in resumes, cover letters, interviews and even thank you notes. It's really hard to get a job these days, yet some people make it even harder for themselves!

I interviewed one person whose resume seemed a bit familiar. I'd already scheduled an interview with her by the time I dug out my files from a few years before and realized she'd applied for the same job before. And 3 years later, her resume was exactly the same, word for word. That was strike one-- even if your job is the same 3 years later, you should probably at least try to reformat your resume and freshen it up a little!
When she came in for the interview, I alluded to our having met 3 years earlier and asked her to fill me in on what had changed since then. She said "well, I got married!" She might have been trying to strike a conversational or humorous tone but it didn't seem that way-- it was as if she took my question 100% literally and answered me 100% literally that that was the only thing she could think of that had changed. You'd think she could at least come up with some vague statement about how she'd gained additional experience and learned a few things in 3 more years at the same job.
This person seemed to have no concept of how to sell herself in the interview. I was talking to her about a position that would be a somewhat different version of her current job, with a bit more responsibility and creativity involved as opposed to more administrative work. But her responses to my questions seemed to focus only on rote tasks, somehow, even when I was asking her very leading questions, almost trying to drag the right response out of her!
I asked her something along the lines of "if you didn't have to spend half your time doing X, how would you approach the Y part of your job differently?" The right answer would have been something like "The Y part of my job is really interesting, and I have lots of ideas on how to do it better. If I didn't have to worry about X, I could do Y much more proactively and at a higher level of quality." Yet her response was "Gee, it would be great not to have to spend as much time on X. Then I'd be able to respond to emails and questions the same day instead of a few days later." Lame.
I told this candidate that I would be making a decision within the next week because I needed someone to start quickly. I never got a thank you email or note after the interview, but about 3 weeks later she emailed me saying she wanted to "check in" to see where things stood. By then, the person who got the job had started.

And on the subject of thank you notes: I know some people say it has to be handwritten and mailed. I personally prefer the immediacy of email. But either way, give it some substance. I've gotten notes that just said "thanks for meeting with me. I enjoyed our conversation." This tells me nothing about whether the candidate has engaged with the job and is interested in it-- it's just a lazy way of fulfilling an obligation. But I've also gotten great thank you notes that showed that the candidate really listened during the interview. I like to be very clear with people on what I see as their strong points for a job and where I think they'd have a steep learning curve. The smart candidates pay attention to what they think I see as their liabilities, and try to address my concerns by pointing out things they might not have thought to say in the interview, or re-emphasizing other strengths that might overcome my reservations. It's not just a "thanks for your time," it's a way of saying "after hearing more about the job, I really want it and this is why I think I can do it well."

But the best candidates also don't overstate their abilities. I liked this post on Lifehacker about avoiding grandiose claims in a cover letter, which applies during the interview and in thank you notes too. Highlight your strengths, but don't go crazy saying you're the best. And if you've had 3 or 4 years of experience as an assistant, don't claim that your "vast knowledge of the industry" will be an asset to me-- I don't see how anyone can really have "vast knowledge" of anything in just a few years! And LISTEN during the interview-- don't keep interrupting the interviewer as they try to tell you about the job and draw out your responses to it. I've had people who barely let me get a word in because they were so busy telling me they could do a great job and had all the skills I'd need. One person actually did seem like the perfect fit for the job and was almost over-qualified, but the inability to listen was a deal-breaker for me.

And one more thing: be available. Like it or not, most people now have home computers, smartphones, and access to the internet pretty much everywhere they go. (And if you're going to Outer Mongolia or some other place where you don't have it, leave an out of office message that says so.) I invited a candidate to come in for an interview, and pointed out that I was trying to schedule interviews in a fairly short window of time. I never heard back from him until about 3 weeks later, and his excuse was that she'd been traveling on business and then on vacation. If you want to check out for 3 weeks and not read any email, fine, but you shouldn't expect a job interview to be waiting for you when you come back.


HS @ Our Debt Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HS @ Our Debt Blog said...

I bombed my interview yesterday and didn't even bother sending a thank you note! You can read about it at my blog if you want... ugh! I really wanted that job!!


Anonymous said...

Good post. Thanks providing your insight and perspective as an interviewer.

L. Marie Joseph said...

Fascinating! It's always good to hear the other side of the story. She seem not to have practice interviewing.

Most women I find don't know how to brag on their abilities which make them appear less interested or not confident and this is not attractive

Anonymous said...

I've done my share of interviewing as well, and many of your comments struck a chord with me, especially the grandiose language (almost embarrassing bragging) on some letters and resumes. One criticism though: I always contact all candidates when the decision is made. Noone ever needs to call back long afterward to get the status of the position.

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Anonymous said...

It's so important to separate interview behaviour from day to day behaviour though. We interviewed a tremendously nervous person a while back- looking at the table and other nervy stuff- whose references and job history was great. She's been a valued member of the team for 5 years.
Handwritten notes must definitely be a ymmv thing. You'd be laughed at for sending one round here.

Anonymous said...

Why did she have to call and check in? Are there any employers that are courteous enough to let people know they haven't been selected for a position?

Madame X said...

I always do contact all the candidates who bothered to send a thank you email or note. If they can't be bothered to send one within a week or two, I figure the message that sends is that they weren't interested in the job anyway!

Madame X said...

And re. trying to see past nervousness, I do think that's true that some people are just uneasy in interviews and could end up being fine employees later, at least for certain kinds of tasks. But sometimes an ability to present yourself confidently is a job requirement in itself.

Jennifer Chandler said...

After 15 years career coaching clients and facilitating workshops on job search strategies I'm always glad to hear employers comment about what they are experiencing out there.

Your post was great at outlining exactly where some people can fall short. I still tell clients to send thank you notes and especially as you described.

It is a tough market out there and it is important not to be ill-prepared, uniformed or debilitated by fear prior to doing an interview.

I work a lot with women in private consulting and I have to say they still struggle with self promotion; seeing it as bragging. Too many talented people fall through the employment opportunity cracks not because they aren't skilled but because they fail to express what they bring to the position.

Good advice, great post, glad I stopped by to see your blog.


Jennifer Chandler - CCDP

Anonymous said...

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Petra said...

So people have to send a "thank you for interviewing me" note these days, in the US? I find that a bit strange, but hey, I'm from abroad.

Also, apparently you didn't send that lady a "Sorry, but we didn't pick you" letter when you had made your decision within the week. That seems a bit rude to me; anybody who applies for a job and doesn't get it should get a response. Either it is a response to the letter saying "Sorry, you're not invited", or they should get a response after the interview "Sorry, you didn't make it". But again, I'm from a different country...

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Michelle said...

That sounds like a horrible interview! What did that girl do for the last 3 years?

Anonymous said...

I am a woman who works at a law firm and am so troubled by the way people (sadly, it's been all women) dress for an interview. All the young men we interview come in in a suit with a shirt, tie, and dress shoes. But young women come in dressed in just a blouse and skirt and some wear open-toed shoes. One even wore flip-flops! I know they are in college and these are internships, but these young women certainly need to dress more professioanlly in a suit. Thank you for writing yout blog, I recently discovered it and LOVE it! :)