Dear Human Resources: four ways employers can help America’s job hunters (and themselves)

“Hiring managers” say only apply for jobs you’re qualified for. Fine. Now, here are some things HR needs to do in return.

Only-Post-JobsI subscribe to a number of industry mailing lists and content services as part of my work, and periodically they’ll publish stories aimed at helping job seekers – how to find opportunities, how to network, résumé tips, that sort of thing. Recently one of them posted an article where they elicited advice for job hunters from “hiring managers.” (Actually, these folks weren’t hiring managers at all – they were HR staffing managers, who have nothing to do with the hiring decision. But they’re the gatekeepers, so their opinions matter. )

The key bit of insight in this one particular piece was fairly straightforward: only apply for jobs that you’re qualified for. As you’d imagine, in an economy like this one, people apply for anything that’s remotely up their alley, often because they’re desperate, and this frustrates HR.

Fair enough. I certainly understand how a million applications from people who aren’t qualified would make your job more difficult if you’re actually tasked with reviewing inbound applications. You’re probably sick, and rightfully so, of people who blast 100 résumés a day out to any ad in which the word “marketing” appears. I don’t do this – never have – because it simply doesn’t work and the job search process is already inefficient enough without gumming up the works with no-hope time-wasting activities.

But let me speak on behalf of job hunters everywhere for a second, and let’s make a deal. We’ll stop spamming you, HR “hiring manager.” No more apps for jobs that we’re under-qualified, over-qualified or plain old not qualified for.

In return, you need to do four things for us.

1: Stop posting ads for jobs that don’t exist. I’ve written about this before, but the short version is that many of the jobs posted online aren’t real. Employers (including corporations, government agencies, non-profits and universities) have policies that require them to do an actual search when they have an opening, as opposed to just giving it to an internal candidate or the manager’s buddy or the boss’s nephew. The purpose is to assure that the company is getting the best person for the job, that it isn’t being consumed by nepotism and that it’s doing all it can to promote diversity – all worthy goals, I think we can agree.

Of course, what happens in reality is that HR will construct a narrowly worded requisite and post it for the minimum amount of time required by the policy. They’ll pull two qualified candidates out of the applicants, bring them in for an interview, and … then hire the person they were going to hire in the first place.

There’s no way to know how many times I have been the victim of this kind of amoral game, but I was actually the beneficiary once as the designated internal candidate. I remember how I felt watching the other two candidates walking down the hall, optimistic and prepared and ready to knock the interviewer dead for what was a great opportunity with a top company. For all I know they would have been fantastic at the job.

It felt horrible. They were acting in good faith and they had no chance, although they didn’t know it. They were wasting valuable time that could have been spent in pursuit of a real job.

2: Write requisites that accurately describe the job. This sin comes in different varieties. Sometimes the ad is brief and so vague it’s nearly impossible to know what the day-to-day job entails or what kinds of skills and qualifications they’re after. I saw one of these the other day, in fact. It was so amorphous I can imagine them getting thousands of responses from people who are in no way ruled out by the specs of the posting.

Then there’s the opposite – the Superman req. It goes on for pages, specifying in mind-numbing detail the job’s responsibilities and the experience the company seeks. While we all appreciate the effort that goes into these ads, I’m sure, the problem is that the person does not exist. I don’t exaggerate here. The worst offender I ever saw basically described two elite people rolled into one. The left half was a strategic marketing guru from hell, while the right half was a marketing communications guru from hell.

There are people who are good on both sides of the marketing mission, but I’ve never seen anyone who was the 10 on both sides that this ad demanded. I’ve met strategic 10s who were good at communication – maybe a 6, even a 7. And vice versa – I see myself as a solid 9+ on comms and I’m good at strategic, too – depending on the specifics of the situation, perhaps a 6.

When a job seeker encounters a Superman req, what should he/she do? If they take the company (and the “hiring managers” who want us to stick to what we’re expressly qualified for) at face value, then there are going to be zero applications for this position. If there is someone out there who fits the bill, odds are damned good they aren’t available at the salary being offered.

Or maybe, if you’ve dealt with this kind of silliness before, you know that the company is wishlisting and they know the ideal being described doesn’t exist, so you throw your hat in the ring anyway. Maybe you’re the best response they get, right?

But in doing so, you’re applying for a job that you aren’t qualified for. In other words, you’re doing what our “hiring manager” friends want you to stop doing, but – and this is key – it’s their fault.

The other thing you can try is what I did in the case of the Superman ad described here – I picked up the phone and called HR. I said look, this job is either a strategic emphasis and you want someone who can communicate a little, too, or it’s the other way around. Which is it, so I don’t waste your time or mine?

Another thing I bet our “hiring managers” don’t want is hundreds of people like me calling them, so if they’ll write their ads appropriately everyone wins.

3: Fix your online application processes, which are routinely the most user-hating experiences on the Internet. When I apply for a job, I do it properly. I read the description. I learn a little about the company. I tailor my rez and cover letter (I have a default résumé, but I never send it out unedited around the specifics of the job and the company).

This takes time, and as such it’s massively frustrating when the required online app site turns what ought to be a five-minute visit into an hour ordeal. That isn’t an exaggeration. I have lost as much as one to two hours dealing with the demands of application engines that were designed by chimps. You can extract essential contact and employment history data from my rez upload, but now you need me to re-enter everything job by job? I’ve been working since 1984, so no, that isn’t reasonable.

Worse is when the job looks particularly up my alley so I grit my teeth and slog through an impossible process anyway and then, for some reason or another, something goes wrong and I have to repeat steps. Because here in 2014 professional developers can’t figure out how to save a page’s data when they have to serve me an error message. Really?

The folks who develop job application software have to be the least talented, most hateful human beings in the world of technology today. I have given up on jobs that I’d have been great at because of the company’s application sites make pursuing them so burdensome, and if you work for Taleo (the company that built the engine most corporations seem to use) and we meet at a party and you say hi, I’m a developer at Taleo, I might just take a swing at you.

Dear “hiring manager” – if you want to know why so many people take the high-volume blast approach to applying with your company, it might be because you’re so ruthless in punishing them for doing it right.

4: Let applicants know where they stand in the process. When you apply for a job, the system fires off an e-mail acknowledging receipt of your materials and telling you they’ll be in touch. Then, at some indeterminate point thereafter, you may (or may not – probably not) be informed that they have picked someone else.

We know that about half of applicants get roundfiled instantly by screening software (see the link below). Those people could be notified immediately that they’re no longer in the hunt.

At any given moment, HR systems can tell you where in the process you are, but if you’re like me you have abandoned hope of being treated with courtesy or professional respect. I’ve gotten notifications months after the fact – probably months after the new hire started, even.

Why does this matter? If you’re a job hunter, you assume you didn’t get it unless they contact you about the next step, so not hearing back shouldn’t affect how you search.

But it might. There are a lot of theories out there about how to write résumés and cover letters, about language and format and follow-up and networking. Maybe you just changed your rez based on some advice you saw online. Let’s hypothesize that the advice was bad, and that the original approach was better. Maybe you were being reviewed internally before, but this new résumé was dead on arrival.

If employers were letting you know where you stand in the process, you’d have gone from not hearing back for a month, on average, to knowing you had been rejected instantly. Maybe that information would convince you that oops, that new idea didn’t work at all, and maybe you should go back to the other rez. And maybe that move would get you past the front door with your next application – for a life-changing new opportunity.

At one level it’s just basic manners. But it can also make a meaningful difference, and there’s no reason other than slothfulness why every employer with an automated system isn’t doing this already.

The whole job search/hiring process is taxing for everyone involved, and there’s no doubt that those of us looking for a good gig do things that complicate life for HR. There’s also little doubt that the ubiquity of résumé screening software is keeping employers from finding good people. It used to be that writing a rez was about telling your story in a compelling way. Now it’s an exercise in keyword matching, and a quick search on [resume screening software tips] should suggest the degree to which success in finding work isn’t about your actual qualifications for the job. While this software is a good idea in theory – weeding out the 50% of people who are wasting everyone’s time is good for both effectiveness and efficiency – more companies should perhaps pause to ask whether the candidates their process is producing are experts at the job in question or, instead, are experts at gaming screening software.

So while, on behalf of job seekers everywhere, I want to thank those HR folks willing to take a few minutes to offer their advice, I’d also like to make clear that the staffing process itself is plagued by all kinds of counterproductive practices. In the end, I know we’d all be grateful if staffing managers wouldn’t hold people who are desperately trying to make their way in a “jobless recovery” environment responsible for the ways in which they have adapted to your mistakes.


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