Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Importance of Cover Letters

The June issue of Inc. magazine contains a great article by Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals and co-author of Rework.  Fried and the hiring managers at 37 Signals ignore resumes, maintaining that “Resumes reduce people to bullet points, and most people look pretty good as bullet points.”  I’d add that most bullet points look alike, since there’s a limited supply of action verbs that can be used on a resume, and only so many relevant things in a job or a company that you could have done by yourself. You’d be surprised at how obsolete those things look after a few short years, too.

But, says Fried, “Cover letters say it all.  They immediately tell you if someone wants this job or just any job.” Yes, I say, yes!   And therein lies the magic of career planning.  It helps you identify and intelligently and confidently communicate what you want, why you want it, and what you offer in return for the opportunity you seek.

If you don’t know anything about a company, you can’t write a cohesive letter explaining why you want to join it.  And as for the sadly shallow advice to parrot the bullet points in a job posting with your own bullet-pointed section illustrating you’ve “been there, done that,” how many of those letters do you think might be sitting in that file?

A career planner doesn’t wait for the posting. If you know what you want, why wait passively for some sort of perverse permission to ask for it?  If you don’t know what you want, how can you make a good case for yourself as the best candidate for anything?

Fried doesn’t hire people when 37 Signals doesn’t have a need to fill, and 37 Signals doesn’t go looking for new needs in order to justify a hire.  But clearly when it’s time to hire, they think through the offering that shows who has been readying himself or herself for such a career opportunity.

“The Unemployed Will Not Be Considered.” Why?

I read Laura Bassett’s recent post on The Huffington Post with great interest.  It was only a few days ago that I advised someone who is in a period of extended unemployment to relax: there’s plenty of company in that boat, and employers are generally pragmatic.  My bigger concern would be getting a fair shake during salary negotiations, when the assumption is that a lowball salary offer is better than none.

However, it appears that some employers are unabashedly posting warnings on their job board postings that they will not—or their client will not—consider candidates not currently working.  I’m going to skip over the part where I would otherwise say that this isn’t necessarily true: “Do Not Believe Everything You Read on a Job Board” is begging to be blogged.  And I’m going straight to the real reasons for the apparently short-sighted and heartless warning.

  1. The search firm that is usually behind the “anonymous client” doesn’t look very helpful if all they can come up with are unemployed candidates that are already in the client’s database.  Search firms profess to have access to special candidates who are not in the market.  Producing those gets them paid; producing slates full of unemployed people doesn’t.  I’ll go further.  While big companies can usually put spider technology to work ferreting out the qualified from all the others, smaller search firms and placement firms are less likely to have such sophisticated and expensive tools.  So they just tell you to keep your material to yourself.
  2. The search firm—or HR department—may not be able to deliver candidates who are actively in the job market. The length of time it takes a company to get from one end of an assignment (approval of the position) to the other (new incumbent start date) is, at times, too long to sustain the average unemployed candidate who wants to work NOW.  The end client is the actual department where the job gets done, and neither the search recruiter nor the HR staff likes to look ineffective, as they do when the top candidate evaporates in mid-stream.  Ergo, a preference for the passive job seeker, which is what everyone who isn’t unemployed can be called.
  3. Unemployed job applicants hit the send button a lot.  Often, they know little or nothing about the company, business unit, market, brand, profession, or job.  This doesn’t make them insincere or any less capable, but it sometimes makes them seem less prepared.  I’ve been unemployed and I’ve been that candidate.  Unlike the candidate for whom the advertised job is a carefully contemplated career move, the job for me (after a few months of pavement-pounding) was more of a commodity, a lifeline, or a two-year gig in which I might wait out the economy. I wasted a lot of HR folks’ time before I wised up.

In short, it’s not a matter of candidate qualifications, as usual.  It’s a matter of job-seeking behavior—the politics of the process, amplified and placed front and center.   When you lob your resume over the transom, which is what job board recruiting encourages and what you should not do, you lose control of your image, your brand, and your fate.  That’s why you feel bad, when you read in the Huff Post that these meanies don’t want you, just because you don’t have a job.

In Bassett’s article she quotes various HR folks who maintain that it’s a skill set issue, that it takes a lot of time and HR-power to sort through the files, and yada yada.  That’s HR speak for “we do it because we can and because we want to.”  And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless, as Bassett hints at, the employer is perpetuating illegal discrimination.  I don’t think it’s good HR policy, but that’s just my opinion.

Here’s the rest of what I think:  if you are unemployed (or even if you are employed, actually), you shouldn’t be blindly throwing your resume (your surrogate self, if you spent any time at all crafting it) at lines and names on a job board, anyway.  You should be spending your time cultivating contacts at the companies and in the communities where you want to work.  Your resume is not even relevant to your friends and contacts until you are asked to supply it specifically to someone who can get you into a conversation with a decision-maker.  If you read on a job board that there is an opening you want, go looking for someone who can help you pursue it.

The purpose of a posting on a job board is multifold—but no one should regard it as an invitation to apply.  It is first and foremost an artifact of an administrative system which serves the HR department or equivalent, an announcement that a position is open, a listing of job requirements so that all employees and all others can see what the incumbent will do or be expected to do, and finally, evidence that a company can rely on that shows it notified everyone who might have interest that it intended to fill that job.  An invitation would be more . . . inviting.