Human resources is one of the few professions where a kid with a two-year degree can have immense power over the future of someone who earns three times as much as they do. I’m not saying this in an attempt to excuse the prima-donna attitude a few HR specialists develop or exaggerate their importance, simply pointing out a fact.
It’s therefore essential for the smart jobseeker to understand how recruiters think, what’s important to them, and how they work. This is exactly what these 14 job-hunting tips from human resources’ perspective are intended to help you with. As you read through the following, try to imagine how you can apply each suggestion to your own job search. Some of them are obvious, others may be new to you, but hopefully you’ll come up with at least a few ideas that will give you an edge in today’s competitive job market.
Table of Contents
- 0.1 Well Begun Is Half Done: Steps to Take Before Even Thinking About a New Job
- 0.2 Network Like a Politician: Who You Know Matters
- 0.3 Dress up Your Resume: Alternative Qualifications Matter, Too
- 0.4 Are Hobbies Important?
- 0.5 Job-Hopping, the Modern Economy and the Meaning of Company Loyalty
- 1 Navigating the Application Process
- 2 Nailing the Interview
- 3 Final Words
Well Begun Is Half Done: Steps to Take Before Even Thinking About a New Job
College admissions consultants (somewhat strangely, this is an actual job) advise their young clients to spend much of their high school career making themselves as attractive as possible to institutions of higher learning – and not just by acing math. Aside from academic performance, things like involvement in the community, sports, and – importantly – the knack of presenting yourself in the best way possible all play a role in getting into an ivy-league school.
Searching for work is very similar in some ways. If you only start thinking about your resume once you’re in need of a job, you may be missing out on an important head start.
Network Like a Politician: Who You Know Matters
Not everybody is equally good at making friends, but you should at all costs avoid making enemies out of people in your industry. You may be surprised at which people know each other and what they talk about, and it’s often easier to get hired through the back door (so to speak) than wade through the whole resume screening process. Some jobs are never advertised at all – there’s little point if the decision-makers already know who they want.
Networking doesn’t have to mean sucking up to individuals who seem to be influential. On the other hand, simply keeping your head down and doing a good job isn’t enough either; it’s important to increase your visibility at every opportunity. You don’t want a potential employer to phone up your old company for a reference and get the response: “Who?”.
Other people will inevitably steal credit for your achievements if you don’t stake out your claim yourself. You can be humble at the same time, but developing a reputation as someone with special skills – even if this just means being the only person who knows how to change the toner in the office copier – will pay major dividends behind the scenes.
Introduce yourself to people you don’t know, check up on present and former colleagues from time to time, be helpful where you can, and don’t be shy about presenting your opinions. You may not want to become famous, but you don’t want to be forgotten either.
Dress up Your Resume: Alternative Qualifications Matter, Too
Almost all job listings contain something along the lines of “X degree and Y years of experience”. This is fine as far as the basic requirements for the position go, but doing extra courses or spending more time doing the same job aren’t the only ways to elevate your resume above the norm.
Experience outside your chosen line of work can count for a great deal as well. If someone who’s spent a couple of years in the military (or Peace Corps, or Médecins Sans Frontières) is up against a person with otherwise similar credentials, the former is almost a shoo-in. Non-traditional students, meaning those who didn’t start college as soon as they finished high school, people who worked their way through school, and so on, can provide a new perspective a company may find valuable.
Even if you can’t think of anything in your background you can use to slant your resume in this direction, you’re not out of options to distinguish your application from the herd. One of the best ways of jacking up your resume is to write an ebook on some subject related to your profession. This is much easier than you probably think, allows you to add “Author of…” to your credentials and, if the recruiting company bothers to skim through it, illustrates that you do really know your stuff (without you having to deal with the pressure of a job interview).
Creating an online course requires more work, but also lets you market yourself as a subject matter expert and may become a worthwhile income stream by itself. Doing the latter has an additional advantage, too: companies love to hire people who enjoy sharing their knowledge with others.
Are Hobbies Important?
“I like cooking, reading and movies” may be a standard addition to an online dating profile, but how do human resources professionals feel about your life outside of work? Do they prefer well-rounded applicants who are good at something other than their jobs, or nose-to-the-grindstone types who think of nothing but their next promotion?
Obviously, any skill or activity that’s relevant to the job at hand should be included in your resume (the one used to apply for that particular post). Someone looking for work as a security supervisor would be foolish not to mention his black belt in judo, while an accountant who likes to restore old cars can use that fact to get a foot in the door at an automotive company.
Though the “Hobbies and Interests” section of your resume is optional, it’s not just something for you and the interviewer to chat about, even if it’s in no way related to the work you’ll be doing. More specifically, they give a recruiter an insight into your personality beyond the bare bones of education and work experience, or the formulaic questions that can be asked in an interview.
Traveling, for instance, can indicate that a person is open to new experiences and finds it easy to work with people from other cultures. Group activities point to a social nature and perhaps leadership potential, while a demanding pastime like bodybuilding or marathon running distinguishes someone who doesn’t quit easily. A creative hobby such as painting or photography is easily associated with a person who’s both patient and capable of thinking outside the box.
This is still a subjective question at heart, of course. A hobby that delights one recruiter may seem snobbish to another, while some human resources personnel still consider adding hobbies to a resume unprofessional. In any case, information that reflects on you as a person rather than as an employee should be given limited prominence in your application. Also, don’t make stuff up, as a recruiter will look through your social media just as certainly as they will run a credit check. It may throw up a major red flag if you claim to speak Swedish but have no Facebook friends from that country, or that you’re an avid surfer but your last trip to the beach was in 2011.
Job-Hopping, the Modern Economy and the Meaning of Company Loyalty
Every company wants to hire an employee who will go the distance. Staff turnover is expensive, not only due to hiring costs but also in terms of lost productivity. They get the most bang for their hiring buck if you stay there for years, even though they can’t make the same commitment to you.
This leaves candidates who have a resume that looks like a patchwork quilt, with several tenures shorter than two years at different companies, at an apparent disadvantage. Layoffs or companies shutting down obviously don’t count towards this. If, on the other hand, you left because of personality conflicts at every job you’ve ever had, chances are good that you are the problem and recruiters will definitely pick up on that fact. Assuming you have a good explanation for each resignation, though, how should you deal with a history of being a job hopper?
The fact is that we no longer live in the 1960s, there’s a major imbalance in power and obligations between management and workers, and “company loyalty” is often a smokescreen for a pathological relationship with your employer. HR people understand this, even if they don’t like it. If they insist that your employer’s interests should always trump your own, they’re almost certainly not a company you want to work for anyway (unless you enjoy unpaid overtime, nepotism, and a penny-pinching management style).
If they continue to make an issue of your fragmented employment history, you can always mention the following anecdote as relayed in the book The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life:
In 1977, Buffett and his partners bought a newspaper in Buffalo, New York. This transaction quickly turned uglier than he could ever have imagined, involving a federal antitrust lawsuit, a smear campaign directed at Buffett personally, and a strike with the implied threat of violence against anyone who went against the unions. The whole drama was only finally resolved in 1983, during which time some of the newspaper’s loyal employees had stuck with the new management through plenty of thick relieved by only slivers of thin.
Someone suggested that they be rewarded with a profit-sharing arrangement; Buffett’s answer was a flat “nope”. Nobody in the press room, he argued, could do anything that would substantially raise or lower the stock’s price, so they would not share in the investors’ rewards. As long as editors edited and journalists journalled, they would receive a fair salary; if their work was no longer good enough, they would be replaced.
As cold as it sounds, this is the way modern capitalism works, and the same rules apply to both employers and employees. Especially in some industries, quitting one job for a better one rather than toughing it out really isn’t that much of a red flag for recruiters. Besides, only talented employees, with the ability to find new employment if they’re subjected to unacceptable working conditions, can afford to be job hoppers to begin with.
From a company’s point of view, hiring a new employee is almost always expensive, time-consuming, and risky. In order to reduce these annoyances, most human resources departments have put in place a set of best practices that are followed across pretty much all industries.
A number of corporate objectives have to be balanced against one another, including transparency, documentation, efficiency, and economy. This means that, while fairness is one goal, the best applicant doesn’t necessarily and automatically get the job. Knowing the rules of the game is just as important to a candidate’s success as their professional competence and motivation.
Assume that Your Resume Will Land at the Bottom of a Very Tall Pile
Aside from ensuring compliance with labor laws (read: avoiding lawsuits that could damage the company), one of the human resources department’s primary function is to pre-screen candidates for any open position. Done correctly, this ensures that only qualified applicants make it to the interview stage, wasting less of non-HR managers’ time.
Even getting to the stage where your resume lands in the inbox of an HR employee isn’t that easy if an outside recruitment agency has to vet each application. In this case, the person screening resumes understands the company’s requirements for the post even less well than the average internal recruiter, making it essential to highlight those positive qualities that may land you your dream job. Technology makes it easy to apply for any job without even paying for a postage stamp, and you can be sure that many people besides yourself do.
To get an idea of how this works, think of a Ph.D., which costs about a decade, not to mention thousands of dollars, to complete. You’d think that an advanced degree would allow an already smart person to write their own ticket, but you’d be wrong: only about a third of recent doctoral graduates have a job lined up. With an average salary of approximately $60,000, these openings aren’t necessarily of the superstar variety, either.
Open tenure-track teaching positions, which are especially prized among PhDs, each receive hundreds of applications, regardless of whether they are in history or molecular biology. If you’re looking for something less exotic, perhaps a role as an accountant or administrative assistant, you can count on competing against well over a thousand applicants if not actually ten times that number. This, sadly, allows recruiters to select either the best-qualified candidate or the one willing to work for the lowest salary, which goes some way towards explaining why real wages (adjusted for inflation) have remained stagnant since the 1970s.
Understand How Resumes Are Sorted
There is simply no way a human resources employee can look through 10,000 or so applications by hand, especially since they usually have more than one position to fill at a time. The solution, of course, is to let a computer do the heavy lifting. To the job applicant, this means that using the right keywords becomes enormously important.
Keywords are similar to what you would type in on Google to find something, e.g. “cheap furniture second-hand Atlanta”. It’s a kind of snapshot of what you desire, written in the briefest way possible. In the case of an opening for an architect, this may be something like “sustainable design, feasibility study, office buildings, computer-assisted design” – if a given resume doesn’t have a close match to all or most of these terms, it will probably be discarded by the “Applicant Tracking System” and never even be seen by a recruiter. This is very important to keep in mind.
In practice, you should tweak your resume for every job so that it contains all the important words mentioned in the advertised job specification and as many related terms as you can think of. Some jobhunters even add a couple of these with the font color adjusted to white (so the computer can see it even if a human reader can’t) though you’ll probably be blackballed if a recruiter notices what you did.
Crafting Resumes that Pop
Getting your application in front of an actual human who can decide whether or not you get an interview is already quite an achievement, as well as a stroke of luck – most recruiters will only review resumes until they have enough to send to the interview stage, leaving the rest unread. It’s only at this point that the things most jobhunters spend a lot of time on begin to matter.
There’s more than enough guidance available on writing a good resume; we don’t need to cover the same ground here. What is worth mentioning is that it’s useful to have a “master” resume that contains all of your experience and accomplishments, no matter how minor. If a particular job requires a certain skill – leadership or training experience, for example – you may well find that something in your professional history fits, even if you only did it temporarily and at a fairly low level.
One point which many people overlook is that gaps in your employment history of longer than three months will seriously hurt your chances. Most people have a few of these, but it’s better to offer a reasonable explanation than leave recruiters wondering. “I spent six months organizing my stamp collection”, for example, doesn’t ring true. “I wanted a sabbatical so I could figure out my next career move; I spent a lot of time on my hobbies and did some charity work” may mean exactly the same, but sounds much more constructive.
Don’t Forget the Cover Letter
Cover letters tend to be less formal and structured than resumes; this is your chance to showcase all the reasons why you’re a perfect fit for a job. One which looks like it’s been reused for multiple job applications may by itself be enough to land your application in the trash.
Emphasize qualifications and experiences that are essential to the position, but don’t forget to mention some nice-to-haves too. As one slightly weird example, software engineers who’ve studied philosophy often have an edge at work, since the thought processes in the two fields are similar – mention it. More importantly, take this opportunity to explain your career vision and how it aligns with the company’s culture. It may be hard to keep it under one page while still including everything you think is relevant, but this is mandatory.
As your letter will first be seen by an HR person who may not understand all the details regarding the position you’re applying for, don’t use as much jargon as in your resume – this doesn’t make you seem smart as much as obnoxious and narrow-minded. Unless something is specifically mentioned in the job specification (eg. “identify PHP vulnerabilities”), use more general terminology (eg. “make websites more secure”).
Finally, include a “call to action”. Imply that you expect them to call you for a phone screening and encourage them to do so. Also, make sure that your contact details are easy to find and up to date: someone spelling their email address wrong on a job application may sound like a joke, but it happens more often than you think.
Nailing the Interview
Getting called for an interview generally means that you’ve beaten 95% or more of potential candidates, congratulations! The final hurdle can be the most difficult to clear, though: don’t worry yourself into a nervous wreck, but don’t get overconfident either.
Laying the Groundwork
Job interviews are some of the most stressful situations someone can encounter in ordinary life. Luckily, recruiters know this and are willing to make allowances – even if you start to cry, it won’t be the first time they’ve seen it happen and it may not cost you the job. That having been said, trying to minimize your anxiety on the day is something most people never even think about, yet can be enormously helpful.
Plan your route to the interview site – actually drive it if you have to. Make breakfast the night before so you don’t have to choose between arriving rushed or on an empty stomach, and avoid caffeine unless you’re an addict. Bring a hardcopy version of your resume in a nice binder – they’ll have one in front of them, but being prepared is a nice touch. Also take along a laptop or book to read in case the interviewer is running late – sitting around wringing your hands gives a poor impression while keeping busy makes you seem like more of a go-getter.
Doing practice interviews with a friend or even online can help, too. Having good answers ready to all the expected questions leaves you with more mental energy to tackle any curveballs they happen to throw your way.
All human resources personnel, whether consciously or subconsciously, develop a set of criteria that allows them to form an opinion of a job applicant within fifteen seconds of them walking through the door. Some see how long it takes them to make eye contact, others pay particular attention to their shoes, and a few (I’m sure) rely on astrology.
How formally you need to dress depends on the company culture, which you should have researched by now. Some interviews have been immediately terminated because the applicant wasn’t wearing a suit and tie for a video call; in other cases, all that’s really needed is for your clothes to be clean and in good repair. Overdressing can be counterproductive, too. Some recruiters will see trying too hard as a sign of insecurity, and nobody wants to work with someone who isn’t comfortable in their own skin.
This is also why you shouldn’t appear either too brash or too uncomfortable, from the very moment you enter the building. Things like good posture and a firm handshake will indicate to everyone that you yourself believe that you’re worthy of the job. Even if you don’t feel very self-assured, fake it: simulated confidence becomes real very quickly unless you overcompensate into cocky territory. On a related note, don’t be rude to the receptionist: they are often asked for their impression of an interviewee.
Don’t Be Bossy
Something that occasionally happens during an interview, especially with a candidate who’s highly confident (or trying to appear so), is that they try to hijack the conversation. Granted, you probably want to make sure that the interviewers are aware of your strong points, but they too have priorities as well as a schedule to keep.
In a panel interview, the people on the side of the table opposite to yours are supposed to defer to each other in their respective areas of expertise. Don’t try to minimize the importance of any of them: being a technical wizard matters little if you have no soft skills. Answer questions that appear to be silly or unimportant with the same seriousness as those that apply to your professional competence; you never know what might be important to the company.
Another phenomenon that’s surprisingly common is for applicants to simply fall off the face of the earth. Imagine that you, a dedicated HR worker bee, have booked a room, asked two or more people to clear their schedules, set out coffee and…end up waiting for a guy who simply doesn’t show up.
This is incredibly unprofessional behavior, not to mention rude. If you won’t be able to attend an interview or don’t want to accept an offer, there’s no reason to ghost a would-be employer. Recruiters will certainly remember such an incident, which may come back to haunt you.
A simple one-line email that you’re no longer interested is all that’s needed. You needn’t even give a reason; if you’ve taken a job at a rival company or heard a rumor on Glassdoor that the CEO is secretly a vampire (why take the chance?), just let them know you won’t be available.
Don’t Burn Any Bridges
Sometimes, a great potential hire simply isn’t a fit for a particular opening due to any of a variety of reasons – an unwillingness to travel, experience that’s almost but not quite what the company is looking for, etc. If you can’t get hired today, at least do your best to have them keep your resume on file and your name on their minds. On the same subject, make sure that you leave your old job the right way.
Love the Job, But Don’t Need It
One of the best interview experiences I personally ever had went roughly like this: I was obviously qualified, but so were dozens of other people. Meanwhile, having worked in another country, my references were more difficult to check than theirs. It’s entirely possible that I’d only been given the interview due to a recommendation from an old boss (remember the importance of networking?).
The technical portion of the interview lasted perhaps ten minutes – as I said, I was qualified, but this by itself isn’t enough to get the ball over the net. The HR manager was obviously uninterested and barely made eye contact as she worked her way through her checklist. That is, until she asked about when I could start.
I explained that, while I could legally leave my current job in a week’s time, I would need more than a month to hand off my current projects and get my replacement up to speed. This (I thought) would count against me; filling a position as soon as possible is obviously in their best interest. To my surprise, however, the whole tone of the interview changed immediately – the human resources person even hinted that I should ask for a higher salary, which I got.
The point here is that showing I was putting my old company’s interest ahead of my own signaled to her that I would do the same with them. On the other hand, I’d also made it clear that I only wanted to leave so I could have a shorter commute. These two things, taken together, implied that I would accept a reasonable offer from them, but wasn’t desperate enough to do anything to get it.
Though I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then, this is exactly the sweet spot you want to be in. I happened to luck into this position; achieving it on purpose, especially while you’re unemployed, may be easier said than done.
Sadly, you’re far from alone if you’re currently without work. Anyone can easily start to feel overwhelmed, especially after sending out their millionth resume without any response.
Remember, however, that bad times never last forever. As long as you keep trying and follow a strategy instead of just applying for jobs at random, things are certain to change for the better sooner or later.