The Other Side of Job Hunting.


My father founded his own company in 1984, and in twenty or so years since he has interviewed and hired many, many people.  So when he mentioned that he had recently been emailing job advice, I was intrigued, and we ended up having a long conversation about what employers are really looking for.  And then I thought, hey!  I have lots of friends who might find this information useful.

I should point out that my father runs a midsize (eighty-employee) industrial automation business, and that his perspective is informed by his industry and by the particular corporate culture in which he operates.  But I believe that his points are useful nevertheless.

Employers get a lot of resumes.

Even in small-town California, job openings often attract fifty or resumes or more.  The relatively small size of the company means that prospective employees are often interviewing with senior members of management - my father often conducts the technical interviews for entry-level positions.  So once the resume flow has slowed to a trickle, the pile has to be pared down from dozens (or hundreds) to the five or six that can reasonably be interviewed - a process accomplished using a set of disconcertingly cavalier guidelines.  Or, as my father puts it:

We throw out applications that have typos in the resume or the accompanying letter.
We throw out the resumes of people who have a demonstrated history of job-hopping.
We throw out applications if it’s clear that the applicant doesn’t know what we do, or couldn’t be bothered to tailor the resume and cover letter to the available position.
We throw out applicants who do not submit their resume and cover letter electronically. 1
We throw out applicants who show up at our door without an appointment!
Or, who call to follow up about their application.

The last three may seem a little random - what employer doesn’t appreciate the conscientious applicant, carefully following up each Craigslist response with a visit or a phone call?  But it’s not the ambition that’s off-putting; it’s the disruption.  And this leads to what I consider one of the most important things to keep in mind while applying.

Each company has a specific workflow for hiring, and you don’t want to disrupt it.

For example: at my dad’s company, once the decision to hire a new person has been made, the relevant manager writes up the Craigslist ad and puts it online.  They gather the responses and decide on eight or ten best candidates.  Then, either that manager or an HR representative conducts a quick phone interview with those candidates that covers things like where they live, whether they would need to relocate, and so on.  Finally, based on the phone interview, some number of the candidates are invited for an in-person interview that, depending on the position and the quality of the candidate, can last for several hours and involve any number of people.

During this whole process, resumes and cover letters are emailed and forwarded all over the place.  The players are brought in as needed, and not before.  Depending on the time frame within which the position must be filled, the process can stall at any step.

When candidates do unexpected things - when they follow up with a phone call, or submit their resumes on paper - they are throwing a monkey wrench into the whole process.  Say you call and ask to speak to the hiring representative.  You would probably be connected to someone in HR - but depending on whether the resume pile has been sorted through yet, that HR person might not have the foggiest idea who you are or why you’re calling.  Likewise, a paper resume can’t be shuttled around with the same facility that an electronic one can, and at that point your print job and paper weight don’t mean anything - the resume is going in the trash.

Bottom line: if a prospective employer gives you application instructions, for your own sake you should follow them.  If the Craigslist ad says no calls, don’t call.  If they ask for your resume as a Word doc, don’t send them an OpenOffice file.  If they force you to use their shitty uploader that strips out all your beautiful formatting, grit your teeth and use it.  Just don’t mess with the workflow.

So what do they look for?

It goes without saying that they don’t spend too much time examining through the resumes of the barely-or-under qualified.  But when it comes to comparing the resumes of applicants who are all broadly qualified, the evaluation criteria are much more subjective.

We look for hobbies.  We look for second or third languages.  We look for a stable job and living history.  We look for good writing skills - being a great engineer is no good to us if they can’t communicate with customers and with other employees.  We look for a clean, well-written cover letter - you can’t get a job based on a cover letter alone, but you can lose your chance at one.

And if someone takes the time to look us up on the web, figure out what we do, talk about our customers and products - that is stellar.

Conventional wisdom holds that in today’s market quantity is more important than quality - that applying to many jobs is a better strategy than laboring over a single application.  I don’t doubt that.  But I think it’s also true that employers appreciate applicants who do a bit of prep work.  It won’t get you a job you’re not qualified for.  But it may be the difference between getting a call and not.

He who mentions a salary figure first, loses.

“We’re not like a school or the government; we don’t have a standard pay scale.  So we have a little bit of flexibility to pay as little or as much as we want for the right person (within limits, obviously).

When we look for applicants, we always try to ask them what they want to get paid before they have a chance to ask us what the job pays.  When we ask this, we always get one of three responses.

Some people tell us they are looking for "a competitive salary”.  We hate this answer.  Sometimes they think $50,000 is competitive; other times, $240,000.  This answer is technically a win for the applicant (since it puts the ball back in our court), but it’s aggravating, so it doesn’t reflect very well on them.

Some people give us a specific figure.  This is always a mistake, because we will never pay a dime more than the number they quote (and often we’ll pay them less).

Finally, some people tell us what they are making now, or at their last job.  This answer is the best.  It helps us, as employers, make sure we’re in the same ballpark - that we’re not wasting our time interviewing someone whose salary requirements are vastly higher than we can offer.  On the other hand, there is an unspoken assumption that people rarely switch jobs for less or equal pay, so we usually offer something higher than the number they quote (this is obviously a big judgement call on our part).  And it often brings up a more candid conversation about mitigating factors then we would otherwise have - we get many more answers like, “Well, I was making thirty-thousand a year before, but I was an intern / a part-time worker / a foreigner getting taken advantage of, and I could really use the fifty thousand you are offering!”  Which is the kind of honest conversation we’re really looking for.

It gets everyone past the question, but it doesn’t limit anyone’s options.

Don’t be weird.

Perhaps the issue on which my father was most expansive were the terrible interviewees.  The man who unselfconsciously rocked onto one cheek and farted noisily.  The man who, upon learning about the pre-employment drug screening, put his head down, sighed, swore, stood, and walked out without a word.  The people who never made eye contact.  The people who wouldn’t break eye contact.  "We are looking for someone who is engaged and has good people skills,“ he says.  "Be yourself.  Try to show the interviewer that you are easygoing and that you’ll be a happy, hardworking employee.

"Hiring is, at best, a fifty-fifty proposition.”

Every hiring manager is acutely aware that a high percentage of their choices will, for whatever reason, flame out.  And that’s expensive, time-consuming, and embarrassing.  So once you get your foot in the door, you should do everything you can to convince the interviewer that you’re a safe bet.  Thinking about moving?  Don’t mention it.  Think their salary offer is too low?  Don’t argue; ask about what you can work toward.  And after the interview, send a quick thank-you email to each person you interviewed with - it probably won’t work to play on their sympathies, but it might.

So there you have it!   Any further questions that you have can be sent to me using the “Ask Me” link at the top of the page.

  1. I asked my father what file format he preferred for resumes and cover letters to be submitted in. “If I were sending it, I would use PDF,” he said. “However, as an employer I like to examine Word documents because you can quickly tell if they are a sophisticated user. Did they hit return twice for a space between paragraphs? Do they hold down the space bar instead of hitting tab? You can tell a lot about a person by examining their Word documents closely.”  This worries me.