Job hunting in a down economy can feel like running a marathon in the dark. How do you market yourself for optimal impact? What’s gimmicky vs. eye-catching? After completing the application and/or the interview, do you call or not?
The typical career-seeker guide emphasizes custom cover letters, asking a friend to help proofread your resume and networking both online and off to keep your word-of-mouth employment prospects fresh. But what should you do once you begin to receive those initial nibbles from a prospective employer or personnel agency?
In two words: Get savvy.
1) Phone Screenings. Phone screenings are both good and bad. Good news in the sense that you’ve risen to the top of the stack. Bad news in the sense that your application may land in the recycle bin before you’ve made face-to-face contact.
The solution? Take charge.
Ideally, when an employer or recruiter cold calls they should first ask: “Is this a good time to speak?”
Oftentimes, recruiters are in a mad dash to submit “their candidate” and the convenient catch may win out over the ideal match. Responding to a voicemail or email hours or days after the fact is in all likelihood time spent on a lost opportunity. The first thing you should do after posting your career profile online is to prepare for the inevitable phone call that comes at a bad time. Do you pounce or pass up?
First, do not hesitate to thank the caller. If first contact comes at a bad time, emphasize your eagerness to answer pre-employment questions at a time of his or her convenience. In this way you avoid the suggestion that you are inconvenienced. Do not volunteer details that can be construed as a lack of interest or an excuse. Stick to your objective, which is to agree on a mutually suitable time to talk. The objective early on should be to learn if the position is currently available or if you are being considered for a future project. The answer will provide a clue about the urgency of the opportunity as opposed to the likelihood that the recruiter or employer is simply seeking to round out their database.
2) Remote Screening vs. In-Person Interview. The go-nowhere interview unfolds when you spend a lengthy amount of time on the phone or in a video conference with a recruiter or prospective employer only to be left to wonder if a face-to-face interview will follow.
What to do? Prepare.
Look at a phone or Skype screening like a date. Your objective is to land a second date. You don’t want to play hard-to-get but you don’t want to give it all away, either. For instance, you may wish to set a 15-minute time limit on the conversation. After that predetermined amount of time lapses confirm your desire for an in-person interview. If the caller puts you off, allow a another 10 minutes to lapse — or the conversation to wrap up, whichever comes first — and make your case: “I feel there is no substitute for a face-to-face interview. Do you have the ability to set one up?”
In particular, don’t mince words when dealing with a recruitment agency.
It is vital not to get too far into an email exchange or telephone conversation without asking a key question: Has the firm or individual in question been authorized to recruit for the job in question? If a staffing agency does not represent the employer exclusively chances are you have been contacted by someone who is skimming career websites in much the same way you are, in which case you will have no special advantage — and perhaps a disadvantage — in working with a middleman. Staffing firms often go up against other agencies and candidates who are applying directly for a job that has already been made public. The one thing a recruiter doesn’t want is to submit you for a job that another agency, or you yourself, beat them to first. So don’t be shy. When contacted about a position for a “confidential client” seek to clarify whether you have already attempted to land that job by another name or another description elsewhere online. Use this opportunity to make a decision to work with an agency or to apply directly.
It is not uncommon after the initial screening to receive a vague answer about when you might be expected to learn whether you will progress to a face-to-face or second round of interviews. Proceed by A) clarifying who, what, when and where that next step may occur, B) asking whether the recruiter or HR representative has any concerns or questions that you might be able to address while you have their attention, and C) requesting permission to follow up at a specific time in the event you don’t hear from that individual first. Your objective is to obtain a name, title, email address and/or telephone number. Make good use of it!
3) The Fishing Expedition: Perhaps nothing is more unsettling than the feeling that your caller is more interested in using you to help better define their job description or salary range or, in the case of staffing agencies, to tap your references to build their own leads rather than to seriously consider you. Some unsolicited recruitment efforts pertain to jobs that do not yet exist and/or the vacancy remains unfilled week after week and month after month because the employer is in no hurry to fill the position.
Solution: Define your expectations.
As an applicant, be on the lookout for job ads that repeat all too frequently. The employer may be indecisive or job turnover is incredibly high, suggesting that the dynamics of the company or organization are in disarray. Determine how much or how little time you can afford to set aside for recruitment firms or employers who routinely advertise the same opening. This economy is what they call an “employer’s market”. There is no shortage of applicants. Qualified help is within reach for employers who are serious about hiring. To keep false hopes at bay and the time and expense of chasing dead-ends to a minimum, learn whether or not you are competing in the interview process for a position held by an internal candidate as opposed to a genuine vacancy. Similarly, if you are invited to undergo pre-interview aptitude testing, ask how many people you are competing against and how to properly prepare.
Safeguarding your morale is as an important consideration as any other. It’s important to discern between opportunities you lost to a more qualified competitor and opportunities that never were. One tip-off is the email or phone inquiry in which the foremost question pertains to your salary history or requirements. This is the employment equivalent of jumping in the sack on the first date. A reputable employer will not solicit your salary requirement as a means to low-ball someone else or to determine how much they will pay for the position. Think about it: If the employer has a very narrow budget for the position they have every opportunity to state as much up front. Most career websites offer hiring managers the option to specify the pay range, which if utilized will all but eliminate job seekers who wish to work for higher pay. In so doing, applicants can take some of the work out of the equation by screening themselves out. So ask yourself: Why should your employer withhold the pay range yet ask each and every applicant — before an interview of any kind — to divulge theirs? Unless your salary or hourly pay requirements are particularly inflexible, save the conversation for a later point in the hiring process. True, some employers will require a salary history up front — but you need not apply if it is too intimate for comfort. (There are plenty more who won’t ask up front.)
4) The Interview: Congratulations! You have their attention. Now it’s time to prove that you can deliver in a face-to-face interview. You know that you have to show up on time, dress appropriately, greet your interviewer(s) with a smile and a firm handshake and understand both the requirements of the job and the company itself. But what else can you do to stand head-and-shoulders above the rest?
Solution: Strike a balance.
To strike a balance you have to keep two primary factors in mind: The personality of the interviewer vs. your own strengths and weaknesses. Do you tend to be outspoken, blunt or quick to wear your heart on your sleeve? With a little work, these traits can convey confidence and enthusiasm. Without that effort, these same traits can display impulsiveness or negativity. Conversely, do you tend toward introversion, preferring to take your time to warm up to new people and situations? This can convey maturity and professionalism on the one hand, or aloofness and passivity on the other. One way to approach this is to practice the technique of mirroring. Does your interviewer display speech, personality or body language characteristics that you can relate to? Find a way to relate and reflect commonalities. In this respect, an interview is very much like a date. Put your best foot forward and show genuine interest in the person to whom you are speaking. Most people are flattered by a good listener. If you can draw your interviewer out — talking about him or herself as opposed to a scripted list of questions — it’s a good sign. On the flip side, most people are off-put by a poor conversationalist. Contribute to the conversation but keep your side of it succinct, upbeat and politically correct.
5) Qualifications: If your interview is typical you will spend a good chunk of it being quizzed about relevant career history. The problem: These conversations can slip into the past tense. Don’t. Use active tense. A good resume will quantify your level of experience — beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert and/or the number of years you have accumulated in that skill. Depending on the skill of your interviewer, the interview may rehash or elaborate on your application. A successful interview will delve into specific ways in which you can tie the job description to your skills. Come prepared to share your strongest anecdotes and concise examples that follow the PAR format — Problem, Assessment, Response. But that’s not all you can do to increase the odds of being hired.
Solution: Become the interviewer.
The ultimate goal of any hiring decision is to recruit the right person for the job. Sometimes a lack of experience can be offset by an abundance of enthusiasm. In other cases, a lack of interpersonal skills can be overcome with an impressive set of intellectual accomplishments. But more often than not, applicants fall somewhere in the middle — a place where “average” may not leave much of an impression. Turn the odds in your favor by probing for details that go beyond the job description. Are you replacing someone? In so many words, find out what that person did to do your prospective job well — or not. Ask your prospective boss what type of employee he or she wants to interact with and how frequently. What type of corporate culture is at play? Is there a real-world example of someone in a similar role earning a pay raise or promotion? Will your supervisors be most concerned with chain-of-command, collaboration or independent thinkers and “self-starters”?
The idea here is not to interrogate your interviewer(s). Rather, formulate a few key questions and weave them in and out of the interview at natural junctures in the conversation. Once you have gleaned a reasonable amount of information about what makes your interviewer tick, present yourself as a solution. Recap your sales pitch at the close of the interview in a three-point format. Reflect what you perceive to be the challenges and opportunities of the position and summarize, briefly but specifically, how your presence at the company can provide a pragmatic, interpersonal, innovative or profit-building solution. The bonus? While you are in the process of asking questions of your own you will appear less passive and more intelligently engaged in the conversation — and the job at hand. And while it may seem all too obvious, end your interview with a reminder that you enjoyed the conversation and would like to land the job!
6) Follow Up: You’ve been contacted by email and phone. You have competed the first round of interviews. What do you do next?
Solution: Don’t be a stranger.
It’s a fact: Some employers will intentionally ignore a promising prospective candidate, preferring instead to hire someone who shows persistence. This presents a challenge for the job seeker because there’s an equal but opposite camp: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Here’s where a great deal of luck and some old-fashioned intuition come into play. If you feel you are a 10 out of 10 match for the job, be bold. If you feel the interview was only lukewarm or the job description a bit “over your head”, err on the side of caution. If the job description says “Do not call”, email instead. If the interview has already taken place, don’t leave without a business card and a clear idea what to expect. If you have already come as far as an in-person interview it is particularly important to ask for permission to follow up — and when best to do so — and then keep your word by doing just that. Immediately following your interview, meanwhile, mail a hand-written “thank you” note. The post-interview period is not the time to become overly creative/desperate (a stalker). Follow, instead, the KISS rule: Keep It Simple Stupid! Specifically, A) don’t try to sell yourself yet again in your correspondence; and B) don’t write anything that sounds overly scripted, generic or canned (impersonal). Do tell your interviewer(s) in your own words that you would be honored to work with him or her; C) put to use the same common sense about your post-interview communication as you did in your initial application: Don’t submit something you haven’t proofread, and if possible enlist the help of someone whom you trust for their strong English skills and their astute sense of objectivity.
Six savvy job hunting tips later, you are now equipped to meet the challenges of a tough job market. Go for it!