When New York career coach Sarah Stamboulie was working at financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald in the human resources department some years ago, she was about to hire a support staffer. At the final stage in the process, she called the woman’s last employer, expecting to hear a glowing recommendation. Instead, the employer spoke haltingly and without enthusiasm. “It was totally damning with faint praise,” says Stamboulie. “They were basically saying this person never showed up and their attendance was bad.” Stamboulie, who has also worked in human resources at Morgan Stanley and Nortel Networks, before a stint in Columbia Business School’s alumni career services office and then in her own coaching firm, says she has seen this problem frequently over the years. Job candidates give out references who only grudgingly endorse their qualifications.
That’s just one of the frequent mistakes job applicants make during their search. I interviewed Stamboulie, and two other New York coaches, Anita Attridge, who is affiliated with the national career coaching group, The Five O’Clock Club, and Ellis Chase, a coach with more than 30 years of experience, and they shared some of the most common, and egregious, job-searching errors.
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Often candidates scotch their chances early in the process with an illegible résumé. Stamboulie says that even at a time when it’s easy to change type styles and design layouts, too many candidates use such a small font that it’s tough to read. Attridge and Chase see this too. “There’s something about trying to get everything all on one page,” says Attridge. “They forget about readability.”
Chase, who worked inside Chase bank, and as a managing director at staffing firm Right Management before starting his own coaching practice fifteen years ago, says another common mistake is that job seekers belabor their résumé for days and even weeks on end, while telling themselves they are working hard on their search. “On my list of important things to care of, the résumé is about no.23,” says Chase. “It can create an enormous waste of psychic energy.”
Once candidates have landed an interview, they make several frequent errors. One is a failure to muster enthusiasm about their former employers. “People don’t realize how positive they have to be to be positive,” says Stamboulie. Being neutral doesn’t suffice. Also, say the coaches, candidates are misguided if they think they need to be totally frank about their perceptions of their employers’ missteps. “The hiring manager doesn’t identify with the candidate; he identifies with the old boss or old management,” explains Stamboulie. Was your division cut in a move that you think was unwise? Better to say that it was a decision the company realized it had to make and that the change helped streamline operations.
Along similar lines, candidates too often tell grim stories about themselves in interviews. One of Chase’s clients, a private equity professional who needed to find a new job because his niche venture is failing, was talking about himself in an utterly self-defeating way. “He was representing all the work he had done for the last two years as a failure,” says Chase. “There is a much better way to frame it.” The candidate should have talked about his venture’s successes and achievements, and played down the weaknesses.
Another interview problem, says Attridge: talking too much at the start, instead of demonstrating curiosity about what the hiring manager needs. A client of Attridge’s who was interviewing for a marketing job launched into a lengthy description of why her skills matched the job description, only to learn halfway through the interview that the open slot emphasized different skills. “She found herself backtracking,” says Attridge. “She hadn’t realized that digital experience was a critical part of the job.”
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One more interview mistake job-seekers make: talking about how tough it is to find a job and how long they have been looking. Though the media has been full of reports about long-term unemployment, hiring managers don’t want to hear about it. Stamboulie says it’s important to come up with a story with a positive spin, like saying you decided to take a sabbatical and that you’ve been having a lot of meetings over the last few months.
Yet another common interview mistake: being honest when the hiring manager asks about your weaknesses. One of Chase’s clients, who worked in pharmaceutical marketing, admitted to Chase in a mock interview that he was impatient and didn’t like to spend time with subordinates who were slow to catch on. “I said to him, ‘you’re applying for a senior management job and you’re telling us you’re a lousy manager.’” Instead, the candidate should have kept that to himself and talked about an accomplishment from his previous job.
One more common interview pitfall: bringing up salary prematurely. “He who brings up salary first, loses,” says Chase. Many candidates think they need to resolve the money issue early on, when it’s best left for the final stage of negotiations. It’s also a mistake to answer questions about how much money you want to make. If you are asked your salary requirement, try saying, “money is very important to me but at this point in my career, the fit is the primary issue. Toward that end, could we talk about this a bit later on, when we’ve established there’s a good fit?”
As the job interview and vetting process goes on, Stamboulie says that many candidates make the mistake of becoming impatient and pestering recruiters and hiring managers too frequently, especially by phone. It’s a good idea to follow up and stay in touch, but know that the process can take time. Impatience or testiness will only alienate your potential employer.
Finally, I have to mention the most common and worst mistake job seekers make: Spending all their time answering ads, or sending out their résumé to blind contacts, instead of making meaningful connections and doing face-to-face networking. “It’s the number one, catastrophic job search mistake,” says Chase. “It fools people into thinking they are doing a pro-active search when in fact it’s very passive.” Stamboulie and Attridge agree. “More than 50% of jobs are never posted,” notes Attridge. “Eighty percent of jobs are found through networking or direct contact.” We’ve written it many times but it bears repeating.
Job seekers make a series of common and egregious errors. Here is the accumulated wisdom of three longtime coaches, Sarah Stamboulie, Anita Attridge and Ellis Chase:
1. Giving out references that don't sing your praises
You don’t want a reference to damn you with faint praise. Ask if the person is willing to say you walked on water. If not, find another reference.
2. Laying out your résumé in a microscopic font
Too many candidates think they need to fit all of their qualifications onto a single, illegible page. Either cut down the word count or let the copy flow onto a second page.
3. Failing to say glowing things about your former employer
Even if you were laid off from your last job, find a way to say positive things about your last employer. Hiring managers identify with your former boss, not with you.
4. Saying negative things about your own track record
Even if you are looking for work because your most recent venture has had problems, find a way to put a positive spin on your experience.
5. Talking too much at the start of an interview
It’s fine to give a 30-second summary of your accomplishments, but then you should go into questioning and listening mode, and respond to the interviewer’s cues.
6. Lamenting your difficult job search
Even if you’ve been on a long job-search slog, find a way to make it sound positive, as though you took a sabbatical by choice and you’ve enjoyed your time meeting with many different contacts.
7. Being honest about your weaknesses
The rhetoric of job interviews should be sunshine and light. You can talk about a challenge you overcame, but emphasize your accomplishment rather than the problem that preceded it.
8. Saying how much money you want to make
Lots of people get anxious about money and bring it up in the first interview. This is a mistake, say coaches. If you are asked about your salary requirement, you can say, “money is important to me but at this point in my career, fit is the primary issue.” Avoid being the first to name a number.
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9. Getting impatient with the process
Know that hiring decisions can drag on for months. Pestering your contacts repeatedly by phone and email will not speed up the process.
10. Spending all your time answering ads and sending out blind résumés
Longtime job coach Ellis Chase says this is “the number one, catastrophic job search mistake.” People don’t get jobs through blind applications, but rather through networking and people they know.
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