by Liz Ryan
The desperate post-interview phone call, the proclamation of self-doubt, and more blundering ways to negate your chances of winning the job
Despite the healing economy, employers are often slow to post openings and make hiring decisions. It's a frustrating situation that can cause eager job candidates to act in counterproductive ways, scotching promising opportunities. Here's our list of 10 real-life job-search misfires we hope will serve as cautionary tales for job-hunters. Don't replicate these counterproductive deeds.
Inflicting Gratuitous Interrogation
I was reviewing résumés and found one that stood out in a positive way. I e-mailed the sender and asked whether he had a minute to talk by phone. "I might," he wrote back. "Where is the company located, what is the starting salary, who is the CEO, and how long have you been in business?" That was the end of the correspondence; our street address was on our home page, the salary was listed in the job ad, and the company story (including inception date and leadership bios) was in the About Us section of our site. In his haste to make sure his time wasn't wasted—a reasonable goal, in my opinion—the gentleman asked me to answer four questions he'd have already had answers to if he'd done a bit of homework. Lesson: It's perfectly fine to guard against time-sucking or even bogus job ads, but do it in such a way that you don't shoot yourself in the foot.
Forgetting Who You're Interviewing With
The executive director of a small not-for-profit shared this tale with me. "I miraculously got enough money from my board to hire a marketing director last year," she said. "I was over the moon. I had one precious job opening to fill. I interviewed five people, three of them from industry and two from the not-for-profit world. One of the industry folks was super-smart and insightful. Sadly, she knocked herself out of the running about halfway through the interview." "How?" I wanted to know. "I asked her to tell me one story that illustrated how she rolls. I told her to think about our five-person agency and what we need in marketing, and tell me a story from her career that would make it clear she belongs here. She told me a story about a 24-month intranet development project involving 60 people across functions and six or seven levels of organizational sign-offs. I was nearly asleep by the time she finished. I think this lady really needs a big company atmosphere." The job-seeker's intranet story screamed "I don't understand scrappy not-for-profits at all." Lesson: In your written job-search communications and especially on an interview, keep your stories and questions relevant to the hiring manager's issues.
Selling Yourself Short
A friend at a placement agency told me this story. Last summer she had a candidate on the short list of two finalists for a plum sales management job. She'd just gotten off the phone with the hiring manager, who said, "I have to sleep on it, but I think your guy Frank is getting the job tomorrow," when Frank himself called her. "Don't be mad at me," Frank said. "Oh, no," said the agent. "What did you do, Frank?" Frank had gotten fearful and had called the hiring manager to say, "If you don't want me in the sales manager spot, I'll take a sales territory assignment." The manager hired him into the territory job and hired the other finalist for the sales management job. The placement agency lady never told Frank how close he'd come to the higher-paying, bigger job. Lesson: Stay the course. You'll never show an employer what you're worth, or persuade them they need you, by groveling.
Letting Minor Adversity Vanquish You
"I am so frustrated with my job search," said a man I met at the library. "I had an interview last week, and when I got there at 20 after 5, the front door was locked," he said. "Did you go around to the back?" I asked. "Did you call or text HR or the hiring manager?" "No, I went home," said the gentleman. "When I got home, there was a message telling me the front door would be locked and I should go around, but I had left home before that message arrived." "Did you reschedule?" I asked him. "No, I figured the opportunity was lost." "Call them!" I said. He did, but they'd filled the job already. Lesson: Corporate hiring types are no different from anyone else; they make mistakes. On one job interview back in my 20s, I walked around the whole building looking for an open door for a 5:30 interview, and I finally walked across the loading dock to get in. Show your resourcefulness by rolling with the interview punches.
Sending a Generic Thank-You
I interviewed a brilliant young man for a business development role. "Look, Barry," I said. "I want to make sure we're on the same page. Over the next couple of days, send me an e-mail message and tell me what you heard today. It doesn't need to be long. Just write a couple of paragraphs about what you see as our competitive situation and how you'd approach the assignment so that I know we'd be in sync." Barry happily agreed. An hour later, I got the generic post-interview thank-you e-mail from Barry, saying, "Dear Ms. Ryan, Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I'm excited about working for your company and know I'll do a great job." Today we would call that an epic fail in the showing-comprehension department. Lesson: Whether the hiring manager asks you to, or not, make sure your post-interview thank-you recaps the conversation in an intelligent way, pointing out what the company is up against and how you're equipped to tackle those challenges.
Offering a (Doubly) Misguided Information Packet
A reader called me for advice, saying, "I'm targeting a product manager opening at Company X. I'm going to a trade show where they'll be exhibiting." We talked about visiting the company's booth and chatting up employees. A week later she called again. "I visited the booth but everyone was busy, so I left a packet for the sales manager." "Hmm, for the sales manager?" I asked. I thought about a sales manager's likely level of interest in a non-sales employee's job-search packet dropped off during a chaotic trade show. What was in the packet? "I left him a note with an article I wrote for an industry journal several years ago," she said. "Was the article about Company X?" I asked. "No," she said, "it was a story about software documentation." Unfortunately, Company X is not a software company. Busy working people are deluged with information. Job-search overtures need to be specific. My caller could have gotten her hiring manager's name via a short conversation if she'd stuck around that booth until the trade show crew had a minute to chat. The unrelated article didn't help her case and was likely tossed in the recycling bin. Lesson: Your target person is the hiring manager. Other, random people in the organization typically don't make great conduits unless they're friends of yours. And whatever materials you send must make it clear what you want and why anyone should care.
The CEO of a tech startup called me. "What about this?" he said. "I ran an ad, and a lady wrote right back to me with a great e-mail message. I replied to say, 'I'd love to talk when you have time.' She wrote back to tell me that she's not all that technical, and I replied to her saying that we need more than just technical people. She wrote again to make sure I knew that she's really not all that technical. By this time I was trying to figure out why she responded to the ad at all, but her résumé was great, so I said, 'Let's just get together and take it from there.' Then she wrote back to ask me if there were going to be technical tests during the interview. We don't use anything like that, but I had lost faith at that point and gave up. Please tell your readers to go with the flow. There's no point in acing yourself out of job opportunities because you fear you might get tossed out at some later point in the process." Lesson: Work the process. At a minimum, you'll make valuable contacts, learn some new things, practice your interviewing skills, and give yourself a reason to get dressed up.
Surrendering to Salary Worries
"I got a call for a job interview, but I didn't go," said Samantha, a woman I chatted with at a networking event. "Oh, why's that?" I asked. "They told me not to come in if I need to earn more than $75K, and I'm really focusing on jobs that pay $80K and up," she said. "Seriously?" I asked. "You skipped the interview over that $5K gap? Are you being overwhelmed with interest from employers?" "Heck no," she said. "I haven't had an interview in months, but I figured I'd hold out for the number." If Samantha had gone to the interview and started a conversation, she could have learned enough about the organization and its issues to talk them into another $5K in base or bonus or some other valuable exchange medium. Lesson: When you're invited to a reasonable job interview, go! If it doesn't sound perfect at first hearing, that's O.K. Life is long, and priorities and investment levels turn on a dime. You'll never know if you don't show up.
Saying Yes to an Illogical Request
A client of mine, Maurice, wrote to me, dejected. "I should have taken a stronger stance," he said. "What happened, Mo?" I asked him. "This corporate recruiter called and talked to me for an hour, and I guess I passed through that gate O.K.," he said. "She called me back and asked me to write a marketing plan for the company. I haven't even met those people yet. I went crazy and wrote a 20-page marketing plan and sent it to her. Then, radio silence for three weeks." Maurice fell into the trap called Give Them Exactly What They Ask For, No Questions Asked. You'll never show your value that way. A generic marketing plan is almost useless, and a thoughtful, customized one requires collaboration with the client. Trying so hard to please, especially in the early stages of the selection pipeline, is a bad strategy. Lesson: When you're asked to deliver X, Y, or Z during a job search, remember that you're an important part of the equation. Maurice could have said, "It would be irresponsible of me to write a marketing plan with so little information about the business, and apart from that it wouldn't be fair to the people who have paid me for marketing plans in the past. Let's set up a time for me to talk with the marketing VP and discuss her marketing-plan needs then."
Utterly Failing to Prepare
I interviewed an editor candidate who said, "I think I could really help you." "Marvelous!" I said. "How? Where could our publication improve?" "You mean your publication specifically?" she said. "You got me there. I didn't actually look at it. I'm not a reader." Lesson: Don't apply for jobs that don't interest you.
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.
More from BusinessWeek.com: