My Least Favorite Time of Year
By A.D. Freudenheim  

28 August 2005

It’s that time of year again – recruiting time – which means it is also the time of year when my frustrations and general bewilderment with the state of the American jobs-economy rise to a fever pitch. I have written about this issue previously, first in the summer of 2002 and then again in fall 2003. Each time my firm undertakes this process on a significant scale, I learn something new about how people look for jobs; without further delay, a quick analysis of recent highlights.

First, a few words about ... words. Words are terrific, they help us convey complex thoughts more effectively than mere grunts or pictures. But more words are not always the equal of well-chosen words. Got that? It is a variation on the tried-and-true Shakespeare quote that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sadly, however, many people lack an instinctive feel for how many words represents the right number – and most of the applications I have seen recently err in favor of more words. Indeed, there appears to be a trend in the growing length of cover letters – from a perfectly acceptable ½ to ¾ of a page, upwards to a page and a half – which (all too often) express little about the candidate’s interest in the job while implying much about their unwritten qualifications. (If it needs to be stated less obliquely: mostly, these implications are not positive.)

Second, a few words about .... words. In addition to a general failure to evaluate how much is too much, applicants seem to be drawing from a shared dictionary of bad business jargon. Cover letters state that an applicant has “proven organizational and interpersonal skills” or a “proven track record in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors,” to quote a few specific and extremely typical examples. Yet rarely has proof been provided in even an oblique way, let alone definitively, and most of the people who point to their “proven” skills or records have weak job histories that undermine the (presumably intended) implication about their extensive experience. Candidates should just tell us about their skills, qualifications, and successes, instead of trying to spin them in a way that suggests something more. Similarly, there appears to be an increase in the number of people who “enjoy,” can “handle,” or are “searching for” a “fast-paced environment.” My firm certainly offer that, but of course what constitutes “fast-paced” is extremely relative; better that candidates show it than say it. And of course, applicants who point out that they are a “team player” might do well to provide a reference from another team member, someone who can attest to the desirability of working alongside the candidate.

The third point is– you guessed it!– also about words. As if the business jargon is not bad enough, even worse is the misapplication of words and terms with specific meanings. This is not about misspellings, or about confusing “complement” with “compliment,” though both problems are rampant, too. Rather, it is about the words candidates use to describe specific job experiences, and to connect their qualifications with the needs stated in the job description. For example, my firm’s job search has been focused on people with public relations experience. If Candidate A has worked at an advertising agency, Candidate A would do well not to state s/he has experience with “public relations,” unless that is actually, specifically, and provably true – in which case proof should be provided. If Candidate A worked at an advertising agency, s/he may comfortably describe him/herself as having “marketing” experience, and perhaps even as a “communications professional”; but if Candidate A is, in fact, a communications professional then s/he will know whether or not s/he has public relations experience, because the terms “marketing,”“advertising,” and “public relations” are not interchangeable. Similarly, if Candidate A has experience with public relations, s/he should say so, explicitly; if Candidate A has such experience, and understands the nature of the job being described, and yet fails to mention such experience in his/her application, the reviewer is left bewildered and the application is likely to be discarded.

Now, if Candidate A has troubles, despite some communications expertise, my experience indicates that Candidate B is in a more challenging position: having no relevant communications experience at all. The first and most obvious question for Candidate B is: why are you applying for this job? If there is a good answer to this question – perhaps s/he has a strong interest in or history with the subject matter, or brings other skills that are relevant, if not equivalent – then the letter should address this challenge as openly as possible. Candidate B should rest assured that the person reviewing his/her application is looking for specific references and statements. Indeed, in the case of my firm, the job description and application instructions go so far as to state, clearly, what experiences and themes should be addressed in a cover letter, e.g., “public relations.” If we made it any easier, it would not be fair. Nonetheless, the preponderance of letters that arrive detail, often at length, the applicants’ extensive work in unrelated areas, such as film production, or event planning, or accounting, but never mention the focus of our job, or come back to address the details of the job description.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, there is the issue of “sticktoitiveness,” otherwise known as commitment. Applicants who come looking for a job at my firm, and provide resumes showing jumps from job to job every 18 months face a significant hurdle: this past pattern is likely to be indicative of their future performance. In other words, in hiring the candidate who has never held a job longer than two years, we must accept the likelihood that this same person will not stay with us longer than two years, either. That means that all of the time and resources expended in training someone, in building a relationship with them, in integrating them into the business work-flow, will likely have a low rate of return – and in turn, we may decide not to hire this person.

Much has been made of the change or evolution in the business world, suggesting that employees will work more jobs over their professional lives than they used to, spending fewer years at each job before picking up and moving on. I wrote about this too, in May 2004, looking at the impact of such jumps on business networking. But now, as then, I find the proposition that people should switch jobs more frequently – or that there should be no damage to one’s career for doing so – to be deeply troubling, particularly for the group of young career-builders in their 20s and early 30s. It may be that many people do it, it may be a current reality of the business world, but that does not make it a trend that employers should blithely accept. And after all, if employers began to be more assertive about not hiring such candidates, the trend might be quickly halted.

As I said, it has been almost two years since my last article on this subject. In the time since, just about everything I complained about then has remained constant, including mistakes that perpetuate and reinforce the value of my “Top 11” list of tips for how to apply for a job. Nonetheless, applicants still show a total disregard for the details of the job description, applying willy-nilly and with little focus. It is, to be blunt, a huge (if necessary) pain in the ass. Bad as it is for us, the employer, it must be worse for the potential employee, unable to discern an adequate role for themselves in the vast wilderness of the job world.

  Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.