Applying directly turns out to be the worst way to get a job, even a bad one.
I was on the You’re Hired radio show last week and had to argue that when only one in about 200 people who apply for jobs ever get hired it’s a waste of time for everyone. This data was from a research report prepared by Lever covering the effectiveness of different approaches for finding candidates.
Getting referred was the best way. One in 10 people got hired this way.
During the radio show I suggested companies should design their hiring processes based on how their best people get hired. This is a simple Marketing 101 and basic UX design concept.
Then I went on to say that after personally surveying one thousand top people about how they found out about jobs and why they accepted offers here’s what they told me. Surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of variation.
The Most Common Reasons Top People Change Jobs
- Someone contacted them about the job; they didn’t find it on their own, or they reached out to someone they knew as part of a networking effort.
- They had a few preliminary discussions with the recruiter and the hiring manager before they agreed to become a formal candidate.
- Before getting the offer they had a series of meetings with the hiring manager and people in the department to fully understand the role and the upside opportunity.
- They underwent a number of professional interviews and had a full appreciation that they were thoroughly vetted properly for ability, fit and interest.
- When accepting the offer and comparing it to other opportunities they had, they balanced the long-term growth opportunity with their personal interest in the job, the importance of the job to the company and compensation package.
Use Reverse Engineering to Get a Better Job
While companies should design their hiring processes by benchmarking how their best people get hired, it’s obvious that job seekers should reverse engineer the same process to get a better job. At the end of the radio show the host asked the panelists what advice we’d give to job seekers based on this concept.
The most important: We collectively suggested that no one should apply directly.
Here were a few of the other ideas offered.
Spend More Time with Fewer Companies. Job seekers need to spend more time with fewer companies making direct contact with hiring managers and their functional leaders. Underlying this is the idea that there are two job markets. The public one where jobs are posted and the hidden one where jobs are filled either via referral or internal promotion. (This video describes this concept.)
In The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired I offer advice to job seekers on how to enter into the hidden job market through the backdoor. Some of these points are summarized below.
Narrow your focus by first defining your ideal company. Finding a better job starts by identifying companies that need your skills and abilities, those that are hiring people like you and those that might have some problems you can solve. Just look on LinkedIn for companies that are hiring people in your field of interest. BUT DON’T APPLY to any of the jobs found!
Get referred by anyone. Once you have 15-20 companies like this do your research and find the names of likely hiring managers, department heads or anyone you can get to know. LinkedIn is specifically designed for this purpose. One way to find people you can get to know is to start connecting with people from your college at the companies you’re following. Then ask these people to refer you to the appropriate people.
Make sure your resume and LinkedIn profile can be found. Recruiters search on LinkedIn and resume databases to find candidates who don’t find their job postings. This post describes the process. Job seekers also need to reverse engineer this process to make sure their resumes can be found.
Sell an exploratory discussion, not a job interview. Regardless of how you make contact, don’t press for a job. Instead suggest the chance to have a discussion about a problem or opportunity the company is facing you know you could help solve.
Offer a sneak peek. One job seeker told me he prepared a competitive analysis of a company’s new product line and sent the first few slides to the VP Marketing. He offered to present the whole program in a short meeting to the marketing team. He got the meeting.
Conduct discovery during the exploratory discussion. As soon as the meeting starts ask about some of the challenges, critical tasks and problems the department is currently focusing on. Then describe some of your most significant accomplishments that best compare. All job seekers should do something similar to ensure they’re properly assessed on their past performance.
Whether you’re hiring people or looking to jumpstart your career consider benchmarking best processes as the starting point. This is a commonsense idea that surprisingly isn’t all that common.
According to the Department of Labor 235 thousand more people got jobs last month. While impressive job growth, the quality of these jobs and how they got them is what should matter. To get a sense of this it’s worth reviewing the details in a comprehensive study just released by Lever – a hiring management system used by small and mid-sized companies around the world – that describes how their 600+ smaller clients hired 15 thousand people.
The big news is that 1.5 million people applied for these 15 thousand jobs. That’s only 1% of the total. So if you’re a job seeker it’s pretty depressing news. However, digging deeper into the numbers tells a different story.
- The odds were worse for people who applied on a job board – 130 to one. But 48% of their jobs were filled this way. So while inefficient, it is a major source of hires.
- Getting referred was the best way to get a job. It only took 12 people to hire someone this way. This is 10X better than applying. Based on other survey data and our own research this approach also resulted in better jobs. According to the Lever data only 14% of all jobs were filled by referrals.
- Only 4% of all hires came through a recruiting agency but in these cases the company only needed to see 25 people to hire one person. What Lever missed was the number of people the recruiting agencies needed to see before presenting any candidates.
- Corporate recruiters search through LinkedIn and resume databases to find candidates. This direct sourcing approach represented 34% of all hires and its recruiters needed to screen 65 people to yield one hire.
As both a successful contingency recruiter for 10 years and retained recruiter for another 15, these numbers overall seem pretty accurate to me. However, there’s a big mix difference when hiring for more senior-level staff and mid-management positions. My estimate is that for these types of jobs less than 20% are filled via people who apply online, 40% are referrals (including recruiting firms and staffing agencies) and 40% are direct sourced.
For job seekers the specifics matter less than how the information is used to get a better job. Here are some ideas I’ve been dispensing for years with a few new twists.
- Mix it up. Go narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow. Use a mix of all the techniques. Idea: Find 20 jobs every week you think look interesting and narrow this list down to the best five. And then only apply to 2-3 of them you’re perfectly qualified to handle. But don’t just wait to hear if the company is interested. Instead use the backdoor to get an interview. This means finding someone in the company who can get you a referral to the hiring manager.
- Be found. Reverse engineer your LinkedIn profile and online resume to make sure recruiters can find it. Of course, when they find it make sure your major accomplishments and track record are instantly visible.
- Bypass the screener. Most candidates get blown out of the water when they’re screened on the first call. If you get an onsite interview the chances for getting a job are pretty much the same (10%) regardless of how you were initially found, with one exception. For referrals it’s twice that at 20% of the time.
- Build a true network. Networking is getting people who can vouch for your abilities to recommend you to open jobs they know about. In parallel actively participate in allied business and alumni groups where people in your field hang out. Recruiters review these online listings to get referrals.
- Build a reverse network. Take every call from a recruiter. Listen to what they have to say and then provide a great referral. They will pay you back with a few interviews down the road. This is part of building a reverse network. The other part is helping people you know find a better job.
- Force a discovery interview. If you do all of the above you will get interviewed. But the likelihood you’ll get an offer is still only 10% unless you’ve been referred, then it will be 20%. To increase your odds of getting an offer you need to make sure you’re being interviewed accurately. This starts by asking the interviewer about some of the big tasks the person hired will likely be assigned to handle. Then give detailed examples of work you’ve accomplished that’s most comparable. Done properly, you’ll likely be invited back as a finalist.
The Lever data is insightful. While primarily designed to help companies design better recruiting practices, it’s invaluable for job seekers, too. Knowing how to beat the system allows you to concentrate your efforts where they’ll do the most good.
advanced Getting a better job is a discovery process similar to solution selling and campaign marketing, Applying directly is not part of the process.
I'm currently helping a client find a half dozen people for jobs ranging from sales manager to salesforce.com administrator to software developer. The postings have no skills listed; they just describe two or three major projects the person needs to handle.
In each posting it clearly says, "DO NOT APPLY" directly. It instead asks those interested to submit a cover letter describing an accomplishment related to one of the major projects listed. Of the 200 or so people who have applied to the postings only one followed the instructions. She turned out to be a very fine person but not a fit for the job. Of the other 199 people, six were marginally qualified and 193 were totally unqualified. These 193 are the same people who complain they're working hard to find another job but no one will give them a chance.
That's why I propose job seekers only be allowed to apply for jobs they're qualified to handle. This simple shift would change the likelihood of getting a job via applying from less than 1 in 100 to about 1 in 10. Even without this restriction, job seekers should impose one on themselves and only apply to jobs they have no chance of getting. Only spend 20% of your time on this effort and spend the rest doing the following. Collectively it will result in a better job.
Spend More Time with Fewer Companies
Job seekers need to spend more time with fewer companies making direct contact with hiring managers and their functional leaders. Underlying is the idea that there are two job markets. The public one where jobs are posted and the hidden one where jobs are filled either via referral or internal promotion. (This video describes this concept.)
In The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired I offer advice to job seekers on how to enter into the hidden job market through the backdoor. Some of these points are summarized below.
Narrow your focus by first defining your ideal company. Finding a better job starts by identifying companies that need your skills and abilities, those that are hiring people like you and those that might have some problems you can solve. Once you have 15-20 companies like this do your research and find the names of likely hiring managers and department heads. LinkedIn is specifically designed for this purpose.
Make sure your resume and LinkedIn profile can be found. Recruiters search on LinkedIn and resume databases to find candidates who don't find their job postings. This post describes the process. Job seekers need to reverse engineer their resumes in order to be found this way.
Use a campaign marketing approach to get the first meeting. Forget about applying unless you're a perfect skills match but definitely follow the company. More important though is a proactive multi-pronged campaign targeted at key decision makers consisting of emails, recommendations, referrals, voice mails, meet-ups and whatever else you can think of to make contact.
Sell an exploratory discussion, not a job interview. Regardless of how you make contact, don't press for a job. Instead suggest the chance to have a discussion about a problem or opportunity the company is facing you know you could help solve.
Get recommended. Without question getting referred by a trusted source is the best technique to arrange an exploratory discussion with a decision maker. But note that networking is not about meeting as many people as you can. It's meeting a few highly-connected people who can vouch for your performance to a few other highly-connected people.
Mention a higher up. In your messages mention you're also sending an email to other leaders in the company. Mention their names. If your email is provoking, provocative and/or insightful the person reading it will more likely reach out to you directly rather than having to be told to by the higher up.
Offer a sneak peek. One job seeker told me he prepared a competitive analysis of a company's new product line and sent the first few slides to the VP Marketing. He offered to present the whole program in a short meeting to the marketing team. He got the meeting.
Conduct discovery during the first exploratory discussion. As soon as the meeting starts ask about some of the challenges, critical tasks and problems the department is currently focusing on. Then describe some of your most significant accomplishments that best compare. All job seekers should do something similar to ensure they're properly assessed on their past performance.
Slowly prove your worth. The solution selling process described here involves proving your worth in incremental steps. Each step is called an advance. For job seekers it's getting another meeting with people who are likely to be hiring someone just like you in the near future. So ask for another meeting if it's not offered.
Campaign marketing involves narrowing the prospect list to high value customers who have a natural need for your product, maximizing the response and spending more time with the right decision makers. Job seekers should apply this process. It will result in a better job.
Companies put a lid on the quality of people they're hiring by using skills-laden job descriptions and transactional processes. Job seekers can break this artificial talent ceiling by being creative, gutsy and engaging.
Most or what I do involves training and coaching recruiters and hiring managers to use Performance-based Hiring to find, recruit, interview and hire outstanding talent. Most of these candidates have multiple opportunities and few reply to job postings so recruiters and hiring managers need to be both skilled and creative to hire them. Most aren't though. This fact offers the savvy job seeker an opportunity to bend some rules to get a better job.
Bending the rules starts by knowing the rules. The most important is the idea that traditional job descriptions put a lid on the quality of the people being seen. To break this ceiling I ask hiring managers to define the job as a series of 6-8 prioritized performance objectives rather than using the more common laundry list of "must-have" skills and experiences. Job seekers can do this during the interview.
The second is to replace the transactional box checking process most companies use with a consultative recruiting process. This approach involves spending more time with fewer candidates to better match real job needs with the person's ability and interests.
There's no reason job seekers can't use a similar, more focused ceiling-breaking process.
For job seekers the process starts by fully understanding the difference between transactional and consultative selling. Buying cars, purchasing anything on Amazon or negotiating the price for something based on quantity is a transactional sales process. Finding jobs on some job board and applying is a similar transactional process.
When a product or service is customized to fit the specific needs of the buyer a consultative sales process is used. In this case the sales rep begins with a discovery process to determine the customer's needs and based on this prepares a customized solution. A comparable consultative process for hiring is how referred candidates are recruited and hired in the hidden job market before the requisition is officially opened.
Job seekers can find these better jobs in the hidden job market but they need to narrow their focus to first get the interview and then they must use a consultative process during the interview to get offered the job. Here's how this process works.
- Take a less is more approach to job hunting. Rather than applying to anything and everything, find 8-10 companies that seem to have positions available that best fit your skills and interests.
- Do your research. For each company focus on their new product efforts or where they're trying to be more efficient. Your objective is to uncover business problems they're facing that you can solve.
- Use non-traditional techniques to find the decision maker. Here are some hack-a-job ideas that don't involve applying directly. My favorite: Use a non-resume to get an audience with the decision and use your time in the meeting to conduct discovery.
- Getting referred increases your odds by 5X. Networking is not about meeting as many people as you can. It's about getting a few people who can vouch for your performance to introduce you to a few other people.
- Market demos, videos and teasers - not your resume. One person told me he put together a competitive analysis of a product line, sent it to the VP Marketing and landed an interview a few days later. He came up with the idea looking in an industrial journal with the product announcement.
- Focus on total campaign results, not response rates. Sending out hundreds of resumes in the hope to get a 1-2% response rate is a waste of effort. Instead, use multiple approaches to arrange exploratory meetings with 70-80% of those companies on your target list.
- Success is making advances, not having interviews. The measure of success in consultative selling is moving the process forward. For job seekers this equates to arranging a series of exploratory conversations or doing a small project to demonstrate your ability.
- Make sure you're assessed properly. During the discovery phase you'll be asking the people you meet to clarify real job needs. During the interview your goal is to demonstrate you can do this work by providing examples of comparable accomplishments. This interview template and video will help you guide the process along.
Job seekers regularly ask for my advice on how to get better results when applying to job postings. My advice is always the same: Stop pushing the apply button. Instead get creative, find some companies that can benefit from your abilities and then go prove it to them. This process is called consultative job seeking. It takes a lot more work than applying directly but it represents the difference between hoping for an interview and getting a real job.