The Single Biggest Mistake Most Job Seekers Make

The research is clear. The chance of getting a job by applying directly is less than 1 percent. But there are multiple ways to land the same job by understanding how companies decide whom to hire.

Last month the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 235 thousand more people got jobs.

While impressive job growth, the quality of these jobs and how they got them is what should matter. Lever - a hiring management system used by small and mid-sized companies around the world - just released a detailed report that describes how their 600+ smaller clients hired 15 thousand people. The somewhat depressing news for job seekers is that 1.5 million people applied for these jobs. This is just 1%.

Despite this, for job seekers who bypassed the apply button the odds changed dramatically and for the better.

  • Hitting the apply button is the worst way to get a job. Only one in 130 people got jobs this way. This is even less than 1%! On the other hand, the Lever companies reported that 48% of their jobs were filled this way. Getting tens of thousands of people to apply to just a few jobs that are mass produced seems like an odd way to build a motivated team.
  • 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 pushing the apply button. Based on other survey data and our own research this approach also resulted in better jobs. Despite the value of this approach the Lever data indicated only 14% of all jobs were filled by referrals. Getting referred is the obvious way job seekers can improve their odds and how companies can improve quality of hire and their hiring process effectiveness, too.
  • 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.
  • Corporate recruiters search through LinkedIn and resume databases to find candidates. This direct sourcing outreach 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.

When used to develop a job hunting strategy this information can help job seekers 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. Start by finding 20 listed jobs every week you think look interesting. Then narrow the list to the best 3-4. Only apply to those where you're a perfect fit and use the backdoor to get an interview for the other ones.

Be found. Reverse engineer your LinkedIn profile and online resume to make sure recruiters can find it. As part of this highlight your true strengths and describe these as part of your major accomplishments.

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. This is also why the referral approach is far superior to applying.

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 the membership lists and contact the leaders 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. At some point in the future they will pay you back with a few interviews. This is part of building a reverse network. The other part is helping people you know find a better job.

Conduct a discovery interview. If you do all of the above you will get interviewed. To increase your odds of moving into the final round you need to make sure you're being interviewed accurately. Start 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.

The Lever data is insightful. While primarily designed to help companies design better recruiting practices, it's invaluable for job seekers, too. Knowing how people are hired and not hired allows job seekers to seek a 1 in 10 route rather than one that's 130 to one against you.

5 Ideas on How to Jump to the Front of the Job-Seeker Line

While candidates are frustrated by the impersonal nature of job boards, it’s no different for the recruiters looking at the 99% of the resumes of unqualified people who apply to these jobs. As far as I’m concerned posting and applying to jobs on any job board is a wasted effort for everyone involved. My instant advice for job seekers is that unless you’re a perfect match on the skills listed, do not apply. (The video below provides more actionable advice.)

However, if you think you are qualified, do something different instead of applying. On a recent search for an inside sales manager a woman contacted me directly via email and told me why she was worth considering for other opportunities within the company. Of the 250 people who applied to the opening she was the only one who did something different. More important she was clearly the most talented. I now have her on my shortlist for future opportunities. This is an example of using the backdoor to find better jobs in the hidden job market.

Regardless of why a job is available, it's critical to note that rarely is the job posted as soon as it becomes available. After tracking this information for 40+ years it’s clear that about 60% of jobs are filled before they’re ever posted. As important, only about 10-15% of the posted jobs are actually filled by someone applying directly. The reason: People who apply directly to a job posting are the last candidates considered for any important job. Here’s what happens before companies look at the people who apply.

How Jobs are Actually Filled

Long Before Day 0. Hiring managers often know they have approval to hire someone long before the job is officially approved and posted. This could be days, weeks or months ahead. This is the best time for savvy job-seekers to sneak to the front of line since the skills and experience requirements haven't yet been fully spec'd out.

Days 0-5. Within hours or days of an opening becoming available and often before it's officially posted, hiring managers first consider people they already know. Sometimes the job is created with a specific person in mind. Not only is this quicker but the person’s performance is also highly predictable. In this early stage the job is rarely posted and there is a lot of opportunity to modify the position to better fit the needs and skills of the person selected.

Days 3-10. After a few days the hiring manager attempts to get referrals from some trusted sources. Typically these are from current and previous co-workers or business advisors. Getting high-quality referrals from a known source is a great way to instantly expand a person’s personal network. Hiring someone from this source not only increases candidate quality but it also reduces the risk the person won’t work out.

Days 5-15. Often recruiters are aware of the job before it’s officially opened. This allows the hiring manager to modify the job and compensation package based on the person being hired rather than being too pigeon-holed. Whether officially posted or not, recruiters immediately begin searching for candidates on LinkedIn and their own internal databases to find people who meet the major requirements. Based on this, an outbound emailing process begins to generate interest.

Days 5-60. After a week or so, if the job isn’t likely to be filled by a known or highly referred person, the job description is approved and posted on the company’s career site and to all of the job boards. Algorithms do most of the heavy lifting separating the less than 1% highly qualified from the 99% who aren’t. Only the 1% get more than a 30-second review.

Days 10-20. After a week or two referrals start emerging plus some employee referrals. Regardless of their source or when they appear, they go to the head of the line.

Now for those of you who don’t want to be the last person in line, you need to reengineer your job seeking efforts to get in the front. Here’s how:

  • Never apply to a job posting. Instead use the job posting as a lead and find someone in the company you can contact directly. Here’s how to hack-a-job this way.
  • Be different. Customized cover letters are important. In them describe your accomplishments, add a link to a video or include a sample of your work. Use the cover letter to arrange an exploratory meeting with a department head.
  • Follow and be found. LinkedIn pushes people who are following a company to the top of their list. As part of this make sure your LinkedIn profile has enough achiever terms to be found when recruiters begin their direct sourcing.
  • Become a networker of note. Recognize that networking isn’t meeting as many people as possible. It’s meeting a few people who can vouch for your performance to a few other people who are aware of open jobs at their companies. This is how you learn about jobs in the hidden job market.

Recognize it takes work to get to the top of the candidate list. However, it’s not only worth it, it’s also far better than complaining.

Work Matters: Uncovering Every Job Seeker's Internal Motivators for Success

I was working with a group of recruiters last week and I asked them how they’d handle some common candidate questions particularly, “What’s the compensation?” Whether you’re on the asking or receiving end of this question, responding properly is important.

The problem is that the question is a trap. And so is the answer.

Because if you answer it incorrectly the conversation will end. In this case, the best answer is a non-answer.

If you’re the recruiter, here’s one great non-answer:

Let’s be frank. If the job doesn’t represent a career move it doesn’t matter what we pay you because you’ll soon be unhappy. So let’s first figure out if the job is a career opportunity and then we’ll see if the pay works.

But there’s an even better non-answer that reveals the candidate’s underlying drivers of personal satisfaction.

So let’s get personal for a moment. I’d like you to role play your answer with me.

Imagine I’m a recruiter who contacts you and asks you if you’d be open to explore a situation if it represented a true career opportunity. You say, “Maybe,” but first ask, “What’s the compensation?”

But rather than answer it, I say something like the following. (Put your reaction and response in the comments below. They’ll help you and everyone else get a perspective on what’s important.)

Our company is known for being extremely competitive on the compensation side but before we get into the details I’d like to ask you a slightly different question. Think about the best job you’ve ever had. A job you truly enjoyed. A position you actually looked forward to going to on Monday mornings. Was your high degree of personal satisfaction attributed to the money you were being paid or the work you were doing? If it was the work, what about it was most satisfying?

As you can see below, few people said it was the money.

Most say it was the work itself or the importance of the work or the people they were doing it with or their boss or the company or the culture. Rarely do they say it was the money.

A personal example might help clarify the concept. My first job (long, long ago) was on an engineering project team designing missile guidance systems. At 22 I thought it was a pretty cool job but the older engineers on the team found it uninteresting and unsatisfying and as a result put in minimal effort. As I quickly learned, most of these same engineers had been recently transferred from the Apollo moon landing project. They told me they found this work inspiring and as a result worked 70-80 hours a weeks for five straight years and loved it. What I learned was that putting a man on the moon not only inspired the nation but also everyone who worked on the project. Surprisingly, it turned out the work was exactly the same as they were currently doing but the mission was different. I learned long ago that the mission and purpose of work matters when it comes to motivating people. It still does.

So what work inspires you? What’s the inner purpose that drives you? For some people it is the mission or the project. For others it’s the chance to learn something new. For some it’s helping others. Whatever it is you need to know it about yourself before taking another job and you need to know it about someone before hiring the person.

Being competent to do the work is never enough; being motivated to do it is what matters most.

Here’s one way to figure this out before you hire anyone ever again. During the performance-based interview process I use, I ask candidates to describe their major team and individual accomplishments at each of their past few jobs. (This technique is summarized in the video course summarized below.)

As I dig into each of the person’s major accomplishments I ask where the person proactively took the initiative or went the extra mile or volunteered to take on projects without being asked. A pattern soon emerges. Some want to be left alone to handle tough technical problems. Others want to handle challenging business issues or enjoy getting involved with teams or coaching others. Whatever drives people to excel is revealed by this type of fact-finding. Of course, and not surprisingly, these internal motivators usually correlate highly with what the person described initially as their most satisfying job.

So if you want to hire more highly motivated people, make sure the work you’re offering matches their natural motivators. And if it does, pay them whatever they need.

That’s why you can’t ever answer, “What’s the compensation?” before you know what motivates the person to excel. Because if you answer it incorrectly, you’ll never know.