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

  1. 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.
  2. They had a few preliminary discussions with the recruiter and the hiring manager before they agreed to become a formal candidate.
  3. 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.
  4. They underwent a number of professional interviews and had a full appreciation that they were thoroughly vetted properly for ability, fit and interest.
  5. 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.