A sadistic hobby of mine is to read job advice columns that make me angry. Consider this our first foray into the dark underbelly of the high and mighty HR professional. Watch out for lint in the belly button.
One thing that I got a lot of as a job seeker is email newsletters from the many places I used to find new positions. Often, an HR professional will write an advice piece on what you are doing wrong as a job seeker and how to correct that.
The beauty of this sort of criticism/advice is that it can be done to anything a job seeker does, because it is ALWAYS your fault that you don’t have a job. You said something wrong or did something “unprofessional” that lost you the job. Do a Google image search for bad interviews, and 99 percent show the person being interviewed doing something stupid or sweating. We don’t put nearly enough emphasis on the role of the interviewer in providing a reasonable environment to have a conversation.
Let’s take this e-mail from The Ladder about annoying voicemails.
The writer brings up a topic, here leaving voicemails, and has a handy example of why some moron named Stan didn’t get a job because of his stupidface voicemail message. Some of the tips are solid – Of course you should leave your phone number and full name.
But most of these are doing some language parsing and imagineering on a grander scale than a sophomore English major trying to impress her professor. The columnist reads the line: “When I spoke with your CEO at our Alumni Conference last week, he mentioned what a great background I have for the role” and perceives this as a vague threat. Perhaps Stan was genuinely excited about the job, to the point that when he saw the CEO at an event, he introduced himself and made a good impression. Stan really wants to work for your company, so much so that he’s generating networking opportunities to build relationships. He wants to jump in right now, because there’s nothing more he wants to do with his life than help your company become the juggernaut of industry that you all know it can be. But I guess noting that you are ready to go ASAP is “desperate.” My argument here is that the audience can take the message any way they want to. It’s the old communication machine:
You can encode a message as carefully as you like, but half of the process lies in the ability of the receiver to decode the message accurately. If you intentionally want to be an abtuse jerk, like the HR person who read Stan’s message about chatting with the CEO as a threat, you sure can, but do you think there’s more than 0 percent chance that Stan could have been calling to threaten the HR person?
I’ve got some degrees in English, and I can play this fun game as well. Let’s look at the voicemail that the columnist says is a good example and one we should use as a template for our own interactions.
“Hi Susan, it’s Jim Ablebody at 867-5309. Just calling to let you know how excited I am about the opportunity there at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. As I mentioned last week, I’ve spent 17 years in nuclear safety, so I feel there could be a great fit. Hey, just like Mariano Rivera, I’m getting better with age! Thanks, Susan, and, again, it’s Jim [stop and tiny pause]. Ablebody [stop and tiny pause]. 867-5 [stop and tiny pause]. 309 [stop and tiny pause]. Thanks, Susan!”
1. Hi? Hi!? You really need to be more formal in these voicemails. Friends and schoolkids say Hi. Professionals say Hello or Good Afternoon.
2. “Just calling” is an outright lie. You are not just calling to let me know you are excited. There are a plethora of valid and good reasons you are calling me.
3. “Mariano Rivera”? Seriously? Is that a baseball player? You’ve just turned off anyone who isn’t into sports. Add to that your use of the word age rather than experience and you’ve just lost the job, buckko.
4. You said Thanks, Susan twice here. You are groveling too much at this point. You are repetitive and apparently have some sort of “thanks” syndrome that you should really have checked by a medical professional.
5. You said you have 17 years in the business. So, why are you trying to kill me? (Ok, that was just for fun)
So what’s the upshot of all this? The vast majority of columns can be boiled down to “just be nice and be respectful of the HR department’s time.” “It’s always your fault you don’t have a job yet because you did something stupid, stupid pants.” And in part “HR departments are always right no matter how they want to interpret your messages, so don’t question them. OBEY.”
With the wide variety of HR professionals out there, each with their own strange quirks, pet peeves, and outside lives that affect their mood at any given moment, there is no magic bullet that will get you hired. It’s an impossible task to come up with something so neutral that it won’t offend someone for some random reason, but will also be in the least bit memorable. What you say to one employer can be taken completely wrong by another. But such thinking makes for entertaining exercises in language analysis and keeps job experts busy writing columns about all the things you are doing wrong.
My advice: if you keep worrying about this unwinnable situation, you are going to anxiety-choke on your own words and make a bigger fool of yourself. It’s simple: be courteous, be yourself (hopefully that includes being courteous), and the right person will eventually be on the other end of the line and you can form a meaningful business connection.
Good luck out there.