Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Job searching is hard business: Candidates are often up against heavy competition, and applying for jobs can sometimes feel like sending your résumé into a black hole where you have no idea if anyone ever reads your application, or what it might take to get called for an interview, let alone hired. It’s not terribly surprising, then, that some job seekers become convinced that their qualifications alone aren’t enough and believe they instead need a creative way to “stand out” and get an employer’s attention—from sending candy to the hiring manager to taking out billboards to advertise themselves.
Take this person who wrote to my work-advice column:
I have applied for a job I would love to have. In attempts to stand out to the hiring manager, I sent my resume in with two bars of chocolate, a dark chocolate and a milk chocolate. I had read a Forbes article on creative ways to get a job interview, and one of the suggestions was to send chocolate (another I was toying with was to send your resume in a bottle, like a “message in a bottle”). … The next Monday, I sent HR my resume and cover letter, not mentioning the chocolate. That was three weeks ago. The job posting expired a week ago. I have tried calling HR, but I have yet to get ahold of anyone. Is my only option to sit and wait?
This person, too, is searching for a way to stand out in a crowded field:
I have been job hunting for a while now without much success. I’m looking for creative ways to get noticed by employers, and I had the idea to send my resume along with a lottery ticket and the message “Take a chance on meeting me!” My thinking is that it’s a cute way to stand out and some hiring managers might be intrigued enough to call me for an interview. Do you see any downsides to this?
While these two examples are particularly gimmicky, less over-the-top strategies can come across as gimmicky as well, like showing up in person with your résumé (rather than applying the way the employer asked you to apply) or overnighting your résumé to the hiring manager (again, probably not the way they want you applying, since it means you don’t end up in their electronic application system).
Anyone with a modicum of sympathy can understand why job seekers look for a way to stand out in a sea of other applicants. Hiring processes can feel opaque from the outside, and the stakes for candidates are so high that of course the prospect of finding another path to an interview is appealing.
The problem is: These sorts of gimmicks don’t work, at least not with good employers. Because gimmicks have nothing to do with the strength of an applicant’s candidacy, they come across as cheesy and out of touch with what employers are looking for (skills and experience, not chocolate and lottery tickets).
Here’s one employer’s take on a candidate’s attempt to “stand out”:
We’re hiring for a social media person at work, and had an applicant show up out of the blue today with a bamboo plant in a vase and candy and a card and try to give it to the hiring manager. The hiring manager flat-out told her it wasn’t really appropriate and that she couldn’t accept the gifts. The applicant tried one more time to give it to her, saying she wanted to stand out, but got shut down and left dejectedly.
It made her stand out, but definitely not in a good way. It was too bad, because she’d been on the shortlist to call for an interview (not anymore). I felt bad for her because someone must be pushing this advice somewhere.
This person received a package from a job candidate with a resume and a shoe in it, along with a note asking to “get a foot in the door”:
The hiring manager thought it was insanely gross (it was a visibly dirty, used shoe!!!) and went around telling everyone how grossed out she was and how terrible the idea was.
Gimmicky tactics can even leave employers feeling insulted, by implying their favor can be bought:
A few weeks ago, I had someone drop off a resume with a very nice bar of gourmet chocolate. … She called later that week to ask if I received the resume and if I enjoyed the “gift.”
I thought it was very aggressive of her to add chocolate. It felt like a bribe to read the resume. You know, I do my job. I read resumes when they arrive. Chocolate will not influence me, and in fact, it ticked me off.
And in the rare cases where a hiring manager does respond to gimmicks over merit, now you’ve just screened for a manager who responds to flash and gimmicks over merit. Guess what it’s going to be like to work for that person?
The reality is that the way to stand out to good employers is pretty boring: Be highly qualified for the job, have a strong résumé showing a track record of achievement, and write a compelling cover letter that explains why you’d excel at the role. That’s harder than sticking chocolate in the mail, and it doesn’t offer the promise of an attention-grabbing technique that other candidates haven’t thought of, but it’s what works.