Once upon a time, as many millennials have likely heard from their parents, you went into a place of business and handed the managers your résumé, applying right then and there. While a handful of jobs might still work this way, ask anyone who’s applied for a job in the past decade or so and they’ll tell you that hiring now takes place exclusively online. Sometimes jobs require emails to would-be superiors with application materials; other times, applicants send their credentials through a web form, which feels no different than throwing your résumé into a black hole.
In the U.S., students sometimes learn to write résumés and cover letters in high school. Many college campuses have career centers that teach the same skills. But few people, especially those who graduated long before applications migrated online, have been explicitly taught how to use the internet in job searches. These applications have added an unspoken requirement that candidates possess basic knowledge about how to appear professional online, making an already-difficult-to-navigate system even more opaque.
Social signaling has always been a part of job applications; for instance, candidates have long been advised to use high-quality paper for résumés to make a solid first impression. But the internet has created new ways to weed people out, not all of which are fair. For starters, online job applications assume applicants can just get online and apply, but not everyone has easy access to the internet and the web tools required to submit an application. In a Twitter thread, Lisa Kaplan recapped her experience helping a fellow public library patron with an online application for a custodial job. That application required her to create a profile through the company’s online system, which required her to provide an email address—but this person didn’t have an email address. Creating a new email address now requires a phone number for a two-factor authentication code, and this person didn’t have a phone either, save her shelter’s landline. (To verify this, I tried to sign up for a new Gmail account, arguably the least-dated major email domain, but was stymied when I tried to skip past the phone number prompt.) “So, this woman who is seeking employment is precluded from even applying because she doesn’t have a cell phone,” tweeted Kaplan. Surely, there are ways around this; people hired employees long before we had emails and cellphones.
Candidates who aren’t regularly online may face other disadvantages in the application process as well. Consider, for instance, that writing a job application email—or any professional email, for that matter—is not easy or intuitive. (I write for a living and regularly struggle to strike the right tone in my emails.) People in the early phases of their careers or others who haven’t seen many examples of professional emails may simply not know those unspoken rules—and yet, there are few places to pick up these skills. In a thread at the beginning of the 2018 school year, Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor at Brown University, tweeted about overhearing two undergraduates at a coffee shop “painstakingly try to compose an email to a faculty member” to ask about the waitlist for a class. “They were trying to find the right tone, debating over the placement of exclamation marks,” Keene wrote. “I should add, the reason I jumped [in] was the way they worded the first draft would have made me as a faculty member angry and annoyed, and I could tell that they were genuinely interested in the course.”
In response to Keene’s experience, linguist Gretchen McCulloch suggested to fellow academics that if professors expect students to write in a specific style, they must teach it to students. “In the evolving norms days of the nineties and early 2000s, it might have been justified to think that emails were something that didn’t need teaching,” she tweeted. “But now, professional people have evolved a set of email norms that’s around twenty years old. About the same age as the kids currently entering universities.” Those students don’t have models for professional email writing, and, as McCulloch points out, there’s no way to “lurk” and learn the way one might learn the norms of using social media. In response to her thread, several other educators say they incorporate such lessons into their courses and have seen students progress as they’re given opportunities to try it out.
Other subtle details might also disqualify candidates’ applications, or at least bias hiring managers’ first impressions. Online interactions are governed by norms that might come naturally to people who have the resources to spend a lot of time plugged in but are rarely spelled out for folks who don’t, potentially excluding many qualified applicants in the process. I’m certainly guilty of this. The only time I’ve been in any kind of hiring position was as a graduate student looking for undergraduate assistants to help with my research, which mostly involved performing puppet shows for preschoolers. The application process was informal—I asked candidates to write me a short email explaining their interest in the position, along with a résumé. I looked for folks who had some experience working with children and parents and who could be depended upon to show up. Nothing about those criteria entailed being good at writing an introductory email or formatting résumés, yet I found myself doubting the judgment of the student who submitted a résumé in a pretty but nearly unreadable cursive font, or the one who listed among their credentials that their friends say they are “small and childlike, so children will relate to me.”
Alison Green, creator of the work advice site Ask a Manager (and a Slate columnist), says she’s encountered applicants whose initial emails indicate their lack of internet savvy, by writing in all caps, sharing an email address with a partner, using custom “stationary” templates in emails, or sending multiple application emails. “I’ve had people send a separate email for each attachment they want to email me (like one email for their resume and another for their cover letter)—not because they forgot to attach something the first time, but because they don’t realize they can do multiple attachments in one email,” she told me in an email. “It’s not … reassuring.”
Sometimes that kind of knee-jerk reaction is warranted. If you’re, say, applying for a social media manager position, it makes sense to demonstrate your internet savviness. But other times, those judgments just get in the way of someone who might otherwise be a fine candidate. “Even when it doesn’t really matter for the job, some hiring managers will bring their own biases on this, which could affect their assessment of how strong the person’s candidacy is, even if objectively it shouldn’t,” says Green. “There’s also a sort of guilt by association. If everyone you’ve seen use email ‘stationery’ has been sort of oblivious to professional norms or generally unskilled with technology, you’re more likely to make those assumptions about a candidate who does it, too.”
The challenge here isn’t just helping applicants learn about these norms—it’s getting companies to minimize their role in upholding them. Recognizing these biases is a good first step for hiring committees hoping to improve internal systems. Another early step might be to consider adopting systems that allow people to apply without listing an email address and cellphone number so that having a smartphone or computer doesn’t become a prerequisite.
If you’re a hiring manager but not able to enact a systemwide change, you might make more of a concerted effort to look past your snap judgments. Deciding in advance on a solid set of criteria by which to evaluate applicants can help, Green suggests. “It’s really important to get clear on the must-haves for the role,” she says, noting that hiring managers are often bad at considering only the essentials. “That’s why you see things like requirements for four-year degrees when someone could do the job well without them, or job postings advertising for people with five years of experience in a software that’s only existed for three. People are generally not as rigorous as they should be at thinking through what they really need to be looking for. That’s definitely true when it comes to signals people send around things like internet savviness.”
You’ll likely still notice (and even judge) if an applicant sends in materials for a landscaping position with a green Comic Sans email signature. But with a solid list of criteria, you might be better positioned to remind yourself that their font has no bearing on her ability to get the job done.