your job-searching gimmick sucks and is kind of creepy

In a tight job market like this one, job seekers often start wondering about how they can stand out in a sea of other candidates. And some of them turn to gimmicks—like sending food to a potential employer, or even the old story of sending a resume in a shoe with a note asking to get a foot in the door. But in reality, gimmicks are more likely to hurt than help a job seeker’s chances.

Since gimmicks have nothing to do with the quality of your candidacy, they make you look like you don’t think you can stand on your qualifications and merit, which will make the hiring manager question that as well. Plus, gimmicks make you come across as overly aggressive, hokey, or even creepy.

Here are five gimmicks job seekers sometimes try and reasons why you shouldn’t use them:

1. Sending cookies or other treats. This will make you stand out all right—as someone who doesn’t understand normal professional boundaries. You can’t bribe your way into a job (and if you could, it would take more than the price of a box of brownies). Besides, lots of people are wary of accepting food from strangers.

2. Dropping off your resume in person. Sure, everyone has heard a story about someone who went by to drop off their resume in person and got interviewed and hired on the spot. But most employers will find it annoying and indicative that you don’t understand modern hiring conventions. After all, most companies include specific instructions about how they want you to apply, and “in person” is rarely included. Plus, many companies only accept resumes electronically because they get put into an electronic screening system. (Retail and food service tend to be the exceptions to this rule.)

3. Overnighting your resume to the employer. Similar to dropping by in person, overnighting your application shows you don’t care to follow the company’s directions, and it might mean your materials won’t end up in their electronic tracking system. In your attempt to stand out, you’ll sacrifice convenience and efficiency on the employer’s end.

And in this electronic age, you’ll come across as a bit outdated.

4. Creative resume designs. Here’s what most hiring managers want from a resume: a concise, easy-to-scan list of what you’ve accomplished, organized chronologically by position, plus any particularly notable skills, all presented in a format that they can quickly scan and get the highlights. That’s it. If you try unusual designs or colors, you’ll not only annoy most hiring managers, but you’ll raise questions about whether you think your skills and experience won’t speak for themselves, and whether you put an inappropriate emphasis on appearances over substance. (Design jobs are an exception to this rule.)

5. Photos. Although photos often accompany resumes in other countries, in the United States it’s considered naive and even gauche to include a photo with your application. Not only does a photo come across as inappropriate, but it will make many employers uncomfortable, because it opens the door for allegations of discrimination.

So, if gimmicks are off-limits, how do you stand out? The answer is straightforward: Be highly qualified for the job, write a great cover letter, have a resume that shows that you’d excel at what the job involves, and be friendly, responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic.

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S

    Could a person do penance by sending YOU cookies instead?
    Actually, scratch that–could a person do penance by sending ME cookies?

  2. Tiff

    Overnighting my cover letter and resume helped me get the job I have now. I submitted the correct paperwork electronically, but because I was super pressed (it seriously felt like the job was created for me….and no, I didn’t put that in my cover letter!) I also overnighted a copy to the Director. Wouldn’t ya know she walked it over to the hiring manager herself and I ended up with the job. I think your advice about never sending the resume overnight is sound, but I also think that it applies more accurately to larger organizations. And, considering how well it worked for me in the past, I wouldn’t discount it in the future.

    1. Kate2

      I think the fact that you submitted your resume electronically first is what makes your example slightly different from Alison’s. I’ve done this before as well (although rarely, and never through overnight mail) when I felt that the job was a really great match.

      1. Tiff

        Agreed. My method didn’t create more work for the hiring manager at all. Plus, my cover letter was basically a “here’s how I can help you” piece of cover letter genius, if I do say so myself.

  3. Alex @ Kapta Systems

    I think it depends on the company. Some forward thinking companies that like to hire ambitious people might enjoy some outside of the box thinking. I think both the applicant and company need to be on the same page though.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      But if you get hired by a company that responds to gimmicks over merit, guess what it’s going to be like to work there? That’s when people end up writing in to me complaining that raises, promotions, and the best projects at their company go to the people who are the flashiest or schmooze the most with the boss, rather than the people who have earned them. You really don’t want to self-select for that kind of employer.

      1. Eva

        I’m not at all a fan of gimmicks here, but I did once get a job by kinda using one. I had sent a good application for a job at a market research company as an interviewer (both via phone and on the street, i.e. when working on the street you chat up passers-by and invite them to come in and spend a few minutes trying a product). When I hadn’t heard anything after several weeks even though I knew from a friend who was working there that they were in fact in the process of contacting applicants (and that a training course was due to begin soon thereafter), I went to the place where the street interviewers work and asked one of them if I could speak to a supervisor. When I spoke with him, he said he didn’t know what had happened to my application, but hired me on the spot because: “Right now you’re demonstrating the kind of drive we’re looking for in our interviewers!” During my time there I got to know the company very well (both ‘in the field’ (CATI/CAPI) and at the headquarters) and it was very fair and sensible – and that also goes for that particular manager.

        I realize that that supervisor was accessible in a different way than someone working in an office would be, but I’m thinking there must be many more exceptions to the rule? There’s sales, interviewing, consulting and other jobs where a high degree of assertiveness and even … let’s call it ‘manipulative charm’ is actually an asset that translates to profit for the company. I’m thinking that if (and that’s a big if) for such a job one can find a way to give a demonstration of those traits without annoying the interviewer, then one should go ahead and try it?

        I can’t resist also bringing personality differences (MBTI) into play here. Apart from job type, I’m thinking hiring manager type also plays a role. A lot of us reading this blog are introverted and structured, but extroverted and unstructured (P) types will often be more open to a good gimmick (and less likely to conscientiously wade through all applications!) without that openness necessarily reflecting deeper problems at the company. Of course it’s difficult to know a hiring manager’s type in advance (though some fields are certainly more extroverted and unstructured than others), but still, I can’t help but wonder if this is a good time to recall the Not All People Are Wired Like Us and moderate the advice about gimmicks to “almost never use, except if the following conditions apply.” What do you think?

        1. Henning Makholm

          That sounds like a job where Not Being Afraid Of Annoying People is in fact an essential (and, happily for the rest of us, rare) skill. So your tale is not an example of standing-out-by-generically-thinking-outside-the-box, but of directly demonstrating how you qualify for that particular job.

        2. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yeah, I think that was a very specific situation specific to that type of (fairly unusual) job. But also, you can always find an exception to these rules — but it doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of hiring managers do hate this stuff (not just me!) and it’ll hurt far more often than it will help!

          1. Eva

            I see what you and Henning are saying. I’m sick and apparently not thinking straight (or writing very well, as I see now that I re-read what I wrote above). Sorry about that! :)

    2. Henning Makholm

      I don’t think a “forward thinking” company would enjoy outside-of-the-box ideas except to the extent that those ideas actually work better than inside-the-box ones. Anyone can have a zillion unconventional but bad ideas about something; it is having some good ones and being able to tell them from the bad ones that’s a valuable skill.

      Thinking that an idea must be good simply because it is unconventional and regardless of its actual merits sounds like a recipe for failure in any resource-constrained competitive system.

  4. Taryn

    I think if you are in a more creative or innovative environment its a different story. Sure gimmicks won’t get you a job – but creativity just might. Most hiring managers are depending on recruiters that have a vague idea of what the job entails and are likely to weed out many candidates who could be amazing but don’t have the exact right background. Or the recruiter may have the ability to see how diverse experience could be exactly what the position needs and the hiring manager is stuck with the “must have MBA from XYLOPHONE school” crap.

  5. M

    I’m curious – if not gimmicks, what should one do if one has nothing to put into a fabulous AAM-style cover letter?

    I have used the AAM technique with success myself, but my sister is trying to get her first real job with nothing in her background that employers seem to care about. It’s not the employers’ fault – she has a BS in Biology and M.Ed., but those aren’t leading to careers in her field so she’s looking elsewhere, where that education is irrelevant. She worked at a doctor’s office through college & in the past year she’s taught as an p/t adjunct at a for-profit college, but that experience hasn’t opened any doors, either.

    I thought HR/training might be a fit, but maybe our CLs (I’m editing) aren’t working, because we apparently haven’t convinced employers that her adult teaching experience translates well into corporate training.

    I’ve told her she’s going to have to figure out a way to meet people in person & network because her weird resume is just going to get bounced by the electronic systems, but I don’t have any concrete ideas on WHAT to do. (I guess we’ll nix the cake she was going to send, j/k.)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think she’s got to really figure out why an employer would/should be excited about hiring her, in a sea of presumably qualified applicants, and then find a way to explain that through her cover letter and resume. If she can’t come up with an answer to that, an employer isn’t going to either — so that’s the first and most crucial step.

      One minor note: I know you don’t really mean “our cover letters,” but do be careful to make sure they’re really hers. All kinds of problems can result if someone gets a job through materials that aren’t really theirs (like it not being a good fit, the employer not liking the employee they actually get, etc.).

      1. M

        Thanks for the advice. I think she needs to talk to more people in the fields she’s looking at to figure out what they actually would get excited about and IF she has that to offer. (The cover letters are hers. My main role was pointing out that the generic form letter wasn’t helpful and she really needed to explain why she was applying b/c of her background. The language was hers.)

        1. Laura

          I’m assuming that this is someone who can’t through the ridiculously glutted field of education? Training pops up as a “natural” career change suggestion, but I found that there seem to be a number of hard skills that companies want in trainers. I think there is an American Society of Training and Development or some such thing. Network there?

          1. M

            Thanks for the suggestion on the Am. Society of Training & Development. That is helpful. (FWIW, it wasn’t such a simple assumption that she couldn’t get a teaching position so she should jump over to looking at corp. training. Her teaching at the for-profit was in adult education – medical office management courses, so she has some experience teaching job skills-type stuff, and she has done some learning management systems work through that job.)

            1. Laura

              FWIW here, every time I talk about how difficult it is to get into teaching, someone says, “Have you considered corporate training?” (But from what I see, a lot of corporate training is software/hardware related, or heavy-machinery related.) I think there’s a job search engine for training jobs too.

              1. M

                Sorry to hear you’ve struggled w/ teaching jobs, too. My sister subbed for a year following student teaching in 2 highly regarded districts, is licensed in two states, certified in biology, chem, and physics, and STILL nothing. (It makes sense, if the districts aren’t building new schools, which most aren’t, there will only be a handful of sci teacher jobs open each year, but it’s still frustrating.)

    2. Student

      Have you had her look at jobs where the biology background (or educational background) is relevant to the company but not the specific job?

      I work in a physics lab. We are a lot more likely to hire somebody in a non-science role if they also happen to have a relevant science background and can thus relate to the organization mission.

      She also sounds like a great candidate to work as a science journalist, if she has any interest in that.

      1. M

        She has looked at that somewhat. There is a huge multinational co locally that fits the bill, but you can only submit online once a year and she got rejected. A smaller lab-type place might fit better. I’m not sure her writing or researching skills would be enough for a sci journalist role, but I might suggest it next time we’re talking.

    3. Laura

      I was in a similar situation a few years ago. I ended up trying a slightly gimmicky format for my cover letter that included — in addition to the normal CL stuff — a small table of about 5 rows that paired my skills from previous positions with their needs (based on the job description). The hiring manager later told me that the odd format caught his attention and that he wouldn’t have considered my resume without the match-ups, as I was changing careers and it helped him see really quickly which of my skills were directly relevant to the job I was applying for. He *also* said, though, that his first reaction was that it was too gimmicky and he almost didn’t give me the interview. So possibly consider this as a last resort option, but definitely try all the less gimmicky stuff first.

      1. M

        With my background, I’d think that was great. I work in the engineering industry. . .a table >> words to many of the hiring managers. I wouldn’t think of it as gimmicky – just efficient : )

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yeah, I wouldn’t really say that’s gimmicky. (It’s actually something I’ve seen a lot of candidates do, so it can seem a little “borrowed,” but not gimmicky.)

        2. Jamie

          I love this idea – actually. I’m a big fan of tables whenever possible.

          Now a spreadsheet which was trying to be clever by doing a faux ROI on the benefits of hiring me would be gimmicky. I agree with M that what was described is just efficient.

  6. Gene

    But but but…

    The magic picture box in my living room says that the way to get the job isn’t an MBA, it’s bringing in breakfast from McDonald’s!

    1. Anonymous

      Ha ha ha! I was just commenting on that commercial to my husband the other day. I don’t understand if he has an edge because he’s eating breakfast (but then he’s eating breakfast during his interview, which is weird) or if he is bribing the hiring manager with McDonald’s.

    2. Alisha

      Glad I wasn’t drinking water when I saw this…I have this habit of guffawing and shooting liquid out my nose. Terrible for a computer! : D

  7. Anonymous

    Right before I left graduate school, a panel of local hiring managers told us to do many of these exact things to get a job our field:

    – Stalk the company in a “friendly” way by showing up to events, arranging visits to the office, and deliver anything in person so that they’d be able to put a face to the name. If you don’t know anybody there, hang out at the nearest coffee shop to make friends.

    — “Cupcakes are great.”

    – I’m in a design field, so x10 for having a well-designed “artsy” resume coordinated with letterhead, samples, personal business card, portfolio, thank-you cards, and website.

    1. Jamie

      – “Cupcakes are great.”

      Truer words were never spoken. Don’t get me wrong, they have no place in the job hunt and this was horrible advice.

      But cupcakes are really great.

      1. fposte

        It also makes me think of the Molly Ivins-quoted wisdom of the Texas Legislature: “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

        Hiring managers can eat your cupcakes and reject you anyway.

      2. Tiff

        I was just thinking the same thing. Someone gave me a cupcake last week that had an oreo cookie on the bottom. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

    2. Bridgette

      As much as I do enjoy cupcakes (they are the light of my life), receiving cupcakes from total strangers is scary. I just don’t accept food from people I don’t know, even if it’s clear you bought them from a bakery. Stranger danger, y’all.

      1. Kelly O

        So glad I’m not the only one thinking “those random cupcakes best come sealed from the bakery, otherwise I am not taking chances.”

        Stranger danger, indeed.

  8. Anonymous

    As someone who has hired for a number of retail stores and restaurants, I can’t help but feel a little twinge whenever I see the parenthetical “retail and food service jobs tend to be exceptions to this” which inevitably shows up in these articles.

    Some retail/food jobs only have paper applications in store, particularly if they’re not one of the behemoths like Walmart. In those cases, obviously you have to go in and ask for an application. But that’s pretty much the only exception, and only because there’s no other way. In the articles it’s almost made to sound like retail and food are the exceptions just because, not for a good reason (that if you can only apply on paper, obviously you have to go in).

    Like you said, someone somewhere got a job by showing up and looking pretty, and that happens in retail/food too, but less often these days as budgets are cut and managers have less time to get called up front to BS with potential candidates. So I get twitchy when it’s listed as a potential exception when it’s no more likely to be an exception than some random company.

    Personally, I used to tell all my front-line employees this: if someone asks for a manager, ask them if it’s regarding employment. If it is, tell them they’ll be called if needed. Some still insisted on seeing me because they were so convinced that me “putting a face with the name” was important. It was. To me. It meant I now knew what the person who had no respect for my time actually looked like, and could place a Post-It with “NO” written on it on their app.

    Ask yourself, if a telemarketer called up and was told you would call if you needed the product, and then they showed up at your front door to shake your hand and show that product, would you admire their persistence and buy from them, or would you be royally creeped out?

  9. ITforMe

    If you would find it creepy if someone who was romantically interested in you did X, then don’t do X to a hiring manager.

    In all seriousness, the only thing I can imagine that would make me consider a candidate, besides resume and cover letter, is a personal recommendation.

    1. Henning Makholm

      Say, would you find it creepy if somebody who was romantically interested in you emailed you a relation proposal formatted as a business letter, with an enclosure that listed in meticulous detail whom they had been dating when for the last 5-to-10 years, and what they achieved in each prior relationship?

      1. Jamie

        Personally I would find that creepy. I would also find it hysterical.

        I will be requesting a relationship resume from my husband tonight. Even though we’ve been married for years, I’m not waiving the cover letter requirement. I want to know why he’s the best candidate for my hand in marriage.

        Seriously, I can’t stop laughing…he will not be pleased!

  10. Alisha

    Can I say I am so bummed about the number of junior techies and creatives who come to me for help, and are freaked out because their late 40s/50-something parents are breathing down their neck about dropping off resumes in person – without an appointment, no less. Yikes! If you’re new to job searching, listen to Alison on this, guys, and don’t show up to a professional office to drop off a resume. In 2012, this is a huge faux pas, no matter how much your parents insist otherwise.

    Remember, us oldsters (anyone over 30) entered the workforce in a different world than you did. I snail-mailed and faxed an ungodly amount of job apps and had dial-up interwebs when I was entry level. Your parents may not have even used computers when they were your age. Business protocol is changing at the speed of light in the post-mobile world, and sometimes, your instinct is more current and etiquette-forward than your parents’ advice. So don’t drop your resume off at that bank, ad agency, or law firm you want to work at. Find the hiring manager, and e-mail a persuasive letter of introduction explaining what skills you bring to the table and how you can help them solve their problems/challenges this year. Attach a nicely formatted resume and, if appropriate to your profession, a portfolio, and you’re set.

    1. M

      Speaking of junior techie faux pas. . .
      You reminded me of a story that happened last week. A friend of mine (who IS a professional in the financial industry, not a dinosaur) wanted me to “show his nephew around my company.” Nephew is a college student in my field. I agreed, and after 3 months & 2 cancellations on their side, we finally did the showing around last week.
      Faux pas #1 – cancelling so many times. Good grief, I have real meetings to set up.
      Faux pas #2 – the uncle would have stayed for the meeting. I thought it was weird that he showed up, but I thought he’d just introduce the nephew personally and take off. I had to tell him it would be better if just nephew and I chatted.
      Faux pas #3 – 3 days have passed. No thank you email, no “wow that place was great – keep me in mind for interns next year”, even though he did ask for my business card.

      That’s really it, and I would guess the kid doesn’t know much about job search / networking etiquette, so I’d still give him a positive recommendation if he applies here, but it was a really weird little experience.

        1. M

          The 1st time, the uncle’s wife had a baby several weeks early on the day of, so I can forgive that one.

          The 2nd time, was more flaky – he wanted to wait until after finals b/c we had scheduled during stop week. (He knew when stop week was when he agreed, right?)

          Yeah, on second thought if I don’t receive a follow-up this week, I’d be neutral-to-negative on recommending him.

      1. Alisha

        Woah, that’s strange. I’d feel suuuuuper shaky hiring him for my team, since the slippage on keeping appointments and following up could spell trouble for me. I’d be wondering, “What if he blows a deadline? Forgets to QA when we have a major shipment coming up, and puts us at risk of losing the client?

        At my first manager job, I hired someone who was ten minutes late for the interview. It was snowing, and we’ve seldom had a snowy winter here since the late 90s, the city’s broke, they don’t plow ’till 2 PM sometimes, and some folks freak at the first sign of flurries. Fair enough, maybe the roads weren’t good near this person’s house, maybe there was a hold-up, and ze apologized, but kind of casually, like “Oh, you know – weather thing.” Ze turned out to be a major nightmare for me, and when I had to let hir go, it became an issue and hir mother called us. Just be careful…I like to tell people my mistakes so they don’t make ’em too. ; )

        (Gender-neutral pronouns intentional to protect the “guilty”…I sometimes use “they” & “their,” but hate how ungrammatical they are!)

  11. Tel

    My aunt once got a job by handing her resume in a parking lot, but I’m not sure that would work for all jobs (TV reporter, in this case).

    1. Alisha

      Speaking as a free-lance writer (I cover STEM issues, mainly tech, health), I’ve noticed that the news industry in general is a wee bit behind the trends (in my region, which is behind anyway, so who knows…). For instance: Many editors (around here…) insist on a one-page resume, because it shows you can write concisely. I would be an EPIC fail if I made that my FT career!

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      As I said above, you can always find an exception to these rules — but it doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of hiring managers hate this stuff and it’ll hurt far more often than it will help.

  12. Kara

    I came across this article about gimmic-y or over-the-top job searches, and it made me laugh because I’m almost positive you wouldn’t have hired a single one of these applicants.

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/11-resumes-that-got-worldwide-attention-194410148.html?page=1

    The chocolate bar is kind of interesting, but it would still make me wonder what resume gap he was trying to fill. I wouldn’t hire the guy, but I’d probably eat the chocolate bar anyway. ;-)

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