A reader writes:
Is it ever advisable to reach out to a hiring manager before applying to a position? For example, if you’re hoping for clarification of what they’re looking for in a candidate or something along those lines. Is that okay or is it a bit obnoxious when you’re trying to get through piles of applications?
It varies, but in most cases, you’re better off just applying.
First, they’ve really told you what they intend to tell you about the job in the job posting. Yes, job postings aren’t always clear (sometimes far from it), but that’s what they’ve put out there to communicate with applicants. If other people are able to get the basics from it, you risk looking like you need hand-holding if you can’t. (And in my experience, when I’ve had candidates reach out to me with questions before applying, it’s nearly always just a rehash of what was in the posting, which leaves me wondering why they felt the need for special contact.)
Second, employers are fielding hundreds of applicants. It’s not realistic to talk with all these people, or even with half of them … and the vast, vast majority of them are going to be screened out in the initial resume review. So most hiring managers would rather get a look at your resume first before deciding if it makes sense to talk further. (And in my experience, the candidates who reach out before applying are rarely the strongest ones. That might just be the odds — since most candidates aren’t the strongest ones — or it might say something about the resourcefulness/confidence/self-sufficiency of the candidates who are the strongest. I’m not sure which it is.)
That said, there are some hiring managers who are happy to talk briefly with anyone who reaches out, particularly for certain jobs. For instance, I’m happy to talk briefly with prospective candidates for senior or hard-to-fill jobs before they apply, because an especially important part of the hiring process with those jobs is locating the right people and getting them in the candidate pool. But even in those cases, I tend to wish they’d send me their resume first, so I have a sense of whether they’re likely to be competitive or not. (And even in these cases, I’ve found that my observation above still holds true: The strongest candidates rarely bother with this; they just cut to the chase and apply. And so years of observing that means that I’ve always got some skepticism when someone reaches out with pre-application questions.)
Anyway … you might be thinking that it’s unreasonable to expect you to put time into writing a cover letter and perhaps filling out a time-consuming application if you can’t even get some basic questions answered first to determine your initial interest in the job. And maybe it is — but most hiring managers are busy people, they know that they’re going to reject 80% of applicants as soon as they skim their materials and so the odds are high that you’re in that group, and they know that if even a small fraction of applicants reached out for personal attention before applying, they’d be swamped.
Fair or unfair, that’s the reality.
So what’s the upshot? I’d say that it’s this: Reach out only if you really have to, and use a high bar for how you’re defining “have to.” If you’re just interested in learning more but figure you’re going to apply regardless, skip the call or email and just apply. If you’re not sure you’re qualified, well, that’s why we have the application process, so just apply. In most cases, just apply.
By the way, one exception to this is if you have a connection to the hiring manager. In that case, you’re not a stranger cold-calling or cold-emailing; you’re one contact reaching out to another, and that gives you an in that isn’t subject to everything above.