unreasonable job application instructions

A reader writes:

OK, is it just me or is this crazy-making? I found a job listing via a national job bank specific to my field. I’m interested, but…it’s unclear to me if this position is based in their East Coast office, or if, since it’s a “Field Organizer,” it is based elsewhere. I’m only interested in doing the work of applying for the job if I don’t have to relocate. And it is work–they’re asking for a cover letter, resume, writing sample (3 pages maximum) and contact information for three references from your most recent employment and/or education.

(Would these 3 references need to include someone from where I work now? Because obviously that would be awkward at best, potentially harmful to me at worst if the word got back to my boss…)

I looked online at their existing staff and unfortunately that did not provide me with any additional clues. I can’t even ask them the question of where the job is located, because they say in their instructions, “NOTE: We are only accepting applications by email. Please do not make any inquiries about the position or the status of your application. Because of the volume of applicants we anticipate, we cannot respond individually to each application. We will contact those applicants that are of interest to the Search Committee directly.” Do you have any recommendations for how to deal with this?

Ugh. Your options are:

1. Just suck it up and apply, and then ask the question about location if they contact you. But I completely agree with you that it’s ridiculous that you should have to go through the work of doing this just because they left crucial information out of their job post

2. Call and ask, despite their instructions. This is such a reasonable question to have that any employer who held against you would be being ridiculous. (And I’m fairly sure they weren’t envisioning this kind of question when they wrote that anyway; they were thinking about “tell me more about the job” calls and “what’s the status of my application” calls.) I would call and say, “I realize you requested no calls, but the job posting doesn’t indicate where the job is based.”  Someone will tell you. If you’re worried about it being held against you, don’t give a name. Or at least don’t give your name.

3. Check on LinkedIn to see if you have any contacts in your network who work at or used to work at this organization. If you do, see if they can find out for you.

I would do 2 or 3, personally. I’d probably just do 2, actually, because it’s faster and I’d be irritated that they were making me expend energy on anything else.

Now, on the references, I am a huge proponent of not providing references until you’re close to the offer stage, to prevent reference fatigue. Requiring them at this stage is BS — first of all, no one sane checks references until they’re seriously considering making an offer … although as the candidate, you can’t be confident that they won’t), and so therefore it’s not smart to ask you to share these when you haven’t had any contact at all with the company and don’t even know if you’d be interested in the job (which is always the case, not just because of this particular location question).

I would be tempted to include a note saying, “Out of respect for my references’ time, I prefer they not be contacted before we’ve had a chance to determine mutual interest, but I’d be happy to provide numerous references at that stage.” … But of course that lands you squarely in the middle of where so many job-seekers end up these days — wanting to assert a perfectly reasonable prerogative, but realizing that doing so may get you rejected. It’s infuriating.

But under no circumstances should you provide references from your current employer at this stage. You may at some point decide to allow your current employer to be contacted (at the very end stages of this process, or if an offer is extended contingent on that reference), but now? Before you even know you’re interested, or that they’re interested? Absolutely not. Use ones from your previous job, with a note explaining that you’re currently employed and your job search is still a below-the-radar one.

And really, if anyone reading this is engaging in these practices on the employer side, cut it out. And even if you’re not involved in hiring at your company, if they operate this way, say something about it. Maybe all Ask a Manager readers can vow to investigate hiring practices wherever they work and speak out against this crap.

{ 8 comments… read them below }

  1. Suzanne Lucas*

    Love the advice. Hate the stupid companies that require asking questions like this. Where the job is located is a BIG DEAL

  2. Anonymous*

    I think the main reason they're asking for references up front is to restrict the number of applicants… and also to those who have an inkling of what the job they're applying for is about!

    If the references aren't people in the line of business that the job application refers to, it will eliminate a lot of non-qualified applicants.

    While I applaud those who have no skills pertinent to the job listing trying to get a foot in the door, it's a nuisance for those receiving those applications.

    It's basically a way of saying "serious and qualified applicants only, please."

  3. Eric*

    I love to see you slapping down unreasonable employers. Unfortunately too many candidates will jump through their hoops. Those that refuse get rejected and we don't even know if its because we didn't play the part of the puppet or it was because of our qualifications.

  4. Kelly O*

    See, I disagree with Anonymous. I don't think that the field you reference works in necessarily has any bearing on your qualifications. The supervisor from a seasonal position to help ends meet can speak to your drive, dedication, and hustle. The chair of your volunteer committee (who may be an engineer by profession, while you are looking for a pharmaceutical sales job) can talk about your organization and ability to raise funds for The Cause.

    Making applications complicated may also raise a red flag for the employee who thinks "if their application is this complex, how hard is it to get other things done in the organization?"

    Even in a tight job market, the seeker has to be as cautious as the potential employer, if not more. Both sides are checking each other for fit, and for a red-tape hater this could be a deal-breaker.

    Its all about how much you want the job and if its something you're willing to do. I agree that I would be uncomfortable with references this early, and would hope a hiring manager would be more respectful of the references' time.

  5. Anonymous*

    Kelly O nailed it: As a job seeker, I'm not going to waste my time with employers like this. It's obnoxious. What you find out about me now may have no bearing whatsoever on my ability to do the job you are offering.

  6. Anonymous*

    Referring to the references…definitely always prep them…and don't waste their time with jobs that are not even a plausible employment opportunity. Also, when it comes time, make sure that you use references who will really give a a positive review. If you don't know what your references are saying, have them checked by a company like http://www.allisontaylor.com before you use them.

  7. Anonymous*

    I see a lot of online applications that require references then and there with no way around it. If I had my way, they wouldnt get them until I was interviewed, but it's their market, not mine.

  8. NicoleW*

    I had to back out of an online job application just last night. I was 3 pages into an 8 page form and it asked for 3 references. They were required fields with a limited number of characters allowed for the response. I was not comfortable providing contact information for my references without knowing I was even being considered for a position. I wish employers would take your advice, Alison, and knock it off!

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