short answer Saturday: another job search edition

We did a job search edition of short answer Saturday last week, but the questions keep piling up so here’s another one.

Should I offer to work for free so a company can try me out?

I am currently job hunting and a few days ago stumbled upon a position that was the perfect fit for my skill set, experience, and place. I have been job hunting for about a month now, and today thought of trying something new when following up since the vast majority of my follow ups illicit no response. I offered to come in and have the arrangement be a trial unpaid internship to familiarize myself with the operations of this organization and see if they like me. What are your thoughts on this approach? I’m thinking of using it more often, but wanted outside advice.

Unless this is a nonprofit, it would be illegal for the employer to accept. With the exception of nonprofits, the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer. And if it’s not, they can reclassify you as an employee and require the employer to pay back wages for all the work you did.

However, even if this weren’t the case, I’d be skeptical of this approach because (1) it significantly undervalues your skills, which would signal desperation to a company, which in turn would signal that you weren’t the best candidate, and (2) it would be a lot of work for a company to train and acclimate you for a month without knowing the investment would pay off for them in a hire at the end of it.

How do reference checks work?

When an employer confirms dates of employment shown for a job on a person’s resume, do they also start to ask other questions, like, why did they leave, would you hire him again, how was his general demeanor, etc., even if you don’t put a personal reference down for this company?

Yes. There is something called “employment verification,” which is just verifying that you did indeed have the job you said you had, for the dates you said you had it. But more common is a reference check, where an employer will ask about the quality of your work.

How wide should a salary range be?

A job description asks for me to send a resume and “salary range.” How big should this range be? $25,000-35,000? $25-27? $20-40? The description also mentions that there is an “attractive benefits package” — how should this be taken into account?

Ideally you wouldn’t name a range at all (see this and this), but if you have to, I’d go with a spread of $10,000-$20,000, depending on your salary level. (If you’re at $30,000, a spread of $20,000 is relatively large; if you’re at $120,000, it’s not.)

How long is too long for a cover letter?

How long is too long for a cover letter? I’ve done some hiring myself and I know that with stack and stacks of applicants, each bit of paper only gets so much time. I’m editing ruthlessly but it’s still about 600 words long. After graduating two and a half years ago and working for a restaurant in the meantime, I am still trying to get a job doing some kind of social research. I feel like my cover letter has a lot to accomplish– show why I want this job at this firm, show how my academic work and restaurant work make me a qualified candidate, and address that even though my work experience does not correspond perfectly to the announcement why I’d do an awesome job anyway. Is there an absolute cut-off where your eyes glaze over and you toss the whole thing in the trash?

Keep it to one page. And don’t cheat by shrinking the font size to get there.

Rejected after 20 seconds; how can this be?

I just applied for a recruiter position (I have 10 years experience) that was posted on a popular job board and in less then 20 seconds after I hit the send button, I got an auto response saying that while my credentials are impressive, I am not a good match but my resume will be kept on file. Maybe I am behind the times, but how can any company’s resume scanning software be that fast that in mere seconds it can determine that I am “not a good match”? Am I missing something here? A friend suggested that there is perhaps no actual opening and this company is merely resume harvesting. Thoughts? By the way, this is the second time this has happened (different companies though).

I have no idea. Anyone else want to weigh in?

Why do employers bother to interview if the job just dissolves in the end?

Why does an employer go through selecting and interviewing candidates if in the end the position ends up getting dissolved? I have interviewed for four positions in the last year and I felt very confident about my interviews at the end of each. After going through testing phases for some positions and interviews for others, I later received emails that said the company had terminated the position and they would not be hiring at that time. I understand that there are situations in this economy where a position may be dissolved in a company, but why go through the trouble of interviewing numerous folks and frankly, getting candidates’ hopes up?. I am just wondering how frequently this situation happens. As a job searcher, it makes me wonder if I just wasn’t the selected candidate and the company just took the easy way out of a rejection.

Yes, this happens. Sometimes it’s because there’s new financial news, or a reorganization, or priorities shift, and sometimes it’s because of disorganization/lack of communication. I can almost guarantee you, however, that it’s not a lie to avoid having to reject you — rejecting people is a part of doing business, and while employer don’t enjoy rejections, they don’t tend to give them panic attacks either. (Besides, if they were squeamish about rejection, they’d use the far more common coward’s tactic of just never bothering to contact you again.)

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Sabrina*

    I’ve also gotten a less than 30 seconds to reject email. I have no idea how, but if their hiring process is so poor it makes me think their product isn’t so great either.

    1. anonymous*

      If you don’t know the firm very well — it could be someone collecting resumes. Or, they’ve set up the scanning system to look for certain buzzwords — which is a stupid method to use in screening candidates.

      Then again, do you think a company that does not perform a “human scan” over a resume really has any clue as to what they’re doing? Do you want to work for a company that uses such methods? I wouldn’t.

  2. Stephanie*

    @ Rejected after 20 seconds:

    Depends on the scanning software being used, but some will take the info in those ranges and automatically bounce you out if you don’t exactly match the specifications. I spent a bunch of time on a job application only to finish it and see “did not meet minimum qualifications” when it was something like I had 4 years of experience and the employer wanted 5 years of experience. Some employers are pretty rigid about their qualifications, so it could be that?

  3. Phyr*

    The 20 second rejection possibly happened because they company had to post the job publicly while already planing to hire internally. I have gotten a ding letter in less then an hour because of a situation like that. It’s not fair but unfortunately happens as a formality.

  4. Anonymous*

    I am inclined to agree with Stephanie…

    Employers are overwhelmed with the number of applications/resumes they receive electronically – even when the economy is good – so they tend to be very selective about the criteria they want applicants to meet.

    Look back over your submission – did you use all of the buzz words in the ad?

  5. Ask an Advisor*

    Re: How much stock should I really put into a failed consultant’s blog?

    I think it boils down to is the blog well written, relevant to the position, and present the consultant in an appropriate way? AAM has touched on blogging and job hunting before ( and

    But, I’m biased. I started a blog related to my career goals and began offering consulting as well while job searching. It hasn’t been a raging success, but I’ve gotten positive feedback about it in interviews and will be starting a new position next week. So, for me it paid off to blog.

  6. Anonymous*

    For the last question regarding dissolved positions:

    It can also happen after they select a candidate and find out they cannot financially afford the position. While in your case, they figured it out and wasted time on both parties with interviews, at least it didn’t have someone commit and opt out other interviews only to be back to square one within x amount of time.

  7. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Ha, is this the failed consultant’s blog you’re referring to? If so, I am sorry to tell you that in fact I am doing quite well. Believe me, I’m surprised by it as well.

  8. Brian*

    In regards to the first question, I had a recruiter tell me something similar about relocating. She said they look for valid reasons you’re moving to their town like family in the area, spouse’s job, change of weather, etc. She said the last thing you ever want to say is you’ll move anywhere because it makes you sound desperate. I would assume there is more leeway for popular relocation destinations like NYC or Seattle but her statement made sense to me.

    Regarding the last question, I’ve been at companies where they attempted to fill a recently vacant position and were completely underwhelmed by all of the applicants. As a result, we eliminated the position or shifted the remaining staff and created a different position (usually consisting of the crap work everyone begged to unload during the shift).

  9. What the?*

    1) I love the idea of a “work for free ” trial period. I think it demonstrates the person’s strong desire for the work they do and isn’t in it for the money. If proposed well, may not come across as desperate.
    2) AAM blog is quite awesome.

    1. Mike*

      Why do you feel the need to show that you aren’t “in it for the money”? I mean hey, if you have a trust fund or some similar situation where you don’t have to worry about living expenses more power to you, but otherwise we have to work for a living.

      Of course it’s about the money. To ignore that outside of a nonprofit situation is rather naive. Are you afraid that someone is going to call you a sellout for taking a check before you’re willing to wake up early every morning to drive into work?

    2. esra*

      But if it is your career, and it is something that is important to you, it SHOULD be about the money. If you do not value your time and effort, why would the company you are trying to work for?

    3. Kimberlee*

      I am very much opposed to any kind of working for free unless it is, truly, for the benefit of the unpaid employee ONLY. Just because a business is big and famous doesn’t mean they should get free labor! As long as unemployment is high, propositions like this will just lead to a wage race to the bottom… a a situation in which employees can certainly never win.

    4. Jamie*

      I agree with the above posters who seem as incredulous as I that one would have an edge if it’s not about the money.

      It’s great to love your job – and a good fit between position and employee benefits everyone – but I have no shame in admitting it’s about the money for me.

      If I was independently wealthy I would be home contributing to fascinating open source projects, volunteering my expertise to causes in which I believe…mostly from the comfort of my pajamas with my cats as adorable, and unpaid, code consultants.

      Hauling myself to work everyday and large chunks of my time and intellectual resources to my employer – that’s because they pay me.

      Again – loving and believing in what you do is fabulous, and the best employees are motivated by things in addition to money….but I don’t know that I would want to hire someone where money wasn’t a significant factor. I just don’t understand the mindset.

        1. Jamie*

          That was quite awesome! I’ve never thought of myself as an up and coming Evil Overlord – but I bookmarked the site, anyway.

          In case I change my mind those tips will come in handy.

    5. The gold digger*

      isn’t in it for the money.

      That’s the only reason I worked. Or that’s the only reason I worked at a corporate job. Sure, I got a sense of accomplishment from what I did and I really liked my job, but I liked it as far as a job goes.

      Now that I am a castrating gold-digging ho who won’t get a job, I volunteer for things that I am truly passionate about at worthwhile non-profits.

  10. Anonymous*

    Thanks for answering my question (re: salary range) — I appreciate having someone with the inside scoop helping those of us on the job-seekers side!

  11. Chris*

    I realize that for-profit employers can’t do this in the states.

    It should not matter about a blog, but working for free or cheap hurts us all. If people work for free or cheap, they drive down the value of the fields they work.

    That has hurt many of the more artsy fields. There are too many people who want to break into the biz so they will work spec projects.

    1. anonymous J*

      Thank you for saying this, Chris!

      As a writer and an artist, this comes up for me every time I look for freelance work. It’s a hot topic of conversation among artists, and it’s very frustrating!

  12. Anonymous*

    Also about the working for free question … I agree with AAM – unless it’s some task you can just jump in (and those tend to be very entry-level, non-professional jobs), the training and supervising alone would be a deterrent for me for such a short time.

  13. Anonymous*

    Re “Rejected after 20 seconds; how can this be?”

    Keywording. You either lack keywords which some (often unqualified) person has set as “required,” or you listed keywords which s/he has set as “denial.”

    Be aware that keywording is a very difficult thing to do right. The company may not even realize that it’s inadvertently denying candidates who might be a good fit. (Or maybe they do. It’s not uncommon for companies to have requirements that they don’t want to publicly disclose in an ad.)

    1. Anonymous*

      If people are being rejected by software scanning for keywords, why not embed the job advert in some machine-only format (simplest way, include it in a white 2pt font at the end) in both your cover letter and resume?

      1. Anonymous*

        Because when the recruiter or HR person has their ATS high-light the keywords, and the job ad shows up in 2pt white font, you get eliminated.

        1. Anonymous*

          If that’s how the software is used, certainly (although there are better ways to embed the job ad). But a 20 second rejection can only have been by computer.

  14. fposte*

    We’re a unit within a nonprofit, and we have an established volunteer program. That can indeed be helpful here in proving your merits even if you didn’t get hired, and we do appreciate people who have stayed interested enough to volunteer even if they were turned down for a job.

    So if there’s an extant volunteer structure at that workplace, it may be worthwhile to join it, though I’d encourage you only to do so if you think you’d find the experience valuable whether you got a job out of it or not.

  15. Amy*

    Regarding the 20 second rejection…

    My ATS allows me to view a resume while the candidate is still finishing their profile. So I have had situations where I am reviewing a resume at the same time a candidate is in the system – not often, but it has happened. While it may seem like a 20 second rejection to you in some cases it may be that I have been reviewing your credentials for a few minutes prior to you completing everything.

    1. Anonymous*

      And that’s it? The person hasn’t even given you a completed application and you have already rejected them?

      1. Mike*

        No, most likely they waited until they received a customized cover letter and resume and then proceeded to reject them.

        1. Amy*

          I don’t need to see a candidate’s personal address, phone, and references to screen a resume, thank you. If they’ve uploaded the resume, that will tell me what I need to know as far as whether they are someone I need to reach out to or remove from my queue. If their experience is not a match for the position, why would I NOT reject them?

          1. Anonymous*

            So does that mean I should upload my resume first, and then wait a day before completing the application (systems generally let one do this)? That way, I can avoid wasting time writing a cover letter if I’m destined for a rejection.

  16. Debbie*

    Rejected after 20 seconds; how can this be?

    Our software allows us to enter “knock-out” screening questions. We get a high volume of applicants andunfortunately not everyone reads the qualifications and applies even if they aren’t remotely qualified. The knock-out questions ask the candidate to confirm certain key qualifications, and if they fall short of what the position requires, they system will rejection them right away. We do have it delayed so the letter goes out after 24 hours rather than 20 seconds through.

  17. Nate*

    I agree with the word filter for the person who wrote about being denied after twenty seconds.

    I wouldn’t put 100% stake in what I am about to say, but large corporations do have software that they use to send out mass emails and can very well configure those software tools to screen incoming mail especially if it is in large volumes. This screening criteria is hinged on various keywords that will bounce certain emails (think like a spam filter).

  18. Talyssa*

    Depending on your job and industry, rather than working for free you can offer short term hard end contracts for a lower amount. Like — I am so confident that you will love my work that I will work for you for 3 months at half my desired rate/salary/whatever and then you can choose to just let me walk away when the contract is up or you can hire me at full price.

    But it will only work for certain positions and skillsets (and industries where contractors are used sometimes, if not common), and if you’re making close to minimum wage anyway you may not be able to offer enough of a discount to make it worth their while. Also I think you should only do it if you are absolutely certain
    (or as certain as possible) you want to work THERE in that position. I mean this can either look like a “I really want to work in this position for this company and I am willing to prove it” or it can look like “I don’t know how to convince someone to hire me without going to desperate measures”. You never ever want to risk coming off like the latter but the former would be a positive message to send. They might even hire you straight up based on sending that message correctly. Just make sure its true or it might bite you in the ass.

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