crazy hiring managers who act like Caligula

A reader writes:

As a current graduate student, I am searching for a part-time job or internship. Normally when I submit a job application, I attach both my cover letter and resume (and anything else asked for) in pdf format and write a brief note in the email about all of my materials being attached, to please feel free to contact me, etc.

I just found out my current boss is hiring for another position in the office (director level) and has decided that she will not review any applications that have the cover letter attached, only those that have it pasted into the body of the email. So now I’m curious if I’ve been going about sending in my applications all wrong or if this is one of those things that varies by personal preference.

Your boss is terrible at hiring. That’s the only conclusion to draw here.

You don’t cut whole swaths of candidates out of consideration because they did something completely reasonable and normal that happens to be contrary to your preference on a very minor point. I mean, I really like 12-point Cambria, but I’m not going to reject every candidate who uses 11-point Times New Roman. Because (a) I’m not ridiculously self-centered about my own preferences to the point of being delusional about what is and isn’t a normal range of options, and (b) I care about hiring the best candidate. And there is zero correlation between the quality of a candidate and whether they send their cover letter as an attachment or in the body of an email.

While most hiring managers implicitly understand this, there’s also the occasional crazy manager out there who will make a ridiculous pronouncement about what she will and won’t consider. And although you’re working for one of those, you can’t let her craziness impact how you handle your own applications, because I guarantee you that her crazy counterpart is also out there, rejecting all applications that don’t send the cover letter as an attachment. In an ideal world, they’d cancel each out and simultaneously disappear into a puff of smoke. In the real world, you’ve got to just accept that some people have crazy rules like this, and you can’t spend any time wondering how you should cater to them, because you can never predict what their whims will dictate.

But your boss is missing the entire point of what hiring is all about, and she should be prohibited from getting anywhere near a job candidate. Seriously.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Erica*

    Is there an exception to this? What about if the job listing clearly states that cover letters must be in the body of the email? Then couldn’t you make an argument that this is a reading comprehension situation?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Absolutely! If you give specific instructions in the ad and a candidate ignores those instructions, it’s reasonable to hold that against them. But assuming there’s not an important detail like that that the letter-writer left out, I stand by my assessment that this hiring manager is something of a wackjob.

    2. Emily*

      I’ve gotten to the point where I actually prefer job listings that state explicit submission instructions. I used to think it was nit-picky, but I’ve learned to appreciate it when I don’t have to make arbitrary guesses on my own!

  2. Anonymous*

    I’m the original reader.

    Thanks for answering my question! That’s originally what I thought but then I got a little nervous, so I appreciate the feedback from someone who knows what they are talking about.

    Erica – I think if there are explicit instructions on how to submit your application it’s a totally different story, and there aren’t any explicit instructions in this case. In fact, the job description is pretty vague overall.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Can you tell us — are there other instances of your boss displaying questionable judgment and/or being inappropriately dogmatic in her views? I always believe that things like this indicate that it’s just one piece of a larger (and disturbing) pattern, and I’m curious if that’s the case here.

  3. wits*

    I would think having the cover letter as an attachment would be preferable, since different email programs can format text in an odd way. For instance, my work email tends to delete paragraph spaces.

  4. Clobbered*

    Man, having seen the title I was expecting somebody who hired their own horse.


      1. Nyxalinth*

        I’ll admit, my first thought was “So the boss married his sister and made his horse a senator?”

        I’m glad I’m not the only one!

  5. Anonymous*

    Original writer again:

    I agree with you that she is a nutter. My personal opinion is that she wants to seem like she is important. The best example I can give: she has spoken to me twice in the last month 1st) to cut my hours the day before I left for a fellowship conference and 2nd) to ask me to clean up food left over from a meeting. She also will not acknowledge my presence unless I say ‘hello’ or something to her first. Luckily, the person under her who is more like my manager is awesome, so I can avoid her for the most part (and hopefully I will find a new job soon!).

    Also, she restructured someone else under her out of the department at the beginning of the year (it’s not totally clear to me why) and then was in such a rush to hire someone else that she hired someone who put our entire donor database in jeopardy. Needless to say she had to fire her after a few weeks.

    I believe her attitude and the way she operates (although I have no proof) have led at least 2 departures in the last 6 months in addition to the one mentioned above.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! I am vindicated again. People should not worry about their applications possibly not meeting the requirements of managers like this, because you do not want to work for these managers anyway!

    2. Jenna*

      If you don’t mind my asking, I work in non-profit and your boss sounds eerily like someone I used to work for. Do you work in NY? (If you aren’t comfortable sharing I totally understand!)

  6. Anonymous*

    On the subject of having to “guess” which someone will prefer, I always do both. I add a line at end of the email letter that I have attached a formatted version of the letter along with my resume. My thought is to make it as easy as possible for the hiring manager to do whatever they need to do with the submission. Is there anything wrong with doing both?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, here’s where my own crazy preferences come in. That actually annoys me — because I read the cover letter in the email and then need to scan the attachment cover letter to see if they’re the same or different (because sometimes, mysteriously, someone will do a shorter version in the email itself and a longer version attached). So I prefer one or the other but not both. But again, no one should be getting rejected over that.

      1. Dean*

        I do the same thing as Anonymous, but I think that since we note that the attachment is the same as the body text, it should save people having to reread while satisfying the format police.

      2. Anonymous*

        AAM – Is it appropriate enough to make the email your cover letter and just attach the resume?

  7. Liza*

    Sometimes this happens when hiring managers want to avoid a virus- as in attachment that comes from God knows where… or a time issue (open/scan for virus…)

  8. Anon y. mouse*

    Being a tech person, it’s a red flag to me if a recruiter is so worried about viruses that they insist the cover letter and resume be included in the email and refuse to open attachments. Unless responses to job ads are far more virus-laden than I think they are, keeping your computer updated and using a good anti-virus is plenty of protection. Your mail server should really be doing the virus scanning for you anyway, so it doesn’t take any time on your end. Just don’t open attachments from “Cheap Swi$$ Wachtes” or “Nigerian prince needs your help”. If you’re that paranoid and/or uninformed about your computer, I’m not at all sure that I want to be your tech support.

    1. Jamie*

      You said what I was thinking – I don’t want to work for a company with such bizarre email practices. That can only mean either they have no one helming IT security or the users are more paranoid and helpless than most places. Either way – no thank you.

      But like you, I’m in IT, and we definitely have different red flags than most people.

  9. Anonymous*

    I think it’s fine to attach both the cover letter and the resume to an email. However, your email has to have some content. I cannot tell you how many emails I’ve received from candidates that either say nothing (nothing!) at all, but have the files attached or simply say, “See Attached.”

    It’s irksome and, unfortunately, it’s usually an indicator that I’m about to look at a ready-to-go cover letter. “Dear Hiring Manager . . .”

    1. Henning Makholm*

      Well, an email that consists of nothing but attachments and “See Attached” (and more often than not an empty subject line, amiright?) would actually be a valid disqualifier in my world. Somebody who thinks that is a good way to send a job application would likely do the same for important communication to clients, coworkers, customers, donors, suppliers … only to have half of it ignored as probable spam by the recipients.

      (If instead of “See Attachment” it says “Please find enclosed an application for your open position as XYZ” it’s a completely different matter, of course).

      1. Mike C.*

        Sure they’ll do that until a manager tells them not to. Then they’ll stop and it won’t be an issue any more.

        I mean yeah it’s annoying and doesn’t make you look good and I’d never do it but it’s pretty easy to correct that sort of behavior.

      2. class factotum*

        I worked with a guy who would send a spreadsheet out to the factories and just say, “See attached.” To him, the numbers screamed a story, defined a problem and demanded a solution.

        But he was a numbers genius.

        I finally suggested that maybe he could do the analysis and I could send the requests for action with a written definition of the problem, the desired solution, and the steps necessary to reach the solution (along with the chocolate reward for the first ten factories to complete the project). I reminded him that not everyone had gotten a 36 on his ACT.

  10. Anonymous*

    I always put detailed submission instructions in the advertisement. It is amazing, but most people get them wrong. These are purportedly intelligent people who are applying for a highly skilled position that involves reading comprehension.

    I don’t know what gets into them.

    I often include other requirements that are deliberately vague. For example, I request resumes to be sent “as an attachment, in a widely accepted universal format.” Whether someone uses .pdf, .doc, .rtf, or what have you, I’ll read it. But in the interview I get to ask them “why did you choose that format?” It turns out to be a highly effective way of screening for people who can succeed in a digital-heavy office.

    1. Jamie*

      I’m very curious – what would be the right answer to why they chose their file format?

      I’m not being snarky – I have no idea how someone choosing .docx over .pdf – or vis versa – would tell you anything about their potential for success in a “digital-heavy office.”

      1. Anonymous*

        I’m not sure this is what this person had in mind but if the ad said Must be able to use MS Office Suite 2003 and I got a resume in .docx I’d raise an eyebrow. On the other hand if I said iWorks experience prefered (just go with it) and I got something in .pages I’d be thrilled.
        Also if when you asked why did you use this format you said, Idunno, it is just what I saved it as? Or That is what Someone Else did for me that could certainly indicate that you might not be suitable for a digital heavy office.

        That said if they scoff at .pdf I’d have to raise an eyebrow.

        1. bob*

          Well the .docx means the file was created with Office 10 and Microsoft’s crappy xml format but there is a simple addon you can download free that will translate formats.

      2. Henning Makholm*

        Jamie, I think the right answer is anything that provides evidence that the candidate knows that there are different file formats, and that they are aware that sometimes there are reasons to deliberately choose one format over another.

        Example of good answer: “It was the one that was most convenient for me to produce, and I think it is common enough that I could count on you being able to read it”.

        Example of bad answer: “Format, what do you mean format? I just saved the document and dragged it into the email window.”

  11. Jamie*

    I’ve been wading through resumes for the last week or so and at this point I wouldn’t care if the attachments came in via carrier pigeon – that’s how grateful I would be to see someone qualified.

    Now the job we’re hiring for isn’t white collar – so I’m sure the statistics are different – but for the last five ads I’ve run over the last quarter 90% of them don’t have cover letters at all. Of the remaining 10% the vast majority it’s a generic form letter. On the rare occasion I get one actually written with the job in mind I put in a good word as I move them through channels.

    I would say it’s especially important when your resume shows no experience in the same area as the job listing. I cannot tell you how many resumes I’ve gotten (over 20) where the resume is such a mismatch for the position that it seems like they are applying to the job by mistake. Now maybe those people had skills that can translate, or other reasons to think they would be a good fit – but without a cover letter how on earth could I know that?

    1. Anonymous*

      Tell me about it. We hired for a professional-level reference librarian position a little while ago. About half of the applicants did not have the required graduate degree (yes, it was specified in the ad that one was needed). Some of them had had whole CAREERS in totally different areas and seemed to think that this would be a neat easy job to do in retirement, or something. Others were coming from different areas of the field, or otherwise had some part of their background that made us wonder why they were applying for the job and whether they could make it work if they were hired — and 95% of them made no attempt to address these potential major issues in the cover letter.

      It was a huge relief to find those few applications who were qualified AND had a clear, well-written cover letter explaining their background and why they were a fit for the job.

  12. Jamie*

    Actually, since we’re talking about what hiring managers want in their response to job ads I have a related question: What do job hunters want to see in the ads – what is most useful to draw in quality responses.

    Writing want-ads is something I’m doing temporarily until our new HR starts – and it’s definitely not my wheelhouse – so I’m totally open to the possibility that the lack of quality responses is due to my ads.

    I list the position and then bullet point a brief list of job responsibilities, a salary range, our company name and location (no ads are blind), requirements (experience/certifications when applicable) and application instructions. (And I’m aware my posts here are often hurried and error filled – but my ads are proofed through two sets of eyes so they are okay for grammar and spelling.)

    I just think it’s weird when I read this site and see so many well spoken and articulate people looking (or who had been) looking for work following all the steps – but I’m having a heck of a time getting viable applicants for my postings. Maybe it’s the industry – maybe I just really need to pass this task to a co-worker :).

    1. Mike C.*

      I’m looking for work, so I’ll bite.

      Things I love:
      1. Salary range and benefits.
      2. Description of the work, the good and the bad, the light and the heavy.
      3. Difference between things you’d like, things we should have and things that will disqualify us.
      4. An understanding of what the phrase “entry level” actually means.

      Things I hate:
      1. Not identifying the company, or leaving out important contact information.
      2. Unreasonable, impossible or overly strict experience or educational expectations. IE management level certifications for entry level positions, years of experience with internal software, etc. Strictly defining what types of majors you will allow to apply is a big one – microbiology majors are not the only people trained to work in laboratories for instance!
      3. Don’t say that you want multi-taskers. Everyone wants someone that can do the job of three people.
      4. I’m a big boy now, you don’t need my college GPA or three letters of recommendation.

      These might not all apply to your industry, but I appreciate you for bringing up the question!

      1. Jamie*

        If this were real life and not the internet, Mike, I’d buy you a beer.

        Fortunately I didn’t make any of the mistakes that you hate – but I took the list of things you love and tweaked the ad. I totally forgot to even mention benefits…which is kind of a big deal. I’ve passed your suggestions on to the hiring managers to give me specifics instead of the broad and kind of vague duty list I’d compiled.

        1. Mike C.*

          Glad I could help!

          If nothing else, benefits could attract folks with responsibilities that a raw wage alone might not. Also, the fact you post a salary range is a pretty big deal.

      2. Talyssa*

        On first glance I loved number 3 but on second thought, there are often things where people think “Oh A and B are VERY important to me, I don’t think I would consider a candidate without them” but then they get a resume or cover letter and think “well, they don’t have A OR B but I am really impressed with X, I think I’d at least talk to them.”

        And if they had said “absolutely no applications without A or B” they would have missed out on that person.

        Not that there aren’t SOME absolutes, sometimes, but I think for most jobs its just not that cut and dry.

      3. Diane*

        Ditto those, plus some description of reporting structure or level within the organization.

    2. ModernHypatia*

      What I really love to see in ads are:
      – a clear list of duties

      – a difference between ‘required’ and ‘preferred’

      – an idea of why the ‘preferred/desired’ things are there (a paragraph explaining the role the job has in the larger setting. If I see “This person will need to work closely with our consultants on purple elephants and green rhinos”, then I can better tailor my cover letter to that actual goal. And maybe I don’t have experience with those, but do have related experience working with consultants about mauve hippos that I can highlight.

      (Where, on the other hand, if it just lists “experience with purple elephants and green rhinos”, it’s hard to tell if you want someone who can collaborate with a consultant, someone with direct experience who’s going to need to content knowledge from the first day, or what.)

      – And then, I want stuff that helps me decide whether I want the job, and how much of a priority the application process is for me. Salary, benefits, etc. are part of that, but an idea of what’s really cool, exciting, or unusual about the job or place to work are also really helpful. (The chance to work closely with someone widely known in my field, or to work with a project that’s near and dear my heart for non-professional reasons, or whatever.)

    3. Natalie*

      Other people have covered a lot of things that drive me crazy, but I’ll add one I’ve been noticing recently: fluffy, PR/marketing type language to describe what you do. This isn’t a press release – it’s a job description. Unless I can figure out what you actually do, I can’t exactly determine if it’s a job I’m qualified for or interested in.

    4. Matt*

      I’d like to stop seeing bad and-or logic. When an opening includes a laundry list of degrees (or other requirements) with various conjunctions peppered in it becomes difficult to tell if the company wants someone with any of the listed qualifications or if they want someone with a qualification from list A plus one from list B etc… It makes it hard to determine if applying is simply a waste of time for everyone involved.

  13. Talyssa*

    I think a paragraph about what you are actually looking for might help – if you’ve been working for the same company for a long time you might not even think about these kinds of things anymore, but the same basic job description and requirements can vary pretty wildly between companies and maybe you aren’t expressing that well in your job posting.

    I know my coworker had a rec open for months and got tons of resumes that he more or less threw away (this is also IT by the way) because he listed out some things he wanted experience with, but what he actually wanted was an independent worker who handled a high paced changing environment well, understood operational support, and had jack-of-all-trades type technical knowledge, a little scripting, a little coding, a little server administration. Instead of explaining that in the description of the job, he kind of listed some types of experience he thought made sense like “windows and unix server administration” and “experience with one or more scripting languages”. And that’s how he ended up with a really wierd pile of resumes.

    1. Jamie*

      That’s a great point about a descriptive paragraph – and in reading your comment I realize that’s exactly what I would have done if I were running these ads for IT or accounting – positions I know.

      Because these are ads for the manufacturing side, where I’ve never worked, I was staying very fact based and clinical. I’m actually just posting the ads for operations as a favor – I’m going to speak to the operations manager and see if he can give me better verbiage – because I think your suggestion makes a lot of sense.

    2. Sevenmack*

      A lot of that goes back to the hiring managers thinking everything through on the front end, before even placing a want ad. The managers should 1) determine what are the top three projects/tasks/goals a successful candidate must undertake as soon as they walk through the door; 2) figure out the top three talents/skills they want in the successful candidate (and whether those actually match up to what is needed for success in the organization overall and in taking on the most-important tasks); 3) figure out if they need more than one person for the job — and, more importantly, how much do they need to budget for the position(s). Get those three things right and writing the want ad should be easy to to do.

      Having been on both sides of hiring, and now looking for a new job after getting laid off, I am just amazed by the mismatches between the job descriptions in the ads and what folks actually seek once they get resumes and start interviews. It is a miracle that people get hired at all.

  14. Lynda*

    Initially, this story reminded me of Van Halen’s contracts requesting a bowl of M&M’s in the dressing room with all brown candies removed. It was a way of testing whether the rest of the contract had been fulfilled i.e no brown M&M’s = correct equipment and safety issues minimal: brown M&M’s = check everything very carefully.

    Sadly, in this case, it looks like inept management rather than a litmus test.

      1. Jamie*

        My favorite blog (AAM) has a reference to my favorite band – what a perfect way to start the morning.

        And if either Alex or Eddie stumble across this blog: I will quit my job with a moment’s notice if you need me to sort your M&Ms on tour or off.

        Am I the only one who celebrates 10/10 because it’s the anniversary of the date their first album went platinum?

      2. Mike C.*

        Hehe, we made machines in college that would sort M&Ms by color automatically. They were pretty sweet.

  15. Long Time Admin*

    Hiring managers may know what they want, but in our company, HR decides what it’s important, and what they’ll get. We have “spec writers” in our company, but we actually use pre-written documents and edit them. HR insisted that candidates had to type 50+ words per minute, because they’re “writers”. We talked to them at least 3 times, explaining that typing speed was not a factor at all, but it didn’t do any good.

    1. dazed and confused*

      That’s a sign that your HR department has become too big for its britches. We have the same problem with our Finance department – sometimes they make engineering decisions for us :-/

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Totally agree, and someone higher up needs to address this. Ideally your manager would be pushing with someone above HR to stop this. It’s insane, and the opposite of what HR is there for.

  16. anon-2*

    Funny thing about hiring managers. The other night, I just saw the movie “The Company Men”.

    I had a brief stretch of unemployment 21 years ago, and happily it is the only ‘gap’ in my career. It brought back memories of egotistical, weird, interviewers, HR reps acting like God, abuse, and so forth that I experienced in that year.

    But in watching the movie, I saw three interview cycles that hit very close to home. In the first one, the central character, Bob Walker, was called in for an interview, only to be faced with a rude HR rep, who informed him that he was being considered for a lower position that he had applied for, at around half the salary. In a second scenario, he flies through the interview with flying colors, leaves the office with a verbal commitment that eventually transpires into a “we filled the position with someone else.” And, a third circumstance in which he is called in for a job for which he’s perfectly matched, travels halfway across the country at his own expense to be informed that “your interview isn’t today.”

    I had identical or similar experiences to all of these. Some should consider — every job can be made expendable, and you might someday have to interview for a position with someone you treated unprofessionally “in a past life”.

    If being Caligula is your style, beware, ‘cuz it may come back to bite you in the future.

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