is this blog a cheat sheet for bad candidates?

In the comments section of my last post, commenter John asked:

AAM, have you ever wondered if your application advice is providing any net benefit? Because these things seem like a zero-sum game: if one candidate wins (gets the job), all the other candidates lose (do not get the job). So although your advice will sometimes help the best candidates (i.e. the people who would do the best job at the company they applied for) get a job offer, many times your advice will help a lesser candidate get the job offer instead. Because let’s be honest: there are probably some awful people (like a tyrannical boss, for example) who have stumbled upon your blog; read some great tips on things like the cover letter, the resume, likely interview questions, etc; and used that information to get a job. I’m not asking this question in order to repudiate you. I’m just wondering if this is something that has ever crossed your mind.

I love this question!

I don’t really believe that a bad candidate can “trick” their way into a job through the advice I give here. While I can certainly give a lot of specifics about what not to do, my advice on what you should do is a lot less specific. It tends to be about how you should approach the process in general — identifying your strengths and how you’re a fit, conveying that in a genuine way, approaching an interview as a two-way conversation, reading the employer’s signs to figure out if this is the right fit for you, and so forth.  Much of it is about the mental framework you should have.

So it’s not about saying “answer X to this question” — because there aren’t really answers that will be universally right. It’s more about figuring out how to approach the process.

And as a hiring manager, I’ve seen plenty of candidates who understood the process and approached it well but who still just weren’t the right fit for what I needed … i.e., I don’t think a good hiring manager will be duped into hiring the wrong person just because that person was prepared.

(That said, I do worry about the magic interview question being used by bad candidates. Because it’s magic and shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.)

What do you guys think?

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Ashley Reed, PHR*

    Hmmm… I’ve interviewed a large handful of candidates that had good cover letters, resumes and presented themselves well in the interview process. That didn’t mean they were the right fit for the specific position, and a good hiring manager should be able to distinguish candidates that are good versus candidates that are truly the right fit (I suppose that does depend on the given position, it may be more obvious for an engineer than an administrative assistant). Either way the advice provided should help candidates market themselves better so that, as an example, a typo or annoying objective on their resume doesn’t get them weeded out from the interview pile when otherwise they would be a good fit for the position. Just some thoughts…

  2. Jen*

    I think a lot of bad candidates get jobs regardless of the general awesomeness of any blogs, books, or other random resources. When I think about some of the jokers I’ve worked with in the past, it makes me weep a little.

    1. CK*

      Agreed. There were many times in my past jobs when I’ve wondered, “how the HECK did this person even get a job/get promoted to manager/etc?!”

    2. Office Mommy*

      This blog is so helpful in improving issues with presentation. You could be the most talented X in your field, but when it comes to job hunting/interviewing, the outside has to match the inside. A sloppy resume/portfolio or falling apart during an interview does not showcase anyone in their best light. Of course, great presentation doesn’t guarantee a job, but it does better the odds.

      In my experience, “bad” candidates who always seem to land amazing jobs for one of two reasons (and sometimes both!):
      1 – Nepotism. I have too many examples of this to list here!

      2 – They are great liars and have extremely manipulative personalities. Maybe they’ll read blogs like this one to understand the process better, but reading job advice material didn’t give them that deceptive personality. These are the types who can “trick” a hiring manager, but chances are, they try to trick everyone they meet.

      1. Anonymous*

        Yep, this is true…people who are manipulative use their skill with enviable ease to get their way in any situation…Ah, well such is life

  3. Rachel*

    I really don’t understand this question. This blog is about sharing knowledge to help candidates improve themselves. If people are interested in self improvement then they’re not covering up anything, they are learning to be better. It’s like getting a degree.

  4. Anonymous*

    Her advice helps! It helped me get the job I was applying for this summer. And I had tried other times before to get this job, but that was before I stumbled upon her blog. Perhaps you might look at me as the lesser candidate, but I’m not. I just needed guidance on how to get myself noticed professionally and to make my resume and qualifications signal to the company I am who they want/need.

    Look at it this way – those who read and take her advice may or may not get the job. It’s how they use it. You can put the advice in the hands of a lesser candidate and they do nothing about it. An interview will distinguish the people.

  5. Henning Makholm*

    I’d suppose that teaching people how to present their strengths and skill more clearly helps the economy in general, by facilitating a more efficient matching of people to jobs.

    Each time an incompetent is hired over a good candidate who simply failed to present hist qualities to the hiring manager, money and effort is going to waste, which could have been used to create value for the society instead. The effects of a single blog on this are probably marginal, but it has to add up in the end.

  6. Catherine*

    The situation posited by the questioner reminds me a little bit of the time that Bart Simpson learned a new way to cheat–by hiding the answers in his brain. Someone who takes the time to learn how to improve her or his application and interview performance and is able to do so successfully is probably also someone who can and will be working to improve job performance.

    Plus, much of what’s presented on this blog is about smoothing out the mechanics so that the content can shine through. If everyone has the mechanics down pat, I would think that poor content would be even more obvious.

  7. Mephistopheles*

    Wow, what a question! This is an excellent question, but while I see the point of the OP, I look at it from a different perspective.

    I see this blog as an advice blog which helps qualified candidates express themselves in the best way, as opposed to teaching bad candidates to “sneak” their way into a position. It might help a lesser candidate stand out a little more, but it wouldn’t make a bad candidate automatically qualified.

    Plus, with rising unemployment and a rough job market, the competition is fiercer than ever before. I have applied for part time positions where they have received over 400 applications for one slot! Even if you were the textbook-best candidate of that entire pool, it is very difficult to stand out next to 400 other people. That’s why networking, a good cover letter, and appropriate communication are essential tools to getting a job.

    A good hiring manager will easily identify whether a candidate is a good fit or not. As Alison said, some job seekers might have done everything perfectly, but they don’t get hired simply because they are not what she is looking for. If that person were to use those same strategies and techniques for a position that is a better fit, there is a good chance he will get a job.

    Plus, and this is just my theory, I highly doubt “bad” job candidates are spending their free time reading advice blogs and doing anything to help with their job search. Bad candidates are usually bad candidates for that reason. A good candidate would be interested in finding out what he can do to make himself a better candidate and what he can do to make himself stand out more.

    With this job market, it’s not enough to simply be a qualified candidate. You have to use every strategy you can in order to express yourself in the best way and to stand out the most.

  8. fposte*

    I don’t think it’s cheating, but I can understand that if you were a candidate who already knew all this, you don’t really want the competition to step up its game :-).

  9. Cara Carroll*

    Even if your advice gives some advantage to those who otherwise might not get the interview, I view this as a good thing. Those candidates are obviously seeking help and want to better themselves, which I think is a positive move on their part. Maybe they realize they have skills to work on, and the fact they even reach out to you I think is really great. I am an HR Manager and I do not hesitate to give advice when asked because I feel like it’s better they ask me than not ask at all and it could be a lost opportunity on both of our parts. For the people who might use your advice to “trick” employers might be able to get in the door, but will they be able to prove themselves once give the chance, maybe, maybe not…

  10. jersey knit*

    Most of the advice boils down to “show, don’t tell,” which can’t really be taught, so you’re proving your innate talents, not fabricating them. Mediocre candidates who follow career tips to the letter usually trip over that advice in spirit. Someone who’s inclined to double-check their assumptions at ask a manager is probably going to be more careful generally. If they didn’t get the advice here, they would either intuit it or find it someplace else. Alison provides such a great sounding board both because she’s so knowledgeable and because she’s so open about a subject where you can’t really help but second-guess yourself.

  11. K.A.*

    It’s important to note that Alison offers as much advice on how to be a better employee as she does on how to be a better job candidate. I stumbled across this site while prepping for an interview (which resulted in an offer) but plan on referring back to it frequently for the advice on how to handle interactions with managers and colleagues.

  12. Eva*

    Speaking to your fear about the magic interview question, Alison:

    I’ve read a book written in my local language on how to apply and interview for jobs that was written by a hiring manager who has hired hundreds of people during the course of a long career. (Unsurprisingly, a lot of his advice is similar to yours.) In the section on how interviewers interpret signals from candidates he encourages a show of enthusiasm for the specific work entailed in the job and then pauses to reflect that there exists a certain type of candidate who can be so convincing on this particular point and so charming in general that the hiring manager falls in love only to be disappointed when the new hire fails to deliver as expected. The Danish term he uses literally translates to ‘distance dazzlers’ which refers to people who make a stellar impression from afar but where one is disillusioned on closer inspection (such as a stage actress wearing heavy theatrical makeup). I would think there are people like this who become even better at manipulating themselves into jobs from reading this blog. But surely the benefits of the blog outweigh this cost! :)

    1. Anonymous*

      Heh…in the movie Clueless, Cher refers to this type of person as a Monet. Basically from far away they look fantastic, but up close they’re a big, ole mess.


  13. Lisa*

    Most jobs don’t use the same skill set that’s used in applying for a job. That means the best candidate for nearly any given job will still need to learn a skill set outside his core responsibilities to be a superstar applicant. Someone with a serious, dealbreaker personality flaw (doesn’t take feedback, easily angered, lazy) either won’t take the advice given here or will reveal that quickly in an interview. The good job seeker who just got laid off after 20 years and is rusty on the skill set for interviewing, though, can use this to get himself into the job he wants.

  14. Jennifer*

    The magic interview question is not a guarantee of hiring, though. I used it in several interviews recently when I was trying to find a job (I recently graduated in May), and while it may have confirmed that I at least deserved an interview, the candidates who were better fits who may not have asked the question still got the job over me.

    When asking the question, though, I sometimes got a “Great question!” comment, and putting credit where credit is due I mentioned this blog. As the jobs were related to management, I was trying to show that I was learning about managing skills even if I wasn’t working. Was this the right thing to do? Or was I being TOO honest?

    1. K.A.*

      I would be cautious with how you bring up reading a blog for interview advice. You don’t want to risk coming off as someone who’s just repeating rote questions because somebody else thinks it’s a good idea. If you feel like you must give credit where credit is due add your own reasons for why you think think it’s a good question.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I think you defuse the power of the magic question if you explain where you got it, unfortunately. Once you explain it’s not “yours,” it comes across more as “I was told to say this.”

      1. Jennifer*

        I think you’re both right. Even though I only ask questions I actually want the answers to, and therefore I really DO want to know what differs between the good and great, I felt a little guilty getting all this praise for something I didn’t exactly come up with myself. To be clear, I didn’t do this in every interview, and the time I can really remember doing it (and then cringing as it came out of my mouth) was when someone was gushing about was an amazing question it was. Thanks for the answers, KA and AAM.

  15. v*

    To be honest, this question is a little strange way of seeing things: as if there is something inherently bad (not as in evil, but as in non-qualified) about certain job-seekers and even though they are trying to improve themselves and get further in life, they shouldn’t do it using the same rules as the “good” ones do? How can you make such judgements? And how… how should the bad candidates look for jobs then?

    I agree what AAM wrote, though, the advice here is more about presenting certain aspects of yourself in a more employable light rather than being told exactly what the hiring managers want to hear. And perhaps, as the knowledge is being passed onto a wider net of people, it does become a zero-sum game, where there’s not much chance to get forward because everyone else is using the same tricks.

  16. Joey*

    I don’t think your advice helps crappy people get jobs from good interviewers, but I do think it can give them enough of an edge to get past a crap interviewer. But then they’d likely get someone crappy anyway.

  17. Lacey*

    I question how many truly “bad” candidates are using this blog because at the very least if you’re reading AAM you are preparing and somewhat organized (ie good job skills) and probably interested in the position if you are putting in that much effort. You might still not be the best candidate that most closely matches what they are looking for though, and will still probably not get every job you apply for because good interviewers will see that.

  18. EngineerGirl*

    I also think that the OP doesn’t quite get it. A great candidate has more than a great skill set. They are also proactive, hard working, and socially adept. These things are taught as much as skills are taught at university. If you don’t have those soft skills your career will suffer terribly.

    Some people have had great home lives. They came from a business oriented family and know all the ins and outs of how to operate within the corporate world. They have a distinct advantage for success. Others may come from the inner city, a rural area, another country, or from a place where they won’t know all the hidden rules of corporate-world. But they may indeed be the “best” candidate if only someone would take them aside and explain the rules to them. Would you deny them a chance to succeed because they were born in the “wrong” place?

    Allison’s blog explains the hidden rules to those who may not have had the advantage of a great upbringing. I see it as leveling the playing field for those who may not have had opportunities in the soft skills area.

    Believe me – if you are a good interviewer and ask specific questions there is no way you can cheat your way in to a job. And if the interviewer is lazy then the company gets what it deserves.

  19. Eddy*

    Frankly, if someone has gone to the trouble of seeking out this blog and reading it regularly to get the benefit of Alison’s wisdom, they’re probably already in the top 10% of candidates for most jobs — just by showing an active interest in bettering themselves and their prospects.

    If we ever get to the point where all candidates are religously reading and implementing everything said here, it just means Alison gets to spend more time talking about what happens _after_ you get hired.

  20. Anonymous*

    I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “bad” candidate. It implies that this person isn’t a good fit anywhere, which if true would be really bad for unemployment funding levels. Everyone fits somewhere. I know you know that is true, but I guess I am stuck on that wording. It’s bad wording! :)

    1. Anon*

      Believe me there are some out there whose marketability is so poor they might as well be considered unemployable. Anyone with a recent conviction for child molesting, murder, rape, etc. Or more commonly, liars, embezzelers, and the lazy.

  21. Casting Questions*

    Thanks for posting this interesting question. I work in a corporate setting and hire singers and dancers for a variety of projects. I find your answer really relevant to that field as well. I’ve often thought about the number of people who audition that are extremely professional, pleasant and talented, but they aren’t right for the openings I have. Being prepared and easy to work with make me want to hire you. And if it doesn’t work out this time, I’ll try to keep you at the top of the file for the next opening.
    On the other hand, no amount of preparation is going to help you if you don’t have enough experience or talent. For example, you can’t ace a dance audition if you aren’t a dancer. The same is true of a good interviewer for white collar jobs – they will ask questions and know if you have the right skills. They will also get a sense of your personality, attitude and soft skills.

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