reaching out to a hiring manager with questions before applying for a job

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.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. jesicka309*

    What if the job posting is REALLY vague about the company? Lately I’ve seen a lot of job postings in my field (media) that are done through recruitment agencies, and are so vague that it’s almost impossible to work out what the job is, let alone who the company is. It’s fine if you’re out of work, and you’re looking for a job in your field regardless of who it’s for. But when you’re looking for a job while you’re already employed by a fairly prestigious company, it chafes having to try to work out if the company is worth your time, or whether you’d be wasting everyone’s time by applying.
    Should you reach out in that instance?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If it’s not in the ad, it’s not there for a reason, so reaching out to ask won’t change that. With recruitment companies, they often are deliberately not revealing who the employer is (because they don’t want you applying directly, and often because the employer doesn’t want you applying directly either). It’s annoying on the job seeker side, because you’re absolutely right that your interest in applying or not applying might be based on that info, but if they’re not giving it out, they’re not giving it out.

    2. Pamela G*

      I’d reach out to the recruiter and ask for more information about the job that’s been posted. That’s very different from talking to the hiring manager themselves – it’s the recruiter’s job to know more about the job than what’s been posted and they should be able to give you an idea of whether you’d fit or not.

      1. Anonymous*


        I’d also add that in emailing a recruiter, it’s a good idea to put a summary of your relevant skills, experience and qualifications, along with the sort of position you’re looking for. That way, the recruiter might be able to suggest other job opportunities they currently have if the one you’re enquiring about isn’t for you.

    3. books*

      But it also seems like with job postings by recruiters, all they’re looking for is a resume, so what the hell, send it if you’re interested.

  2. Deirdre*

    I try and answer questions when possible. Sometimes I will answer my phone; other times my HR assistant will answer questions.

    If you do have someone who will talk with you, one word of advice – please don’t assume that you have the inside track. I have applicants follow up, rather annoyed, assuming since I did speak with him/her that somehow that put them ahead of others.

    It doesn’t.

  3. Anonymous*

    Honestly, usually calls like this drive me nuts. I don’t mind an e-mail with a specific question (although you better make sure it is something that isn’t specified in the job ad), but when I get a call stating, “I was wondering if you could provide a general description of what you’re looking for in the ideal candidate” I want to scream… the qualifications desired are listed on the ad.

    When I get calls like this I usually think the person is trying to get noticed, similar to calling to follow-up on their resume after sending it in 30 minutes prior–and sure, they are making themselves get noticed… in a bad way.

    My advice– if you have a legitimate question that isn’t common sense and you can’t find the answer on your own…. send an e-mail if you must. Although I’d say apply, and if they are interested you can ask all of your questions then. And please, don’t call HR— usually we are just screening resumes, the final decision lies with the hiring manager, and we’re probably not going to put you through to the hiring manager because contrary to what many job seekers seem to think, we are all very busy performing non-recruiting tasks the majority of the day. AND WHATEVER YOU DO— do not show up at the office pretending to have a meeting with HR/hiring manager. This has happened a handful of times in my career, and there is a 98% chance doing this will land your resume in the “this person is crazy” pile.

    1. Anonymous*

      Do you send rejection emails to applicants that interviewed but were not selected? Or do you leave them hanging?
      I had to call the HR person – even though I didn’t want to – to find out the status of hiring after an interview. Luckily I had his number saved on my phone.

      1. Nonie*

        That stinks. To be fair, though, this question relates to calling a hiring manager *before* applying for a position.

        1. Anonymous*

          And to elaborate, I see nothing wrong with calling and asking questions once you have been interviewed/phone screened/ etc. We always give everyone we interview/screen a timeline of when they can expect to hear back regarding our decision, and I make sure to follow-up with candidates if this timeline changes at all. I know how painful the waiting game is and try to alleviate it as much as possible.

          1. Anonymous*

            Good for you but I don’t think this is the norm. When you call to ask for an update the HR person usually is quick to apologize or say it must have been a system glitch or something.

            1. fposte*

              Sure, but it doesn’t change the basic point–it’s best to avoid calling HR about a job posting before you apply.

              1. Anonymous*

                No point in calling HR but trying to call the hiring manager before applying means that the person is trying to go around HR – And I can’t blame them to want that.
                That is what people that have connections with the hiring manager do. But if you don’t have a previous connection with the hiring manager this technique is not efficient.

                1. fposte*

                  I can’t blame them for wanting that either, but that doesn’t change the fact that doing it may well hurt their candidacy.

                  That’s a tough differentiation for anxious people to make, but it’s necessary–something that’s an understandable action in the situation can still be detrimental.

  4. Jamie*

    The stats geek in me wonders if there is some kind of rough ratio between the number of applications submitted and the level of the job.

    Of course there will be more applicants for reception than for CEO, but is there some kind of basic formula which tends to hold true?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Not really a formula, but ever since the economy went south in 2008, I’ve received about 300+ applications for junior/mid-level jobs (up from about 200+ previously). Senior level jobs attract a slightly smaller pool, although sometimes not that much smaller — varies depending on the nature of the role.

    2. Stells*

      Not really, but for a variety of reasons. (1) It can widely depend on the company. People are more likely to apply for EVERYTHING at a well known company versus a mid-sized or boutique company. (2) The higher the position, the less likely it is to be posted. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally it’s better to look at internal promotions and go through executive search firms if you can first. (3) People will apply to everything. EVERYTHING. I’ve seen people apply to job postings for registered pharmacists or license practitioners with their only experience being in warehouse/retail/food service type jobs.

      The correlations don’t start to show until you’ve separated out the truly qualified applicants from the unqualified.

  5. Your Boss*

    I agree, anyone would be better off just applying. In my case, we are not even allowed to talk to applicant before an interview. I did have a case of one applicant coming into my office with questions about a position. First, I was like “Wow, how did you find my office? Scary!” and then I just simply got turned off by the whole ordeal. I ended up sending him to our HR to look for answers there. HR doesn’t have all the answers either but I just wanted to send him somewhere, far away from my office. :)

    1. Anonymous*

      What if the applicant-to-be were someone that knows one of your coworkers? If the coworker comes with the questions to you about this opening for his/her friend, does that scare you?

    2. Jennifer (OP)*

      It’s actually kind of easy to find the office, in most cases. Sometimes I check that when I’m applying for a position. Mostly for my own daydreaming purposes, but occasionally to determine whether I want to apply (if I think the commute would be a deal-breaker). I would *never* use that to try to go meet with someone at the organization, though. That’s just creepy. Can’t imagine why anyone would think that’s a good idea.

  6. Henning Makholm*

    Over here, it seems to be a standard bit of boilerplate to put something like “For more information about this position, please call J. Hiring Manager at 1234-5678” at the bottom of job postings. I’ve never been able to figure out a situation in which following this instruction would feel appropriate (except for the single time where I already knew the person named).

    Is there similar boilerplate in American job postings, or is the question about “reaching out” completely spontaneously? If so, how would applicants even figure out who the hiring manager is?

    1. AP*

      If anything, job postings in America are likely to have a “Please, no calls about this job” line at the bottom!

      However, the niche job site I use does have a mandatory line for “contact name,” although plenty of people just put Hiring Manager there. Some people are amazing internet/Linked In sleuths so that helps, although it doesn’t make a very good impression.

    2. Kelly O*

      Normally you do see verbiage like “no calls” or even no emails or walk-ins.

      (Which, by the way makes it that much harder for job seekers, especially those without ins at a company, or who may be new to a geographic area.)

  7. Anonymous*

    This is like some secret version of “getting noticed” instead of calling a week later to “check on your resume.” Don’t do it.

  8. Tiff*

    I reached out to the hiring manager prior to an interview – but the questions I had were more technical in nature. I had materials to share and I asked about how many people would be on the interview panel, technical capabilities, etc. My questions were relevant and didn’t waste the hiring manager’s time, she was happy to answer me, and she gave me even more information when I advanced to round 2 interviews because there was an assignment. She was willing to share that same information with the other candidates, but later I learned that many did not even ask her questions prior to the second round (which she expressly ok’d in the assignment itself). Ah well, I got the job. In that situation, the hiring manager was looking for a candidate who would take the time to do a little research.

    As for the OP – if the job description looks vaguely appealing…apply. I gave an example where I believe reaching out to the hiring manager is appropriate, but I wouldn’t suggest contacting the HM just to try and figure out if you want to apply in the first place.

    1. fposte*

      Sounds like that was after applying and making the interview cut, though, not before applying. If you asked questions about the interview before sending in your application at all, most hiring managers would be pretty startled by that, I think.

  9. Uh-Oh*

    I’m starting to feel the rumblings of another “Job Seekers vs. Hiring Managers/Recruiters” debate……

    1. Kelly O*

      See, I don’t see that in the case of calling before you apply.

      I think there is a world of difference between reading a job ad, comprehending the information provided, following the instructions included, and then trying to find a warm body to speak with afterward is very different than calling the warm body first and asking “can you tell about X?” in a published job ad.

      I may be in the minority on this one, but to me, the job ad is not only information about the job itself, but also information about the company. Do you see hints of heavy bureaucracy? (Things like “can sit or stand, or speak and listen”) Do you see a creative bent? (Things like “looking for Red Shirt leader for Away Team of awesome sales people”) Does it talk in advance about overtime and flexibility? What is the overall tone? There’s a lot to be learned from an ad, even if it seems like something that some companies don’t understand in their standard boilerplate job descriptions.

      So as an applicant, I have to figure out what, exactly, I can about what this job entails, and whether I’d be qualified and interested in that position. Then, it gives me a method for applying, which can also tell you a bit about the company, or at least their predilection for cumbersome ATS software that wants my GPA from kindergarten, or an address to which I can email my resume and cover letter directly.

      Once I follow all those steps and give a reasonable amount of time for that to be received, THEN I can start the whole process of trying to find an actual person to whom I can speak. At that point, I’ve put the ball in their court and provided them all the information I can at the time.

      I guess I just don’t get asking questions before you even start the process.

      1. Natalie*

        “looking for Red Shirt leader for Away Team of awesome sales people”

        Their OSHA lost-work-hours forms must be a nightmare.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think this is one of those myths people tell job seekers that isn’t true, similar to calling to follow-up on your application.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes. It’s also something that works only on bad hiring managers, ones whose attention is drawn to shiny/loud objects rather than merit — and you really don’t want to work for one of those.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I’d finish that sentence with

      …through a contact who already knows the hiring manager.

  10. Bobby Digital*

    Ugh. I just broke this rule and I felt really weird about it.

    A job posting specified that two positions were going to be filled from it. After I applied, I saw that there was a brand-new posting for a slightly different job title, but with the same pay/duties/qualifications, etc. as the other one.

    I didn’t want to superfluously apply; I second-guessed myself, bit the bullet, and emailed HR to clarify. They were really nice and emailed me back a few hours later, but I still feel really yucky about having done it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think you should feel icky about it — that was a question that you couldn’t figure out from the ad (“should I apply twice?”), and also you didn’t bother the hiring manager with it — you went to HR, which was sensible.

  11. anonymous*

    I think the only case I’d recommend this is perhaps if it was an internal position, but even then, you need to have a really good question, and please please only e-mail the hiring manager. (I recently received several instant messages from random people in my company that I’ve never worked with or heard of, inquiring about a position I was hiring for.) In my company, there are a lot of jobs that are virtual & may or may not require excessive amounts of travel, which is not always noted, and makes a difference for many people as to whether they are interested. Also an email is automatically generated & sent to your manager if you apply to another position, so there are times when knowing whether or not this is a position you really are interested in before you possibly put yourself in a bad spot with your manager knowing you are looking for something else. But this is about the only case I’d recommend it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, this falls under the exception in the last paragraph — when you have an in with the hiring manager (which you do by definition of you work in the same company; internal positions are different).

    2. OR*

      Agreed. This is really only appropriate for internal candidates and as mentioned by Pamela G, there is a difference between recruiter and hiring manager. I was trying to switch careers from someting very generic to something very technical. The application doesn’t higlight this like my cover letter and resume do ( I know because I used to work in HR and have seen the way thyu applications are processed). 90% of the time I have reached out this way internally (via email with no more then a paragraph) I recieved a call back with interviews which then led to job shadows and after the 8th application, a new job.

  12. nyxalinth*

    Recently there was a position on Craigslist requiring a Bachelor’s Degree to work in a call center. I did send in my resume though I don’t have one, because really, it doesn’t take a degree to get yelled at on the phone all day :P I did point out all of my experience in lieu of the degree. It didn’t work, alas, but the point is I avoided the temptation to ask them “Well, why does this need a degree?” and the temptation to ask about it after sending in my resume. No one likes to be questioned about their processes, especially in hiring.

    1. Uh-Oh*

      I’m sure they also avoided the temptation to tell you, “Why did you apply when the ad CLEARLY states that a Bachelor’s is required?”

      It works both ways.

      1. Kelly O*

        Okay, I will say this, there are a great many job postings I see that I am well-qualified for. I have real, hands-on experience performing the duties requested. Many times you see a Bachelor’s required – sometimes there will be a note about years of experience that can be exchanged for a degree, but a lot of them make it very clear that they only want administrative support with a Bachelor’s.

        It can be difficult, as a job seeker, to not ask – so let me understand, you would rather hire a 22 year old with no work experience purely because they have a four-year degree, rather than someone with a two-year degree and well over ten years of actual experience?

        Because it can be difficult to understand how two years of school outweighs ten years of hands-on application. Not to be contrary about it, but it is a hard thing to understand. (Never mind the ones who post those requirements and consider $12/hour “competitive compensation.”)

          1. Anon*

            Sadly, I think that governmental and non-profit jobs are more likely to waive the education requirements. Grant recipients and those qualifying for non-tax status generally must create an affirmative action plan. Part of the AA requirement is that employers must provide a reason that the degree is needed as a minimum qualification OR allow education to be considered in lieu because the requirement can create a disproportionate negative impact on protected groups that don’t typically have access to education. IMO most recruiters view the degree as a check box where really good recruiters view it as a tiny piece of the applicant’s overall qualifications.

          2. Hmmm*

            I dunno, Alison. Depending on the company’s applicant tracking system, they might get booted for not having the degree, etc.

            I’m not saying job descriptions AREN’T often boilerplate, but so many applicants ignore job descriptions and apply to positions, disregarding the listed requirements, that it’s a real burden on hiring managers/recruiters.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Right, that’s why I said “half the time” and not “all the time” :)

              Sometimes it’s a real requirement. Other times it’s not. You can’t know from the outside, so you might as well go ahead and apply.

  13. Lily*

    I’d like to elaborate on a couple points Alison and others have mentioned, both because I would like to explain the p.o.v. of ONE hiring manager in more detail to job applicants and because I would like to hear from other hiring managers if I have gone overboard. As the saying goes, “once bitten, twice shy”, but I also don’t want to draw the wrong lessons from my experiences.

    I’m even likely to talk longer with people who I have already decided to reject; I feel sorry for them and want to give them a realistic picture of the industry. People who are still under consideration will only hear me asking them to send in their application.

    If people ask questions which could be easily answered by reading the ad, then I wonder if they’ll also need me to read aloud the employee handbook, our website … to them.

    If people tell me their life story as justification for why they are suited for the job, I wonder to what extent they think the world revolves around them. How much are their needs and wants going to limit what they get done on the job?

    If I feel that people need special contact, I wonder if they will be able to follow established routines and procedures or if they will always need an exception.

    If I feel that people are looking for encouragement, I wonder how much praise and reassurance they will need on the job in order to do the job.

  14. jane*

    For positions that are likely to attract dozens or hundreds of applicants it is better to follow the steps outlined in the ad, i.e. apply without creating any additional noise for the HR and hiring manager.

    However, if it is a highly specialized position, and you know for sure that there are going to be 5 or fewer serious contenders – it can be acceptable to contact the hiring manager regarding the position without officially applying. However, it helps to be conservative and very-very sure in your knowledge of the particular market, before assuming that this is the case.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Are there positions that draw so few applicants? I’ve never encountered any, and I think it would be tough for a candidate to know from the outside.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes, I don’t know how you’d know from the outside.

        When I got my current job there were a total of four applicants. Not those interviewed – they got four resumes total. Absolutely no way I could have known that so I just assumed I won out against hundreds…when in reality I just edged out the one other person who had minimal qualifications. A far less impressive feat.

        Oh – and at the time they were also running an ad for another position – they had to pull the ad early because they had hundreds more resumes than they could go through by the end of day 2. My ad ran for six weeks and drew the attention of four of us.

        1. Anonymous*

          Well, did HR forget to change the job title from “Scapegoat for 9th Circle” to “Sysadmin” before they posted the listing?

      2. jane*

        I am in IT, and have long worked for small and tiny companies. Every so often there are positions requesting rare qualifications, where there are at best 2-12 applicants, of which maybe 2 or 3 stand out from the get-go. If one of those 3 was to reach out before sending in an application – s/he would be welcome. And yes, people know when they are in demand, and are a good fit.

  15. Elizabeth West*

    I did this twice recently, but it wasn’t exactly reaching out–two companies I had already interviewed unsuccessfully with posted different jobs. The first one was an assistant job I felt I might be more suited to than the original one I interviewed for, and I was interested in the company still. No dice on that one; I just two seconds ago got rejected. :(

    The second one is a state job that has one of those postings where it doesn’t tell you what you actually do. The previous job turned out to be mostly accounting, which I can’t do, but the initial meet-&-greet went well and it seemed that I made a decent impression. When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do the job, they seemed kind of disappointed and we ended the interview.

    The reposting said “Financial and/or Criminal” division (it was a court clerk job). I sent the hiring manager a letter saying I was reapplying, that if the criminal division job were a different position I might be a better fit for it. I figured there was no harm in trying because it’s not easy to get ANY initial interview for a state job, and if it really is a better fit she might reconsider me. I hope. Worth a try, I guess… :}

  16. Jennifer (OP)*

    Wow, thanks for all the input!

    I sort of generalized my question thinking that it would be applicable to more people if it were less specific. So here’s my particular situation: I’m (hoping to become) a sector-switcher, going from the corporate world to a development associate position (I’ve only been out of college for 6 years, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a step down for me). Though I’ve heard otherwise, I feel like the fact that my work history is corporate puts me at a slight disadvantage. Most of the job listings I’ve seen note that development experience is preferred, or that experience with some type of CRM software is preferred/required.

    Lately, I’ve also been considering applying to some development assistant positions thinking that the lack of nonprofit experience might be less of an issue with those. Some of the positions I’ve come across seem a bit ambiguous though. One, for example, was called a “program assistant.” It had elements of development as well as other duties, and was listed as reporting to someone who wasn’t in development (I don’t quite remember who). I was going to apply, thinking that this was a smaller nonprofit and they probably didn’t have a huge development team. When I looked on LinkedIn, I noticed that they actually have quite a large development department (which is interesting, because I’d never even heard of this organization and their work is very locally focused). Since that was a bit confusing, I was hoping to reach out to the hiring manager to get a bit of clarity on what the position was.

    Having read all the comments, though, I think it might be a better use of everyone’s time to just apply and save those questions for the interview stage – assuming I make it to that point.

    Anyway, thanks again everyone! I appreciate all the advice!

    1. Jennifer (OP)*

      As a quick note, there also didn’t seem to be an HR department that was screening applications, which is why I was considering the hiring manager. If there had been an HR rep, I probably would’ve posed the question to them.

    2. Henning Makholm*

      Um, this may just be my non-native English skills speaking, but you keep saying “development” here, where I think that word needs some sort of qualifier in order to convey actual information.

      Development of what? Software development? Photographic processing? Drug development? Real-estate development? Development aid?

      There are probably not many things in common to be said about all these.

    3. Jamie*

      My $.02 from a practical perspective, if you are talking about using and not writing the CRM any specific software shouldn’t be a requirement, and I’d ignore it if it were listed as such and apply anyway.

      I’ve used more than I can shake a stick at and I’ve never seen one without a quick learning curve.

      1. Jennifer*

        Thanks, Jamie! I usually do apply anyway. I’ve seen a few listings where the person was expected to be to “go-to” person for the system, which seemed to make a little more sense.

        That said, I was writing horribly stiff cover letters before discovering AAM recently, so it’s entirely possible that it was the cover letters and not my lack of experience with the software that’s been causing the lack of interest.

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