what are employers looking for when they hire?

In a tight job market, with employers able to be pickier and pickier about who they hire, it’s easy for job seekers to start wondering what it takes to get a job. In a sea of qualified candidates, what are employers looking for in the people they choose to interview?

Here are eight key things that employers are looking for when they review job applicants.

1. First and foremost, can you do the job? This isn’t about whether you think you can do the job; employers are looking for concrete evidence in your past that shows that you can. This doesn’t mean that you need to have done this particular job with this particular title before, but it does mean that you need to have a track record of success in the skills that the position requires.

2. Are you going to be reasonably easy to work with? No matter how skilled you are, most employers don’t want to hire someone who’s high maintenance, rude, negative, volatile, or overly sensitive.

3. Will you be satisfied with the job or will you be looking to leave within six months? Most employers want to hire people who will stick around for a solid block of time (usually at least two years, and more for senior-level positions). They also want to hire people who will be happy with the job, because unhappy people tend to be less productive and a drain on other employees’ morale.

4. Are you reasonably likeable? You don’t need to be a charmer on the level of George Clooney, but you do need to be someone your interviewer can envision working with every day without feeling stomach pains.

5. Do you seem like you can put up with whatever the negatives of the job are? Every job has downsides, whether it’s a difficult boss or a long commute or an office culture that makes it hard for new ideas to blossom. Employers want to make sure that you’re going to have at least a reasonable “immunity” level to whatever the more difficult elements of the job will be.

6. Will you fit in with the company culture? Do you seem like you’d easily embrace the culture, or do you seem like you’d struggle to assimilate? Company culture matters because it’s the invisible force that controls “how we do things here.”

7. Do you have a strong work ethic? It’s not enough to just show up at work every day and do the minimum required. Employers are looking for candidates who care about getting things done and who start distracting the receptionist or open up Facebook or Gmail the moment the boss leaves for lunch.

8. How enthusiastic are you about the job? Is this just one job of hundreds you’re applying to, or do you have a special interest in this one? Employers would rather hire someone who will be excited to come to work than someone who sees it as “just a job.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Dukebdc*

    Well, it wasn’t on your list, but hiring someone they don’t have to train has been a common theme in my interviews and subsequent rejections. It’s probably not the best way to get the best employees all the time, but all three of the orgs who offered me a second interview in the last year have ultimately gone with the candidate who has specific experience in that specific type of organization and job. At least, that’s what I’ve been told in the rejection letters and calls. I work in the non-profit field where having even one dedicated HR staff member is rare, so I guess it makes sense short-term to hire someone who won’t need any ramp-up time. But it’s still frustrating.

    1. Jamie*

      That’s an interesting discussion in and of itself – how much training should an employer reasonably be expected to provide?

      This has come up a lot here and I think it’s one of the bigger differences between employers and job seekers. It’s impossible to quantify because it varies so much depending on the job, but it’s a good question for employers to ask themselves – how much are they willing to invest in training?

      For me, I don’t think an employer should have to do much (usually) in the way of core job training. If you are an accountant, please come familiar with a general ledger and amortization. For a lot of jobs, training should be specific to the company. A Windows admin shouldn’t need to be taught how to implement group policies, but should be trained on how they are used here. That kind of thing.

      That said – all things being equal (and I don’t know why I say that since they are never equal) I would take someone who is a fast learner and has the work ethic and soft skills I need before someone who isn’t quite as good, but happens to be more familiar with a particular software.

      Hire for what you can’t teach. I can teach an application or procedure. I can’t teach you to care about the job, have good rapport with end users, and I can’t teach you how to think to proactively improve systems and procedures.

      But the flip side is I’ve known people to be very upset when not considered for internal promotions when they had no basic skills in the area and expected all training to be internal. A sales admin trying to make the leap to AR needs to know that the debits go on the left before their interview and not be indignant that she could learn it otj. True story.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I totally agree.

        Job seekers also need to realize that if someone already knows how to do the work AND has a track record of doing it well, of course they’re going to be more attractive than someone who would need to be trained and doesn’t have a track record of doing the work successfully yet. It’s reasonable to take the good known quantity over the promising but unknown quantity.

        When you have choices, this makes sense. Job seekers tend to forget how many choices employers often have right now.

      2. Anonymous*

        There needs to be more actual. true entry level positions, especially those for recent college graduates. I have both work and teaching experience, but I continue to find true entry level jobs scarce to non-existant. Even with my work experience (in an office setting,) most employers won’t put much weight on it because they want it to be in a specific industry, and that can be extremely frustrating.

        1. Jamie*

          I understand your frustration, but I think there is a disconnect between what is and what should be.

          You write that there need to be more true entry level positions. That would be beneficial to a lot of people, sure, but jobs aren’t created to benefit the candidates. Positions are open because businesses need certain people in certain roles.

          If they need work which can best be done by entry level people, then that’s who they will want because it’s a lot cheaper than getting someone 10 years out (typically.)

          I understand the frustration – but it’s a mistake to think business should ever – or will ever – adapt to what the job seeker needs…it will always be the job seekers role to adapt to the needs of the business/find a business which would get value from their particular contributions.

          1. Anonymous*

            But as a follow up to that, what more can I do to adapt to that? I utilize the career services at my alma mater, get my resume checked out, go to mock interviews and try to network as much as I can, but I am mostly getting misses. I am not sure what else I can do? I am currently employed, but I am only doing retail.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s hard to answer that without knowing a lot more, but there’s tons of advice on this site that might help. Be aware, too, that some (not all, but some) career centers’ have woefully outdated advice.

    2. Risa*

      I think how much training is expected on the job also depends on the level into which you are hiring. Do I expect an accounting person to know the difference between debits and credits – absolutely.

      But as a hiring manager for entry level positions into a sales/service call center, I spend at least 1-2 months of the first year training new hires on the product, the phone system and the three different CRM/sales systems that we use for our different companies. Frankly, I feel like we fall down on the job because we do not yet have an effective program for continuing ed training for our staff – once they are here for a year, they are pretty much done on training. But everyone would benefit from regular training refreshers. As a manager, my department and my company would benefit from us spending time doing refreshers and annual training programs. Our team would sell better, and it would help us feed the career pipeline. In our company there is a lot to learn – hiring from outside for the supervisor and management positions is really difficult and we’ve been FAR more successful by promoting from within. The only thing that allows me to do that is having decent training and preparation for the staff on their career path.

      I ask my management team that reports to me to do one professional development item a week – whether that’s attending a webinar or reading a few chapters from a business book or going to a class. If it’s something that costs money, I pay for it out of my budget. We have a department library that contains over 200 books ranging in topic from customer service to sales to organizational development to managing people (including a recent purchase of AAM’s manager’s guide). Training doesn’t have to be expensive or formal – but there does need to be an effort.

      I personally think it’s incredibly short sighted for companies to think that they can hire people without having to train them and expect them to be both highly successful and satisfied with their work.

      Sorry for the long read – training and education is a passionate subject for me. :)

  2. Suzanne*

    Great list, and I wish it were true. My experience, however, has been that people that are superior in all those “soft skills” mentioned in the article, especially if they are older, are still having a horrible time getting interviewed. The things AAM mentions are things that don’t translate well to a resume.

    I would agree with Dukebdc above. First and foremost, employers want someone they will not have to train. At all. Even if training would help them do their job and bring good things to the company, they don’t want to bother.

    1. Another Jamie*

      I think the soft skills are the things that showcase well in a cover letter and interview, should you get to that stage. This is why I love cover letters. They give me an opportunity to illustrate those soft skills (enthusiasm, work ethic, attention to detail), rather than just list them on a resume.

  3. Jamie*

    Can I tell you how much I LOVE paragraph 9 in the Men’s Health article?!

    Thank you for your defense of the IT department, Alison. :)

    In your USNWR article I thought it was great that you spoke of immunity of the downsides of every office. It’s so true that not everything bothers everyone equally and immunity is exactly what it is – I’ve never thought of it in those terms before.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I love the immunity concept, because it explains so much. For instance, when you’re really stressed out and frustrated either at work or in your personal life, your immunity to other frustrations tends to be lower — it’s really useful shorthand to think of it that way (or even to explain it to other people that way).

      1. Jamie*

        The first thing I thought of when I read it was two things which are deal breakers for some people and total non-issues to me. Vacation and benefits. If these are kinda paltry I’m immune to that, but I’m also immune to any attempts to placate me with those things.

        It all comes down to fit. There are some things which are clearly bad, but a lot of things are neither – they are just good or bad for you depending on fit.

      2. some1*

        I agree. Salary has never been that big of a deal to me, as long as I can pay the bills & have a little extra for fun. But for the first time I am making considerably more than I ever have before, and it’s made the fact that this position is the most demanding I have ever had in some respects that much easier. :)

      3. Elizabeth West*

        This is completely accurate. Constant stress will make you susceptible to more stress, so even a tiny irritant can make you react disproportionately. Anxiety is the same way; it feeds on itself. This was part of my issue when I was THAT coworker. It took a while before I learned how to cut off the stream.

      4. Long Time Admin*

        I haven’t read the Men’s Health article yet, so when I saw the word “immunity” I thought of it in the legal sense (way too much Closer & Major Crimes).

        I want immunity on my job, in every sense of the word.

  4. Anlyn*

    “Whack-a-mole from hell”. I love that phrase, and am going to try and incorporate it into everyday language.

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