a job applicant stopped by with a plant and candy

A reader writes:

We’re hiring for a social media person at work, and had an applicant show up out of the blue today with a bamboo plant in a vase and candy and a card and try to give it to the hiring manager. The hiring manager flat-out told her it wasn’t really appropriate and that she couldn’t accept the gifts. The applicant tried one more time to give it to her, saying she wanted to stand out, but got shut down and left dejectedly.

It made her stand out, but definitely not in a good way. It was too bad, because she’d been on the shortlist to call for an interview (not anymore).

I felt bad for her because someone must be pushing this advice somewhere. It’s the first time we received random plants from an applicant, but I’ve had multiple salesmen come by with a business card and an office plant. I don’t get it at all.

I told the hiring manager to check out your blog, because it could be worse. It could be glamour-shot-filled picture frames and cake.

Why why why do people think this is a good idea?

The rule is this: If you ever find yourself thinking, “I’m going to do X to stand out from all the other candidates,” X had better be (a) being an incredibly qualified candidate, (b) writing a great cover letter and having a strong resume, and/or (c) being friendly, responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic. If X is anything not related to the actual quality of your candidacy, you have lost sight of what the point of hiring is.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. anon*

    Alison, I think one of your sentences got cut off?

    “The rule is this: If you ever find yourself thinking”

    1. Chinook*

      I read the title and immediately thought “atleast it wasn’t a framed photo of the candidate.” I am glad the OP referenced it.

  2. Z*

    Another question might be, “Will this look like I’m trying to buy this job?” Or indeed, “AM I trying to buy this job?”

  3. Soni*

    Really, the so-called “professionals” who give out this sort of advice should be liable to be sued for costing their advisees their chance at an interview. It’s like the jobs-counselor version of malpractice.

    1. RB*

      I’m not sure that seasoned professionals are offering that advice, unless it was from one of those dreaded college career centers. It sounds like something her parents said was a good idea.

    2. Ruffingit*

      This could also be a case of a candidate taking something that was said and running with it in the wrong direction. For example, perhaps someone said “You really need to do something to stand out to the hiring people” and rather than crafting a fabulous cover letter and making the resume as strong as possible, the candidate decided showing up with plant/candy was the way to stand out.

      I guess this just goes to show that if anyone is giving advice to “stand out,” they should be specific as to what that means and what it DOESN’T mean.

  4. kristinyc*

    I work for what a lot of people would consider a “dream company” (and it is, in many ways). A few months ago we had a candidate bake cookies and bring them in during an interview to share with us. They were put in our kitchen, but no one touched them because really, homemade baked goods from a total stranger – no.

    He didn’t get the job (but the hiring manager said he – yes, he – wouldn’t have have gotten the job anyway because he wasn’t the best fit.

      1. A Reader*

        I don’t think kristinyc was saying anything regarding his gender, but it was a male candidate so she used that pronoun.

      2. Pandora Amora*

        The candidate’s gender is the surprise punchline to the anecdote. Imagine telling this to friends over drinks: the gender is unstated; cookies are baked; you’re priming everyone for the candidate to be a she – but wait, it’s a he (yes! he!), quelle surprise!

  5. Rana*

    And plants are particularly bad for this sort of thing (not that anything’s good) because they are living things and you have to take care of them.

    So “here’s a gift” becomes instead “here’s an unwanted responsibility”.

    1. Jen*

      And oddly enough I’ve worked at a job where outside plants were not allowed. I’m not joking – seemed weird but I had a little cactus on my desk and was told that I had to take it home because they had big plants scattered throughout the office and my tiny plant might bring in outside bugs or something and the office plant watering company had it in their contract that no outside plants would be allowed near their plants.

      1. Jamie*

        Plant people are so …particular…about that kind of thing.

        Full disclosure – I have never owned a plant on purpose, I don’t understand the inclination. Outside we have some trees and the yard is made of something called grass …or so I’m told by the son who cuts it. I walk over it sometimes when crossing from my driveway to my front door.

        I temped for 2 years and had perfect feedback…not one complaint either to me or my agency until one assignment which I found out after the fact was to “water the plants.”

        Which, to me, meant walking around with a little watering can and wetting the soil in each container before I left each night. Apparently different plants have different watering needs and some need food (???) and it’s possible to over water a plant.

        I would have followed detailed instructions – but to assume that “water the plants” would mean they’d get the same kind of care as if you’d hired a hospice nurse for them without said instructions was a little optimistic.

        You’d think I went back in fictional time to kill one of Nero Wolfe’s orchids.

        They didn’t complain to the agency thus my official record remains unsullied, but it was the first and only time anyone at any job spoke to me like I was absolutely incompetent and stupid.

        I hope the next time they hired a temp they specified that they wanted a botanist who could also answer the phone.

        1. Cat*

          Plants freak me out, and then make me feel really guilty when I inevitably kill them. I have no idea how people somehow manage to deduce how much water they need at a given time.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Most of the ones in offices are pretty hardy. You give them a drink once a week and if they look droopy before the week is up, give them more water next time. If they start to turn brown, give them less water.

            Pothos is the best office plant ever. You practically have to jump up and down on them to kill them, and they LOOOOOVE fluorescent lights. Also they’re all vine-y and you can train them around your cubicle. :)

        2. Liz in a Library*

          “Went back in fictional time”…

          This is a fantastic turn of phrase.

        3. Ellie H.*

          I accidentally overwatered a plant on my desk (very easy to do – it was a very small plant without good drainage) and then I had a reputation as a plant killer in the office for several months. :( It was just teasing but it genuinely (secretly) upset me because I love plants and look after mine very carefully, at home.

          Irrelevant tangent, I went away last weekend for four days and my roommates did not water my plants and they were extremely sad looking when I got back. Sure, I forgot to ask them to water them (I watered them before I left, but it was 90 degrees four days in a row) but what kind of idiot looks at a sad, wilting plant and is not motivated to do anything about it? Luckily they bounced back immediately with watering. I’m always amazed by that.

          1. fposte*

            I’m a gardener, and I would not feel the slightest bit interventionist about an indoor plant. You make it sound like somebody was witnessing child abuse; it’s more like watching sale bananas get overripe.

          2. KarenT*

            Ellie you’d get along with my landlord! We were out for dinner once and a decorative plant in the restaurant was looking sad so she asked the waiter to water it. He laughed and ignored her. She genuinely was distressed about it ( it was pretty funny to me) so she ordered a glass if water and watered the plant herself. You should have seen the waiter’s face!

        4. REB*

          My very first job out of college was for a nonprofit – it was an admin position, but very poorly defined and the executive director was very new to management and had no idea what she was doing. Expectations were extremely unclear and she didn’t know how to – or didn’t want to – give feedback. I was clueless because it was my very first job so I had no idea how to speak up to ask for more guidance. After six weeks, she fired me without warning. When I asked for the reason why (not that I wanted to stay, I was just so confused), she said she didn’t really want to get into it because she felt bad criticizing people publicly. This was even more baffling (and ridiculous), so I asked her to please give me something, as it would help me in the future.

          She was still reluctant to say anything but eventually said that it was because I hadn’t watered the plants.

          (I found out later that she had actually wanted to hire someone else for the position but was pressured to hire me (one of my professors, who had done a lot of work with this nonprofit, recommended me). I guess she was looking for any reason to get rid of me. And not watering the plants was her ace in the hole, apparently…

    2. Rob Aught*

      Ha! I was thinking the same thing. If you want to kill a plant, give it to me! I’m horrible with them.

      Won’t someone think of the plants?

    3. the gold digger*

      “here’s an unwanted responsibility”

      Exactly! I was so ticked when my husband’s mother sent us a tropical houseplant.

      1. I hate houseplants.
      2. We live in a cold, dark climate.

      I complained on facebook that she might as well have sent us a puppy.

      1. just another hiring manager...*

        Although, I assume it would have gone over MUCH worse if she HAD sent you a puppy… and now that I think about it, the thought of shipping a puppy is quite horrifying!

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          My sister has had a puppy shipped to her from halfway across the US, so it is done. I’m pretty sure they don’t use a FedEx cardboard box with air holes cut into it.

        2. Evan (now graduated)*

          I was just reading a history book that mentioned Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who escaped by having a friend mail him to the Anti-Slavery Society’s offices in Philadelphia, in a wooden box. He got knocked unconscious en route when someone ignored the “This End Up” signs, but he survived.

  6. Sniper*

    This type of thing continues to exist because we have all heard of stories where someone supposedly got a job because they stood out for doing things like this. As long as these stories continue to go around, people will continue to do these things.

    1. Sascha*

      I saw several bad recommendations on some newsletter I get from LinkdIn recently. I recommended such tactics as “calling to schedule an interview” and other dubious things.

    2. T-riffic*

      I actually think I know of an incident where this worked. I read a women’s online mag which has a very confessional, personal tone (who can guess what it is?). I think I remember seeing something from the editor/owner about a job applicant who had stopped by the office with sweets and how anybody wanting a job at this place should take notes from this person. BUT, the job applicant probably had a very good sense that something like that would be well received. I mean, you can go to the website almost any day of the week and read some of the editor’s most inner thoughts.
      All of this is to say: maybe it has worked for someone, but it probably won’t work for you. Unless you have a really strong connection to the work place and you are ABSOLUTELY sure that it will go over well.

      1. SupernintendoChalmers*

        Got to be XOJane. That place does not sound very, uh, professional, to say the least.

    3. fposte*

      As long as these stories go around and people don’t think critically about them, that is. Because most people get jobs by *not* doing this, so statistically you’d figure out that doing this isn’t an advantage. Throw in the piles of stories about applicants who fell out of consideration for doing stuff like this, and you have some pretty good counter-information to the stories.

  7. Tina*

    I’ve never heard anyone actually give this kind of advice, I wonder where it comes from. Desperation, perhaps.

      1. Sascha*

        I don’t think I can take anyone seriously who calls himself a “Gen Y Career Coach” and has a website called Corn on the Job.

      2. A. Noni Mouse*

        “When people start running with scissors towards your resume, then you know you’re on the right track.” -the last sentence of that article

        I don’t know about you, but the idea of someone running towards my resume with scissors does NOT sound like a good thing!

      3. fposte*

        Okay, so it wasn’t based on any success he’d had with this method or anybody he knew had had with this method, but he’s nonetheless convinced it’s good advice because he likes presents?

        Maybe he’s otherwise great–everybody can have an off moment–but it seems palpably unfair to tell other people to take a risk that you’ve never taken or seen anybody benefit from.

  8. BookWorm*

    The (bad) advice could have come from a family member of the applicant.

    I’m only saying that because today my husband told me I should call HR of a company I applied to via e-mail (per their instructions) – just to make sure they received my resume. Uh, no…..

    1. theotherjennifer*

      this bad advice could also come from the government-funded “career center” in your local area. Where the “career counselor” told me I should call the HR Manager of a company I submitted to just a week ago to let her know I’m interested.

      1. REB*

        Yes, the local One-Stop career center through my state’s DOL gives out bad, outdated advice like this all the time. They’re trying to help unemployed people but they’re actually hurting their chances.

  9. Jean*

    It would be a great kindness for the hiring manager at the OP’s workplace to advise the trying-to-stand-out applicant that she doesn’t need to resort to these dramatic efforts because her application alone is the best thing she has going.This would greatly increase the applicant’s confidence. Hopefully it would also shorten the time that a qualified candidate has to spend NOT contributing to her chosen field or industry.

    I realize that this might be a sticky conversation: The hiring manager has to be careful about discussing the fact that the applicant would have been considered for an interview otherwise.

    Bonus points to the hiring manager if she can convey this information without further demoralizing the applicant with the realization that on this occasion her unusual approach cost her an interview.

    Although, frankly, if the trying-to-stand-out applicant was otherwise deemed worthy of going onto the short list, would it have been so terrible to overlook this one quirk and grant her an interview?

    Maybe I’m just a touchy job-hunter myself but I’m getting grouchy at the comments expressing amusement at this applicant’s misguided efforts. We all know that it’s hard to get oneself hired in this economy. When people feel desperate (with or without justification) they can be especially vulnerable to charlatans peddling worthless advice. How are people supposed to learn everything about workplace and job-hunting etiquette except by making a few mistakes?

    1. IronMaiden*

      I don’t know that it is specifically amusement at this applicant’s misguided efforts, but AAM has cautioned about the gimmicky approach and the drop in approach in the past. I understand when people are desperate they feel the need to stand out but as AAM rightly says the way to do this is to meticulously follow the application instructions and submit a top quality resume and cover letter.

      1. theotherjennifer*

        Drop ins are not welcome – they are right up there with solicitors and salespeople who show up without appointments. It is uncomfortable and unprofessional.

    2. Rob Aught*

      Sharing specific advice with candidates can get sticky very quickly. It can go from suddenly being an unwanted, if short-term, mentor to a complete stranger all the way to possible legal issues depending on what is shared.

      However, here is something very simple everyone should keep in mind when it comes to job hunting.

      Keep it professional.

      If a candidate wants to “stand out” they need to do it in their resume. There is nothing that will get me to hire a weak candidate and I even had a recruiter offer to let me bring someone at cost! Even with a potential savings in mind I realized it was just further confirmation they were a weak candidate and who knows how they swung that deal!

      The BIG BIG BIG problem with gifts from candidates is that it smacks of bribery. People don’t like to think they can be bought, even though they can. Sure, this might just be currying favor but it makes me dig in my heels and I know I am not the only one.

    3. fposte*

      It’s not terrible to still grant her an interview, but I think it’s unkind to make somebody spend the time and money to go through an interview when she’s no longer in consideration for the hire, and it’s even unkinder to the person you would have called in instead of this person but can’t because you’re doing the pro forma interview in that slot. If you’re arguing that she should still be in consideration for the hire despite her unprofessional error here, I’d say that’s the HM’s call, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate to weed out job applicants based on unprofessional errors–weeding out applicants is the point of the process, after all.

      I think that job applicants read these stories and sympathize with the person who’s applying. And I understand that, but I also think they don’t always realize they could be the *other* candidates applying, who would have gotten an interview except people felt bad about weeding out the lady who thought bringing candy would get her a job. I really don’t want to be nice to one candidate at the expense of being fair to others.

    4. Nikki*

      Actually, there’s nothing wrong with turning someone down/not interviewing because they brought plants and candy, no law against it. So I can’t see how talking about it could cause any sort of trouble, but yeah, saying it to the applicant’s face wouldn’t be a good idea.

      But yes, I think someone should speak to her. The LW perhaps? She could be doing this all over town!

    5. Observer*

      You asked “Although, frankly, if the trying-to-stand-out applicant was otherwise deemed worthy of going onto the short list, would it have been so terrible to overlook this one quirk and grant her an interview?”

      In this case, YES. It was bad enough that she showed up with a gift, but her choice of gift was highly in appropriate – you NEVER give a gift that requires work to someone you don’t know!

      What is really a deal breaker for me is the fact that she argued with the hiring manager! What is she going to be like to work with?! And what other lines is she going to cross?!

      Remember, this is a position that is all about public exposure. If she is so clueless about appropriate business behavior, and so unwilling to take direction, then the odds of her totally embarrassing the company are very, very high.

    6. Jean*

      Thanks for all of the feedback. I’m absorbing your good observations. Sorry for the quick collective comment–I’m writing with a deadline at hand–but thanks for demonstrating the collective wisdom that I value from this site’s readers.

  10. ProcReg*

    I had a trusted person say, “How did Tennessee get Nissan to relocate its corporate center to Franklin? They found out all the favorite things of the CEO’s wife, and wined/dined them. Find out the interviewers favorite cookie is, and bake it”.

    I no longer take advice from this person, because it sounded stupid.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would love to know how you would find out what the interviewer’s favorite cookie is (totally aside from all the other reasons why this is a terrible idea).

        1. fposte*

          I was guessing that they sent Milanos and chocolate chips to everybody and just coasted on majority tastes.

      1. Rana*

        My own favorite cookies are the chocolate-chip ones my husband makes me, so that would be an impossible request for a would-be job seeker to fill (as if I were in the position of hiring anyone, that is).

        And I agree with theotherjennifer – stalking my spouse wouldn’t exactly endear a person to me!

  11. CEMgr*

    It may actually be the case that this is good advice for a certain, small specific area of industry and/or certain hiring managers. None of us have ever heard of it or seen it, and I wouldn’t dream of it myself, but for all I know this could be THE way to get an interview as a Teapot Stylist in Northern Virginia at a small firm in a rural area, or something like that.

    Regardless, the candidate should always come back to AAM’s advice of knowing the most you can about your hiring org and tailoring your approach to what will work with and make sense for that person and that org. And when the hiring manager says, “Stop, that doesn’t work here, that’s not right”……………listen to that.

  12. Oxford Comma*

    What frustrates me so much about this type of advice (about trying to stand out I mean) is how applicants latch onto with leechlike persistence. The time they spend trying to figure out how to game the system could be so much better spent on better application materials.

    1. EnnVeeEl*

      Right. They are buying plants and baking cookies, but if you took a red pen to their resume and cover letter, and told them to buy a real suit for an interview, they would balk at that.

    2. Broke Philosopher*

      It makes me think of pick-up artists. So much effort into what “tricks” will get them a woman’s phone number/body, so little effort into what is actually required to form and maintain relationships with other people.

  13. Katie the Fed*

    So, only tangentially related, but the first time I ever invited my boyfriend over when we had just started dating, he showed up with a full bag of gifts for me – a bamboo plant, an orchid, chocolates from trader joes, pistachios, toys for my dog, toys for my cats, and a bottle of wine. It was so much stuff I thought he was moving in. Then I wondered if he was trying too hard. Then I eventually realized he was just really sweet and shy and nervous and had totally overthought it. :)

    1. Cait*

      Buying toys for my dog would definitely be the quickest way to my heart. Buying toys for my dog AND all that other stuff all at once that early on? Probably the quickest way to getting shown the door.

  14. Kou*

    I’m glad I intercepted this behavior in one of my dear, dear friends before he actually moved to the working world from his lengthy grad program. When I was job hunting on the mainland he started telling me to go into places when I applied, before they called back, with treats– or to do it when I got an interview when that wasn’t possible. I explained to him why that was inappropriate and he was genuinely surprised because “people like treats!”

    He’s from Hawaii and, you know, things are just kind of different there versus the entire rest of the country. When I lived there my roommate went to a job interview in cutoffs and a tank top and got the job. The president of my org was the only one who wore closed toed shoes in the entire building. I (and the other female staff) was supposed to wear a mu’u to our annual major donor event for the board and biggest contributors. If you’re not familiar, that’s what Homer Simpson wore when he tried to get on disability by becoming morbidly obese. I managed to get permission for a floral dress with a waist and no ruffles, but then *I* stood out. “I don’t want to look like a weirdo, I’ll take the mu’umu’u” is not even a joke over there. Google it and try to imagine a room full of those people making major decisions about a company.

    Now I miss it.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      My company is very informal also, unless customers are visiting. Before I was hired and she sent me to meet with my senior coworkers, my boss told me NOT to wear a suit–that no one would and Coworkers probably won’t be wearing one either. I wore khakis, a blazer, and boots. The other two were in jeans and sweatshirts!

  15. Confused*

    What about a gift basket? “Gift baskets are amazing […] Gift baskets are… the essence of class and fanciness. They are the ultimate present a person can receive.” -Michael Scott

        1. Confused*

          No, IronMaiden? hmm…
          Andy: What about cash? Cash, you can buy whatever you want, including a gift basket so… it’s kinda the best gift ever.
          Jim: What about a gift basket full of cash?
          Andy: Yes! Cash basket! Nice work Jim.

          Keeping it silly on Friday :D

  16. Sabrina*

    I secretly hope that more social media candidates do this as this is the field I want to get in to. Perhaps that’s the point of these columnists and blogs that give bad job search advice. They want to make it easier to find a job themselves!

  17. The B*

    There are situations where doing something above and beyond the usual resume and cover letter may work, but you need to know the industry and be very careful. Off the type of my head: a graphic designer who formatted his resume to look like an infographic. The job was working for a publication, doing infographics and design, so it made sense. Plus, he had a regular black-and-white resume with him.
    I saw a guy who was applying for a job at a social media agency, and he made a YouTube video of himself that explained his qualifications.
    However, this won’t work for most jobs and all the things that did work involved something more than a plant or candy. They showcased the applicant’s abilities rather than attempted to coerce the interviewer via bizarre bribery.

    1. OP*

      We definitely are the type of place that’s open to that kind of creativity. A cool YouTube video or well-done portfolio of their previous social media work would definitely have been a plus.

  18. Jessica*

    As for where this advice originates, I used to subscribe to MediaBistro and they always featured stories about people doing crazy crap to get hired liking making up a song about the company and videotaping it – though not so much gift-giving. I always got the feeling that they sort of advocated such things and the desperate imperative to STAND OUT no matter what the cost.

  19. Joe*

    At a previous job, I saw this exact same thing. A woman got to the interview stage of the hiring process for a researcher position at a NPO, which had gone well enough (there were four good candidates). A few days later, a box of candy bars was delivered to the office. The hiring manager went around and gave each of us in the office the opportunity to choose a bar –– and told us that, “Don’t ever, ever do this in your future job searches. It is unprofessional and frowned upon.”
    I still enjoyed my free Snickers bar, though.

    1. Observer*

      Ow, wow.

      That’s bad enough in any industry, but in the NPO sector, this could be the “kiss of death”. Anyone who knows the gift regulations that some organizations have, and that some government agencies have, should understand that giving gifts to anyone who is going to make a decision about your or your business is a BAD idea. If you are planning to work in the sector, that’s something you need to understand.

  20. happy cat*

    my plants kill themselves in self defence. Better to die fast than a long drawn out cruel death…

    1. Jessa*

      I used to work for a group of managers one of whom was responsible for the farm at the institution. I swear the only reason I had living plants in my office is because SHE personally took responsibility for them. Otherwise, I have killed cacti and air ferns, I am dangerous to plants.

  21. Andrew*

    This prompted me to count my house plants, and I’ve somehow got 28 of them. It’s out of control…

    1. EM*

      I thought I had a lot, but I only have 6. I do have four at my office (I have a large shared office, so it doesn’t look like I’m a crazy plant lady).

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