8 things hiring managers wish you knew

Hiring managers see a lot of job applicants make the same mistakes over and over again, many of them easily preventable if only applicants knew how hiring managers operate. Here are eight things that hiring managers wish all job candidates knew – both to help them hire more easily and to end some of the frustration on job-seekers’ side of the hiring process.

1. You can ruin your chances by being too aggressive. When you’re searching for a job, enthusiasm helps. But some job applicants cross the line from enthusiastic to annoying or pushy – and in doing so, kill their chances for a job offer. If you’re doing any of the following, you’ve crossed the line and may be turning off hiring managers who might otherwise consider hiring you: dropping off your resume person when the job posting instructs you to apply online; checking on the status of your application more than once within three weeks; calling and hanging up when you get voice mail, over and over; or cold-contacting numerous employees at the company to try to get extra attention to your resume.

2. We really want you to be honest. Too many job seekers approach job searching as if their only goal is to win a job offer, losing sight of the fact that this can land them in the wrong job. But if you’re honest – with yourself and with your interviewer – about your strengths and weaknesses and give the hiring manager a glimpse of the real you, you’ll both be able to make a better informed decision about how well you’d do in the job. (Of course, if you just need a job at any costs, this might not resonate with you – but if you want a job where you’ll excel and be happy, it should.)

3. You don’t get to choose your references. You might think that employers will only call the references on the list you provide, but in fact, they can call anyone you’ve worked for or who might know you, on your list or not. In fact, smart reference-checkers will make a point of calling people not on your list, since they assume you’ve only listed people who you know will speak glowingly of you.

4. No matter how positive things seem, you shouldn’t count on a job offer. No matter how confident that an employer wants to hire you, you never have a job offer until you have a firm – preferably written – offer in hand. That’s true no matter what an interviewer says to you, even if they say things like, “You’ll be great at this,” “We’re excited to work with you,” or “You’re exactly what we’re looking for.” None of those things means that an offer is coming, no matter how encouraging they sound.

5. The small details matter. Candidates frequently act as if only “official” contacts, like interviews and formal writing samples, count during the hiring process. So they’ll send flawless cover letters and then check up on their applications with sloppily written emails with spelling errors, or they’ll be charming and polite to their interviewer but rude to the receptionist. Good employers are paying attention to everything during the hiring process, not just the official pieces.

6. If you can’t produce references, most hiring managers will be wary. Some candidates wonder what to do if their past employers have a policy of not giving out references, but most employers will expect you to find someone willing to vouch for your work anyway. Unfair? Maybe, most the reality is that if they have two great candidates and one has references and one doesn’t, they’re going to go with the one who does.

7. Wondering how to stand out? Use your cover letter. A well-written, engaging cover letter that’s customized to a particular opening can open doors when your resume alone might not have gotten you a second look.

8. Your personality matters a lot. Good hiring managers think a lot about your personality. You could have great skills but not get hired because your working style would clash with the people you’d be working with. Often, one personality type will simply fit better into a department than another will – and whether that style is quiet, loud, thick-skinned, aggressive, informal, or stiff is hard to know from the outside.

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

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. dejavu2*

    I learned #4 the hard way. Had a guy in an interview tell me they were definitely going to hire me for a summer internship, that it was just a formality for him to clear it with the other two guys in his office. I idiotically stopped looking for a summer gig because I took his work for it. But I never heard from him again. Wish I’d known about this blog back then.

    1. Lindsay J*

      I had that happen to me, too. Super positive interview. Got told that he just had to clear hiring me with his director because it would be the first time they hired outside the company for that position, and that he would be calling me within the week.

      I guess the director said no because he never called me back. I called to follow up with HR once and she said that the manager would call me ASAP, and he still never did.

      1. Jessa*

        I think we all have one of these stories. I too wish I’d seen this blog when I was far younger.

  2. Bean*

    I cannot agree more with point #1. While yes, I enjoy knowing a candidate is interested in a position but I definitely do not need them calling twice a week to “follow up” on their application or to stop by the office multiple times to remind me that they applied for a position.

    This is especially frustrating when we are not hiring at the moment and I let the candidate know that we are not actively recruiting for the department they are applying within.

  3. JM in England*

    In England, we call #8 “Does your face fit?”……..if it does, you’ll go a long way. Have seen incompetent employees virtually get away with murder because their “face fitted” !

  4. Felicia*

    I love that you shared #1 – I know that from reading this blog so often, but LinkedIn of all places just shared an article about how you should disregard instructions saying to apply online and go in person instead, and to follow up by phone almost immediately even if it says not to call. Then the university alumni association posted the same thing! I wanted to comment that that advice is stupid and will hurt people, providing a link to this blog. I’d say that #1 is really important advice, but so much other career advice from “professionals” directly counter it so people don’t believe me when I say it’s important to follow application instructions.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Yes, do comment (in somewhat more diplomatic terms). I’ve been linking to AAM from the workplace.stackexchange site. Although, sharing good advice does increase the good competetition for when I’m looking for a job.

        1. Felicia*

          I commented something to that effect on the share of that article from my alumni association, but didn’t bother with the original LinkedIn article, which I shared below. And of course I shared AAM which I trust for good career advice:)

      2. Jessa*

        Oh, yes respond to that. That is such a bad idea. If they actually go to the trouble of telling you NOT to do something, why would someone do that?

      1. Felicia*

        Here is the LinkedIn article that shared the stupid advice, particularly countering #1 but bad advice in general. http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130813060654-52594-ten-job-search-rules-to-break . I can’t believe so many people liked it. I don’t know, I always felt like not following application instructions or phoning to check on the status of your application before you ever got an interview are both counter intuitive so I guess that’s why I never followed that bad advice.

        1. Kelly L.*

          There are so many things in that article with trademarks on them too–I suspect we’re being sold things. And the example candidate sounded really obnoxious to me.

        2. Anonymous*

          I’ve read a few of her articles and they are full of bad advice. Whenever Alison talks about bad advice bloggers, I always imagine she’s talking about her!

          1. Felicia*

            I think the fact that it was posted on LinkedIn is going to get a lot of people to believe her. I’ve never read any of her articles before and that’s the most bad advice i’ve seen in one place.

        3. Lily*

          I was really put off by the example of Linda. When does a manager want to hire a boss? Sure, I want people to think about what they are doing and make suggestions, but I think a job hunter doesn’t have enough information yet (unless I am the manager of HR and am hiring an HR professional). Then #8 comes into play and I think Linda may be prone to overestimating her level of knowledge.

            1. Lily*

              yes, but wasn’t Linda supposed to be a good example of how to act? If she was supposed to be a bad example, then I can only agree.

              1. Ruffingit*

                Linda was a horrendous example because frankly, if someone called the hiring manager and said what Linda said (in italics below), the reaction would not be the hiring manager being reflective and agreeing. The reaction is more likely to be “Screw you. You just received an offer letter, you’ve not even accepted it and you’re already trying to tell us how to do our jobs better? Offer rescinded!”

                The idea that this woman would be trying to make changes to the way business is done before even accepting the offer and seeing the business processes in more detail would likely be insulting to the hiring manager and others. I don’t think, in this example, making statements like the one Linda made would be taken kindly at all.

                Quoting from the article: “I had left you a voice mail a week ago, hoping to connect and talk about specifics,” she said. “I know you’re busy. I had the impression from you and others in the company that this is a high-priority role. It seems as though a live conversation by phone to talk about the offer details would have been an important step to take before committing anything to paper.”

  5. the gold digger*

    RE #8: My friend Leigh interviewed someone for her team. Leigh said that this person would have been fabulous at the job, but she didn’t make her an offer because she (the applicant) would have gone insane with the bureaucracy. (It was a government job.) “She was a real go-getter and so qualified, but she would have hated it here,” Leigh said. Leigh has since taken a new job – she, too, couldn’t stand the bureaucracy.

    1. ProcReg*

      I’ve gotten this. The hiring mgr heard that I don’t procrastinate, and they said, “Oh, I put off everything”.

      Glad to know you’re lazy…

    2. MK*

      I recently declined a job offer from a government agency due to wanting to avoid being stuck in a bureaucracy. When I first applied, I thought it wouldn’t bother me so much but the interview process was so painful in its bureaucratic slowness that I just stayed in my current employer (which is also huge but alot more agile).

      1. abby*

        I, too, recently declined a job offer with a government agency. It was a hard decision, as the work itself sounded perfect for me, but I was really concerned about how I would fit in such a bureaucratic environment, and whether I would even be able to do what I do best. Fit really is so important.

  6. AdamR*

    On #3 so if you’re filling out an application and there’s a box that asks “May we contact this employer” how likely are they to do it if you put “no”? I’d wondered enough in the beginning if putting “no” for any of those may send red flags, but now I’m wondering if they ignore my request as well. :P

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I have a couple of those. The bosses are no longer working there. On the one I don’t want them to call, I put No, and when I type the boss’s name, I attach “-no longer there.” I don’t know if it means they won’t call, but I like to think they won’t bother. It’s old enough now that they probably won’t anyway (and soon, hopefully, will drop off my resume).

  7. Jennifer*

    Right now I’m hiring for a position and have been gobsmacked by the amount of applicants not even attaching resumes or cover letters which I ask for in the ad. Even odder is a few dozen applicants sent in photos with their applications despite me not requesting them and it not being the norm in my field/country. We have gotten several that have even attached public bathroom cellphone selfies!

    As someone who was recently looking for a job I empathize with their search but the first thing I look at when opening an application is if it has the things I requested and if there are extra things attached if they are relevant to the job.

    1. HR Competent*

      “We have gotten several that have even attached public bathroom cellphone selfies!”

      Please tell me there was at least 1 “duckface” pose.

      1. some1*

        Or embarrassing toiletries such as a tube of Preparation H or box of Depends*

        *not to say anyone should be embarrassed if they need products like this, but you wouldn’t take a picture of them and send it to people, either.

    2. Meg*

      That’s amazing. And embarrassing for the candidate. But for the rest of us, that is pure gold.

  8. ChristineSW*

    #4 – I agree with this completely; nothing is firm if it’s not in writing. However, with all due respect to hiring managers and interviewers here, I think you (general “you”, not anyone in particular) might want to back off on some of the enthusiastic talk, especially, “We’re excited to work with you”. I’m sure it’s mostly genuine, but they don’t realize that job seekers tend to take that literally, especially if they’ve been looking for a long period.

    1. ChristineSW*

      Annnnd I didn’t pay attention to the consistency of my pronouns (“you” vs. “they”) -.-

      1. JM in England*

        I can tell you firsthand how demoralising having your hopes raised then dashed time & again can be!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          The thing is, though, you guys have complete control over whether your hopes get raised and dashed, simply by remembering that nothing means anything until you have an offer.

          1. Ruffingit*

            True, but hiring managers could certainly help the situation by dialing back the enthusiasm. Job seekers can dial back their hopes and hiring managers can dial back the enthusiasm. It’s helpful for both sides to do that.

            1. JM in England*

              Well said Ruffingit!

              I was referring to my younger (and more naive) days when you did take what people said at face value. Have since developed the thick skin and cynicism that is an essential for the modern jobseeker. One thing I’m working on know is doing my best not to let said cynicism bleed through at interviews.

  9. ExceptionToTheRule*

    #5 – Amen. Dear job seeker, take the time to spell my name right. My first name is short, it’s 3 letters. My last name is long & complicated and people I work with don’t spell it right, but it’s right there in my email signature. Copy & paste it if you feel you need to go the whole Ms. ExceptionToTheRule route. Especially for a job that, you know, might require spelling.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Same for hiring managers. My name has been continually misspelled by hiring managers. It’s in the e-mail, make an effort!

      1. anon*

        A friend of mine once got an email rejection addressed to “Dear Insert Name.” She was unimpressed.

        1. Manda*

          Lol. I recently came across an ad for a job with the title, “Generic Template.” The actual text stated the position, but the title was obviously never changed.

  10. Esra*

    Ugh #2.

    I had to interview for the first time recently, and one of the candidates would not answer any of my questions directly. You have to know specific software/code to perform the role, and every time I asked her if she knew one, she would dance around it, talk about her previous (unrelated) experience, it was awful.

    Being in charge of reviewing resumes and contacting candidates for the first time really opened my eyes to #5. The little things so, so matter. Sometimes there’s a little bit of flack in the comments here about not giving candidates who made a bad impression, for whatever reason, a chance. But when I’m faced with a two candidates of equal skill and one made a few goofs and the other was affable and professional? How can you not go with the better option?

  11. Holly*

    I just want to point out the absolute level of importance a cover letter has – because I’ve been involved in hiring at two different companies (with completely different missions – one was a college, another a software company) and in both of them, 80% of the time the majority of our applicants didn’t include a cover letter, even though we said we either highly preferred or required it. All of those candidates didn’t get a second look. Just by having one – it should be the best you can make it, but still – already puts you ahead of the pack.

    1. Kristi*

      I’m always amazed by so many applicants not including cover letters, or not following instructions. Not to generalize, but do the applicants tend to be younger and less experienced or simply not detail-oriented?

      1. MrSparkles*

        If a company specifies that they want a cover letter, I’ll write one. If they don’t, however, I tend not to. Some reasons off the top of my head are:
        1. It doesn’t spell sense to spent ample time crafting an unique letter where, chances are, you’ll probably never receive a response. A lack of response could be attributed to anything, not just a lack of a cover letter
        2. From experience, a wonderful cover letter isn’t a substitute for hard skills the employer requested/wants
        3. Many HR staff have admitted to not even looking at them (systematic reasons or not), or if they do, it’s a passing glance

        I’ll admit that I’m a tad bias as all jobs I’ve landed did not involve a covering letter whereas those that specifically requested one tend to place absurd importance on the process than actually hiring qualified candidates (in my case, public sector jobs).
        I feel that how one answers the cover letter vs no cover letter question is dependent on their position (i.e. HR vs applicant, employed vs unemployed, etc).
        Just my two pennies.

      2. Holly*

        All applicants were between late twenties to early fifties, as far as you can tell from their work experience, so my guess is they figured “eh, don’t really need to bother.” You do. Because we have tons of options to pick from, and the one who bothered is getting my attention.

        1. MrSparkles*

          “Because we have tons of options to pick from, and the ones who bothered is getting my attention”

          I think you may have answered your own question. In your case it matters, but not in every case. Including one may raise one’s chances of a response, but doesn’t guarantee it. Kinda like playing the lottery; buying a ticket won’t guarantee a win, but not buying ensures you won’t win. Perhaps the applicants felt they didn’t have all the needed skills, but at the sametime felt submitting a resume wouldn’t hurt.

          In anycase, if it specified that a cover letter was mandatory, then I understand. If it was an “either/or” case , then as a seeker I’d take issue as I’d be penalized for choosing a specified option that’ll unknowingly disqualify my application. I only say this coming from a position where I’ve received call backs without providing a cover letter when given a choice to do so or not.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I just cannot imagine interviewing someone who only sent in a resume, with no accompanying letter explaining why they were applying for the job and thought it was the right fit. Cannot imagine it, not when there are so many other candidates who do bother and who are worth talking to.

            1. Miss Betty*

              Unfortunately – and I wish I could remember where I read this; it was just last week – there are people giving the advice that cover letters are unnecessary and that HR staff hate them because it’s extra work to read them and all your qualifications are covered in your resume anyway. The article I read specifically said that, unless it’s specifically requested, a cover letter is a bad idea. (I, of course, being an Ask a Manager reader, knew better!)

            2. ExceptionToTheRule*

              I hire entry level and I’m seeing a lot of resumes with very short cover letters that basically say: “here’s my resume for this job posting.”

            3. MrSparkles*

              I think you touched on something that plays a huge role in obtaining employment but isn’t always mentioned: subjectivity.
              What you may deem ‘sufficient’ and what another may not can be two different things, and vice-versa. Using the cover letter as an example, some may feel that a resume is incomplete without one, whereas others may feel that a cover letter isn’t necessary. As an applicant, odds are we have no idea which HR rep we may be dealing with (assuming a human even looks at your application, but that’s another story).

              I guess my point it this: including one probably won’t hurt one’s chances, but it may only marginally increase the chances, if at all, at obtaining a call back. Given that job hunting is, to some extent, a numbers game, crafting one may not always be worth its associated opportunity costs from the applicant’s viewpoint.
              From a HR/employer’s viewpoint…well..they usually dictate the rules, arbitrary or not. Much of obtaining success, even for those with the skills and effort/ability, is dependent on series of events and circumstances that applicant usually has no control over, but must fall their way. This includes how the employer acts/believes to be sufficient or not. That has been my experience at least.

              For what it’s worth, I greatly appreciate your time and effort with the site and thank you for providing it. I usually agree with your assessments/suggestions; this just happens to be one of a few I disagree with, that’s all. :)

  12. Anonymous*

    “Of course, if you just need a job at any costs, this might not resonate with you, but if you want a job where you’ll excel and be happy, it should.”

    I get your intent here, but I don’t know that it’s fair to say that this doesn’t “resonate” with people who simply need a job–any job. Many people, for many reasons, find themselves without a ton of offers but do have financial or family obligations that make a job–any job–a necessity. And I don’t think it should be characterized as either “you’re a person who wants a position where you’ll excel and be happy” OR “you’re a person who is willing to hide flaws or say anything in order to be offered a job, even if it’s a bad fit.”

    I want a job where I’m happy and can excel, and in this economy, I also cannot afford to wait for that perfect fit. We don’t have to set one situation against the other. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Whenever I talk about the need to be honest in an interview about your strengths and weaknesses and who you are, some people reply with, essentially, “That’s nice if you have the luxury, but sometimes your need for an income doesn’t allow it.” That’s what this is about. Some people aren’t interested in showing interviewers who they really are; they want to find a way to come across as whatever will get them hired.

  13. Rich*

    #1 is my biggest peeve. By far. You don’t think I see all those missed calls from you? Why are you phoning my colleagues trying to get everyone to track me down? Get outta here!


  14. Carrie*

    As soon as I saw that this article was one of those click-through articles, I closed it without reading it. This is my least favorite internet invention. When an article lists 15 things, it really doesn’t need to use 15 different pages to do it. Half of the time this feature wind up crashing my browser or does not translate well to mobile devices. My preference: one article, one page, regardless of whether it is a “list.”

    1. Chandra*

      @Carrie. do you mean that the article linked to by Allison is a click one to go from point to point? Because it’s all listed on one page on my computer (from work, using the standard MS Explorer browser). In fact I’ve never seen an article linked to here, in that format (and I agree with you, I can’t stand having to click through each “slide” almost as much as I can’t stand being forced to watch a video when I could just read the text).

    2. Meg*

      But it’s not like that … I just read this article and everything was on one page. Either you’re mistaking this for something else or your browser did something funky.

  15. Lily*

    #1 If you can’t follow the instructions in the ad, I figure you won’t be able to follow instructions on the job. If you take for granted getting an exception during the hiring process, I figure I will need to modify processes in my department and intervene with other departments in my company, so that you can feel that you are special. But if I arrange everything around you, what do I do for the next new hire?

    #2 I will be honest and warn you of the limits of our bureaucracy and hope that you will select yourself out if you can’t live with them, because I don’t want to waste my time and your time training you and having you leave.

    #4 One of the hardest things for me to learn as a manager was to conceal negative emotions (but who wants their manager to blurt out, “how could you let that happen?” when you confess a mistake?) So, I can now listen to job hunters tell me negative things and continue being pleasant. I am trying to gather as much information as possible and will judge later, so being cordial does not mean that I am about to hire you.

    #5 The only way I can explain the behavior of some job hunters to me is to assume that they assume that the name of the person listed in the ad is some HR person or secretary who they think they can give a hard time rather than the name of their future manager.

    #8 So true!

  16. DMP123*

    #1 Drives me crazy! I just turned down a candidate due to her calling 3 times everyday day. I informed her, I was meeting with our hiring team and would contact her when final decisions were made. Two hours later, I had a voice mail from her asking how our meeting went…and then 3 more calls that day. That’s too high maintenance and she doesn’t even work here! She went from a possible candidate to the reject pile immediately.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Geeze, that woman moved from over eager to harassing stalker pretty quickly. Amazing that anyone would think that much contact was appropriate. Makes me wonder what she’s like in her personal relationships.

    2. BTW*

      We had a guy like this who called me constantly even when I told him we weren’t hiring. Eventually we gave him the benefit of the doubt and interviewed him during our next hiring blitz. He interviewed okay but not great according to my boss. The next day I received an e-mail from him with follow-up answers to some of the interview questions (that he already answered in the interview but changed his mind on. Ha!) and they were just absolutely ridiculous. He then proceeded to call later that day at which time my boss gave me the go-ahead to tell him he didn’t get the job. Thankfully we didn’t hear from him again after that.

  17. Ed*

    For #5, at a previous job our receptionist used to meet the candidates and walk them to our area which somewhat difficult to find. On the way she would make small talk, ask about their drive in, offer coffee/water, etc. I’ll just say that more than a few candidates lost offers because of that short walk. On the other hand, if we were casually discussing a candidate, she would also enthusiastically say how much she liked them which I’m sure had at least a subconscious influence on us. Why would you treat *anyone* poorly, let alone someone who might be working with you or possibly even reporting to you. Not trying to make a positive impression on every person you come into contact with during an interview, from the landscaping crew to the receptionist, shows a lack of common sense (or possibly just means you’re a jerk).

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I used to leave little sticky notes on the applications if I liked the applicant. Things like, “Very polite, dressed well!” If they were really horrible, I would walk it back there and make a face. I don’t know if it made a difference–people we ended up hiring were mostly nice to me, and I guess they were also nice in the interview.

      1. BTW*

        We used to do this in retail. When I worked on the floor I would put notes like this on the resumes then when I went into HR my coworkers continued to write notes on them for me. It helped us to weed out a lot of people who we could tell were generally disinterested in looking for a job. (Dressed poorly, rude to the staff, skipped the line, applications that parents filled out and gave to us for their children, resumes folded 8 times … yes, 8! etc.)

  18. BTW*

    #6 – I am currently struggling with this. I was recently let go from my job for non-performance related issues. In my time at said company I had received 2 promotions, one of which was extremely hard to obtain. The problem I’m facing now is that everyone in upper level management who can speak highly of my work habits/skills is either family or has/had a personal friendship/relationship with my boss or someone in his immediate family. If that weren’t bad enough, even some people in lower level management positions are family or friends of managers in the upper level (who in turn have the personal relationship with the employer & family.) It’s a mess but in the end out of personal loyalty to my boss, I cannot get a reference from any of them.

    To top it off a previous manager, who is no longer there but facilitated my first promotion, just so happens to be dating someone in upper management who had a direct hand in my termination. (What’s even worse is that this upper mgmt person also used to date my boss!) It is discouraging because there were a lot of different projects I spearheaded and organized (some of which changed the way the store/departments worked and thus that I am very proud of!) and I feel like putting these accomplishments on my cover letter is pointless because I have no one to back them up. A lot of these projects were given to me by my boss because I was the best candidate for the job so to speak. That among many other tasks and responsibilities that were frequently give to me because of my skill set.

    I’m at a loss. I have no other jobs in my past where I have kept contact with management or that would even hold any weight in an interview. All my professional experience came from this one place.

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