What Employers Wish You Knew When Applying for Jobs

Tuesday July 28 2015
by Harriet Geoghegan

When it comes to applying for jobs, there is a hell of a lot of anxiety. Having recently graduated with my Masters and moved countries, I’ve had a pretty frantic time searching for graduate to intermediate level jobs to get my feet on the ground as fast as possible. However, I’m also in the lucky position of having also been on the other side of the table. From working for a small non-profit during my undergrad, to starting my own small business, I’ve been able to see what it’s like to hire people, and to better understand the challenges employers face. Typically, employers have been managers for a while, and it’s easy to think they have forgotten what it’s like to be in the job hunter’s shoes (especially as a graduate). Many think that employers give job hunters a pretty rough ride, and that for graduates especially, it is unnecessarily hard.

Having fairly recently been in both those situations I can say with confidence that there are a tonne of things that we employers desperately wish job seekers knew and understood. The first of which is that recruiting is a tough situation on our side of the table too. We would LOVE for job seekers to have a better understanding of what we go through, how we operate and why, so that they can make it as easy as possible for us to see that they are the best person to hire.

Knowing the employer perspective

The first thing is to walk a mile in an employer’s shoes. In most countries, the vast majority of businesses are small business. This means that every new hire is a big step and is crucially important to the employer. In a small business or non-profit in particular, it can be a huge decision to hire a new person as each new employee means a significant jump in costs. The demand for an extra person to help with workload often comes far before there is enough money in the bank to guarantee someone a salary.

When hiring, our number one fear is that we’re going to hire a bad employee. Someone that mislead us about their skills, doesn’t do their work, misuses company time or costs us money instead of contributing to our goals and strategies. To get around that, many countries now have legislation that requires a trial period - from 90 days to 6 months or even a year. There is a lot of fear around that - employees are worried that they won’t have a secure job or could be easily dismissed. However, employers don’t take dismissing an employee even close to that lightly. Typically it will take weeks, if not months before a new employee is fully trained up and contributing to the business. Not to mention the huge costs and time involved in hiring in the first place. If you’re replacing someone, they might have given 4 weeks notice, but it can often be more like 8 weeks before you’ve found the right person, another 2-4 weeks to have them fully trained, and if they leave soon after that because they aren’t the right fit or don’t enjoy the work, you’re back to square one. If you have to recruit again straight away, it could effectively be 6 months before you’re actually getting that all-important work done. Trust me, employers don’t want to get rid of you if they can avoid it, even if they are a much larger corporate. Which leads into the first thing employers wish you knew.

  • We want to find the person that’s going to stay

Our number one objective is to find a good, reliable person who is going to stay for a decent amount of time. If we think you’re going to treat this as a stepping stone to get to your next job, we’ll think twice. The trouble is that recruiting is a pretty flawed process to find that person - finding a diamond in the rough based on a 2 page CV, two one hour meetings, and a test is hard work. But we just don’t have the time to meet with hundreds of applicants face to face. The more you know about our perspective and what we look for, the better your chances of us deciding you’re that diamond in the rough.

  • We’re terrified of getting duped

With such limited face-to-face contact, it can seem pretty crazy to hire someone based on a couple of meetings. We’re as worried that you’re lying to us about your experience and skills as you are that the promotion opportunities we’re telling you about are a load of BS. It is becoming increasingly common in all companies big and small to have some kind of ‘test’ built into a recruitment process. For a developer, you might be asked to solve some code problems to ascertain your skills. Writing heavy jobs may ask you to submit a written test assignment, jobs requiring client interactions might ask you to present a hypothetical strategy or solution to the interviewers as though they are clients.

  • We’re most concerned about what can’t be taught

When evaluating a potential employee, often we will come across someone with a great attitude who is super motivated. Maybe they are a young graduate, but they have demonstrated pretty clearly that they can learn quickly and go the extra mile. This might be some past volunteer experience, or a great project example from university. If you can demonstrate you’re a positive, hard working go-getter that’s going to learn fast, that’s far more important than whether you’ve used the right software or worked with in the same industry. The job skills that can be taught, like how to use that software or the specifics of that industry are less important if we are confident you can learn them quickly.

  • Enthusiasm outranks many things

So what is the most important thing we’re looking for? Enthusiasm. If you are excited about the job, willing to learn and have a great attitude, chances are we can teach you the rest! That’s the number one thing an employer wants to see, so long as you don’t oversell it (a big personality can be hard to work with sometimes), it will go a really long way.

  • Cultural fit is super important

You might have been the top of your class, but if we think you’ll struggle to fit in, we might prioritise someone with lesser grades, experience or skills than you. This sounds harsh, but cultural fit is one of the biggest reasons people leave - if they aren’t happy in the company they won’t last long. And we’ll be back in the situation we dread of having to hire all over again.

However, it’s not just about whether we think you’re going to be fun at Friday night drinks or join the lunchtime indoor football team, often it can be pretty unpredictable at your end. We’ll be looking at the team you’re going to be in, what the existing personalities are like and what’s going to gel with them.

While it doesn’t sound fair, looking for people that fit in is what finds people that stay and succeed. If we turn you down because we can see clearly that you won’t fit in, it’s doing you a favour as much as us. There will be another job that’s more suited to you and your style - don’t give up looking!

  • We want an honest answer to what your future goals are

Another key concern, particularly with younger graduates is that your long term goals fit with the role. This all ties in to making sure we find someone that’s going to stay. If you’re applying for a job as a stepping stone to where you really want to be, we’d prefer to know. If we can help you grow toward your goals IN the company, (or even comfortably know that 2 years of good work for us is a good payoff to support and train you to help you get your next job), we’ll be thrilled to do it.

The other common concern with employees in their 20s is that they often want to travel. If you’re honest about that, we might be able to make that work with some advanced notice. Larger firms might have offices overseas and can mentor you on the right track to getting a secondment or transfer. Even better, if you don’t plan to travel, let us know. Hearing that you prefer to have a two week overseas trip once a year than to take a gap year will be like music to our ears! Just don’t lie to us, please!

  • We’re looking for reasons to cut the pile of CVs down

Going back to the beginning of the process, you need to scrutinise every word of your CV. Think about the situation we’re in - it isn’t unheard of to receive 300+ CVs applying for one job. It is incredibly tough to cut those CVs down into 3-5 people that you want to interview. Especially in a graduate job where everyone has the same degree and pretty limited work experience. So as well as the usual advice of being concise and trying to stand out as much as possible, know that we’re looking for every excuse to put a CV in the “no” pile - because we’re going to have a lot more than 5 people that look good on paper.

What that translates to is making sure you’ve proof-read your application (it just screams out careless if there are typos) and that you have taken the time to tailor your experience to the job. Don’t list everything you’ve ever done since you were 7 years old - pick and choose the 5 jobs or projects (volunteer work is fine) that are most relevant, because that’s better than making us work to pick out the 5 relevant jobs from your list of 10.

  • The balance between assertive and demanding is difficult

This one is tricky, as it is important to be confident and assertive, but it can be a fine line between coming across overly demanding or entitled. It is important to show you think a job is going to be a great opportunity, that you are going to be easy to work with and that you aren’t just in it for the money. It can be pretty easy for candidates to come across like they think they deserve everything handed to them, when in reality they are just trying to be confident and negotiate. Let us know your long term goals and aspirations, just be careful not to sound demanding or presumptuous. Know they right time to ask about salary, perks and benefits (generally the last possible thing to discuss, and NOT in a first interview), and don’t try to negotiate before you’ve even had an offer!

  • Respect the process we go through, especially when outlined

A good recruiter will let you know they have received your application and tell you a process and a timeline. If they don’t, it’s OK to ask, but if you’ve been given an answer, even if you find it annoyingly vague, don’t ask again or badger the recruiter. It signals that you are impatient, demanding and could be difficult to work with. We’d much rather give the role to someone we think really deserves it, than someone that seems entitled. Even if the email is an automated response, you still need to respect the process you’re given. If you are told that you’ll hear back in two weeks, don’t ask earlier. If you’ve had an interview, a quick thank you note is OK, but multiple follow ups don’t say “Great, she’s keen” to us. Instead, they get frustrating and might bump you down the list.

If however, we said we’d let you know in a week and it’s been two, it’s OK to send a follow up. However, just send the one and maybe call if it has been another week after that. If you still don’t get an answer, let it go. It sucks when employers don’t let you know, especially after an interview and I 100% agree they should tell you if you haven’t got the job, but many don’t. Sometimes, there might be a good reason for a late response - their boss has decided they should delay hiring, they have had to travel for work or deal with another project, they are waiting on a response from someone else they have offered it to, or they are deciding if they should hire a second person in the role, which means you’re still in with a shot. Some companies also just have super long hiring processes and don’t make any promises about when you’ll hear back as they are taking their time to find the best person.

  • That quick phone call? Yeah, that was an interview

Another important thing to note is that many processes will start with screening you over the phone, to filter out more candidates. If someone calls you and asks if you have a few moments to answer some questions, it’s an interview, not a friendly chat. If you’re busy, in the middle of the supermarket or just not prepared, it is 100% OK to say you are in the middle of something and to make a new time. Even if you just ask the interviewer to call back in 10 minutes, it gives you some time to get in the right headspace and you’ll be better off for it.

  • The person who greets you at the door is the most important person you’ll meet

Often you’ll be greeted by someone on the reception desk, or the personal assistant of the hiring manager you’re going in to see. Whilst someone may sit on a reception desk, they may actually be the office manager. And that PA walking you into the office? He or she is the gatekeeper to that hiring manager and has spent many moons becoming their trusted adviser, deciding what information is crucial to them doing their job and who to turn away. He or she is the first person the manager will discuss your interview with. You better believe that every person you interact with will be talking to that hiring manager and they will let them know if you were rude to “just the receptionist” or if they spotted you take your gum out and stick it under the seat. I’ve even heard possibly mythical stories of employees being “planted” in the reception room as though they are also candidates, in order to make small talk and catch you out.

  • Trash talk is never cool

If you left your job because your boss was an evil megalomaniac that made your life a living hell, definitely do NOT say this in an interview. Talking negatively about your past employer not only makes you look bad but it is a stark reminder that one day we will be that employer or those colleagues you are bitching about. You should show you’re mature and able to rise above emotions and deal with all kinds of people. Mentioning your evil boss as the reason you need this job is not going to do that, or be remotely endearing. Instead, focus on the positives of the new opportunity when asked why you left your job.

  • The job is about us, not you

Just like the points about being entitled, you are being hired to fulfil the mission of the company and help them achieve specific goals. This needs to be front and centre, not your needs and desires. However, showing that your goals align with the company’s goals is a very good thing - you don’t have to ignore your goals and ambitions completely, just ensure you make it clear you are there to do a great job and make a difference. For the company. The very nature of a job is that you are rewarded for that, so it doesn’t need to become front and centre.

  • We notice the little things

We notice every little interaction, even the ‘non-official’ ones - how you wrote the email that accompanied your CV, how you made small talk as you walked into the room, whether you said thank you at the end, what you said on the phone when we invited you to come to an interview, how quickly you respond to requests for more information or return a written test, even how you were sitting. With such limited interactions to determine if we’re going to have a fruitful long term relationship, every little detail counts, so think carefully about everything you do! Once again, we’ll also compare notes with our assistant and the recruiter to see if all our experiences much up.

  • Arriving too early is almost as bad as arriving too late

Another little known fact, is that while it's obvious you shouldn’t be late, and arriving 5 minutes early to an interview leaves a great impression, being too early is actually a thing. It is frustrating feeling the pressure to go greet someone when we were counting on doing 10 more minutes of work, and we do actually feel bad leaving you waiting. It might not consciously get you put in the ‘no’ pile, but that frustrated feeling will subconsciously linger, and sabotage the good impression you're trying to make. Sad but true.

  • We want you to be genuinely interested

Being genuinely interested in the role is the opposite of seeming entitled and demanding. the best way to get your interest across is to ask questions. And not just any questions, smart and genuine questions. Prepare questions in advance, and memorise them. Don’t ask things you should know from researching the company and the role - you’ll come across unprepared. Instead, things like “Tell me about the team I’ll be working in,” “What do you love about working here?”, “What’s the long term strategy and how will I be able to contribute to it?” or even “What do you think I need to do to be really successful in this role?” are fantastic questions that apply to almost any role and show you really care.

  • It’s fine if you don’t meet all the criteria, but not none

We’ve all seen those job applications we’re we think “Jesus, are they looking for a unicorn?!” And the answer is yes. Often employers will list 10 skills they want, knowing that they might only find someone with 6 or 8, but it is more important to look at the combination of skills and the fit. It can be offputting, but don’t let it. Studies have shown that women tend to apply for jobs when they meet 9 to 10 of the criteria, but men 5-6. If you think you can do the core things and can quickly pick up the rest (or most of the rest), throw your hat in the ring! As we’ve said, there are other things that are more important, and we’re happy to teach people some of the essentials if they have the right attitude. Just be sure to address what you don’t know and offer up some constructive solutions to ensure you pick it up quickly.

On the flip side, it is frustrating to get 100s of applications that are clearly people blanket applying to any job available. We can tell straight away. Save us both the time and make sure you apply to roles you think you’d suit, and spend the time tailoring your application so it really stands out. Whatever you do, don’t send the same cover letter with the company name replaced. Trust me, once you’re in copy and paste mode you WILL slip up and send a cover letter with the wrong name in it.

  • If you can show, it is better than telling

Anyone can write on their CV that they are hard working, or innovative, but we want to see tangible examples to prove it. Look at every attribute listed in the job description, and think of an example of how you did or embodied that thing. If the description is asking for someone who can come up with creative ideas, have a story of a successful creative idea at the ready. Better yet, on your CV instead of writing that you were successful in job X, try to find some metrics to prove it. I.e. rather than “I was a top performing salesperson” list that you increased sales by 170% or received an award for top sales performer of the quarter.

Bonus tip: If you have a nicely designed/styled CV or portfolio, or even just use a non-conventional font, save it as a PDF so that the formatting remains in tact when opening on another computer. Some submission forms won’t accept a PDF, so be prepared to have a plainly formatted word document too.

  • Keywords are important but try to resist the jargon

Yes, it is important to use similar keywords on your CV and cover letter to what the employer is asking for in the job description - it’s a quick way to tailor your application and show you match the criteria. However, we see a lot of the same buzzwords over and over and they become pretty meaningless. Instead, try to build in assertive, action oriented words, or better yet proof and metrics of what you’ve achieved. Make sure the words you choose are compelling, not just buzzwords and jargon. Sounding like everyone else makes it pretty hard to get in the ‘yes’ pile.

  • Everyone has weaknesses, make sure yours is a good one

You will often be asked in interviews what your weaknesses are, and you need to have a good answer prepared. Everyone has weaknesses, so the worst thing to do is try to say you have none. Instead, what we want to hear is that you can take feedback, critically analyse your own performance, and pick out areas to improve on. So find something honest (preferably not the skill that the job relies on you mastering) and make sure you tell us what you are doing or have done to improve on it. It doesn’t really matter what that weakness is, what we really want to know is how you’re addressing it.

  • Anticipate your shortcomings and address them

Finally, anticipate what parts of the job you are less qualified for, or what concerns an employer might have. Don’t quite meet the 3-5 years experience they are looking for? Lacking experience in certain software programmes? Switching from one industry to another? Know in what areas you don’t quite match the criteria and prepare an answer for them. Let them know you have almost 3 years experience but you have learned incredibly fast, worked hard to upskill in your spare time. If you are switching industries, analyse your work experience and pick out the relevant parts of that. Don’t wait for the interviewer to ask - ensure you bring these things up. If you’ve got to the end of the interview and haven’t had a chance, take the opportunity to have a final say when thanking the employer. If you’re not sure what they are concerned about, ask! It will give you the perfect opportunity to address their lingering concerns head on.

Keep calm and stay motivated

At the end of the process, be patient and respectful. Don’t count yourself out, but don’t assume you’re going to get the job either as you’ll come across conceited. If you don’t get the job, don’t be dismayed and don’t assume you aren’t good enough. As you now know, employers will look at a whole range of factors that are pretty damn hard to anticipate. The most common reason you don’t make the cut is that you’re just not the right fit for the company. Or maybe you were close but someone else just edged you out that had a bit more experience, has worked in the industry or would be a good compliment to the personalities on the team. The toughest position we find ourselves in is when we’re faced with 3 top candidates who could all do a great job but we can only pick one. That’s when we pick the person we think will fit best. Keep sending out job applications, you’ll eventually find the role and the workplace that suits you best and you’ll be far happier for it.

So now you know what we go through, what our priorities are and what we look for, I hope you feel a lot more confident to get out there and find the job of your dreams, and to make sure you show yourself off in the best light possible to let your future employer know that you’re their diamond in the rough. Always remind yourself of what the employer is going through and what they are looking for so that you’re in the best position to show them you are the one.

If you’ve got any questions or comments about the employer perspective, feel free to leave them below and I’ll be happy to answer!

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