In an edition of my syndicated column, I ran a poll in The Seattle Times. I asked readers to pick from four methods they’d use to get in the door at a company. In other words, how would you apply for a job?

77% responded that they would pursue the channel that is most closed to them — the HR department. Even though they know that the line is long and the competition is stiff, people still take this path. Something like 40%-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. I don’t think that surprises anyone, and most people know in their gut that “it’s who you know.”

So, why do people go through HR?

Let’s see if I can help you view this from another perspective. Suppose your boss gave you an important project, and you realized it could not be accomplished by conventional means. In other words, the way it’s always been done ain’t gonna cut it. Your boss just wants the job done. Would you continue applying the same-old methods? Or, would you demonstrate creativity and try something new? (Your boss is watching.)

Hold that thought.

Now, let’s cut back to applying for a job. What’s the difference between how you’d behave on the job if you faced obstacles, and how you’d pursue that same job? Do you follow the same-old path to the HR department, or do you apply the skills you use at work to job hunting? Do you trust a dead old process that doesn’t work well, or do you come up with new methods that might improve your chance of success?

Okay, let’s turn back to your job.

Would you use the same “wait and see” strategy most people use when they submit a resume to HR to do your job and satisfy your boss?

Ben Franklin said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

What’s the difference between doing your job, and pursuing a new one? If you create smart new methods at work, why use dumb methods on the job hunt?

It seems the job market is tuned for insanity. Even The New York Times can’t buck its neural confusion. In Job Hunting Is, and Isn’t, What It Used to Be, the paper can’t decide what is sane and insane. So its conclusion is, just keep trying everything, because who knows?

Maybe the problem is with employers. Many claim in their public relations materials that they want creative workers who “think out of the box.” Yet, when those kinds of people apply for jobs using creative approaches, they are often locked out by the HR department “because they are breaking the rules” by approaching managers directly, or by using unconventional means to get the job. Sometimes, even managers lock the door.

Maybe what the world needs is a college curriculum in hiring and job hunting, eh? We could call it, Use Your Brain 101: On-the-job techniques to win the job.

Now, please tell me you’re not one of the 77% who wait in line. If you’re one of those who use their brain on the job hunt like they do at work, then please tell me how you won a job by going around the HR department.

  1. I’ve had about 10 programming positions over the last 20 years, and I’d have to say the easiest job hunts I had during that time were when I knew the person I was interviewing with, or the job contacted me first because they were already familiar with my work. Changing jobs, or finding a new one after a layoff (been there twice) has always been stressful going about it the 77% way. Why in the world would anyone want to take the hard, stressful way when personal contact is so effective?

  2. Good thoughts…I think its also a bit of a numbers game. You have to get in front of lots of people. Despite the stats, I still see high paying jobs posted on employment sites – (networking) (aggregated listings) (matches you to jobs)

    I still see 100K, 125K and 200K jobs

  3. Ivylane,

    Let’s see — it’s a numbers game, so you should actively compete with millions of people (most of whom aren’t qualified but they jam up the HR system anyway, making it virtually impossible for HR to identify your perfect resume) for millions of job postings (many of which are shams, old, or just beat). Meanwhile, people who do careful research and develop solid personal contacts are pursuing a handful of jobs where the competition is minimal and where they can directly influence the hiring manager. Are you serious?

    Yah, I still see $100k/200k jobs, too. I also see ads telling me I can “Make $$$ at home, 3 hours a week!”

  4. Thanks for your usual great reality check, NIck! I always tell my clients to imagine they have a mission critical job at work — one where failure is not an option, their career is riding on it, and there are obstacles and unknowns at every turn.

    How would they tackle that? Would they use the least effective strategy and give up, or would they do the research, develop creative solutions, and do what needed to be done to make it happen, no matter what?

    That usually gets them thinking. In fact it gets them tapping into the very skills that make them great at their jobs, and helps them translate those to their job search! They go from confusion and frustration to power and purpose. It’s pretty cool.

  5. Good article. People have got to reach out to their connections and meet people within the companies they wish to target. They need to do informational interviewing and build relationships to find the best jobs.

  6. Margo,
    You’re absolutely right. But I’ll offer a caution about informational interviewing. The practice is now so widespread that managers often decline such requests. They’re not willing to sit and answer questions from people, to educate them about their business. I think it’s far preferable to approach a manager with a request for insight and advice about his or her industry – and then surprise the mgr with some well-planned ideas about how to make the operation more profitable. In other words, engage as peers, not as job hunter and employer. I think that removes the sense that the manager is playing tutor. I think the job hunter has to provide some clear value in the meeting.

  7. I have been reading your blog and newsletters for some time now, and I think you make two very valid points. The first is that headhunters are client-driven, which job-seekers often forget, and the second (in this article) is that HR departments are not your friend. Successful headhunters always want to deal directly with the managers who initiate the positions a job-seeker wishes to fill, and as a recruiter I have been involved in battles with HR where the manager and I both want the candidate placed, but HR raise unreasonable objections. If you have been resourceful enough to make your contact at a high enough level, a fait accompli can be presented to HR, but otherwise you may simply lose out to “group policy” or some other such thing. The skill is to do this without completely alienating the HR director. You’ll get an excellent insight into the HR game if you are able to have a chat with an recruiter who deals in HR placements, or a headhunters’ headhunter. I’m waiting with baited breath for The Headhunter to write on that!