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5 rules to test for the best job opportunities

In the May 8, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader reveals how he identifies the best job opportunities by applying for fewer jobs.

Question

I’d like your opinion about how I choose employers and jobs to apply to. Does my approach make sense to you?

job opportunitiesWhen I encounter a job I’m interested in, I don’t apply, I don’t send out my resume on spec, and I don’t write cover letters highlighting relevant experience or how well I might do the job. I don’t sell myself at all.

Instead, when I learn about an opportunity, I follow up with simple questions about the role, the company, the manager, or the hiring process to help me decide on the fit. What I’m really doing is probing the employer to see how serious they are about selecting a serious, motivated candidate. In most cases, I don’t get a response.

My take-away is that if a company that wants to fill a job can’t be bothered to answer some simple, constructive questions, then they’re not genuine. They’re not worth starting an arduous process with because they’re probably going to waste my time.

Am I missing out on good opportunities by doing it this way? Thanks for your help.

Nick’s Reply

Your e-mail made my day. You reveal that you expect employers to be conscientious about how they deal with job applicants. That says a lot about you. I think it also helps you identify the best, most real opportunities.

Job applicants worry

Job applicants worry their keywords won’t match a job posting. They worry about filling out job applications properly. They worry that if they leave their salary history off an application, that’s grounds for automatic rejection. They worry their resume isn’t customized enough. They worry about violating the rules HR wants job applicants to follow. They worry that contacting the hiring manager will tick off a personnel jockey.

Job applicants worry too much that they will get rejected. They don’t worry enough about whether the employer is worthy of a serious job applicant.

Employers and personnel jockeys should worry more. Unemployment is at record lows in many industries and geographical areas, and competition for good workers is stiff. So, what are employers doing to demonstrate their worthiness?

Not much.

Questions about job opportunities

I think what you’re doing is absolutely the right thing. Asking good questions before pursuing job opportunities reveals your intelligence and diligence. It reveals that you are a serious prospect. You’re testing the employer.  You’re probing to see if there’s a smart human being in there who gives a sh-t. If they don’t, then why bother applying for a job?

Imagine you saw an ad for a pricey product and, rather than rush to buy it, you called the company to get more details about the product’s specifications. Imagine no one would talk to you. Would you buy the product?

Why would you entertain job opportunities when you can’t get answers?

Who’s worth working for?

Even companies that make and sell inexpensive commodities will talk to customers and possible customers. They care about how they are perceived and they invest a lot in their image — so they want to be what they project. They welcome good questions because it tells them their marketing worked! Somebody’s paying attention!

I recently called Gillette to ask a question about their $5 Fusion razor blades. A smart, helpful human answered the phone instantly and helped me out. Isn’t it astonishing when you can’t get answers about a job that’s probably priced at $50,000 or $75,000 or $100,000 or more?

In today’s job market, most employers and their personnel departments can’t be bothered. That instantly reveals who’s worth working for and who’s not. It also reveals which “job opportunities” are worth applying for.

Rules for applying

The informal rules you lay out about how to handle job opportunities and how to vet companies with your follow-up methods are succinct, smart and priceless. I’d summarize your rules for testing employers like this.

  1. Identify an opportunity any way you like — a job posting, word of mouth, a recruiter’s solicitation.
  2. Don’t respond with what they’ve requested. Be a bit coy. Make them work for it. Before you submit a resume, or use the automated job application channel, test the company’s direct communication channel. Send a few good, substantive questions as you suggested — about the job, the company, the hiring manager, he company’s products, the hiring process, even about the salary range. (See Say NO to job applications.)
  3. If you get a meaningful, relevant response, ask some more questions by phone. Yes — call! Press them a bit. Expect a lot. Test the employer before you let them test you. (I’m going to be buying Gillette Fusion razor blades because Gillette gives a sh-t — and the answers I got were enough for me to believe their blades really are worth $5 apiece. They earned my attention.)
  4. If the employer doesn’t earn your attention with an appropriate response, don’t buy what they’re selling. Don’t apply. Don’t send a resume.
  5. Did the company earn your attention — and your job application? Job apps take a lot of work nowadays. (No kidding, right?!) Only apply where the employer goes to the trouble to demonstrate it’s worthy.

(For more tips about judging jobs, see Giving & Getting Information: Mistakes Job Seekers Make.)

Serious employers recognize serious job applicants

The bonus is this: If a company takes you seriously enough to answer your questions, and takes time to talk with you, then you probably won’t have to fill out an application! That’s because they’re serious about filling a job. They welcome serious job applicants who naturally have good questions.

Their courteous response to you will probably turn into a mini-interview that helps them decide you’re worth meeting.

And that’s how this is all really supposed to work. That’s how to apply only for the best job opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to test job opportunities

Most people are terrified to take the simple approach you’ve described. Rather than invest time in just a handful of deserving companies, they really believe it’s better to apply thoughtlessly to loads and loads of jobs just because they were invited to do so. They’re wrong.

In a highly competitive hiring market, it’s the employers that should be afraid they aren’t behaving properly. Job seekers who don’t test job opportunities will be treated like a cheap commodity.

(See Forget Glassdoor: Use these killer tips to judge employers.)

My compliments on your method. Few people apply common sense and sound business practices in the job hunt. Some of them are job seekers, and some of them are employers. Your method is a good way to meet the best employers — without wasting your time with “job opportunities” that aren’t.

How do you test a job opportunity? Please contribute your rules to the five above — and let’s develop a rigorous and reasonable way to identify opportunities worth pursuing. There’s just not enough time or energy to waste on everything else!

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31 Comments
  1. Hold on: exactly whom do you call? If I start at the main number they always transfer to HD, & those people won’t refer you anywhere. How do you find the boss of that job? Exactly how do you get through to them? They filter out all applicants. Be specific.

    • @Max: Good questions. I can’t tell who the OP contacted. My guess is it varies with who originally solicited him. (I know it’s a him.) Maybe he contacts HR, a recruiter, a hiring manager. Tracking people down has become a lost art that seems mysterious to people. It’s not at all. It’s pretty obvious. You start on the periphery and work your way in to the people you need to talk with. It takes time. This might help: https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/11709/good-networking

      The way the job market works today, it pre-supposes that no one will, may, or can speak directly to anyone without a lot of paperwork and forms first. That’s NONSENSE. Talk to people. Figure it out. That’s the challenge. That’s a big part of what we discuss here: the how. Here’s another one: https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/9205/networking-for-introverts-how-to-say-it

      A lot of people just don’t want to do it. They will wait til kingdom come for someone to contact them first.

  2. I find something missing here – any evidence that a hiring manager can see that this person is the slightest bit qualified for the job.
    Let’s say the candidate does it your way, the good way, and gets on the phone with the hiring manager. The candidate says “what’s the salary range, what are your products (what, you haven’t heard of Google?) and prove to me you are serious. The hiring manager says, “all in good time, tell me about your background.” The candidate says “none of that, prove to me that I should apply.”

    *click*

    It would sound to me like the candidate has an inflated sense of their self-worth. Is this person going to take feedback? Is this person going to come in convinced they know how to do things better than those there for a while? Not worth the risk.
    Asking about the job, the culture, the team and the problems faced are good ways of qualifying a prospective employer. Ordering them to convince you that they are good enough to hire you isn’t.

    • @Scott: Let’s remember one thing here. The employer solicited the applicant. If the employer is then not willing or able to answer some reasonable questions (that in fact indicate serious interest of the potential applicant), then something is wrong.

      I think you’re incorrectly characterizing a person who’s responding to a solicitation as a beggar who is suspect for asking good questions.

      It’s the employer that has something to prove here first.

      • @Nick: I’m not sure that follows based on the question you got which prompted the article. To quote the original question “When I encounter a job I’m interested in, I don’t apply, I don’t send out my resume on spec…” This does not necessarily suggest that the employer solicited the applicant (or more precisely they didn’t necessarily solicit THIS applicant).

        To be clear, I have no issue with trying to get further information, but I do think that circumstances dictate the degree to which you expect the other party to provide information, and what level. It’s give and take. If you’re making blind calls into a company that you have no connection to and are simply “cold calling” based on an add, there’s only so much you can expect.

        As with most things, the extremes tend to be problematic.

        • @Stephen: Those are fair points. But let’s back up. This is all about a transaction that two parties are interested in doing. Companies want to hire and people want jobs. All the time. The OP’s approach helps both parties at any time.

          But let’s assume the extreme case of how you read this: the employer is not advertising or recruiting for any jobs at all right now.

          Should it resist calls from the OP about working there? It will need to hire at some point. Isn’t it prudent to field serious calls from job seekers at any time — just as it’s prudent for people to always be ready to talk about a job opportunity, whether they’re looking or not? (Sales people call it keeping the pipeline full.)

          I think the OP’s point (if I’m not getting it wrong twice) is that it doesn’t matter if the employer isn’t willing to answer his questions. That’s an answer by itself. He tests employers by whether they respond, perhaps just as some employers test job seekers by whether they follow the rules and don’t make those calls.

  3. @Scott, of course, once you have the manager on the phone, the conversation takes place with appropriate give and take. The problem is when no one cares enough to start the conversation.

    • @Stephen J. Brouillard – exactly what I was going to reply to Nick, but put more succinctly.
      @Robert: I agree. I’ve found people jobs (not even working for me) when they used Nick’s technique to contact me. But none of them started by telling me to prove that my company was worth working for.
      Now if a recruiter calls me, the first thing I do is to check to see if he or she has bothered to research my qualifications, and the second thing is to ask about the job. But that doesn’t seem to be happening in this case.

      • @Scott:

        “But none of them started by telling me to prove that my company was worth working for.”

        I don’t think I suggested anywhere that a job seeker should tell a company to prove they’re worth working for. It’s of course the objective to learn that, but I don’t suggest being confrontational. If I put words in the OP’s mouth, I apologize. I think he’s testing the employer, and I think that’s valid and prudent.

        • Was there something you didn’t publish which says that the OP was contacted by the company, as opposed to seeing a job post? That would make things different.
          If I recall your advice correctly, it is to get a person in the company to talk about their work and the company without any mention of getting a job there. That could include questions about the culture. That way of doing it is non-confrontational. That way works. The OP says his way isn’t working – which doesn’t surprise me a bit.

  4. I look at my career as if I am a small business owner. My career is an entity I manage, grow, and sustain. Prospective employers are vendor/customer opportunities for my small business (‘career’).

    In yesteryear, people were expected to be lifers for a company that provided incentive for tenure (pension). Nowadays, a 401(k) runs supreme and it’s mostly *our own* individual efforts that grow the majority of it with a small portion usually matched but held to a vesting period.

    Since most ownership falls to the employee in their future, how else can we not then start to look at our career as a personal small business we own and run? Such an initial train of thought has helped me to approach employment in a different mindset. YES, it can be temporary. I don’t job-hop, I career-climb. I have to generate revenue for myself, by performing ROI services for a company (I am in a role that is considered overhead for a business).

    My credentials, experience, and education speak for themselves in the preliminary “can you do the job” thought process for potential employers, so little effort has to go there. It opens the door for me to be pressing on what a business can offer that would appeal to me spending the majority of my weekday waking hour’s attention.

    Yes, cater to a company’s process a little in the beginning. After all, we’re mere strangers cold-calling them. BUT! If you’re a legit qualified professional for that role, absolutely speak on behalf of your preferences.

    Three years ago I made about half of what I make now. Once I changed my train of thought into a career entrepreneur, I was able to take charge of my destiny and not be submissive to ‘hiring best practices’ some fictitious council extraordinaire seemed to have pulled out of their @ss. IT’S OKAY NOT TO LIKE A JOB OPPORTUNITY. It’s also beneficial (for your brand) to professionally inform them why (it gives you credit as someone who knows what the hell they’re doing).

    This post is longer than I intended and I am not through with my first cup of coffee, but hopefully y’all get the gist of what I’m trying to say. Approach a job opportunity like you would a prospective spouse: inquire, bond, hash it out, rinse, repeat, blah, blah, blah.

    • @K-ster: I think you said it very well. Thinking of yourself as a business and your employer as you client or customer changes everything — it makes you responsible for proving your value every day. It makes you a more powerful job candidate because you demonstrate your value first — knowing the employer is not going to figure it out for themselves. It keeps you on your toes. Much of Ask The Headhunter relies on that attitude.

      But as you point out, it also means you must run your career like a business — for profit. A good business knows when to fire a customer, when to avoid a deal that’s not right, and how to judge the value of a deal.

      I’ve also used the dating/marrying analogy, like you did. It’s not mechanical, like employers have made it. You do have to inquire, spend time together, bond, hash it out. It goes two ways.

      • K-Ster & Nick well said. Classic sales?marketing takes time and effort.

  5. If you’re shopping around for a car, do you have to convince the car salesman that you’re “qualified” before he will deign to answer any of your questions?

    Of course not. Most car salesmen will trip over themselves to answer basic questions and get you excited about their wares. Now it may be that if he thinks you can’t afford the payments, he will drop you like a used kleenex, but that’s a separate matter. If you’re at the research stage, you’re keeping your cards close to your chest anyhow while you’re trying to get a feel for whether or not this is something you really want to pursue further.

    Before an interview, you should be in the research phase of your job hunt. If a prospective employer treats you like an annoyance just because you’re asking some basic, commonsense questions, move on. They’re probably not worth more of your time.

    • I hate talking about hiring and job hunting in terms of “sales,” because that term has been misused. But as you note, it is a kind of sales. And employers and HR are clueless about the importance of selling their company and their jobs to their professional community.

      Instead, HR acts like it’s the bouncer at the world’s most popular club.

  6. I get lots of calls from recruiters (and I turn those away that I think are a waste of time). Some opportunities are interesting. For example, when recruiters from an iconic company contacted me recently, I was able to ask them lots of questions and I had a few interviews with hiring managers. The end result? I was being considered for four different opportunities in the same company – two turned me down, and I turned down the other two. In conclusion, I figured out for myself that all the stories in the press were right – it is a cutthroat place to work. Next time they come knocking I’ll give a polite “No thank you.” The stories in the press these days are more about their stock performance anyway – it is a company under everyone’s microscope, and at 52, I am probably too old to fit in at this iconic company’s youthful culture.

    Next time a legitimate recruiter calls with a promising opportunity, I want to at least find out more. In this case I won’t contact the company out of courtesy to the recruiter. Is there a way to make this work with recruiters? Are there additional considerations? What kinds of questions does one need to ask anyway?

    • My position on this is that you can ask a recruiter literally as many and whatever questions you want (related to the job, or their job, of course). Their whole job is to work as a middle-person between talent and companies, and if they don’t have time to answer questions, they’re probably pretty poor recruiters.

    • @Kevin: Kimberlee explained in one short graf what would take me 500 words :-).

      You can ask a good recruiter about whatever you want about the job and employer. Their job is to answer you and get you in the door if you’re a good candidate. And a good recruiter knows you’re a good candidate ALREADY.

      Or why would they have solicited you?

      The gotcha here is obvious. Most recruiters are not good and they don’t solicit people they’ve already checked out as good candidates. Asking a handful of thoughtful questions is a great way to test a recruiter quickly.

  7. I think there are a lot of problems with this approach.

    First, the sales metaphors (both the Gillette from Nick and the car dealership from Askeladd) are totally irrelevant. They have unlimited razers and cars to sell, and anyone can buy them. I do not have unlimited job openings. Nick’s example is better described as calling customer service before you even take the time to read the packaging. Sure, you can do it, but it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

    Second, sure, if you want to fire off a couple of quick questions that will actually be decisive in you applying to the job or not, I’ll answer them. But no, you don’t get a phone interview before I know literally anything about you. The fact that you asked questions is meaningless; I know a lot of smart people who ask questions, but I know a lot more people who ask questions as a backdoor to my hiring process, or as a way to “stand out” that has absolutely no correlation to how they’ll do on the job (other than a general air of ‘your application process is for the plebes, pay attention to be over here.’)

    But the biggest thing here is that I think Nick assumes a *much* stronger correlation between “companies with hiring processes I like” and “good companies” than there’s any evidence for. Notice I didn’t say “a good hiring process;” Nick likes a particular hiring process that’s gotten him good results, and that’s fine. But that hiring process is nothing like ones at orgs that I consider to be the best, most thoughtful places I’ve ever worked. Those orgs care about the fact that if your hiring process gives a leg up to the squeakiest wheels, you will 1) end up with a lot more squeaky, salesy wheels on your staff, and 2) end up with disproportionately more white and male staff, since those are the people who will, statistically, be rewarded for being the loudest person in the room.

    Simply put, there are a lot of perfectly lovely places to work that have flawed hiring systems, for a variety of reasons. If you assume a strong correlation between “places that are good to work” and “places that reward this chicanery” I mean “places who will give you unlimited amounts of their time before you tell them literally anything about yourself” then you’re eliminating a lot of good companies from the mix. If you’re in a position to do that, more power to you I suppose, but most folks aren’t. You can be selective without deciding that a free phone interview is your bottom-level standard.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything close to a perfect hiring process. And companies that have *bad* hiring processes should get every bit of this they deserve. But there are plenty of good, high-paying jobs at good companies that you will absolutely not find yourself working at if this is how you approach your job search.

    • @Kimberlee: Employers and HR seem to have a deep-rooted fear that a million people are suddenly going to start calling HR, hiring managers, and the CEO about a job.

      So they create barriers, threats, intimidation and systems that force all job applicants through a very narrow funnel. Most of the best workers won’t go there, so the employer loses.

      But what I see is that most job seekers are terrified to make such calls to begin with. All I want them to do is prep themselves to make just a very few calls like that, to companies they’re truly serious about working for, and only after they’ve done their homework so they have good, intelligent questions worth asking and answering.

      Wouldn’t that tell a company much of what it needs to know about whether such a person is worth an interview (most of the time)?

      “Second, sure, if you want to fire off a couple of quick questions that will actually be decisive in you applying to the job or not, I’ll answer them.

      That’s all I’m really talking about. It makes you a good HR person or employer. I think that’s all the OP is looking for, and it’s certainly all I’m looking for. A sign of life and a willingness to respect a serious query.

  8. what was really eye catching is that he did get a few responses…I see you advised him what to do with the 5 rules…but what would be interesting to know from the writer….is what did he/she do?

    • @Don: I’ll let him answer that. I didn’t publish this because the OP’s story takes up several e-mails between us as he worked through the process. He’s a one-man consulting business who considered a full-time job. He got enough answers to his questions that he went to the interview.

      “As it happens, I didn’t get the offer. Some new criteria emerged which weren’t in the original description. But that’s not important. What’s important is I didn’t care. For now, I’m sticking with the consulting.”

  9. It seems to me that Nick didn’t say a job applicant had to start with a phone call — as he did with Gillette. Nick said, “Before you submit a resume, or use the automated job application channel, test the company’s direct communication channel.” (He had that last part in italics.)

    So it sounds like Nick was advocating throwing out a small bit of bait – by email or phone, whatever – to see if there was actually a human being on the other end who the applicant could begin to develop a relationship with.

    Presumably the questions asked would be Nick’s trademark kind of questions about how to do the job profitably for the employer — with some understanding of the job and the company. Again, stuff Nick always recommends.

    The “proof” of whether the company was worth working for or not would NOT happen the email or phone call — it sounded more like Nick was saying that the “proof” would be from whether it was possible to establish ANY pre-resume sending connection at all.

    And – in this era when it’s not so easy to find hiring managers at the traditional lunch/after work ‘industry hangouts’ (I’ve tried!)- this seemed like an interesting work-around for the possible absence of any opportunity to meet hiring managers in person.

    If someone really needed a job, then sure – use every method. Otherwise, it does take a lot of time & effort to apply for a job. Why waste the time on companies where there’s no ‘there’ there if a job-seeker doesn’t have to?

    • @Patrice: I think the OP says it best.

      “My take-away is that if a company that wants to fill a job can’t be bothered to answer some simple, constructive questions, then they’re not genuine. They’re not worth starting an arduous process with because they’re probably going to waste my time.”

      I’m not sure what questions he asks beyond the general topics he listed, and I’m not sure it really matters as long as the Qs are thoughtful and legit. But I think you hit on the key thing here: He’s looking for a sign of life. Is there a person in there who cares enough to respond??

  10. @Patrice: I like what you say about applying for jobs being a lot of work. Recently, when an iconic company contacted me (and their recruiters were employed by the hiring company, and I will call it iCon), of course I was flattered. Who wouldn’t be?

    As I got into phone interviews with managers, the tables turned and I was going to have to work very hard to prove that I was worthy of them.

    Understand that interviews at iCon are legendary for their thoroughness and difficulty. I was even lectured by one manager about being better prepared for interviews.

    It did not seem to matter that they contacted me first – the onus was on me to prove my worthiness.

    The choice was clear: Apply for a job at iCon or perform brilliantly at my current position at yet another iconic company. (I will call my current company iWork.)

    I like working at iWork. iCon would require long hours and a move of 300 miles. Bye bye iCon!

    Post scriptum: While all this stuff was going with iCon, my boss at iWork one day told me how much he appreciated my work. I got a raving performance review. I don’t think he knew that iCon contacted me. Even so, that, along with my wife getting a new job, convinced me that I made the right decision.

    PPS: I would feel comfortable contacting one of iCon’s recruiters if I were laid off from my current position.

  11. Actually, I no longer respond to job postings. Been there, done that. It’s not a productive use of time, for all the reasons that have been discussed at length in this blog.

    Making that decision was a powerful, liberating experience. At last, I was in control of my job search.

    The way to find work is to go out and meet people. Instead of waiting for a computer to decide your fate, go and find the people who can help you.

    What finally drove my decision was when I realized that I simply don’t want to work at a job that can be filled by an algorithm. I’m a person, dammit.

    • I think that’s only way I’ll ever find a job as well – not via job postings, but rather personal contacts. However, trying to find the people who can help feels very much like looking for the needle hidden in a whole field of haystacks. Sometimes I’m uncharacteristically optimistic, but it’s more often the case that I despair of ever finding that needle.

  12. You sure ain’t going to find them in a computer.

    I find people by showing up where they’re likely to be. Think industry events, trade shows, lectures, professional organizations, Meetups, Chambers of Commerce, Twitter … share any hobbies? When you think about it, you can do much better than a computer.

    • Easier said than done. I’ve looked at professional groups and meetups and things like that, but they have a penchant for meeting during working hours (breakfast meetups, lunch meetups)…which does me absolutely no good since that’s when I am working. Then, the odd ones which do have an evening meeting time are on Tuesdays or Thursdays for some reason…which again does me little good since that’s when I teach an evening class. So, yeah, the computer is the best tool I have available right now.

      People say that it’s easier to find a job when you’re already employed, but you couldn’t prove it by me.

      • @Askeladd,
        Why not ask your employer to let you go to these things for professional development, or even to make contacts to meet people you would be interested in hiring? At least get the organizers who can be the start of a chain of people to call.
        I’ve been on the organizing committee of a big conference for a long time, and no one follows Nick’s advice about calling visible people to ask about the company and the work.
        If the person on the committee is not right, odds are he or she will know someone who is. One of the good things about being on these committees is that you get to know everybody.

        • Conferences could be a possibility, but it’d have to be on my own dime and during vacation (which I’m not tenured enough for yet) – the job I currently have is a “survival job” which has nothing to do with either my education, experience, or interests (I’m trying to make a career change). Plus the boss is a skinflint… ;)

          For me, networking is a conundrum, compounded by not only the extremely limited time but an introverted personality. I fare halfway decently if I’m in a one-to-one situation, but tend to shut down with crowds, especially crowds of strangers. No excuses, but it does pose a greater than average challenge.

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