In the October 16, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks about those pesky automated “get a job” tools online:

I’ve been reading your new columns on the PBS NewsHour website, in particular your advice about on-line job applications (the video segment) and your suggestion to approach job hunting as if you’re starting a business. Two questions:

Are online job applications as ineffective as job boards?

Also, I have a hard time getting replies from people I’ve met with about starting a business. They express interest, even excitement, about my plans. I give them the time, space, and money requirements to get the business started, as they requested. But then all I get is silence. What to do?

My Advice

If by online applications you’re referring to a company’s own job listings on its own website, that’s a more productive channel than third-party job boards. The same surveys that show Monster and CareerBuilder deliver no more than 2%-5% of hires suggest that employers’ own sites are a better bet.

Nonetheless, using any automated job application method is a fool’s errand: They all dump you into a database, and good luck getting in front of a hiring manager!

Employers do tend to keep job listings on their own websites clean and up to date, and they usually turn to those first. None of the surveys address it, but I’d guess there’s less competition on a company’s own jobs pages simply because most job hunters prefer to apply for hundreds of jobs at once on the big boards. Ironic, isn’t it? They want an edge, so they compete with more job hunters on the boards!

If you find a job on a company’s own website, I suggest tracking down the manager and sending a personal e-mail. Don’t just reiterate your interest — there’s nothing useful in that. Instead, ask a good question about the job and the manager’s department. Get the manager talking about the work. It’ll set you apart.

In How Can I Change Careers?, there’s a section titled “A Good Network Is A Circle of Friends.” It shows how to triangulate to meet people peripheral to a manager, so you can get a personal introduction to meet.

For what it’s worth, the only job search engine I know that sources all its results from employers’ own websites is They don’t “aggregate” listings from other job boards, like Indeed and SimplyHired do. (There’s a big difference between job boards and a job search engine. A board charges employers to list their jobs. A job search engine searches employers’ websites for jobs that meet your search criteria.)

Now let’s talk about why people who express an interest in your business concept don’t follow up with you. It’s almost always because they’re too busy, or because while they are sincerely interested, they’re not in a position to help you.

Try this: Talk to lots of folks about your idea, but then focus on just those who can really be helpful. Plan how you will follow up with them. When they express interest, outline your follow-up plan. Be frank: Ask them how exactly they think they can help, and what further information they need to do it.

But then, it’s up to you to check off the boxes on the “to do list” you discussed with them. Keep in mind that virtually no one will follow through with you. That’s just the nature of starting a business. All you need is one key supporter. And it’s up to you to figure out who that might be. It’s no different than carefully picking the employers you think you can help.

Are employers’ own online job application forms any better than using the job boards? More important, what methods do you use to meet hiring managers?

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  1. For what it’s worth, good hiring managers — the ones you want to work for — will look at applications that come in through the company’s online application system. The ones who don’t are managers who don’t put a premium on hiring the right staff, which usually means they’re poor managers in some pretty profound other ways too. If you have a great resume that shows a track record of success in what the job requires and you write a compelling note about why it might be a good fit, a good hiring manager is going to see it. That doesn’t mean you’ll be right for the role — but don’t assume it’s going into a black hole somewhere never to be viewed.

  2. One would think using an employer’s website would be ideal but the experience I hear from job hunters is that it isn’t. Jobs are often poorly maintained, the data entry process is awful (constantly doing data entry into multiple screes on individual systems in order to apply and worst of all, who screens the resumes? Often the least experienced person in HR, rather than the one who is actually screening for the job). This, to job hunters, applying directly online to an employer seems to be lower on the food chain than even going through a job board. Better to follow Nick’s advice and use the fact that they are telling you that they are trying to hire someone as a way of networking to the hiring manager.

  3. @Jeff: The last time CareerXroads clearly reported on company websites as a source of hires, they were about 20% — almost double that of job boards. Mysteriously, CXR has stopped talking about company sites.

    You’re right: Many companies’ own job listings are poorly maintained. But your point about “who screens” can be made about applicants coming in from job boards, too. Job boards don’t screen anything. In fact, the screening methods job boards provide result in piles of drek for HR to “process” further.

    I still think that if someone is going to apply through online listings, a company’s own site is the place to start. Many companies’ job listings pages are well-maintained — and starting there makes it a bit easier to pick up the phone, call a manager, and inquire about “the job on your website.”

    But I agree with you: Job hunters should resort to any online listings only after they’ve talked to managers directly, and after they’ve bought a lottery ticket :-)

  4. Perhaps ironically (I say ironically because it appears the Federal Government is better and more efficient at this than the private sector), the Federal Government’s online job board (which is used for filling the overwhelming majority of all civilian postings) is actively maintained, has relatively quick turnaround, and with the exception of certain very specialized listings, are postings for jobs which actually exist (easily distinguishable by looking at the vacancies–few, very few v. many, and who is eligible to apply–civilian v. current federal employee).

    Tracking down a hiring manager through this venue, however, is probably close to impossible, unless the person isn’t listed–most of the time it’s just the HR rep who is responsible for handling all the applications and forwarding the most qualified individuals to the hiring managers.

  5. My experience is very good with employer websites. I have on average gotten screen call about 70% of times.

  6. I’m on the hiring side. If our HR uses job boards, I’ve never noticed. We do use our internal site all the time, and would hire more people from it if more applied. First, submitting a resume on it shows the candidate took the time to research likely companies. Second, while a lot of jobs there are obsolete resumes get sent to hiring managers for jobs not specifically applied to. If we are looking for someone for a new opening, we’ll often search our applicant pool first.
    Hiring managers names are seldom if ever on the post, which is a shame, so it takes a bit more work to identify him or her. But if you know there is an opening in your area at a company, you probably could get close with a little bit of effort.
    If I were looking for a job, company job listings would come right after networking.

  7. @Scott: Do you welcome direct calls or e-mails from job hunters, if they can track you down as the manager with the open job?

    If yes, what makes you enjoy the call, and what makes you wish they hadn’t called? (I don’t expect all calls are well-thought out! I’m sure some are just fishing for a job, any job.)

    Thanks for posting from a manager’s perspective!

  8. Nick,
    My only complaint is that I don’t get more calls – or in fact any. My name is pretty much out there because of my external technical activities. I’ve never heard of my colleagues in these activities complain about getting too many.
    Your readers should know that if they follow your advice on this they’ll have a leg up. Nobody does it, so you won’t be the fifteenth caller of the day. Not long ago when we were really looking I’d have loved for some calls – it would show some initiative.
    I think this will change. Students whom I’ve interviewed have looked me up, so they are doing their research. Experienced people – these kids are going to eat your lunch if you won’t do your research.

  9. @Lucas: You’re starting in the wrong place. If you find a job on the federal “job board” and try to track down a manager, you’ll probably fail. If you ask yourself which department you want to work in, then you can take steps to track down the manager. Why start with the job board at all?

  10. @All: Well, you heard it from Scott. Managers are waiting by the phones for your calls… What the personnel experts tell you (“Don’t call our managers! Follow the rules!”) is b.s. Good managers want to hear from you.

    Allee allee in free!

  11. @Nick and Lucas: re the federal government’s job board (usajobs), you’re right. To make things worse, sometimes the person reviewing the applications is not even located on the same site as the job you’re applying for. I applied for a federal job located in Massachusetts. Turns out all of the applications submitted were sent to someone in Ohio, who reviewed them and decided which ones to forward to the hiring manager in Massachusetts. And I was required to send them my transcripts, which were sent to a processing center in Georgia. Yeah, coordinating documents and applications between three sites, none of which are even in proximity to eachother….

    I did manage to find the hiring manager in Massachusetts, but he said that he could only interview the people selected for him by the application reviewer in Ohio, who didn’t have any knowledge of the job in Massachusetts…..

    Sounds like a recipe for confusion to me. But this was before the federal jobs application process was supposedly made easier. What I’ve found is that many of the jobs listed on usajobs are reserved for people already employed by the federal government or military veterans. Plus there’s been hiring freezes and discussions of budget cuts to shrink the size of the federal workforce, but I also believe that the federal government is no different than other employers in the public or private sector. If you know someone who can get your name before the hiring manager, then you have a chance. If not, you can still try to network, but I think your chances are probably diminished.

    Any thoughts on this? Thanks!

  12. @marybeth: Yah, a thought… This would be a good “jobs” question for Mitt Romney and President Obama for next Monday’s debate… “Uh, I’d like to ask about this recipe for disaster…”

    During the last debate, Mitt Romney promised a young man he’d get him a job after college… Like I say here often, if you don’t know someone, make sure someone gets to know you. :-)

    As for your situation, you could file a form FB-3204-19. That’s how they handle these things…

  13. The only job board I ever got a “hit” on was the State of Michigan, and that was more than three years after I lost my job. I had been “scanned” and “looked at” (my terms-I believe they use the terms viewed and reviewed) thousands of times, but only received one phone call.

    The other job boards brought dubious email offers of online work, or unwanted solicitations from online universities.

    Pretty much, my experience with this black hole of resumes dragged me into the super massive black hole of clinical depression.

    My problem with on-line applications is less traumatic, though no less frustrating. A reputable recruiting/temp agency invited me to this process so that I might become a viable applicant. They asked for salary history. I called to object. They politely but firmly stated that without that info, we could not move forward.

    If the on-line app doesn’t ask for salary history (most do), I don’t mind filling it out, if only for the keyboard practice.

    So far, no hits.

    I found my survival job the old-fashioned way: saw an ad in the Sunday paper, sent in a physical resume, got a phone call from someone who actually read it, answered the call, went in for interviews, got hired.

    I still read the Sunday paper every week–I see more ads than I did in 2009. Maybe someone figured out this is a good way to recruit.

  14. @UCD: I’ve found the same thing with regards to the online process. I don’t know of anyone who is unemployed, underemployed and looking for work who has gotten a job by applying through the company’s online application process. As Nick wrote quite some time ago on this process, all it can do is eliminate you. You’re better trying to find out who the hiring manager is, doing more research about the company and job, and trying to make contact with a live, breathing, hiring manager. Not HR (they too only have the authority to eliminate you) and certainly not through the online application. In the latter, no human being looks at your application, and the process can be cumbersome at best (one online application asked me for all of the jobs I’d held. Several had gone out of business, one had closed up the site where I had worked and shipped those jobs first to Albany, then to India. The online application required me to provide addresses and phone numbers of these no longer extant businesses. There was no place for me to put a note indicating that through I had worked there for several years, the company was no longer in existence. This makes listing a now-non-existent phone number silly. If the company is gone, so is the phone number, and HR, even if I were to make it past their computer screening program, wouldn’t be able to call that number and reach the actual company.

    The reason most businesses don’t use the newspapers to recruit is money and time. It is expensive to advertise in the newspapers. And it is more limiting, since you will likely only reach a local market (advertise online or in the NY Times, you reach more people). The other reason I’ve heard given is that people don’t read newspapers anymore, but people have computers (I disagree, but that’s a whole other issue) and are only comfortable applying online. And the other part of the cost issue is that since businesses already have a website and HR, the computer software packages purchased for eliminating applicants (oops screening) is cheaper than having to pay human beings to read resumes.

    There’s no talent shortage, just laziness on the part of businesses. Of course, I hope that will change as the economy improves and people leave for better jobs. Then the lazy way of “recruiting” (if you can call posting a job on the company’s website and WAITING for the perfect candidate to make it past the computer software screening “recruiting”.)