Wouldn’t it be great to know what recruiters and hiring managers talk about when they determine the “must haves” for successful candidates to fill their jobs? You may be surprised to know that what employers look for is not particularly revolutionary.
What is surprising is that applicants very often don’t give employers what they want. Someone really smart told me a long time ago that the interview and, by extension, the whole search process is about the employer (or whoever is representing the employer). Candidates make the tragic error of thinking the application, screening, interview and subsequent offer is about them!
Following is an employer-centric look at recruitment and how, as candidates, you can do your homework and, with a fair degree of accuracy, assess what a potential employer has determined as the requisite skills, fit, and attitude of the winning applicant.
1. Relevant Skills
Employers generally look for exact matches. A recruiter has too many choices in this job market to select, even for a long list of screenings, a candidate that doesn’t have 80-90% of the skills and experience listed in the job description. Don’t waste your time applying for hundreds of jobs that are marginally related to your abilities and background; instead, focus on applications where job titles, skills, and qualifications and years of experience line up with your resume.
In a recent search I conducted, I had 90 resumes out of 105 that had completely unrelated skills, background, or qualifications. They were not screened. Not only did they not have any of the job requirements, I found myself to be biased against them for their seemingly random application!
If you are new to the full-time job market (recent graduates, recent immigrants), your options are to look for entry level opportunities or seek volunteer or intern roles that build on career skills or Canadian experience to build some critical experience mass on your resume that are relatable for a potential employer.
Remember, most recruiters will spend about five seconds determining if your resume is worth putting on the pile that bears closer examination; make those five seconds count by applying for jobs strategically.
2. Culture and Fit
Employers look for someone who “gets them.” So, let’s assume that you are not applying to every job on every job board; you now have more time to research those companies where you have a much better chance of having your resume matched against the job requirements. Based on people you know, the organization website, and other sources like Rate My Employer or Canada Revenue Agency (for charities), figure out what kind of culture, norms, and work ethos define the environment.
A former colleague of mine applied to a training manager role at a fashion forward retailer while working in the heavily structured call and administration centres of the largest schedule “A” bank. Having done her research, she ensured that her resume was not only accurate but aesthetically pleasing; she used fashion-centric words in her cover letter (“on trend”, “this season”, etc.) and even went so far as to purchase very hip no prescription glasses to pull her fashionable look together for the interview. She got the job (for which she was eminently qualified) but might easily have been relegated to the rejected pile as “too corporate” based solely on her experience.
This is not a direction to be something you are not; it is a reminder that good applications take dedicated research, analysis and insight to create an impression that makes your prospective employer see you as not only skilled but the “right fit” for the job.
3. Incidental cues and signs
Employers look for signals about the real you. How you present on paper or even in an interview can be heavily practiced and a potential employer wants to know how you’ll be as an employee versus a candidate. Not long ago, I was involved in an offer to a candidate who was very adversarial and micro-detailed about the offer terms; he stretched it out over days by bringing up an additional issue or question each time we thought we had reached agreeable terms. Understanding that this was his default and natural style and that the role required a much more cooperative style, we withdrew the offer based on our observations of his behaviour.
Here are some “incidental” information sources that savvy recruiters and human resources managers watch for in applicants:
• Is the application flawless? If you cite one of your strengths as “attention to detale”, you can be sure you won’t be getting a call.
• Do you respect the recruitment process? We have all learned that networking is an amazing job search tool! However, use your network and connections carefully and ensure that you still follow the prescribed process even if you let your cousin, the VP of Marketing, inform the HR department that you are a top candidate.
• Do you have any searchable online embarrassments? Everyone has the capacity to find pictures of the bachelorette party in Vegas or the pictures of your 18 month old triplets. Neither of those is a bad thing but why provide more information than necessary for which you might be judged?
• Have you demonstrated your desire to change jobs by making room in your life for job search? There are many times when viable candidates make it very difficult to schedule telephone or in person interviews because of the demands of their current jobs. That is understandable as that is the employment contract to which you are currently committed. But if you apply to jobs, be sure to have a contingency plan for making time. Don’t make excuses (“We have a conference this week...sorry!”) Instead, be professional and offer options (“I’m unavailable all week during regular office hours but could easily come in at 8am from Monday to Wednesday.”).
• What is your communication like post-application? If you have been screened as a viable candidate, it’s likely that you’ll get a phone call or email regarding the next steps in the process. Many applicants underestimate the importance of this first contact which is not planned, edited or rehearsed. I have seen many a candidate mis-handle a phone call because they don’t recall applying for the job, are somewhat hostile when they see the name of a charity and expect to be solicited for a donation, can’t make themselves understood (volume, accents) or—having answered the call—tell the caller that now is not a good time. Similarly, I have been surprised to see beautifully written cover letters and well designed resumes followed up with emails rife with grammar and spelling mistakes! Employers look for consistency between the application and every point of contact thereafter.
4. The interview
Employers want their choice to be validated. In other words, they want to see an interview performance that justifies each step of the screening process that has brought you this far. There is a massive amount of information on interviews so the following list provides a brief guide to validating the decision to bring you in for an interview.
• Personal presentation: professional, hygienic, culture-appropriate
• Curiousity (always have questions)
• Consistency (does “in person” match “on paper”?)
o Examples that demonstrate the skills and competencies you say you have
o Roles that describe what you contributed (avoid “we”, “the team”, etc.)
o Dates and gaps (be prepared to fill in the chronology of your resume)
o Salary expectations
Employers look for positive corroboration. Once an employer is checking references, it indicates a predisposition toward you as someone who can succeed in the job. Your references should corroborate your work experience including your title and responsibilities. Ideally, you should have at least three references of which two are direct supervisors who can also comment on the quality of your work.
So, what do employers look for in potential hires?
Employers generally look for exact matches for their qualifications. Employers look for someone who “gets them” in terms of culture and fit. Employers look for signals about the real you in every interaction. Employers want their choice to be validated by your interview performance. Employers look for positive corroboration from your references.
And, by the way, as a candidate, you should look for the same things in a potential employer!
Nickey Alexiou’s career has included executive roles in organizational development and human resources leading change, engagement, strategy, talent and succession planning, and conflict resolution, including counsel to Charity Careers Canada. Nickey’s extensive leadership experience in working with all levels of staff, Boards and volunteers in private sector, not-for-profit and member-based organizations has delivered comprehensive and successful outcomes.