January 7, 2003

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A face in the crowd
The job market is filled with overly qualified applicants, instant-messaging stalkers, and the stench of desperation – how to distinguish yourself and keep your résumé out of the trash.

By Carrie Hall

A COUPLE OF months ago, at the East Bay clay studio where I work as an office manager, my boss requested that I put an ad on Craigslist for an assistant. We needed someone to clean and run errands, someone who was generally handy and had a strong interest in, if not a lot of experience with, clay. Slightly giddy at the prospect of being on the other side of the hiring desk for the first time in my life, I posted the ad at about five o'clock, then gathered my belongings and headed home, unfazed by the sound of an incoming fax as I left the building.

I felt a little important that evening. It wasn't so long ago that I'd been eating rice and beans and scouring Craigslist for jobs myself. Soon, though, I would be systematically sorting through résumés; asking thought-provoking, incisive questions in interviews; and, in the end, offering a job to one lucky, qualified contestant. I slept soundly that night, ignorant of the behemoth I had uncaged, never guessing that a torrent of financial insecurities, spelling mistakes, and fallen dreams was heading my way.

When I got to work the next morning, there were faxes spilling out of the machine, the phone was ringing, and there was an envelope on my desk, though the mail had not yet been delivered. My boss explained that someone had rung the doorbell at eight in the morning (our office is in his house) to hand-deliver her application.

"But I didn't even put the address on the ad," I said, gathering the papers around the fax machine. The cover letter on the top of the stack read, "I am desperate. I will do anything. Please consider my application." I looked at it sadly, considered throwing it in the trash, but held onto it for future consideration.

I answered the phone, told the caller that – as stated in our ad – we weren't accepting calls, and sat down to study the 50 faxes we had received during the night. I immediately realized I had made a grave error in the ad by mentioning that "some graphics experience is useful, but not necessary." At least half of the letters began, "I am certain I am the perfect candidate for the position of Web designer at your company." I set these aside in a pile labeled "not so good." About 30 minutes later, after reading each cover letter carefully, I had extracted three résumés for a pile labeled "pretty good" and was walking over to the fax machine to pick up the new applications that had come in when my boss asked me if I had checked the e-mail.

I had forgotten all about the e-mail. I sat down at my computer, cautiously clicked the mail icon, and was horrified to discover that we had received upward of 150 applications electronically in the past 16 hours. As I stared in awe, 10 more messages appeared. I began to read.

I started out with the best of intentions, really I did. I read each letter from beginning to end, struggled to open difficult attachments (90 percent of which were labeled "resume.doc"), tried to match up cover letters with résumés – but, I'm sorry to admit, after a hundred or so, I grew tired. I tossed the "not so good" pile in the trash, threw out all letters that mentioned desperation, all letters that said, "I would very much like to work for your design firm/restaurant/corporation." I threw out all letters with glaring spelling errors. I threw away résumés that had the applicant's name in 100-point font, taking up nearly half the page and leaving approximately 10 lines for his or her meager qualifications.

I deleted attachments I couldn't open, threw away letters that began with the generic "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern," and still I had too many. They flooded in faster than I could read them. I started throwing away anything that didn't mention art experience or went on for six pages, such as one applicant's manifesto on his artwork that included the gorgeous sentence "Some people call my work conceptual but i have a hard time with the word CONCEPTUAL there is a lot of historical implication that isn't applicable to me." This letter, a few pages later, helpfully concluded, "i can be reached by phone and can get a resume together if thats what you really want because id like to hang around your studio."

An instant message flashed across the screen from someone named "butterscotch69."

"Hello?" the I.M. greeted. I didn't respond, horrified that I was being stalked by some cyberporn site.

"Hello! Are you there?" Butterscotch demanded.

"Do I know you?" I responded.

"I sent you a résumé this morning and I was hoping to hear from you," she typed angrily.

"Do not write here ever again," I replied incredulously, before dismantling my I.M. program.

The story of my clay studio hiring search, sadly, isn't that unusual. All over the Bay Area, people hiring for even the most mundane jobs are getting swamped by hundreds of résumés. But local experts say there are ways to make sure yours actually gets read and you get a shot at the job. There are lots of mistakes to make along the way – and most of them can be avoided.

"Objective: To work for an artist with integrity. I have a lot of integrity, if nothing else." *

I was, of course, aware that the economy of the Bay Area is in the toilet. But it was somewhat appalling to be turning away Ph.D.s and set designers and folks who were more qualified for my job than I am. And according to John Peterson, human resources rep for FlipDog.com (an amazing source for I.T. and other job listings, tips, and resources), it's not getting any better.

"People are having to step down a notch," Peterson says. "It's a point of frustration. We're dealing with people, network administrators, who for a while there were getting a 30 percent pay increase with every new position, and now they can't find jobs at all."

"Still," he adds, "I don't think we're in the kind of recessionary job market we were in the early '90s. Some sectors are booming. There are plenty of government jobs, and a lot of work in health care. They always need nurses and doctors."

Good news for R.N.s, M.D.s, and those who've always dreamed of entering the world of civil service. But what about the hundreds of people who want to sweep dried clay off my boss's studio floor? Or don't really, but said they did because they never heard back from the café/doctor's office/gaming magazine/university cultural-studies department they sent their résumé out to earlier in the month?

As far as Peterson is concerned, the answer is networking. "It's like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon. If you know five people, they each know five people. Eventually, you'll know someone from within the company. The most common mistake people make is blindly applying to jobs they're not qualified for. It makes them feel good about their job search because they're keeping themselves busy, when their time would be much better spent getting to know someone in a company they really want to work for."

According to Peterson, the old adage is true: employers will hire first from within the company, then move on to friends of people within the company, and consider outside sources only if it proves absolutely necessary. Which makes sense, given that I would've done anything to be spared the hours of suffocation-by-résumé I was subjected to. Besides, working with people you like, or people liked by people you like, can be hard enough, let alone working with people who, for all you know, will turn out to be passive-aggressive slackers or proselytizing born-again Christians.

"You want to differentiate yourself," Peterson concludes, "and the way to do that is to know people. The trick is to be persistent without being annoying."

"Dude, I am totally your man."

"It's really hard to do," says Graham Hewson, associate H.R. manager for Chronicle Books. "But you should go into your interview and pretend the job doesn't matter. That way, you'll be yourself."

That may have been what the guy who addressed me as "dude" was thinking. Still, though I shudder to think what "being yourself" would have meant to the woman who sent me her résumé on the back of a postcard featuring three women belly dancing, I catch Hewson's point. It's pretty easy to spot the bullshit. Just as unappealing as a cover letter that failed to mention my boss, clay, or art was a cover letter that drooled, "I have never wanted to do anything as much as clean the studio of a real artist." Still, one wonders if being yourself is enough to get noticed. Not noticed, mind you, in the sense that your cover letter gets pasted up in the break room for comic relief or target practice, or that your interview tactics are held up as examples in a what-not-to-do article on finding a job – but noticed in a way that will help you get off unemployment. More, surely, is required from the job seeker in this harsh economic climate than striking a natural pose.

Chronicle, a San Francisco-based publishing company with about 160 employees, has seen a huge increase in applicant numbers in the past couple of years. "During the dot-coms, oftentimes we found we were choosing from the best of the unremarkable," Hewson says. "But now we'll run a customer-service ad, and we'll get people who have been customer-service managers for 10 years, or people from dot-coms who have those weird, inflated titles, where they've been out of school for a year and they're vice president of something."

So if a fancy title like "vice president of refreshments" will no longer keep your potential employer's finger off the delete button, what will? "You should rewrite your résumé and cover letter for every job," Hewson says, "People who send out résumés to everyone – it's obvious. And you should run spell-check." This may – and should – seem obvious, but as Hewson says, "I can't even tell you how many times I've seen people misspell 'detail-oriented.'

"We're a publisher, so we value language skills," he continues. "Catchphrases work against you. For instance, to say that you're a multitasker – as opposed to what? A single-tasker? All that ends up being is filler on the page. People are really damaging their chances by filling their cover letter with weird abstractions or cliché catchphrases that don't mean anything. Anything that makes [the employer] work harder, if you've got 150 or 200 résumés, works against [the applicant]. So if you've got to go through a couple of abstract paragraphs about skill sets and summaries of qualifications, it puts you off."

It goes beyond spelling errors and banal attempts to decorate a sheet of fancy cover-letter paper, though. "We're looking for somebody who fits the company culture," Hewson says. "You can learn how to fill out an Excel spreadsheet, but if you aren't going to get along in this work environment, that's something you can't learn." Which takes us back to one cliché catchphrase you should, perhaps, keep in mind, while carefully extracting it from your cover letter and your interview conversation: "be yourself." Even if you manage to fake the company-culture profile through a 45-minute interview, you might not have the strength to outlast the probationary training period, so you may as well give being real a shot.

In any case, Hewson says, "We end up with too many strong people, which is a drag in its own right because your heart goes out to some people, particularly really good candidates. You end up feeling bad, because a lot of the people you turn away would be great employees." Not, on the surface, an encouraging thought. But given how dispiriting the job search can be, it's important to keep in mind (and maybe say out loud a few times while looking in the mirror each morning) that sometimes not getting hired is not a reflection on you.

"I need a break. You're going to give me one, out of pity I suppose. Can follow orders and am great photographer. I'm left-handed – what more can I say?"

"When people call me and say, 'My job isn't fulfilling anymore,' I tell them, 'You're lucky you have a job right now – I would hold on to it,' " says Shirley Weishaar, director of the Mills College Career Center. "Certainly be looking around and so forth, but this is not a good time to leave a job.

"It's better," she says, "to be getting some experience and making some connections and building your résumé, even if it's not something that you feel is the perfect job for you, because doing that says something about you. It says, 'I am someone who wants to work and will work hard even if it's something I'm not thrilled about, because I'm going to learn something every place I go." Sound vaguely unappealing? It's amazing how your perspective changes after just a few months spent watching your bank account balance diminish.

As for those who lack a job to feel unfulfilled by: "You're going to have to make some compromises," Weishaar says. "You're going to have to not wear your piercings. You're going to have to not use the vocabulary you use with your friends. You're going to have to dress the part because you need to be accepted by somebody that's more mainstream than you are. That's a choice you make. And when you don't do that, you're also making a choice. You're saying, 'I'm applying in this way, because this is who I am, and if I can't be myself, well, then I don't want the job.' "

In other words, this is not 1997. You may not want to assume that smart-alecky wit and "thinking outside the box" will secure you a foot in the door. When crafting your cover letter, you may want to think carefully about whether your phrasing will come across as refreshingly original or embarrassing and bizarre to the H.R. rep who intercepts it. (It's the darndest thing, but some jokes just aren't as funny on paper.) And if you're called in, you may not want to interrupt the interview to ask whether a Razor scooter is included in the benefits package, or how often they rotate out the pinball machines.

So you dump the face metal on the dresser, dust off the wing tips, and wash your mouth out with soap and water. Or maybe you decide you can't jettison your aesthetic ideals. Either way, Weishaar says, it's important to be figuring out what you want. "Think about what it is you've enjoyed all your life. We get so busy living our lives, or believing that we can't do something or that because it comes so easy to us, it can't be OK. Trust what you know about yourself." Once you've figured out what you want, she says, actively pursue it, tell everyone you know, get informational interviews, and show your enthusiasm. "Ask for help," she counsels. "I think people are shy about saying they need something."

When you've been living on saltines with thinly spread mustard and you're about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of your job search, the very thought of appearing enthusiastic may seem wearying. And so may the prospect of cold-calling companies that may or may not be hiring. Still, you might as well expend your energy on something you'd be happy to achieve. Even if it's true, as Chronicle Books' Hewson says, that you should act like getting hired isn't crucial to your survival, actually wanting the job will probably increase your chances of getting it – if that means you put some effort into figuring out why you want it.

"So what's really going on? My credentials are horrible, but I will rock your tiny little world. I live in Seattle Washington, so if you want to meet my revolutionary ass, you have to pay for relocation."

And maybe you'll keep the piercings and the attitude and get the job anyway. I asked Bill Burke, a bartender at the Odeon who recently helped hire a coworker, what turns him off most in a job applicant. "That look of desperation," he told me. "That wide-eyed look."

"What are people afraid of?" he asks. "It's that whole job security thing, money. My advice to them? Be poor. You'll find that your heart keeps beating. You don't lose all your friends. If anything, you'll find out who your friends are. I went through the whole crash thing, found a job the day after, and I felt like I won. But then it wasn't what I wanted at all; it was just money, and I made a conscious decision to stop. I hated what I was doing, and I just saw this big circle of making money and needing more money. The making of the big money sucks away most of the money anyway, so I decided to scale it down to what I really need. Why was I making money? So I could afford to put on shows. So I just spent six months making money any which way, donating sperm and blood and snot – and putting on shows with that new time I had."

Six hundred people – who perhaps lacked Burke's philosophical attitude toward destitution or his ability to produce sperm – responded to the Odeon's ad on Craigslist. About 150 showed up for a mass interview. "It was the first time we'd done anything like that, put out an ad, and hadn't just hired someone from the scene." Burke says. "And we ended up hiring someone who had gotten sick of the whole process. She was on her way out the door, she was so sick of waiting, but [Odeon owner] Chicken John pulled her back in. For my part, I was just looking to hire someone with a completely natural feeling. Of course, it's not a natural situation, but I guess I'm just really impressed with someone whose personality cuts through all that crap. Especially in a bar, you just want someone who's relaxing to be around."

Burke's anecdote, of course, neatly contradicts Weishaar's advice about attitude. But the moral might be to take some time to reflect on the position you're applying for and the company that's offering it. Consider FlipDog H.R. rep Peterson's point about not sending your résumé out to 500 companies, no matter how productive it makes you feel. Do some research. Even if you can't find a way to infiltrate the company socially, you'll at least have digested a few salient facts about its history, its work environment, its business model, and hopefully its mission. You won't, perhaps, walk into an interview with Chronicle's Hewson making idle chitchat about how much you loathe arty coffee-table books, or use a superior tone in your cover letter as you attempt to convince, for instance, a clay-studio office manager that you're the perfect person to run her errands.

"Things here are run funky," Burke says. "Each business has its idiosyncrasies, and you need someone who can roll with that, as opposed to freaking out at some stupid thing." A man wearing a dozen glow-in-the-dark crucifixes around his neck walks into the bar. He gestures to me a little plaintively with a crucifix. I shake my head. Burke turns to me, smiling, "See?" he says. "There's always work! The guys I really feel sorry for are the ones who sell some squeaking toy or something, and they have to walk around squeaking the thing all day."

"Look," he says, shifting back to the topic at hand, "you should be interviewing the job as much as the job is interviewing you. People aren't hiring a slave; they want someone who can help out, who can think for themselves."

The job market is a nightmare, my friend. You're tired, you're hungry, you're still paying off your dot-com debts, and everyone's telling you to be enthusiastic, to "be yourself," but every employer has a different idea of what you should be. You could try to fake it, but nobody's going to tell you what to fake. For example, I gave extra consideration to candidates who liked my favorite artists, telling my boss they had "a good sensibility." Some employers will be impressed if you buckle down and tighten that tie; others may be looking for a unique and painful piercing (after all, physical agony builds character).

The sad fact is that if you're looking for work right now, you're going to face a lot of rejection. Since nobody can afford a shrink these days, let me be the first to tell you: you're probably an excellent person with plenty of worth, and you're not necessarily doing anything wrong. Even the best candidates are getting turned away. However, you can improve your chances by (1) having the vaguest idea of what kind of business you're applying to (if you want to be a bartender at a Mission District dive, maybe you should stop in for a drink first – it wouldn't be the worst homework assignment you've ever had); (2) acting like you want the job without giving the impression that you would sacrifice your firstborn to get it (unless, that is, your interviewer comes across as a power-tripping sadist); (3) developing friendly contacts inside the company, while taking care not to look like you're stalking people for the purpose of networking; and (4) running spell-check. All these things may seem obvious, but if my experience is anything to go by ... they're not.

Meanwhile, back at the clay studio, as the number of applicants grew each day, my expectations of finding the perfect candidate diminished. I worked on my résumé-reading skills. I skimmed cover letters for the words "clay" and "ceramics" and my boss's name. If they weren't there, I threw them out. We received more than 300 applications; approximately 20 passed this test. Of these, a few were overqualified, some were too long-winded, and some didn't return my phone call requesting an interview. In the end, I narrowed the search to five finalists. And out of these we chose none, opting instead for a friend of one of my boss's friends. So maybe, like they say, it does all come down to Kevin Bacon.

Carrie Hall is an Oakland writer with a day job.

Job resources.

Online

www.asktheheadhunter.com is an in-your-face site for job hunters, with essays such as "The Truth about Speeding Trains: Don't Assume That a Company in a Downturn Isn't Hiring" and "Resume Blasphemy: Break the Rules."

www.careerwriters.com/articles/e-mail.html is a must-read if you're planning on sending your résumé as an attachment!!

www.collegerecruiter.com offers a series of extremely informative, down-to-earth articles such as "When Resumes Go Bad."

www.flipdog.com offers local and national job listings (a lot of them in the technology sector), links, and other information.

www.rileyguide.com offers articles, links, and advice and is updated weekly. Very helpful!

Career centers

Bay Area Career Center offers job counseling and workshops (for a fee) and job listings. 57 Post, Suite 804, S.F. (415) 398-4811, www.bayareacareercenter.com.

Bay Area Bioscience Career Resource offers job announcements and articles on career searches in bioscience. 651 Gateway Blvd., Suite 1145, South San Francisco, CA 94080. (650) 871-7101, www.bayareabioscience.com.

Career Alliance is a screening and placement service. 1300 Clay, Suite 350, Oakl. (510) 238-0909, www.careeralliance.net.

NOVA offers job training, counseling, and placement in Silicon Valley. 505 W. Olive Ave., Suite 550, Sunnyvale. (408) 730-7232, www.novaworks.org.

Sanford Rose Associates – San Francisco is an employee search firm in the life sciences sector. It offers job listings in the life sciences as well as tips and resources. You can also send in your résumé for use by in-house recruiters. 1415 Oakland Blvd., Suite 215, Walnut Creek. (925) 974-1760, ext. 16; www.srasf.com.

San Francisco Public Library's S.F. Bay Area Career Counseling Center's page has a lot of great links to Bay Area job and career centers. sfpl4.sfpl.org/btdir/cntrs.html.

C.H.