Beware the “Over-Processed” Job Hunter!

While I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon, one of my hobbies for many years has been recording music — mostly folksy guitar and piano tunes — and as it turns out, there’s a particular feature on the drum machine I use that has a surprisingly relevant correlation with job hunting.  Essentially, once one records a song and lays down a computerized drum track, standard procedure is to then run your tune through a software filter called “humanize” that will automatically go in and screw up the timing of your drum track in lots of little ways.

Why would somebody want to do this, you ask?  To intentionally create imperfections in their recording?  Because a computer-created drum track is often TOO perfect to sound good in a normal song.  It sounds too fake.  Too processed.  Too unnatural to the human ear.  So unless you automatically insert a few small glitches and mistakes into the track, after the fact, your musical masterpiece will lack that “authentic” sound that might actually convince somebody a real human being could possibly have performed it.

In my opinion, many job hunters could benefit from a “humanize” feature of some sort.  Tell me if I’m wrong about this, but I’ve found that there are an awful lot of unemployed folks these days sounding too much like over-processed automatons, spouting “Velveeta” elevator pitches and firing off “Cheez Whiz” resumes to employers who would much rather have a bite of Cougar Gold or real Wisconsin cheddar.  Of course, the career coaching industry itself is largely to blame for this phenomenon, as are outplacement firms, career bloggers, career book authors, and any other “expert” who provides unemployed folks with canned scripts to follow or suggests they should avoid presenting themselves in an honest, authentic way.  This advice, while perhaps well-intentioned, has led to thousands of individuals sounding way too stilted in their delivery — and who have been cowed into believing they’ll never work again unless they deliver perfect “by the book” answers in every job search situation.

There are two key areas where this phenomenon occurs most:

#1. Professionally-Written Resumes:  While some may find this hard to believe, I suspect I’d have a 95% accuracy rate, at the very minimum, if you plopped a stack of resumes in front of me and asked me to spot the professionally-written ones from those documents that job hunters have created independently, themselves.  I’m sure most HR and recruiting professionals would achieve close to this mark, as well.  It’s inevitable.  Once you’ve reviewed thousands of resumes for a living, you just can’t help noticing the telltale signs that separate the “outsourced documents” from the “original” ones.  Professionally-prepared resumes are just a little too perfect in many respects to seem fully credible.  For starters, they typically employ all kinds of fancy formatting techniques (e.g. gray shading, borderlines, small caps, etc.) that the average job hunter wouldn’t know how to do — or at least wouldn’t think to do — if left to their own devices.  Additionally, while the language of these documents may be grammatically perfect, and laden with all the right action verbs, you just can’t shake the overall “slick” impression they give off, like Teflon.  There’s no real personality, soul, or pizazz captured in these kinds of resumes — and savvy employers, I’d argue, can sense it!

The worst offenders of all?  Those resumes that get stamped out by national resume mills or high-volume outplacement firms that tend to follow a “Take your pick: Format A or Format B?” approach.  Microsoft templates aren’t all that much better.  Most hiring managers have seen these same tired formats time and time again, and while there’s nothing technically “wrong” about using them, you’ll instantly lose points for originality — and the reader may turn off a bit, sensing their artificiality.  So while investing in resume help can have many potential benefits, and greatly mprove your odds of success, I’d advise you to avoid some of the larger firms that pump out thousands of these documents a year using a formulaic, template-driven approach.  Not only will you end up with an inferior product, but amazingly enough, they’re usually more expensive than what you’d pay for the equivalent services of a locally-based resume writer who will spend more quality time with you and infuse a higher level of craftsmanship into the final document.  Am I talking solely about my own firm?  By no means.  I’d give this same advice to people located anywhere around the country, and if people were to ask me for the names of a few other legitimate resume-writers around the Seattle area, I’d offer them up in a heartbeat.  There’s just such a clear difference in the end result that I hate to see people do themselves a disservice, simply because they’re not accustomed to shopping for these types of services.

Last but not least, if you do get some professional help with your resume, I’d also counsel you to not just accept the new version at face value.  Ask questions.  Push back.  Let the writer know what parts of the new piece feel like you and which ones don’t feel like you.  Take the time to understand (and own!) every single word on the page, because your next job may be riding on it.  A reputable resume-writer will work with you until you’re 100% comfortable with the new presentation — and will also stand firm around any areas of the piece he or she feels you shouldn’t change, for whatever reason.

#2. Canned Interview Responses.  The second scenario where I observe a lot of anxious, over-coached job hunting behavior relates to the interview process.  Every time I role-play an interview scenario with clients seeking help on that aspect of their search, my throat always starts to tighten up as I get close to asking the common “What are your salary needs?” question.  Nine times out of ten, I know I’m going to hear something cheesy like “I’d prefer not to discuss salary until later in the interview” or “Can I ask whether your company has a range in mind for this position?”  These responses always tickle my gag reflex.  They’re WAY too contrived (especially if delivered verbatim, without added context or explanation) and they’ll almost always damage whatever precious rapport you’ve built in the interview up until that point.   Trust me, like the resume issue above, experienced recruiters will be able to spot your pre-packaged answer from a mile away, yanked from the pages of the latest interviewing book.  And they’ll penalize you accordingly on the trust/credibility front.

So while others may disagree, I believe the average job hunter will have far more success if they concentrate first and foremost on being themselves and attempting to have a down-to-earth conversation with the hiring managers they meet with, instead of playing games or reciting their answers from a teleprompter.  So get real with your next potential boss.  Open up.  Restore some humanity to the process.  Give them a glimpse into your hopes, your dreams, your motivations, your business philosophy, the things you stand for, and/or anything else that will help them get to know you to some small degree as a person — not simply as a commoditized job applicant.  While a few unenlightened hiring managers may not reciprocate, at the end of the day, I think the majority will appreciate such behavior immensely and find your candor highly refreshing after they’ve just “gone through the motions” with seven previous candidates earlier that day.

Long story short, if you’re looking for a new job, dumbing yourself down to a set of hollow talking points — or a resume that doesn’t reflect who you really are — is an incredibly risky move.  Sadly, a few too many people have drunk the career industry Kool-aid and been convinced that they have to placate employers with “right” answers, instead of “real” answers.  Let’s all buck this trend…


4 Responses to “Beware the “Over-Processed” Job Hunter!”

  1. Matt, I know this post is older but I just came across it and it is brilliant. I couldn’t agree with you more; thank you for saying what’s been in my head!

  2. Matt,
    I think you’re spot on with this. As both a hiring manager and a job candidate, I’ve always had a challenge with both canned questions and canned answers. Both parties to an interview do have some common goals. One is to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the position (& org, & culture, et al) and vice versa. Most canned questions (imho) don’t get to the heart of that quest; they elicit canned responses, not authentic answers.

    As an interviewer, I prefer the candidate to be relaxed, rather than uptight. They’re far more likely to tell you the things you want to know. Some questions are necessary, canned or not. I try to find a conversational way to work them in.

    Similarly, I have conversational responses prepared — but not memorized verbatim — for the salary question, as well as some others. As a candidate, I tend to fare better in conversational interviews than in highly structured, canned interviews. In the latter, the interviewer oftentimes misses opportunities to learn about me and what I have to offer in terms of strengths, skills, experience. I have to work harder to provide useful, informative answers.

    With the regard to the % of jobs attained through networking: Virtually every job I’ve had in the past 20 years has happened via some aspect of networking.


  3. Heidi: Thanks for your comments and yes, I totally agree, everything ABOUT job hunting is becoming more and more “processed” compared to the old days. And the superficial way that many companies evaluate potential candidates today certainly contributes to the problem. At the same time, this is a large part of the reason why I’m suggesting people try to work more authenticity into their job search activities, since I think many employers will respond to those folks who infuse some true passion, vulnerability, and self-awareness into their pitch. I mean really DEEP and THOUGHTFUL stuff. Not just “I have two dogs and I’ve never been really good at delegating.” That’s my take, at least. And as for the percentage of jobs that truly come via networking versus other channels, that’s a really difficult statistic to measure since there are so many different variables (e.g. hourly vs. salaried jobs, the part of the country one works in, networking activities that LED to a traditional posted job application, etc.) that could affect the results. And if we were to narrow things down specifically to the audience I work most with, experienced professionals in the Puget Sound area, I’d be skeptical of any study or survey suggesting this number was less than 60-65%. There’s just too much anecdotal evidence to the contrary!

  4. At the same time we have had this historic recession, the position filling tasks at the hiring companies have been undergoing vast changes. For those reviewing the submissions, keyword searches by junior or not knowledgable staff, the demand that the job seeker apply through the computer system even if the resume came to the hiring manager directly, the complete lack of feedback unless you happen to be in the final 3, the complete inaccessibility of many hiring managers, and headhunters specializing in very limited criteria have all of us operating in the dark. Thus we try very hard to second guess the precise word usage (terms, order, frequency), and the precise job history that will get us noticed.

    Also, the conventional wisdom is the 75% of jobs are found through networking. A survey I found however found only 41% of jobs found through networking, hence the increased importance of the submissions and meetings.

    Have a look:
    (talk to me if you can’t get access to these because they are subscriber only)

    Heidi B

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