The other day, I was at an after work event with one of our community partner organizations. As a corporate recruiter (aka. talent acquisition specialist, if you want to get fancy), opportunities to contribute your skills are a-plenty, which is right up my alley.
On this particular evening, I was conducting mock interviews with internationally trained professionals looking to break into the Canadian job market. Some of them were as new to Canada as four weeks, and my mock interview was the first interview of any kind they had ever had in Canada. These people are legit – they have MBAs and PhDs (and actually do something useful with them), and they’ve worked as managers and directors and VPs in their home countries. Yet due to ongoing systemic and at-face discrimination against international work experience and Canadian immigrants, they struggle to find work in their field and many resort to survival jobs, re-starting their education, or taking entry-level jobs as (often unpaid) interns. They need any help they can get, and they need honest and objective advice.
Unfortunately on this night, the advice doled out was anything but honest and objective.
“Cover letters? Why would you even write one? They’re useless!” One of the employers exclaimed. He was an obnoxious man who I soon discovered to be a freelance recruiter. “Everyone just copies and pastes the same thing. Don’t even bother writing one.”
“If you’re going to write one,” this other loud (but albeit less obnoxious) guy chimes in, “then make it appropriate. You should say ‘Dear Mr. Jones’ or ‘Dear Mrs. Applebury’. Don’t be too familiar or you’ll ruin your chances.”
First, this advice isn’t new. Anyone can google “cover letter tips” and the same bullshit advice will come up from people claiming they know the secrets to job hunting like they have the keys to the universe. Then you click on a few other links and get the same overly confident jerks claiming the same things. But wait a minute – this article completely contradicts the other one you just read. What to do?
“Make sure you read the job posting and include keywords in your application! Include as many keywords as you can because HR screens the resumes and they don’t know anything about the job, so they just look for the keywords,” says a third. I soon enough learn he’s a hiring manager at a municipal agency, and can safely assume he’s worked at the same organization for the last 40 years. He likely knows little about the realities of any other organization.
People in the audience are fervently taking notes.
“It isn’t even a person looking at resumes these days. Everyone uses computers now to screen out applications based on keywords so you better tailor your resume to every job and include relevant keywords,” says overly confident guy number two.
The audience is looking worried now. Just imagine – you’re a trained professional who has over 10, 15, 20 years of work experience where you were recognized and respected in your home country. You pack everything up and move to this new place where the odds are stacked against you and you can’t even get a real person to look at your resume??!
“Oh no. I’m the opposite,” says the first guy. “Why would I want a different resume for every job you apply to? I want all your experience in one resume,” he holds up his finger for emphasis and pauses. “One. I won’t be looking at five different resumes, and when I send your application to my clients I’m not going to sift through different versions. Put it all into one.”
At that point, my blood is boiling and I’m angry. It’s one thing to offer advice based on experience and expertise, but it’s another to pretend your views represent the rest of your profession, especially when it comes to something as subjective and varied as hiring. I finally speak up.
“You know, based on the differences in opinion in this room alone, it’s pretty clear that there is no such thing as the right way to write a resume, or a cover letter, or search for jobs (though there are plenty of wrong ways). The reality is that the hiring process is different from one company to another, and one recruiter to another.
One recruiter might hate cover letters. Another might live and die by them. One of them hates being called ‘ma’am’ but the other thinks it’s inappropriate to do anything but.
Yes, big companies like Bell or Rogers may use automated software to screen out resumes because they do get thousands of applications. But can you really say the same for medium-sized or smaller companies? For many of them, you end up sending your application to an email address where it’s handled by a recruiter or the hiring manager directly.
And what about the age-old question, “should you have a cover letter?” Maybe yes, maybe no. If you’re an experienced IT professional, maybe not. If you’re a recent grad, probably. If you’re in communications or journalism, definitely. It depends on your profession, on the job, and on the value your cover letter brings. If it’s a generic cut and paste letter that adds zero value, then why bother?”
At the end of the day, it’s about communicating your skills and experiences in the way that best showcases your value. Recruiters can go on and on about how they hate cover letters or why they prefer functional resumes over chronological. The point is – you never know what the person on the other end is thinking, and any jackass recruiter or “professional” claiming their way is the right way is just irresponsible and narrow-minded. This is especially true when giving advice to people who are hanging on your every word and think your advice is gold.
So forget these questions like “cover letter or no?”, “chronological or functional resume?”, “’Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Mr. Jones’ or ‘Hi David’?”. Trust me – those questions are trivial. Think instead, “do I have the skills and experience to do this specific job in this specific company?” and “are my skills communicated in a way that anyone looking at my application can tell I’m a fit within five seconds?” If you don’t have these basics covered, then your application is going nowhere.
You can trust me. I’m an expert, right?