Getting the ‘FIT’ right


You’ve heard it before – companies looking for new hires with the ‘right fit’. The whole recruitment process designed to find the ‘right’ sort of person who will align themselves to what the organisation is all about. Or at the very least the interviewer’s idea of someone who will not cause too much trouble or rock the boat once ‘on board’.

[Although I would argue that the employee who is going to rock the boat a bit is sometimes exactly the kind of person the organisation needs. But more of that in another post…]

Recognising that companies will more often than not want to play it safe when it comes to recruiting new staff (especially in times of scarce resources), where does this leave a job hunter? Particularly if you’re changing careers or moving to a different industry, where do you draw the line between emphasising your ‘fit’ with the organisation, but also the skills and experience you can bring which mark you out as different from the rest?

  1. Read what the organisation says about itself (website, social media etc), and above all look at the language used – challenge is better received when it’s spoken in the language of the organisation, so you need to be able to sound like one of them and using their words will be more persuasive. Looking at what they say about themselves as an organisation will also inform you if it matches with your own thinking and way of working.
  2. Emphasise your achievements more than your personal credentials. They can’t argue with facts if you have evidence to back up what you’re saying. Do your homework on yourself and always provide evidence of skills and achievements you’re claiming to possess. Do not simply rely on where you went to university, or previous career experience to open doors.
  3. You need to come across as a ‘team player’ as good working relationships are important. At the end of the day, surely the hiring manager is going to pick the candidate they would prefer working with the most? Collect examples of good feedback you’ve been given: from formal perfomance reviews, or informally from colleagues. Quote those examples! Don’t be shy about letting the recruiter know what others say about you if they’re singing your praises.
  4. Ask insightful questions. Let them know that you know about the challenges they face and how you are willing and able to work to meet those. Of course, to do this you need to do a fair bit of research on the company, their market situation, what else is going on in their industry.

In the end, it’s still so important to come across during a recruitment process, whether via an application form or CV, or in person in an interview, as one of ‘them’. Organisations are usually looking for the ‘known quantity’ as bringing someone new in can  be a risky enterprise. Doing your homework on them can put you in a strong position to come across as one of them during the recruitment. And while your doing your homework, if you get the feeling that they’re not the right fit for you, then keep going in your job search until you find the right fit for you.


Job hunters! Do yourself a favour

I’ve been moved to write on this subject after a particularly disastrous phone call I received recently from a prospective employee. In summary, the caller was a student reading Business, he had sent an email to our corporate recruitment page and was attempting to ‘take the initiative’ and call the London HR Department directly to find out why he hadn’t received a reply.

Fair enough, you might say, and good on him for being proactive. But the actual conversation descended into a car crash. He had no idea about the company I work for, did not identify who he was or why he was calling until I repeatedly asked him, asked no questions, but instead kept repeating the same line about showing initiative in contacting us directly. In short, he just picked up the phone and was asking for a job. I did respond by giving him some advice on his job hunting approach, but I suspect that’s more than most HR departments would do.

Taking the proactive approach and contacting employers directly needs to be tackled carefully if it’s not going to turn out to be a waste of your time. Just being proactive in itself is NOT enough: consider how you’re coming across, do your research, and plan what you want to gain from the conversation. When you do make contact make sure you do it in a polite, professional manner, as you would if you were approaching someone at a networking event.

Calling a prospective employer:

  1. Before you even pick up the phone, think about this question: what do you want to get out of this phone call? More information on recruitment opportunities and methods? More information on the company and their hiring criteria? A meeting with someone to find out more about the company?
  2. When you do get through, be polite and professional.
  3. Identify who you are and why you are calling. Don’t just pick up the phone and ask for a job. If you are going to ring up and demand to speak to the HR Department, make sure to be clear about what you can offer the company, what you are looking for and why you are talking to them.
  4. Ask questions about the company. If the person on the other end is prepared to give you a minute or 2 of their time rather than hanging up immediately, use this as an information-gathering exercise. Bear in mind that the person you are talking to may not be able to give you the exact information you are looking for, but they could offer some more insight or other information that could be useful to you.
  5. Whatever you do, don’t ring up and complain about not getting replies to your persistent emails. Levelling criticism at them is not going to endear you to them. And chances are the person you are speaking to on the phone has no idea about your email in any case (or your CV that comes through on the fax machine once a month… but that’s a topic for another post!).

Above all, remember that it takes time to find any job, but it especially takes time to find the one that’s right for you – be patient with yourself, find strategies to keep your spirits up, and always have more than one channel open at once. Calling an employer may not land you with a job offer, but it could put you in the right direction towards one if you handle it in the right way. At the very least, you don’t want one phone call made in haste to consign your carefully-constructed CV to the ‘NO’ pile!

In this age of email communication and online job applications perhaps a phone call could make you stand out from the crowd, particularly with smaller employers. But I’d be interested to hear if anyone has ever tried this approach and found it was successful for them?


Mentoring works!

I have had experience of both mentoring and being mentored, and I would heartily recommend both, whatever stage you are at in your career. But what is mentoring or being mentored all about?

  • Last year I was introduced to a senior HR Director and we had a few meetings over coffee before work to talk about career planning. These meetings turned into a  big wake-up call for me to think more about my future, and my attempts to formulate a 5-year career plan turned into 5-year life planning, much to my and my husband’s bewilderment.
  • From the other end of the mentoring relationship I was introduced to someone wanting to break into the HR profession. This has resulted in lots of discussions in cafes and pubs and emails to discuss getting her foot in the door, CV writing, interview preparation etc. These discussions have ended up in my mentee recently securing a job offer at a HR consultancy and even though I can in no way take credit for her achievement, I somehow feel proud that I was able to help in some way.

If you think you don’t have enough experience or seniority to mentor another, think again. Volunteer and it will both bring benefits to your mentee, and boost your own confidence in your professional abilities. And you get a great feeling when you can help someone develop. Mentoring is not so much about offering opinions,  as sharing your experience and the inside track on a certain career path. So you don’t need to be an expert by any means. To someone outside your field of work, any insight you can offer could potentially be very useful.

As a mentor you will be committing to helping another navigating the 21st century career ‘rockface‘ – providing a helping hand, a guide, as well as another pair of eyes and ears on their job-hunting strategy or work dilemmas.

How to get a mentor?

Do you want an internal mentor from your own company or someone external to your organisation who can give you a fresh perspective? Are you looking for a promotion or growth within your current organisation, a complete change of industry, or an entry point into a profession? That first job after qualifying or university?

Look for someone whose work you admire or a professional network offering a mentoring scheme. Both of my mentoring experiences mentioned above came my way via introductions from networks and professional bodies of which I am a member. And many professional organisations and networks are happy to accept student members or applications from those trying to get into that profession.

How long should it go on for?

Mentoring is different from coaching, which is much more focused on getting you from a defined place (where you are now) to a goal (where you want to be). Mentoring can be short-term (a brief conversation over a coffee) or long-term (your mentor advises you throughout many stages in your career). Decide what you want to get out of it and see where it can take you. Remember that it should be non-obligatory, and you never know your mentor could put you in touch with others who can help you in different areas of your career. They could even turn out eventually to be someone you’d call a friend.

Working for free

It is the season of goodwill now in the run-up to Christmas, but when it comes to gifting your work time how much of that is done freely and willingly? Completely aside from any discussion around unpaid internships, or even long hours culture, the subject of working for free is an interesting one. It comes up when you seek advice over how to gain work experience, and volunteering time is often cited as useful for those seeking to get their first step on the career ladder, those looking to move into a different industry or profession, or those working for themselves who are looking to build up contacts and a customer base.

Volunteering is seen as a good way of gaining valuable work experience, or of gifting some of your own experience to an organisation that you respect or want to see grow. Mrs Moneypenny, anonymous writer for the Financial Times, writes in her book Careers Advice for Ambitious Women about volunteering as a way of adding a ‘third dimension’ to your life and career that will make you both interested in and interesting to other people.

But what is also important is knowing when to say no. Knowing when volunteering your time is actually of no benefit to you or your career whatsoever, and Mrs Moneypenny’s advice is that learning to say no is an important life skill, necessary to learn if you really want to be successful.

Jessica Hische, a letterer, illustrator and type designer, gives some pretty good advice for freelancers on working for free through this flow diagram. Her advice may be a bit hard-line for some (and there are a few profanities in there for good measure), but the message is clear: if you’re going to manage your own business you need to be able to select projects that are going to benefit you in one way or another. Just agreeing to work for free because you are asked to doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything in it for you.

I would argue that choosing whether to work for free or gift extra time comes down to your own motivation for doing the work, which could be 1 of 3 things:

  1. You genuinely believe in the cause involved or strongly want to help
  2. You want the work to advance your own development in some way
  3. You are building your network of contacts and this would genuinely lead to paid work in the future

You can volunteer and contribute time and skills all you want, but if you want to be successful at what you’re doing and make a living from it you have to pick and choose projects. It’s about being able to tell the difference between voluntarily contributing to something, investing time and energy in something that will pay off later, or being taken advantage of. When approached you can ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my free work helping someone else make ‘loadsamoney’?
  2. Is anyone else being paid by the same organisation to do this work (or being paid to do less important work)?
  3. Could and would anyone else do this work for free?

If the answer to the first two questions is ‘yes’, and the last one ‘no’ then shouldn’t you probably be getting paid too?

The dreaded cover letter

Having just given some advice on this subject to a job-hunting friend, I thought I would reproduce it here.

I can’t say I’m a pro when it comes to job-hunting (speaking as someone who sent out a fair few CVs and cover letters earlier this year which were mostly rejected), but I do see a LOT of job applications so I can share something of the employer’s point of view. And no, being on the employer’s side of the interview panel most of the time doesn’t make it any easier in applying or being interviewed for jobs!

The first thing you should always remember is that the way we approach job-hunting is the exact opposite to the way employers search for new hires. When looking for a job we are hoping that we will hit on a few important things in our application and that the recruiter will see a spark of potential in us and hand us the opportunity to prove them right via a job offer. The empl0yer, on the other hand, is looking for ways to screen candidates out. Faced with a huge pile of CVs for 1 position, they are mainly looking for ways to reduce that pile down as much as possible before they have to read each one in detail. And they are usually looking to minimise risk as much as possible so don’t give them any excuse to view your application as risky.

  1. The basics are simple but easy to get wrong: proof-read your application and CV before sending it, don’t let them screen you out due to spelling errors or typos (especially if you’re also claiming to have an eye for detail).
  2. Keep it precise and short. I really don’t want to read covering letters that look like essays, so don’t put all that work in to writing an extensive narrative only for it to end up on the ‘no’ pile.
  3. With covering letters, you need to think about what the point of the covering letter is and then write according to that purpose. I would say that the purpose of the CV is to get an interview, and the purpose of the covering letter is to get them to read your CV.
  4. Presumably you’re also sending a CV at the same time, so you definitely DON’T need to duplicate any information that’s already in the CV. Unless you particularly want to draw attention to something from your career or qualifications that is really relevant to that particular position.
  5. Above all it should be tailored to the organisation you’re writing to (especially if you’re sending it speculatively), and it should be where you explain why you’re applying to them – what you can do for them, what you would gain from working for them, who you are as an employee etc.
  6. Mention only what is really important e.g. what are the top 3 things about yourself you want them to know? What most grabs you about their organisation? What can you offer them?
  7. Keep it readable and reflective of who you are as a person, it doesn’t need to be too formal (unless the culture of the organisation is particularly formal).
  8. Make sure you mention THEM and what they are about as an organisation or doing that makes you want to work for them.
  9. A good tip is to use THEIR language in your cover letter – what words and phrases are they using about the role (e.g. from the job description), or about the organisation (e.g. on their website). Their use of language will show you how they ‘think’ as an organisation, so you need to look at that in detail and decide if it matches with your own preferences. And if it does, then mirror some of that language to get across the sense that you are one of them.
  10. If you’re passionate and enthusiastic about your work, then make sure that comes across – don’t be afraid to say so!

I went to a CV and cover letter advice session for HR professionals recently, and the advice we were given is to really cut down on the amount of information included. Try to ignore your instincts to mention everything that you want to in this first piece of communication, but instead make it precise and brief and above all reflective of who you are. It’s an opener to a conversation you’d like to continue with them (i.e. an interview etc), so you don’t need to say everything in the letter.

And finally, don’t forget to include your contact details! If you’ve ended with ‘I look forward to discussing with you further’, make it easy for them to contact you!

Robot dance in interview shocker

There are urban myths and horror stories around recruitment – and I’ve personally cringed through some in my time in HR – but last week I was astounded to learn that Currys (electronics store in UK) actually asked their interview candidates to robot dance during an assessment day.

Is this what happens when the labour market becomes the employers’ market? Or is this the inevitable result of letting clueless managers run a recruitment process? Perhaps it’s just a case of life imitating art – the candidates involved must have thought they’d walked into a scene from The Office.

I’ve heard in the past an indictment of HR people that we make it hard to hire talented people: through lengthy application forms, opaque recruitment processes, taking too long over decisions, not communicating with good candidates in good time… And honestly, how many people really need to interview someone before you can hire them?

But surely someone in this organisation could or should have put a stop to the robot-dancing assessment. By all means use innovation in recruitment and design assessments to find the required personal qualities (in this case: extrovertion? Side question: is ‘sense of humour’ a competency?) But don’t lose sight of the fact that you need to treat your candidates with respect, and remember that in these days of social media you can really do damage to your company brand even if you were just trying to have a bit of fun.

Candidates, if you’re ever asked to robot dance in an interview and you’re not comfortable with it: just walk out. Trust me, you do not want to work there that badly.

The Art of Hiring

Two big messages currently dominate the headlines around the labour market in the UK:

1. there are huge numbers of unemployed people, particularly young people, looking for work


2. there is also a skills gap and employers cannot find what they are looking for.

The CIPD points out in its ‘Employers are from Mars, young people are from Venus’ report that employers often complain that young people are not ‘work-ready’. The report also points out that there can be barriers to young people securing employment through the design of employers’ recruitment practices.

A big part of getting young people into employment – that is, an essential part of young people being ‘work-ready’- is preparing for interview. But interview coaching is essential for anyone, and not just the candidates. I was once told by a university careers adviser that interviewing is an art form, not a science. Some people are naturally good at being interviewed, and some of us have to practice. Similarly, on the interviewer side, some find it easy to pull out the information they want from a candidate, and others really need to work on this skill. Still others are sorely mistaken in thinking the onus is on the interviewee to do most of the work in the interview, but this is not the case. To run a successful recruitment you need to know what you’re looking for, and have several techniques at your disposal to find out if the candidate in front of you possesses those skills.

I would agree with the CIPD report in that recruitment processes should be examined to see if they really are open enough for employers to get what they need out of candidates, especially young ones, and also to enable different types of candidates to present themselves well and have an equal chance of getting hired. In a typical interview when all has gone very smoothly and a ‘fit’ stands out head and shoulders above the rest it’s usually because we’ve ended up recruiting someone broadly similar to the employee who has held the role before. The emphasis often seems to be on filling a role quickly and with as little risk as possible, but in taking that approach we’ve most likely missed out on a candidate who could be equally as good in the role but who would also offer something different to the organisation than the last person.

When that obvious hire doesn’t appear during the recruitment process, instead of employers getting frustrated at the quality of candidates, we should be thinking again about the process and about how to meet candidates in the middle, perhaps by being more transparent about our criteria. There’s no need to lambast your candidates on the internet as I have seen from some  recently. Employers need to ask: what is the real reason our candidates are not up to scratch? Could it be that we haven’t been completely clear about what we were looking for in the first place? Or maybe we weren’t clear with ourselves about our criteria and we ended up interviewing the wrong people?

A great example of an organisation meeting candidates in the middle are the ‘Work with us‘ pages on CAFOD’s website. CAFOD, like a lot of NGOs, has quite a convoluted recruitment process, but it’s a good approach for them to try and explain the process to prospective employees. We can’t always assume that the best candidates are the ones who’ve managed to fill out the application form in the best manner, or we’ll only end up hiring people who are good at application forms (or good at producing killer CVs).

We also need to accept and get over the fact that what should be obvious to job applicants is seemingly not obvious anymore. It’s true that blatant job-hunting no-nos (don’t be late for the interview, do some research on the organisation you’re applying to, don’t lie on your CV…) seem to be lost on a few candidates. But it also could be said that what should be obvious to recruiters can also get lost in the panic to get a new employee into an empty desk (don’t answer your mobile during the interview, don’t describe the role in an completely negative way, don’t keep the candidate waiting because your schedule is disorganised…).

Problems in the recruitment process are not always on the candidate side. Just because there are lots of people out there looking for work doesn’t make it any easier to set the correct criteria and identify the best one for you to hire.  And I wouldn’t move to criticise candidates unless you’ve done all you can as an employer to make the process as clear and open as possible.