How to get hired when employers are looking for 'unicorns'
If you’ve been looking for a job recently, chances are you’ve stumbled upon at least a few impossible job postings. You know, the type that lists mile-long requirements, demands unrealistic workloads (often with underwhelming compensation) and leaves you shaking your head in disbelief.
Progressive employer seeks Harvard-trained neuroscientist and beauty pageant winner. Must be fluent in Mandarin and skilled at tribal basket weaving. Minimum of 10 years experience working for high-tech companies. Salary: mid-30’s.
Job Postings Are Almost Laughable
Admittedly, I’ve exaggerated for comic effect. But not by much. As one reader wrote Next Avenue about a recent posting for a job at a music college, “It is almost laughable the list of demands they are placing on one person. I can't count how many full-time jobs are contained in this ad.”
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Sadly, due to a still lukewarm hiring environment, these types of postings appear more prevalent than ever. And they’re not going away any time soon.
So, what should you do when you want to be a candidate for a job opening but the specifications are over the top? Apply or skip?
3 Reasons Employers Create Nutty Postings
I’ll answer that in a moment, but first let me give you three reasons why some employers write these unrealistic job descriptions:
1. The employer is inexperienced at hiring (and/or incompetent, but I’m trying to be nice). Not every firm, agency or nonprofit has a crackerjack HR team. At many places, particularly smaller ones, the hiring is handed off to people with little or no experience writing job descriptions.
All too often, the postings are cobbled together based on unrealistic wish lists and groupthink (“Hey, my friend’s mother’s brother just hired this guy who does x, y and z. I’m sure we can find someone like that too!”) rather than solid data and a thoughtful analysis of market realities. They’re not trying to be difficult, they just don’t know better.
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2. Employers are willing to wait for the perfect candidate, even if he or she doesn’t exist. Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, refers to this applicant as “The Unicorn.” In cases like this companies won’t compromise for second best. So they create an exaggerated wish list and cross their fingers.
Sure, it’s often a shot in the dark. But advertising online is so cheap, employers can easily and inexpensively post multiple ads over time with little downside. By aiming high, they figure, they’ll end up attracting a higher quality applicant pool that they can tap into at a later date.
3. The ad is actually a phantom posting. Federal labor rules don't require employers to post openings they have, but many companies do. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes — especially when there’s a qualified candidate on staff, waiting in the wings — managers intentionally write job descriptions in a way that discourages outsiders from applying so the insider will be a shoo-in. Not nice, but it happens.
How To Respond to Over-the-Top Job Postings
That explains the “why” behind the employer’s behavior. So, back to the original question: How should you respond to this kind of posting? Here are five suggestions:
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Tap into your network for insider information about the job opening. As my Next Avenue colleague Kerry Hannon recently wrote: “Try to find someone who works there who you can talk with candidly — maybe one of your LinkedIn contacts. You’ll want to ask whether the “requirements” are really required. If the answer is “no,” and you want the job, go for it.”
Apply the 70 percent rule. Based on my experience as a career coach, I think you should consider applying if you come close to meeting about 70 percent of the employer’s stated specifications and salary range.
This is a useful strategy for all job seekers, but it’s especially important for women, since research indicates that they tend to apply for jobs only when they meet 100 percent of the requirements.
Of course, there are certain requirements, such as licenses and certifications, that will be deal breakers. But with others, there may well be wiggle room. While the employer wants the person who gets hired to have all (or most) of the skills, experience and background listed, it’s also looking for candidates who’ll be a strong fit with their organizations.
In fact, soft skills — traits like having a strong work ethic, good interpersonal skills and being a team player — are often the deciding factor in who gets the job. A new Beyond.com survey revealed that 56 percent of HR professional respondents said the “most important” abilities in a new hire (and the ones that often get them the job) are soft skills, especially interpersonal relations.
So if you’ve only got 70 percent of what’s listed in the job posting, but an abundance of the soft skills the employer desires, you still stand a reasonable shot at getting an offer. And if you don’t (or if this job doesn’t really exist), you’ll at least be in the organization’s files for future openings.
Tailor your resumé. According to that Beyond.com survey, 73 percent of HR professionals think applicants do a "bad job" finetuning their resumés to meet specific positions. Customizing your resumé is always a wise idea, but it’s especially important when a job description is filled with specific demands and expectations. By highlighting accomplishments and adding keywords that match the requirements, you’ll stand a much better chance of getting noticed.
Avoid (or supplement) the online screening process. Applying for a job online is rarely the best way to land a job — there’s too much competition, it’s too impersonal and the odds your resumé will get read by a human are slim. So do what you can to skirt the online screening process.
Send your resumé directly to the hiring manager or network your way into the company through a personal referral. Of course, if the post states you must submit your application online, do so, but then supplement your efforts with these other methods.
Circle back. If you apply for a job but don’t hear back, check in with the employer after a month or two. Just as home sellers sometimes initially list their properties with ridiculously high asking prices, only to drop them by $50,000 two months later, companies will downsize their expectations (and perhaps even upsize the salary) if their initial postings don’t yield suitable candidates.
By reminding the hiring manager that you’re still interested in the job, he or she might just decide that — surprise! — you are the ideal candidate after all.
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