March Madness: How to Play the Job-hunting Game to Win


Balasubramani Mariappan


It’s hard to win a game when the rules are made up after the winner is chosen.

In hiring this is pretty much the state of affairs. While there are some written rules, no one really follows them. If they did, there wouldn’t be many great people being hired. Unfortunately, most active job-seekers play the wrong game, and then become frustrated as their losses pile up. Recruiters make things worse, since they each use their favorite unwritten rules. Hiring managers compound the problem since most don’t even want to play.

So if you’re serious about a getting a better job, or any job for that matter, you first have to figure out which game is being played. Then you must do everything you can to break the rules and use your own instead.


The Biggest and Dumbest Rule of Them All: Using Skills-Infested Job Descriptions.

Possessing a list of skills, experiences, and academics using some arbitrary metric is the default rule. HR embraces this rule contending it’s the required legal validation (it isn’t) and sets it in stone, or at least in the HR handbook and ATS system.

The problem with this rule is that having the skills and experiences listed is no guarantee of successful on-the-job performance. A bigger problem is that using this rule eliminates the possibility of considering diversity candidates; light, but high-potential candidates; and top performers from other fields as possibilities.

From a practical standpoint, this default rule is broken every day. People promoted into these same jobs internally are hired based on their performance and potential, not their absolute level of skills and experiences. External candidates who are vouched for by current employees because of their exceptional performance form the second biggest group of people hired who don’t possess all of the skills.

So if you’re a job-seeker who is a top performer, but doesn’t meet the default standard, you’ll have to figure out a different way to get into the game.

The Second Biggest Rule: even if you get the interview, there are no rules for how to select the best candidate.

Techies overvalue tech. Senior managers overvalue their intuition. Less-skilled interviewers defer to their superiors. Candidates are assessed largely on their presentation skills, not their ability and motivation to do the work. And everyone is affected by first impressions. These errors are magnified when using a skills-infested job description, since it allows something other than the actual job to be the benchmark. The actual debriefing session is largely based on an up-down voting system where a safer “no” vote carries more weight than a yes, rewarding the weaker interviewer, since they can never be proved wrong. In these same sessions emotions and feelings are more persuasive than evidence. As a result, the person ultimately selected is often the compromise and least offensive candidate, not necessarily the best person.

There are other rules in the hiring game, but these are the big ones. Throughout my search career I attempted to impose some degree of order to this anarchic-like process. This was the genesis of Performance-based Hiring, based on the idea of defining the actual work as the standard of excellence rather than skills, and the use of a structured evidence-based assessment process rather than individual bias. I’ve been called wild ‘n crazy as a result.

We’ll be discussing how to play the game at the March 28 webcast, but to get ready here’s some quick advice:

  1. Unless you’re a perfect fit for the job, don’t apply directly. It will be a waste of time. Some machine will spit you out as unqualified long before some recruiter gives your profile the 15-second review.
  2. Use the backdoor to apply. First find out who the hiring manager or department head is. Then send this person a letter (yes, letter) and an email with a link to your LinkedIn profile. Make sure the line under your name on your online profile says you’ve accomplished something remarkable and job-related, like, “just finished training 12 sales reps and all of them made quota the first year!” In the letter, describe your 2-3 biggest accomplishments that roughly compare to the open job. Suggest that you’d like to arrange a 15-minute call to see if your background matches the company’s hiring needs.
  3. Ask about the real job during the first five minutes of the phone screen or interview. If the interviewer is a box-checker, you’ll have no chance if your skills and experience are a bit off the mark. In this case, quickly ask something like, “Rather than wasting a lot of time, could you tell me about the big challenges or problems involved in the job? I can then give you a quick summary of some of my related accomplishments. Then if it makes sense to get serious we can arrange a more in-depth discussion.”
  4. Find someone credible who can personally vouch for your performanceA book could be written on this technique, but the idea here is that’s it’s better to be referred by someone rather than applying.

Of course, these aren’t all of the rules, but when someone is using flawed rules, or none at all, you might as well create your own. At least this way you’re more likely to be evaluated based on your ability and past performance, rather than on some arbitrary criteria and the quality of your first impression.


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