11 June 2016

Why Won’t You Get The Job? You’re Not A Clone Of The Competition

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Career Advisor…

You found a job opening you think you could fill perfectly. You have the skills and the education, a lofty employment record with glowing recommendations, and genuine enthusiasm for both the company and the opportunity.

So you apply and wait for the employer to contact you. And you wait. And you wait. And weeks go by, making you think they hired someone else.

Then you see they’re still running the ad for the position. And you dig around and find out that, no, that ad’s not a mistake, and no, they haven’t hired someone else — in fact, they just hired expensive recruiters to fill the position.

And that’s when your self-esteem implodes like it just got sacked by a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. What did you do wrong? Or, more self-destructively, you ask, “What’s wrong with me?!”

So you start binge watching The Walking Dead, since the only activity that will cheer you up is seeing people worse off than you while you devour a whole bag of Doritos

And to you I say STOP. Well, keep binge watching and chip munching, because that’s kind of fun. But do STOP BEATING UP ON YOURSELF, because, odds are, it’s not you, it’s them.

I know — cliché, cliché — but from dealing with hiring managers and recruiters for years, I learned a sordid secret. No matter how awesome you are, a company might not hire you because — get this — you’re not doing the exact same job right now for one of their competitors.

Real Life Example: The TV Social Media Gig

A recruiter called me seeking a social media producer for a TV network. So I referred several former students and colleagues. Some had advanced degrees in marketing or communications. All had experience producing social media for corporations, including entertainment companies. And I could attest that every single one of them was a passionate hard-working self-driven people-person team-player with strong oral and written communication skills and attention to detail who could follow directions and juggle multiple responsibilities simultaneously while making a mean cup of java.

But none of them got even an interview.

When I followed up, the recruiter apologized and explained that the TV network only wanted to hire a social media producer currently serving one of their rival networks. Did I happen to know any of them?

The Experience Catch-22 — But Worse

We all know the Experience Catch-22: you can’t get a job because you don’t have the experience, but how can you acquire the experience unless you get a job?

I advise people to bridge the gap by doing similar work for a charity, a friend’s company, or their own project (like, say, organizing a one-time event or production).

But in this case, the Experience Catch-22 is impossible for nearly every applicant. Even more frustrating, in order to entice their competitor’s employee away, the employer would have to pay more than they would have had to pay you — especially if recruiters are involved. Why would they do that?

  1. Cowardice: They won’t get fired for hiring a picture-perfect match for the position on paper, even if another applicant is a better worker with more talent and education. Why take a risk on someone who’s (gasp!) a little different — or who might threaten to take their job later?
  1. Laziness: They won’t have to train the new hire — which is a huge plus since they have no clue how to do the job. Wanting to hire someone who only needs to be told “go” is a common, easy out in today’s market.
  1. Small-mindedness: They’re incapable of projecting your unique qualities and experiences onto the job. That requires imagination — a rare commodity in corporate middle management. And if they managed to become execs without a strong education, good luck convincing them that your advanced degree matters.
  1. Ruthlessness: Their philosophy: in order to beat the competition, steal their talent. This creates a momentary skills gap for the competitor, and the traitor might have good secrets. Sports teams heist other teams’ players all the time — the only difference is that everyone knows that’s part of the game. Job hunters don’t expect it anywhere else.

So What Can You Do About It?

Although breaking this Catch-22 seems near impossible, here are 3 ways to respond:

  1. Wait It Out: If the position stays open too long — which is possible given the ever-improving job market here in June 2016 — the employer might feel pressure to relax their requirements. In the meantime, continue building your qualifications and your professional network. Binge-watching The Walking Dead can come later.
  2. Join The Inner Circle: Speaking of networking, meet existing employees of that company or their competitor. That means more than just connecting on LinkedIn. Get together, hang out, and impress them with your character (not bragging about your qualities). If the idea of socializing for self-serving reasons discomfits you, corporate America might not be your best choice — particularly if it involves the word “Hollywood”. You might even take a lower level job within the company to impress everyone so you can eventually rise into the desired position. Just avoid any role that involves answering phones for other people (see “dead end”).
  3. Seek Something Else: Remember that job hunting is like dating. While you want to impress the other party, you’re simultaneously judging whether you want to spend anymore time with them. And do you really want to work for an executive who’s cowardly, lazy, small-minded, or ruthless? Some climbers don’t mind, since they see that executive as just a speedbump on their way to the top. But unless you have skin as tough as a cheap steak, and guile that would intimidate the writers of House Of Cards, seek a saner option. Consider a well-funded and innovative start-up. They might be more open-minded, particularly if they’re striving to be cutting edge. The last thing a daring start-up wants is someone who will bring an old-school mindset to their culture of innovation.

With any luck, your start-up will become a runaway success and you’ll rise to the top. And someday you may get job applications from those executives who wouldn’t hire you in that old-school company. Turns out they got downsized because their company just couldn’t innovate or differentiate. Gee, how do you think that happened?


For more career advice, check out other articles in our Missions category.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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