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Tips to get past the "gatekeeper" when job hunting

One of the really infuriating things about modern day job hunting is the prevalence of job announcements which don't even give the courtesy of acknowledging applicant submissions.

I'm not just talking about the so-called "blind box" ads, but the ones from companies big and small that say directly in the announcement, "Only applicants which meet our criteria will be eligible for a response."

If you are the applicant, you're sure your credentials far exceed the criteria in the ad. So why didn't you get an acknowledgement?

The answer, my friends, is the dreaded "gatekeeper" who screens the applications and makes the preliminary decision whether your application gets viewed by anyone who can say "Yes." The problem is the gatekeeper can only say "No!" and drop your application in the "circular file."

The basics:
Let's start with some basic truths:
  1. No one gets hired from a resume.
  2. A person only gets hired from an interview (even just a phone interview.)
  3. The task of a resume and cover letter is to provoke enough interest to get an interview.
  4. The task of the interview is to get to the person who has the power to say yes.
Seems simple, right? The problem is complicated by the fact the job ads you see rarely list the REAL criteria the gatekeeper will use to dump an application in the circular file.

The person who finally has the power to say yes will rarely cross-examine you on your technical expertise. He or she has two main questions in mind when you first meet:
  1. I am sure you know the most important question in the reviewer's mind will be, "What can this guy do for me and my organization?"
  2. The second most important question will be, "Can he fit in with the rest of us?"
The most important question in your mind will probably be,
  • "Can I fit in and be comfortable here?"
So if these are the most important questions, why do they list all that stuff as criteria in the ad? Those, my friends, are the "knockout" questions for the gatekeepers who can only say no. Miss one of the criteria and the gatekeeper has no leeway - your application is toast. In addition, the gatekeepers may have "secret criteria" which ought to be in the resume. If you weren't able to guess and put it in yours - more toast.

Even though we joke the gatekeepers aren't HUMAN, sometimes that's literally true, the gatekeepers are software programs which scan resumes and reject for a number of reasons ranging from important to petty (examples might be missing dates on education [a sneaky way to learn applicant age - why applications often ask for high school dates when requirement is an MBA or Phd.], gaps in employment, missing salary disclosure, poor spelling, wrong typeface, missing buzzwords [ISO, Baldrige, Six Sigma, ASQ, etc.], failure to list supervisor name and contact data and countless other pitiless reasons which have nothing to do with the worry the guy who can say yes has: "What can this guy do for me and my organization?")

The million dollar question:
We call it the million dollar question because it is how much you'll make over the next ten to fifteen years if you know the answer.
"How do I get past the soulless gatekeeper who keeps me from interviewing with the guy who can yes?"

In my opinion, it all comes down to the same sort of research we do when tracking a root cause.
  1. We have to identify the hiring company (tough when the ad is blind or they use an agency,)
  2. We have to identify the individual within the company who CAN say yes.
  3. We have to find how to contact the individual who can say yes.
  4. We have to convince the yes guy we have the best and most desirable answer to the question, "What can this guy do for me and my organization?"
In order to give the best and most desirable answer, we have to research the company itself to make our best guess at what it needs most and whether the hiring guy is aware of it. If he's aware of it, it is just a matter of crafting our communication to him that we have the answer he wants. If the hiring guy isn't aware of what he really needs, we have to back into it, often using a question and answer format:
"Is your company experiencing a problem with customers returning shipments for quality issues? I was able to increase acceptance of shipments from 82% to 98% in one year, resulting in a net profit increase for the company of 22%! If you need an experienced problem solver, who works well in team situations, able to lead and motivate people, let's talk about how my combination of experience and education can help your company achieve similar results."

Note that nowhere do I talk about certifications, salary levels, graduation dates, previous supervisors, job titles, buzz words, or any of the myriad things the gatekeeper is trained to look for. I talk about solving a real or perceived problem. Remember, the goal of the application process is to get an interview with the guy who can say yes, NOT to provide work for gatekeepers. The guy who can say yes wants his problem solved. Only gatekeepers and bureaucrats care about the other stuff.

If you deal with CEO of a company who wants to hire you, he says to the HR folk, "I want to hire John Doe. Take care of the paperwork." After that, the gatekeepers no longer look for reasons to say no, they look for ways to say yes.

In future posts, I'll talk about ways to figure out who blind box ads are for and how to find out who has the power to say yes and how to determine the missing factor which you can supply for that company.

Questions or comments so far?



Dealing with the CEO

Wes Bucey said:
If you deal with CEO of a company who wants to hire you, he says to the HR folk, "I want to hire John Doe. Take care of the paperwork." After that, the gatekeepers no longer look for reasons to say no, they look for ways to say yes.

In future posts, I'll talk about ways to figure out who blind box ads are for and how to find out who has the power to say yes and how to determine the missing factor which you can supply for that company.

Questions or comments so far?

Dear Wes:

Thanks for starting this thread. Let me address just one point here. I have dealt with some CEOs directly, for different reasons (only once to get hired), and also several upper management folks close to the CEO. Amazingly, it is my considered opinion (based on these contacts) that they never do anything as simple as "I want to hire John Doe. Take care of the paperwork."

I wish corporate America, especially the Fortune 500 companies, actually functioned in that simple and effective manner. Instead, CEOs often simply forward things and seek action by their management team. This pushes decision making further down the ranks. In other words, one has to deal with the whole team - or the phenomenon called management by consensus - which includes hiring decisions. I have seen this happen several times. At least that's my experience and my humble opinion. Any other experiences to share?

Charmed :)

P. S. You have raised many other very good points, which will take some time to study and are extremely important for things seeking a job in the current labor market. This should be a very interesting thread and am looking forward to the discussion.
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Amazingly, it is my considered opinion
. . . they never do anything as simple as "I want to hire John Doe. Take care of the paperwork."

Instead, CEOs often simply forward things and seek action by their management team . . . . or the phenomenon called management by consensus -
At least that's my experience and my humble opinion. Any other experiences to share?
An organization that does things by "consensus" is, to all intents and purposes, LEADERLESS. I would consider that one of the "problems" to be solved. (perhaps with the Board of Directors) Carly at Hewlett Packard certainly doesn't do things by "consensus." Google ("Carly Fiorina" +axe) for some interesting reading.

Simply stated: my experience is different. Leadership qualities may be grist for a different mill. The main topic is how to get past gatekeepers to interview with the person who can hire. (A large part of the research is deciding whether the target company is one you really want to work for.)


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Staff member
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Good subject for discussion. This thread deserves a 4 star.The discussions from this thread will also provide some input on my other thread on “how to find job in the automotive market”.

Back home, four of my early jobs; we went through steps in the order:
Written aptitude test, subject test, Interview, Medical test, Psychological test, Reference check, Salary negotiation discussion, and placement. Starting from over 250 applications down to final three at Salary negotiation stage!

I was surprised that in North America significant % of the jobs are filled through “contacts”. There are advantages in this approach also. However, this approach does not give enough opportunity for the organization to see what is available outside.

Some organizations already have their internal candidates. Therefore, for policy reasons they post the job for public. One can actually feel those jobs by reading as they are so “custom crafted” to meet only that particular individual within the organization. This is a waste of time for everyone.

I think the empowerment of the “gate keepers” differ from organizations. We recently placed an advertisement for a “Software Engineer” position with requirements and responsibilities. Yet, we received couple resume from night shift security guards and Janitors! I have no idea what saw in common. Well, gatekeepers should filter this type of totally unrelated resume so that the functional manager assigned to perform the second level screening can save some time.

On the other hand, one of the candidates took every responsibility from the advertisement, linked to his/her previous experience and contribution, matched how he/she fits the requirement description and presented in the form of a tabular column. This approach had no issue getting past “gatekeepers” and functional Manager performing the second level screening. He/she got to the final interview table.

I don’t think HR and or gatekeepers should filter subject specific technical resume. We could lose a candidate who is very good at the Subject but not so good at writing attractive resume.
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Some good insights, Govind.

The screening process (gatekeeper) is only as good as it is designed to be.

How would the gatekeeper have dealt with an honest software engineer who worked as a janitor to keep food on the table while he sought a job in his field?

In a non-technical field, how would a gatekeeper deal with an applicant for a management position who worked nights as a security guard for 2 years to pay his way through a daytime business school to get an MBA?

See, the problem of gatekeepers is akin to folks who swear by employee assessments, but never seem to have a method to take bias out of the assessment process.

If you are the applicant, you don't care about "WHY" the company uses gatekeepers, you just don't want to take a chance you'll get eliminated by one.

Consider this analogy: If you are going to play baseball, you don't study the rules and techniques of cricket. In the job hunt scheme, gatekeepers do NOT hire. Therefore, why deal with them if you can "leapfrog" over them? Don't spend time and energy figuring out how to make the gatekeeper like your application. Spend that time and energy getting to the real dealmaker. Spend more time and energy finding out what the dealmaker needs to hear or read to get his interest.

If I run an ad for Certified Quality Managers, I'm really only hoping to limit the number of resumes where I can look for someone who can solve MY problem. Even I don't really believe ONLY a CQM can fill the job. After my gatekeeper eliminates all the non-CQM folks, I'm going to eliminate a lot more. I don't care about solving the applicant's problems, so I'm going to discard any sob stories about how much the applicant needs the job or my sponsorship to stay in the country. I'm going to eliminate any that merely list the certifications with no "pizzazz" about what those certifications did to help in his last job. My gatekeepers should have eliminated all the ones with bad spelling and grammar, since I expect perfection, and poor spelling and grammar don't give me confidence the applicant will be perfect in writing reports and procedures.

What's left? The ones that tell me what they can do for me! If that list of things seem like what I need, my choice is then to pick the one that will fit in smoothly with my organization. We may send the final guy through two or three interviews to confirm that he can get along with the folks he'll have to work with, not just me.

Will I look at an application that doesn't come through the normal channels? Probably, because I value innovation and gumption - so do most top executives. In fact, any application that comes directly to me without going through my gatekeeper has a higher probability of me reading at least the first paragraph of the cover letter than ANY of the ones that go through the gatekeeper.

What does that mean? That means the first paragraph has to be a "grabber" to get my attention to read more.

Later this week, we'll discuss a basic outline for the "grabber" cover letter.

More comments?
Any particular points about the job hunting process that have you perplexed?
Govind talks about “custom crafted” job ads. Is there any value to trying to get to the front of the line for consideration? (I have some firm ideas about this, but I'd like to read more comments before I address the topic.)


Wes Bucey said:
One of the really infuriating things about modern day job hunting is the prevalence of job announcements which don't even give the courtesy of acknowledging applicant submissions.
Blind Ads are typically used for several reasons: 1) If it is an extremely popular company, they may want to make sure you are responding to the job and not the image (I have seen this with very popular non-profit organizations, like Sierra Club and Ducks Unlimited). They want to make sure people aren't just interested in the cause (although that's important, too). 2) Some companies don't want the competition to know they are hiring (or trying to steal some of their best people). 3) On the darker side, some companies use blind ads to check on whether or not their current employees are looking for jobs. This is one of the many reasons I would caution anyone against answering a blind/blind box ad.. Obviously, if you answer your own company's ad, they aren't going to tell you, but they'll be keeping an eye on you :evidence:. 4) On a similar note, the one and only blind box ad I ever answered turned out to be a company that was looking to replace their current Quality Director and didn't want to give him a heads-up! While I might be able to understand this to some degree, what made it even worse was that they said he was the consultant who had worked hard over the last 2 yrs. setting up the QMS, had done a good job and now wanted to replace him ?!!! :confused: They offered me the job, but I declined. My thought was, if they would do this to him (after all his hard work), what would stop them from doing this to me??? Another good reason to avoid blind box ads.

It is my understanding that a blind box ad can be revealed. According to federal/postal law, if you call up the local post office where the blind box is listed (a post office in that city), they are SUPPOSED to give you the box holders' name. (I have never tried this, so I don't know if it actually works, but I understand that's the law). Of course, if you don't call, it won't be volunteered. Another method, is just to try asking. Some years ago, ASQ put out a pamphlet of job opportunities on a monthly basis (you had to sign-up for it, but it was free with membership). I recall several ads I was interested in which gave no company info, but an ASQ box identifier. I wasn't interested in relocating and the ad gave no information as to state/city. Since I didn't want to waste my time responding to an ad requiring relocation, I called the ASQ helpdesk, explained why I was asking and they answered my question.

Overall, I would caution folks from answering blind ads. My feeling is I have to completely reveal myself, so why can't the company be forthcoming with a little information, so we can both make an intelligent decision. If they can't do that, then why would I want to work for them?

:topic: On a side note, I have noticed in the last 20 years, that companies are now demanding your references, sign-off on background checks, etc. EVEN BEFORE A FIRST INTERVIEW!!!! While I have nothing to hide, I consider this a gross invasion of my privacy. Furthermore, it doesn't take into account the fact that I may decide I don't want to join the company. But I think companies have become quite arrogant and paranoid about hiring. (I thought the old method of submitting the applicant a letter stating a job "..was being offered, contingent upon references checking out." was just fine and legally gave the company an "out", if req'd). I've also noticed the demand for a complete credit check, again, prior to an interview. Again, while I have nothing to hide, I don't understand why this is necessary if I'm not in a managerial position, requiring budget handling, P.O. sign-offs, Requisitions or access to petty cash boxes (if there is such a thing anymore). If you are going for a Purchasing or VP position, I would completely agree a credit check is needed. Unfortunately, I think companies are over stepping their boundaries and will continue to get away with it because you want the job. The only plus side to these checks is, if you're background is clean, you're the one left standing and it makes you look better to the potential employer.

It would be interesting to hear from an HR Reps's point of view on this. JMHO.
Good points for everyone to keep in mind when considering answering a blind box ad, jcbodie!

As a biology student 40 years ago, I was awestruck by the sex habits of Oysters. Males and females spray millions and millions of eggs and sperm into the ocean on the off chance some will meet, fertilize, grow, and survive to spawn for the next generation. Answering a blind box ad has about the same chance for success as one of those oyster sperms or eggs. Evolution has come along with more efficient methods of fertilization; it only stands to reason there are more efficient ways of getting a job than answering a blind box ad.

Speaking of efficiency, why would anyone waste time money and energy checking out every applicant's references BEFORE interviewing the applicant?

:topic: sometimes the blind boxes are maintained by newspapers and private blind box companies which forward the responses on to the employer or recruiter, or anyone else who wants to buy an ad and get private info about the people who respond. This added layer of security prevents you from finding out who placed the ad.


We'll explore how to do this in future posts.

More comments?
Sources for job leads

When I engage in conversation with folks looking for a job, I am amazed at the lack of knowledge about sources of information about job openings and even more amazed that job seekers have little knowledge of how to exploit the sources they do know about. This is an area I know a lot about, but not EVERYTHING. I welcome any additions to the list or comments about additional ways to exploit the ones we list.

In no particular order, many folks can usually list most of the following sources:
  1. newspaper or web ads placed by the hiring company
  2. newspaper or web ads placed by employment agents
  3. "blind" newspaper or web ads placed by ???
  4. signs posted in front of the hiring company
  5. a list posted at the unemployment office or website
  6. headhunters who call or write directly
  7. bulletin board listings or other announcements at work
  8. word of mouth at associations, church, neighbors, and friends
  9. direct nepotism from a friend or relative who can "control" the hiring
  10. formal "networking" with acquaintances, referrals, and strangers
  11. "cold calling" companies who announce expansion, new contracts, etc. by inferring they will need additional employees
  12. "cold calling" companies by learning a need and offering a solution
  13. registering with one or more employment agencies
  14. paying someone to do the job hunting for you
  15. mass mailing (emailing or faxing) resumes to hundreds of companies indiscriminately (all machine shops; every company in a city; every company in Fortune 1000; etc.)
Got any more to add to the list? When we have a comprehensive list, we'll examine the pros and cons of each source and list some startegies to exploit each one. [I didn't notice this typo until today (12-14-08) - I actually LIKE the coined word "startegies" better in this context than "strategies!"]

As you look at the list (and any additions we come up with), think about
  • whether you have ever used any of the sources
  • whether they were successful for you
  • what you would have changed in your approach
  • which ones have the greatest chance of getting you in front of an interviewer who can actually hire you (getting past a "gatekeeper")
Job hunting is like any other job:
  • you should do it effectively
  • you should do it efficiently
  • you should be adequately compensated for your work
Being adequately compensated means getting a viable job offer, negotiating the best possible combination of pay and benefits, and enjoying the job when you get it.

Comments so far?
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We'll wait one more day for any additions to the list for job sources, then we'll tackle each one on the most efficient way to get through to the interview with the person who can actually hire you.

Once we get through the various ways to get to the interview, we'll cover how to prepare, what to say, and how to act DURING the interview.

Finally, after a successful interview, we'll cover how to negotiate the job offer when it comes, especially what to do when the written offer does NOT match the verbal one.

Any comments so far?


Wes Bucey said:
We'll wait one more day for any additions to the list for job sources, then we'll tackle each one on the most efficient way to get through to the interview with the person who can actually hire you.

As a recent grad and even more recent employee, I have to add one that most may not have access to, but was quite fruitful for me - university postings. My "alma mater" (Waterloo) is known as the pioneering school for co-op education. As a result, the campus has a lot of great relationships with various companies in industry...and those companies often come hunting at campus for new recruits. I never worked for my present employer on co-op, and they've only recently started posting for co-ops, so I'm not sure why they posted for a full-time on our boards. I will say this, though - I put out about 15 applications for work after grad, and got three interviews - all with companies that posted on our school's graduating students' job board. I like those odds. :)

Again, not everyone has access to these sources. I do, as an alumnus - and the case may be similar for other alumni of any number of schools. (Oh, and they're not all entry-level postings, either - there are intermediate and senior positions as well.)

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