By Liz Ryan
“Is it still correct to use ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ in a cover letter?” a reader asked in an e-mail.
“That isn’t such a great idea,” I wrote back. “No one uses ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ anymore, unless they’re actually writing to a madam, such as Heidi Fleiss.” I’m not sure my e-mail correspondent caught the joke.
It’s not that using out-of-date job-search approaches brands you as older. Rather, it’s that using no-longer-in-fashion job search techniques marks you as out of touch.
Employers pay us, in part, to be aware of trends and phenomena that affect the workplace. Working people (and job-seekers) should follow the news, keep a bead on our changing world, and stay abreast of changes in business, technology, politics, and cultural shifts. That isn’t an unreasonable expectation. If a job-seeker isn’t curious and perceptive enough to notice that the last time he saw “Dear Sir or Madam” on a letter was around the time Chevy Chase impersonated Gerald Ford falling down the stairs, how will he notice what’s changing in his field?
Here are five formerly useful, now dangerous job-search approaches that hark back to an earlier age. Get them out of your job-search repertoire, pronto.
1. Dedicated Résumé Paper and Envelopes. Don’t use nubbly beige or pink or stone-grey résumé paper, or any other kind of special paper or matching envelopes, in your job search. Dedicated-use résumé paper is a 1980s artifact. Most of your résumés will reach employers electronically, in which case the employer will print it out. For résumés you print on your own, use plain white bond paper. (If you want to use a heavier stock than usual, do it.) Keep résumé formatting simple. You don’t need horizontal lines or curlicues, unless you are yourself a creative person, in which case you can go hog-wild with artistic expression. What matters in your résumé is its content. You won’t win any points with a résumé or cover letter on fancy paper that whispers, “I have a stack of Christopher Cross cassettes in my car.”
2. Creaky Cover Letter Language. When I read “Dear Sir or Madam,” I instantly get a picture of a person wearing white gloves and carrying tiny mother-of-pearl opera glasses in her handbag. Don’t get me wrong—I have opera glasses and I wish white gloves were still in style. They’re not. Never use “Dear Sir or Madam”—or its cousin, “To Whom It May Concern”—in a cover letter for the same reason. In 2012, companies are porous. We can find our hiring manager’s name in two seconds using LinkedIn. We are obliged to try: Correspondence that begins “To Whom It May Concern” means death to a job search. “Dear Hiring Manager” is just as bad. Find the name of the relevant person or lob a résumé into the Black Hole and skip the cover letter altogether.
3. Here’s Why You Should Hire Me. People get hired when a hiring manager believes, intellectually and emotionally, that the person sitting in front of him or her can do the job. It isn’t a linear process. That’s not great news to people who believe that power comes from their degrees and certifications because those folks are often more comfortable pushing their skills out in front of them than sitting and talking with a manager in a way that inspires confidence and trust. But tons of job-search books and articles nonetheless encourage job-seekers to grovel and beg, as though any manager has ever been convinced of an applicant’s heft and power by hearing the applicant say: “Please hire me—I’ll do anything you want!”
Groveling doesn’t work, which is why compiling and mailing goofy lists such as “here are 10 reasons you should hire me” are terrible things to do. When we write a post-interview thank-you note or e-mail, we should use it to continue the substantive conversation that started during a job interview, not to mewl and beg for a job. We never, ever want to construct lists of reasons an employer should hire us. We won’t convince anyone of our value that way. If the reasons to hire don’t come through in an interview, you’ve already missed the boat.
4. Endless Bullets. It used to be the thing to create long lists of bullets following each job listed in your résumé. Nowadays, time and attention are in short supply. Limit yourself to two or three bullets for each of your past jobs. A short, bulleted point that tells the reader what you’ve gotten done in your career and how you roll—“When our two biggest rivals merged, I launched a grass-roots e-mail marketing campaign that ramped sales 20 percent”—beats the heck out of long lists of tasks and duties or general statements like “solved tricky customer service issues.” Use your résumé to tell your story. Give it a human voice, a breezy tone, and quick, pithy stories to bring your power across on the page. No one cares about your daily tasks. (Most of us can extrapolate those from your job titles, anyway.)
5. Gratuitous Research. I warn job-seekers about the Hermione Granger Effect, the tendency for eager job-seekers to try to win gold stars from hiring managers for their teacher’s-pet-type preparation, research, and general submissiveness. Sure, it’s always appropriate to learn about the companies you’re targeting for your job search, and LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, Glassdoor.com, and other company-research sites make that task easier. Your research has value for what it tells you about your next employer’s business situation, recent changes, and competitive challenges.
Still, the last thing you want to do as a job-seeker is seek brownie points by whipping out a file folder full of clippings at an interview or by saying, “I spent the weekend researching your company.” That’s groveling. You should act as a consultant and business adviser during a job search. Do whatever research you need to do—and keep quiet about it. If you ask a pithy, research-fueled question like “What’s your take on the Acme Explosives-Toontown Motors merger? That’s got to be having some ripple effects for your firm,” you’re advancing a business conversation, not trying to get a pat on the head.
Watch out for these five destructive job-search practices, and you’ll be unstoppable. A wise individual once told me: “When people are in themselves fully, they’re larger than life.” Get out of your head, show up on a job search to experience the moment, and see what great things result.