THE BLOG

Polite, Persistent Followup Isn't Grovelling

02/02/2012 06:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012
  • Liz Ryan Speaker, writer, soprano and mom; founder, Human Workplace

Dear Liz,

I have a personal rule that I'll follow up with an employer (say, after I've sent a resume and heard nothing back) three times, and after that I stop. If they were interested, they should have contacted me by the time I've reached out to them three times, right? After a while it becomes ridiculous. Do you agree, or would you hang in there a little while longer?

Thanks,
Russ

Dear Russ,

It's funny that you ask about this because I was talking about the same topic with my friend Laura, who's a marketing professor, just this weekend. Laura teaches at the Leeds School of Business here in Boulder, the same place where I teach job-search and personal branding.

Laura reminded me this weekend that when she and I met a few years ago, I was leading a job-search workshop for MBA candidates. I asked the students that day whether any of them had ever gotten a job through sheer persistence, and if so how many times they'd pinged the hiring manager or HR person before the magical connection finally took place. Two young men in the back of the room raised their hands. One of them had gotten a job by calling the employer 13 times, once per week. The other fellow had called his prospective hiring manager 15 times. In each case, the guys had heard jack squat from the employers until those magical 13th and 15th calls, at which point they got call backs and then got the jobs.

Now, you may say "I wouldn't hang in there that long" and that's your choice, and I certainly don't blame you. I only want to point that 13 or 15 contacts don't necessarily constitute groveling. In this case, the righteous indignation that you mention in your letter ("They should have called me by now!") makes you feel like a supplicant. But that's just a voice talking in your head. No one is actually dissing you. They haven't written to you to say "Stop contacting us." So why not keep them in the followup file a few weeks longer? It doesn't cost you anything, especially if you can keep your ego out of the equation.

I don't want you to grovel in your job search -- heck, my job-search approach is called the Grovel-Free Job Search. I don't want you to gush in your cover letters about your talents and your sterling character, because we don't behave that way in normal, adult conversation. I don't want you to be treated like dirt in the selection pipeline and to be required to fill out endless forms before you've ever interacted with a human being. But following up on a resume doesn't need to be grovelly.

If someone advertised a Sting Ray bike with a banana seat on Craigslist and you wanted it, you might call or email a few times. A couple weeks later if you had a free moment and the bike ad crossed your mind, you might reach out again. During that third week if you called the bike-seller and he said "Oh man, I got so behind, I sort of forgot that I placed that ad. Do you want to come see the bike tomorrow?" you might go see it. You wouldn't feel grovelly calling that guy. Your persistence would have made you the bike's new owner. Wouldn't you feel like a sharp cookie then?

Hiring managers and HR people are unbelievably information-overloaded. Those 13 voicemail messages or missed calls don't register to them the way we might believe they do. "Ha ha, we'll keep this Russ waiting, we can afford to! He needs a job, ha ha!" No one is thinking that way. They have their own problems. These guys are beset and besieged. (You still want to work in corporate America? :-)

The key is to keep every interaction feeling like the first call. If you're game to take your emotions out of the equation, pick up the phone once a week and say "Hey, it's Russ Jones calling, not sure whether you're all set for your marketing coordinator by now or whether you're still on the hunt -- I'm happy to talk if you have time," you may surprise yourself. That's what happened to the two MBA candidates I mentioned earlier, and it happens to people every day.

Here's why. A manager runs an ad. He gets deluged with responses and he's feeling flushed with success (I was a corporate HR leader for a million years -- that's how I know.) He sets up interviews with five or six people. Then comes the letdown. He meets the people -- he's underwhelmed.

He picked the five or six people to interview (or had me, the HR person, pick them for him) based on the job spec, and of course the job spec is crap. It's full of certifications and essential buzzwords and other flotsam and jetsam that falls much more into the nice-to-have than the job-critical category. What the manager really needs is what every hiring manager needs, namely someone smart and nimble and ethical and plucky who has some familiarity with the tasks and challenges the job includes. But the manager got confused by the job spec. He spotted a resume with 16 out of the 16 bullets from the job ad and he thought "This guy looks perfect!"

Poor manager -- when he finally met the guy who looked so perfect on paper, the guy turned out to be a drip or a pompous jerk or clueless or disappointing in some other way. As the manager realizes that the spec he wrote so confidently 13 weeks ago is bringing him dreck in the talent department, his perspective changes. Reality re-enters the picture. If this is the week when your 13th or 15th voicemail message hits the phone, magical things can happen. Now the hiring manager is much less cocky about the ease of filling his open slot. He calls you back. "Russ, I'm sorry it's taken me so long..." All of a sudden, you've got a new job, and there wasn't even any competition for it.

So Russ, I encourage you to keep the drip marketing going. It's not groveling as long as it's worth your time and the posture behind your call is "You guys are cool, I'm cool, if we figure out some way to work together that would be cool, and if we don't, that's cool also." The equilibrium is the important thing. You're not begging for a job or an interview. You're just saying "I'm out here, I do this kind of stuff, maybe we should talk -- I'm not really sure what you guys are doing but I'd love to find out." Magical.

Really good salespeople do this kind of thing like breathing. They don't tell themselves stories, like "They should have called you by now! Do they think your time is less valuable than theirs? How dare they!" Really good salespeople have moved far beyond that "How dare they" stuff, because it's in their best interest to stay detached (wantless, as our Buddhists friends say) and just see how the universe intends to play these scenarios out. It's all learning, right?

If thirteen or fifteen polite-but-persistent followups to an unacknowledged resume doesn't square with your concept of a Grovel-Free Job Search, Russ, leave a comment below and I'll try to clear that up. Your mojo is everything in a job search, and it's very important to me that you keep that intact. If you can see the steady drip as a simple, repetitive business task ("Oh yeah, don't let me forget to drop a voicemail on my four target hiring managers today") and not a high-stakes test of your ego, pride and self-esteem, you'll be in good shape, I predict.

Best,
Liz