Note to HR… be nice to the unemployed

[Welcome to my first guest post… pretty damn exciting. Ben is a talented and unemployed media professional looking for work in this difficult market. His article highlights some of his recent experiences, good and bad.]

Ben Breier, 23, was a reporter and web producer for the New York Observer’s Politicker.com, a political news network that suffered massive cutbacks last December. Prior to working in New York City, Ben covered climate change and energy-related issues at the federal policy level for Inside Washington Publishers, a trade publication network in Washington, DC. A graduate of Kent State University’s journalism program in 2007, Ben lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Ben can be reached at ben.breier[at]gmail[dot]com. His resume can be found here.

One of the industries hit the hardest by this recession is the media. Sharply declining ad sales and a major paradigm shift from print news to the Web have caused massive layoffs and newspaper shutdowns across the country. From paper chain Gannett’s decision to impose unpaid furloughs on its employees to the New York Times’ decision to re-lease parts of its building, media professionals are in a tight spot.

I was a political reporter working in the New York media world, and lost my job after just six months in the city. I couldn’t dive right into the job market, because companies weren’t posting any jobs around the holiday season. So I took care of my unemployment, spent the holidays at home with my family in Ohio and sunk my teeth into the job market equivalent of stringy beaver meat while doing pro-bono work for a progressive advertising network.

For the three months after that I applied for any sort of job I felt remotely qualified for, across the fields of communications and politics. In that time, I landed two interviews for identical media positions at two New York-based media corporations. Both corporations are roughly the same size, but my experiences during this job application process were very different.

My first bite – for an entry-level public relations job – came in March. To say I was excited for the opportunity would be putting it mildly. I was absolutely elated. The first interview with human resources at Company Q went swimmingly, until the HR person busted me in the gut with the harsh reality of the job market. 600 people had applied for this job, and Company Q would be interviewing 20 of them. After that, they would thin the herd to about a half-dozen applicants and begin a second wave of interviews.

But the real kicker was this: each one of the 20 potential employees had been referred to human resources via someone internally, just like I had been. Any sort of advantage I thought I had going into this job interview had gone out the window. However, there was a bright spot: HR told me there were other jobs that were not publicly advertised, as they had job requirements similar to the advertised one. The implication was that making it past the first round of interviews might lead to consideration for a similar job, even if the original job didn’t work out. HR also told me that they were looking to fill the position relatively quickly, within the period of a couple of weeks.

Eight days later, human resources at Company Q called me – and I was jubilant. I felt like I had cannonballed into a safety net; my chances of getting a job seemed very good. I would be interviewing with a pair of publicists in the media relations department in just a few days. For a moment, life was great, and it looked like I had a decent chance of lifting myself off of unemployment.

Interview number two was mostly what I expected it would be – a more in-depth description of the job’s responsibilities coupled with more pointed questions about how my previous work experience would transfer over. This interview also ended with an atomic bomb. It would be a couple of weeks until the media team would finish interviewing and determine who to bring in for a third interview, as the team was traveling the following week.

Obviously, this wasn’t good news. I couldn’t believe that Company Q was really going to have a third interview for the entry-level job. Waiting for them to reach that decision was absolute torture. The longer they took, the longer I would be on unemployment. And unemployment benefits only last so long. In this case, time was literally money, and I was starting to panic.

I attempted to touch base with the team at the end of March while they were out of New York, and was told that I was “still on the radar.” This made me feel optimistic. But time continued to pass – long after they’d returned – and a decision hadn’t been made, I grew really worried. The stress this situation put on me was out-of-body. But deep-down, I knew that these massive corporations didn’t owe me any sort of response until a decision was actually made, regardless of when that would actually be.

The three-week waiting time mentioned during my second interview was pushing six weeks. There was no word about the job. Paranoia started to take over, and I wondered if Company Q had gone with somebody else, or cut the position. I even began regularly checking the contents of my spam folder to make sure an e-mail hadn’t slipped through the cracks. I didn’t expect an immediate resolution. I just wanted to know where Company Q was in with the process. I e-mailed HR and my prospective boss about once a week, but heard nothing in return.

I reached out to HR by phone in mid-April. To my amazement, Company Q was still interviewing for the position, which wasn’t a good sign. Then they struck another massive blow: the parallel positions mentioned before had all been filled. I assumed that I wasn’t being considered for any of these jobs because I was still being considered for the primary job. My heart sank, as my safety net collapsed underneath me. At this point, I was mentally deflated and exhausted. Would each interview be as grueling and drawn-out as this one? Soon, I’d find out.

I was brought in on April Fool’s Day to interview for an entry-level public relations job at Company Z – another major media company, similar in size and scope to Company Q. My first interview again went very well. This job had many of the same requirements as the other job, and I felt I had a good chance. The human resources representative told me that she’d get back to me in about a week. I mentally scoffed, knowing my experience with Company Q.

Low and behold, Company Z got back to me with a phone call nine days later. She let me down gently, informing me that they had gone with an internal candidate. I was disappointed with the decision, but the HR representative was incredible. She told me about other jobs available at Company Z that might fit me. I applied for a couple of them, and four days later, I was scheduled to interview for one.

The day I interviewed with Company Z about potential job number two was the day that Company Q finally got around to rejecting me by e-mail. Company Q probably only rejected me because I e-mailed about the position again earlier in the afternoon. Had I not sought a response, I’d probably still be in the dark. My prospective boss at Company Q subsequently reached out to me in an empathetic and productive manner that I definitely appreciated, letting me know that my persistence was appreciated and to keep in touch with him. More jobs would become available at Company Q. Four days later, human resources at Company Q e-mailed me again to tell me I had been rejected. It was more salt in the wound.

My point isn’t to curse of praise the hiring practices of corporate America. It’s to show prospective employers what effect a lack of communication has on an unemployed candidate engaged in a desperate job search. There was a big difference between the nine days it took Company Z to get back to me and the 40 days it took Company Q to reach a decision.

Every person on unemployment is trying their hardest to beat a clock; our finite benefits will eventually expire. And to be fair, it wasn’t just the long-decision time of Company Q that sent me on a downward spiral, it was the radio silence after  Company Q told me to expect a resolution.

So, I’m ending this on two notes:

If you work in human resources or are charged with hiring and you run into delays along the way, try to keep job candidates apprised of the situation. It helps maintain an air of professionalism and keeps up your company brand – something that bigger companies should consider during this process. If the ultimate goal is to land the best employees, putting them through a painful job application process won’t make your company seem like a great place to work.

If you’re unemployed and on the hunt for a job, don’t take a delay in the process personally. If a company misses a deadline, give them a day or two before following up. I’m a firm believer that if you’re passionate about landing the job, persistence and a hint of craziness will help you achieve your goal. Just don’t become “a stalker,” like the one the Company Q HR representative vented to me about. Companies are wary of pushy personalities. Expressing keen interest in a position helps your chances. Coming off as if a prospective employer owes you something most assuredly does not.

Happy hunting, and happy hiring.

Ben can be reached at ben.breier[at]gmail[dot]com. His resume can be found here.

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7 Comments

  1. Nebbles wrote:

    “If you work in human resources or are charged with hiring and you run into delays along the way, try to keep job candidates apprised of the situation. It helps maintain an air of professionalism…”

    Professionalism is not required of any company during a hiring process; it’s a burden placed on candidates. I’d take their labeling of anyone as a stalker with a grain of salt too. Job hunting is a game in which only the applicants must play by rules, but why no one is out to change that reality in a time like this is beyond me. We certainly can’t avoid the pitfalls of seeking work by calling obnoxious offenders “Company Q” and “Company Z.” Next time go anonymous and name them instead.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  2. Tina wrote:

    Nebbles: I was thinking the same thing as I read this. I understand the frustration Ben feels, especially during these hard times, but at no time in history was it ever a requirement for companies to update their employee prospects. It is the applicant’s responsibility to follow up with a “Thank You” note and an email if they haven’t heard anything. Ask permission to check back in a week or so if they still haven’t heard anything. This shows the company you are interested and respectful of their time.

    People in the position of hiring are not intentionally being hurtful by not keeping all applicants apprised of the situation, but the bottom line is hiring for the open position is just one thing on their list of priorities.

    Ben: I wish you the best of luck.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  3. Norm wrote:

    Just to be clear, it was my decision not to name actual companies. Ben’s original submission included them. This has been my policy from the outset. While I’d like the lines of communication between HR and applicants to be more open, I’m not in a good position to fire a shot across the bow of any large corporation. I’m engaged in my own job search, and don’t want to annoy specific companies which could conceivably hire me.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  4. Nebbles wrote:

    “People in the position of hiring are not intentionally being hurtful by not keeping all applicants apprised of the situation”

    So what is their intent when they clearly state that they’ll let you know what’s happening with a position, but keep you hanging? Companies don’t like being held to the same standards they impose on us. If you or I showed the slightest hint of incompetence – let alone dishonesty – the game would be over for us. That’s because the companies act like our skills are less valuable than their stature. Excessive indecisiveness is fine on their part, no matter the toll on job seekers. I don’t even know why they bother to schedule interviews with that attitude. It’s just as much a waste of their time too.
    Somebody needs to create a safe space where these companies can be exposed for their inefficiency.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Ben wrote:

    Hi guys,

    Thanks for the feedback on the article. I figured I’d address a couple of the concerns listed in the comments.

    @ Tina – I practiced what I felt was standard protocol with Company Q – an e-mail follow-up the day after each interview, and then touching back with Company Q on occasion.

    I followed up with a frequency that felt reasonable to be – I didn’t want to come off as too overbearing. It was about once a week, usually on Thursdays or Fridays.

    The reason why Company Q’s situation was so frustrating was that they gave me a timetable, and then violated it by almost a month without any sort of communication as to what was going on with the position. It was maddening.

    Was HR at Company Q intentionally hurtful? No. But they definitely could’ve been much more considerate.

    @Nebbles:

    I totally agree with you – you’ve gotta be slightly crazy toward your job pursuit if you want to get noticed. I recently landed another interview for another company (Company X? Haha.) by applying online through a job search aggregator, and then five-days later reaching out to the head of the department via phone and e-mail, even though he wasn’t listed as the contact for the hiring process.

    He sent me a note expressing his appreciation for my tenacity, and said I would be getting a call for an interview relatively soon.

    So, in essence:

    Good crazy – researching your job, and hitting all the points like a carpet bomb. Bad crazy – pelting your potential employer with daily phone calls and e-mails until you get the response you want. If you can’t handle yourself in a pressurized situation like a job search, it’s very likely HR will think you won’t be able to handle the day-to-day pressure at your daily job.

    Feel free to direct any questions anybody has to ben.breier@gmail.com if you want something answered more directly. Thanks for reading. 🙂

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  6. Ellen wrote:

    I’d like to defend Ben. I’ve been in the position of hiring people for my department, as well as being on the other end of the hiring desk.

    I have learned that, while it is not required of the person/company doing the hiring, it is courteous to let job candidates know in as timely a fashion as possible if they are not going to get the job. This allows them to move on. And not start to feel desperate.

    I had a situation over ten years ago, where I was asked to find a designer for a particular job (reporting to me) and after beginning interviews, I found out that not only was this job never going to exist, but that my boss was interviewing people for MY position. My boss was setting me up…telling the owner that I was doing this on my own. Needless to say, I did not call back any of the candidates. I froze and didn’t really know what to do. I now realize that I left them hanging and didn’t handle this as I now would. Since then, I have made every effort to let people know if they aren’t going to get the job, and, where I have been able to, I’ve steered them to other jobs.

    My guess is that most of the HR people are inexperienced or just clueless….

    Ben, good luck from a fellow Greenpointer w/ roots in Ohio. If I can think of any connections for you, I’ll send them your way.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  7. Alex wrote:

    I wish HR would take your advice:

    I am an engineering graduate in Australia who has been looking for a job since about January.

    Of course thanks to various economic things, the whole graduate careers arena has gone to hell. And the HR isn’t helping.

    From some 30+ applications, 17 only have an automated reply, even when I know that most have already been filled and are closed, or have already moved to higher stage interviews. My friends have copped the exact same treatment.

    The worst thing about the whole situation is that when you want to find out where you went wrong, you cannot even get hold of the responsible HR person, and when and if you do, its the same ‘cannot comment’/’not sure about your specific application’/’so many applications that we couldn’t inform people’ response.

    One particular one got me – they sent out an automated email basically saying ‘if we don’t send you an email after this, assume you didn’t get in’.

    Personally, I have blacklisted a few companies just because of their appalling HR treatment – including slamming a phone in one of my friend’s ears after being informed he had already accepted another position.

    HR take note – you are reflecting poorly on the companies that employ you. Their lofty ideals obviously don’t apply to you.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 2:55 am | Permalink

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