Recently a friend of mine applied for a job at a Washington, D.C. political advocacy group. She knew she would face stiff competition because the position was widely advertised. But she had several ins. Her husband knew a highly placed staffer and told him my friend was pursuing the job. Also she was acquainted with a board member through a previous job; she sent him an email asking him to put in a good word. Then she sent her résumé with a peppy, detailed cover letter to the person who was listed as the contact on the job posting. She followed up with the board member and left repeated phone messages for the job posting contact. But after six weeks she’d heard nothing, not even a response saying they had gotten her materials. She finally gave up.
Does this story sound familiar? It can be the most frustrating, confounding part of a job search: Getting past the company gatekeeper. You do your best to make personal contacts inside an organization, you make calls and send emails, but nevertheless, you hit a brick wall.
Kathleen Brady, a New York City career coach and author of three books, including GET A JOB: 10 Steps to Career Success, says it’s one of the top two biggest challenges job seekers face. (The other: locating “hidden” openings not listed on job boards or company websites.) Brady says my friend did everything right. The tough truth for job seekers, she says: Even if you play all of your best cards, chances are you will be stopped at the gate at least 50% of the time. But it’s essential to keep plugging beyond simply sending your résumé through an automated website or via email. “If you do nothing, nothing will happen,” she says. Many people don’t realize that it’s the gatekeeper who is holding back their chances. “For a lot of these positions, they’re getting 600-700 résumés,” she notes. “If someone the organization knows and trusts recommends you, it can move you to the top of the pile.”
Often there are forces at play beyond the job seeker’s reach. For my friend, Brady suggests, there may have been internal politics, her contacts may not have had the same “juice” as another applicant’s connections or, despite the listing, the group may have decided not to fill the post. “Sometimes you just can’t make any sense of the situation and you’ve got to move onto the next one,” she says.
What can you do to get ahead of those 700 other résumés? Here is what Brady recommends:
1. Tap your friends and family network. Your goal is to find a contact who can pluck your résumé out of the gatekeeper’s hands and put it on the top of the pile. Though it didn’t work for my friend, tapping your personal network often does the trick. Brady recalls a client who was trying to get a corporate job, but didn’t know anyone at the company. At a family party she noticed that her cousin’s husband was wearing a golf shirt with the company’s logo. Knowing he didn’t work there, she asked him about the shirt and he said a buddy from college worked at the firm and invited him to a yearly golf outing. Her cousin-in-law introduced her to his friend, who in turn introduced her to the hiring manager, who interviewed her and hired her.
2. Use LinkedIn LNKD -0.04%. I have written this in many previous stories: There is no question that LinkedIn is a hugely valuable, easy-to-use resource. Simply type the company name into the search field, click the “search people for” note in the pull-down menu and you will instantly see your connections to the company. One of the first, most useful things your contacts can do for you: Establish that the opening still exists. A friend who lives in Abu Dhabi recently emailed me because she saw I had a first-degree connection with a guy who works at an investment firm in New York where she had seen a listing. She asked me to reach out to him, which I did, and he helped her figure out that the posting was out of date. She saved herself the trouble of applying and made a contact to use in the future should a job open up.
3. Drill down into the company website. Brady recommends searching not just the careers link on a company’s website but the investor relations page and the company news links to find the names of potential contacts. Publicly traded companies also frequently have links to their annual reports, which list the people in leadership positions. Or simply Google the company name and “annual report.” You may realize you have a connection to someone on the list. Also try doing a LinkedIn search on each of the names. The goal: making a direct connection to a highly-placed person in the company where you are applying.
4. Use your schools’ alumni networks. Fellow alumni won’t necessarily recommend you for a position but they will probably be willing to have a phone conversation or a coffee and they will likely be happy to do a little searching and at least tell you whether the job you are pursuing is still open. Alumni events can also lead to unexpected opportunities. A lawyer client of Brady’s looking for an in-house job at a company, learned he had gone to the same law school as the company’s general counsel. The client found out that the general counsel was planning to go to an alumni event, so he decided to go too. His efforts to connect with the general counsel failed but he met several other in-house lawyers and wound up landing a job with one of their companies.
5. Make phone calls. We all make fewer calls these days, relying instead on texts and emails. But most of us suffer from email overload. When you’re applying for a job, assume that the listed contact is getting hundreds of emails from eager job seekers. You will stand out if you pick up the phone. This holds for the contacts you cultivate through your personal network, LinkedIn and your alumni list.
6. Befriend the contact’s assistant. In a law firm or large company, chances are good that your call will reach the assistant to the gatekeeper or other potential contact. Do your best to make the assistant your ally. Ask when would be a good time to call back. Ask the assistant whether he can print out your note and put it on the gatekeeper or contact’s desk. “You don’t want to be overly familiar or friendly,” advises Brady. “You do want to be professional and engaging.”
7. Push outside your comfort zone. It can be tough to know how hard you should try to get past the gatekeeper. Consider what you’re comfortable doing and then take one step beyond that. If you’re not working with a career counselor, it can be helpful to recruit a friend who is willing to be your informal coach. My friend in D.C. consulted with me and I cheered her on as she kept following up with her contacts. Our efforts didn’t bear fruit but at least she knows she did everything she could.
8. Get creative. Sometimes it’s possible to combine networking and alumni connections and then to take a step beyond that. Brady had a client who wanted to work at a particular company but couldn’t find a contact or even a job listing. Through the company website he discovered that the company supported a charity he liked, and was hosting a fundraiser. He went to the event and made contacts at the firm, who helped him connect with a hiring manager. But you need to know where to draw the line. One of Brady’s lawyer clients sent his résumé to firms in the form of a blue, tri-fold subpoena. “That was over the top,” she says. “He was getting noticed but not in the way he wanted to get noticed.”
9. Know when to give up. At what point should you quit trying to get past a gatekeeper? “I operate by the rule of threes,” says Brady. If the contact doesn’t respond after your first call or email, you can assume your note or message could have gotten lost in the shuffle. Brady advises waiting five days before trying again. I think it’s always best to write a fresh email rather than forwarding an old one. Then if the contact doesn’t return that call or email, wait another five days and give it a final try. If they still don’t respond, it’s time to move on.
By Susan Adams