We need to talk about recruitment. Though I have found a new (freelance) job, the last three months have been a frustrating experience. The recruitment process seems broken and needs urgent fixes.
I will disappoint you first: there will be no nameshaming here. I won’t mention individual companies. Because it is more about the widespread problems you encounter as an applicant throughout the industry. It is the lack of respect. The lack of transparency. The lack of accountability. And systemic problems. That is what this article is about.
Let’s start with respect first. Which means that when someone takes the effort to write you an application letter, and fill in a myriad of forms, you should also take the effort to send a proper reply.
It’s stunning that some companies still don’t even send out standardized ‘thank you for your application’ mails. It is though even completely disrespectful to not send a ‘we reviewed your application but choose to proceed with others’ mail.
As of now, I still have around two dozen applications pending. Amongst them a German ministry, an American NGO and several communication agencies. Now, how does that reflect on these brands?
Especially because, as the old saying goes, ‘practice what you preach’. There was this consultancy agency in Berlin that had a great overview of their recruitment process. Their first promise was to get back to you within 72 hours with a decision to proceed or not.
Needless to say, after 2,5 weeks I got a standard mail that they were not moving forward with me. No problem, of course, if it wouldn’t have been for this promise of replying within 72 hours. Especially because many of these companies position themselves on LinkedIn as modern and communicative and transparent. But it seems more like slick employer branding. As we all know, no branding and marketing can be effective when the product itself doesn’t deliver.
With this consultancy agency I could at least imagine why they rejected my application, as I didn’t have much specific experience in their sector of expertise. But there have been many rejections that have simply baffled me. One job description explicitly mentioned as key criteria ‘at least four years job experience, experience with content marketing projects, structured way of working, communicative and PM skills’. That literally is a description of my CV… but I didn’t even make it into the first round.
That’s part of the game, of course, but as a job applicant you are completely in the dark. Am I overqualified? Were there gaps in my skills and experiences? Was my application letter bad? Did I ask for too much money?
You simply don’t know, so as an applicant you also don’t learn where to improve and on which jobs it might be a better idea to not apply at all. You hear many stories (PDFs being analysed by artificial intelligence? first selection being made by junior HR people?). Maybe my CV is not structured well enough for computers. Maybe I should make my CV more to the point. You simply don’t know. And by not getting any feedback, you can’t grow.
Now I understand some companies get 100+ application letters. Which is still a bad excuse to give no feedback at all, but alright. In this specific case I took the effort to write them a short and friendly mail whether they could give me some explanation why I didn’t make it into the first round. Needless to say, I am still waiting for a reply. And as I write this, I remember two years ago an application where I did four (!!!) rounds of interviews at a German publishing company, to in the end receive a standard rejection mail. When I called their (very sympathetic!) HR officer, he promised to try to get more feedback from the team. Three weeks later he called to tell me no one had taken the time to write him a short explanation on the decision.
There are, let’s make that clear, plenty of good and professional HR people out there. I do understand the massive pressure they are sometimes under as well. Still, that’s not an excuse to not do your job. The application system works both ways, but some companies behave as if you should beg them.
There was the international consultancy agency that had an original application form, with six specific questions instead of the usual request for an application letter. It took some more time to answer these questions, but it set them apart. These bonus points were of course lost after 1) their software didn’t run properly on any Apple device and 2) they never replied after I had finally somehow managed to send them my answers.
These people are there to help you. In two cases I saw three vacancies that were pretty similar and fitted my profile. Thus I sent the HR departments a short mail: Should I apply for all three? Does one application suffice? Is this maybe one vacancy, just written down in slightly different ways?
One HR officer replied to me after ten days, that they had me on my radar for those vacancies. The other one never replied. That didn’t stop me from applying to one of those jobs. But again, how do you think that behaviour reflects on your brand?
And last but not least, speaking about branding: it has become very much ‘en vogue’ for companies to talk about the importance of soft skills, instead of an exact match to the criteria of the job. Sounds great, but I and two friends of mine who have been in the job-hunting mode as well recently still have to receive one invitation for an interview where our CVs didn’t exactly fit the job description. But maybe there is a solution to make this interesting thought of prioritizing soft skills work?
Which brings me to possible improvements. Because after all the complaining I also think one should always offer possible solutions, to keep communication channels open and work together on better ways forward. Recruitment is complicated and ever-evolving, I get that.
Anyway, here are some suggestions for improvement:
- fix your software: the most popular software on the market (Join, Softgarden, etc) is not exactly user-friendly. Often you have to upload your CV and you still have to add your work experience and education. The ‘education’ part of the CV often has limited options that don’t suffice in an international environment. And then there is the lack of transparency: what happens with your data? Is this software just to store the most important information, or is it used to rate your application? This also applies to LinkedIn, which has the ‘your skills match this job’ function. Do companies use it? Suggestion: keep it super simple (CV, application letter and/or 2-3 job-specific questions) and take the time to at least have a look at all of them, without algorithm
- give qualified feedback: there must be objective criteria that you and your colleagues use to judge an application. Whether it is relevant job experience, specific skills, a great CV or good looks (the one I always score the most points on!), these criteria help you to internally make a decision for a shortlist of candidates. In a shortened form, this would be great feedback for the rejected applicant. I can already hear the objection companies might be sued, but as long as you are not rejected on age, gender or skin color, this risk should be negligible. And feedback such as ‘not enough experience in sector XY’ or ‘native speaker is mandatory’ or ‘too many grammatic errors’ would already be incredibly helpful
- do short video calls: a CV and an application letter only tell half the story. You get a much better impression of someone when seeing and hearing him or her. We all know that instinctive feeling after 2-3 minutes that you already have a good first idea of the other person. So if you have lots of good applicants, why not schedule 15-minute video calls with for example sixteen of them? They also can get a good first impression of your company, and it is a sign of respect you take the effort to get-to-know them
- specify a salary range: one of the most stupid parts of applying in Germany is that most companies require you to mention your salary expectations. As an applicant you can only loose: if your estimate is too low, you hurt your own purse. And you will find out soon enough you have been screwed by your new company. If your estimate is too high, they might disqualify you for the next round, although there might be a lot of room for negotiation from your side. Why not be fair and accountable here and mention a salary range? Everybody understands there is a 10-15% room of negotiation depending on your experience. But I have seen many cases where within the same company people were paid 30-40% less for the same job. Again: the application system has to be fair in two directions
- mix software with human skills: I am pretty impressed sometimes with LinkedIn job recommendations. Their algorithm is becoming better, though of course not nearly as good as you would like. On the other side are good HR people and freelance recruiters that know very well which skills and which type of professionals companies are looking for. These human skills are extremely valuable in matching vacancies with candidates. And even with matching candidates with companies, because my best experiences have been with open applications because I knew there would be a match with the company. How to mix these software and human skills exactly, I am not 100% sure. But having sector-specific HR specialists (at companies and freelance) would be of great help
Do you have suggestions for improvement? Want to share your experiences? The comments field is open to all! But please: no scapegoating and no nameshaming!