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Innovation Economy

You have your foot in the door. How to keep it there.

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / January 10, 2010

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Deborah Mitchell has had cellphones go off while she’s interviewing a candidate. Usually, the candidate quickly turns off the phone. But Mitchell, director of recruiting at Feeley & Driscoll P.C., a Boston accounting firm, can’t forget the time a candidate answered her phone to explain to the caller that she couldn’t chat because she was in the middle of a job interview.

For Brian Shin, chief executive of the Internet video analysis firm Visible Measures Corp. in Boston, when candidates are inconsistent about the answers they give to different interviewers - like the city they’d like to work in - it can knock them out of the running. Christine Lahey, vice president of corporate hiring at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., observes that when candidates arrive for an interview in casual khakis and a button-down shirt, it shows that they’ve somehow missed the fact that the Boston firm is “a very conservative financial institution,’’ Lahey says. “We start to wonder, is this the right kind of culture for you?’’

Few things are worse than the silence of sending off a resume and hearing nothing, or showing up for an interview and not moving on to the next stage of the hiring process. But job seekers rarely know what it is they’ve done (or not done) that has torpedoed their candidacies: Rejection letters don’t include constructive criticism.

So in an effort to uncover the secret reasons that even the most qualified candidates don’t get hired, I spent last week talking to about a dozen chief executives, headhunters, and human resources executives at big and small companies around town. My question: What things have you seen good candidates do that cause their applications to go from the “strong interest’’ pile to the circular file? I organized their responses into four categories: problems related to the resume and cover letter, the interview, reference checks, and follow-up.

The resume and cover letter. Spelling and grammar mistakes were the first things mentioned by everyone I spoke with. “Have somebody else read your resume and cover letter - or even better, two people,’’ Mitchell says.

Generic cover letters and resumes, shipped off to dozens of potential employers, are likely to ensure that you’ll have to send off even more. Human resources executives say a succinct cover letter should explain why you’re enthusiastic about your field and why you’re interested in their company. At Partners HealthCare System Inc., human resources director Mariana Bugallo-Muros recommends using the cover letter to “fill in the gaps on your resume and tell your story better. What is it that has connected all the jobs you’ve had?’’

Trying to cram your entire resume onto a single page can backfire if it has so little white space that it’s impossible to read - but beware a resume that meanders on for more than three pages, says Shin. “Long resumes just require so much work to scan, even if there are some gems in there,’’ he says.

Pamela McNamara, president of the product design firm Cambridge Consultants, recommends being as specific as possible about what you did in prior jobs. “I see a lot of resumes that are kind of academic, and don’t have tangibility,’’ she says. “What projects did you work on, and what products did you launch? What were you accountable for?’’

At Feeley & Driscoll, Mitchell likes to see an objective defined at the top of a candidate’s resume that is tightly connected to the job they’re applying for. “An example, for us, would be ‘Seeking to become a CPA in a public accounting firm,’ ’’ she says.

The interview. “You’re being evaluated the moment you get off the elevator and come into our lobby,’’ says Jim French, executive vice president at the Boston marketing agency Hill Holliday. “We ask our receptionist what they thought about a candidate. Were they respectful? How did they approach you?’’

Everyone with whom I spoke said that time spent researching the company, its industry, its rivals, and its clients in advance of an interview will pay off. At Hill Holliday, even showing up with the wrong cup of coffee can be a faux pas: Dunkin’ Donuts is a client, so Starbucks isn’t exactly welcome in their downtown digs.

Keep your answers succinct. “I’ve had interviews where I’ve said, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ and that was literally the only question I asked for the hour,’’ says Jeff Anderson, chief executive of Quick Hit Inc., an online gaming start-up in Foxborough. “I’m sure some of it is nervousness, but I’m not a fan of incoherent, rambling answers.’’

And don’t feel like you’re the subject of an interrogation. “You want to have lots of questions to ask, so it’s a two-way conversation and we can tell you’re engaged,’’ says Bugallo-Muros. “When we ask someone what questions they have at the end of an interview and they say, ‘You’ve answered everything,’ that’s a bad sign. Think of something.’’

Bad questions to ask, at a first interview: how your bonus will be determined, how many vacation days you’ll have, and whether your dentist participates in their plan. “You’d be surprised how many people ask when their first promotion will happen - whether it will be six months or a year,’’ says Lahey. “That tends to turn people off.’’

Going negative on a prior boss “basically ends the interview for me,’’ says McNamara at Cambridge Consultants. “I figure they’ll be saying that about me soon.’’ McNamara also listens for candidates who use the first-person singular too much, instead of talking about “we’’ or “the team.’’ “Saying ‘here’s what I did’ can suggest too much credit-taking and self-focus,’’ she says.

Reference checks. “Make sure that your references know ahead of time that they’ll be contacted,’’ says Michelle Gordon-Seemore, director of recruitment at Children’s Hospital Boston. “When references are caught off guard, that can be a negative.’’

And French at Hill Holiday says, “Worse than having someone who is unprepared to serve as a reference is when none of the candidate’s references will answer an e-mail or return a phone call.’’

Follow-up. Thank-you notes are nice, but “more than two phone calls to ask about your status starts to get excessive,’’ says Maria Harris, director of employment at Rockland Trust.

“When you start to get sent articles that a candidate read on the Web, or volumes of information where they think they’re helping to solve a problem you have, quite often that works against the candidate,’’ says French at Hill Holliday.

At Children’s Hospital, Gordon-Seemore told me that she’d informed a candidate recently that he wasn’t going to get the job for which he’d interviewed. “The person became irate and sent an e-mail - they were very upset that they didn’t get the job,’’ she says. “It was bad judgment, because we would’ve considered them in the future.’’

It’s important to remember that other jobs may come along that could be a better fit for you. But “people who don’t take well to rejection - that sort of scares a recruiter,’’ Gordon-Seemore says.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

Wrong way to interview
What mistakes can torpedo your chances of getting hired? BSG Team Ventures, an executive recruiting firm in Boston, provided this list:
Excessive name dropping
Excessive use of ”I”
Excessive use of buzz words
Lack of vulnerability/weaknesses/failures
Bringing up money/compensation in the first call/interview/meeting
Being particularly difficult or rigid to schedule a meeting or call with
Not having prepared questions to ask about the opportunity
“Closed’’ body language: folding arms, shifting in the chair, looking at the floor