Outwitting the Recruiting Black Hole

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People wait in line to speak to potential employers at a New York state jobs fair in the Harlem Armory on June 7, 2012 in New York City.

Years ago, you could send a resume and cover letter in the mail with a reasonable expectation that you’d eventually hear from the employer, whether they wanted to hire you or not. Now that the vast majority of recruiting activity happens electronically, job-seekers have had to adjust their activities to conform to the online recruiting paradigm. I call the gaping maw of an organization’s recruiting portal the Black Hole, because it shreds resumes the way black holes in space shred objects into sub-atomic particles. Here are some tips for helping your resume get through the Black Hole sieve and, with luck, yield a telephone conversation (or at least, an email correspondence) with a living human being.

When you start to fill out an online application form in a typical corporate Black Hole (and by ‘corporate’ I mean any organization, of any size – there are only a handful of vendors in the Black Hole software space, and their products are remarkably similar) you’ll notice that the thing looks very much like an old-fashioned job application form. You’ll be asked where you worked, for how long, and what tasks you performed. Of course, this is a ridiculous way to determine what a person has done or is capable of; the very best person you’ve ever worked with and the most inept or irresponsible person you’ve ever worked alongside would fill out these forms exactly the same way. (Employers should be asking questions like “What was your proudest accomplishment on that past job?” instead.)

So, when the application asks you “What were your tasks and duties?,” tell a story about that past job. Tell the reader what you came, saw, and conquered. Here’s an example of the traditional application language, and the storytelling approach for contrast:


Title: Cashier
Tasks and Duties: Rang up purchases and bagged them, operated a cash register, reconciled register at the end of the shift, and processed coupons and discounts.


Title: Cashier
Tasks and Duties: I worked 20 hours/week at Target while working full-time; I cultivated relationships with guests, kept my register balanced to the penny and pinch-hit in Guest Services when they got busy.

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One application form entry makes you sound like every other Target cashier who ever put a red shirt on. The other one makes it clear that you’re a human being. Look how much information we’ve stuffed into those few lines:

  • We see that you worked during school (industrious!)
  • We learn that you understood how important the relationship-building aspect of your job was
  • We get that you’re on top of the dollars and cents, and
  • We see that you’re versatile, and not averse to helping out other departments when they need you

We get all that, and we also get a sense of your down-to-earth personality via the use of vernacular (“pinch-hit”). That’s a lot of useful information for your next manager or the HR person assisting him or her – way more than the usual “tasks and duties” roster would give us. (Heck, everyone knows what a Target cashier does – we don’t need you to spell it out for us.)

One of the worst things about the misguided-but-nearly-universal use of Black Hole recruiting systems is that they choke the life out of job applicants, reducing complex and fascinating (not to mention hard-working and creative) people to keywords and job titles. That’s a shame, but job-seekers can do a lot to thwart the Black Hole’s efforts to turn them into anonymous drones. They can give context to their past jobs and current job-search aspirations.

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In any open comment box your next Black Hole job application form puts in front of you, write something that tells the employer you understand his or her business situation and have lived through the same movie, yourself. The message “I have an idea of what you’re up against over there at Acme Explosives” is a million times more powerful than the lame and oft-repeated messages “I’m industrious, loyal and creative, a results-oriented professional with a bottom-line orientation.” We have heard that tired, robotic line too many times – there’s no life in it. You could write something like this, instead:

I heard about Acme Explosives from my sister Pam, whose company is a supplier of yours. She said you’re growing fast and in need of Project Managers to get your new X-15 stick dynamite products out of the chute and onto the market. At Roadrunner Industries, I managed the launch of the Desert Delights birdseed line, which added $14M to revenues in its first year (budgeted for $10M).

You don’t have to go on and on – less is more, and Black Hole application screeners are time-pressed people. Tell the hiring manager that you understand something about his or her business pain, and have slain that same dragon in your own career. This doesn’t require inside knowledge; you can do a respectable amount of pain-spotting just by reading a company’s website and its Company page on LinkedIn. After all, business pain doesn’t come in infinite varieties: they’re either growing, shrinking, getting ready to merge, changing markets, or staying the course. You can respond to any of those business situations with aplomb, once you dig in a bit to figure out which one your target employer is facing.

Perhaps the worst thing about the recruiting Black Hole process is the hopelessness job-seekers feel as they fill out the tedious fields and check-boxes, wondering “Will anyone ever even see this?” Someone might not. I was a corporate HR VP for a million years, and I am sorry to tell you that in many instances, Black Hole applications don’t even get read by a human being, no matter how complete or how awesome they are. That’s why it’s good to supplement your online job search activity by contacting your next prospective boss directly, sending a resume via snail mail. (Why the mail? Hiring managers don’t expect it, and your resume gets right to the person with the pain. You can find your hiring manager’s name pretty easily via LinkedIn, once you figure out his or her title, and that’s easy. What are the titles of the people you’ve worked for before? If you’re a Purchasing Agent, you’ll be looking for the company’s Purchasing Manager, Materials Director, Procurement Manager, or some variation.)

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Keep in mind that despite the tough job market, employers are always hungry for talent. So far in 2012, my inbox is maintaining a two-to-one ratio, with twice as many employers writing to me about their hard-to-fill openings as job-seekers looking for advice. Keep the Black Hole as one element in your job-search strategy (the two others are direct outreach to targeted employers who may or may not have a posted job opening, and networking) and keep your chin up. A side benefit: the more you tell your story and practice spotting business pain, the more your job-search mojo will grow. Don’t let the Black Hole get you down.