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Tooling Up: Be the Candidate


When you read about job-search issues, you'll notice that some words are used interchangeably. Take "resumé" and "CV," for example. Yes, we know there is a difference between these two documents -- one is short and to the point, the other is long and comprehensive -- but many writers use the terms interchangeably, and that can create confusion. In the scientific job-seeker's world, "Send me a resume" generally means "Send me a CV" -- which can lead to a major blunder if that scientist is applying for a job as a salesperson. It can also lead to blunders when applying for jobs overseas, where "CV" really is just another word for what we call a resumé.

Another set of words that's often used interchangeably is "applicant" and "candidate." The difference between these words is confusing and subtle, and a lot of insight lurks behind the distinction. In this month's column, I'll demonstrate that grasping the concepts behind this difference will elevate your job search onto another plateau. Particularly when it comes to applying for jobs in industry, the key in your job search is to figure out how to emerge from a big pile of applicants and enter the scene as a candidate.

An applicant is a person who has applied for a position. A candidate, on the other hand, is a person who is deemed by people who matter to fit the job, someone who has risen above the applicant hoards.

Applicants and candidates, defined

First, let me define the two words. An applicant is a person who has applied for a position, generally by sending in a CV in response to a job ad in a journal or on a Web site. An applicant may or may not fit the position. Hundreds of people apply for advertised openings, hoping that one of their random tosses will hit the target. Sadly, some job seekers limit their search to advertised positions; others spend valuable job-search time blanketing companies they've identified with unsolicited CVs. These are "applicants," too.

A candidate, on the other hand, is a person who is deemed by people who matter to fit the job, someone who has risen above the applicant hoards. It's best for you, obviously, to be considered a candidate. No, you won't earn that special recognition if you don't fit the job. We're talking here about situations where you have what the company is looking for, or at least most of it.

That "most of it" comment is important. It points out that the first step in bridging the gap between applicant and candidate is to know, quite clearly, what it takes to be considered a "fit."

The fit between candidate and company

Here's another way of thinking about that difference: The human resources (HR) department is concerned with applicants, whereas hiring managers are interested in candidates.

When you read a position description in a job ad, it seems that companies are looking for an awful lot. Those ads often list eight or 10 "must have" skills. Human resources departments seem to want to attract people with a long list of qualifications, and oftentimes that list includes "1 to 2 years of industry experience," even for quasi-entry–level positions. If HR has anything to do with it, you might really need to have all eight or 10 skills to make the cut. Fortunately, hiring managers see it differently.

Once you get away from the professional applicant seekers in HR, you find that hiring managers -- the candidate seekers -- are more forgiving of an imperfect match. Generally, hiring managers are happy to get 60% to 70% of what they are looking for, as long as the balance is made up by special attributes. Even the "industry experience" requirement can be moved to the side. In actuality, much of the selection process is geared to things other than what's in the job ad and listed on your CV.

"I have a problem to solve here, a need that needs to be filled," one manager told me when I asked her about her process. "Therefore, my first pass is whether or not the key ingredients of the required skills are present." To her, of the eight items HR put into the ad, only five of them were critical.

"And more important than anything else, after I've identified those with my five core skills, is that the person fit well into my team. I've got to forecast whether or not this person is someone I can work well with, and just as importantly, whether my team can work well with him," she says. "The difficult part is that you just can't tell anything about that when you start looking at a bunch of ad responses." She then added, in a much quieter voice, "I just don't trust our human resources department's view of who will fit my department and who won't."

Applicant versus candidate

Being one of the 400 people who applied for a job doesn't automatically lead to an employer laying down the red carpet, even if you are a fit. In fact, it is quite the opposite: Being among the hoard can be stigmatizing. It's so much harder to shine through when surrounded by people -- lots of them -- who have tossed a CV against the wall, hoping that it would stick.

That fact gets at what may be the most important difference between an applicant and a candidate: If you want to be a candidate, sometimes it's best to avoid ever being a mere applicant. How do you do that? By entering the scene as a known quantity, via some kind of referral.

Here's what I mean:

1) Applicants are treated as if they are a dime a dozen. I was once told, "Run an ad and get hundreds of them."

2) Applicants do not need to be treated with respect, because if one doesn't work out, there will be another one along soon to take her place. Applicants are viewed as commodities.

3) Applicants are generally considered to be unemployed, underemployed, or unhappy. Anyone sending a resumé or CV to an ad or company home page must be "in the market" for a reason.

4) Because they are cheap and abundant, you can ask applicants leading questions such as, "What are your salary expectations?" and get away with it. After all, they sent an unsolicited resumé, so surely they're desperate for work, and anyway, what have we got to lose?

The attitudes toward candidates are very different:

1) Candidates are treated with respect, and dealt with carefully. There are very few of them out there, and the company doesn't want to lose any of its options.

2) Candidates are assumed to be happy and successful in their current job.

3) You can't ask a candidate, "Why do you want to leave your current job?" Certain questions are okay for a person sending a CV unsolicited, or in response to an ad, but not for a candidate.

The candidate-preference phenomenon

I've used the following illustration many times when presenting the services of my recruiting firm. Although there are elements of a "sales pitch" in this, there's more than a grain of truth as well.

I ask a CEO or VP whether he or she agrees that a certain percentage of professional employees read job ads in the journals and on the Internet, not out of casual curiosity, as some of us do, but because they are seriously in the job market. Once they nod their head in agreement, I ask them what percentage of their staff might be in the job market and looking.

"Five to 10%; no more," might be the answer. And here comes the close, something critical to understanding why there is a disadvantage to being lumped in with those "lookers."

"Let's say it's 5%," I say. "Where in your organization would these people who are applying to job ads reside? Are they more likely to be your highest performers -- the top 5%? Or would they be somewhere in the bottom one-third of your company?" The CEO thinks about that young up-and-comer who runs the company's QC laboratory and can't imagine her responding to ads for other jobs. And how about the company's top sales rep? The VP just knows that this person isn't replying to announcements posted on some competitor's Web site.

Then comes a wink and a nod. That CEO just got the picture. He wants to pull his next hire from his competitor's top 5% and not from their bottom one-third. Management wants candidates, not applicants. And that's why they need to hire a recruiter. That's my pitch.

Getting out from the weight of the bottom third

So how are you going to slip out from under this massive load of job applicants and be considered a candidate? Networking, of course. And not just the very difficult kind of networking that puts you in touch with hiring managers (who are always hard to find and reach). By talking to people just a year or two ahead of you on the track you are interested in, you'll develop friends and allies inside companies, people who can help position you as a candidate for their next opening.

Hiring managers will find out about you through employee referrals, where the employee is rewarded with a bonus for bringing you to the attention of the company. CVs that go through networking to companies always go directly to the hiring manager, where (if you fit an opening) you are given the luxury of being considered a candidate right away. That's much better than trying to emerge from that pile of 400 applicants.

Welcome, reader, to the world of the candidate, a much friendlier and receptive place to land as a job seeker.