Rejected in Thirty Seconds
I recently heard two young men comparing their frustrations with job searches. They were both looking for work in the high-tech industries that are ubiquitous in this area, and both were so far unsuccessful. One was particularly outraged because he had submitted an application online, and it had been returned to him, rejected, in less than thirty seconds.

His carefully written, rewritten, edited, and proofread application had been received not by a human but by a computer program which scanned it for key words. Having failed to find the desired words, the application was declined. Immediately. He was understandably dismayed and disheartened. He was also annoyed.

This technology has been around for about twenty years; my husband came across it in his engineering field in the early nineties. When I taught college students how to prepare for the workplace, I would caution them about this method of sorting applicants, and I tried to encourage them to write two resumes—one for a human and one for a computer to read. So far as I know, none of them ever did the latter, but perhaps now they do.

While I understand the logic and expediency of scanning a job application for key words, I still find it somehow wrong, probably because it seems rude. Once upon a time it was customary to reply to every candidate with a personalized letter. That was the ethical and professional thing to do. That stopped happening about thirty years ago, when only the candidates who were to be interviewed were contacted. Even then, all interviewees were contacted to let them know whether or not they had been successful. I’m told that doesn’t happen now, either.

When we started down this soulless path, we did not imagine that one day we might be rejected by a machine in thirty seconds. It’s like trying to play cards with a card sharp and a rigged deck. We don’t know what the key words might be, so we can only guess. We don’t know how many pages the computer will read, so we err on the side of caution. No matter how much we network and maintain our profiles on LinkedIn, we are still subject to the whims of the person who set up the mechanical reader. This makes nepotism seem warm and fuzzy by comparison.

This obsession with speed reading probably explains why I’m not doing well with online dating. I’m obviously not using the right key words in my profile, even though I could easily guess which ones would get me the most responses. I don’t want to go on a date with a man who is only scanning for the obvious. Job applicants, on the other hand, could find out the sexiest words in their industry’s lexicon and splatter them all over their resumes. But then, they’d have to go on that date. Their jobs would depend on it.

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  1. When I help friends with their resumes, I always tell them: If you don’t use the same keywords as in the job description/skills set, you might as well not waste your time. In addition, these days you have to stand out, either with a killer cover letter or, if you are lucky enough to get an interview, with a thank-you note that either demonstrates something that came up in the interview that you can help the company with, or, at the very least, with perhaps an article from the industry that you can use to highlight that you understand their business on a deeper level than just “I think I’m the best candidate for this job.” With the machines in charge, you also have to be very fast to get your resume in as soon as the job is posted. Usually, they will pull the best five candidates from the first batch and hire from that. If your resume is #500, it’s probably never even considered, even if you ARE the best candidate for the job. I worked in HR when we went through applications and resumes by hand, and I have mixed feelings about both methods. On the one hand, it’s frustrating knowing a human being may never see your resume. On the other, I spent countless hours reading really sucky resumes. 🙂

  2. Thanks for your insightful response, LBMM. Given the current, abysmal, job market, your advice is excellent.

    I can’t help musing, though, that the old sucky system at least provided work for some people in HR and was kinder to the applicants. The current sucky system provides less work and is just nasty.

  3. If you were a large corporation and received 1,000 applicants for each job opening what would you do? I had a very small business and received over 150 applications for one opening which actually paralyzed me; I couldn’t even read one of them or scan through them or anything. I had to have my business manager “weed out” so to speak and hand me 10 that I could call. I do sense the rudeness and the lack of consideration, but I can’t think of a solution. I think the rejection is actually kinder than my non-response in many ways so the sender of the resume knows to continue his or her search. Perhaps if I had an HR department I could think in different terms. It’s an intriguing situation. I really like LBMM’s suggestion to job seekers.

  4. I do appreciate the dilemma, Sally. When I worked at the college we, too, would get stacks of applicants for every faculty position. It’s a lengthy process to weed out the unqualified and bring down the list of qualified applicants to a manageable few.

    It seems to me, though, that if a company is going to use a word scanner to do part of this work, they should at least treat the applicants with respect. They should also have the computerized reply explain to the applicant why they were unsuccessful. Job-hunting is already a soul-destroying process; I think we can do without the thirty second rejection.

  5. When the local office of my company shut down unexpectedly in 2009 and I was forced into a job search not of my own choosing, it was a real wake-up call.

    The job search before that was in 2003. I sent out about 25 resumes and got 6 or 7 responses, with four interviews, one that flew me cross-country and put me up for several days. That search resulted in several job offers. I was still getting calls after I moved to take the job I finally accepted in Mississippi, offering to fly and move me back to the west coast.

    Fast-forward to 2009 and my layoff. I sent out 127 resumes. Not shotgun resumes, but specific to my skills and qualifications and for jobs that were similar to what I’d been doing for over 12 years. I got five responses, which netted two telephone interviews and one face-to-face interview (resulting in my one and only offer which, thankfully, turned out to be a good one).

    For most of those jobs, I never even got an acknowledgement of my application, other than the canned, automated responses from websites.

    Frustrating, to say the least, but it’s the system we work within.

    I can also say that most HR people are abysmal at selecting good candidates. We all have biases and those come into play when reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates. The current system is more impersonal, which is frustrating to job hunters, but also eliminates some of those biases. Of course, it also favors the candidate who learns to work the system, but there is a lot to be said for the traits of resilience and adaptability, which are probably two of the key traits for job success.

    The market is a cycle, like everything else. Right now, with employers in the upper hand, they can treat candidates any way they please, because there is (and probably will be for some time) a surplus of qualified applicants for any job opening. People applying above their skill set muddy the water. There is little opportunity anymore to be taken on for a job slightly out of your range and be trained up into it – not for any job that pays enough to live on.

    Eventually, the market will cycle around again so that there are more jobs than there are candidates, as is the case now in certain industries and geographic regions. In the meantime, networking so that you know people who know you well enough to hand carry your resume to a hiring manager is one of the best opportunities to increase success, and learning to work the system as it stands will at least put you ahead of the average candidate.

    1. Thanks, LBMM, for that interesting and informative summation of your recent experiences. I really feel for the many young adults currently searching for work. It is extremely difficult and disheartening for them.

  6. It is – and I feel for them. I think all of us face a lot more restrictions and dead ends in the job market these days. Just means we have to work harder to get opportunities, which can be overwhelming and quite depressing if we let it go that way.

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