Job Search Story #2: Suspicious

SUSPICIOUS

I applied for a job as an arts manager at a college several months ago and immediately had good feelings about the job. (I always think that’s a good sign.) It was in a geographical area I loved, it would have required me to utilize my skills as a composer and theorist, and the people I’d be working with were professional colleagues with my professional colleagues.  For years I had been told by my college’s career center and my family members that knowing someone at the organization for which you wanted to work automatically increased your chances of getting noticed. Though I had felt, and to a degree still feel, uncomfortable with the political undertones of this practice (perhaps I’m just too proud, but shouldn’t my resume/website/portfolio be enough to get me “noticed”?), I thought to myself, “Maybe everyone’s right and I might as well just bite the bullet.”

So I played that aspect up without name dropping, rather highlighting my own accomplishments and desire to work at the college. I had a good feeling I’d be called at least for an interview.

Again, I had to deal with the dreaded online application. HR emailed me a confirmation receipt (essentially useless to me, as I detailed in my previous post) and I waited.

Over two months later, I received an email from the arts department coordinator. Well, he/she had emailed me using his/her own address… but the email was signed by the department chair. Now, had it been a forward, or at least contained an attachment directly from the chair, I’d have been more assured. But it was an email from someone who was not the person who signed the email. It thanked me for my interest, but said that after a thorough review of applications, they could not offer me the position.

Did the chair write it, forward it to the coordinator, and expect him/her to ship it off to all rejected candidates? Did the chair specifically instruct the coordinator to write an email for him/her? I was confused. I wanted to follow up, but it was unclear to me whom to write to.

I decided to write to the coordinator and CC the chair (and I mentioned in the email I was CC-ing him/her). I thanked them for their time. But what I really wanted to do was something I had never asked any potential employer. I asked them for feedback on my application. According to current practice, it is appropriate to do so. And they had specifically said they had completed a thorough review of applications. I figured it was appropriate to ask for their opinion about my qualifications.

The chair emailed me back, saying first that it was not appropriate for him/her to give comments on a confidential search. I felt a little annoyed that the chair had misinterpreted my request. Not once did I ask for information about the search or other candidates. That’s none of my business. So I also felt like I had overstepped some boundary. Deny this all you like (and please read Lean In if you do), but often a woman’s workplace fears are stirred when she feels she had displeased someone or overstepped her position. I’m not saying that’s how it should be, but for many women, a legitimate concern is our patriarchal system. I can sympathize. As much as I want to be the one who reaches out for feedback, asks for more responsibility, or poses new ideas to the boss, I won’t do it if I feel it might upset someone else. (But Lean In is helping me overcome that fear! Post to come!) How backwards was that? The chair made an error, albeit a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things, and I felt like I had done something wrong!

In the last sentence of the short email, he/she answered my question: get more experience in the field. I felt like Ralphie Parker when he decoded the ovaltine message.

Perhaps I misinterpreted their form email. When someone says they’ve completed a thorough review of applications, I take that as an invitation to inquire about my credentials. Whatever they were looking for in a candidate was something I didn’t have. But what? The chair couldn’t answer that for me. Maybe this college didn’t keep past applications on file (most institutions with online applications keep them for at least a year). Or maybe the chair just didn’t want to take the time to look up my application.

But the fact that the chair couldn’t even cite one specific credential I should have had (something for which he didn’t need to see my application specifically) tells me that either he/she didn’t do a thorough review of my application or didn’t know what kind of credentials the hiring team was looking for. And that seemed a little suspicious to me. Why disclose a little more about the desired job qualifications they themselves set, especially to someone who was interested in learning more about the field?

To give you some context, this was the 83rd jobs I’d applied for since getting my master’s. So by then, I knew generally what to expect from people and what not to expect. But I will never stop expecting basic courtesy. I would treat someone with no less, and probably more.

WHAT I LEARNED

1. Follow up, follow up, follow up. I didn’t do this because it was an online application and I didn’t know whether to email HR or someone in the arts department. But someone should always be the go-to person for a position. If you hit a dead end, call and ask for the name and contact information. If you’re met with hesitancy, take note and keep trying to contact the appropriate person. Cite your difficulty managing to get accurate contact information. Do say thank you for any information you get, even if it isn’t quite as helpful as you’d hoped. Courtesy is always the high road, and you never know who will remember you as being the courteous one.

2. It’s okay to be uncomfortable with the idea of name dropping, but there are ways to do it without making you sound like someone owes you a favor, and you should consider them. I still cringe when I hear people talking about networking for a job. It conjures images of underhandedness and unfair advantages. But it’s a lot easier to be on board with the idea of networking when I tell myself this: the people in my network are there because we share common interests, career goals, and an inherent happiness in seeing each other learn and achieve. That’s what needs to be “dropped” in a cover letter, phone call, or email. I think it’s obvious that you shouldn’t just cite a mutual contact’s name and finish with “and s/he said I should contact you about a position.” This sounds like you expect a favor or special treatment. But if you cite a mutual contact, describe the work you’ve done together, and indicate how excited you are to pursue similar interests through this potential employer, that shifts the focus. The perfect blending of interest in the position, indication at your excitement to learn, the name of a mutual contact, and your ability to bring great ideas and skills to the organization shows you are genuine. The focus is now more about what both you AND the organization want, as opposed to just what you want.

3. Don’t be afraid to describe your feelings and ask for clarification. (I feel like this will be a recurring theme.) I could have emailed the arts coordinator regarding my disappointment that it took several weeks to get any information about the hiring process, only to be told it had ended. Information and feedback about their process, when given diplomatically, can only help them in the future. They can always ignore it too, so no harm done.

4.  Don’t be afraid to tell someone he or she has made an error. When the chair seemed to have misinterpreted my question, I should have corrected him/her. “It seems as though you have misunderstood me. I’m actually just looking for feedback on my own materials. Any specific information you can give me would be much appreciated.” Here, I pointed out the error and politely clarified what I was asking (my use of ‘actually’  makes it seem like it was a simple mistake, although in reality I felt like I had overstepped; I chose to downplay that feeling rather than seem accusatory). Then I reiterated that I wanted specific information, which refers to the previous email about a thorough review while also being moderately assertive. If someone’s error (make sure it’s a true error, not just something you disagree with) affects you negatively, point it out. Be tactful when restating what is it you meant.

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