I frequently see job candidates acting as if only "official" contacts—like interviews and formal writing samples—count during the hiring process. They'll send flawlessly edited cover letters and writing samples and then check up on their applications with sloppily written E-mails with spelling errors. Or they'll be charming and polite to me but rude to an assistant.
If you're job searching, remember that employers are gathering information about you at every interaction, not just in the interview itself. For example:
What is your response time like? I pay attention to how quickly a candidate responds to requests for writing samples and references, and even how fast he or she returns phone calls. My assumption is that you're on your best behavior during the hiring process—so if I have to wait days for you to get back to me now, what will you be like when you're working here?
How reliable are you? I want candidates who take their own word seriously, not cavalierly. For example, if you tell me you'll send references within a day, I expect them within a day—or that you'll update me with a new timeline.
Can you follow directions? My organization posts our job application instructions online, and we specify five points we want all cover letters to include; at least one third of our applicants ignore these instructions. If you can't follow directions before we've even hired you, I'll assume you won't follow them if you work for us.
Do you have a sense of entitlement? Candidates who demand immediate interviews, balk at requests for writing samples, or generally act as if they're the only candidate for the job send a loud message that they'll be nightmares to work with. (These are the same candidates who will reply to a rejection notice by insisting that there couldn't possibly have been anyone better qualified for the job.) The candidates who seem appreciative and know that the hiring process is competitive are the ones who get interviews.
Of course, I'll notice the opposite too. If you respond quickly and professionally at every stage, do what you say you're going to do, respect and follow instructions, and treat everyone you come into contact well, I'm going to notice it. It won't get you the job if you're not qualified, but if you are, it could be the extra push you need.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.