Why the Little Things Matter in Your Job Search

A small mistake in a job hunt can take on far greater importance than it would in most contexts

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Alison Green
I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of candidate mistakes in the hiring process. The fact is, everyone makes mistakes. A single mistake generally says very little about you. It's patterns of mistakes that matter. But when you're on a job search, a small blunder can take on far greater importance than it would in most contexts. This is hard on job seekers, who can't possibly attain a superhuman level of perfection. It can seem unfair to be judged so harshly for mistakes everyone makes—typos, stupid comments, the occasional late arrival.

[See 5 ways companies mistreat job seekers.]

So, why do such little things matter? Well, when you're screening applicants, you only have a small pool of information about each person. You know you're only seeing a sliver of who that person is, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still all you have to base your decision on. When someone makes a mistake—arrives late, say, or gives a horrible answer to an interview question—instead of constituting less than 0.1 percent of the information you have about someone (as with a friend or coworker), it looms much larger in the whole.

Here's what can happen in a hiring manager’s head when a job candidate makes a noticeable mistake: "She told me she was going to send me this writing sample Monday, but then she sent it on Tuesday without acknowledging the delay. This might be out of character for her; everyone screws up occasionally. But if I ignore this possible red flag and hire her, and then she turns out to be scattered and bad with deadlines, I'm going to be kicking myself for not having paid attention to this sign now."

[See how to deal with job rejection.]

I've ignored those red flags before because they seemed like small things, too petty to base a hiring decision on. And in every single case where I ignored red flags and hired the person anyway, those red flags came back to bite me.

For example: I excused it once when a candidate's reference sheet was a mess and even contained a wrong number—and she turned out to be sloppy and made frequent errors. Another time, I excused it when a candidate made a couple of comments that sounded arrogant—and he turned out to be a complete jerk to work with. I could go on and on with examples. Each time, I end up thinking, "The signs were there! I should have listened to them." But they seemed small at the time—so small that a candidate would understandably be frustrated that she was excluded on that basis. But, after going through it enough, hiring managers learn to give credence even to small signs, because, ultimately, you've got to go on what you see, not speculation about what might be.

[See how companies make hiring decisions.]

So what can job seekers do when they, like all human beings, make a mistake? Two things:

1. Acknowledge it. Don't hope that if you don't mention it, it won't be noticed.

2. Say it's out of character for you (if it is). This gets at the heart of what the hiring manager is wondering; she's looking for assurance that this isn't your usual way of operating. For instance: "I'm mortified. I noticed that I got the time of our call wrong. I can't tell you how out of character this is for me, and I know what a big deal timeliness is."

You'd be surprised by how few people do that. It will matter.

Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. 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.