With more than 10 million Americans out of work and trying to get back in, job seekers have plenty of competition. By some accounts, more than half of employers have had layoffs in the last year or so, while many others have pulled back sharply on hiring, either instituting freezes or slowing the process.
In a more competitive market, small mistakes have greater repercussions. That's the bad news. (The good news about losing your job in a recession is you need not be defensive—hiring managers will understand.)
If you've been looking for a job in 2008 and have been discouraged by your lack of progress or frustrated by the doors that won't open, you should see the New Year as an opportunity to refresh and improve your search. However, old habits die hard, and if you're making one of the following seven mistakes, the next year may be no better than the last.
1. You're counting on one big thing to come through. When the economy is hauling and job openings are prevalent, you might have good reason to believe that a great interview and a connection inside the company will lead to a job offer. But with unemployment at 6.7 percent—probably heading toward 7 percent next month—and more Americans looking for work, every job opening is greeted with higher numbers of candidates who boast more impressive résumés. Also, job openings are more likely to be suddenly frozen—even after the résumés have been vetted and the interviews have been held. The fact is, you need more irons in the fire in this economy.
2. You're sending lots of recommendation letters. While recommendation letters may be useful or necessary for job applications in some business sectors, they may not be what a prospective employer wants from you—and more is certainly not necessarily better. Alison Green, a manager who blogs at Ask a Manager and U.S. News, says that, "taken to an extreme, letters can even hurt you." Green says that she's had job applicants send 10 (and more) recommendation letters. "That kind of overkill looks silly and naive," she says. It's smart to ask whether a company wants letters before you send them.
3. You're using your connections to find a job. Well, this is good. But the goal is not really to use your connections so much as to make use of your connection's connections. Brad Karsh, president of JobBound, even recommended that job seekers chat up family members over the holidays. That might sound strange, since you already know where your Uncle Al and your cousin Jen work, and you may know, too, that their industries are totally irrelevant to or disconnected from your skill set. But you don't know that about the people they know. They likely have connections to people in different industries that may be highly relevant, and you should get the details.
4. You're faking your weaknesses. You're lucky or smart enough to make it to the interview, and then you start saying things like: "My biggest weakness is that I care too much about my work" or "My biggest weakness is that I'm an incurable optimist. I just think if we can all work together to make this company strong, we'll be leaders in the recession. That's my weakness." Hiring managers want honesty. Green says candidates who offer strengths camouflaged as weaknesses come across as lacking insight or self-awareness. Faking your way through any interview answer—whether it's in reference to your weaknesses or to your work history—is just plain stupid. Either you sound totally disingenuous or out of touch, or your dishonesty will be easily found out with a quick phone call to a former employer.
5. You know exactly what you want. So, you want a job working as an information technology director at a medium-sized firm in Portland, Ore., and you're not going to consider anything else. Good luck with that. It's good to know that when job openings are scarce and the economic outlook is cloudy you are wholly committed to your singular, unflinching vision of career destiny. You better hope it works out for you in enough time for you to make next year's mortgage payments. The truth is that flexibility rules in a job search: The more requirements you're willing to relax, the more likely you'll find work. Indeed, even career sage Richard Bolles recommends taking on something temporarily—he calls it a "stopgap job"—while you look for a position that turns you on as well as pays you.
6. You see your job search as personal and private. When you're out of work, job searches aren't like religious journeys—they don't require selective communications with thoughtful and generous people. Instead, they benefit from openness and candidness with everyone. Julie O'Malley writes at the Pongo Resume blog that job seekers have "nothing to lose by spreading the word and getting your loved ones working on your side." You should be willing to talk to the grocery bagger—or to your neighbor's sister's husband's cousin. You never know who they know. Don't judge their usefulness, and don't be too proud to share.
7. You assume you know corporate culture. Maybe you're young and you think that employers will care more about your résumé than your clothes. Maybe you're older and you think that the best way to follow up after an interview is with repeated phone calls to the hiring manager. Corporate culture is important. Michael Wade of Execupundit.com says one of the key questions interviewers need answered is: "Will this person fit in?" The best thing for you to do is ask—ask about appropriate dress at a company before you go into the interview, or ask the hiring manager how you can best follow up about the position.