5 June 2024

Why Won’t You Get The Job? You’re Not A Clone Of The Competition

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Veteran Of The Career Wars; photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash…

Yes, you found a job opening you think you could fill perfectly. You have the skills, the education, a lofty employment record with glowing recommendations, and genuine enthusiasm for both the company and the opportunity. So you apply and wait for the employer to contact you.

And you wait.
And you wait.
And weeks go by, making you think they hired someone else.

Then you see they’re still running the ad for the position. And you dig around and find out that, no, that ad’s not a mistake, and no, they haven’t hired someone else — in fact, they just hired expensive recruiters to fill the position.

And that’s when your self-esteem implodes like it just got sacked by a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. What did you do wrong? Or, more self-destructively, you ask, “What’s wrong with me?!”

So you start binge watching The Walking Dead, since the only activity that will cheer you up is seeing people worse off than you.

And to you I say STOP. Well, keep binge watching, because that’s kind of fun. But do STOP BEATING UP ON YOURSELF, because, odds are, it’s not you, it’s them.

I know — cliché, cliché — but from dealing with hiring managers and recruiters for years, I learned a sordid secret: No matter how awesome you are, a company might not hire you because — get this — you’re not doing the exact same job right now for one of their competitors.

Real Life Example: The TV Social Media Gig

A recruiter called me seeking a social media producer for a TV network. So I referred several former students and colleagues, most with advanced degrees in marketing or communications, and all with experience producing social media for corporations, including entertainment companies.

Plus, I could attest that every single one of them met the requisite cliches: passionate hard-working self-driven people-person team-player with strong oral and written communication skills and attention to detail while juggling multiple responsibilities simultaneously and making a mean cup of java.

But none of them got even an interview.

When I followed up, the recruiter apologized and explained that the TV network only wanted to hire a social media producer currently serving one of their rival networks. Did I happen to know any of those people?

The Experience Catch-22 — But Worse

We all know the Experience Catch-22: you don’t get a job because you don’t have the required experience, but you can’t acquire the required experience because you can’t get a job.

I advise people to bridge the gap by doing similar work for a charity, a friend’s company, or their own project.

But in this case, the Experience Catch-22 is impossible for nearly every applicant. Even more frustrating, in order to entice their competitor’s employee away, the employer would have to pay more than they would have had to pay you — especially if recruiters are involved. Why would they do that?

  1. Cowardice: They won’t get fired for hiring a picture-perfect match for the position on paper, even if another applicant is a better worker with more talent and education. Why take a risk on someone who’s (gasp!) a little different?
  1. Laziness: They won’t have to train the new hire — a huge plus since they have no clue how to do the job. Wanting to hire someone who only needs to be told “go” is a common, easy out in today’s market.
  1. Small-mindedness: They’re incapable of projecting an applicant’s unique qualities and experiences onto the job. That requires imagination — a rare commodity in corporate middle management. And if they managed to become execs without a strong education, good luck convincing them that an advanced degree matters.
  1. Ruthlessness: Their philosophy: in order to beat the competition, steal their talent. This creates a momentary skills gap for the competitor, and the traitor might have good secrets.

So What Can You Do About It?

Although breaking this Catch-22 seems near impossible, here are 3 ways to respond:

  1. Wait It Out: If the position stays open too long — which is possible given the ever-improving job market — the employer might feel pressure to relax their requirements. In the meantime, continue building your qualifications and your professional network. Binge-watching The Walking Dead can come later.
  2. Join The Inner Circle: Meet existing employees of that company or their competitor. That means more than just connecting on LinkedIn. Get together, hang out, and impress them with your character, not bragging about your qualities. If the idea of self-serving socializing discomfits you, corporate America might not be your best choice — particularly if it involves the word “Hollywood.” You might even take a lower level job within the company to impress everyone so you can eventually rise into the desired position. Just avoid any role that involves answering phones for other people (see “dead end”).
  3. Seek Something Else: Remember that job hunting is dating. While you want to impress the other party, you’re simultaneously judging whether you want to spend a lot more time with them. And do you really want to work for an executive who’s cowardly, lazy, small-minded, or ruthless? Some climbers don’t mind, since they see that executive as just a speedbump on their way to the top. But unless you have skin as tough as a cheap steak, and guile that would intimidate the writers of House Of Cards, seek a saner option. Consider working for a well-funded and innovative startup. They might be more open-minded, particularly if they’re striving to be cutting edge. The last thing a daring start-up wants is someone who will bring an old-school mindset to their culture of innovation.

With any luck, your startup will become a runaway success and you’ll rise to the top. And someday you may get job applications from those execs who wouldn’t hire you in that old-school company. Turns out they got downsized because their company just couldn’t innovate or differentiate. Gee, how do you think that happened?

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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