Law and Conversation

December 10, 2009

Online job applications

Today I read an article on searching for jobs online that contained such advice as “be professional,” “don’t apply for jobs for which you’re not qualified,” and “remember that you have competition.” 

The article got me to thinking about online job applications and how the internet does make it at least somewhat easier to find out about available jobs and apply for them.  But I was wishing that it had told readers something that wasn’t obvious and that they don’t already know. 

I wrote “Shakin’ The Pink Slip Blues,” the cover story for the May 2009 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, on job finding fundamentals for lawyers and others in this dismal economic climate.  You can access it here if you’re a member of the Illinois State Bar Association:  http://www.isba.org/ibj/2009/05/230_career_planning.html .  I interviewed two Chicago area career counselors, Sheila Nielsen and Marilyn Moats Kennedy, and got some terrific commentary and solid suggestions from them for how to conduct a job search.  I also included a sidebar with some really helpful external links, including one of my current favorites for career and life advice, Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/ .   Some of my links and my sources touched on online job applications, but I had room to treat that subtopic only briefly.

So after reading the other article I ran across today, I started thinking about online job hunting some more and came up with some questions to which I’d love to see some concrete, helpful answers.  (And would love to write another article including them, too.)

Online job applications require all fields to be filled out, but the questions may be vague or otherwise poorly crafted and permit only a limited number of characters for response. Readers, how would you suggest handling these common online job application questions?

1) “Why did you leave your last job?”

The answer to this question may be manifold and complex, and is far easier discussed in person.  Is a nonspecific answer such as “Wanted to explore other opportunities” sufficient to avoid the online application’s being weeded out? 

2) “What is your minimum salary requirement?”

I’ve never found a good suggestion for this one, whether it’s presented online or in person (though Penelope Trunk comes pretty close when she writes about it in the in-person context at http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2003/12/11/4-tips-for-salary-negotiation/  ).  The employer never discloses the range, so candidates are presented with the unattractive option of lowballing what they would like and ought to be paid for fear of having their applications thrown out. I suspect that online programs won’t permit submission of the form without a dollar figure in the field, but I haven’t tested this to find out.

3) “What percentage of time are you available for travel?”

Well, what percentage is the position expected to travel?  Like salary range, the employer probably hasn’t revealed this, either, or candidates may be submitting their applications for consideration for any available position for which they’re qualified—as many employers invite them to do.  Is the employer looking for how flexible you are—i.e. any day of the week for any length of time—or total amount of time that you’re willing to be on the road?  If you say “20%,” will your resume be weeded out without an interview because the application program or the employer interprets this response to mean only 1 day a week when the job actually requires weeklong trips now and then, so the correct answer is 100% even though the position does not require the candidate to be on the road 365 days a year?  Is the correct answer ALWAYS 100%?

If you’re an HR professional or someone with responsibility for hiring, please think about your application process.  You might be unintentionally weeding out some  terrific candidates by some poorly crafted questions or less than sensitive procedures.  If you’re a person without a job and/or without health insurance, my heart goes out to you on this chilly December day.  There but for the grace of God go all of us. 

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