Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




Beware the Linkedin Recruiter Scam

December 7, 2015

The BBC is reporting a scam targeting Linkedin users looking to make connections with recruiters.

Job seekers are especially vulnerable because they are delighted to be invited to connect with recruiters and they rarely check the credentials of the person inviting them to connect.

By joining the target’s contact list the process of building trust and gaining useful information for later exploitation begins.


There’s no evidence that this activity is particularly widespread at the moment but it’s certainly worth taking simple precautions.

  1. As the articles suggests, do a reverse image search on the photo.
  2. Also, use one of the many free plagiarism checking sites to see if the profile or other content have been lifted from elsewhere.
  3. A search for the company may also help, but be aware that some of the more sophisticated scammers will have set up convincing websites so be careful.
  4. Check if the recruiter is a member of one of the professional bodies such as the REC, ARC, APSCo or the IoR.  If they claim to be so then check with that body as well.
  5. Use your common sense.  If it smells funny it probably is.  Don’t let your desire for a job make a fool of you.  That’s exactly how these people operate.

Remember another thing as well: you don’t need to connect with recruiters on Linkedin.  If they think they can help you then they should send you an InMail message.  They often try to avoid this because they have to pay for InMail but the downside for you of accepting a contact request is that you give them access to your full profile. Better, if at all possible, to conduct your relationship with recruiters directly.

Don’t let this put you off using the Linkedin.  As I’m always saying, it’s a great tool for your networking activity. Just remember that networking with fellow professionals is not at all the same as networking with recruiters.  As with any contact request, be very careful who you allow to be in your network. This useful article looks at how scammers exploit Linkedin in other ways.

You’ve probably heard it before but it’s worth repeating:  the internet is like the wild west.  Be cautious.

Google’s Israeli-Arab Success Story

December 1, 2015

A few days ago I was lucky enough to attend a short talk about the hi-tech sector in Israel.  Specifically it was to do with a small charity called Tsofen, dedicated to developing the hi-tech sector in Israel’s Arab communities.

Israel is at the vanguard of technology based industries, yet for a number of reasons, political and cultural, the Arab communities are under-represented in these sectors.  Tsofen believes that a by increasing opportunities for Israel’s Arab citizens to participate in hi-tech they will help to bring about a more equitable society.

We heard from Tsofen’s determined CEO, Paz Hirschmann, and also from Safaa Eek, a somewhat demure yet super-smart woman who is one of Tsofen’s success stories.  She told us of the traditional values of the Arab village in northern Israel where she comes from – a village where parents aspire for their children to become doctors, because doctors will always work, and of the resistance she faced when she expressed her desire to follow her dream into computing.

How does an Arab woman find a job in an industry that is hardly even present in Arab areas?

Safaa told us that she attended meet-ups and events as frequently as she could.  Being the only person wearing a hijab, she was certainly noticed, and before long she was building valuable contacts, alerting her to opportunities.

google IsraelWithout question it was a long, hard journey.  Safaa attended many interviews without success.  She jut didn’t fit the image of an IT person.  Then she hooked up with Tsofen who helped her to connect with suitable organisations through their networking events, and this led to her being offered a position with Google. Google are employing Safaa and funding her Computer Science degree course in Tel Aviv.

Regular readers and clients will know what I’m going to say and I’m going to keep saying it: it’s all about networking!

If networking can work for the first, and so far only, Arab to work for Google in Tel Aviv, think how valuable building connections, relationships, and having conversations will be for you as you plot your career journey.

Recruiters are useful, without question, and for many people that’s how they get their jobs, but less and less so.  If you’re not immersing yourself in your professional community, setting up one to one meetings and attending events, you’re doing  far less than half of what you need to be doing to secure that next job.

Send emails and pick up the phone!



The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

November 6, 2013

Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director, often remarks that the key to the success of Team GB cycling over recent years is what he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  These almost unnoticed changes to the way the athletes train eat, rest, as well as the small tweaks to their bikes may not make a marked difference alone, but when combined with many other tiny improvements they do effect significant improvement.

Individually they may seem so marginal as not to warrant the effort required to put into them.  Is it really worthwhile removing a tyre and re-fitting it just because it could be set on the wheel slightly better?  Brailsford would say yes, absolutely. If  the combination of all these tiny improvements means the difference between gold and silver there is no doubt that it is worthwhile.

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

The principle is relevant to all areas including job search.  Indeed, especially job search because when going for a job there is only the gold medal.  There is nothing to celebrate when coming second in job applications. Either you get the job or you don’t.

There are many tiny things you can do to make a marginal improvement in your application process.  Here are a handful of ideas.

Networking is the key to increasing your chances of finding a new job because the opportunities to network are almost unlimited whereas the number of jobs advertised is.  So add another networking meeting or event to your weekly job search activity.

Have high quality personal business cards made.  Give them to people.

Be proactive in your relationships with recruiters.  Don’t sit and wait for the phone to ring.  Keep in contact with them but don’t pester them.  Seek their advice about how you can improve your performance in the job market.

At this time of year wear a poppy unless doing so compromises your personal ethics.  It is unlikely to offend anyone, but it will, in a small way, send a positive message about you as a person to the person who is interviewing you.

Phone the recruiter or HR person before applying for any clarification that will help you to construct a better application.

Phone the recruiter or HR person a day after submission to ensure they received it.  Making voice contact will raise you in their awareness and they will feel a tiny bit familiar with you when they see your application.  Obviously don’t pester them or it will have a negative effect.

Read, re-read, and then give your application to someone else who is good at grammar to read over your CV, cover letter and application form.  The third stage is really worthwhile.  You will miss a lot of errors because your brain has learned to ignore them.  Fresh eyes will almost always pick something up you have overlooked.

Plan your journey to the interview carefully and ensure you are early.  Not on time, early.  Be at the reception 5 – 10 minutes before the appointed time, no more.  That might mean sitting in a coffee shop or taking a walk around the block.  No problem, use the time to relax yourself.

Talking of relaxation, if you tend to get anxious learn some simple relaxation techniques.  Don’t be one of those people who always struggles with nerves in interviews.  You don’t have to be that person.  You can learn to control those nerves.

Take extra time with your grooming and think carefully about what you will wear on at the interview.  Make sure all your clothes are properly cleaned and pressed and men, ties go grubby at the knot after a while.  Wear a clean tie or buy a new one.  Polish your shoes. People often think that appearances shouldn’t matter, and maybe they’re right, appearances shouldn’t matter, but they do.  If you want the job, play along.

If you are rejected for the role seek useful feedback.  That means not simply asking “Is there any feedback?”  because that will most likely get you an answer along the lines of “other candidates were more suitable”.  You need to know what you must do to improve your performance next time, so ask for specific feedback:  “What were you looking for that I lacked?”, “What could I have done differently or better?”  “What advice would you give me if I want to succeed next time?”  You won’t always get useful information this way either, but it’s a better way to ask for feedback.

Of course you could look at all these and many other ways of doing things ever so slightly better, and decide that the effort required is not worth the bother, and if you do that you may keep winning the silver medal.

If you’d like to suggest any more tiny improvements people can make please post them up here.

Compromising Positions.

September 23, 2013

I was with a client recently who has parted ways with his former employer under a compromise agreement or, as they are now more palatably known, a settlement agreement.  The subtle change in words suggest something more positively negotiated than a compromise, that has a whiff of reluctance about it. Nonetheless, the outcome is the same, and that outcome usually works for the employer better than for the employee in the long run.

In most cases the reason for the compromise, sorry settlement, is to enable the employer to get rid of someone in circumstances where the employee might other wise have a claim for unfair dismissal for example, where the employee having not performed poorly over a period of time as measured by a performance management programme, or where their role is not being made redundant.


I’ve worked with several people who have agreed to leave an organisation with a generous pay-off (and sometimes a not so generous pay-off) simply because they were at something of a loose end without anything realistic they could do to justify their salary.  Rather than go through a formal redundancy process it’s sometimes easier and more convenient for both parties to agree to part company with an enhanced pay-off.

However, in a small number of cases, the reason is more serious.  It may be that an incident has taken place where the employee has experienced a form of discrimination and rather than drag the employer through a tribunal process, the employer may persuade them (perhaps with good reason) that a quiet settlement would be better for all concerned. Another case I dealt with  concerned an employee not seeing eye to  eye with a newly installed boss (for which read “new boss wanted to bring their own guy in”).  You can see why in such cases  it is important for the employer to draw a line under the affair in order to avoid publicity.

The deal will comprise a pay-off, a nice reference and a gag. The problem for the former employee is that such agreements often lead to curiosity and suspicion and without the ability to explain the circumstances of the departure, the employee may find themselves rejected for another candidate when they apply for another job.  This can be a particular problem at times like these when prospective employers have enough choice of candidates to be able to exclude any that come with unexplained baggage.

Furthermore, it is very unusual for people to leave a job without another to go to when unemployment is high, so people really need to be prepared to answer the question about why they have done so and not assume it will be overlooked. Employees are often on the back foot in such circumstances and this might lead to them agreeing to a deal more rapidly than they ought. With the temptation of a chunky pay-off and a glowingly written reference people often think there’s no downside.  It’s only later on when the restrictions on what they can say start to cause them difficulties.

If you find yourself in this situation take professional advice  to make sure you are thinking about all that needs to be thought about.  Your employer should be prepared to pay for this advice. You also need to be sure you can answer the inevitable interview question – “why did you leave your last job?”  Can you look the interviewer in the eye and give an honest answer?  If not, you haven’t covered well enough what should and shouldn’t be restricted.  Your advisor should be able to help you find a form of words that protect the interests of both parties.  That set of words is critical to your ability to secure a new job so it requires plenty of consideration before you sign the agreement. Remember that you have done nothing wrong and this exercise is for your employers convenience.  Don’t let them make it a future problem for you.

Why one thousand plus applications isn’t enough.

August 1, 2013

Have you ever noticed that whenever unemployment becomes a news story, some hapless jobseeker is vox-popped delivering a statement along the lines of  “I’ve applied for well over a thousand jobs and I’ve never even had a single reply”?

Someone being vox-popped, but probably not about their jobsearch.  It's just a picture.

Someone being vox-popped, but probably not about their jobsearch. It’s just a picture.

That’s when I start shouting at televisions and radios.  I don’t usually shout at televisions and radios.  I feel that is a pastime that should be reserved for idealistic teenagers.  But the “thousand applications without reply” always gets me.

Have these people never heard of the concept of flogging a dead horse?  How many applications do they need to make before they realise it may be a flawed strategy?

Let’s take a look behind the soundbite.

What do they mean by applications?

When people talk about making a thousand or more job applications what they are saying is that they are going online and hitting a button that sends a standard (or perhaps slightly varied) form to a website.  The website may well have some clever gizmos that look for relevant words and filters out all the applications that don’t include those words.  Those rejected applications go into a black hole, never having  been seen by human eye.  The remainder are then forwarded by the system to a person for the next filtering stage.   Now  you can see why these applicants don’t even get an acknowledgement?

Then why do people continue to follow this fruitless path?

Because it’s easy and it allows them to believe that they are trying very hard and it’s not their fault they can’t get a job.  They can sit at their computer all day long mindlessly firing off these applications that will never been seen, and feel they are doing everything they can, but they are not doing everything they can.  If they were they would give up on things that don’t work and try another method.

I’ve used this blog often enough to talk about networking.  These people are almost certainly doing very little as far as actually meeting potential employers is concerned, yet that would be a great way of emerging from the masses.

They’re almost certainly not adapting their CV or applications in order to emphasise why they are suitable for the role.

They’re almost certainly applying for  jobs for which they have no qualifications, experience or appropriate skills.

It’s no wonder they get nothing back – they’re putting nothing in.

Applying for jobs is anything but a mindless task.  Unfortunately, however, the jobs they are applying for are mindless tasks so it’s no surprise that people don’t understand the need to actually think about their applications.   If they are applying to work in a call centre where the name of the game is numbers and volume, no wonder that’s the approach they take to applying for such a job.

Applying for a thousand jobs isn’t enough.  People need to actually apply themselves.

Moving from the public to the private sector

June 26, 2013

As George Osborne announces a further round of spending cuts local government will once again take the biggest hit.  Not only does this suggest that your streets will be that little bit dirtier, and your education and  social services that little bit shabbier, it also means there will be another cohort of local government workers looking outside of the public sector for their next job.

This is no ordinary office building.  It contains council workers who, many suspect, are not capable of working in other office buildings.

This is no ordinary office building. It contains council workers who, many suspect, are not capable of working in other office buildings.

Do they have the skills and competencies to make the switch?

Many of them seem to think not, and there’s no doubt that local government is considered a place where the somewhat less talented can find employment. No doubt there are many on the right who honestly believe that local government is nothing more than an elaborate job creation scheme.

The problem is that many local government workers have fallen for this line and do believe that outside of the public sector they are unemployable.

I don’t believe it for a minute.  I do believe they have a task to convince many private or other not-for-profit employers, but that’s not to say they don’t have anything to offer.

It comes down to understanding transferable skills, exploiting specialist knowledge, and charting a realistic route into the next role using all the available channels.

Transferable Skills

It doesn’t matter where you work, the majority of what makes a person good at their job is not the technical knowledge they hold but they way they deploy that knowledge.  People succeed because they are good at things such as communicating, analysing, thinking strategically, being thorough and methodical, leading people, being able to manage change, amongst many possible capabilities.  Beyond that your technical expertise can probably be adapted fairly easily to a new situation – even if you were to move from one local council to another or from a private company to a competitor, you’d go through some kind of learning and adaptation process, so that part of it is unavoidable.

Exploiting Specialist Knowledge

There’s no question that moving from the public to the private sector is a bigger step than most job changes and there’s no question that employers tend to play safe, particularly in difficult economic times, veering towards people with a background that matches the new role as closely as possible.  However, there are also great opportunities to be derived from thinking a little more creatively.  You have specialist knowledge of the workings of certain aspects of local government so perhaps there are employers that might value that insight?  Similarly, you may have used systems and process that mean you have a particular approach to certain business activities that may be of value outside the local government sector.

A Realistic Route

The difficulty with that last point is that the traditional routes into the job market: recruitment agencies and employer advertising, almost always focus on the search for people with relevant industry experience.  When people make the type of switch I’m talking about it usually comes as a result of a personal encounter, a chance conversation, or, significantly, a proactive approach through networking where such ideas have a chance to be explored fully.  It’s under these circumstances where an employer might see the value in taking on the slightly “quirky” candidate who doesn’t fit the expectations but “will offer us something we don’t have”.

Another aspect of the realistic route approach is to recognise that the not-for-profit sector can often prove to be a suitable stepping stone between the public and private sectors.  The structures and cultures of local government and charities have a fair amount in common with each other, and there is a degree of convergence in some aspects of the work, as well as formal connections that make networking easier.  Think about the links between a housing department and a housing association, or social services and care homes.

If you work in local government, instead of believing that there is no work for you outside of that world, remember that you are no less employable than anyone in the not for profit or private sectors.  It’s tough for everyone to find a job at the moment, but if you approach the task sensibly you stand as good a chance as anyone of making the transition.