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Helping Clients Decode Job Search Rules

by Diane Moore, M.Ed., CMF
As a work search specialist, throughout my career I’ve helped many job seekers through the process of writing résumés and cover letters, preparing for interviews, handling the post-interview follow-up, and so forth. I’m always surprised by the number of “rules” job-seekers think there are for work search, especially when I hear they learned these rules from “experts” in the field.

The truth is that there are very few hard-and-fast job search rules and lots of gray area.

Résumés: one page or two? Cover letters: use or don’t use? Dress for the interview: formal business attire or smart casual? These are just a few of the quandaries that job seekers face.

While these may seem like fairly petty concerns, when you’re a job seeker there is often the concern (and rightly so) that one mis-step can lead to your being rejected for a job. It’s unfortunate when career and employment specialists mislead job-seekers by making statements such as, “No one looks at cover letters” or, “Using a functional résumé means you won’t be interviewed.”

Make Exceptions

I sometimes see articles written by well-meaning job search experts making fairly extreme statements that I think are misleading and confusing for job-seekers. As one example, I recently read an article in which the author said we should not bother with cover letters. The “expert” offering this advice said cover letters should only be used in cases where the applicant knows the name of the hiring person, knows what the job requirements are, or has been referred by a mutual acquaintance.

I’m never sure what leads people to make up these rules. Unless one has polled every employer everywhere in every industry to see what they are looking for from applicants, it does job-seekers a disservice to make “always” or “never” statements, particularly when it departs from what has been accepted practice.

For almost every job search “rule” that I’ve heard, I’ve seen exceptions. Even the rule that one typographical mistake on a résumé can lead to a candidate being rejected has its exceptions. Although it’s true 99% of the time, I’ve seen applicants in some industries still get interviews and get hired despite having one or more mistakes on their résumés. Someone hiring chefs may not care if they can spell Tzaziki as long as they can make it.

While some employers may not look for or care about cover letters, others have told me it’s the first thing they read. It’s highly unlikely that a candidate would be rejected for having a well-written cover letter, but they might be rejected if they do NOT have one. Whenever I’ve been involved in the process of reviewing résumés and interviewing applicants, a lack of a cover letter says to me that the candidate was too lazy to prepare one. Making statements like “Don’t bother with cover letters” really misleads our clients and can ultimately take them out of the running for jobs with employers who prefer to see a cover letter.

Don’t Overstate Job Search Rules

Clients often want to know what clearly defined rules they should follow to find employment. As professionals in the field, we know that even if job-seekers do everything right, there are no guarantees. As professional career and work counsellors and coaches, we have an ethical obligation to ensure we are not misleading our clients by making up or overstating job search rules. Give clients your best information about the guidelines that are generally true about most industries and most employers, but make sure they understand that sometimes there are exceptions and they must allow for idiosyncrasies among employers’ preferences.

In general, when it comes to job search, be careful about advocating rules that seem to be a little unusual or different from what most employers look for. As for those typographical errors, unless clients are planning to specialize in making Tzaziki, making sure their résumés and cover letters are letter-perfect is still a good rule to follow.


Diane Moore is a professor in the full-time Career and Work Counsellor Program at George Brown College, Toronto, and has a Masters in Education as well as the Career Management Fellow designation from the Institute of Career Certification International. She has worked in the field of counselling and education as a career development and work search specialist for more than 20 years and is also editor of 
The Office Professional newsletter.

Diane Moore
Diane Moore, M.Ed., CMF, is a professor and coordinator at George Brown College in the Career and Work Counsellor Program and is Vice-Chair of the Provincial Stewardship Group for certification in Ontario. She has worked in the field of career counselling, adult education, consulting and outplacement for the past twenty-five years. An experienced keynote speaker and published author, Diane has written nearly 2,000 articles and conducted workshops for thousands of people on topics such as job interview skills, career management, dealing with change, conflict management, assertive communication and working with different personality styles. In addition to a Master of Education in counselling psychology from the University of Toronto, Diane holds a number of certifications including Life Skills I and II and Personality Dimensions. She received her Career Management Fellow (CMF) certification from the Institute of Career Certification International in 2009 and held the position of Governor on the ICCI Board of Governors from 2010 to 2012. She is former editor of The Office Professional newsletter, former career columnist for the Toronto Star and author of CareerAbility: Skills Office Professionals Need to Succeed in the 21st Century.

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