From a Professional Career Counselor: Why 'Selling Yourself' To An Employer Is A Misguided Notion
By Marty Nemko
I've raised questions about these career truths: “Do What You Love" and “Network, Network, Network”.
Another common career belief I too unquestioningly used to accept is that job seekers must sell themselves. After all, that's the American way -- sell, sell, sell.
At trainings and conferences for career counselors, we were taught ever more powerful tools to help our clients sell themselves: PAR stories, micro-analyzed mock video interviews, perfect canned answers to the toughest interview questions. And we were reassured that it was ethically defensible to write clients' resumes and cover letters, even without those documents disclosing that.
Of course, it's understandable that especially in a tough job market, job seekers, especially weak ones, want to buy all the help they can afford. But after a while, I started feeling oily. I especially felt uncomfortable writing or even heavily editing clients' resumes and cover letters. For most professional jobs, employers use those resume’s and cover letters not just to screen work history but to assess candidates writing, reasoning, organizational skill and detail-oriented-ness. So when I wrote a clients' resume or cover letter, I've misled the employer: S/he decides whether to interview my client on my abilities, not the client's. Was that fair to people who chose to do their own work, perhaps with modest input from a colleague? How would you feel if you did your own work perhaps with a bit of help and lost out to an inferior candidate who paid someone to write their resume and cover letter and to transform him or her into the dream interviewee? Was I putting a false veneer on less qualified applicants thereby hurting more-qualified applicants' chances? Indeed, I often was. On average, it's weaker candidates who -- to try to become competitive -- hire a packager.
Was I being any more ethical than if I were paid to write someone else's college application essay? If paying a hired gun to write someone else's resume were ethical, why don't professional resume writers write, "Written by Jane Jones, professional resume writer?" And even if they did, I'd bet that most applicants would delete that disclosure before submitting their resume. If it were ethical, they wouldn't.
I thought further: If I added value to my clients in writing their resume and cover letter, it means they got an interview when they otherwise wouldn't. Isn't that like putting a jet pack on my clients for the first part of the job-search race? Is that fair?
And let's say I coached that not-top-of-the-stack client to ace the interview and he or she got the job. Had my efforts resulted in saddling the employer and co-workers with a worse employee?
And more broadly, if inferior candidates are hired, the organization's services and products are more likely to be worse, and in turn, for society to be worse. I had become a career counselor to make things better.
Was I fooling myself? Was I making things worse?!
So I've come to question the wisdom of "sell, sell, sell." There's nothing wrong, indeed everything right, about helping someone find a well-suited career. There's everything right about helping someone on the job to be more successful and satisfied. But I have concluded that there is something wrong with helping job applicants look better than they are, and the weaker the applicant, the more that's wrong.
So might you want to think twice when deciding how much help to get in applying for a job? Sure, read articles on writing a resume’ and cover letter and on how to prepare for an interview. It's probably also ethically defensible to also have a colleague offer modest to moderate feedback on your résumé, cover letter, and mock interview. True, limiting help to that may put you at a disadvantage compared with candidates who get someone else to do their work for them, but shouldn't integrity trump expediency?
So what do I say to clients who want me to help them land a job? I do turn away prospective clients I sense would be weak employees in the job they seek but, more often, I simply try to help them realize that "selling themselves" is not the right metaphor.
You may be able to sell yourself into a job, but if it's the wrong job, you'll likely do poorly and perhaps get fired or laid off -- no fun -- and you'll be back to see me. And you won't feel good about yourself.
The right metaphor for job-seeking is not selling, it's matchmaking: Reveal your strengths and your weaknesses and the wrong employers will reject you and a right one will hire you. For example, one of my weaknesses is that I'm a poor team player. If I were applying for a job, I'd mention that while I'm capable of doing difficult projects on my own, I do poorly on a team. I tend to get frustrated when I don't have enough control. That would get me rejected from the wrong jobs and accepted for a right one.
So might you want to think of job-seeking not as selling but matchmaking?