Find Your Dream Job, Episode 262:
How to Find the Side Door at HR, with Dana Pratt
Airdate: September 23, 2020
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
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It can be hard to reach people inside a company’s human resources department.
But our guest today says there’s often a side door at HR. Dana Pratt joins me to talk about how you can find and use this side door during your job search.
She’s the founder of DCP Training and Talent Development. Her company helps employers with performance consulting, leadership development and talent management.
She joins us today from Portland, Oregon.
Dana, here’s where I’d like to jump in- what do you mean when you say HR has a side door?
Well, one of the things that I think a lot of job searchers are frustrated with is the electronic application process, is they send out resumes and then they never hear back, and they don’t know how to get through. And HR becomes the personification of, not just the gate, but a huge wall. So, when I talk about a side door at HR, it’s, how do you get around that? How do you get your application, your resume noticed?
And there are ways to do that by making sure that you’re leveraging your connections in that organization. Making sure that you’re thinking about your network, looking at LinkedIn. Who do I know that works there, or used to work there? Who do I know who knows somebody who used to work there? And can I ask them to jot out a quick email or advocate for me, if appropriate?
Well, Dana, why not just use the front door? Why not just write the HR director directly and ask her or him for time to talk on the phone?
That could certainly work. I would say though, that recruiters and people in HR are very busy people. They’re typically managing multiple job openings, scanning hundreds of applications and resumes, and talking to several applicants a day. They’re really motivated to quickly find candidates that their hiring managers will get excited about, and many of them are evaluated on actually how fast they can get a job filled. Really, you’re looking for a way to make it easy for you.
Particularly if you’re looking at large companies with big names, those companies get hundreds of applicants for a single job, and you’re looking for a way to stand out some way in that process.
Will you hurt your application if you try to use the side door?
Oh, I don’t think so. Certainly, you have to pay attention to the responses that you’re getting. You can link with a recruiter on LinkedIn and let that person know that you applied for a job and you hope they give you a few extra minutes on the application. Or you can ask if you can meet with them, and you might get lucky and they might say, “Sure.” Particularly if this is a job that they don’t hire for frequently or that is a hot job out in the marketplace, that they may just be looking to find people who have that skillset, if not for today, then maybe down the road.
Different employers have different practices; Dana, what’s your advice when a candidate sees a job posting or a website page that says, “No calls.” Should you still try to find that side door?
I would certainly work my network. I wouldn’t necessarily reach out directly to that recruiter. So, I would say, “Do I know anybody here in this organization that I can then ask for advice?”
So, if you don’t think that you have a connection that’s strong enough to where you can say, “Hey, can you advocate for me?” can you say, “Well, you got a job there; what advice do you have for me for navigating that hiring process?”
And people love giving advice, and so, very often, you can get good tips, or people are willing to walk down to that floor and say, “Hey, I connected with this person, they seem really great. Could you take another look at their application?”
Well, let’s talk about the side door. I want you to walk us through it. You’ve already shared a number of ideas about how you might open it. Where do you start, Dana? Is it with connections with people that you know inside the company?
I would say the first thing is probably to tailor your resume and your cover letter to that organization. So, what does the job description or job ad actually say? Try to use the same words and tone that the company uses. Every company has its own culture and voice, so pay attention to the way the ad is written, get on the website and take a look at what they care about, look at postings on social media, and try to match that language, that tone.
What recruiters and hiring managers are really looking for is, “Will this person fit here? Are they one of us?” And so, to be able to sound like, look like people who are successful in that organization, that will help you find that side door.
How does it help you find the side door? It’s excellent advice, but what does it do to help open that side door for you?
I think people are, at least in my experience, I’ve seen recruiters say, “I met this person or I saw this resume and I’m really interested. They seem like they’d be a really great fit here. I’m just trying to find a place for them.”
So, now you’ve started to build a relationship, whether that be connecting directly through someone in your network or just the way you have created your application. People are like, “Oh, you have my attention now.”
One of the things that I would say is to really connect to the company values. Think about who you’re selling to because that’s really what this is. Are you looking at a public trade company that’s at the mercy of Wall Street analysts? If so, you might want to emphasize your competitive and goal-oriented nature. If they’re a B-Corp and they’re in business for good, talk about your volunteerism and your commitment to causes that that company values.
If they’re a start-up, you could emphasize your creativity or their ability to be a jack of all trades and your focus on the future. But I would also say this, really pay attention and think about what you value because you don’t want to be doing this if it’s inauthentic because that will come across. So, look at companies that value the same things that you do, and then this process becomes a whole lot easier.
You’ve done a lot of recruiting in your career, so you’ve seen hundreds, I’m sure, thousands of applications. In your experience, Dana, how often do applicants make those kinds of connections in their written materials and take the time to do what you just recommended?
I think it’s pretty rare. One of the things that I would say that if you are looking at organizations that you benefit from, that you’re a customer of, don’t keep that a secret. Companies will take care of their customers and they certainly want you to continue to have a good feeling about them. So, if you are a customer and you say, “I love this organization. I love shopping there, I love your product,” people will…at the very least, you’re going to get their attention, in terms of saying, “Thank you so much for being a customer.”
That will be a connection. So, I see that and I think that that’s pretty effective. I also say that I have passed on people and then they have used their network and I have given people a second and third look because, “Hey, I talked with this person, they connected with me through LinkedIn and their background looks really interesting. Did you see them in your requisition?” And I might have just blown by.
Like I said, these recruiters are very busy and they’re getting hundreds of applications that they’re flying by pretty quickly.
The first step is to think about the company, your own values, what’s in the job posting, the keywords, and then craft written application materials that reflect your research. The next step is, you want somebody…is to look for a connection, rather, inside the company. How do you do that, Dana?
Well, I think that LinkedIn is a fantastic tool, so to be able to look up the company name that you’re looking at, and by the way, don’t necessarily always wait for the ad. I really recommend that you use resources like Mac’s List, LinkedIn, your local business journal, to identify companies that you think that you have an opportunity to contribute with, and to start this process long before there’s a job opening.
Then you have an opportunity to really build a relationship with the company over time, so when the right opening comes, ideally, your recruiter will remember and say, “I remember meeting that person. I think I’m going to reach out to them.”
But if they don’t do that, you can then connect and say, “Hey, this is the job I’ve been waiting for. We had that conversation about how connected I am to this organization. I would really like to meet with you about that.” That’s the first thing, is seeing, do you know anybody there? And ask people about the job. “Do you know where this is in the organization?”
Obviously, if you’re dealing with a very large company, people may not but to be available to say, “What advice would you have? Is there anyone that you know in the organization that you’d recommend I’d talk with?”
Once you’ve…let’s talk about how you approach people because you do the research, you find someone that you do know inside the company; do you recommend making a phone call, setting up an email? And then, I guess it also depends on the stage you’re in, in your search, is it about introducing yourself and building a relationship with people inside the target company, or if you’re getting ready to apply, do you have a more specific ask?
I think it depends on a lot of things. I think it depends on where you are in your search, I think it depends on the relationship you have with the person you’re connected with in the organization. If you have worked with that person before and have a relationship with them, by all means, pick up the phone and call them and say, “Hey, I see that there’s a job there that looks really interesting to me. Can you tell me what you might know about that? Based on what you know about me, do you think I might be a good fit there? What do you think I would like about the organization and what do you think might be tough for me?” Because those kinds of questions can really help tailor your application and talk about your strengths and opportunities.
Now, that would be an ideal situation. If you, perhaps, just met this person at a professional organization or an event and you don’t have a great relationship with them, to just be able to reach out and say, “Hi, I met you at this event, I’m looking at a job that is currently posted in your organization and I’m wondering if I can talk with you about it.” It’s rare that people will say no. Certainly, you might not get a response back but people, like I said, people are busy, so to be able to be politely persistent, and you know, check back a couple of times, but if you continue to not get a response, move on, and in those cases, I would start to say, what’s your next way in?
Do you have second and third-degree connections that you can ask for help with?
Well, let’s pause there, Dana, because I want to explore that after the break and I also want to get your thoughts about what success looks like when you have that conversation with those people that you do know, whether it’s someone that you met at a professional event or someone you actually know fairly well.
We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Dana Pratt about how to find the side door at HR.
You do everything Dana suggests. And it works.
A manager in HR agrees to see you.
But while reading your resume, she frowns and ends the meeting.
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Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Dana Pratt.
She’s the founder of DCP Training and Talent Development. Her company helps employers with performance consulting, leadership development, and talent management.
Now, Dana, before the break we were talking about how to find that side door at HR, and you gave examples of how to reach out to people who you either met at a professional event or someone you actually know fairly well, perhaps they’re a former coworker or classmate, and what a conversation might look like in both of those cases.
What does success look like at the end of those conversations? When you end that Zoom call or that email exchange with both of those individuals, what do you hope to walk away with?
I think a great success would be a next step. So, if you have a clear idea of what this person might be able to do for you, if you have a close relationship with them and a good working relationship or professional relationship with them, can you simply ask, “Hey, would you mind sending a quick email to your recruiting department and asking them to take a second look at my resume or to spend a few more minutes with my resume?”
And that person might be very willing to do that, or they may say, “You know, I’m not comfortable doing that.” And you can then ask, “Is there somebody else in the organization that maybe I can talk with.” And if they give you a name and an introduction, that would be wildly successful because then you have the next step to take, so I think that that’s very successful.
The other thing that I think is successful is that you, as the job seeker offer what you can do for them. So, it might not be right today; be sure that you thank them for their time and for their willingness to help you out, whether that’s with an extra name, a quick email, or even more advocacy. But just say, “I am more than happy to return the favor. Is there anything else I can do for you? If not today, I hope that you’ll call me in the future.”
Because when we give, we are much more likely to get. I always say, look for ways to help other people out. When other people ask you for favors, be sure you answer their questions, share resources, and in some cases, volunteer. So, those things can really help make it a whole lot easier for people to be more willing to help you and to go out of their way for you.
Okay, so you’re looking for the person that you’re talking with to share your application or your resume with HR, or perhaps put in a word for you, or make an introduction to someone in the organization who might know more about the position. Why do these things help you get through that side door at HR? Why do they matter to the HR department, Dana?
I think it is critical mass of, “people believe in this person.” So, one of the things that’s important is your recruiter really does have a lot of power in who ultimately gets hired. They have influence with the hiring manager, they are making the decision of the candidates that they’re going to put in front of that manager, and it’s a risk for them. Their reputation is on the line and they want to provide a slate of candidates that their hiring manager is going to be stoked about. If somebody else in the organization comes to them and says, “Hey, I worked with this person,” or, “I met this person at an event and they seemed really interesting, intelligent, and someone we could really use around here,” that reduces the risk for the recruiter and they are much more likely to, especially if you’re on the bubble, of whether they’re going to push you through or not, they’re much more likely to, say, give you the edge.
What’s interesting is as you describe that, this is an endorsement but it’s not from someone who may know you all that well, they’re just sharing that they’ve had a positive experience with you, aren’t they?
Absolutely, and it may be that small of a thing that could make the difference when you’re looking at many, many applications for a job.
It doesn’t have to be your best friend; it can be a weak professional connection, but in your experience, it can make a big difference for a recruiter, can’t it?
It can, and the other thing that I’d suggest is, what you might think of as a weak connection, may not be on their side. They may have experienced you in a way that’s very positive, and hopefully, that’s the case, so that they’d be able to say, “You know, I’ve participated in a workshop with this person and they really stuck in my mind. I think they’d be great.”
So, you might think this was just a very tenuous or weak connection but the other person may not be, so don’t make assumptions about the…necessarily the quality or the degree of the relationship when reaching out.
Now, let’s talk about people who have identified a job or a company, and they want to build relationships inside that organization or get their application in front of HR, and they go to LinkedIn as you recommend, and they don’t know anybody, they don’t have any first connections. What do you recommend they do next, Dana?
I would pay attention to the company page on LinkedIn and see if there are connections there. Is that organization connected to other organizations? Are they involved in charity giving? For instance, Macy’s is a big supporter of the “Go Red for Women” for the American Heart Association; can you be involved in that? Is that something that resonates with you? The T.J.Maxx organization is committed to Save the Children, so can you be involved in those organizations and connect to people in the company through something like that?
If you look at people who work in that company and you’re not connected to them, try to see what kinds of organizations and events they’re involved in, and make sure that you are involved in your professional organizations. If you work in human resources, are you connected and involved in your local SHRM chapter? If you are in marketing, are you involved in the American Marketing Association? So, to be able to make connections that way and to look for ways to meet people in a different environment.
What if you see that, while you don’t have first-degree connections, you have some second-degree connections; should you ask someone you do have a first-degree connection with on LinkedIn who knows somebody inside your target company for an introduction?
Absolutely. One of the things that I think is nice and has evolved over the last few years is that, while networking can still be a little scary for a lot of people, people are starting to realize that it’s not just for getting a job, it’s for doing your job. Folks are, I think, more willing to hop on a 15-minute phone call or Zoom call, or hopefully, once we’re through the COVID-19 crisis, we’ll be able to go back to having coffee together. I think people have realized that, “Yes, I might be doing this person a favor to get them introduced to the company, but I’m also learning something about them.” And they may have a referral bonus in their organization and they’d love to recommend you. So, don’t assume that it’s a bother; they may be just as interested in meeting you as you are in meeting them.
We’ve talked about the importance of customizing your applications, and identifying and following up with connections inside a company; what are other steps that you recommend, Dana, to find and get through that side door at HR?
I think I would say, really think about the organizations that you’re interested in working with, and ask yourself, “Do I have the inherent skills, experience, and capabilities that will be a match there?” For instance, like if you wanted to go work at Amazon, Amazon says that every day is day one, so how do you demonstrate your customer focus and can you talk about how you’ve identified and embraced trends, so that you can show that you’re an innovator?
Intel says that they value fearlessness, so do you share that value of risk-taking and failing fast and learning from your mistakes? And if you do, how does that show up in your LinkedIn profile, in your cover letter, and in the story that you tell through your resume? So one of the things is, really know thyself.
Think about what type of environment that is going to feed you so that this becomes less of a sales pitch and much more of a positioning of, “This is who I am and I think that I can make a great contribution to your organization.”
People want to hire people who love their company. No one wants to feel like they were just putting out hundreds of resumes and this just happened to be the one that hit the top of the pile. They want to feel like you really want to work there.
So, be focused, know the employers that interest you the most, and make sure that their corporate values or organizational values match your own values.
Okay, one other thing that I want to go back to is, you mentioned about risk in hiring and why it’s important for recruiters to manage and reduce that risk. Can you talk more about that? Why is that such an important factor?
Well, you know, I think, like anybody doing a job, everyone wants to do a good job, and some hiring managers really are looking for, we call it in recruiting, “the purple squirrel” or “the golden unicorn.” A candidate that doesn’t exist out there because they have so many qualifications and they are a wunderkind, and so recruiters are like, “I’m not sure how I’m going to find this person and I’m not sure how I’m going to make my hiring manager happy.”
So, there’s an intensity of, “I really want to get great people here.” So, to be able to deliver a slate of candidates that they feel really good about, that have a great cultural fit and have demonstrated that, that they come with some additional support.
Whether that be a reference from someone they know in the organization, or simply, “I just met this person and I think they could be great.” Or, “They were an employee referral.” Those things can really help reduce the anxiety of putting candidates in front of hiring managers, and will also allow them to say, “Hey, the person over in marketing met this person and really thinks they’d be great.”
It just really helps support their recommendations.
Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Dana. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?
Well, I am busy launching my brand new business, and so, I am working to improve the effectiveness and job satisfaction of managers and for the people that they work with. So, it’s a really fun adventure and I’m excited about where that will take me.
Well, congratulations on the launch of your firm, and I know people can learn more about your company and you by visiting your website, www.dcptraining.net.
Now, Dana, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to find that side door at HR?
I think I would say that they’re looking for you just like you’re looking for them, so don’t hesitate to try to find any avenue. Don’t hesitate to ask your friends for an introduction, don’t hesitate to reach out to somebody that you may just know slightly, this can be your way in.
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Next week, our guest will be Samantha Kennen. She’s the human resources director at Grand Central Bakery.
You’re about to hit the send button on a job application. You worry that dozens of other people may apply, too.
How can you stand out once a hiring manager starts reviewing a tall stack of resumes?
Samantha and I will talk about how you can get a recruiter’s attention.
I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.