American business folklore is full of stories of people who started in the company mailroom and ended up as CEO. These are great (though perhaps apocryphal) stories, because they show that brains, determination, and pluck can outstrip formal schooling. Even if the actual instances of mailroom-to-boardroom ascendancy are one in a million, it's pleasant to think that somewhere out there is a person pushing a mail cart or answering phones who will one day run the company.
If you're seeking any kind of entry-level opportunity, the watchword is humility. One day you will have skills and experience in spades, but right now, you want to impress an employer as a mature person who will take the assignment seriously and give it all you've got. When your résumé is mostly filler and you're dying for that first break, your best bet is to leave prospective employers with the feeling that you will learn fast, work hard, and take direction willingly. If you can get all that across at the typical entry-level interview, you're way ahead of the pack.
For most of us, however, the most effective job-search posture is a little different. Deference and humility have their place, but for those of us the headhunters call "experienced hires," elements such as "confidence" and "insight into the company's current issues" are key because they will determine how the potential employer views us. And how we're viewed at the moment that a job offer is extended is important.
As Good As It Gets
Think about it, who wants to be told "We're hiring you because we couldn't find anyone better?" It would be a very bad move to accept a job under conditions like that. We want our hiring managers to adore us, to be delighted to have found such talent and business savvy. No, we don't need them to grovel, but we want to know that they're happy at the prospect of bringing us on board, not just glad to be finished with the interviewing process.
A company considering you for an open position will never like you better—or be willing to show it more—than the day the job offer is extended. So if there's anything odd or less-than-sensational about the offer-and-acceptance process, you must view that as an enormous red flag, one that colors the entire employment relationship. If this is the apex of their esteem for you and they're not showing it, what will happen once you're in the door?
For starters, if a company calls you with a job offer, they should have all the details ready to explain to you, including title, reporting relationship, compensation (salary, bonus, 401(k), etc.) and amount of travel. Now, much of this may have gotten sorted out during the interview process. But because the processes are often so fragmented, you may only have one shot with the hiring manager and the HR person.
If you have questions, your hiring manager must be available to speak with you (not necessarily at that moment). If the HR person says to you, "I'm handling all the questions and will manage this negotiation with you," that's a terrible sign, because you may have complex or sophisticated questions about your working relationship with this or that team member, or your involvement in this or that project, that a non-member of the department couldn't possibly answer in a useful way.
Also, your prospective new manager should be happy to talk with you, to get you over whatever hurdle stands between you and accepting the offer, if he or she truly values your prospective contribution to the team.
You should be given plenty of time (at least four business days) to consider the job offer before it expires. You should have a chance to meet the people you will be working with, if they're locally based. You should have a chance to see the company's employee handbook if you want to, and you should be able to set your start date at the most convenient time for you (anywhere from immediately, to two weeks out) without pressure from the employer to move it up.
Don't Rush Me
These are critical days and hours, and if the company is sending signals like, "Come on, let's get a move on here, we don't have all day and there are other people who want this job if you don't," then you would be well-advised to continue your job search. This company will never love you better than they do right now. If you're not feeling the love today, you're not likely to be higher on their esteem index three or six months down the road.
Does this mean that a prospective employer should gush over you and spare no effort or expense to convey its gratitude that you have deigned to consider employment with them? Of course not. It's business, and an offer of employment is a business deal. But carelessness about communications, failure to answer your questions, and pressure on you to accept a job offer before your needs are met are all signals that the company's attention toward you is already used up. If you take a job under conditions like that, you can only expect to pay for your trusting nature down the road.