When an Employer Just Isn't That into You

You aced the interview, but you're not hearing back from your prospective boss. Here's how to know when it's time to move on in the job search

No one ever said a white-collar job search was easy. There's nothing relaxing or carefree about tracking down corporate recruiters, following up on interviews, and playing phone tag for days with overstressed HR people and hiring managers. Job hunting is grueling, mentally and emotionally.

But if you think about job searching the same way you would planting seeds, you'll have a different perspective. Every gardener knows that many of the seeds he plants will get eaten by birds. Others will shrivel and die. But gardeners don't waste time tracking the progress of every seed or nurturing those that just won't thrive. They water the garden and see what grows. It's the same with a job search; not everything we do will bear fruit. The tough part is knowing when to give up on the seed that isn't going anywhere.

Employers don't like to send "No, Thank You" letters. They'll wait until the last minute, until the selected candidate (not you) has started work, or even later, before telling the rest of the pack, "We hired someone else." It's a shabby way to treat people and one of my

least favorite corporate practices.

So you have to be alert earlier in the process for signs that you're not a front-runner for the job. It's easy to get stuck in the rut of continual and pointless follow-up, no matter how lackluster (or absent) the company's response. Here are some signs that they're just not that into you, and you'd be better served pursuing other opportunities:

1. Silence After Initial Contact

Let's say you get a voice mail from a company recruiter, and you in turn leave three voice mails without a response. That typically means the company recruiter made a bunch of phone calls to track down likely candidates and didn't reach you, but did reach four or five other people. Of those four or five, let's say three of the folks were great fits for the job.

What's her incentive to follow up with you? Very little, if any. If a series of callbacks elicits no response, leave one more message saying, "It seems that you're going in another direction with your search. Best of luck to you, and I'll assume that you're not interested in me at this point." Then, don't call back anymore. If they want you, they can find you.

2. Difficulty Scheduling a Phone Screen

Recruiters are as time-pressed as anyone else. When they have something they need to get done, they want to do it now. When someone calls you hoping to conduct a phone screen with you, they pray you're at home and ready to chat with them at that moment. If you're busy or unprepared, it's fine to schedule a phone screen for later in the week. But if they say, "I'll call you back to schedule your phone interview," that's a bad sign. There's a high probability they won't. And if you find that you're wasting calls and e-mail messages getting that phone screen scheduled, they're talking to other people they're more excited about. Let them go.

3. Last-Minute Interview Changes

Perhaps you're scheduled to come in and meet Joe, Javier, and Sandra. The day before the interview, there's a change: Joe and Sandra aren't available, so you're going to meet Cindy and Mohamed. When you get to the company, another change—you're going to see Janice, or is it Janelle?—the temp who's working in marketing. Lots of interview changes are a bad sign. Every company pays attention to its urgent items and lets others slide. If your interview feels like an afterthought, it's probably because after they scheduled you to come in they found the world's perfect candidate (not you) for the job.

4. Delay in Post-Interview Contact

Every corporate manager and HR person is overbooked, so we'll give them a week to collect their thoughts. The second week is when they should be scheduling people for second interviews, if it hasn't happened earlier.

By the third week, you have to conclude that one of two things is true: Either your interview didn't make anyone's heart beat faster, or they're so disorganized (and discourteous) that you really don't want to work there anyway.

If you've sent a polite post-interview thank-you letter and left a follow-up voice mail or two, but find yourself sitting in RadioSilenceLand three weeks later, it's time to move on. You could get bumped at any point in the process: after your phone screen, after your HR interview, or after you meet the hiring manager. Rather than exhaust yourself following up on a dead seed, acknowledge the brush-off and move on.

5. Too Many Changes in the Process

You phone-interviewed for a sales engineer position, working under Stan. When they brought you in for a face-to-face interview. it had morphed into a product engineer position in Stella's group. Now they want you in again, to meet with Jared for an applications engineer position.

At this point, stop the action and request a live phone call with the person you feel most comfortable with in these conversations. Ask him or her, "What's going on?" With luck, you'll get a straight answer: A big reorganization is under way, or they love you and they're trying to find a spot that is actually budgeted to be filled this month. Don't stay in the process if you can't get anyone to level with you. Companies who play bait-and-switch are very often employers who value their employees' needs little, if at all.

6. Slow Follow-Up After Second Interview

By the time you've made two trips to an employer's facility, you're well invested in the process. If they are too, they should tell you. You should hear from a company within three or four business days following a second interview, and recruiters should be brimming with enthusiasm in their follow-up phone calls or e-mails.

If that's not the case, give them a heads-up that you've got other fish to fry; give them another day to fill you in on where you stand in their process, and then walk away. Just leave a voice mail saying, "I'm under the impression that you didn't find a good match between my background and the position we discussed; if I'm wrong about that, please let me know today. Otherwise, I'll close the file."

7. Delay in Extending the Offer

With corporate rigmarole being what it is, it's hard to get an offer letter approved these days. There may be a few days' delay between the call that says, "We really like you! Let's talk terms!" and the arrival of a written offer letter. A few days means three or four days, max. If you've been waiting a week-and-a-half and you haven't heard an update, you're being insulted. They don't think it's worth their time to pick up the phone and explain what obstacles they're running into—or maybe they've lost interest.

You'll just have to cool your heels and wonder about that. That's a terrible sign, and a big signal to find a more communicative employer.

Talk to people at your gym, on the train, or at your next neighborhood barbecue, and you'll hear more than one story that ends with, "I should have paid attention to the red flags in the interview process." You'll hear it from people who failed to walk away when they should have, and wasted weeks or months being insulted by uncommunicative prospective employers.

You'll hear it from people who waited patiently for a disappointing offer, and from people who lived to regret accepting a job with an employer who executed a poorly run interview process.

You seldom hear from people, "I walked away when that company blew me off, and I wish I hadn't."

Baby boomers are retiring every day, and companies need talent. You need an employer who will treat you like a professional, and not a cog in its engine. Put your energy in pursuing the right job. Remember, not every seed is meant to grow.

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