Lessons from very bad recruiting emails

Let’s face it, hiring is extremely competitive. It seems that every company is trying to grow twofold in the next year, and everyone is looking for the best people. With this in mind, it is important that the email you send to candidates conveys your message, is respectful of their time and represents your company in the best light.

In my 15 years of receiving recruiting emails, there are a few mistakes I’d like to see recruiters and hiring managers stop making. Here are a few of them taken from the actual emails I have received.

Getting the facts wrong

“I came across your profile online and wanted to check if you are in the job market. I have a stellar contract position for Action script and Flash and full stack PHP developer based out of San Francisco, CA”
“I wasn’t able to tell by your profile, how many years of professional experience do you have since graduating from college?”

In these emails, the recruiter clearly has not done their research. I have received emails from recruiters with mistakes in my name (calling me Catherine), known programming languages (saying I am an expert in Python), and in some cases, knowledge of the stage of my career (offering junior-level positions). For me, it is impossible to take these emails seriously and I have never replied to one.

What you should do, instead

Take a few extra minutes and review your email with someone. Ask the hiring manager for help. It is in their best interest to represent the team and company properly, so they will make the time to help proofread email before it is sent. You should also use tools to check your spelling and grammar. It might sound silly, but even spelling errors can make a company seem hurried and chaotic. No one wants to work at a place like that.

The time machine

“Your old resume matches several of our jobs.”

This is when someone is emailing you for a position with a skillset you clearly haven’t exercised in years, or for a level of seniority you exceeded years ago. Surely no one wants to move backwards through their career, so why focus on someone’s past work. Are you trying to see if they have renewed interest in those areas or perhaps you are asking for an current version of their resume? If so, then say it.

What you should do, instead

Don’t contact someone when you don’t have updated information, or, if you do contact them, and ask for more recent information before continuing. Don’t try to start a conversation based on outdated information. It is most likely not going to lead to a match and makes your company look like they don’t know how to use modern tools like LinkedIn.

The buckshot approach

“Would you or anyone that you know be interested in an outstanding mobile position w/ one of the most cutting edge startups in the mobile space.”
“You should be able to hire and manage a mobile dev team (you’ve gotta be a good interviewer, and it wouldn’t be bad to have a “chill professional network” as well)”

Anytime I see this phrase “you or anyone you know”, I delete the email on sight, no matter what the company is. This overused expression doesn’t convey a sincere interest in the candidate. Instead, it gives the impression that the sender is looking for a foot in the door to the candidate’s network. Emails such as these don’t communicate the opportunity as a special or one that I should be particularly excited about.

This phrase is just a lazy way of saying “I don’t know how to identify the people with the skill set required for this job, I thought it might be you, but help me by forwarding it to the right place if I was wrong.” Someone who has been programming for some time is going to be looking for an opportunity that is different than someone who is just getting started. So a single email targeting “anyone I know” has very little chance of being a good fit unless I take on the extra burden of screening the email to people in my network.

What you should do, instead

A recruiter or hiring manager’s responsibility is to build networks and nurture relationships. If you are interested in the candidate, show a specific interest in the candidate in the way you write. If you are in a situation where you are requesting a person’s help, communicate that clearly, offer a referral fee if possible — lobby your management for it if needed, or absorb the cost of a nice small gift yourself — and show respect for the person’s generosity and time in the way you communicate. I have seen examples where people have given out iPads or a personalized gift for help with placing candidates.

The “do my job for me”

“If you’re not on the market but may know of someone who is that possesses a similar background to yours, please feel free to forward my information.”
“I was hoping that someone within your circle of influence may be interested. Should anyone come to mind, the referral would be greatly appreciated.”
“If you’re interested in an intro to their Founding team — let me know. If not — who do you know ???”

Similar to the previous bad habit, but even more destined for someone’s trash. This is when the sender asks you to “forward it along to other people who might be interested”. This is a lazy way of saying, “Do my job for me”. If the email is from a friend, no problem I will try to help. But if it is from out of the blue, it represents the recruiter and hiring manager as unable to identify and connect with the relevant people they want to hire. Probably because they haven’t taken the time to meet people. Don’t connect to a talented person and then ask them to do a bunch of recruiting work for you.

What you should do, instead

Hiring managers, think about what virtual communities, conferences, meetups or Open Source projects would be relevant for the position you are trying to fill. Once you know the circles these people will be active in, go meet them. Most importantly, be genuine about your relationships with them.

The Hail Mary

“We have identified you as someone with the right background and connections suggesting we have good reason to talk about your career development and what [company] has now and in the future to interest you.”

This is when the email represents a vague statement of what skills are needed for the job, a lack of understanding of what the candidate does, and doesn’t highlight what aspects of the job I might find interesting. These emails are just a poorly worded way of saying “our algorithms identified you so our next step is to contact you”.

What you should do, instead

Understand what skills would be required for the job. Get a sense for the type of work that would be listed on their resume. Are you looking for someone who lists proficiency with Instruments, XCTest, or Swift for example? When emailing the candidate call out those skills and explain why they are relevant to the position you are trying to fill. Get the candidate excited about the role don’t just present them with a blanket statement of interest in their “background”.

The “let me add you to my portfolio”

“We have a strong need for a developer with your skillset at a company within our portfolio.“
“I have quite a few options right now. Anything from educational startups to foodie companies to huge data shops to ride sharing and beyond. Would love to hear what would interest you and see if I have a fit for you.”

In this email, the recruiter hires for many different companies and they are incentivized to get you a job. These emails typically list the hot companies that the recruiter works with to try to pique your interest. When someone is happily employed, however, there is little chance a candidate will remember this email. This category of emails should be about building relationships for when the time does arrive for them to need your help.

What you should do, instead

It is really hard to build a relationship over email. Rather than just giving them your sales pitch, try asking to meet the candidate in person or offer to introduce them to a potential mentor. Remember, it is better to have a relationship with the person before you need them and they need you.

Furthermore, rather than listing the top companies you try to place people in, list your rate of success or any relevant information as to why someone should pick you from the several firms that are available. Finally, most people I know aren’t looking for a job with a wide array of options, try narrowing the industries to the ones the candidate has worked in the past.

The fake geek-speak

“I say “CZAR” instead of “developer” (OR EVEN “SENIOR DEVELOPER”) because we want someone to run the whole mobile show (alternate job title: “Mobile CTO”). Specifically, we’d like this person to be a great developer (in the beginning at least you’d be doing a lot of coding), make the mobile architectural decisions (e.g., tell me whether or not we can use Ruby Motion (PLEASEEE!! can we??!!!))”

These emails also immediately get deleted. I can’t tell if these emails are coming from the recruiters themselves or they are written in conjunction with the hiring managers but in essence, they are tech-word-salad that is meant to excite people who like to use the technologies of the day. When I read them it reminds me of my uncle trying to use phrases like “on fleek”, it makes me cringe.

What you should do, instead

Tone it down. Some of us see computers as a tool to achieve a goal. We aren’t all trying to bro-down with some functional reactive Lambdas with lazy immutable xml json WSDL soap XML-RPC buffers. Just state the description of the job, the skills that are required and why I would be a good fit for the role. Maybe instead, try to engage the candidate on what tools they are excited about exploring if they were to be interested in the position. Let the candidate do the tech talking.

The personalization engagement test

“Hope you have some cool summer plans. At least a weekend trip to Tahoe. It’s extra beautiful right now, I just got back.”
“I have an 11 month old boy that’s been keeping me on my toes.”

This addition to recruiting email is all the rage. I have been receiving them for a couple of years now. This is where the recruiter adds a special bit at the end of the email about a pinball tournament they just went to, or asks if I like to snowboard. It’s an odd leap, and an obvious ploy to try to keep the email exchange going. Strangely enough, I know that this has worked with people in the past, where the phrase is just cute enough to get the person to reply and it becomes an exchange that has ended in hiring. I know one person who serendipitously ended up at a great job over a misunderstanding of the word “salsa” in a recruiting email. However, when I see this kind of oversharing, it doesn’t seem sincere, particularly if this is my first email exchange with the recruiter.

What you should do, instead

Wait until you actually know the person before throwing in details about what you did over the weekend or asking about someone’s personal life. I know recruiting is tough and people need to do all sorts of things to stand out, but getting too casual too fast can be offputting and counteracts the authenticity you can convey with professional details relevant to the recipient.

The perks first

“We’d like this person to contribute to our weekly Fresh Direct order”
“Their sunny office is fueled by an abundant supply of catered lunches around town, free on-site massages, and your own personal oil-painted portrait.”

These emails focus on the lifestyle perks of the job, which might be important to some, but to me is not interesting information and might even make the company seem goofy. If it is perks that attract people to your company, you have very little chance of long-term success. Good candidates can see that. Any person serious about their career shouldn’t be swayed by perks in an email introduction to the company — it should be about the work.

What you should do, instead

Bring out the perks when you make the offer. List them on the website’s hiring section, or in materials you deliver to provide more info about the role. If the candidate is on the fence, it’ll make a difference. But don’t list the perks in an introductory email.

The “guess what’s behind door number 3”

“This is a massive opportunity (we’ll need to chat, so you understand what I mean…there is some info that I can’t disclose in writing).”
“I was wondering if you might be interested in an iOS opportunity with one of the most exciting companies in San Francisco that has raised $85,000,000 in Venture Capital from the world’s best tier-1 VC firms and has millions of users that is growing like crazy! What is a good time for a call to discuss and what is the best number to reach you at?”
“Would you be open for a quick call? If so, what is the best number to reach you on? I can fill you in about the opportunity when we chat.”

This is when the sender alludes to more information that they don’t want to put in writing. Or when an email is so vague you have no idea what the company does and why they want to speak to you. For me to reply to these emails I would have to be actively, possibly desperately looking for a job. When I see emails like these I can’t tell if this is a genuine once in a lifetime opportunity or this is just a ploy to get me on the telephone. Either way, if I don’t know the person, I am not going to just trust that the other end of the phone is worth my time. I have made that mistake before and ended up getting far too many calls from a recruiter who was pitching me companies left and right. They even shared my mobile number with other recruiters. :-(

What you should do, instead

Recruiters and hiring managers should know that getting on the phone with a candidate is a privilege, so don’t use it for information that can honestly be conveyed in an email. Don’t use mystery to represent your company, get to the point and save the confidential information for later.

In summary

The best emails are short, efficient, and open. Ask if the person is looking, and if not, would they want to chat about working together in the future, or just connect. Whatever you do, don’t make the candidate do work for you. Don’t make them do work by having to parse your intention or do work by forwarding your job opening to their network. Avoid these mistakes and candidates will appreciate your effort in respecting their time and intelligence.