Can You Get a Job by Pulling a Stunt?

When you're trying to get hired, it's natural to want to stand out — but there's a fine line between being distinctive and just plain weird.

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Mar 28 2018, 6:52pm

Illustration by Daniel Zender

Early in his career, before he became CEO of employment marketplace ZipRecruiter, Ian Siegel was working at a media company that was trying to hire a new video editor. Among the pile of applications that landed on his desk was one with a VHS tape. Intrigued, he popped in the tape.

“We saw what looked like an alien landscape,” writes Siegel, in an email. “But when the camera zoomed out, we realized this person was giving us a tour of the moles on their body. You don’t forget something like that.”

Which, well, was sort of the point? From a young age, kids (that is to say: future workers) are taught the importance of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the pack, that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” — and all that good (or cliched) stuff. In an era when the entire world seems to be fighting one another for the few good jobs left, it’s hard to trust that mere bullet-points on a résumé are enough to get the gig.

So we get desperate. And sometimes, we make a video of our body moles and take our shot at the stars.

“We did not hire that person,” Siegel added.

But in some cases, a stunt actually works. When sales executive Jon Ebner was looking for a job at a catering startup in 2013, he used cupcakes to seal the deal. Without an appointment, he simply showed up at the company where he wanted to work and handed out cupcakes from a local NYC bakery to workers there while he waited for the founder to get back to the office. "I don't want to take anything away from the fact that this was terrifying," Ebner told Business Insider. Long story short, he got the job and is now the general manager at another food startup called Platterz.

Job Stunts Are Risky

Of course, showing up unannounced at the place where you want to work is a bold move, so don't be surprised if security abruptly shows you the door. But as is the case with any broad advice, there’s a wide range of specificities that could tilt the scales from “no, absolutely do not do this” to “maybe it’s kind of a good idea?”

In a 2017 survey by consulting firm Robert Half, more than 400 executives in creative fields shared their opinions on unusual resumes, applications, or interview introductions. Here’s what they found:

  • 55% said they’re “unprofessional”
  • 27% said they’re fine “as long as the style doesn’t detract from the information”
  • 12% said they can be beneficial but more often miss the mark
  • 2% said they “increase a candidate’s chances at being hired”

“Unusual job-hunting tactics can sometimes help job seekers get a foot in the door, particularly in a competitive market, but they do carry risk,” said Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group. “What some employers view as original and interesting, others might view as odd or unprofessional."

“Odd or unprofessional” definitely means obvious things like, say, videotaping your body moles, but some hirers may extend that definition into seemingly more innocent behaviors. A friend of mine who works at a luxury goods store in San Francisco says he's received resumes with photos attached and sprayed with a light spattering of perfume, and viewed them in a negative light.

“I’m an adult,” he says. “If people are qualified, and don’t act like psychos, they are good.”

How to Stand Out and Get Hired

So, what should people do on their résumés to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd? Ironically enough, boring and streamlined seem like the ideal approach.

“The best résumés are easy to read and take the user experience into account,” Domeyer said. “They feature simple fonts, standard margins, section headings, and bullet points to highlight key attributes and help employers navigate the information.”

But there are subtle tweaks within that standard résumé format that can help, especially in the choices of what information is being highlighted, and what is cut. “Put yourself in the mind of the employer,” Siegel said. “They’re searching for someone with the ability to do the job, which makes including specific skills in your resume more important than ever. Experience is still important, of course, but with today’s tight labor market workers who have the skills to come in on day one and start contributing are at a premium.”

In fact, this is one of the places where a stunt (albeit, slight) can make a difference. Bob Gillespie, a serial entrepreneur based in Chicago, remembers one application he got where the applicant broke down his résumé between “geek stuff” and “biz chops.”

“The format was conversational, and he came across as super bright, not kitchy or dorky,” Gillespie says. “Guy ended up being maybe the best hire ever.”

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