in Career Search

Getting Hired Goes Beyond a Piece of Paper

Resumes: I can’t think of a single person who enjoys writing them. I struggle to even say the word. Necessary? Perhaps. A true reflection of who you are as an individual? Not hardly. Resumes have become a part of the ‘routine’ but I think more and more companies are starting to hire based on the individual, looking at an overall ‘culture fit’, rather than their on-paper track-record.

Some of you may have seen this Inc. Magazine article by 37Signals Co-Founder Jason Fried earlier this month in which he discusses the hiring process of his company – if you haven’t already read it – go read it – then come back here. It’s well worth your time.

Jason and the Chicago-based 37Signals team have an interesting hiring approach that has led to incredibly low turnover. There are many, many valid points made throughout the article – here are few that I VERY much agree with and took away…

Don’t invent positions for the sake of inventing them

Maybe you’ve been faced with this yourself. You meet someone you REALLY connect with, you may not exactly have an open position, but you want to bring the person on board and ‘find something for them to do’. This might work out great, but it also might lead to difficulties for both you AND your new employee.

This point REALLY hit home for me…I’ve been in this situation first hand – when I moved to Chicago, I was brought on as an ‘Internet Marketing Developer’ with a small business – and very quickly, it became obvious they were not ready to have someone in that role full-time, because there simply wasn’t a need and they didn’t ever really buy in to what online marketing could add to their marketing.

It wasn’t long before I was doing random tasks completely unrelated to my job title to fill time. Jason says,

“…hiring people when you don’t have real work for them is insulting to them and hurtful to you. Great people want to work on things that matter. Inevitably, a great person working on imaginary work will turn into an unsatisfied person. Then he’ll leave.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself – he’ll either leave, or get the boot – in short…there isn’t much to be had when you bring someone on and don’t have work for them to do, and at the end of the day it’s extremely inefficient for YOUR business to bring someone who contributes very little simply because the need wasn’t there.

Hire based on needs, not wants. Might be easier said than done, but point well taken.

Resumes rarely tell you who a person really is

Like I said above. I hate resumes – resumes and the entire interview process is one of the things I do NOT miss from the ‘nine to five’ world. I understand the need to know (very well) who you’d potentially be working with, but think the tired old ‘What is your greatest accomplishment‘ board-room interview approach is just that…tired, and old.

“…Once we begin vetting candidates, we also behave a little differently. For one thing, we ignore resumés. In my experience, they’re full of exaggerations, half-truths, embellishments — and even outright lies. They’re made of action verbs that don’t really mean anything. Even when people aren’t intentionally trying to trick you, they often stretch the truth. And what does “five years’ experience” mean, anyway? Resumes reduce people to bullet points, and most people look pretty good as bullet points.”

I see the value in putting together a solid cover letter (something I’m admittedly not so great at myself) - as Jason goes on to say this is one of the most important things they look at when considering who to hire. But, I think it goes far beyond a single piece of paper, which leads into the next point…

Be Innovative (without being annoying) in your approach

A resume and a cover-letter will only get you so far. The job market is tough out there – so it’s all the more important these days to stand out. Jason references one of his designers, Jason Zimdars – a current designer with 37Signals, who went the extra step and developed a site specifically to show his skills and interest in working with the company.

Going above and beyond is something we talk about all the time – and while the line between showing interest and being obnoxious is a difficult one to toe, the pool of incredible talent out there is growing – and so having an innovative or unique angle is all-the-more critical. Are you thinking outside the box? If you’re not…someone else is.

The perfect fit doesn’t have to be in your neighborhood

I am a big BIG believer in this point. Jason says:

“…we never let geography get in the way. We hire the best we can no matter where they are. We’re based in Chicago, but we have programmers in Idaho and California, system administrators in North Carolina and downstate Illinois, designers in Oklahoma and Colorado, a writer in New York City, and others in Europe. This obviously wouldn’t work for customer-facing folks, but for most everyone else, it does. The best are everywhere. It’s up to you to find them.”

I recently chatted with my good friend Courtney about this – and truly believe that the ‘right’ fit for your company doesn’t have to live in the same city. Obviously, this doesn’t apply for all industries and all professions – but someone on the other side of the world might be EXACTLY who you need to add to your team.

More companies are catching on to this trend, and I think you’d be silly not to at this point. Amazing people are everywhere – if you’re closing the door to ‘outside of the neighborhood’ potential, you could be missing out on some outstanding opportunities to grow your business.

How do you seek out new employees for your business? What kind of hiring process do you see as the most effective? What interview horror stories can you share? What do you think about the overall approach at 37Signals?

Add Your Voice



  1. I think I bring a mixed view to this topic. For one, I'm Assistant Director of the Vanderbilt University Career Center – so my job (in part) revolves around the resume, the cover letter, the typical interview process. I can write resumes in my sleep, train students on the art of answering the dreaded “what are your weaknesses” question, and whip out that list of action verbs while rallying top employers to hire my students. The antiquated job search process is what I'm an expert on, professionally. Personally? I'm right there with the need to look past that polished resume and into the real “view” of someone.
    Perhaps this is their personal blog, website, or a site they regular contribute on. Maybe it is their twitter, linkedin, or facebook accounts. I've talked with many people on this topic lately, and it is my opinion that what you put out on the web (comments, photos, messages, etc) is there for your potential employers to see too. Now, I don't mean for this to jump into a discussion of removing your late-night party pictures off Facebook. I just mean that the snapshot of “you” goes far beyond your resume. It goes into your day-to-day life. And if you're like me, and diving into the world of online media and marketing, you HAVE to be prepared and plainly, HOPE your potential employers “check you out” across all avenues. You have to be sure they know you, really know who you are, because that only means you'll end up being a better cultural fit in the end – and hopefully be less likely to jump ship 6 months later because you hate your job.

  2. Meh. I read the article and was fairly underwhelmed.

    From the HR perspective, it's just another software company doing something “different.” Plus, 37signals seems to be a small company from my research: about 19 or so employees. When you're that small, you can afford to be “innovative” and do things “differently” because you have the agility and organizational mobility to do so. That, and those pesky reporting requirements and mandates by the EEO/OFCCP are greatly reduced when you're a small organization. And if we're talking about good HR and best practices (it seems we are), then “we don't hire until we're hurting” is about the worst thing you can do. In the end, I really don't agree at all with many of Jason's philosophies.

    Wait until their HR guy (if they have one) starts to notice a disparate impact effect, or any of the other harbingers of HR nightmares in an organization. The method won't be so “innovative” then, and believe me, hiring on HR folks reactively to deal with an issue will only exacerbate it.

  3. Matt,

    As somebody who went through an 8 month job search, quit a job I hated in two weeks, and finally ended up in a job, there's plenty I have to say about this.

    Inventing Positions: The amount jobs I find people forcing squaring pegs into round holes in, is disturbing. I think employers and employees are guilty of this. ONe nice thing about having a job description that is somewhat vague is that you can really define your role based on your strengths.

    Resumes: I submitted 100's of resumes, but the truth is until I had a somewhat established online presence across various platforms, my resume never got any attention. I attribute all my personal projects to the fact that I have the job I have. Hell, I've hired people to contribute to our company travel blog from my personal network.

    The Neighborhood: This is a tough one and I think there's two sides to this. One thing I heard is that getting relocated for a job is unlikely unless you possess skills that are unavailable in that geographic location. However, I think this makes a nice argument for the fact that for the right candidate people will actually make an effort.

    Interesting discussion for sure. Definitely gonna look back and check out the comments throughout the day.

  4. “When you're that small, you can afford to be “innovative” and do things “differently” because you have the agility and organizational mobility to do so.”

    Exactly. Jason doesn't hide the fact (and I completely agree with him) that there's no reason to be big or desire to be big. Just stay small.

    I also don't agree with you about “we don't hire until we're hurting”. Matt gave a great example of this in his post above and how it's a good practice. If you don't need the position, why would you hire for it?

    As I pretty much see eye to eye with much of Jason and 37signals' beliefs, I'm curious as to why you don't agree much with their philosophies. Any specific reason why?

  5. Great thoughts Matt! First, I think resumes are old-fashioned but still somewhat necessary. It provides employers the chance to view candidates apples-to-apples. However, I think resumes should live online and be much more visually appealing than the traditional black and white… I like the idea of video resumes if you have the resources! Which leads to my second thought. It’s tough to stand out and show your interest in a unique way if you’re currently employed. I had a friend in the PR biz who couldn’t really broadcast his interest since he was still employed and it really decreased the responses. No real way around that though.

    I completely agree with your last point. Not only are some companies letting employees work from home in the virtual world, but more and more potential employees are willing to pay for their travel to interview. Employers need to think outside their zip code, county and even state – especially if the person fits within their culture and provides the expertise you need.

  6. Great point all around here Courtney – and I think both 'ideas' go hand in hand – a resume is something that isn't going to go away for a long time – it's an essential 'first step' into almost any job you're going after – although I think that a vast majority of resumes are exaggerated, embellished, and are often a pretty poor reflection of who someone really is.

    I will say, however, that I like Jason's point about cover letters. I'm not a fan of these either (mostly because I'm not great at writing them) – but I think a well-scripted cover letter can really show your passion and interest for the position at hand.

    To your main point – almost everything you put online these days is fair game. So even when you think you're not focused on personal branding (hate that term) – indirectly you always are. Everything you do on the Internet can and will be held against you in a court of law (OK, very dramatic – but you know what I mean…) :)

    The first thing that I would do when considering who to hire? Go to Google, type in their name, and see what comes up. I can't imagine an employer NOT doing that in this day and age.

  7. The point you made about establishing a professional online presence is one of the most valuable *new* things you can do in my opinion. I'm in the process of applying for jobs and when I started out I wouldn't include any links in my cover letter. Now I write shorter cover letters and include links to my blog, apps I've made, etc and it's working very well.

    I feel that adding links to your presence online is considerate because it gives potential employers a quick snapshot of the things you can do and what you are like. It also puts the right kind of pressure on you to be professional online. Cover letters and resumes are still very important but online presence can be powerful especially for certain kinds of work, especially anything related to online business, marketing or software.

  8. Hey Jonathan. Thanks for the comment. I could maybe see where you're coming from if 37Signals didn't have a darn near impeccable track record with virtually ZERO turnover. Even with small businesses, not many can say that.

    I do see what your saying – there's a fine line between hiring proactively and reactively – but I sway towards the reactive from what I've been through personally and what I've seen happen to those around me. You may meet an amazing person that you KNOW would be a great fit into your companies culture – but if there isn't work for them to do – you're going to eventually regret bringing them on (and cutting them a salary) – and the employee is going to get burnt out because they're not contributing and adding very little overall value to the companies success.

    I'd rather hire based on needs – maybe not wait until 'desperation' phase, but hiring in excess, in my opinion, can me even more detrimental to a business.

  9. Hey Sarah – thanks for coming by! Resumes ARE somewhat of a 'necessary evil' and won't be going anywhere for a while – but I love your idea of a video resume, or something unique that REALLY sets you apart. In the business world, it's important to innovate in some way – the same goes for how you carry yourself as a job candidate.

    Your point about 'putting yourself out there' while you're currently employed is extremely valid. I know we just talked about this yesterday, but I've been there and done that – had to keep things hush hush while I was planning my move to Chicago. Unless you're one of the lucky few who has an employer who IS supportive of you pursuing a new career venture, discretion is almost always necessary – which can really add to the challenge of 'standing out'. Like you said, there's not much you can do to get around that though, eh?

    I am a big, big fan of hiring the right people, regardless of there they may be – and – if it makes sense – let them work terminally. Radian 6 is an outstanding example of this. They have staff all over the country – many of whom have never met. That shows A LOT of trust in their staff and it's obvious that they are incredibly selective and smart in the hiring process. More companies out there should take note of their success…

  10. Matt, Tim,

    I'm an HR guy, so I naturally tend to think of the ways these creative free-spirits tend to blow up business.

    Also, Jason has contradictions in his thoughts. Apparently, people lie on resumes, but not on cover letters. Asking how to do something isn't a sin, whether in an interview or elsewhere. That said, I do agree with some of what he does: real life work samples and “test driving” new hires. But some of this stuff? “Do the job yourself so you can understand it” – right. I guess someone at 37signals moonlights as a lawyer in their spare time.

    The “hire when it hurts” works for certain positions that are task-oriented. Too much C++ to code? Hire another C++ programmer. Need a website built? Hire a webmaster. Need to liaise with the EEOC because someone you decided not to hire is slamming you with a discrimination suit? Good luck learning those ropes on the fly, buddy.

    I'm not saying that people should be hired just because they're a great person who'd be a great fit for the company. Making up positions is equally inane. What I advocate is consistently (not constantly) reviewing business goals, having a plan, and use the appropriate tools to build a business map so you know where you're growing (and going). It's then your job to keep in contact with those great folks, keeping them warm so that when the time is right they'll make the jump. This is Recruitment 101!

    I suppose my frustration is that 37signals' practices are highly contextual (and personally, I think questionably legal). And that's where my problem is: these dorks write books that border on proselytization that their corporate practices are the herald to the new and best way to do “something.” Honestly, I just can't buy it.

  11. Honestly, I think you're disdain for their thoughts may come simply from the fact that you're an HR guy. I imagine your job is to follow many of the practices that 37signals questions the existence of.

    The reason I admire and support most of 37signals' ideas and practices is they're like great jokes by good comedians – they're so true.

    So many companies with fancy HR departments, 67 levels of management, and offices covering 6 square blocks spend all week trying to figure out how to complicate things, when such complication is anything but necessary.

    That said, to each his own, for sure. If we all subscribed to the same beliefs on everything, that would just plain suck.

  12. Matt, I really enjoyed this article. I agree that the resume has become a mostly useless tool in getting to REALLY know a potential candidate. I long for the day that hiring managers would move away from this antiquated way of filing positions. I believe that this is more likely for smaller firms, because there may be more time to conduct the interview process, but, in your opinion, do you think that focusing on resumes will be phased out by large corporations looking for talent (e.g. Microsoft, Google)?

  13. Hi Matt, great post again. I think one thing to consider in this discussion is what type of job/industry we're talking about. Most of what Jason talks about is based hiring in the IT/Media sector. These people should be prepared to have portfolios of their work available for a potential employer to consider. If you think about it, anyone applying for a creative-based job even 20 or 30 years ago, prior to the IT boom, would have had a portfolio of their work, albeit in a folder or in physical rather than digital form. The problem lies with other jobs with no tangible representation of previous accomplishments.

    For example, I currently work in finance. In order to find a new position elsewhere I would either have to apply with a resume/letter or be head-hunted. The resume (and the covering letter – I totally agree that is equally, if not more, important) is the first, and only, chance I have to get a foot in the door and make that all important first impression on a potential employer. Both documents would detail my previous accomplishments and qualifications for the job and of course I would tailor it to that particular position as appropriate.

    The biggest difference here though, and this is where “old school” employers are at a distinct disadvantage, is that very little of what is on a resume or covering letter can be confirmed as being honest and genuine. If I were a programmer boasting of excellent web-design skilss it's very easy for an employer to designate a project or review a portfolio. As a broker boasting of banking $$$$ every deal, it's impossible to prove anything. Sure, I'd need to verbally back up these sorts of claims in an interview situation in addition to making a great impression.

    I think what I'm really trying to say is that we shouldn't be so narrow-minded as to think that everybody is a blogger/designer/programmer/new-media kid and that not everyone can provide physical or digital examples of their accomplishments. Taking all of this into account, I fully agree that due to the exaggerations and embellishments that are commonplace in every resume, there is really only one use for the paper they're written on!

  14. Mate I just checked out your guest posting tour and now I feel ashamed about my poor efforts. Right I am on a mission to sort it out.

  15. great post!
    I'm probably in the minority on this one, but I prefer resumes to cover letters any day. Cover letters make me feel like I am trying to communicate with the Flintstones.
    Yes, resumes are riddled with lies but there is still lots of value in it. It forces candidates to confront holes in their skill sets and it provides a standard that hiring managers can use to evaluate candidates. Candidates will lie with or without resumes so don't hate the resume, hate the game :)


  16. Man, I need to get back on that wagon. Starting the business has meant I've really had to cut back in other areas but guest posting is always a lot of fun and forces me to write about things I normally wouldn't.

    And, you're always welcome to drop a guest post of your own in my neck of the woods. Have a great weekend!

  17. Haha…ok, you're right, I'm not a big fan of the 'game' overall. I think it's tired and looking at a piece of paper interrogating a candidate with scripted questions – this is not the best way to get to know a person – it's not a true judge of the individual's character. When job hunting becomes simply a role that you must play in the 'act' – something's off. It shouldn't be about preparing for specific questions, it should be about being comfortable and showing employers who you really are. Creating that environment and hiring process must come from both sides, though.

    Thanks for the comment!

  18. Short answer: Not anytime soon. The larger corporations of the world are where they are because of the processes they've enforced. Like them or not, they've been successful and when a company like Google is as successful as it is, there's a lot of hesitation to fix something that isn't necessarily broken. Smaller firms can clearly experiment more – but I think over time we'll see more and more of a shift away from the traditional resume and you'll have people, like the 37 Signals designer mentioned above, who are doing innovative things in their job search – video resumes, custom websites, graphic portfolios, whatever it may be.

    But, also with that being said – my mind is focused on the marketing/PR/advertising/web world. My wife's an accountant – an industry that it may not make any sense to build a custom website for to show your passion – but, it rings true across the board that in this day and age, you have to be going above and beyond to stand out. Because if you're not, someone else is…

  19. Completely agree and thank you for bringing up this point. It's easy for someone like me to focus heavily on that 'media' industry because that's where I find myself. But my wife, for example, is an accountant – so these ideas may not necessarily apply to her line of work – and as you said, the balance sways back toward needing that piece of paper to get anywhere. It's all about the industry. Thanks for bringing in an outside perspective and helping to shake my 'media-driven' mindset :)

  20. I despise resumes. There's really nothing else I can add, except that I think sending out resumes is an epic waste of everyone's time.

  21. Hah, you and me both. But…for the sake of discussion, what do you see as the best way to 'screen' potential job candidates? Always interested to hear what others are doing/would do…