The Unwritten Rules Of Job-Search E-Mail

by | March 10, 2009

  • My Vault

Writing effective e-mail is critical to your job-search success and isn't difficult, but many candidates get flunking grades. Consider whether you're among them by putting yourself in the position of your e-mail recipients. Why would they read your message? How will they react if they do read it? The following tips will help you avoid some errors that you may otherwise learn only through painful personal experience.

  • Avoid mass e-mailing.

Cookie-cutter messages are less effective than personalized messages since they don't address an employer's unique situation.

Think about the different ways you'd describe a new significant other to your mother, best friend and a co-worker, says Jan Cannon, a Boston career counselor. You'd probably use different words and emphasize different personal qualities in each message, although you'd be describing the same person. Take this same approach with cover letters and resumes. Customize your cover-letter message and resume for the separate interests and needs of each job opportunity.

In addition, mass e-mails are more likely to get caught in spam filters. System-wide filters frequently delete messages that look like spam before they enter an organization's e-mail system. Individuals with a greater sensitivity to spam may have an additional filter on their personal computers.

And, don't bother trying to personalize a mass e-mailing by using the mail-merge function. Why? What looks fine and works well in Microsoft Outlook may look terrible in Outlook Express, Eudora or Netscape Messenger. A message with this salutation "Dear " is obviously a mass mailing and likely to be quickly deleted, unread.

Don't risk being blacklisted. Someone who thinks they've been spammed can report you to an online spam-reporting service, such as As a result, your e-mail address could be added to a "known spammers" list, which Internet-service providers and other organizations search when trying to block spam. If you're blacklisted, your e-mail will be stopped from entering any protected systems for at least a week. This could be particularly embarrassing if you're using your employer's e-mail address, and your employer's entire domain is blacklisted.

  • Follow the job posting's directions

Duh, you say, who wouldn't do that? Lots of people.

John Lucht, author of "Rites of Passage at $100,000+" (Viceroy Press, 2003), says this is a common and significant error. And not surprisingly, many recruiters agree with him.

Sometimes a fine line separates guerrilla marketing from self-sabotage, but following the directions on the job posting will usually put fewer obstacles in the way of your job-search success. If the posting specifies that the job-requisition number or other identifier be provided in the subject of your e-mail, you look particularly clueless if you appear to ignore that instruction. In a sea of (probably) hundreds of resumes, recruiters don't have time to figure out which job you're seeking, and your shot at that opportunity will be lost.

If you don't follow directions, you appear either inept (can't follow directions) or lazy (didn't bother to read them). Obviously, neither enhances your prospects with the employer.

  • Don't job search at work.

Even before the Internet, employers frowned on job-hunting employees. Frequently, they view them as a security risk. Client lists, company trade secrets and other proprietary information could be copied and taken to a competitor.

Additional hazards await job seekers: Employee e-mail- and Internet-monitoring programs make it easier for employers to identify them. A recent American Management Association survey found that 46% of its member employers stored and reviewed e-mail messages, and 63% monitored Internet use.

Don't use your work e-mail address for sending and receiving job-search messages. Instead, use a personal account to assure privacy, control and continuity. And, if possible, don't access this account using your employer's equipment, even if you're doing it on your own time. You may be violating a policy on the personal use of company assets, regardless of when or where you use them, which can be grounds for dismissal.

Remember that if you're using your work e-mail account for job hunting and lose your job (and using your employer's assets for a job search increases that possibility), you could lose your online identity, address book and ability to stay in touch with the people you've contacted.

  • Get attention with your subject line.

Unless the recipient is expecting an e-mail from you or has a specified subject line, you've got to get his or her attention to ensure that your message is opened and read. So write your e-mail's subject line carefully -- it's as important as the contents of your message. If it fails, so does your message.

Keep it short, but informative. Most of the words should be visible when recipients views it in their in-box list. Use a maximum of four to six words (fewer than 25 to 35 characters), and don't tweak your recipients' spam detectors with subject lines like "Save Millions of Dollars!" "Hire the Best!" or "Your Lucky Day!"

Make the subject line a positive attention-getter. View it like the headline for a news story. A message with a nondescript subject like "Information" or "Resume" will probably be ignored. Your subject line should be honest and accurate, but interesting enough to prompt someone to open it. For example:

  • "Experienced CRM project manager." Hopefully you've seen company job postings indicating that it's looking for CRM project managers (or whatever your role) or you've learned in some other way that recruiters would be interested in someone with your skills.

  • "B.U. engineering alum resume." Connecting with a fellow alum greatly increases the probability that your message will be opened because it indicates knowledge of the person you're contacting (and that you've expended a degree of effort).

  • "Follow-up to schedule next interview." In case they've forgotten your name, this is a reminder, too, but it isn't a good subject for your first message to an employer.

  • Complete the "To:" field last.

Wait until your message is perfect to fill in the recipient's address. Otherwise, you might embarrass yourself if you accidentally click "Send" before your message is ready. (This also applies to any "CC:" addressees.) Many people learn this rule only through a painful experience. "Ignore last message!" e-mails are ineffective and can destroy your credibility.

Use the "CC:" function to keep people in the information loop and to increase your personal credibility. Copying relevant people is a professional courtesy (maybe that's why some now call it "courtesy copy" instead of "carbon copy"). Hopefully, it's also good marketing. For example:

  • Send an interview follow-up message to the hiring manager and copy the recruiter or human-resources manager.

  • Send an introductory message to the contact person and copy the person who referred you.

If you've already run afoul of any or all of the guidelines above, don't worry. The good news is that you aren't alone -- employers receive hundreds or thousands of unsolicited resumes and delete most of them. The e-mail avalanche means it's rare for any one message to be memorable, so only egregious errors stand out. Obviously, that's the challenge as well as the benefit.

Back to the (Offline) Beginning

Thanks to those overstuffed in-boxes, sending resumes has come full circle. If you know the name of the hiring manager, send him or her a snail-mail letter with a printed copy of your resume. You won't be part of the backlog in an e-mail in-box, and your good bond paper and sharp printing will make a nice impression. As a backup, add a scannable version of your resume to the mailed package so the hiring manager can add you to the electronic database if necessary.

Filed Under: Job Search

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