If your job leads fail to pan out – again and again – it might be time to rethink your approach. Deb Shinder offers some job search do’s and don’ts.

You’ve got the credentials, the education and experience, and you haven’t had a problem getting job interviews — but for some reason, you can’t seem to close the deal. Leads that looked promising fizzle out after the first or second interview. Is it the economy, or is it something you’re doing (or not doing)? As a once-upon-a-time personnel director who’s interviewed many job candidates, I’ve been listening to some of my friends’ tales of woe regarding their recent job searches. I put together a list of some of the reasons that otherwise good candidates don’t make the final cut, over and over again.

Often, the problem stems from taking good, standardized advice about how to conduct a job search and implementing it in a way that ends up rubbing interviewers the wrong way.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Do toot your own horn — but not too loudly

It is absolutely appropriate to tell the interviewer about your accomplishments in a way that paints you in a positive light. What some job candidates don’t understand is that when you come off as arrogant, when you sound as if you think you’re better than everyone else, when you go overboard in singing your own praises, interviewers don’t see that as positive.

It’s always better if you can let others deliver the extreme accolades, even if second-hand. A letter of reference or a magazine article that refers to you as someone who “knows more about identity management than anyone else in the world” is likely to impress hiring authorities (unless, of course, the author is your mom or your spouse). Referring to yourself that way in your own résumé is more likely to just result in raised eyebrows. You don’t want them breaking out the DSM-IV after you leave to review the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

I actually saw a job hunter’s email signature that said, “John Doe, visionary and industry thought leader.” That’s not a job description — it’s an indicator of self-infatuation. Other terms to avoid in describing yourself include guru, foremost authority, and the ever-popular “minor god.” Yes, I really saw that in a résumé and yes, I’m sure it was intended to be humorous. But it doesn’t come across that way when it’s embedded in a document that’s supposed to be a serious summary of your suitability for a professional position.

Unless you’re interviewing for the job of comedy writer, keep the laughs out of the résumé and confine any witty comments to the verbal interchange — and even then, be very, very careful. Humor is always a minefield when you’re dealing with someone you don’t know well. What one person finds hilarious may sound silly, or even offensive, to someone else.

2: Don’t expect your network to do all the work for you

In today’s very connected world, the value of personal networking in finding a job has been heavily emphasized. And it’s absolutely true that when faced with two candidates with equal qualifications, most hiring authorities will lean toward the one who was referred by a mutual friend or acquaintance. It takes some of the “unknown” out of the equation — or at least it appears to. On the other hand, before you bring up the fact that you’re best friends with the interviewer’s old college roommate, it’s a good idea to do some investigation and make sure there’s no bad blood between the two of them.

When you’re unemployed, job hunting is your job — and you should put the same amount of time and effort into it that you’d put into the job itself, if not more. Don’t expect your network to carry you and don’t focus only on the online variety of networking. The Internet is a great resource, but don’t neglect more traditional channels for job leads, either. The more people you know — both online and off — the better your chances that one of them can provide you with a productive job lead or serve as a reference whose recommendation makes the difference.

3: Do follow up — but don’t be a pest

When I was in my twenties, I was selected for a high level job in municipal government that I never expected to get. I didn’t have any public sector experience and I was competing against more than 50 applicants, some of whom had worked for decades in public administration. About a dozen of us were chosen to interview before the whole city council — a terrifying experience at that age. Although I felt I’d done well in the interview, I was completely surprised when I got the call telling me to report to work.

Months later, one of the city council members told me that the council of five was divided between me and one other candidate, and that he had the deciding vote. And the thing that tipped that decision in my favor was the fact that I was the only person who had bothered to send a brief note to each council member, thanking them for the interview, following up on one of their questions (tailored individually to each of them), and restating my interest in the job.

Your follow-up strategy can make (or break) the deal. Some people take the advice to follow up on interviews as license to harass the interviewers, secretaries, HR personnel, and anyone else who might be involved in the hiring process. Daily phone calls or emails so they “won’t forget you” are probably not a good idea, and I’ve seen it taken to that extreme. Definitely follow up once with each person who interviews you, as soon as possible after the interview. A second follow-up might be appropriate if the decision-making process drags out for several weeks. More than that and you begin to look like a pest.

The old adage “all things in moderation” is a good one when it comes to following up. That also means don’t go overboard in your follow-up. Tell them why you were impressed by the organization, but don’t gush. Don’t get personal, either. You don’t want the interviewer to think you fell in love with him/her and are going to turn into a stalker. And never, ever send gifts with your thank-you note; they could be construed as attempted bribes.

4: Do be prepared — but make sure your references are prepared, too

If you really want the job, you’re likely to spend a lot of time trying to anticipate what you’ll be asked in the interview and practicing what you’ll say and how you’ll say it. Part of being prepared involves having a list of references who can vouch for your capabilities and/or character. Don’t just go with the first few people who come to mind or those whose addresses and phone numbers you happen to know without looking them up. (Believe it or not, that’s the way some job hunters choose their references.)

Decide on your references beforehand and have all that information with you when you go in to interview if you haven’t already been asked for it on an application form. It’s usually best not to print your references on your résumé because you may want to use different references for different jobs. It’s best to choose at least some of your references from members of the industry you’re trying to get hired into, if possible. Don’t list your former bosses as personal references; they will already be listed in your employment history. Former co-workers are fine, especially if they happen to be well respected in the industry. Don’t list Senator X or some other high-placed official who’s a friend of your uncle and doesn’t really know you.

And no matter who your references are, tell them that you want to list them as references and ask if it’s okay. Let them know what types of jobs you’re applying for and when they might expect to be contacted. It can be disturbing to get a call saying, “My name is Joe Smith and I’m with the FBI. Please call me back.” If your friend knows you’ve applied for a job with the bureau and have put him down as a reference, you’ll save him a lot of grief. Otherwise, when he does find out what it’s all about, he may be so annoyed with you that he won’t give you the glowing reference you deserve.

5: Do be accommodating — but not obsequious

It goes without saying that when you’re asking someone for a job, you should be nice. Don’t get into arguments with your interviewers. Don’t come on too strong and judgmental with your opinions, no matter how right you believe you are. Be flexible; if an interviewer calls and asks you to reschedule, be gracious and try to accommodate their schedule. After all, they’re the ones with the most power in the relationship. Even if you’re the ideal candidate and they are pursuing you doggedly, don’t forget that nobody is indispensible. And even if you aren’t really sure you want the job, you never know when you might encounter the interviewer(s) again in a completely different context, so it can never hurt to leave a good impression.

On the flip side, some job hunters take “being nice” a little too far. Don’t fawn over the interviewer. Don’t pretend an avid interest that you don’t really have in all the same hobbies, paintings, authors, etc., that you might see evidence of in the interviewer’s office. If you can find a genuine point of commonality, that’s great. But fabricating one will often backfire on you. If you tell the interviewer how much you love sailing even though you’ve never been, you’re going to feel pretty silly when you find yourself waist-deep in a conversation about masts and booms and halyards and sheets.

And even though you shouldn’t get into a heated debate, it’s not usually a good idea to mindlessly agree with absolutely everything the interviewer says. Today’s business world is about teamwork and carrying your own weight. Few hiring authorities are looking for someone who has no opinions of his/her own or who is afraid to express any of them. In fact, some want an employee who thrives on controversy. This is where it pays to do your homework beforehand. Find out what the company’s general philosophy is. Are most members of the organization staid, dull “yes men” (or “yes women”) who play it safe at all costs? Or do those who have risen quickly in the company exhibit more of an independent streak? Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, but it’s perfectly acceptable to accentuate or deemphasize certain sides of your personality, depending on the tone that’s set by those at the top of the organization.

6: Don’t expect them to “show you the money” too early

In today’s economy, job candidates are more likely than ever to have money on the brain. Your bills are piling up and you need to pay them. Yes, you’re interested in the job, but you want to know what it pays. You don’t want to waste your time (and theirs) going through numerous interviews if the salary is too low for you to realistically consider. But this understandable concern can lead to making a sometimes-fatal mistake: bringing up money too early in the process.

Somewhat like a potential spouse, a potential employer wants to be loved for something other than money. If you bring it up too soon, it may appear that that’s the only thing you care about. Realistically, interviewers know that money matters, but they want a chance to hook you on the job itself — and, frankly, they want to be sure you’re someone they want to hook — before getting to the subject of compensation. Your focus should be on making them want you so badly that they’ll use the compensation package to try to woo you.

So how do you avoid wasting your time on jobs that don’t pay nearly enough? Again, do your homework. Research the average salaries for the type of position you’re applying for within the industry and in that geographic region. The Internet makes this much easier than it used to be. If you’re diligent enough, you may be able to find out what the job pays at that particular company. In the public sector, salaries, or at least ranges, are often pretty much set in stone by the budget, which is a public document (although for some high level positions, there is much more flexibility). It’s easy to find out what the jobs pay because it’s public record. In private companies, it can be more difficult. Some organizations frown heavily on employees disclosing the details of their compensation and some even make you sign nondisclosure agreements that cover the financial arrangements.

Nonetheless, people like to talk. If they’re well paid, they like to brag. If they’re not so well paid, they like to complain. That’s especially true when they believe their comments are anonymous. Some directed Web searches can turn up a wealth of “private” information, as can casual conversations with friends who have friends who work for the company.

Even if you can’t dig up the exact salary info, you can usually get a good idea about the pay scale based on the job description and the required qualifications. And if you find out that the last person who held the job made $50,000 less than your target salary, don’t despair. Sometimes it’s possible to turn an interview for one position into a springboard to a different, higher-paying position, even one that didn’t previously exist — if you’re good enough at selling yourself and your abilities.

7: Do clean up your online “house”

Just as the Internet has provided new resources for job hunters, it has also provided new ways for employers to conduct background investigations on those candidates. If you knew that the company you want to work for might send someone to your home to see how you live, you would probably take extra steps to get the house as clean as possible, and you certainly wouldn’t leave your dirty laundry lying around in the living room. But many job candidates do leave their virtual “unmentionables” in plain sight on the Internet, even when they know that potential employers can see it if they happen to drop in.

Ideally, you should start thinking about your online reputation long before you need it to be pristine. Every time you post to a public forum, put up a personal Web page that’s not password protected, or send a political diatribe to a widely distributed mailing list that’s open to the public, you should think about whether you would be uncomfortable if it came to light during a job search. But even if you haven’t been completely circumspect in the past, there are still things you can do to minimize the chances of an HR investigator coming across a photo of you drunk, dancing on the table in your underwear or that passionate post you made during the last election season about the candidate not of your choice.

If you have your own Web site, scrutinize it carefully and remove anything that’s questionable. If in doubt, take it out. Some forums will also allow you to remove your own posts. If you have social networking pages where you (or your friends) get a little rowdy, check the privacy settings and make sure the pages can’t be viewed by the general public.

For more tips, see Job Hunting? Don’t Forget to Manage Your Online Rep.

8: Don’t tell people about your chickens before they hatch

The interviews went well. You were called back for a second and third one. You got to the point of discussing salaries and the company’s pay scale seemed to fit your expectations. You received positive feedback from all the interviewers and you were really excited about the prospect of working for this company. In fact, you were so excited that you posted all about it on your blog or told your 500 closest friends on Facebook (many of whom you’ve never met). Suddenly, it all went sour. You got no more calls from the company and when you finally got up the nerve to check back with them, you were told that the position had been filled.

What happened? Chances are that word of your premature announcement reached the wrong person. But even if it was something else entirely that caused you to lose out on the job, now you’re stuck with explaining to all those friends that, ummm, no, you won’t be starting work with XYZ Corporation after all. It makes you look flakey at best and at worst, it leaves people wondering what terrible blunder you made or what awful secret from your past was uncovered that caused you to be “fired” before you even started. They may even think twice before recommending you or referring you to an opening they know about. The moral: Don’t celebrate until you’re sure you have something to celebrate about.

9: Do upgrade to “Skills 2.0”

If you find yourself breezing through the initial interviews with HR and/or department supervisors with flying colors, but you fail to get a call-back after the more in-depth technical interviews that come next, consider brushing up on your skills. In the tech industry, in particular, things change fast, and a mastery of yesterday’s technology won’t get you as many points as an up-to-date skill set. If you were in the same job for a number of years and your company put off upgrading, you might have let your skills fall behind.

Oddly, you’re likely to find that even if hiring companies haven’t upgraded to the newest hardware and software themselves, many of them want to know that you know all about it (as well as the old stuff they’re currently running). That’s because a) they think — or at least hope — they will eventually move up to more current technology and b) they want someone onboard who is interested in constantly learning.

10: Don’t give up: The right job, like the Truth, is out there

It can be easy to get discouraged if time after time, you get just so far in the application and interview process and then no further. But in times of high unemployment, it can take a while to find the right fit, no matter how qualified you might be. And remember that the higher up on the corporate food chain you’re aiming, the longer it’s liable to take to find a new job. Above all, don’t give up and don’t get sloppy. The right job for you could be the very next one you try for.

In the meantime, consider alternative means of bringing in income, such as consulting or writing in your field of expertise. You might even discover that you like being your own boss and can make a living at it that’s as good as or better than what you were making as a “wage slave.” Flexibility is the key, and that key can open the door to a new career that makes you thankful you lost or quit your old job.

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