As an in-house legal recruiter, I get this question a lot. And every time it's posed to me, I always answer with the same anecdote from a high-profile search I conducted three years ago …
I was conducting a General Counsel search for an extremely well-known organization in the Midwest, and the search had been highly competitive. After several months and two rounds of rigorous interviewing, the organization had narrowed the entire candidate pool to just three finalists – let's call them Frank, Sheila and Martin (not their real names, of course). These three individuals were now being asked to return for a third and final round of interviewing, which would take place over three exhausting days and involve probably 20 more interviewers, taking place both in formal and informal settings.
Now, I already knew that after the second round, which had been with the five-member search committee, Frank had been the only candidate to send a thank you note. He had handwritten it, and sent one to each individual member of the committee. Neither Sheila nor Martin had sent a thank you note, handwritten or electronic, but I honestly hadn't given it much thought. In my practice, some candidates send thank you notes; some don't. For those that do, some send theirs handwritten via "snail mail;" others shoot off an email. It had never (in five years of recruiting) played a substantial role one way or another in a candidate getting a job offer —until now.
So Frank, Sheila and Martin each did their three-day interview whirlwind. Each of them reported back to me the usual: "The interviews went well," "I remain very interested in this position," etc., etc. — the customary statements from a candidate who has a good interview session. Once again, neither Sheila nor Martin asked me about sending thank you notes. But Frank did. He asked me candidly if I thought that he now needed to send thank you notes to every one of the 20 people with whom he had interviewed. I told him that it was up to him, but that generally thank you notes are appreciated. "Essentially," I concluded. "It's really whatever approach you are most comfortable with." Frank sighed and lamented, "Mike, I think I've set the bar already." He hung up and immediately went to work, buying stationary and handwriting 20 thank you notes to all of the various company representatives with whom he had met.
I didn't give it any more thought.
About a week later, the search committee reconvened, and the chairwoman spoke up: "You know, I heard that Frank sent a thank you note to Mr. Dickerson. That was a nice gesture!" And everyone murmured, "Yes, yes, yes." The committee debated the three candidates, and about 30 minutes later, she spoke up again, "I really liked the fact that Frank wrote those thank you notes. And, come to think of it, we didn't hear anything from Sheila or Martin." More murmuring and general nodding of heads. As the 90-minute meeting wore on, a narrative emerged that Frank had sent these thank you notes and had demonstrated his real desire to obtain this exciting General Counsel role and that the other two candidates — in my opinion, who had precisely the same level of interest in the role as Frank but never expressed it — didn't.
Sort of like a smoke-filled party convention in the 1920s, Frank's candidacy — which had started no better than the other two candidates — gained a head of steam. A consensus was soon reached, and Frank was made the offer and accepted the General Counsel position (and remains there to this day).
About six months later, I visited the organization to check in on Frank, and I also had coffee with the search committee chairwoman. No kidding, when we sat down and I asked her about Frank, the first words out of her mouth were: "I love Frank! I've loved him ever since he wrote all of those thank you notes!"
So now I tell this anecdote every single time I get a question about writing a thank you note. Of course, I can't guarantee that sending a thank you note, be it electronic, handwritten or by carrier pigeon, is going to get the candidate the job. But it certainly is what made the difference for Frank — and in a negative way, it's what made the difference for Sheila and Martin. I've never heard a single story about a candidate who was harmed by sending a thank you note, but now I can tell people that it definitely helped one candidate obtain the job of his lifetime.
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Michael Sachs is a Partner in the Chicago office of Major, Lindsey & Africa where he specializes in placing attorneys in corporate legal department at all levels – from junior counsel to General Counsels -- in a wide range of industries and locations.