In my role as an executive recruiter with Major Lindsey & Africa placing top-flight lawyers into senior in-house positions, I frequently get approached by candidates of all backgrounds who ask for candid advice on how to improve their chances of landing that "dream job." When I get this question, I try to be as honest and direct and helpful as I possibly can. There are so many elements to raise: how lawyers should be doing more networking; the value of an intelligent and concise resume; the power of gratitude and demonstrating high emotional intelligence during the entire job-seeking process. All of these components are incredibly important to success.
But as I do this job more and more frequently, there is another under-valued element that I would humbly suggest is just as critically important: Email Etiquette. Not writing cover letters. Not texting. But emailing. For many employers, emails are often the very first time they hear from a candidate, and then the employer and potential employee engage in many more email exchanges throughout a three- or four-month hiring process. There is, just for starters: the warm-up email by the candidate to introduce him- or herself; the logistics email to set up interviews; the numerous and reactive "thank you" emails, if a candidate chooses to do so; the follow-up emails asking about the status of the search; and then sensitive emails at the end of a hiring process concerning an offer-and-acceptance.
These emails are as important, or maybe more important, than your resume or maybe even your interviews. It can very well be the first and last impression that an employer has of you; emails also live forever and can be forwarded around as an example of "what to do" and "what NOT to do;" and then, of course, the nature of email is such that it is very challenging to detect tone and attitude in an email. In an in-person meeting, you would have been able to pick up so much body language that it is fairly easy to tell whether someone is excited, sad, enthusiastic, low energy, harsh, etc. It’s hard to identify those qualities in a brief email.
So what should a candidate do? If email is so important, how can one improve without fundamentally changing their writing style? I think I can help, without trying to alter someone's basic personality or "brand." Here are eight tips on email etiquette that I think candidates should pay strict attention to and at least keep in mind when typing a missive—and before hitting the dreaded "SEND:"
Absolutely NO typos
It's a death sentence. You are not texting a friend or spouse or buddy down the hallway. You are writing to your possibly future employer and/or their representative. Emails are short; if you can't catch a typo, you won't (and shouldn't) get to first base.
Consider including "Dear" or "Hi."
I'm not saying that someone has to use those terms on a flagrant basis, but think about adding some words like that to convey warmth or genuineness. When I get an email from someone I don't know about a role, and they start, "Michael: ___________," my gut reaction is that the individual is cold and harsh and that they probably don't know me very well. I know it's subtle, but it starts things off on the wrong foot.
Exclamation Points: The Good
In this case, it's really a matter of knowing your audience. I have seen exclamation points used (and have used them myself) to great benefit. The (!) conveys excitement, enthusiasm and friendliness. These are all great things! If a job seeker is sending an email and he/she is worried that perhaps they are being too confrontational or pushy or unfriendly, one well-placed exclamation point can do a lot to remove that concern about harshness. Then again…
Exclamation Points: The Bad
There are many hiring managers who consider the exclamation point to be a sign of immaturity. Without knowing your audience, an exclamation point could mean that your email won't be taken seriously. Further, multiple exclamation points—and used over multiple sentences—are almost certainly a no-no. The bottom line; pay attention here and stay true to your personal style. If you are a job seeker trying to make a positive impression on others, think about mirroring their style and making them feel more comfortable about you.
A time and a place for an email
During a hiring process, there occasionally can be some tough conversations about getting dinged, or around the terms of an offer, or a host of other sensitive matters. When discussing these issues, I would advise staying away from email as much as possible. We recently had a client who worried that a candidate had misled them in an interview about whether they had actually received a Phi Beta Kappa in college. This is a very awkward conversation. Rather than handling the issue by phone, the candidate sent a seven-paragraph email that was needy, unprofessional, too strident and just a regurgitation of defensiveness and rigidity. The candidate should have never put that in writing at all. It now lives forever with our client (and us). A phone call was absolutely the way to go.
All things being equal, please respond to emails that you receive. Yes, nearly every company in the United States probably has an "overabundance of email problem." And yes, you don't want to get involved in a tag war of "Thank you," then "You're welcome!," then "Absolutely, I really appreciate it," then "Of course! J." But again, if you are the job seeker and trying to make a positive impression, think about what happens when you get an email from the potential employer and you muse, "Well, it speaks for itself. I don't need to send a response." You wouldn't stand on a street corner with a friend and have him say, "See you at 5 tonight," only to then turn around and walk away, would you? You would very naturally say something to acknowledge it, shake hands with a smile and then walk away. Communication is communication. Try to convey that same "street-corner-walking-away-smiling-shaking-hands" sentiment in a final email.
Wait, who is calling who?
Again, when you are a job seeker, it's critical that you make the potential employer obtain a positive impression of you and that you make their life easy. It does not make their life easy to have to call you without a set date/time and then engage in a game of phone tag. It takes away from their time and energy, particularly when they are balancing potentially tens of similar candidates. Therefore, an email that reads: "I am interested in your ___________ [legal] role. Please call me XXX-XXX-XXXX to discuss" is not helpful at all and likely a big mistake. If you want to speak on the phone, ask the employer if they are similarly interested. Don't direct them. If there is going to be a phone call, you should be doing the call at their convenience, not yours.
Didn't your mother tell you to say "thank you"?
This is so simple. As much as humanly possible, you should always always always be saying, "Thank you." You can say "thanks" or "Thanks!" or "Thank you very much" or "Many thanks." Whatever fits your style. But convey the message—it takes you one second, and it could be the one phrase that gets you the job of your lifetime.
I recognize that these are very subtle, potentially minor things, but over the course of a lengthy hiring process, they can build up— both good and bad— and have a dramatic effect on your likelihood of being hired. I also understand that there are no set rules here, and that intelligent minds may very well differ with some of this etiquette. Still, in a society where we frequently "fire off" emails without much thought, and we are balancing many life and work issues every day, I strongly advise that using some classic etiquette will go a long way. Even an old fashioned sentiment is appreciated in a modern medium.
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Michael Sachs is a Partner in the Chicago/Midwest In-House Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa. 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.