By Paula Lehman A student walks into an elite investment bank wearing a top-of-the-line suit that his parents shelled out a grand for. Everything from the waist up looks great, but when the recruiter gazes down, it's not a pair of Johnston & Murphy wingtips poking out from under the hem of the designer pants. It's a pair of flip flops (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/23/06, "You Can't Wear That to an Interview!").
Wardrobe malfunctions are just one of the many things that can go horribly, horribly wrong on the job hunt. In this case, the student's sartorial slip-up was an act of deliberate sabotage—he was being pushed against his will into a profession he had no interest in and wanted to make sure he didn't get the job.
In a cutthroat job market, mistakes—deliberate or otherwise—can doom a job hunt from the get-go. Here's a list of entirely avoidable mistakes, and some advice from experts on how to give yourself an edge—unless, of course, sabotage is what you're going for.
CLEAN SLATE. Do you need a degree to land your first real job in the professional world? It probably helps, but it definitely doesn't help if the degree you present is fabricated. That's always been a no-no. Just ask former RadioShack (RSH) CEO David Edmondson, who was forced to resign in February after he was unable to verify the diploma he said he had received from Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/22/06, "RadioShack's Lesson").
But these days, employers are getting more diligent about rooting out less obvious fabrications, too, such as fudging employment dates to cover up a gap on your résumé, inflating the title you held during a summer internship, or awarding yourself an academic honor.
David Nachman, vice-president for marketing & business development at HireRight.com, which runs checks on potential employees for client companies, advises job seekers to be diligent about rooting out little white lies on their resumes—and sooner rather than later. "Don't feel like you have to keep up the charade," says Nachman. "Even if you have to pay a consequence now, it will be less than what you will have to pay later."
BLOWING THE INTERVIEW. According to a Robert Half International (RHI) survey taken at the end of last year, a third of executives say job candidates make most of their mistakes during the interview. Don't let this be you. First, take the preliminary phone interview seriously: Sharpen your verbal skills and minimize background noise. The last thing you want to hear from an interviewer is "Did you just go to the bathroom?"
When it comes down to the face-to-face interview, do your homework. Have lunch with someone who knows the company's culture. You'll get a better idea about the job you're applying for and the people you'll be working with. It will help you prepare for everything from dress code to your first performance evaluation.
Like everything else, interviewing is a skill—one that improves with practice. Nachman suggests recruiting friends to put you through a mock interview, and scheduling interviews with less desirable companies before those with top-choice employers. "Start with a job that you're not as excited about," he says. "That way you can practice on a less-sought-after job first."
ONLINE EXPOSE. It's Online ID 101: know how much information is too much. Rule No. 1 for anyone with career aspirations beyond the local McDonald's franchise should be to keep private life offline. That would have helped the University of Illinois grad who lost his summer internship after his employer discovered his Facebook profile, where he described his marijuana smoking habit. This goes for e-mail, too. When Dianna Abdala turned down a job at a Boston law firm, after initially accepting it, the testy e-mail exchange between her and a senior attorney at the firm ultimately found itself in thousands of in-boxes across the globe.
In this day and age, personal information is postable (and alterable), and often online identities are longer lasting than desired (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/25/05 "The MySpace Ecosystem"). "People have to be pretty cautious, that's the bottom line," says Nachman. "More of our customers are relying on social networks for background checks. Applicants need to realize that people are looking at these sites."
TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL. One of the biggest mistake that job seekers typically make is not something they do, but something they don't do: ask for help. Kevas Mohan, a member of the 2004 graduating class at Duke University, made the mistake of trying to shortcut straight to the job from the "who-ya-know" position. Having found an alumni, Dan Levitan, working in venture capital, he spent the next month e-mailing and calling to no avail. "I think there's an inherent assumption that we can contact alumni and they'll hire us on the spot," Mohan says. "The idea that you can contact alumni directly is a farce."
The remedy? Mohan went to his history professor, Dean William Chafe, and with one phone call to Levitan, his former student, Mohan had himself a lunch. Don't underestimate the value of career counselors both on campus and off. They will broaden your network and keep you posted on jobs you may not have found on your own. More young job candidates are using professional career coaches to sharpen their edge in the hiring market. Private counselors aren't inexpensive. Hayden-Wilder, a year-old Boston career counseling firm, lists packages of services ranging from $850 to $2,950.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES. What are you waiting for? Career counselors advise college students to start looking for their first post-college jobs by their sophomore year. "In the current system, investment banks and consulting firms—companies that do most of the on-campus recruiting—are hiring from their internship programs," says Sheila Curran, the executive director of Duke University's Career Center and co-author of the recently published Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. "Sophomore year is ideal for kids that are interested in places that recruit on campus. Otherwise you should start looking when you have a true commitment to thinking about your career."
You can also miss opportunities by not seeking out "hidden jobs"—those that open up as someone in the company leaves or is promoted. Many times these positions are unadvertised because companies would rather fill them quickly, without a full-scale search. The best way to stay on top of these kinds of openings is to keep up with your network of contacts and recruiters. Often as a last resort, companies will hand the open position to a recruiter to find the appropriate candidate. Lehman is an intern for BusinessWeek in New York