should I go around HR and apply with the hiring manager directly?

A reader writes:

I’m currently interviewing and have gotten many of my interviews through reaching out directly to department heads as opposed to HR. However, sometimes after these directors/VP’s email me back saying they’ve forwarded along my resume to HR, it goes no further.

I like being proactive and it seemed to make sense to me, cutting out the middleman. However, I don’t want to offend anyone or burn bridges with these companies. Should I re-think my approach? Is it wrong to reach out to department heads regarding a position instead of human resources?

Well, if an employer provides specific instructions about how to apply, that’s how they want you to apply and they have reasons for that.

Deciding not to follow those instructions and to instead reach out to the hiring manager directly will mostly (not always, but mostly) annoy those hiring managers, who will wonder why you think those instructions apply to everyone but you.

And yeah, I know that there’s a bunch of advice out there about how you should always go around HR and apply to the hiring manager directly. The problem with that advice is this: The vast majority of candidates who are applying aren’t going to be ones that truly excite the hiring manager. And statistically speaking, you’re likely to be in that majority. So more often than not, the hiring manager is just going to forward your application on to HR to be processed like all the others (or will just tell you to apply that way yourself) —  and often this is going to be mildly annoying to them. So now you’ve wasted that effort, come across as if you think you’re a special snowflake, and maybe associated some annoyance with your name.

Now, here’s the tricky part of this: While this is annoying if you’re most candidates, it’s a little different if you’re a truly great candidate. In that case, doing this can actually be helpful in some (but not all) cases. If the hiring manager opens your materials and sees that you’re a truly fantastic candidate, she might pass them on to HR with a note saying that you look worth interviewing … and that might prompt HR to put you in the interview pile when maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, note that this scenario relies on having an incompetent HR department who otherwise wouldn’t have spotted this unusually great candidate — and that’s pretty uncommon. It does happen (particularly in fields where HR has no clue about the substance of the work of the job they’re hiring for), but it’s not happening the majority of the time. So, for this to work to your advantage, you have to (a) be an unusually strong candidate (and again, by definition, most people are not), and (b) be applying somewhere with incompetent screeners.

And that of course is what makes this so tricky. Tons of people think they’re amazingly strong candidates when they’re not, and candidates also tend to overestimate the likelihood of incompetent screeners. As a result, you get loads of people thinking “oh, I’m in the category of people for whom this makes sense” when in fact they are not … and so hiring managers get a bunch of these emails and are generally annoyed that people aren’t just following the damn application instructions. And that, in turn, leads to this: Since the majority of these “ignore the directions and email directly” people aren’t actually great candidates, it gets associated in many hiring managers’ minds with mediocre applicants. So now when they see those emails, they’re already biased against you — because in their experience, the people who do this aren’t people they’re going to be excited about anyway. And so you’re joining a club you probably don’t want to join — the “slightly aggressive candidates who think they’re stronger than they are” club.

However … there’s one exception to everything I said above: when you know the hiring manager personally or have a connection who does. When that’s the case, emailing the hiring manager directly will come across totally differently, and can be really helpful to do. Even if you’re not a top-5% candidate, if you’re at least reasonably qualified and you have a personal connection, the hiring manager might handle your application differently if she knows you or you’re referred by someone she knows. So in those cases, it’s worth reaching out directly.

In the other cases, follow the directions. Write an unusually awesome cover letter, and that’s going to help you way more than randomly trying to circumvent directions.

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