why is it bad to sound naive when applying for jobs?

A reader writes:

I’ve seen you throw around the word “naïve” several times in your How-Not-Tos for cover letters and resumes. I actually find it a really helpful insult when I recognize things that I’ve been doing wrong. But still, being 22, I am kind of professionally naïve. Surely there’s got to be something beneficial about showing my sincerity and eagerness in a cover letter, but I also don’t want to sound like an intern.

Here’s the more pragmatic question: In several of my cover letters I’ve directly addressed that although I’m technically qualified, I understand that I’m not going to be the most experienced. And then I say something like, “what I lack in experience I make up for with an eagerness to learn.” Most recently I said, “If ability is driven by energy, I may still be your most qualified candidate.”

Good? Bad? Should I fake it till I make it? Or should I beg?

Well, first, sincere and eager aren’t the same thing as naive. Sincere and eager are good things. Most employers want them. Naivete, though, is something different; it’s the lack of knowledge.

Now, of course when you’re new to the work world, you’re starting out with a certain amount of lack of knowledge, and there’s no way around that.

And some forms of naivete aren’t bad at all, and can even be kind of charming. For instance, I once hired a recent grad who insisted on calling me “Ms. Green” for his first few days before I could get him to stop. He was naive about typical forms of address in most offices and the fact that professional adults generally call each other by their first names (with some exceptions), but that was fine. He was inexperienced, it did no harm, and it was easy to smile at.

But the kind of naivete that we usually talk about here — when it’s in the context of Don’t Do That — is different. Those forms of naivete can signal to an employer that you’re going to require more hand-holding or be higher-maintenance or just be more of a pain than they’d ideally like to take on.

I figured it would be useful to talk specifics, so I searched for past posts where I warned someone that a behavior would seem problematically naive. Here are a few of them:

* In this case, a reader wanted to call a company that had frozen their hiring and try to personally convince their CFO to restart the hiring for the position he wanted. I told him he’d come across as naive (and overstepping and presumptuous). Being naive about something like this isn’t likely to get dismissed with an indulgent smile; it’s likely to make the company think that you have such a lack of understanding of professional norms that you’re likely to continually alienate coworkers and clients.

* In this case, a reader wanted to ask for a raise after only two months on the job because she regretted not negotiating initially. I told her that she would look naive and like she didn’t understand how business works (and that her employer would be annoyed that she didn’t think through the salary before accepting it). Being naive about something like this is a problem because the person’s lack of understanding of business conventions is directly causing a problem for the company: Now they have someone asking for something totally unrealistic, thinking it’s realistic to get it, and probably being dissatisfied when they can’t. As a manager, not only is that a pain in the ass to deal with, but it also makes you wonder what other unreasonable expectations the person has that you’re going to need to fend off too.

* In the recent letter from someone whose mother was telling her to call employers daily to ask for an interview, I said that doing that would come across as naive at best and and rude at worst. In this case, “naive” wasn’t horribly damning (although “rude” was), but the point was that she wasn’t going to portray herself in a way that would be helpful. You don’t want to take an action where the best that could be said of you is that you seem naive. When you’re trying to convince an employer to hire you, you want to seem attractive to them. Standing out by displaying a total lack of understanding of how hiring works isn’t going to be appealing. It’s going to be a negative, not a plus.

Now, as for your question about language in your cover letter, there’s nothing wrong with “what I lack in experience I make up for with an eagerness to learn.” You’re going to need to back it up with more compelling specifics, but there’s nothing problematic about that statement. And it’s not naive — it’s eager, but like I said above, those are two different things, and eagerness is good.

And your second sentence — “If ability is driven by energy, I may still be your most qualified candidate” — isn’t too bad either. I don’t love it, because I dislike anything where an applicant claims that they’re the most qualified candidate for the job (since they can’t possibly know), but it’s a reasonably engaging way of saying something about your energy and enthusiasm.

Neither of those really sounds naive; they sound eager, and that’s a good thing. They’re very different from the examples of problematic naivete above.

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