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Three Simple Rules For Emailing Potential Employers

By Peter Weddle

A recent survey found that over a third of HR professionals have visited social networking sites to look for information about employment candidates. Personal info and videos posted on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites are now considered fair game when employers conduct "background checks" on job seekers. With concerns about office security, employee theft and malicious behavior on the rise, companies want to learn as much as they can about the character of a job seeker, in addition to their capabilities on-the-job.

However, this assessment isn't limited to social media, but also applies to every interaction you have with a company online. To put it another way, your evaluation begins with the first email you send, and continues through every communication you have with HR and the company as a whole. From an employer's perspective, you are what you write.

This has been true for years, as employers have long judged job applicants by evaluating their resume, cover letter and other interactions with HR. But with the increased frequency and casual nature of online interaction, it's far easier for job seekers to get trapped into careless - and potentially damaging - mistakes. So to help make sure you always write at your best, follow these three simple rules for how to email a prospective employer:

Rule 1: Be Business-Like in Employment-Related E-Mail

Always assume that all online correspondence you have with an employer is of a business nature. Email may be a casual medium, but trying to get a job is a serious activity, and should be treated that way.

  • When initiating a correspondence, err on the side of formality.
  • Begin your message with a standard business greeting that uses the recipient's last name. For example, you might write: "Dear Mr. Brown."

  • When replying to an employer's email, follow their lead on what greeting to use.
  • For example, if they begin with an informal "Hi Joseph" or "Hello Joseph," your response can do the same. But if they begin with the more formal "Dear Joseph" or "Dear Mr. Brown," then you should reply with a more formal greeting.

  • Also follow HR's lead on whether to use a first or last name in your greeting.
  • If a hiring manager signs their message with their first name, then you should use it in your greeting. If, on the other hand, they used their full name or some variation of their last name (Mr. Jones, Ms. Kay or Steven Jones, for example), then you should greet them using their last name.

Rule 2: Watch Your Tone

The tone of online communication can be easily misunderstood. In fact, one study found that nearly 50% of all emails imply an unintended (and potentially harmful) tone. How does that happen?

  • Watch out for the case you use when writing messages.
  • Just as nobody would like it if you shouted constantly during a conversation, over-using caps in your emails won't go down well, either.

  • Tone is also conveyed, although more subtly, by word choice and syntax.
  • Make sure you select terms and phrases that can't be read more than one way, and avoid anything that might be misunderstood if a person isn't familiar with your way of speaking.

  • Stay away from ambiguity.
  • The longer and more complex your sentences get, the easier it is for them to be misinterpreted. So keep things short and precise.

Rule 3: Represent Yourself Well in Your Writing

Job seekers often make a bad impression by failing to pay enough attention to their correspondence. Carefully compose every message, and then proofread what you've written even more carefully before hitting send.

  • Employers are most impressed with e-mails that are articulate and to-the-point.
  • Multi-syllable words and complex thoughts don't influence them as much as clearly expressed answers and simple, accurate explanations.

  • Employers don't like bad punctuation, grammatical errors and misspellings.
  • This makes it look like you don't pay attention to detail. And if you can't be bothered to double-check something as important as an email to HR, that doesn't say anything good about the potential quality of your work.

No one believes that a resume fully conveys all of your potential value to a company. It is, however, the key to the front door. If your resume doesn't open the door and get you invited in for an interview, you'll never have a chance to expand on what you've written.

The same is true with your online communication. Even the shortest, seemingly insignificant email between you and HR becomes a part of your record. In fact, in some cases these can have more impact on your evaluation than your cover letter and resume. Since emails are typically less formal, employers see them as a candid snapshot of who you are - and potentially how you will act as an employee.

Does that make them more important than your resume? Of course not. Your resume tells an employer what you can do. Your online messages, however, tell them who you are. And in a highly-competitive job market, how you handle emails and what you post online can mean the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter.


Formerly the Chairman and CEO of Job Bank USA, Peter Weddle is an HR consultant, recruiter, author and commentator with an international reputation. He has authored or edited more than two dozen books, including "Recognizing Richard Rabbit: A Fable About Being True to Yourself", "Work Strong: Your Personal Career Fitness System" and "WEDDLE's 2009/10 Guide to Employment Sites on the Internet". In addition, he oversees WEDDLE's, a print publisher specializing in the field of human resources. WEDDLE's annual Guides and Directory to job boards are recognized for their accuracy and helpfulness, leading the American Staffing Association to call Weddle the "Zagat of the online employment industry." Peter Weddle is also CEO of the International Association of Employment Websites.

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