In a very real sense, employee selection is the process of weeding out candidates perceived as being wrong for the job. To be the successful candidate, you must avoid being weeded out. To avoid being weeded out, you must keep from being perceived in a way the employer believes is negative. From the employer's point of view, the practical problem is to take a group of, say, twenty candidates and identify the one candidate among them who's best for the job. Assuming that one of the group will, indeed, get the job, the employer's task is to disqualify nineteen of the candidates, to weed out the wrong people until only the right person is left. This is a difficult and time-consuming chore, and the employer can be abrupt, arbitrary and even capricious about reasons for cutting candidates.
The employer is often more concerned with making the task manageable than with objectivity and fairness. The smallest indication of a negative or inappropriate quality is often enough to get a candidate disqualified. When it's all over, there's one new employee, and there are nineteen unsuccessful candidates. In general, the person who wins the job, even if there are only two candidates, is the one who steadfastly refuses to give the employer any reason the disqualify her or him. Employers like to play it safe, to choose employees who can do the job well, with no downside risk. Your goal, then, is to convince the employer that you have the qualities he or she is looking for, and none of the liabilities that might count against you.
To do this successfully, you have to know what the employer wants, and then prove that's exactly what you have to offer. There's considerable hazard in trying to sell yourself, in a letter, phone conversation or interview, on the basis of a personal quality or history until you have reason to believe the employer perceives it as an asset. If it's perceived as a liability, you can be weeded out, right then and there. Don't forget, the employer is looking for reasons to disqualify people.
There are possibly twenty candidates, and only one job. Volunteer that you're an independent thinker, and you may be cutting your own throat. Perhaps what you haven't learned yet is that this particular company operates on the basis of strong centralized authority.
They like team players who execute the ideas that come from the top echelons. To them, "independent thinker" means "maverick." And that means you're out. Similarly, you may be on shaky ground if you tell them you were vice president of the Young Democrats club on your college campus.
You just might be talking to a hard-line conservative Republican who happens to believe all Democrats are ultra-liberal spendthrifts who don't know the value of a dollar. And that means you're out. You might even be disqualified because you spent the summer after college traveling around Europe rather than going to work. Conceivably, some employer might classify that as a self-indulgent waste of time, a pastime for a wealthy kid who probably isn't really hungry for success. Not that there's anything at all wrong with being an independent thinker or a Democrat or a traveler, mind you. If you got the job, you'd perform in it just fine.
But until you know something about the needs and preferences of the people you're talking to, keep such extraneous information to yourself. It has no real bearing on your ability to do the job. It can only serve to get you weeded out. Don't volunteer anything about yourself unless, and until, you have reason to believe it will be perceived as an asset.
In the early stages of your contact with the company, until you learn what they really want, reveal as little about yourself as possible. Remember, if you don't disclose something about yourself, it simply doesn't exist. Don't give them reasons to weed you out.
Bruce J. Bloom is a respected writer on job-hunting and career opportunities. He is a contributor to the hard-hitting career strategy website "Fast Track For Women," http://www.winyourcareer.com. His career manual "Fast Track To The Best Job" was published by Blazer Books.