The death of the cover letter, and other such recruitment clichés…

I read a blog recently written by a graduate recruitment specialist which I found so unhelpful that I feel the need to counter it. In this article, recruiters of entry level talent were told that the cover letter is dead and that it is time to start getting smarter about recruitment. We were told that we need to find some new way of ruling out those pesky applications to find the proverbial shining-star-needle-in-a-haystack-perfect-fit for our business.  It’s not that I don’t think that recruitment processes could be improved but I do take offence at the suggestion that the young people applying for our jobs are simply a commodity which need to be whittled down or the cream taken from the top.

The claim made in the article was that recruiters of entry level talent don’t read cover letters any more, they just glance straight at the CV to look at grades and where the applicant went to university. I feel that this is doing a real disservice to young people.  The cover letter is where the candidate can sell themselves to you, explain why they want to work for you and tell you about themselves. If we ignore this and go straight to grades and place of study, what are we doing to address social mobility and ensure equality of opportunities? On what basis has the recruiter decided that being 10 UCAS points short, or going to a university further down the league table means that the applicant won’t be right? (And who says league tables are accurate any way?– check out this recent BBC story about misrepresentation by universities).  If we continue to recruit against stereotypes the status quo will be maintained, glass ceilings will never be broken and talented young people will be assigned to the scrap heap before they’ve even started their careers.

Lengthy, time consuming employee values assessments were suggested as a solution. Extensive projects to catalogue the culture of your organisation, to come up with a set of values which can be fed in to a psychometric testing and even that shiny new idea of gamification of the application process. As a CIPD qualified, experienced recruiter, I am all for taking a step back to understand a company culture and apply your findings to a detailed recruitment process. But as a graduate recruitment specialist, I also know that good people are hard to find. Complicated recruitment processes don’t always help you to find the best person for the job, they help you to find the best person who was able to navigate your recruitment process.

And it’s not just our young people who were sold short by this article, it was smaller businesses too. Those 5.5million smaller businesses who employ 60% of all private sector employees. I was asked recently by an engineering company with a workforce of 6 whether they should consider using psychometric tests to help them recruit. They had read and heard that this was the way to go. I advised them to probe further in the interview process, ask challenging questions of their interviewees, present them with scenarios and find out how they would react. Its not that I don’t believe in psychometric testing, it definitely has its place. But for a smaller business it would be too costly and time consuming to even try to profile their existing employees and extrapolate from this profiling, what their ideal employee looks like.

The old fashioned cover letter, or tailored personal statement can be so valuable. Perhaps applicants need to be reminded how valuable this can be and assured that it isn’t a waste of time to put a narrative around their application. I couldn’t agree more that a poorly written, cut and pasted cover letter adds nothing to an application process (although arguably, a bad cover letter tells you more about the applicant than a good one). But here at Step we actively encourage a well written personal statement which allows a candidate to add value to their application, to tell their story, showcase their skills and explain that they are more than just a number who looks remarkably similar to the last recruit.

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