Deciding when to follow instructions
[Editor's note: If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]
Anytime someone announces that they're looking to hire, there'll be instructions on how to apply--even if nothing more than a sign that says, "Inquire within." Often, they'll want quite a bit more--resume, cover letter, samples, references, etc. There's a delicate dance involved in deciding just how completely to follow those instructions. Here are a few of the important steps.
To begin with, it's important to remember that, whatever the instructions are, they exist for at least two reasons, only one of which is to gather the information the people doing the hiring think they need for deciding if you can do the work. There's another reason, that's at least as important.
It's a test
Whether you're able and willing to follow instructions is an important thing for anyone to know before deciding to hire you.
Just over a year ago, I decided to apply to write for Wise Bread. (There's a page here on the site with instructions on how to apply. I don't know if they're hiring right now, so I won't link to it, but the page is still up and it isn't hard to find.) I followed the instructions scrupulously, because I thought writing for Wise Bread would be cool, and I didn't want to sabotage my own application. As it happens, the admins at Wise Bread hired me.
A year or two earlier, though, I'd applied for an assignment writing an article for a science fiction encyclopedia. There was the usual list of things that they wanted, several of which I blew off for various reasons. Not surprisingly, I didn't get the assignment.
Why not follow instructions?
There are plenty of bad reasons to ignore the instructions. I can only think of one good one: You only want the job if they're so desperate to hire you that they'll overlook your unwillingness to follow instructions.
In essence, ignoring their instructions turns the test around: Now, you're testing them.
You might think that knowing that they were desperate would give you an edge--in salary negotiations, for example--but I think you'd have a much bigger edge if you went at it the other way around: Follow instructions scrupulously, make the absolute best case that you're the person they want to hire, wait until they actually offer you the job, and then play hardball--on salary, or whatever terms and conditions matter to you. Once they've decided you're the number-one candidate you're in a much better position than if you've already got strikes against you for ignoring their instructions.
Bad reasons for ignoring instructions
So, why didn't I follow my own advice, when I applied for that write job a couple years ago?
First, because I didn't have what they were looking for. In particular, I didn't have a resume for myself as a writer.
Second, because what I did have wouldn't have made me look good. I could have sent my resume for myself as a software engineer, but almost everything on it was irrelevant for the position.
Mainly, though, it was because I only wanted the job if I was their only good choice. I already had a full-time job, so I wasn't in a position to offer to write numerous articles--one or two would have been all I could handle. The one article I offered to write would have been fun to do, and it would have paid well, but it would have been a lot of work to do a good job. Basically, if they wanted me, even though I didn't provide exactly what they asked for, then I'd have been pleased to write that one article. Otherwise, they were better off getting someone else to do it.
Here are a few bad reasons for ignoring instructions, with suggested alternate steps to take:
You don't have what they want (no resume, no references, no samples, etc.)
The solution in this case is to come up with something. If you don't have a resume, write one--a crappy resume may get you dinged, but no faster than not sending one if they asked for it. If you don't have references, find some--coworkers or classmates aren't as good as someone who's supervised you, but they're better than nothing. If you need samples, make some--again, crappy samples won't get you dinged any faster than no samples will (although, if you can't come up with good samples, maybe this isn't the job for you anyway).
You'd look like a terrible candidate (even though you're actually perfect for the job)
The solution in this case is a killer cover letter. Tempting as it may be to omit something that will make you look overqualified or underqualified or just wrong for the job, you're better off following instructions. For one thing, if you don't include all the stuff that's asked for, there's a pretty good chance that no one will even read your cover letter--some secretary or HR guy may well be going through the package with a checklist and automatically dinging anything that arrives incomplete. A cover letter that explains why you're the right choice (despite what they might think after seeing what they asked for) just might work.
You don't want the job that bad
The solution in this case is simply not to apply. It's easier for everyone: You don't have to go to the trouble of putting even a partial application together, and they don't have to spend the time to figure out that you didn't give them what they wanted.
You don't want to work for the sort of people who care about nitpicky details like that
This getting close to being a good reason. After all, you don't want to work for the sort of jerk who'll ding your application because you deviated from the instructions in some inconsequential way.
A specific case of this is when they're asking for something that you hesitate to provide to just anybody. For example, there was a period in the 1980s when a lot of fiction publishers wanted writers to submit their social security number on their manuscript. (They were going to need it to pay you if they accepted the piece, so it saved a step if the number was right there.) Other examples might be fingerprints, permission to do a credit check (or security check), documents like social security cards or passports, etc. Personally, I tend to hold back information like this from an initial application, figuring I can provide it later if they seem to be considering me seriously. If it knocks me out of even being considered for the job, I figure I still come out ahead by keeping my personal information a little more closely controlled.
You need to be careful, though, not to lie to yourself--because (especially when following the instructions exactly would be difficult) it can be tempting to imagine that whatever deviation you want to make is somehow a test of their flexibility.
The fact is, that there are better ways to check on their flexibility. Probably best is just to ask about whatever it is that you're worried about: Ask the hiring manager and ask the people who would be your peers. If you can find any, ask some former employees if the place supported flexibility in that particular area.
Just as with salary, the winning move is to put together a perfect application and let them make you an offer--then negotiate for the flexibility you want. You're in a much better position to win that negotiation after they've decided that they want you than you are when all they know about you is that you can't be bothered to do what they asked.
In fact, that's most often the case. If you're at all serious about wanting the job, it just makes sense to follow the instructions. Then, if they show that they're serious about hiring you, you're in a position to negotiate for what you want.