Job hunting: What is your dutch wife?

By Philip Brewer on 24 August 2007 (Updated 12 December 2008) 11 comments

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When I was in college, I worked in the computer center. When my boss wanted to hire a new computer operator, he asked a couple of us to go over resumes. That experience, which gave me some insight into the way hiring managers look at applications, resumes, and potential employees, turned out to be more useful in my career than just about anything I learned in actual college classes. It also gave me a story I tell anyone who's applying for a job: The story of the dutch wife.

What's in the books versus first-hand

I got a whole pile of resumes to read, and I had to squeeze reading them in between all the things I had to do for school. No resume got very much reading time.

In the years since then, I've read plenty of books on job hunting, that all made the point that your resume has to let someone quickly see that you have the qualifications for the job. There was nothing quite like having to go through a stack of 50 resumes between classes to make that point sink in.

One resume had been hand-written in pencil on yellow legal paper. The photocopy that I got was simply blank--I could tell that someone had photocopied lined writing paper, but I couldn't tell that the paper had any actual writing on it. Since I couldn't read it, I didn't consider it.

The actual job was to do the things they didn't trust students with, such as putting the blank check paper in the printer. It wasn't going to be exciting work, and there wasn't much opportunity for advancement. So, I went right past resumes from highly skilled people--they were obviously not going to be happy in the job. There was nothing like sitting there with the resume of an experienced software professional in my hand and imaging him changing the paper in the printer, to bring home what "overqualified" meant.

The dutch wife

But that's not the end of the story. Remember that resume hand-written on legal paper? While I only had a photocopy, my boss had the original, which was legible. The guy who wrote it was actually a reasonable candidate--he'd been doing similar work at a bank in Holland. He was moving back to town and looking for a job. He happened to mention that, while living in Holland, he had gotten married to a woman there.

For some reason my boss found the idea of the man having a dutch wife fascinating. He called the guy in for an interview, decided the guy was okay, and hired him. The guy was a reasonable choice--the bank he'd worked at used the same kind of computer, so he was as good a match as anybody we'd gotten a resume from. But that's not what got him hired--there were six or seven other people whose resumes were about as good. What got him hired was that he had a dutch wife.

I tell this story to people looking for jobs to make two points.

First, the job search process is utterly capricious. A hundred accidents can lose you a job: the copier wasn't working; a stack of resumes got mislaid or reviewed by an idiot; one of the other candidates had a dutch wife. There is nothing you can do about this, except use it as a way to keep your perspective on the whole thing. It's easy to take it personally when others around you seem to be having more success than you at job searching. Remembering how much of the process is pure happenstance can help a little.

Second, make sure that you have a dutch wife. Not necessarily a literal dutch wife, but something that's a little odd or interesting. Something that a hiring manager might latch on to because he's genuinely interested, or at least use as a mental handle that lets him remember you--oh, yeah, the guy with the dutch wife. You might lose a few jobs that way, if the odd or interesting thing about you pushes someone's buttons in a bad way. But you'll lose a lot more for no reason at all, and plenty of others by simply not standing out.

If you're highly qualified, experienced, and looking for a job in a hot field, then none of this makes a lot of difference. But if the position you're seeking is a bit of a stretch or you're a non-traditional candidate, or the field (or the economy) isn't growing, then it's very likely to come down to something like this. Blending in is only a winning strategy if they're going to hire everybody. Standing out by being the most qualified is best, but standing out for any reason at all can make the difference.

[Note: I didn't find out until years later that the term "dutch wife" is also used to refer to a sex doll. I don't think that's what so fascinated my old boss--I think he was just genuinely interested in the notion that this guy had met a woman in Holland and married her--but I'm not sure.]

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Jessica Okon's picture

Make sure not to give your Dutch Wife a Dutch Oven!
(sorry I couldn't control myself)

Guest's picture
Matt

Great point. Although I'm fairly young, I've had enough experience in witnessing people being selected to positions to realise that the best and most qualified person does not necessarily get the job. More times than not it comes down to things that have nothing to do with a candidate's skills.

It's probably why you will rarely get an honest response from an employer if you ask them the reasons why you didn't get hired. Usually they do not know the real reason themselves...or they don't acknowledge it. No employer is going to say "You weren't hired because the other candidate had a Dutch wife."

I really enjoy your articles Philip.

Nora Dunn's picture

A friend of mine once hired somebody based on the fact that he listed one of his resume skills as "trimming celery", from his stint working in a grocery store.

 I'm pretty sure trimming celery didn't have anything to do with the job he was hired for, but it demonstrated a dry sense of humor and willingness to take on new challenges. At the very least my friend was curious enough about anybody who would put that on their resume to give him an interview and see what he was like!

Depending on the job and the industry, humor in a resume might not fly, but for this guy it did!

Jessica Okon's picture

Who got hired, as she was told later on, because the ladies in the office liked her clothes, otherwise they were not going to hire her because she went to Meredith, not Carolina.

Philip Brewer's picture

Exacatly. Almost anything can end up being the hook that gets you in for an interview.

One time my wife interviewed for a software job, and the receptionist happened to mention that the hiring manager was especially interested in talking to her because her resume mentioned that she could read Sanskrit--and the manager knew the language as well. The interview went smoothly (they both agreed that Sanskrit ability directly translated to software-writing ability) and she got the job.

I always mention that I'm fluent in Esperanto in resumes. I suppose it may cost me some number of jobs (since some people have a negative impression of Esperanto), but you never know what might be this manager's equivalent of "trimming celery."

Guest's picture
LightRye

My calendar reads the 24th, and I think that means you are no longer running with a random band of dubious characters. Congratulations for that.

I've been on the hiring side many times too. It's funny, but the stakes are pretty high on both sides of the table. The resume quirk factor seems to ensure the hiring manager that yes, this person is human. Which in an odd way, the applicants seem more an abstraction until you meet them. The resume quirk sort of cuts through that.

I once set a great hook in a cover letter and got a call back in 20 minutes from the FAX date/time stamp. I managed to chunk the interview, but the cover letter sure did it's job. I didn't save the letter, so I no longer have the exact wording, not that lightning will strike twice anyway. Ha ha.

Philip Brewer's picture

There's no telling what's going to hook any particular manager, so there's not much point in spending a lot of time trying to project just the right air of quirkiness. Just let enough of your real self show through that you appear as an actual person and you've probably done all you can do.

Yep. I am now a full time writer. Very exciting, albeit kind of daunting as well.

Guest's picture

I've sat in on interviews and debriefs with hundreds of hiring managers and they are just as unique and quirky as the candidates. From the most balanced, let's consider everything approach to the most narrow, "Did you see her shoes!?" approach, I've seen it all.

Just be yourself. Hiring managers actually DO like to see evidence of your personality in your resume, and especially your cover letter, but it is impossible to predict whether they will hire you or convict you based on that evidence.

What to do? Network! Your people know people that like people like your people. :)

Jill

Guest's picture
Gayle

If the other candidates found out that he was hired because of his Dutch wife, could they sue for discrimination? (True, it would be a rare case for people to actually find out, I admit.)

Andrea Karim's picture

But it's unlikely. If a candidate is NOT hired because of a federally protected issue or condition (race, Vietnam Veteran Era status), then they can file a complaint. But if they just hired the person they found the most interesting, there's probably not much you can do. Plus, it's really hard to prove.

Guest's picture
Dianna

i was told that i was hired for my present job because of my utterly odd portfolio. they wanted someone with some graphic abilities and all i had was a photobucket page of wacky montages i'd done for a photoshop class. despite this being a fairly conservative organization and there is absolutely no cause for me to use surreal photo illustrations in anything i'm doing, i think the oddness and humor of them appealed to the inner rebel of the hiring guy.

also, he asked me what i'm interested in learning next, probably expecting me to name some software program, and i blurted out "kickboxing." i have no idea why i said this but he just couldn't get over it. i thought i'd completely blown the interview.

goes to show.