Bullish: Career Killers You Might Not Know Are Killing You

Back when I ran a company, I regularly neglected to respond to anyone whose cover letter began “Dear Sir.”

In fact, I did so with glee. Like this:

Look at this! Dear Sir! Oh wait, where’s my penis? I do not have one, because I am a lady. It’s not sexist or anything to assume that I am a Sir – after all, not everyone has time to use the Internet to research a company or to type “or Madam.” It’s cool. Let me pencil in your interview for the FIFTH OF NEVER. Muhahahahahaha!

It was a small company. My company. My bio was on the website. And in case you consider “Jennifer” a gender-ambiguous name, my photo was on the website as well. Anyone who addressed a cover letter “Dear Sir” was simply lazy, bad at reading comprehension, or very sexist, all of which disqualify applicants from working for me.

Are you committing “career killers” you just don’t know about?

(Side note: For a fantastically well-researched discussion of the problem of “unknown unknowns” – and more humorously, people too stupid to know that they’re stupid – see the NYTimes’ The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.)

As in Bullish: How to Nail the First Day at a New Job, I tried to make sure to focus on mistakes smart people might actually make, not horror stories about idiots and simpletons who bitch about their bosses on Facebook and get themselves conveniently fired in the comments below their own posts. I interviewed some hiring managers, all of whom have been anonymized below.

Seeming Juvenile

I was once in someone’s office and came across a list lying out in the open on someone’s desk. It contained candidates’ names and phone numbers, with comments next to each. To wit:

older job was in present tense versus past tense
cover letter weak
cover letter wordy
not much experience but nice cover letter
researched the company
generic cover letter
nice resume
busy resume
seems juvenile

It seemed clear that the list had been prepared by a junior-level employee to help a more senior-level employee weed out applicants. In other words, “older job was in present tense versus past tense” is a grammatical dealbreaker that could very well prevent a candidate from making it past the twenty-five year old gatekeeper to the hiring manager.

Bamboo Lunch Boxes


I also noted that “seems juvenile” was, I’m pretty sure, written by a person in his or her early- to mid-twenties. Did the applicant sound like a whiny twelve-year-old, or was the applicant perhaps trying to be personable by, like, you know, chatting and stuff with the person they spoke to on the phone since, you know, we’re like, girls and stuff?

So, don’t do that. The person you’re talking to might be a 23-year-old woman, but her reputation rests on who she recommends in the hiring process. Even for an entry-level position, she’s very possibly looking for miniature replicas of the boss rather than miniature replicas of herself.

Lack of Confidence (Also, Standing Around Like a Jackass)

From The Lady-Blog Editor (obviously, I know a few of those):

Not going into the interview assertively. In our office, everyone works in one large layout. There are a ton of interns who come in and just stand inside the door, watching. SEEMINGLY FOREVER. If they show up 15 minutes early (or late) I do not necessarily know who they are because people come in all the time for many reasons. I am not really impressed when someone stands around for 15 minutes hoping someone will come talk to them until I finally get up and say “Hello, who are you?” Rather, I would like them to say – to anyone! – “I am here to see [person’s name].” I just want them to be bold. That’s all I want. I’d prefer it if they didn’t give the impression of being weak and fearful right off that bat, because I like to get them to that state over time on my own terms.

Ha! Lady-blog editors are funny.

But seriously – standing around in the door for 15 minutes waiting for someone to talk to you? That indicates that you are a child. Or that you don’t know how to talk to people at all.

Dressing Like a College Student

From The Hospital Fundraiser:

I do recall one example of a young woman just out of college (or maybe with a year of experience) who was an excellent candidate based on her experience and performance in the interview. Unfortunately, she was dressed completely inappropriately for the job environment — frayed and un-ironed linen shirt that was open at the neck and a fair way down her chest. I was in a suit and it was a hospital fundraising job. Both I and the colleague I was interviewing with agreed that it was unfortunate, but that there was no way we could hire her if she couldn’t even figure out the appropriate dress code. I know her family and it is not unexpected that she wouldn’t know these sorts of things — her mother is a professor of [liberal arts field] and dresses about the same, but in that position I needed somebody who would be able to figure out these sorts of things and/or ask somebody in advance.

I can see a (mistaken) college student sort of thinking, “Well, they know I’m in college, so I should just be myself….”

If you’re young and somehow feel silly or fake or stuffy in real interview clothes, wear the clothes out to a few errands and dinners before you go on an interview and notice how nice everyone treats you (and/or whether your hair and shoes and such need to also be updated to go with the interview clothes).


One interviewer specifically cited “non-conservative shoes” as a dealbreaker, at least for an interview.

Many young women assume that as long as what they’re wearing isn’t sexy, it must be okay for work. After all, nothing’s showing!

That is the standard your dad uses to let you out of the house, not the standard for going to work. People over a certain age think you look insane when you wear colored tights that are cut off at the ankles by enormous clomping wedge booties.

“Modesty” is a necessary but not sufficient condition for appropriate officewear.

Blue-Collar Mores in a White-Collar Environment

When I was a kid, my dad was in the Navy. One lesson I absorbed from our family discussions was that, when you’re handling missiles, there is no room for fucking up, so if someone fucks up, you tell him what a fucking idiot he is.


Of course I knew that you don’t say “fuck” to your boss in an office. But I still, as a young person, assumed that the way office environments worked was that, surely, all the people under the boss would band together and say how fucking stupid all the stupid people are.

This is not the case. Instead of, “Your idea is stupid,” you can’t even say, “That idea will never work.” In WASP office culture, you have to say something like, “I think we might need to question our shared assumptions.”

In the book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, author Alfred Lubrano calls blue-collar kids who have moved into a white-collar world “Straddlers”:

Blue-collar kids are taught by their parents and communities to work hard to achieve, and that merit is rewarded. But no blue-collar parent knows whether such things are true in the middle-class world. Many professionals born to the working class report feeling out of place and outmaneuvered in the office. Soon enough, Straddlers learn that straight talk won’t always cut it in shirt-and-tie America, where people rarely say what they mean. Resolving conflicts head-on and speaking your mind don’t always work, no matter how educated the Straddler is.

Sometimes, being straightforward can be a strength. I think people trust me to give an honest appraisal. But if you are from a blue-collar background (or you’re an American in Japan, etc.), your barometer for “straightforward” is way off. What you think of as “toning it down” is probably still too blunt for anywhere where neckties are worn.

When I’m half of what I consider “direct,” I’m still the most direct person in the office. When I’m three-fourths of what I consider “direct,” people are offended.

For more, see Bullish: Social Class in the Office.

Oh My God, There Are So Many Other Things to Avoid

From The Human Resources Generalist, who has interviewed so many hundreds of people that at various points, people have definitely thrown up during their interviews, crocheted, and arrived dressed as ninjas.

Here are some interview mistakes she cited when I asked about career killers that might fell even the non-clueless:

Lack of eye contact
Blabbering on about family and personal stories
Playing victim in regards to what happened in their last job (whether they were truly victims or not, I have seen it happen too many times)
Slovenly appearance
Weak handshake or greeting
Getting on a religious or lifestyle soapbox
Relying on tokenism
Picking your hair, eyes, ears, teeth or nose
Placing your hands anywhere near your groin
Self-destructive behaviors such as shame over family members, harping on financial failures, etc.
Not asking any questions, or too passive
Lack of knowledge of company
Any form of hysterics
Answering calls, or having your cellphone ON during an interview. (This includes silent function. TURN IT OFF. There is nothing more annoying than your pants or purse suddenly vibrating.)
Serious dark circles under the eye, or a presentation of exhaustion.
Day dreaming is right out!
Forgetting people’s names right after you have been introduced (If you do, rely on “Sir”, “Ma’am,” or ask again).
Holes in your clothes
Shouting, yodeling, singing, or humming (inside voice please).
Applying for positions well above your qualifications
Ask for a restroom before the interview starts or excuse yourself, please. Squirming is distracting.
Very unorganized purse or man bag.

Your purse is sloppy and you show a presentation of exhaustion! Also, sitting all ladylike with your hands in your lap? TOO CLOSE TO YOUR GROIN. Who knew?

Hopefully something in this column served as a wakeup – either that you should avoid some silly little behavior that could cost you a job, or that you just don’t want to conform that much.

If you are aiming for corporate success, don’t do it half-assed. Conform, in exchange for money. Don’t press your individuality in areas where it doesn’t matter (like footwear). You can only play maverick so much before it starts to become a problem, so play maverick on things that matter – ideas, projects. You might enjoy Bullish: 3 Career Mistakes Young Women Make (And How To Smash The Competition) and Bullish: Speak Up Like A Competent Badass In Class And At Work.

If you decide, “Fuck it, I will fidget, slouch, get up at 11, and wear patterned tights with platform wedges or else be naked all day,” you’re going to need some other plans. See Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning For Very Smart Women, as well as Bullish: You Can Start A Business By Tuesday and Bullish: Starting A Business When You’re Broke.

Either way, I recommend that you develop an underlying core of expertise so vast and undeniable that, even if it turns out that you got a nervous twitch you don’t know about it, your accent is all wrong, and the cat hair on your pants is a liability, your services are in high demand. That requires going into the cave, as it were, to become an expert, even when others think you’re crazy (for all 10,000 hours of it).

Sometimes, capitalism is kind of great – the laws of supply and demand can work in your favor if you develop and publicize rare skills (and it’s not as hard as you think to build rare skills). Push boldly into areas others find difficult and frightening, and at some point, others will need you so badly that they’d never even think of questioning your shoes.

originally published on The Grindstone

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