The 7 Not-So-Highly Effective Habits of Career Fair-Goers

ARRA Job Fair - July 30-Aug 1, 2009

Image by Argonne National Laboratory via Flickr

As that I attended a career fair as an employer today (or yesterday rather when this gets published), I feel it’s as good of a time as any to bring up etiquette for career fairs. I won’t go into serious detail about researching companies and applying to the jobs before the career fair (and before everyone else does) – I’m hoping that’s a given. This is more of what to expect from both the people at the employer table, and what should come from you on the other side to make a (decent) memorable impression.

(Disclaimer: You can disclaim anything you’d like by saying disclaimer, but as always, these are my thoughts and opinions, and no one else can dream of taking credit for them, especially my employer. Please note this is for a said employer whose positions and job advertisements I shall no longer be posting due to internal conflict).

So I’ll start with the ’employer’ side at career fairs. There are prepared recruiters at fairs, and there’s the staff that’s dragged there and asked to do recruiting a favor. Not always the case, but depending on company size and number of recruiters left after downsizing, and you never know if the person you’re speaking to is the company lawyer (i.e. I have a tendency to recruit my OEO department to assist with OEO recruiting at these).

Some tables will have no one at it, just materials to take about the company or their jobs. Other tables will be giving away tons of things & having promotions to get attention. This generally boils down to company budget. Which leads into my personality type #1…

1. The Brazen Hand-Out Thief.

Oh yes, the not-so slick person who is obviously not looking for a job, who is immune to dirty looks – they want nothing more than your squeeze toy, pen, ruler, or IRS spray on hand sanitizer (ok the hand sanitizer one is justifiable at a hand-shaking event, especially for those loose, sweaty-hand shakes, but still…).

At one career fair someone came right up to me and said, “What do you have for me? I said, of, are you interested in heard about our jobs? And he corrected me, and said, “No, what are you giving away?” I apologized that I had nothing – so the guy stole my water bottle just to walk away with something. Some people are like that at career fairs – they’re there for the handout pens. Make sure that’s not you – even if the company you walk up to doesn’t have a job for you. You don’t need a squishy light bulb anyway.

I’m not saying don’t take the pen – I’m just saying be polite. Understand these people may not actually have any say in the hiring process, and may in fact be from completely different departments than you’d be interested in working for.

So what’s a job seeker to do?

Have a conversation. Start with the usual introductions & handshakes (which again, why this is still done in flu season bewilders me) and then ask the person a question, like, “What type of positions do you have available now?” It’s simple, easy, and although it makes the person talk, it’s a natural conversation. Walking up and delivering your elevator speech about your sales expertise – only to find out a company has accounting openings only – will make you feel silly & will leave an awkward position. Take this to the extreme, and you have rude personality #2…

2. The Talker.

While you definitely want to talk to the companies presenting at the fair and make a good impression, as with all experience in life you need to make a brief, strong, memorable impression – and then leave. Overstaying your welcome applies to the career table too. Notice ques of when the conversation is winding down, offer a card or resume, and then walk away. Dragging out the conversation will not improve your chances of candidacy if it’s not natural or there’s nothing relevant to say. The talker also is inconsiderate to others waiting in line, and just keeps trying to monopolize the table’s time…but believe it or not, you can actually make it worse by…

3. The Salesman.

Oh, you don’t have any position available at your accounting firm for a doctor? Oh, well, here’s my card in case you ever get sick, you might be glad that you have my info. I can do x, y, and z for you as well…

Now is not the time. Career fairs are not your personal sales floor, and I really doubt this will drum up business for you. More on shameless promoting here.

4. The Liar.

Well, I’m sure they would just consider themselves the ‘boaster’ or ‘exaggerator’, but still, if you don’t fit the bill for the company’s open roles – man up and move along son, move along. No point trying to twist what you’ve done…why yes, I’m an accountant, but I think the fact that I’ve done the taxes for my doctor for the last six years qualifies me for you physician role…

Now this does not negate trying to translate your wanting to change fields and explaining how your experience is relevant to the new role/field – but keep it real.

5. The Non-Talker.

Wait, didn’t I just say don’t over-talk? Well it’s not good to walk up to a table and not say enough. Especially if you’re shy and small talk isn’t your specialty – consider it good interview practice, by making strong eye contact (without leering – #6 to come) and making professional small-talk with employers. It’s not a comfortable situation for the employers to have to try to figure out what jobs they should be telling you about. They also shouldn’t have to introduce themselves to you – they have a huge sign. You know who they are – after all their name is on the pen you just pocketed.

If you find it really hard to get talking, try to open the floor to them, say their materials show they have accounting positions only. You can ask if they anticipate any openings in your area in the near future. You can ask them for a card & connect with them on linkedin if they accept, and ask them to keep you in mind if roles in your area open up. Don’t force conversation, especially if it makes you anxious. You’re better off taking it online.

You can also ask if they can pass your resume on to the sales department. Could be there are positions being recruited for that the person at the career fair doesn’t even know about. Then walk away.

You also might benefit from preparing a script of potential things you’d like to ask or say to an employer, try rehearsing it in the bathroom mirror…whatever works for you to get you talking comfortably. A slick talker with no experience can make a better impression than an expereinced phD who is…

6. The Leering Candidate.

Ahh yes, you want to talk to your dream company. You came to the career fair because your dream company was attending. You’ve been waiting for this moment for years (Hey, why have I never gone to a career fair where google was presenting? Hmmm maybe I’m on to something).

So now you’re faced with your dream company, and you’re terrified. So you wait on line, staring at the table for 10 minutes. Then you lose your bravado, and circle the table again. Then you circle the room…all the while watching the recruiters.

And they know you’re watching. You’ve officially become a creepy leering candidate. They are now probable more scared of you than you are of them. Recruiters tend to be observant people-people. Just walk up, stand your ground, and get it over with. Just try not to grovel at their feet when you get to them. And finally…

7. The Legal Nightmare…aka the career fair version of an ambulance-chaser.

If you walk up to a table and say something that will put up red-alerts that you’re looking for places to sue more than jobs, your conversations might start with one-liners like…

“Does your company have any positions open for people ‘like me’?” Or, “I’m pregnant. Will this hurt my chance at candidacy?”

It’s the career fair equivalent of putting too much personal info on a resume. Once you offer information that’s not legal for a recruiter to ask you, you might be making them uncomfortable. Or, worse, if they’re closed-minded, you might have just given them ammunition to discriminate against you.

Now I’m not saying to hide things – but there’s a time and a place for everything, although in the professional world sometimes the right time is never.

This also extends to trying the ‘cultural or racial connection’ with the employer. Don’t think that because the recruiter at the table is the same demographic as you, that they’ll want to give you any special consideration or opportunity because of it, and to imply so is on the tasteless side.

Let me end with a personal example to drive this point home.

Say I’m at a career fair, and I see google. If I walk up to them and say, “Hi, I’m Sharon, and I need to leave work early on Fridays for personal religious reasons. Is that OK?” At this point, especially if the recruiter isn’t familiar with Jews, they’d be rolling their eyes behind my back. Or rather rolling their eyes over MY head – to see the next candidate in line, as that I just removed myself from the potential employee database.

Instead, if I walk up and say, “Hi, I’m Sharon, and I am so excited to meet you. I’m a big google fan, and think the google labs are so much fun! Do you happen to have any talent recruiting or organizational development roles available now besides the ones posted on your website? I applied to that one yesterday.”  By this I’ve just opened the floor, shown some knowledge of the company, my eagerness to work for them by putting in effort before coming to meet them – and most importantly – I won’t get the brush off from them saying, “The first step all potential candidates need to do is apply online, so you can go home and go to our website, h-t-t-p-:-/-/-g-o-o-g-l-e-.-c-o-m…, ok, thanks, bye”.

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