lemons limes recruiting reflective management job approach
First Contact

The market for tech jobs in Seattle is hot. A few of my coaching clients are engineers who are actively pursuing new jobs. They get unsolicited messages from recruiting teams several times per day. Recruiters send these “cold call” messages in the hope of opening a dialog with the candidate. Given that demand (job openings) exceeds supply (qualified candidates), you would think that companies would put extra effort into the recruiting process, and particularly this first step. You would be wrong.

I’m going to share a couple of “cold call” recruiting e-mails.  One that does a good job of opening the dialog and one that doesn’t. We’ll start with an email Amazon sent me. I’ve edited the email to remove some superfluous instructions.

Hi James,

You have been identified as a candidate for Amazon or one of its many affiliate companies.

If you are interested in being considered for an employment opportunity with us, please follow the link below to complete a short application.

[Link and instructions for how to log in to a website and reset a password]

Please remember to visit our website regularly for a comprehensive up-to-date listing of our vacant positions and apply for the one that is right for you.

Thank you,

The Recruiting Team

First Impressions

Deciding to join a company is an emotional decision, once your basic financial needs have been met. How do I feel about the company? Do I believe they care about me? Will I be happy there? Is this a place I want to spend at least 8 hours per day 5 days a week?

The first communication from a company, this potential place of work, matters. It sets the tone for the relationship.

Job candidates are often told to “dress to make a good first impression”. The same applies to a company asking you to spend a significant portion of your time with them.

Here are my issues with the recruiting email from Amazon :

  • It tells me nothing about the job I’m being considered for
  • Or the company it’s at … what does “Amazon or an affiliate” mean?
  • I lack any context that would be help me give relevant information in my application
  • It doesn’t explain what makes me a potential fit for Amazon or this role
  • There is no humanity in this email; it could only feel more like an auto-generated email if it was signed “RecruiterBot 74932”
  • Amazon is a high-tech company, hiring some of the smartest people in the world, and yet the email contains instructions for resetting a password. Seriously?
  • This email looks like a phishing scam. It isn’t. The Icims.com domain is (surprisingly) legit.

This email gave me no reason to go fill out a web form with the hope of getting a call back. Amazon has said “hey Amazon is considering you” and assumed that is enough to get me to take action.

Amazon has a large number of open positions.  An automated email is a low cost approach to reach a large number of candidates quickly. The software they’re using may automate these mails based off a set of triggers. For example, in my case, something like: James has started being more active on LinkedIn, he’s got Product Manager in his job history and he’s based in Seattle.

This is the recruiting equivalent of direct mail.

Send out a large number of “catalogs” knowing that if someone responds, they are a well-qualified lead. Amazon rely on their status as a desirable employer to get good response rates to their direct mail. It probably works well enough. For me though, this sends a message clear message to potential Amazon employees : “we don’t really care who you are as long as you’ll do what we need”.

Needless to say, I did not fill out the form.

Another Approach

Let’s contrast the Amazon approach with a 200-person company that recently reached out to me.


I’m not a recruiter. I’m the founder and CEO of [SOFTWARE COMPANY]. We’re a fast-growing, venture-backed company based in Seattle. We are the leading provider of [INTERESTING PRODUCT AREA].

Our customers include [IMPRESSIVE CUSTOMER LIST].

We’re looking for a very senior product and engineering leader to help us manage a growing product portfolio, a rapidly expanding cloud environment and a growing product, UX and engineering team. Your background seems potentially well-suited to have an impact at [SOFTWARE COMPANY], either to join us directly in that capacity, or perhaps in a consultative capacity to help us improve our team velocity, engagement and health.

Do you have interest and some time to get together in the near future to explore if you might be able to help us?

This sounds like a conversation I want to have! Here is what differentiates this outreach :

  • A real person, the CEO, took the time write and send a personal email personally
  • And by saying “I’m not a recruiter” in his first sentence it got my attention by breaking my schema for candidate outreach
  • In the un-redacted version of this e-mail, the CEO made some specific connections between projects I’d run at HTC and his needs for this position. Difficult to do as “RecuiterBot 74932”
  • This an open, two-way conversation recognizing that I may be more interested in consulting than full-time employment.

I responded to the e-mail and received a quick response that continued to build the rapport.

Based on outreach alone, I would choose the startup over Amazon.

First Impressions Matter

In the war for talent, every part of your recruiting process matters. It tells the outside world about the culture of your company: how you build a team, what your company values and how you much value you place on human capital. Fortunately, for employers, many candidates don’t pay attention to these signals. As part of my coaching practice, I teach my clients how to look behind words people say and write to find the meaning behind them. The signal in the noise.

Even if candidates aren’t consciously paying attention, they do feel those signals. They’re the subconscious tug towards one company or another. Sure, a company can overwhelm those subtle tugs with offers of money, or status, or a compelling vision of the future but that only gets you a decision to join your company. It doesn’t get you a commitment to your cause.

Amazon are successfully recruiting employees, despite their recruitment process screaming “come be a cog in our machine”.

Amazon overwhelm doubts by offering employees 3 years salary for 2 years work – stock price permitting. “Don’t listen to your doubts, imagine the money!”. It’s a plate spinning approach to building a team. If a plate drops and smashes, pick up another plate, put it on the empty stick and start it spinning. Do you want to be a plate?

That’s why I responded to the personal outreach from the startup CEO. It created a connection and told me about the team and company from the outset. Many managers hide behind a recruiting team, and let them manage everything that happens before the candidate sits down for an interview.  Don’t hide behind your recruiting team!  When you do, you miss opportunities to make connections that make a big difference when the candidate is making their decision about which company to join.  That’s a opportunity you can’t afford to miss in a competitive market.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Terry Musch says:

    Relevant, human and effective James, Great, no, outstanding piece of writing. Authenticity will be the fuel of alignment and intrinsic motivation. I greatly dislike the “war for talent,” it’s very 1998. It’s now about creating the container for people going where they are invited. That process begins with the excellent points you made. Thanks as always for being a value added catalyst for transforming the workplace.

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