The impossible job application

Now, I thought I’d come up against every permutation of a bad application process. There’s the traditional application form that has been created in Word, and looks very pretty, but goes to pieces when you actually try and fill it in – the text boxes that are too small to hold the information, but the size can’t be adjusted; the tables that have margins set beyond the edge of the page so your text disappears; the layouts that dissolve into incoherency and random page-straddling tables when anything is actually typed into the form. Or the forms that only allow for 3 previous roles, and are set so that no extra areas can be inserted. Or the job that was advertised once with a strict warning that the guidance notes must be used to complete the form…without the guidance notes available (that one was re-advertised, and the epically complex guidance notes magically appeared that time). Or the company that required application forms to be printed, signed, and scanned for submission, but lost them afterwards. But Midlothian Council has actually jumped the shark, in impossible job application terms.

Twice recently, they have advertised jobs which either myself or my colleagues had felt we were suitably skilled to do, and therefore we tried to apply for them. “Try” however is the operative word, as despite our best efforts, we cannot actually apply for them. Why not? Well, before the application can even be attempted, applicants must confirm that they’ve undertaken a test called the Midlothian Strengths Assessment. In the job adverts, it states:

Please complete the Midlothian Strengths Assessment prior to completing the application form.  Failure to do so will result in your application being rejected.

So, we’re clear – if you apply for the job without completing the MSA, you will immediately be rejected.

But, where is this MSA to be found? Nowhere online – all references to it lead back to…these job adverts. OK: we’ll try the contact number in the adverts for the HR Department, that’s sensible, right? Well, you’d think so, but Midlothian Council apparently don’t do sense. Last week, when my colleague tried getting the same information about where to find the MSA from staff, they appeared to have no idea what she was talking about, and didn’t return her calls. So this week, it was my turn. On Tuesday I called – the person who may deal with this was allegedly busy on another call, I was told I’d be called back. No call back. On Wednesday I was busy, and still no call back. Yesterday I called again. This time, the person whose phone I was transferred to wasn’t around, so I left a voicemail, saying what information I wanted, and asking for a call back. I called again later – still no person, only the “leave a message” option. Guess what? No call back yesterday, and I was busy today so didn’t have time to waste more of my life chasing them up again. I do not now have any time for actually doing the application before the closing date. As the post was advertised on the 6th and closes on the 19th, and I’ve wasted the best part of a week trying to find how to apply, there’s a slim chance that anyone else will have been able to find out where this mysterious Midlothian Strengths Assessment can be found either, never mind completed it.

Midlothian Council – for this amazing effort to ensure nobody can apply for your jobs: I salute you.

Recruitment: you’re doing it wrong.

Now, I’ve recently had to make a full time job out of applying for jobs (although thankfully the end is now in sight), and as I’ve stated previously, there’s all sorts of ways you can do it well, and also a whole lot of ways you can do it wrong.

Recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of a recruitment process so epically bad, that I’m actually genuinely surprised that the HR department involved are somehow still employed. It became so convoluted that I’m going to reduce it to bullet points, for easier reading.

  • I am advised by a colleague to send a prospective CV to A Certain Workplace (ACW), on the basis that a friend of theirs at ACW advised them a vacancy was available. I checked with another contact within ACW, who advised me that this was an acceptable way to proceed, as certain staff types were recruited in this way.
  • I send my CV and a covering letter.
  • I get a response, thanking me, but advising me that this was not an approach they accepted. I was informed that the ONLY place vacancies would be advertised was on the ACW website, and I should monitor this for them in future.
Fast forward a month or so….
  • An advert for roles at ACW was placed on library mailing lists. Friends forwarded me this information, which I’d missed as I was not on those lists, and I was waiting for it to be advertised on the ACW website. It was not at any point placed on their website. 
  • I email and ask for an application pack.
  • I receive an application pack, complete the requested forms, and realise that there’s no information on how/where to submit them. There’s a closing time on the covering letter, so that implies an email submission, but no email address. And a partial instruction on posting, but not a postal address. There is however, important information about the fact that if I want an acknowledgement of my application, I should enclose a self addressed stamped postcard… 
  • I call to check if they accept email submissions: yes, they do. However, they require them to be signed. OK: this means I have to print, sign, scan and collate a pdf from my original electronic application. It’s a faff, and I’m lucky that I have access to a printer and scanner, but I did it.
  • So, where was it to be submitted? The email address on the covering letter, I was told. I had to break it to them there was no email address on the covering letter. OK: send it to recruitment @acertainworkplace they said.
  • I sent off everything they needed, to the email address I was told to, a week before the deadline.
  • Silence. No automated acknowledgement email, but then again, this company has been so backward up to this point that I didn’t expect one.

Fast forward a week…
  • I receive an email from ACW responding to my original application pack request, saying they understood I had submitted an application, but they didn’t have it, so where did I send it?
  • Apparently (from what I can work out), the recruitment@acertainworkplace email address doesn’t actually exist, so when I phoned up to see where to send my application, I was cheerfully instructed to send it into complete nothingness.
  • I forwarded my original email with the application forms from the week before, saying what email address I’d sent it to, and why.
  • They replied saying thanks, but they couldn’t open the documents, so could I resend them in Word format? These are the documents that I’d had to send as pdfs, because they insisted they needed a signature on them, so I’d had to print, sign and scan them and make them into pdfs.
  • I replied attaching the original, unsigned Word versions of the forms, explaining why they were in pdf format, and that I couldn’t send them the third form as a Word document, because they had supplied it to me as a pdf document.
  • I got an acknowledgement, and a small, grudging “sorry for the inconvenience”.
  • I contacted other people that I knew had submitted applications to ACW, and told them what had happened. They hadn’t been contacted, but as they had received the same information as me on how to apply, they had to assume that their applications too had been lost.
  • The other people resubmitted their applications.
Fast forward two weeks….
  • Deafening silence, until today, I hear that interviews were held last week, and someone has been appointed to the position this week. As far as I know, the other people who applied also haven’t heard anything since submitting their applications for the second time, despite one going to the extent of physically going to the workplace and also handing in a paper copy of their application as they couldn’t get a hold of anyone to acknowledge their email submission.
So, to top off the HR Department’s epic incompetence and inability to manage a recruitment process (which is actually one of the core functions of an HR department), I’m now frustrated by the fact that, after I had to spend hours of my time fixing and resending information that they lost because they can’t perform basic tasks, they also don’t even have the simple good manners to tell me that I’m not being invited for interview.
Now, what have I got out of this process? I’ve gained a healthy disregard for the HR department of this company. I’ve developed a resolve not to apply for any further positions there, should they arise. And I’ve informed all my professional contacts about how bad this organisation is, although I’ve decided against publicly naming them here, as that’s not the point of this post. I wanted to use this to point out how every unnecessary hoop that I’ve been made to jump through, and every missed chance to inform me of what was happening has lowered my opinion of that company as a whole, even though the department I applied for a role in had nothing to do with this process. If you’re recruiting, you’re selling your company to the applicant, just as much as the applicant is selling themselves to you. And if you can’t manage the process of getting people to join your company, how do you manage them once they’re working for you?

Living in interesting times

Ah, times change, and things happen, whether you’re prepared or not. So, last month, I unexpectedly ended up having to look for new employment. Having been pretty happy and settled in my old workplace for almost 8 years, I didn’t really have much in the way of recent experience of looking for work…now, I seem to have plenty! Luckily, I’m finding that there are actually quite a lot of interesting vacancies out there, and plenty of roles where I think “ohhh, that would be great to be able to do” and I’m keen to apply for. I have such a wide range of interests, that I’m finding posts in all sorts of sectors where I think “yeah, I’d really enjoy doing that”, so perhaps this is my chance to explore some other professional areas. Silver linings, an’ all that?

However, what I’ve also found is that some employers are not very good at creating a coherent and easily navigable recruitment process. So, here are some Do’s and Don’ts, as learned by me in the process of dozens of applications recently…


  • Do make it clear how you want applications sent

I’ve come across sites where there’s a wealth of information about how to get the application form and the job specification, and who to contact if you need an alternative format, or if you have problems with any of the documentation available….but neither the advert page, nor the job information materials tell you where or how to submit the application. In this case, I’ve had to assume that they want the application emailed, and sent the material to the email address listed for requesting alternative formats from. A single sentence saying “please email/post applications to…” would be very helpful for applicants.

  • Do make sure that closing dates for applications are logical and clear

Similar to the confusion caused by unclear information on where to send applications, is the confusion about exactly when the deadline for an application is. Only giving a calendar date can be misleading, when there is also lack of clarity about acceptable format for applications. One site allowed both postal and emailed applications, but gave a closing date time of 12 noon, which implied that the assumption was that applications would be emailed. Also, if the date is just given as X day of X month, and the only way to apply is online, when is the cut-off time on that day? 5pm? 6pm? Midnight? When applicants are balancing other demands on their time, knowing when they must complete a process by helps them plan a schedule better.

  • Do ensure that your application form is useable 

Supplying a pdf for download when you expect applications to be emailed is not helpful for applicants. It means you want applicants to print out, hand write, scan a form, and attach it to an email, which is a frustratingly time-wasting process. Or providing a Word version of your application form that is so badly designed that the second you begin inputting information to it, everything on the page begins to move and makes the form utterly incomprehensible, meaning that, in the end, you have to…print out, hand write, and scan the form, just like for the pdf version. Please: once you have an application form ready to share, first make sure you ask someone to do a test-run at using it!

  • Do allow for your online application process to retain information if possible

Some places I’ve been applying to have multiple relevant vacancies advertised simultaneously, which would mean inputting the same, non-differing data repeatedly, such as education and employment history. Luckily, some of them have designed their sites to allow the easy copying of previously added data, meaning I can concentrate on outlining my suitability for a position, rather than re-entering my secondary school grades. If you have an online application process, and your site allows users to register and reuse previously input data, you are lovely people!

  • Do allow some flexibility in your application forms

Not all information will be relevant to all posts. Using a standardised form can be confusing for applicants when there is little guidance about how certain sections are meant to be completed if it’s not clear if they apply in the current situation. Asking for a list of applicants academic publications when the role being applied for is administrative is just wasting space on the form, and could easily have been removed by the creator. Asking if you have a driving license, but saying this hasn’t to be filled in if the person specification doesn’t say it’s needed means double checking materials and wasting time. If you need information: request it. If you don’t, remove the section.

  • Do acknowledge applications

Applying for a job can be very stressful, and although email applications have removed some of the worry of a form getting lost in the mail, there’s still going to be a lurking doubt that an application has got where it’s meant to go, unless you receive some sort of acknowledgement of receipt. Online processes are great: an automated email confirming that your application was received means you can sit back, and wait for further information. Sending emails with applications attached that don’t even get acknowledged introduces concern that it was sent to the wrong email address, or didn’t make it through at all. It’s definitely good practice to confirm that an application has been received.


  • Don’t waste applicants time by asking for duplicate information

You really only need one section, where an applicant can explain why they meet the criteria for skills and knowledge that you have set for a post. Asking “why do you want this job”, then “what would you bring to this job”, and then “what other skills do you have that are relevant to this job” is effectively the same question, repeated three times. People do want to work for you, but they have other demands on their time as well, so increasing what is already the lengthy process of completing an application by asking them repeatedly for the same information makes your organisation look both confused, and confusing.

  • Don’t have a glitchy and unreliable website

A certain government portal website is the most awkward and unstable website I’ve had the misfortune to have to use in a long, long time. When you are inputting a lot of data, having to type it out elsewhere first and copy/paste it in, because you know that approximately every third time you click to perform an action the site will log you out is infuriating, to say the least. The fact that this is the only way to apply for local government jobs in Scotland is amazing. And not in a good way. Each attempt to use it is like a test of patience, and even the user feedback survey is badly designed and unuseable. Every non-government website that has had to perform the same recruitment functions (i.e. which allow users to register, input data, and retain it for future applications) has worked perfectly, so it is obviously possible to do this. A stable website with a smooth process for making applications implies that your organisation is efficient and knows what it’s doing. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the government website says about them.

So, can you imagine the worst possible recruitment process now? A pdf form that you have to print, fill in by hand, scan, attach to an email, and send to an address that may or may not be the correct one, by a time that may or may not be the closing date. A form that you filled out with information that’s irrelevant to the post, but was required. And then…not even getting confirmation that the email with your application was received.

And…when is somebody going to develop an Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form website, where you can input all that data just one time, that will then generate a personalised code which you can put into application forms for them to download that data? It would save so much time!

Now, this isn’t me moaning for the sake of it. Having not been involved in running a recruitment process myself, a lot of these points wouldn’t have occurred to me, but having been through this experience I’m now a lot more aware of how small things like those listed above can impact on applicants, and how those applicants impression of a potential employer and their business can be affected by their experience of the recruitment process.