Ethical (and Effective) Letters for Job Seekers

A letter helps you only if it's more human and honest than the standard.

Posted Mar 23, 2015

Nevit Delman, CC 3.0
Source: Nevit Delman, CC 3.0

This article, the seventh in a 12-part series on your career, will help you to create an effective yet honest letter for any of these purposes:

  • Applying for an advertised job opening.
  • Asking colleagues or friends for advice, resume review and/or job leads.
  • Asking to meet a target employer that is not yet advertising an appropriate job.

Warning: Many people who feel insecure about their writing or reasoning skills get someone else to write their job-seeker letters for them. I urge you not do that. Such letters usually are transparent in having been written by someone else, tend to devolve into cliche and/or bombast, and don't create chemistry with the employer. And even if it works in getting you an interview, the disparity between your linguistic and cognitive competence and that displayed in the letter will immediately become apparent to the employer, thus making you appear deceptive and unlikely to be hired. Write your own letter even if it's less polished. If an employer doesn't want to hire you based on your true self, it's the wrong employer.

Model letters

Here's a sample letter in response to an advertised job opening:

Hello (If you have the name of the hiring person, of course insert it)

I was pleased ("thrilled" or somesuch reeks of hype) to see your job opening #4356 for a human resources generalist because I believe I'm well (not "uniquely"--that's hype) qualified for the position.

Key requirement in job ad: (Copy it word-for-word from the job description. For example, "Demonstrated successful experience in diversity-promotion efforts as well as in addressing race- and gender-based disputes."

How I meet the requirement: "For three years, was key member of our company's HR diversity caucus. Co-created major initiatives, conducted workshops, satisfactorily resolved a number of race- and gender-related disputes.

(Repeat this for the three key requirements in the job. When in doubt, pick the three you best fulfill. If you can't find three, you're probably wasting your time applying for this job.)

Of course, there's more to me than can be summarized in a chart. People say they enjoy working with me.

Beyond meeting the job requirements, I'm enthusiastic about the possibility of working for Gilead Sciences because of its effective drugs for treating Hepatitis C. I have a cousin who has been significantly helped. Besides, I live ten minutes away from Gilead's headquarters.

(Note: The following establishes credibility and weeds out the wrong jobs, and makes you more viable for the jobs that you're a good fit. )

One thing I'd like to add. Letters from job seekers are notorious for making the candidate seem perfect. I have one weakness or perhaps it's a preference that I'd like to make you aware of. If that's a problem for you, then I'm the wrong candidate but if it's not, great. I am not happy working in a cube farm or open-space work room. I find the noise distracting. So if the job requires that, you should pass on me. If not, I look forward to meeting you.


Jane Jobseeker

Now, here's a letter you might send to a colleague or friend.

Dear Joe,

After four years at Acme Widget, I've gone about as far as I can here and believe another company would be a better launchpad for my career's next stage, so I've decided to look for a better job.

You know I value your opinion, so I'd welcome your feedback on my resume, to kick around options, as well as to catch up with how you're doing. 

If, by any chance, we could meet or talk in the next day or two, that would be ideal. I'd prefer to do it in person--maybe lunch, a drink, or an after-work walk, whatever. But if you prefer, we can do it by phone or Skype. What's your pleasure and availability?

Attached is a list of my top 20 target employers. I welcome any input on or leads to people there and any recruiters you think I should contact.

I still think back fondly on that good time we had together in Vegas and look forward to our talking!


John Jobseeker

Last, here is an inquiry to a target employer that is not advertising an appropriate job. If you send 10 or 20 of these, it can be a surprisingly potent way to find desired work.

Dear Susan,

After two promotions in four years as a human resources generalist at American Medical Supply, there are no more growth opportunities there for the foreseeable future, so I'm reaching out to companies that intrigue me.

Zenith Medical is appealing to me not only because it appears to be in growth mode but I've noted the progress in the medical wearables space, which is one of your strengths. And it doesn't hurt that I live ten minutes from Zenith headquarters.

I have particular strengths in conducting diversity workshops and in addressing race and gender problems among workers, as well as in understanding the complex changes caused by the Affordable Care Act.

Apart from the facts, more subjectively, it's fair to say that people enjoy working with me. I'd welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that and for us to then discuss if it makes sense for me to work for Zenith.

Hoping to hear from you,


Jane Jobseeker.

Send a letter without a resume attached?

It's standard to include your resume along with your letter. But let's say you've had significant employment gaps, job hopped, and had no promotions. Even if a resume is required, you might want to take your chances by sending your letter without your resume. Sure, it's possible that will make the employer reject you but when day is done, your chances will be better if you stand and fall based on the letter because it can focus on your strengths and not reveal those potentially deal-kiling perceived weaknesses that a resume lays bare. Later on, you may be required to submit a resume but by then, you've made a positive first-impression.

The Integrity Factor

Letters are important but are likely to help only if concise, honest, touting legitimate strengths, citing specific accomplishments and avoiding bragging with unproven adjectives such as "self-starter" or "dynamic." It's also wise to incude a preference and/or a weakness both because it makes you more likely to attract the right employer and because it demonstrates that quality too rare among job seekers: candor. 

Speaking of which, as mentioned, to avoid transparently appearing deceptive, write the letter yourself even if it won't be as well-written. Remember that employers use your letter as a sample of your thinking, organization, and writing skills. If you get someone to write a better letter than you could have written, you're deceiving the employer into thinking you're a better thinker, more organized, and a better writer than you are. S/he'll discover that deception in the interview or reference-checking process, which will hurt your chances. Whether from a pragmatic or a cosmic justice perspective, honesty indeed is the best policy.

Here are the links to this series' other installments:

A Holistic Approach to Finding Your Career

An Analytical Approach to Finding Your Career

Getting Well-Trained for Your Career

Networking for People Who Dislike It

The One-Week Job Search

A Contrarian Approach to Creating Your Resume and LinkedIn Profile

Ethical (and Effective) Letters for Job Seekers (this article)

Using Recruiters (Headhunters) Wisely

The Effective, Ethical, and Less Stressful Job Interview

A Contrarian Approach to Negotiation

Getting Off to a Good Start on Your New Job

A Contrarian Approach to Succeeding in Your Career

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.