In Tough Job Market, Applicants Try Résumé Gimmicks

By on February 2, 2014

Updated Jan. 30, 2014 6:45 p.m. ET

Adam Pacitti used a London billboard. Adam Pacitti

The box was delivered to the New York office of One Fine Stay, a business that arranges short-term accommodations in luxury homes. Stuffed inside was a queen-size pillow in a cheap cotton pillowcase.

A résumé, enlarged to about 24 by 33 inches, was attached to it with cellophane tape. It came from a man the staff began to call Pillow Guy, who was looking for a job. Nobody can remember his name.

"It was funny for about five seconds," says Alexandra Rethore, now One Fine Stay’s Los Angeles operations director, who signed for the package and opened it thinking it might contain linens she had ordered.

The résumé was torn and blurred from water damage in transit, and the writing at the top, with Pillow Guy’s contact information, was too wrinkled to read. To make it legible, Ms. Rethore ironed it.

The intriguing gimmick didn’t ultimately work for Pillow Guy, who was rejected after one phone conversation and a face-to-face interview. Also rebuffed by One Fine Stay: an applicant who "delivered" a résumé via a stuffed carrier pigeon and another who included a link to his unpublished erotica.

Stunts like these became fairly common during the recession and they still are in today’s slack labor market. Companies received an average of 383 applications for every opening they advertised in 2013, according to CEB, formerly known as the Corporate Executive Board, and many are funneled through automated tracking systems that rank résumés based on such things as keyword matches. Bypassing the robots requires a blend of ingenuity, skill and chutzpah.

Sometimes the ploys work, allowing run-of-the-mill candidates to grab a recruiter’s attention and hold it long enough to land a job. In the best cases, they let applicants show that they have devoted some thought to an employer’s brand and culture. Mostly, though, whimsical applications are just good for a laugh.

Companies like the online craft marketplace Etsy have seen it all. Senior recruiting manager Bobby Gormsen says recent entries include an embroidered cover letter, a potholder résumé, a paper-garland résumé that looked as if it could be strung on a Christmas tree and an application that bobbed up in a corked bottle.

An applicant in the U.S. tried a stuffed carrier pigeon. One Fine Stay

"I’m sort of immune to this stuff," said Mr. Gormsen. The candidates "get points for creativity, but it only tells one side of the story. We have a set of hard skills an applicant has to meet"—ranging from years of experience to relevant software languages—in order to be considered. No amount of creativity can compensate if those are missing, he said.

The theatrics still can get a foot in the door. Leslie Hall, co-founder of New York marketing agency ICED Media, said she once needed to hire someone to handle relationships with bloggers and writers for online media campaigns. One candidate who came in for an interview sent a thank-you note the next day—along with pizza for the whole office. The grand gesture hit its mark. It "was a sign that he knew how to get someone’s attention, which is obviously a core competency for the position," Ms. Hall said.

She says he turned out to be a dud. Employees saw him watching "South Park" on his computer and taking naps at his desk. "There was absolutely no output whatsoever," said Ms. Hall, who fired him after three months.

"We [had] allowed ourselves to be charmed," she said.

So when a candidate recently submitted chocolate bars with a résumé printed on paper resembling Hershey wrappers with his qualifications listed on the nutrition label, ICED took a pass. "I’d like to think we now have greater discipline," said Ms. Hall. "We all thought the Hershey bar was really cute, but no one said, ‘Oh, the Hershey bar, we need to hire him.’ "

In other cases, quirky wins the day. Aleks Kamko overcame a relative lack of computer-science experience to win a coveted internship at Facebook Inc. last year, in part by creating a YouTube video listing five reasons the social network should hire him, including his passion for software code and a desire to make the world a better place. The University of California, Berkeley sophomore filmed it in his dorm hallway, spending about six hours writing the script and 18 hours editing it, he said.

It worked. "We need to figure out quickly if someone has energy and enthusiasm for the company," said Adam Ward, a recruiting director at Facebook who viewed Mr. Kamko’s video. With something like that "you can check that box."

Despite the low success rate, creative contenders likely won’t let up as long as they keep hearing about people like Adam Pacitti. After graduating from England’s University of Winchester in 2012, he sent out 250 résumés for media production jobs over six weeks, yielding exactly two replies (both rejections), he said. So in January last year, he rented a billboard in central London. Next to a photo of himself, he splashed the words: "I spent my last £500 on this billboard. Please give me a job."

He tweeted a picture and waited for the effort to go viral. It did, and within a few days, job offers poured in—from ad agencies, plumbers, lawyers and others. Now he works at a digital marketing company that contacted him after seeing his billboard via social media. He says he is "a viral producer, whatever that means."

Write to Lauren Weber at [email protected]

Corrections & AmplificationsThe box in the lead example in this article was delivered to the New York office of One Fine Stay. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Los Angeles.