Here's Looking at You

Trying to get recruiters to notice you? These days there's a fine line between standing out from the pack and creeping out potential employers.

EVER HEAR THE one about the job seeker who sent soup through the mail? Strange, but true. A Montana man, eager to charm Pasadena, Calif.-based recruiter Smooch Reynolds, shipped her pots of the stuff. Even stranger: The man's wife, keen to get noticed in her own right, sent Reynolds a resume attached to a stuffed buffalo. "It was one-upmanship between the spouses about who could do the zaniest thing to get my attention," she says. "And it falls clearly into the category of what not to do."

Especially in a skittish post-Sept. 11 world. "Weird antics just aren't funny anymore," says Carole Martin, Monster.com's interview coach, who penned the workbook Interview Fitness Training. "There's heightened security everywhere, so people should avoid doing anything too bizarre."

So what's a desperate job seeker to do? Here are some creative ways to stand out from the masses without pushing so far that your name winds up on a restraining order:

Get personal
After he lost his job as an editor at Sesame Street Parents magazine, Ron Kelly sent out a few standard-issue cover letters. No response. So he decided to spice things up. He peppered his revamped letter with references to his Golden Girls obsession and worked some humor into his qualifications. A sample: "I am also a gregarious manager and co-worker who happens to keep a stash of chocolate goodies near his desk to share at all times."

The quirky letter got him plucked out of resume slush piles and led to several interviews. "There are a ton of people out there now with great experience, so we're getting to the point where it's personality that will attract an employer the most," explains Kelly. But realizing that what got him in the door wouldn't win him the job, Kelly made sure in the interviews not to dwell on the Golden Girls. He'd quickly steer the conversation back to his qualifications. Eventually, he wound up landing a job as a managing editor in Gruner & Jahr's custom-publishing division.

Of course, you have to be sure your cover letter fits your audience. But even in a conservative industry, there are ways to personalize your letter, says Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a career-counseling firm. Scan newspaper wedding announcements for high-level people at companies you're interested in, and use that as your hook to congratulate the bride or groom. "Anything to establish a personal connection," she says.

Odd Jobs
A Real Growth Opportunity
"Litigation Paralegal for Arthur Andersen. Seeking experienced litigation paralegal to join our international organization....Duties include assisting in-house counsel and outside counsel with subpoena responses and other litigation-related discovery requests....(Must) be able to work well under pressure."
Arthur Andersen, Chicago
HotJobs.com, Feb. 2
Instant Band: Just Add Musicians
"Musicians for Rock 'n' Roll Tour. We are looking to hire 2-3 guitar players, a bass player and a drummer for a rock 'n' roll tour this summer....We are currently accepting applications from interested parties. You must have a good look..."
Unidentified employer
4entertainmentjobs.com, Jan. 10

Generate buzz
Instead of stalking employers, make them come to you. It worked for Todd Rosenberg. Having been laid off last June from a short-film developer, he decided to break away from the marketing work he'd been doing to pursue drawing seriously. So he put his cartoon — Laid Off: A Day in the Life — on his Web site, OddTodd.com, and it quickly took off: "It's being sent around whole offices," beams Rosenberg. The attention has landed him contract cartoon work and other freelance gigs. He's even collected $9,500 in his online "tip jar."

Okay, so maybe you can't draw. There are other things you can do to spread the word about yourself. If you have a personal Web page, link it to each e-mail you send so every recipient is just "one click away from more information about you," suggests marketing guru Seth Godin. Or write a white paper in your area of specialty and send it to top companies in your field. KC Goik tried something similar when applying for product manager jobs at finance Web sites. He'd e-mail them PowerPoint presentations that "looked at their products, their competitors, their strengths and weaknesses — and let them know the right strategy to win," he says. The approach helped him land a job at StockMaster.com.

My Favorite Interview Question
Can you describe yourself in three words?
— Andrea Robinson, president and GM, Ralph Lauren Fragrances

Why she asks it
"For me it's an indication of several things: Just how resourceful a person is on their feet-are they a risk taker? And it shows a person's creativity. It's such a yawn to hear 'eager, smart, team player.' That's like white noise. I'd rather have someone say they're a diva — that would amuse me — or come up with three totally unexpected words like 'fixated, outrageous, stylish.' We're in an industry where we always have to be at the top of our game, creatively. Frankly, Ralph won't accept anything less."

Show your work
Sometimes it's best to let your work speak for itself, and technology can help give it a platform. Harrison Hollis, a TV producer in West Palm Beach, Fla., wanted to give potential employers a taste of the news items and commercials he'd put together — something he couldn't do with a run-of-the-mill resume. So he had VideoResume.com assemble CD-ROMs of his work for a few hundred dollars. Now he hands out mini-CDs (which hold 45 seconds of video) like business cards and follows up with the full-length version (about 30 minutes) if an employer shows interest. "It definitely got my foot in the door," he says, adding that two companies promptly invited him in as a result.

The strategy could work in other fields, too. "Architecture is one," suggests recruiter Reynolds. "Or some functions in tech, like videogame designer." Another way to bring what you've done to life: an electronic slide show on your Web site or in an e-mail attachment. "Doing something like that will set you apart," adds Hollis. "Especially now, before everyone else has started doing it."

Working Solutions
Question
Can you set up a 401(k) in a one-person business?
— S.T., West Windsor, N.J.

Answer
401(k)s have always been available to sole proprietors, but prior to the new tax law, tight contribution caps made them less appealing than other retirement-plan options. Last year the most that you, as the employer and employee, could contribute was 15% of up to $170,000 in pay. Now you can put in 25% of up to $200,000 as the employer, and what you contribute as the employee — $11,000 max this year — doesn't count toward that cap. (You must, though, subtract out your expected employer contribution and half of your self-employment tax before calculating your 25% limit.) Now if you earn, say, $100,000, you can stash away roughly $28,000 a year — more than with a Keogh, SEP-IRA or Simple IRA.
— Eleanor Laise