5 Cover Letter Red Flags for Employers

Careful Review of Cover Letters Eliminates Unqualified Applicants

Want to know the cover letter red flags that should capture your attention when you review job applications? The cover letter is an integral component of a job searcher’s job application materials.

Sent with the resume when a job searcher applies for a job, the cover letter enhances the credentials of a qualified applicant - or not. Smart job searchers recognize that the cover letter is an opportunity to point out the connection between their skills and experience and the requirements in your job posting.

How you review a cover letter and what you want to see in an effective cover letter is a topic I've addressed frequently. Cover letters should matter to employers. They are both an opportunity for an applicant to put her professional best foot forward and an elimination tool for the employer.

Your cover letter review can quickly eliminate unqualified applicants. Earlier I pointed out five red flags for employers during resume review. The topic proved so popular that I published five more resume review red flags. Let's add to your red flag collection: these are the red flags that should get your attention when you review an applicant’s cover letter that accompanies a resume or other job application materials.

No Cover Letter

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An applicant who fails to take the time to write a customized cover letter for their resume is sending you the loudest red flag of all. DreamPictures / Getty Images

An applicant who fails to take the time to write a customized cover letter for their resume is sending you the loudest red flag of all. The applicant is telegraphing the message that he or she is clueless about job search etiquette. Or, the applicant is telling you that his or her qualifications, experience, or education do not match the requirements that you posted.

A smart candidate, who is not qualified for your job, will not take the time to craft a resume cover letter for your review. The lack of one for your review marks the job application as spam in most cases.

The applicant knows that taking the time and energy to write a customized letter, when they have little chance of obtaining an interview, is a waste of their time. Reviewing their resume is a waste of yours, too.

An emailed, "See attached resume" type of cover letter doesn't count.

Poor Grammar, Punctuation, Sentence Construction, and Attention to Detail

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Misspelled words make an overall poor impression. Janet Fekete / Getty Images

Yes, attention to the overall detail of the cover letter is important for your review. I receive more email from job searchers objecting to this insistence on appropriate presentation than on any other topic relating to hiring.

The usual complaint is that I place too much emphasis on unimportant factors rather than on assessing the job searcher’s skills and experience.

Unimportant? I think not. The professionalism with which the applicant presents his or her credentials means a lot. And, the quality and accuracy of the presentation tell me a lot about the personality, work habits, and attention to detail that I can expect from the applicant if hired.

One typo would probably just annoy me. But, persistent errors, the wrong company name, an incorrect job title, text obviously cut and pasted from another source, poor grammar and misspelled words make an overall poor impression.

When the careless applicant is compared to a careful applicant, pick the professional whose cover letter made her shine.

Failure to Customize the Cover Letter for Your Job Posting

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Did the Applicant Customize the Resume and Cover Letter for Your Job Opening?. Richard Goerg / Getty Images

Failure to customize the cover letter is a red flag for employers. Well-qualified applicants write a custom cover letter that draws a direct connection between the skills and experience you seek and the applicant's qualifications. This makes your cover letter review simple and easy, an applicant's goal.

When cover letters are customized, applicants have the opportunity to tell you that they have researched and understand your company and your business. They exhibit knowledge of your customers and products and demonstrate how they can contribute to your organization and your business.

When you review a cover letter, you'll want to notice the professionalism and appropriateness of the applicant's writing style. How the applicant presents himself during the job search is representative of how he will present himself to your customers and clients, once hired.

Significant, too, the cover letter is least likely to have been reviewed by job search professionals or others who are paid to assist an applicant in presenting a professional image when job searching.

So, in most cases, you know that the cover letter you are reviewing is the real deal. In most cases, perhaps only a spouse or a friend may have given the cover letter a once over.

Failure to Explain Resume Red Flags

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Applicants should explain obvious resume red flags in their cover letter. Image Source / Getty Images

The cover letter is the applicant's opportunity to explain anything on his or her resume that may raise a potential employer's red flags. These red flags can include employment gaps, long periods of time not in the workforce, partial degree coursework or the lack of a degree, a series of short-term jobs, employment by an employment agency, part time jobs, and frequent career changes, to name just a few. Anything unusual in the applicant's employment history should concern you when you review cover letters.

You review cover letters and resumes to create your short list of qualified candidates to telephone screen and potentially, invite to your company for an interview. Applicants understand that to get their foot in the door for an interview, the goal of the cover letter, if it is not accomplished on the resume itself, is to alleviate any obvious concerns you may have.

You are not going to pursue an applicant further if resume red flags are unexplained. Why would you? You have qualified applicants for most positions as it is.

Warning: this resume red flag is most frequently ignored by employers when they don't have many qualified applicants for a position. Trust me; if you ignore your best judgment, you will be sorry later.

Failure to Follow Directions

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Failure to Follow Directions. Phil Ashley / Getty Images

When you post a job, you require certain information from applicants. My understanding is that an applicant who fails to respond to your directions and requests has not validly applied for your job. This may seem harsh to job searchers, but you are attempting to narrow the field of contenders. Only applicants who fall within the small window you create to designate qualified applicants are worthy of additional time.

Particularly contentious is the issue of providing salary history and current salary information. Job searchers believe that they give employers an unfair advantage when they supply this information. They’re wrong. If they don’t qualify for the position you advertise within the budget you have for the job, they are not qualified. That’s simple.

Applicants whose salary requirements fall outside of your available dollars for the position are not qualified. What the cover letter can do for these applicants is give them the opportunity to explain why they are willing and available to take a position that pays less than they are currently making. You can consider these applicants.

Reasons may include: changing career fields, returning to work after an absence to raise children, desire for a non-management role, and the unavailability of jobs at their former level of responsibility. You can consider these applicants when they explain their unique circumstances in their cover letter.

Review a Human Resources Job Search Resource

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Here's your opportunity to tell us about your Human Resources Job Search Picks and Pans. Myron Jay Dorf / Getty Images

Websites, job boards, job search tools, and books help people successfully find jobs in Human Resources. If you've searched for an HR job, you've likely used these in your job search.

So, you've encountered job search resources that you've liked and you've encountered job search resources that haven't done the job. Here's your opportunity to tell us about your Human Resources Job Search Picks and Pans