Cover Letters — Understanding Why Recruiters Must Discourage Them

The cover letter is antiquated, and it needs to be discouraged. It reduces applications and its content can result in mis-hires. Yes, overall the traditional cover letter is a dinosaur that is well on its way to extinction. But if you want to improve the hiring process, understand the reasons why you need to discourage them upfront. The harm that cover letters can create can be categorized into three areas: discouraging applications, opportunities for mis-hiring, and wasting a recruiter’s time.

Damage Area No. 1 — Creating Cover Letters Discourages Applications

My research and experience reveal that if you don’t proactively discourage cover letters, your firm will get fewer overall resume submissions.

  • The time they take to create will reduce applications — because of the time they take to create, the thought of having to create a customized cover letter will delay or discourage many applicants. And even with the commonly used cover letter templates, creating the cover letter may take an extra 10 minutes. Many potential applicants will put off sculpting a cover letter until they have more time (which may never come). This delay is even more likely to occur among fully employed prospects who are only casually searching for a new job. 
  • Requiring them sends a negative brand message — merely asking for a cover letter may send a negative message to your most progressive applicants that your company (as well as your hiring process) operates in an old-school manner. That slow-to-change cultural image may discourage them from applying or accepting a job.
  • Providing no cover letters is a trend — yes, it’s a trend; research by Jobvite showed that 47 percent of job seekers didn’t submit a cover letter with their most recent application. 

Damage Area No. 2 — The Content Of Cover Letters May Lead to Hiring Errors

Because much of the content of cover letters is not focused on the required job skills and experience, relying on this non-job-related information may result in mis-hires. This helps explain why the previously cited Jobvite research revealed that only 26 percent of recruiters now “consider cover letters important.”

  • A distraction from the job requirements — since the content of cover letters seldom adds any new information related to the required skills and experience. Reviewing and considering that non-job-related content might cause decision-makers to use selection criteria that don’t correlate with on-the-job success. 
  • Some of the revealed information may be inappropriate — since there are no formal cover letter requirements, applicants often include inappropriate information about their families, their hobbies, their age, and other information that may be illegal. This may lead to an adverse impact.
  • Cover letters can lead to premature candidate rejection — some use cover letters to assess an applicant’s creative writing or even spelling. But not all jobs require writing skill, so this early rejection may cause your firm to miss out on some great candidates (especially international candidates with less-than-perfect English skills). 
  • These letters may not be an accurate indicator of motivation or authenticity — some recruiters and hiring managers consider one’s willingness to write a cover letter to be an indication of motivation and interest in the job. There are better ways to measure motivation, and their willingness might instead be an indication of desperation. Don’t assume that modern cover letters reveal the authentic person, because many applicants now use a cover letter template directly off the Internet. 

Damage Area No. 3 — Reading cover letters take up valuable time 

Scanning cover letters may reduce the time available for screening the actual resume.

  • Reading cover letters takes time — because they are written in no standard format, cover letters are hard to scan. Even with an estimated one minute for each one, that is a significant amount of wasted time over 100 applications because there is no data showing that quality cover letters predict on-the-job success.
  • Even opening cover letters is problematic — cover letters often come as a separate attachment from the resume. So even opening them takes time. And with each attachment, there is an additional cybersecurity risk.
  • Hiring managers now realize they add little value — research by the Addison Group revealed that just 18 percent of hiring managers rank cover letters as important parts in assessing potential candidates.

Action Steps for Discouraging Cover Letters 

If you want to eliminate the burden of cover letters, consider: 

  • Don’t ignore the issue — if you say nothing on your website or job postings about cover letters, you’re still likely to get cover letters from 40 percent of the applicants that are not discouraged.
  • Tell them to omit cover letters — you can, of course, say “submit your resume only.” But if you really want to eliminate cover letters, use phrases like “please do not submit cover letters” or “submit your resume, without a cover letter.” Test phrases in order to determine the most effective ones.
  • Discourage everyone from reviewing cover letters — there are legal issues related to physically removing cover letters from an application after it is received. So, in most cases, the best you can do is to proactively discourage recruiters and hiring managers from even looking at any cover letters that they encounter.

Final Thoughts

I have published articles recently on how traditional interviews and resumes are both becoming obsolete. Cover letters are also facing the same fate. Cover letters made sense when people frequently wrote and mailed personalized letters. However, in the world of texting, few individuals even know how to write a letter. In addition, now that an individual can apply for dozens of jobs on the Internet within an hour, the ability to quickly and painlessly “just submit your resume” is now a competitive advantage in the talent marketplace. If you want to test the impact the cover letters have on your volume of applications, post a popular job one week and require cover letters and post the exact same ad the next week disallowing cover letters. And don’t be surprised when your volume of applications increases dramatically when no cover letters are allowed. 

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s Recruiting Conference in October in Washington, D.C.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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