Applying for a job is a waste of time. To get a better job you need to be different. Start by understanding the rules. Then break them.

Staff Writer

The talent market in the U.S. is heating up. As a result companies that want to compete for the strongest talent are shifting from becoming more efficient weeding out weaker candidates to focusing on new ways to attract stronger candidates. Savvy job seekers can take advantage of this transformation by understanding how jobs are filled and why certain candidates are selected and others ignored. Here’s a quick summary of my favorite ways to get a better job.

Breaking the Rules Starts By First Understanding the Rules

The best positions are in the hidden job market before the requisition is approved. As part of the typical annual budgeting process hiring managers forecast their hiring needs. Many of these jobs are filled long before the jobs are posted on job boards via internal promotions, employee referrals and networking with former co-workers. Job seekers can find jobs in this pre-public “hidden job market” by spending extra time finding companies that are accelerating their hiring needs and using the backdoor to find a connection to the hiring manager or department head.

The least best jobs are in the job market after the requisition is approved. Once a job is posted most companies require candidates to officially apply to the position. While this is not legally required most companies enforce this approach to maintain some level of legal, but artificial, fairness. What’s not fair about it is that perfectly qualified candidates are filtered on how well their skills and experiences map to the contrived lists of requirements included in the posting. That’s why I suggest candidates be very selective and only apply to jobs for which they’re a strong match. Otherwise they’ll be branded as overly zealous job seekers and less likely to be seriously considered for other jobs where they might be a good fit.

Followers are given higher priority. As part of their sourcing plans, recruiters always search their internal resume databases before a job is officially posted. That’s why I advise candidates to follow companies they’re interested in to get an advantage on those who apply directly.

Make sure your resume can be found. Once a job is open, recruiters search their own private database of candidates as well as the more public databases on sites like Indeed.com and Dice.com. That’s why it’s important to understand how recruiters conduct these searches. Most start by screening for basic skills, industry terms, job titles and company names. Those at the top of the list are given a cursory look to determine progression, general fit and comparability with the published job requirements. Awards, significant accomplishments and honors can often act as substitutes for the traditional requirements but these need to be instantly visible on the candidate’s resume or LinkedIn profile.

Leverage the employee referral program. A company’s best hires typically come from their employee referrals and most companies try to target at least 40% of all of their hires from these sources. More important, these candidates are considered before those candidates who apply, they’re considered for more jobs and they’re considered for many jobs before they’re posted in the public job market. That’s why candidates should spend most of their time getting referred using some of these advanced networking techniques.

Don’t negotiate the offer before you’re a candidate. While I could write a book on how companies should conduct the interviewing process, suffice it to say that job seekers should recognize they need to use the interview to advance the process, not negotiate the terms of an offer during the first call. That’s why I suggest candidates delay any compensation discussions at least until the end of the first call. The big reason: for the strongest candidates the jobs can be adjusted to fit their career and compensation needs. (Here’s a Lynda.com video of the performance-based interview I advocate.)

Don’t answer, “What are your compensation needs?” If a recruiter asks about compensation say it depends on the job. If pushed for a range, suggest it might be better to have a serious conversation before getting into specifics. If still pushed, ask if the recruiter works other similar positions that might be higher or lower than the one currently being considered. When the recruiters says “yes,” suggest that you’ll be able to refer more suitable candidates if the current position isn’t a fit.

In addition to the above you’ll need to use advanced consultative selling skills in order to ensure you’re being interviewed accurately. However, it’s important to recognize that too many candidates follow the traditional hiring rules to their own detriment. As a result they miss out on opportunities that could represent the difference between an unsatisfying job and a true career move. Getting one of these better jobs starts by refocusing your efforts and breaking some rules.