Job Search Answers – Why Do Employers Ask For Cover Letters If They Don’t Read Them?

Mar 7 2012 in Cover Letters, Featured, reCareered Blog by Phil Rosenberg

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At the end of my Resume Revolution complimentary webinars (enroll at, I open up the floor to job search questions … from you.

This was an interesting job search question asked by C.J. after one of my webinars:

“EVERY job I see either requests a resume AND cover letter or leaves space in the online submission portion to include one. While I do feel as though the resume is useful for the same reasons everyone mentions, I’m no more interested in writing the cover letter than employers are about reading it. Why do employers ask for a cover letter if they’re not going to look at it?”

C.J., This is a great question, because it discusses something that we all see, yet it conflicts with research on employer behavior.

To understand this contradiction, you first have to understand how companies make the decision to ask for cover letters in their ads. It’s not as simple as it seems …

HR Automation:

We assume that the request for cover letters in job ads is a specific decision made for each individual job ad. We think that HR departments and recruiters write the request/requirement for a cover letter manually into ads.

This is rarely the case in reality.

Job boards are set up to make writing many ads as easy as possible for HR departments and recruiters. Making things as easy as possible, when combined with computer power, equals automation.

The minimum requirements and responsibilities are about the only things individually written for the job ad you read. Most of the text you see in a job ad is templated, via pre-set text blocks and defaults. Defaults in a job ad are just boxes that, if checked, cause pre-determined text to appear in pre-determined places.

One of these defaults determines if an ad asks for cover letters.

So who determines if these default check boxes are checked … or unchecked?

This decision is often made outside of the HR department … often made by the IT staffer (or consultant) that coordinates the installation of job boards with the company’s HR software.

Wait (pause for a second) … did you get that? The decision whether to check the default box, requesting/requiring cover letters is made by the IT department, or an IT consultant that’s not even an employee of the hiring company.

And since this set-up and integration is typically done once in a blue moon (because it’s so expensive), the IT department (or outside consultant) typically checks the box asking for/requiring cover letters … just in case HR wants it. If the HR department tells the IT folks they don’t use cover letters, IT responds that’s it’s ok, IT can make sure that recruiters and HR reps don’t receive those cover letters, to avoid recruiter/HR rep distraction.

This isn’t some evil plot by the IT department and its consultants to take over the world. This makes sense from IT’s point of view and from a cost point of view. It’s expensive to install these things, so ask for cover letters … just in case.

Things Change:

There’s another explanation of why employers ask for cover letters but don’t use them – things change.

In the last 10 years, a great many things have changed in HR and job search: Laws, technology, job markets. But there’s one thing that has changed more than anything else in HR – the explosion of applicants.

10 years ago, when many of these job board systems were first set up for HR departments, there were an average 100 applicants per job. Today, that average has exploded to 1,000. When you only have an average 100 applicants for each job, the decision to read cover letters is easy to make. When those numbers explode, things change.

HR departments may once have been able to hire enough staff to read cover letters. But as the number of applicants exploded and headcount cuts hit the HR department, somewhere they found they no longer had enough staff to read cover letters.

When things changed, nobody unchecked the box. It’s too expensive to bring in consultants to uncheck that box, the IT department has other priorities, and it’s not accessible by the HR department itself.

… so the box stays checked.

In case you want to see how few Hiring Managers/HR reps/Recruiters actually read cover letters, see .

HR reps, recruiters and Hiring Managers – please comment and share your thoughts about why so many companies ask for cover letters, when so few actually read them.


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Author: Phil Rosenberg

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