Career Strategies

The articles in this section describe techniques to utilize during the job search process.

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Creating Winning Cover Letters

If you want to make a strong impression with a prospective employer, start with the cover letter. While this document often seems like an afterthought, you should spend as much time perfecting your cover letter as your resume. Why? This introductory note is typically the first thing hiring managers see, and it is the primary enticement for them to read your resume. Following are some tips that can help you convey the best message:


While you've likely heard this before, don't forget to tailor your cover letter to the specific job opening and company. If your letter seems like a cookie-cutter document that could be sent to any business, you are unlikely to get an interview. Research the firm by reading industry publications, searching the Internet and speaking with members of your professional network. Then, demonstrate your knowledge of the business and interest in helping it succeed by including some of this information in your cover letter. For example, if the company to which you are applying recently acquired a competitor, you might write, "I followed with great interest your recent acquisition of XYZ Co. I was a member of the project team that helped merge two payroll departments after my former employer bought a competitor, and I believe I can benefit your firm in a similar way."


If the job advertisement called for an individual with "enthusiasm" who possesses "at least five years of payroll experience" and has worked for a "retail firm," use some of the same language in your cover letter. The document might read, "In my six years at ABC Store, I rose from payroll clerk to payroll manager and was commended by supervisors for my enthusiasm and ability to motivate a team." Just be sure the details you include are accurate.


Don't use your cover letter as a venue for rehashing your resume. Instead, focus on key aspects of your employment background that relate directly to the job opportunity and expand upon them. This is your chance to highlight your relevant experience and demonstrate why you should get the job. If you're applying for a position requiring some public speaking, for instance, mention in your cover letter that you recently spoke on a panel at a national accounting conference.


It may seem like a minor detail, but make sure to address your cover letter to the person who is hiring for the position. Writing "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam" will not set you apart from the crowd. By making a quick phone call to the company, you should be able to get the hiring manager's name and title. And, of course, once you have this information, make sure you spell both correctly.


Have a trusted friend carefully proofread your cover letter before sending it. Just one typo could cause your application to end up in the "no" pile.

Creating a Stellar Resume

A good resume can be hard to find; just ask any hiring manager thumbing through stacks of them. To stand apart from the crowd in today's competitive employment market, payroll professionals must submit a document that makes an immediate impression. In fact, a well-crafted resume is your most effective tool for landing an interview and, ultimately, a new job. Following are some key "do's" and "don'ts" of resume writing.


First, some do's: 

  • Do use action verbs as much as possible. For instance, instead of writing a passive sentence such as, "My company has provided me with five years of payroll experience," write using an active voice: "Possess over five years' experience as a payroll coordinator for Fortune 500 company." Also avoid vague terms such as "familiar with" or "experience with" - these phrases set off alarm bells for hiring managers, who may question your actual depth of knowledge.

  • Do use bulleted sentences that are short and to the point. Avoid lofty and redundant language. The goal is to communicate your abilities clearly and concisely.

  • Do format your resume chronologically. According to research by our company, executives prefer work histories listed in reverse chronological order rather than grouped by skills or job function. There are times when it's necessary to arrange your resume by skills or job function - both are good options for those who have large gaps in their work history or are trying to break into a new career area - but in general it's best to use the traditional approach.

  • Do remember to tailor your resume for each opportunity by highlighting key achievements and qualifications that relate specifically to the position. Often this may be as simple as reordering bullet points to emphasize certain skills and expertise.

  • Do include terms from the job description in your resume. If you're applying for a position where the advertisement for the job asks for candidates with "high energy" and "experience with corporate clients," integrate those phrases into your resume (as long as they're true, of course!). Many companies electronically screen resumes for keywords, so you can boost your chances of landing an interview by adopting any applicable phrases. 

Now, some don'ts: 

Acing the Interview

A Robert Half International survey of chief financial officers found that job seekers make more mistakes during the interview than in any other phase of the job-search process. This news may make you even more apprehensive over the prospect of meeting with a potential employer, but it doesn't have to. In fact, by preparing thoroughly for the discussion and understanding common pitfalls to avoid, professionals can turn this challenging situation into an opportunity.

Simply put, the interview is your time to shine. Receiving an invitation to personally discuss a job opportunity means the organization was impressed by your resume and intrigued enough to bring you in for further insight into your abilities and experience. In particular, this can be a breakthrough moment for payroll professionals, who must be able to present complex data and concepts, often in layperson's terms, to colleagues, senior management and clients. Clearly expressing your thoughts and showcasing your talents during the meeting with a hiring manager demonstrates, among other qualities, your strong communication skills.

The following advice can help you make a positive impression: 

  • Research the employer. One of the biggest mistakes job applicants make is not knowing enough about the organization. Even before you submit your resume, review articles in trade publications, business journals and local newspapers to learn as much as you can about the firm. Also speak with contacts in your professional network, who can share their insights and experiences. The information you gather will help you speak directly to the opportunity and show your enthusiasm for the role.

  • Understand the value you bring. Fundamentally, a hiring manager wants to know why you're the right person for the opportunity. Develop a plan before the interview that will help you answer this question and distinguish yourself as a top candidate. Study the job description again and determine how your unique skill set will enable you to succeed in the role.

  • Consider potential answers to common questions. While you never know exactly what you will be asked during an interview, chances are you will be presented with a few common questions, such as "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" and "What are your most significant accomplishments in previous positions?" As much as possible, provide specific examples of how you helped former employers and tie your responses to the needs of the opening. For example, in response to the first question, you might say, "I'm a strong communicator, but I would like to improve my public speaking skills. I've taken classes in this area and recently delivered my first presentation at an APA chapter meeting, after which I was invited to speak again at another upcoming event."

  • Demonstrate your confidence. Sometimes, how you say something leaves a bigger impression than what you say. That's why it's imperative to demonstrate confidence through your body language. Greet the hiring manager with a strong handshake and maintain eye contact throughout the discussion. Avoid gestures that make you appear nervous, such as excessive hand motions or constantly tapping your fingers or feet. But a quick word of caution: Remember the difference between confidence and arrogance. Our company's research has found the worst mistake a management-level job candidate can make during an interview is displaying too much hubris.

  • Take your turn to ask questions. The employment interview is not just a time for the company to evaluate your qualifications for the position, it's also your chance to determine if the opportunity is right for you. Decide in advance the aspects of the role and the business about which you'd like to learn more so you can ask the hiring manager related questions. Examples may include: "What are the organization's long-term growth objectives?" "How does this position fit into the firm's overall strategy?" "What constitutes superior performance?" "What will be expected of me in the first few months?"

Common Interview Pitfalls

To make a positive impression during an employment interview, you must do a number of things: dress professionally and arrive at the meeting on time, for example. But demonstrating to the hiring manager your ability to perform well in the role also requires you to avoid certain actions, including:


  • Not knowing enough about the company or position - Failing to conduct thorough research about the opening indicates to the employer you aren't serious about the opportunity.

  • Displaying a bad attitude - A know-it-all mindset, disrespect toward the interviewer and inattentiveness during the meeting are just a few ways to remove yourself from contention.

  • Bad-mouthing your previous manager - Even if you worked for the world's worst supervisor, an interview is not the time to list his or her problems. The interviewer may begin to suspect you are the problem as opposed to your previous manager. Instead, take the high road: If you are asked about your working relationship with a previous boss, you might mention how the two of you had different work styles but still managed to upgrade the company's payroll system in record time.

  • Asking about compensation prematurely - Salary and benefits may be top of mind for you, but wait until you've been offered the position before inquiring about them. Otherwise, the hiring manager will wonder if you're more interested in money than the opportunity itself.

  • Failing to send a thank-you note - Always send a thank-you note promptly to each person who met with you. This simple courtesy can go a long way: A majority of executives polled by our company said they consider a post-interview thank-you note helpful when evaluating prospective employees. Briefly restate the skills, expertise and enthusiasm you bring to the position, and address any areas of the discussion in which you feel you could have expressed yourself better. You can send your gratitude in writing or via e-mail, but whichever form you choose, this gesture will ensure the effort you took to distinguish yourself during the interview will make a lasting impression.
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