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I am looking for a developer. For that I posted an ad that looks like this:

We are searching for a BlahBlah developer part-time in-house. You will be responsible for:

......

Flexible schedule.

Please put sunshine at the top of your cover letter, otherwise you'll be rejected. Thank you.

Job Type: Part-time

Notice this line:

Please put sunshine at the top of your cover letter, otherwise you'll be rejected.

Then I sifted through applicants and filtered out those who didn't put 'sunshine'.

That trick is supposed to bring me only those developers who are serious and are detail-oriented.

In theory...

Well, I got 50 applicants. Out of 50 only 3 put 'sunshine' and all of them turned to be not as qualified as I wanted them to be.

My ad has been online for a couple of months and I still can't find a right developer.

Do you think I should keep employing this little trick of mine or should I just take everybody and filter them out during an interview part?

  • 5
    Is "Sunshine" a redacted word to avoid showing the real HR code? – user95634 Feb 4 at 8:27
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    Have you looked at the other 47 and assessed their quality? Doing that may very well answer your question for you (and I would like to hear about how good they were as well:) – Pavel Feb 4 at 10:11
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    Could the word be being removed by intermediate recruiters? – Steve Smith Feb 4 at 12:03
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    The question asks us to make a prediction about the effects of a particular intervention in the future. You are the person doing that experiment; you're the only one who can say whether it is successful or not. We can't predict the future to know whether your proposed intervention will give you better, worse or the same results in the future. You're the one with the data; analyze it! I'm voting to close, as we cannot make predictions of the future. – Eric Lippert Feb 4 at 22:44
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    Reminder to everyone: answer in answers, not in comments. – V2Blast Feb 5 at 21:19

29 Answers 29

260

I think you have your answer:

Well, I got 50 applicants. Out of 50 only 3 put 'sunshine' and all of them turned to be not as qualified as I wanted them to be.

While this "trick" seems thoughtful in terms of being designed to focus on detail-oriented candidates, it's also way outside the norms of typical hiring processes, and as such you may very well be losing a lot of very well qualified candidates. And, based on your results, it's not exactly filtering the list down to people you actually care to interview.

Ask yourself this:

Would you rather lose a few otherwise perfect candidates because they forgot "sunshine," or would you rather not waste time filtering candidates yourself?

Trick aside, you really need to do the important work: review your hiring process and make sure your requirements and your benefits are in line with the industry in your region, and - assuming you don't find some smoking gun explaining the lack of applicants, ditch the sunshine thing because it's clearly not working.

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    @DonHatch: The control group are all other companies who don't require the word "sunshine" on their applications and manage to find qualified employees. I agree that a fully randomized test would be better, though ;-) – nikie Feb 2 at 9:55
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    @nikie That's not what a control group is, nor is it how experiments work. If you want a nugget of anecdotal evidence, I easily get 50+ CVs in a hiring round where I might be lucky to find one decent candidate. At least 80-90% of submissions go straight into the bin, so OP's stats don't seem that crazy to me. – J... Feb 2 at 10:38
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    @J...: You'd be surprised how many experiments work exactly that way, because true randomized testing is too expensive or in some cases even unethical. By the way: How many of those 80-90% "straight to the bin" submissions did you actually interview and try out? You know, as a control group, to test how well your selection process correlates with actual job performance? – nikie Feb 2 at 11:28
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    @nikie You're getting mired here. Your original point was that other companies don't use this technique therefore it is not required. We agree it isn't required - the point was not whether this technique is required, the question is whether it is effective. Your proposed control group has no correlation with OP's circumstances and makes a poor experiment. I wouldn't be surprised at how many bad experiments are done - science does bad experiments all the time. That shouldn't justify a bad approach just because others have also made errors in experimental strategy. – J... Feb 2 at 12:44
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    @dwizum Realize that you're making the (unverified) assumption that one of the 47 remaining candidates was the right candidate. I'm not sure why you expect that - it's certainly not a given. The three which did get reviewed were not the right fit, but at least they all at least had one of the skills OP was looking for, if not all of them. We also know that the 47 remaining did not have the right attention to detail that OP is looking for - only OP can decide whether that one skill is absolutely required. We can assume that it is, given the importance OP has placed on it. – J... Feb 3 at 16:51
200

What this does is filter out the good programmers who are not willing to jump through what they think is a silly hoop in order to get a job. They will either not bother to apply at all, or will certainly not bother to do a step that they think is unimportant. The ones who don't bother to apply at all are those who wonder what other odd things there will be in this job.

You will get those who are desperate and pay attention to details, as well as those who don't pay attention to details, and those who like playing games. But I suspect the really good ones don't apply at all.

There is discussion on whether this is such a big thing that it should matter. And no, it's not a big thing. But it is a silly thing. And little, silly hoops are red flags to someone who is competent and looking for a decent job. Not because it is small but because it appears to have nothing to do with the job. It appears that the person hiring doesn't know how to find a qualified candidate, which means they probably hire the bad along with the good. The most qualified want to work with others who are competent, and that means only applying to jobs where it looks like the hiring manager knows how to find good people.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Feb 4 at 4:16
  • @MonicaCellio It seems that moving the comments to chat hasn't helped - can you please move some more? – thursdaysgeek Feb 4 at 19:37
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    @thursdaysgeek we can only move once. After that, the only way to get them there is for somebody to copy them there one at a time. That's why we just purge new comments that aren't about improving the post. – Monica Cellio Feb 4 at 19:54
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    +1 for And little, silly hoops are red flags to someone who is competent and looking for a decent job. – kolsyra Feb 6 at 8:32
67

I agree with the other answers that the "sunshine" thing just looks silly and non-serious to a detail-oriented developer like me but you asked for "our thoughts" in general and I have one that I dont see in the answers yet.

Your job posting is for "part-time" work and I dont know any developer (edit: I just met one in the comments) that is both serious about their career and also looking for part-time work on a permanent employment basis. A locale tag may help because, in my experience, part-time implies that you want to pay hourly and offer no benefits to your future employee. I think, at best, you might be able to snag a freelancer that has some idle time or wants to work overtime on two gigs at once; most of these people are too busy to even bother with a cover letter because the good ones know that their work and reputation sells for them.

Im not sure about the nature of the work you need done but, perhaps you could consider compressing your project into a short-term, but full daily hours, contract for someone to pick up. Or maybe hire a contractor in some sort of monthly maintenance work retainer.

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    Good point - disregarding the whole "sunshine" thing, a part-time job will attract either A) junior developers who need the experience, or B) professional developers looking for a side project. Neither of these will satisfy the OP if they're expecting a professional who can focus solely on their company's projects. – Omegacron Feb 2 at 0:09
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    Yes, it's this answer. If you want to hire someone on a flexible basis, you can look to hire a contractor, but you're going to be paying more for the flexibility and short-term nature of the job. The pool of applicants in your market who actually want part-time work, pass your filtering test, meet your standards for qualifications, and are otherwise willing to accept the pay and working conditions you're offering could well be zero. – Zach Lipton Feb 2 at 4:09
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    How is sunshine silly but FizzBuzz is hailed as genius? They're both ridiculous, but the talent pool is full of complete idiots. If it looks silly to you, it probably means you've never actually tried to hire anyone and don't appreciate how much crap you have to sift through to find good people. – J... Feb 2 at 10:48
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    Disagreement about the "part-time" aspect: There are developers looking for a part-time position for various reasons (family commitments, startup on the side, just plain likes to have free time). And OP never implied "no benefits", that's a non-sequitur. Of course, the nature of the job may be such that part-timers do not want to apply, but that's not clear from the question. Disclaimer: I'm a SW dev working part-time :-). – sleske Feb 4 at 7:51
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    @sleske: looks like thats the confusion.. Im fuzzy on the details but my understanding of the system here is that benefits in some form are also required by law but only when the employer is of a certain size and only when the job requires a certain number of hours per week... Because of the application of these laws, I feel that the US vernacular has landed on "Part-Time" = Job paid by the hour, variable but not controllable work schedule, no benefits because not required. "Full-Time" = Salary or hourly, benefits package.. Sounds like you have what we would call a "nice full-time gig" – Smitty Feb 5 at 16:02
46

I have used a filter like this before and I think it has been effective. Now for the qualifiers.

  • I go to pains to make sure that our job description is literate and engaging -- at the very least, not the typical brain-dead boilerplate one so often encounters. So I hope that the kind of candidate we're looking for will notice that and read through the listing through to the end.
  • I put it near the top of the listing in a pretty conspicuous spot so it's not a total gimmick. It's also phrased a bit more genially, something like: "If you really want to impress us, include the word foobar in your cover letter."
  • I don't use it as a binary do-or-die filter.

How do I use it? Well, I give all applicants a pre-qualifying score in order to select as objectively as possible (given the demands on my time and attention) those candidates in whom I would want to invest with a phone interview. The rubric goes something like this.

  • Resume 1-5 points
  • Cover Letter +1
  • Magic Word +1

So an applicant with a really good resume that I scored a 5 but didn't include a cover letter with the magic word would score equally to an applicant whose resume I scored a 3 but included a cover letter with the magic word. I'd probably interview them both.

Having hired about a dozen developers in total using this "little trick" as part of my process, some of whom included the trick word and some of whom didn't, my sense is that the more successful hires have been the ones who included the word. But that could just be the bias of the kind of hiring manager that would use such a device. I haven't bothered to analyze the data to see if my impression really bears out. The sample size is laughably small anyway.

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    At least foobar has more relevance to this sort of job than sunshine which just sounds silly. – chasly from UK Feb 2 at 9:11
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    If they included not only the word foobar, but also the names Greenblatt or Sussman, would that count extra? – Walter Mitty Feb 2 at 12:46
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    "Sunshine" has relevance because the job is in Florida. – user1602 Feb 3 at 20:13
  • @Kyralessa exactly! – Konstantin Gerasimov Feb 4 at 17:52
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    "don't use it as a binary do-or-die filter." - Exactly! This sort of thing is a little check that might tell you something, it isn't the end-all and be-all of what you are looking for. – Dragonel Feb 5 at 18:54
29

Almost everyone here is jumping to conclusions.

We can't tell you if this is a successful strategy for you because we don't have enough information. Other reasons you may be having difficulty finding a candidate include

  • Location : maybe you have a poor talent pool in your city. We don't know
  • Type and Term : Looks like part-time. Good luck finding any talent for a part-time position.
  • Niche : Is it a niche industry? Are you looking for rare skills?
  • Salary : Are you offering too little?
  • Job Description : Maybe the rest of your job description is poor. We don't know.
  • Competition : Maybe you're a smaller city with a talent vacuum for competition. If you're competing with bigger fish for developers, you can easily have a hard time finding talent.

You have 47 CVs left on your desk. If you want an answer to your question, take the time to read through those ignoring the 'sunshine' request. If you find some gems, then you have the answer to your question. If you find more and worse garbage, then you also have an answer to your question. I suspect the remainder of those applicants are probably no better than the ones you've already rejected. If you're desperate, though, it's probably worth at least having a look through the ones you rejected in the first round.

The effectiveness of the 'sunshine' technique is going to depend highly on the specific circumstances in your city and industry. We simply don't have enough information to tell you whether it's an effective strategy or not. You'll have to figure that out for yourself.

At very least I might use it to shortlist those compliant CVs for a deeper read, but I probably wouldn't ignore the rest for that single reason. No candidate is perfect and completely rejecting any candidate for a single shortcoming should only be done if it's a critical requirement that you can't live without. I'd think the sunshine technique could be a useful tool for you, but it probably isn't an effective, all-purpose, one-stop-shop of a talent filter.

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    As J... says, the experiment is incomplete. I was typing out something similar, but J... beat me to it :) If the 47 rejected candidates contain applicants who are serious and detail-oriented, then the filter is ineffective and in fact is filtering out the very candidates you want to keep in the pile. – Moschops Feb 2 at 11:08
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    There is also the missing control group. The group who read the ad, and decided not to apply. These are the people who decided not put in an application with the word sunshine at the top, because they considered it stupid, and decided not to send one in without the word sunshine because that would be a waste of time. It's possible that this group might contain some qualified candidatees. – Walter Mitty Feb 2 at 12:38
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    @WalterMitty Developers often have a cripplingly narrow focus and an inflated estimate of their own intelligence. They can be stubborn and truculent when faced with problems whose purpose they don't understand. If they aren't willing to make a small step to do what they're told on the off chance that they might not have a complete understanding of what it's for or that it may actually be useful, then maybe OP has dodged a bullet. Again, we don't know. Not enough information. – J... Feb 2 at 14:27
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    @J... If you ask me to write "Sunshine" on a cover letter, I'll take the risk that there might be a purpose that I don't understand, and I'll take the risk that I might have an inflated estimate of my own intelligence, and allow you to hire someone else. – gnasher729 Feb 3 at 9:56
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    @J...: With all due respect - there's a difference between being skeptical about a problem whose purpose you don't understand, and being a diva. I'd actually consider it a quality if developers push back if they don't understand something. But you seem to have met really many devs with difficult personalities. – sleske Feb 4 at 7:55
27

Job ads often contain a lot of useless fluff that people will try to filter out to get the basic information they need to apply. Most likely that line will just fall under fluff, that's filtered out, so by using your trick you are most likely filtering out competent applicants as well.

If it is however noticed, this seems like a weird habit. As a candidat i might wonder how many other weird habits your company has and decide to spend my time for another application.

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    Not only that, you are filtering out candidates that are good at filtering out fluff and focusing on only the important parts. Which seems counter-productive. – Matt Burland Feb 5 at 22:13
  • @MattBurland But... that was a do-or-die item. By filtering it out they clearly filtered out a critical requirement. So by definition didn't they just fail at filtering fluff because they filtered out critical non-fluff? – Tezra Feb 6 at 19:57
  • @Tezra - no, because it was deliberately hidden and intended as a trap. When it comes to actual work, it's more likely than not that people are deliberately trying to trip you up. – Matt Burland Feb 6 at 20:08
  • @MattBurland It had its own dedicated line in a section of the description that is very clearly important and non-fluff (type of job you are applying to) How is that hidden? – Tezra Feb 6 at 20:15
  • @Tezra I thought people should apply as a developer, not as a sunshine-writer. – Sebastian Proske Feb 6 at 20:18
22

Well, we actually have a high profile example to compare this to. The American hard rock band Van Halen was famous for having a clause in their contract requesting a bowl of M&Ms with all of the brown ones removed:

Munchies

  • Potato chips with assorted dips
  • Nuts
  • Pretzels
  • M & M's (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)
  • Twelve (12) Reese's peanut butter cups
  • Twelve (12) assorted Dannon yogurt (on ice)

(source)

If any brown M&Ms were found, "the promoter would forfeit the entire show at full pay", often with nice theatrics to go with it such as trashing the dressing room. While this was touted by the media as abusive diva behavior, Van Halen did this because their contract also contained detailed and exhaustive instructions for setting up their 850 huge par lamp lights, which had a very particular design in order to ensure that they had proper load bearing.

If I came backstage, having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I saw brown M&Ms on the catering table, then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious line check [of the entire stage setup]. (David Lee Roth)

Here's a full interview about it:

https://vimeo.com/36615187


In essence, the brown M&Ms were like your magic word, an item placed in the job's documents to ensure that they had been read, and if the magic word was not included, then the job documents had certainly not been read and the candidate should be rejected. However, there is also a major difference: in addition to any failing candidates knowing that they failed because of the M&Ms (unlike your resumes, which just get thrown away without any contact), the job required it. There were legitimate safety concerns in play (if a par lamp is on top of a rock star, that rock star is probably no longer alive), and the instructions to ensure the safety of the production were in the exact same manual as the M&Ms instruction.

If your software development job has this requirement, then by all means, continue to use the magic word. But if not, then don't use it.

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    Not really relevant to the situation. Sure, if you give very detailed business requirements to a developer, it might be worth putting in some "trick" to see if the developer followed the details, but we're talking about job ads in a seller's market (demand is higher than ever for good developers). If you want a good dev, filtering out the ones too busy to read the details of your ad, just makes it a lot tougher. – Chan-Ho Suh Feb 2 at 16:32
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    @Chan-HoSuh That's exactly my point. Tricks like this are used when the job description exactly requires them. – TheHansinator Feb 2 at 16:35
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    You're missing my point. Even if the job requires understanding very detailed requirements, testing that in the ad is different. I can understand very detailed instructions but I may not bother reading an ad carefully when I have recruiters flooding my inbox with lucrative opportunities. – Chan-Ho Suh Feb 2 at 16:42
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    @Chan-HoSuh And I also specify that bit - the magic word was in the contract, not the ad, because the specific details in the contract were important, and anyone who had the misfortune of missing the key instruction were made very aware of it. So, my answer essentially is: tricks like this do work, and you've probably heard of at least one, but this probably isn't the situation for it. – TheHansinator Feb 2 at 16:51
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    @Abigail it says, in a "fail" mode, whether the promoter even distributed the contract to the relevant people. If the caterer failed because "nobody told us", then the chance is quite fair that "nobody told us" also caused riggers/gaffers to fail. Gaffers are theatrical (lighting) electricians. – Harper Feb 4 at 0:40
20

No it's ridiculous.

Firstly the ability to notice details which are absolutely irrelevant to the real task in hand is not a useful skill nor is blindly following instructions even if they appear ridiculous.

It is also probably putting off good candidates as it suggests a petty and pedantic management style, remember that an interview goes both ways if this is the best thing you can come up with to evaluate candidates it suggest that you have very little knowledge about the skills required.

You also say that you are looking for serious candidates, putting a deliberate trap in an application suggest the opposite of that.

There is also the consideration that job applications are a chore for everybody involved and there is a very good reason why the format of the process is as standardised as possible. The reality is that professional applicants are going to want to be able to send a standard CV and a covering letter which actually addresses their suitability for the job. Presumably you want to attract people who are in demand and don't feel like they have to jump through hoops to stand a chance.

If you want to recruit good people than giving applicants the impression that you are doing them a massive favour by even interviewing them isn't going to help.

The fifth panel also applies to postmodernists. (Source - XKCD]

  • 7
    My wife recruits trainee pharmacy technicians for a large hospital with a pharmacy manufacturing facility. At the top of the form are instructions, which include "Complete this form with a BLACK ball point pen". Guess which forms end up in the shredder during the sift? – Michael Harvey Feb 2 at 14:41
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    Yeah but instructions for filling in a form correctly are a very different thing from putting deliberate trap in an application. – Chris Johns Feb 2 at 19:50
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    Posting xkcd pictures without mouse-over text is just wrong. – Phira Feb 3 at 2:48
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    @Phira: Also, posting xkcd pictures without attribution is plagiarism, a copyright violation, and a violation of Stack Exchange's Terms of Service. – Jörg W Mittag Feb 3 at 17:31
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    aggry, begry, conyngry, gry, higry-pigry, iggry, meagry, menagry, nangry, podagry, puggry, skugry. – user95634 Feb 4 at 8:23
18

The IT industry is (for now) a seller's market, where qualified candidates can dictate their own terms to employers. Therefore anyone who has the right skills will just laugh at your silly requirement and move on or submit his CV without bothering to read the full advertisement. In fact, its the candidates who are more likely to benefit from this restriction, as they're constantly getting bombarded with job offers.

So the answer is simple: remove this filter, it does you no good.

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    This is EXACTLY CORRECT. – Fattie Feb 4 at 14:26
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    Indeed. This requirement more or less filters for the people who have no better option and will jump through silly hoops out of desperation -- it's unlikely that anyone else would bother. So probably not the highly qualified types. – Matthew Read Feb 4 at 22:13
  • Do you have any sources you can link to back up this claim? – Tezra Feb 6 at 20:22
  • @Tezra what claim is that? – JonathanReez Feb 6 at 21:37
  • "The IT industry is (for now) a seller's market, where qualified candidates can dictate their own terms to employers", "anyone who has the right skills will just laugh at your silly requirement and move on or submit his CV without bothering to read the full advertisement" and "its the candidates who are more likely to benefit from this restriction, as they're constantly getting bombarded with job offers" – Tezra Feb 6 at 21:58
14

...should keep employing this little trick of mine or should I just take everybody and filter them out during an interview part?

Here's a way to answer: go back and look through the applications you filtered, and count how many false negatives there were. Assuming you didn't literally hard delete their submissions, this will take about as long as the effort you've already put into answering the question.

If you only find applications that you wanted filtered, then keep the doing the sunshine trick.

  • I think this is the beginning of the answer. But in order to really know, OP should at least interview a random sample of sunshine and non-sunshine candidates (hopefully blind to their sunshine status). – emory Feb 5 at 1:32
  • all of which lead to .. the OP's approach is truly a gimmick. – javadba Feb 6 at 5:32
11

There are two things I'd like to say:

First, your demand for "sunshine" at the top of the cover letter is childish. There is no way on earth that I will give in to such childish demands.

Second, you state that you throw out applications where your childish demand isn't met. So clearly, applying is a waste of my time, so you won't get my application.

Now consider that anyone who is any good at their job will have the same attitude, so you can expect only applications from people who are desperate to get a job. Happy now?

PS. Comment by Chan-Ho Suh hits the nail on the head. This is not about being detail-oriented at all.

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    I think this answer illuminates that although the OP is intending to test for detail-oriented, s/he may actually be testing for compliance. – Chan-Ho Suh Feb 2 at 16:55
9

If you want to do something like this, I'd suggest modifying the method to make it more relevant to the job.

For example, I know of a large organisation whose grad program attracts a lot of applications every year. A significant number of those applications come from people who pursue an r strategy approach to job-hunting: send applications to every position available, regardless of whether their CV actually matches requirements. From the employer's perspective, this creates a lot of work to winnow out the ones who have no chance of getting the job.

The solution to this was to add a short multiple-choice section to the online application, with questions about the organisation. They were easy questions which could be answered with a few minutes' research on the org website, but not something that people could just google. If somebody's already spending half an hour to write a good application, an extra five minutes to research those questions isn't likely to discourage them, but if somebody's just spamming to every employer in sight it's more of a deterrent. From the recruiter's side, multiple-choice can be handled through automated systems before the human recruiter gets involved.

This was for a grad program, and you'd want to modify the approach for recruiting developers - perhaps a few very simple programming questions, again something that can be handled via multiple-choice. But by keeping it relevant to the job they're applying for, you may reduce the risk of annoying good applicants by asking them to jump through hoops.

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    I have seen variants of this in practice, and they did not seem too weird or off-putting to me. For instance, one company Base64-encoded a string and asked the candidate to put the unencoded value into their application. This performed similarly to the OP's method, but was less arbitrary and filtered out applicants too clueless to apply (for non-programmers reading this, it is very simple to decode base64 in most languages and easy to do a web search for how to do it if you don't already know) – Neil Slater Feb 2 at 10:05
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    "If somebody's already spending half an hour to write a good application, an extra five minutes to research those questions isn't likely to discourage them". It would discourage me. I'm a professional and want to be treated as such. This might be a good solution if the OP needs to hire a 20-year-old. With older, more experienced people it won't work. – BigMadAndy Feb 2 at 10:20
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    @BigMadAndy I suspect people aren't hiring senior devs on a part-time basis (which is OP's case). – J... Feb 2 at 11:06
  • @BigMadAndy I think it should be obvious that this is a technique for junior level positions where the quality:quantity ratio of CV's that fall into the inbox is poor, at best. When you're looking at a bunch of CVs with less than 2-3 years of work experience on them, there is often much less information to go on. Hiring tests, generally, of any sort, usually fall to more junior positions. FizzBuzz doesn't belong in a senior consultant interview either, but it's sure as hell useful for the fresh recruits. – J... Feb 3 at 11:55
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    @NeilSlater: don’t have to write anything, a quick google should find it online in about 5 seconds. U3Vuc2hpbmU= – jmoreno Feb 3 at 15:33
8

You are probably going to skim my resume and reject if off-hand, so why are you upset when people skim your job offer???

I'm a busy guy.

I'm going to apply to 1000 jobs today.

My chances of getting one particular job are individually low.

The cost-benefit analysis of looking for "gotchas" in a job posting is low.

It's better for me to just machine-gun resumes out.

In this case my strategic thinking and planning has overruled my sense of thoroughness for details.

Unless you are some kind of super desirable company you are just shooting yourself in the foot.

Anyone who wishes to comment on this please put the word "daffodils" in the text. Otherwise I might not respond ;)

  • 1
    I disagree with the strategy conclusion (only the desperate benefit from such an approach), but the bolded first paragraph is absolutely correct. I flatly refuse to write "daffodils" in this comment though. Wait... – BittermanAndy Feb 6 at 11:53
  • Thanks for putting "daffodils" in your comment. However, we have decided to pursue other candidates at this time. ;) I actually agree with you. If I had caught the "sunshine" statement I would have put it my cover-letter, even if I had 1000 jobs to apply for. I guess my point here is that "attention to detail" could take backstage and employers should meet job-seekers halfway at least. – a1s2d3f4 Feb 6 at 13:49
6

There are some really good answers here, but I wanted to add one more point that I don't see addressed elsewhere. If I were a very detail-oriented candidate trying to apply for this job, I wouldn't know how. You wrote:

Please put sunshine at the top of your cover letter, otherwise you'll be rejected.

When I read that, a number of thoughts go through my head:

  • By at the top do they mean physically right at the top? Or do they mean in the first few paragraphs of the text of my letter? Like am I supposed to work it into my text somehow. ("I have a sunny disposition...")
  • If they do mean physically at the top, should I just hand-write it? Or should it be printed in the same font as my résumé's text?
  • Where at the top? Should I left justify it or center it?
  • What if I draw a small picture of the sun? Is that the same thing? Do they want me to get creative?
  • Are all their directions going to be weird like this if I come work for them?

Remember that candidates are interviewing you, too. If your terms are too odd, vague, or confusing, they may just give up.

  • 3
    Put the word anywhere that fits the description "top". Add the bullet point list you just supplied here to the cover letter - if I saw you thought about it that much, I guarantee you a spot in the interview. Even if you were a poor fit for the position, I'd probably keep your CV around for other opportunities. – J... Feb 3 at 12:02
  • 1
    Should I draw a sun? Should I print the CV and have it collect a bit of sunshine? Wait, should I glue a lamp onto the CV so the interviewer can read it on his way home in a dark train? So much troll potential. Is OP actually looking for a cave troll, because he thinks good developers live in a cave? – Frank Hopkins Feb 5 at 12:09
6

Personally, I tend to agree with the other answers that give reasons why such a practice is somewhat dodgy.

However, I think that you could potentially pull off the exact same trick if rewording, i.e. by stating (or better: insinuating) a legitimate reason for the request.

For example, I would be much more likely to comply with a simple request along the lines of "Please start the subject line with the code PHPDEV19/02 " as I would believe it likely that the HR people use some (semi)automated system to tell applications apart quickly, link them with e.g. the job spec, and route them to the relevant managers/interviewers with speed. It leaves a much less arbitrary impression than the "sunshine" phrase. (Note that I use a date format instead of some supposed serial number in the code, which may help you disguise a months-old job opening as a recent one and perhaps counter imaginings of a high turn-over of workers.)

Of course, such a course may open you up to new unintended consequences due to the impression you engineer, which is - frankly - untruthful.

  • Yes, if Sunshine is a redacted HR code to avoid linking to the real job ad, please use it. Not using the HR too often will result in your email address beeing black listed. – user95634 Feb 4 at 8:33
  • 2
    Use of an automated system to route job applications properly is an entirely reasonable thing to do, but the posting should explicitly and conspicuously state that as a hard requirement to ensure proper routing. Otherwise one is apt to needlessly filter out people who found out about the job opening from someone else who saw the ad and told them about it. Many ads that say "please mention code XX" do so for the purpose of tracking which ads generated which responses--information that respondents may prefer not to volunteer. – supercat Feb 4 at 23:02
5

Nowdays it's success to get 50 developers applications. I can't imagine decent developer putting sunshine on his cover letter, a person should be really desparate to get a job.

3

I actually quite like this idea and definitely have seen the pain of hiring someone incapable of reading things completely. It is a real problem in technical fields and I do not think you should hire a sub par candidate simply because there are so many of them.

I do however agree that the "sunshine" aspect of your instruction is a bit arbitrary and may throw some people off. It didn't bother me initially because I knew exactly what you are trying to accomplish and I definitely agree with the objective, but based on the answers here it seems a lot of people are likely to be offended by such a thing.

Might I suggest instead of an arbitrary word like sunshine, why not provide an instruction similar to the following:

Please title your cover letter with: lname, fname is applying to [company] for the position of [title].

This feels much less arbitrary to me and I think would be less controversial.

  • You often have to put a code when applying for jobs at large company or via agent. However that’s an expected process detail, not so much a filter. – eckes Feb 2 at 21:28
  • 1
    @eckes: I'm not sure how that applies to my answer. – Jesse_b Feb 3 at 13:54
3

I do something similar. It easily filters out all the people who just mail-merge their applications, i.e. 99% same text with <company name> and <sector> inserted into the first paragraph.

Most applicants blatantly didn't even bother to see what our company does, they just clusterbombed every job advert with their copypasta.

Before taking this job, I used to have something similar on my LinkedIn profile, to filter out lazy/low-end recruiters.

On both sides of the table, it's a really effective way to filter out the lazy/average/unenthusiastic.

  • Indeed, it's a great way to filter out lazy employers with average hiring processes (where "average" means "typical" or to put it another way, "bad"). – BittermanAndy Feb 6 at 11:54
3

I think this is the important point you've missed:

You, the recruiter, are tired of sifting through irrelevant fluff.

So, you skim-read job applications.

Candidates are also tired of sifting through irrelevant fluff.

So, they skim-read job adverts.


Good candidates are not reading every line of every job advert for the exact same reason you are not reading every line of every job application.

Many, many job adverts are very badly written, and candidates have to read many, many job adverts. Many (if not most) applicants therefore skim-read job adverts, out of sheer necessity. Even the ones they apply to. Don't be shocked - can you honestly say you've read every line of every application of every candidate you've invited to an interview? You didn't skip over lines about their driver's license, or how they learned team skills in college sports 10 years ago, or the additional admin duties of that job they had in a different industry in 2011?

Your experiment could work, but you must put the 'trick' line alongside the important information, not towards the end where it looks like skippable HR fluff. For example, it could be item 3 in a neat, concise bullet list titled "Essential skills", that actually contains the actual essential skills.

Also, expect it to be perceived like how a recruiter would perceive a "quirky" job application. Some might be amused or charmed by it (I remember seeing something like this in a job advert and smiling, but maybe I'm biased because I've also been a recruiter), but many will be annoyed or put off. Consider the personality types you want to attract (and, not deter).

Recruiting is a two-way street - especially in tech currently, where demand for quality usually exceeds supply.


An example, fairly typical job advert

For research purposes, I went to a jobs-list site and opened some random job adverts to give an example of what applicants have to wade through. Below is the second job advert I opened.

Edits taking out company name, industry, etc are in italics: no need to name and shame, this is not an unusually bad job advert, it's merely the worst of the first two I opened. I also added bold to the section headings. Everything else is the real job advert as published.

Adverts like this are very common. Job seekers wade through dozens of these a day, hundreds a week, potentially thousands a month. In this long example, I'd say there are maybe five important points. Read through it, and try to pick them out. Then imagine doing this a few hundred times.

That's the answer to your implicit question, of why candidates don't read every line of your job adverts. I suspect you won't want to read every line of this one, let alone a hundred like it. After a few dozen of these, you'll be good at skimming and will habitually skim good and bad adverts alike.

Who we are

CompanyCo was founded in 2024 with a clear mission: foo without borders - so people and businesses can send and receive foo effortlessly, whenever, wherever.

Sure, the heart of what we do is foo transfer. And we're committed to making it foo-tastic, convenient and fair for millions of people, all over the world. But we're growing our other products and our teams at an exciting pace. And we're looking for the very best to jump on board.

What it's really like to work here

At CompanyCo, we do things a bit differently. There's no corporate nonsense and no old-fashioned hierarchy. Instead, we work in dozens of self-sufficient, autonomous teams. Think of them like start-ups within a start-up that learn from each other.

Each team picks the problems they want to solve. So there's no micro-management. No hiding behind fancy job titles. And no one telling you what to do. You are your own boss. But you'll get tons of guidance and plenty of support from talented, super-smart colleagues from all over CompanyCo.

We're going to be upfront - the way we work doesn't suit everyone. But if freedom, autonomy, and life-affirming, head-scratching professional challenges rock your world, we could be a match made in heaven.

So, what's the role?

In general, as a Foo Engineer in CompanyCo you will work towards making our product the best that it can be. On one hand you will do this by solving very complex technical puzzles while on the other hand, you will do this by figuring out what are the best product decisions based on feedback we get from our great customers.

More specificly [SIC - spelling and grammar mistakes in job adverts are extremely common], we are currently growing our local FooBar engineering team which holds from an engineering perspective our CompanyCo for Businesses product. So, currently looking for talented Foo Engineers ready and up to the challenge of helping us in scaling-up our Business product. What we re [SIC] looking for:

  • Background with backend MVC framework - Language and Tool preferred
  • Experience with Query databases, writing custom queries and designing schemas
  • Understanding of test driven development (TDD), and the desire to write tests
  • Experience in distributed and concurrent systems, knowing the tradeoffs between stateful/stateless and synchronous/asynchronous architectures.

... while we will also very much appreciate any of the following

  • Passionate about technology, product and user experience
  • Customer is at the heart of everything you do and that empathy drives every decision you make
  • Ability to work independently and plan your own solutions to problems
  • Open to travel and work with Engineering teams from Atlantis and Avalon
  • Broad understanding of the minimum viable product concept & conversion rates
  • Knowledge of/interest in foo platforms, foo exchange & performant complex systems
  • Experience using database abstraction layers like Product
  • Understanding of Scrum and Agile development - particularly lean methodologies
  • Be a customer of CompanyCo

For a sneak - peek [SIC] into our Engineering world check: http://foo.companyco.foo

Benefits: Apart from the all-expenses-paid company trips, stock options in one of Eurasia's most hotly tipped startups, a laptop and team lunches every Friday, you won't get much in the way of extras. However, we will give you 25 days holiday a year (plus public holidays), a fun, friendly atmosphere, plenty of opportunities to grow and the chance to be part of our little revolution. Oh, and coffee, there's plenty of coffee.

  • 1
    I skim-read that job ad, and felt my soul eroding. It's not even that bad compared to some, but... ugh. – BittermanAndy Feb 6 at 11:59
1

Fix the real problem

The real problem is that you want the benefits of finding the best candidates without the bother of taking time to sift and identify the best candidate. You can change this by trying to put in the effort required to sift through a large number of applications.

Instead of trying to minimize your effort, you should optimize your hiring process to narrow down to the best candidate.

And hit the books

If you don't have guidance or direction and just thought that this kind of short-cut would solve a problem you have to address, you might read such books as Hiring Smart! How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game. But there are many others, and a good HR or manager should be able to give you good suggestions for a better goal, how to invest time best so that your hiring process selects more optimally for quality of candidate instead of minimization of effort in hiring.

  • He wants people who read the whole job posting. – Joshua Feb 4 at 18:52
1

The problem, it seems, is that (outside of candidates who don't use "sunshine" out or principled defiance, which are probably an insignificant minority) it seems that candidates are skimming your job posting, instead of reading it entirely.

That is a problem.

Instead of pondering whether you should require a magic word (and I think you should), you should instead be pondering why candidates are skimming your postings, instead of reading them.

You might consider breaking the text into smaller paragraphs and adding some bullet-point list; that creates white-space in the text, and makes it appear more readable. You should consider removing some technical jargon, and emphasizing successful projects and products, and company culture. You might have a second person in your office re-write the ad entirely.

Consider using A-B testing, with two different magic words, "sunshine" and "moonlight". Create two different ads with for the same position; put them on the same job board, several days apart. Count which, from "sunshine" or "moonlight", gives you more applications, and which one leads to more interviews.

  • It's not "principled defiance". It's having no intention to work for a company that plays silly games from the start. Company failed the test. – gnasher729 Feb 4 at 19:28
1

Keep the requirement!

If its absolutely necessary for the position to read, understand and follow guidelines this is the perfect way to verify people actually try to understand what you're looking for.

It's not uncommon

While your requirement surely isn't the norm I'd like to show you another job opening: https://www.cdprojekt.com/en/careers/jobs/reverse-engineer/

Verify results

As others suggested I'd counter check with other applications if you're missing some diamonds. I highly doubt that. The ability to read is crucial to me, I think to you too.

I was unemployed once. The requirement would have saved my ass

Personal anecdote: To receive welfare-checks for unemployment in my country you're required to write job-applications even if you'd hate the job. This made it easy for me to get filtered out in the first round without appearing rude or trying hard to leave a bad impression.

  • The link looks like spam. I've flagged this answer. – chasly from UK Feb 4 at 12:32
  • The referenced line from the job posting is "attention to detail (put our keyword at the top of your cover letter)" so the link is relevant. – Joshua Feb 4 at 18:54
  • I like your final paragraph, but OP may not find it useful. – David Thornley Feb 4 at 21:22
  • @DavidThornley this maybe be the best feature of "sunshine" to the OP. I remember applying for "Chief of Surgery" - I do not have a MD or even any medical training. I would hope that no one spent any time reviewing my application. – emory Feb 5 at 1:39
  • The link has expired. – Jasper Apr 7 at 21:20
1

I agree with the answers pointing out that this may be discouraging people that notice, and that you really need to see if it is having th effect that you want by looking at the other resumes, but...

This is a weird request, and it is imprecise. It doesn’t say to include a paragraph of the single word Sunshine, it doesn’t say to give your opinion of the book by Robin McKinley. It just says include it, but include it how and why? Perhaps as the first letter of every other sentence? Last letter of every sentence? Prime character in each of the first/last 8 sentences?

It has the exact same problem of dealing with imprecise coding requirements and throwing out those that don’t ask for clarification — it’s a pass/fail, where the only way to know the right answer is to read the askers mind!

Because this just as easily could be a bad edit by whoever posted the ad, in which case including it may be helpful or terminal — what kind of idiot would fail to realize this was a mistake and then actually do it? How many noticed but decided not to do it?

The David Lee Roth example is much clearer, in one section of the contract it requires M&M, in another it specifies that no brown M&Ms are allowed.

Say that the letter is supposed to be for the attention of Sunshine. Say that you give extra points for Sunshine being included. *Include the value as Base64 encoded and say to include the result in the cover letter. Give a reason and a context, make it make sense, irrational requirements are bad. If it makes sense, then filter and see if is doing what you want. As it is, you are just as likely to have people not do it as do it even if they notice and want the job.

*Stole this idea from Neil Slater.

1
  1. I'm detail-oriented enough to notice your lack either of grammar or clarity. If you want someone to include the word "sunshine", then you should put it in quote marks as I just did. Otherwise it appears you are asking them to include a cheery greeting.

  2. What does sunshine have to do with the job? It seems frivolous.

If you want any kind of flag then at least make it job-related, for example:

"Please include your favourite definition of recursion."

This can be answered seriously or humorously.

If you want a little more detail then you can ask a question that is tough for a beginner but not for someone who knows a little more, e.g.

Please give a simple real-life example where head recursion would be preferable to tail recursion.

0

You may need to re-design this filter.

I get that you are looking for someone that is serious and detail-oriented, but from an applicant's perspective, this posting isn't very serious looking so you will also filter out those who noticed this requirement but thought you are not serious and didn't bother.

Since you are looking to hire a developer, you can try to design some position-related tests, such as a programming test that has many detailed requirements and I think it will work better.

  • The problem with making the test this realistic is that it raises the suspicion you are simply trying to get free labour. Why should applicants solve your problems before they have even been hired? – chasly from UK Feb 4 at 12:37
  • @chasly from UK This type of tests are quite common and can happen even before hiring. If you are so paranoid, you might as well do not submit your resume at all because companies can theoretically benefit from selling you information in the resume :) – Yixiao Chen Feb 5 at 20:58
0

To add just a few words, maybe it is worth to not make the filter a silly thing, but keep in the filter. Make it an actual extra step that is a clever one to ask, so that you don't push away clever programmers. For example, something like asking them to add a few words on their most recent project in their cover letter, or to include their stack overflow ranking on the cover letter. That way,you know they read your job description and that they pay attention to detail.

0

The job posting itself is in a way an interview for your prospective candidates attention and it is your first impression, so my counter ask is this, what do you think the average job seeker will think when they see this? Will they view it as an indicator that the company culture is filled with such games?

-1

On sites like Upwork this practice is fairly typical. I see no reason to abandon it.

Your problem is that you are getting low quality applications. The 'skilled' applicants are probably fake ones, and the medium grade ones are probably authentic.

What is putting people off is the notion of "part time" . As a developer, you should not be getting paid by the hour. Some of my work involves 2 or 3 weeks of thinking, not a line of code written before something is solved. Many of my most challenging problems have been solved while thinking in the shower, or having woken up with the solution arriving in a dream.

I would recommend emphasizing "flexibility," not "full time," or 'not a demanding workload,' but the daily rate you pay should not really depend on if the dev was at a keyboard, and the daily rate should be according to the level of experience you are gaining by having that team member join. Eventually that team member will branch out into other things too, so don't think the particular job represents what you are paying for either.

The whole notion of part time disregards the fact that many devs just like to be away from keyboard according to their own schedule. That kind of flexibility is increasingly normal these days. "Part time" automatically implies "there will be periods of time where we expect you to work" or that "this job is a boring one of rote donkey work for juniors."

In short: change the wording so that it describes the candidate you are looking for, not the job

-1

First, I second @TheHansinator answer.

Others have responded well to the trick in question, but there is another aspect that I'd like to consider as this might be a case of an XY problem.

Have you considered using an Application Management Software?

I've once read about a trick where one should copy the job description, paste it on his/her resume in white with a formatting such that it gets hidden to human eyes. Recruiters use software that checks CVs for matches with the job description, hence this technique causes your CV to pop up with a high match score to the recruiter, thus forcing him to lay his human eyes at your CV.

While I disapprove the usage of this technique, notice that if you created a good job description, then a good CV will stand out by usage of such tool. While many candidates may skip though the job description, hardly anyone would fail to read the description but tailor the CV for the specific opening.

Also notice that someone unemployed and looking for a job should take care in reading a job offer carefully before applying, but if developers are in short supply, you should expect good candidates to already have a job, and possibly a family, which makes looking for another job a casual less important task, and not something that gets his/her full attention.

Think as well that job boards have many opportunities so that reading carefully each one would be a pain to anyone who has better things to do. If each application had this kind of test you propose, busy people would just refrain from undergoing this process.

This might be a part of why the candidates who passed the sunshine test were not good fits for you.

Maybe a good mid term would be: You ditch the test or give it minor importance, use an application management software and let it select the good matches for you. Then, among candidates who have the skills you need, you give them specific tasks/tests to check if they are detail oriented or if they have any trait that does not show up on a CV.

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