Should You Require a Cover Letter?

Technology has changed the role cover letters play in hiring

The dreaded cover letter. Some recruiters love them, and others have little use for them. But there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on — job seekers hate writing them. Cover letters often veer toward boring and formulaic, or over-the-top. For those candidates who manage to strike just the right balance of brevity, data-backed performance statements and personality, they’re left to wonder: Was the effort worth it?

Research suggests employers are relying less on cover letters than they have in the past. One recent study found 63% of recruiters consider cover letters to be of low importance, and another study found just 18% of hiring managers think cover letters are an important part of an application.

As technology plays an increasingly crucial role in the application and screening processes, should recruiters and hiring managers continue to require candidates to submit a cover letter?

Some talent professionals still see value in cover letters

Cover letters have long provided a window into a candidate’s personality, creativity and attention to detail, and some hiring managers continue to rely on them as an important vetting tool. For roles that require exceptional writing skills, for example, the cover letter can provide useful information to help qualify applicants.

If reviewed, these introductory letters can help recruiters get a sense of who a candidate is, and give job seekers a chance to showcase their personality and highlight accomplishments in ways that are not easily gleaned from their resume. With today’s emphasis on hiring for culture fit, these tidbits can be invaluable — and might have the added benefit of speeding up the process of finding the best candidates for an available position.

“I believe cover letters provide us with a view into the person and insight into how they view their credentials and fitting into the organization,” says senior recruiter Mary Helen Foglia. “Sometimes it provides us insight into what we believe their legacy will be here.”

Cover letters themselves are a test in following instructions and some managers rely on them to whittle down huge numbers of applicants, only advancing those who meet this minimal requirement.

Technology has changed the role cover letters play in hiring

As matching the right candidates to the right jobs has become increasingly automated by technology and a wealth of candidate information is easily retrievable online, many companies believe they simply don’t need cover letters anymore. Today there are other ways to learn about a candidate — often with greater nuance and detail. Hiring managers can check out candidates’ online footprint via their personal websites or blogs, online portfolios and social media profiles.

“Hiring managers now use other methods to get a feel for applicants without leaving their desks,” writes Sarah Grant for Bloomberg. “That makes the four-paragraph missive about passions and key skills superfluous at best, and a liability at worst.”

With online and mobile applications as the new the norm, more companies are prioritizing speed and convenience to attract top talent. Requiring a cover letter increases the time to apply, which makes it more likely top candidates will abandon your online hiring process before completion. Our own research found that companies with 45 or more screener questions lose a whopping 88.7% of their potential applicants to abandonment, and another study found 30% of candidates won’t spend longer than 15 minutes on an application.

This is why some top companies, including Netflix and Salesforce, no longer ask for cover letters in their online application process. Other companies, like Apple and Twitter, have made cover letters optional.

Deciding whether to keep or cut the cover letter requirement

If cover letters aren’t viewed as crucial screening tools by the bulk of your hiring organization, consider phasing them out as an application requirement. Job seekers will thank you for it, and you could shorten your time to apply by doing so. Here are some tips for determining whether you still need to require cover letters from applicants.

  • Measure how valuable cover letters are to your organization. Poll your hiring managers to find out what percentage believe cover letters assist them in making hiring decisions. Weigh the value that hiring managers assign to cover letters against the shorter application times you could achieve by omitting cover letters. Work with managers to identify the most important hiring criteria for their roles, and then have frank conversations about whether there are approaches, other than the use of cover letters, to  screen for those criteria.

  • Try out other tactics to learn about candidates. Use writing assignments or coding challenges to test for job specific skills. Virtually all commercially available assessment tools on the market today are fully validated and, therefore, more likely to actually be capable of assessing for the skills you need. Companies can also consider requesting short video submissions from applicants to get a feel for their personalities, and whether they are likely to be a culture fit.

  • Audit your job content to determine whether it’s aiding your screening process. Do you use your job titles and descriptions to quickly narrow down to those candidates who possess the soft skills you might otherwise look for in cover letters? Consider how you can tailor your job content to attract more of the right applicants — those whose experience, achievements, goals and personality align with your role and team.

Cover letter or no cover letter, if you’re ready to get your job openings in front of a wealth of talent, post a job on Indeed today.

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