What should you yell if you are being attacked (and what does this have to do with getting a job)?

If your response is “Help!” you are wrong. The correct answer is “Fire!”

This comes from the case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in 1964. Published reports at the time, later debunked as an exaggeration, claimed dozens of witnesses heard Ms. Genovese’s cries for help. No one helped. No one called the Police. The reason they all gave was that they assumed someone else had called. This is known as the “Bystander Effect.”

Now, you are no doubt asking, what in the world does this have to do with career counseling and helping people conduct an effective job search? Good question. I hope the answer is as well.

If you yell “help” when being attacked, the people hearing will assume others have also heard and have taken action. They will ignore you. That’s the Bystander Effect. And, of course, if the person is yelling “help,” by definition, that means that you are not in any personal danger. So you have no personal reason – forgetting for a moment the little inconvenient concept of civic responsibility – to get involved. But if the person is yelling “fire!” and you hear them, then the fire may be close to you. You could be in danger. Accordingly, you call the Fire Department. (I don’t know this for a fact but I think this is one of the reasons that when there is a call to 9-1-1 about a fire, the Police always arrive on the scene.)

“Fire” is personal, “help” is not. When you yell “help” you are focused on yourself. When you yell “fire” you are focused on the other person(s), warning them of danger.

The Number One mistake job seekers make is that they are focused on the themselves and not on the employer.

I have a fairly new career counseling client who does not listen. He has also been unemployed for a very long time. The two are, no doubt, connected.

He sent me the job description for a position for which he wants to apply. I read it thoroughly, reviewed the resume we had prepared and, totally confused, I called him. The conversation went something like this:

I think you sent me the wrong job description.

Was it for the coordinator position at XYZ?

Yes. Why would you apply for it?

I think it would be interesting. It’s something I have always wanted to do. I have the skills.

But you lack all of the qualifications and have none of the experience.

But I want to try. Why don’t you encourage me?

Because that’s not what you paid me for. You paid me to help you get a job. You are forgetting what I tell you practically every two weeks: Your job search is not about you, it’s about the employer. You have to meet the employer’s needs. The employer only has to meet your needs once they offer you the job.

But I know I can do it.

XYZ does not want someone who “knows they can do it,” they want someone who has done it. So by applying for a job for which you do not have a chance of getting, all you are doing is adding to your frustration. What’s more, XYZ may remember that you applied and, if they ever have an opening for a job for which you are actually qualified, the fact that you applied for this one may be held against you.

That’s not fair.

It may not be fair but it is reality. So do what I told you to do the last time this happened. Send them your resume without referencing the specific position. Just write that you want to introduce yourself in case anything should open up in the future. Focus on one of your accomplishments that you feel will resonate with them. Reference your attached resume. Thank them. That’s all you can do.

And that’s all he really can do. You have to stay focused on the employer’s needs and not on your wants if you want to get the job.

When I was looking at his resume I saw that he lives in Queens and I figured he was old enough to remember the Genovese murder, or at least had head about it. (I don’t know if it’s still true, but someone once told me that it was taught in Social Studies classes in Queens’ high schools.) He did. “Fire” vs “Help” seemed to resonate with him. Hopefully he now gets it and will remember. I hope you will too if you are in the habit of applying for job for which you are unqualified. (By the way, my next post will be on applying for jobs for which you are unqualified.)


Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over a quarter of a million times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.