3 Stupid Mistakes that Sustainability Job Seekers Make

In the course of running a boutique sustainability consulting firm, I get a lot of inquiries about jobs in sustainability. Some people want to know if I’m hiring, others want an informational interview to understand the sustainability job market in general, and yet others want to hear all about how I started my company in hopes that they will walk away with an idea of how to blaze an entrepreneurial trail through the industry.

After seeing the same blunders again and again and again, I thought it might be helpful to put together a short list of common mistakes that will blow your chances of getting a job in the sustainability profession.

Mistake #1: Leading with Your Passion

In the piles of emails and letters that I get every week from sustainability job seekers, more than half of them use some form of the word “passion”. Here are a couple of excerpts from cover letters/bios I’ve received in the last week:

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“My passions for renewable energy and sustainable development have driven my success…”

“I am passionate about helping companies create cultures that support and inspire their employees and community.”

“In my last corporate role I initiated corporate sustainability initiatives, mostly fueled by my own passion…”

…passion isn’t a selling point, it’s the minimum requirement to ride this sustainability roller coaster.

Here is a hint: passion isn’t a selling point, it’s the minimum requirement to ride this sustainability roller coaster. We are ALL passionate about sustainability, and we’ll assume you are too. (Because honestly, who applying for a job in sustainability isn’t passionate about it?)

Yes, it’s great to be enthusiastic – but when EVERYONE is passionate about a topic, it no longer becomes something that makes you stand out. When I see a cover letter with the word “passion” in the first paragraph, it automatically gets put into the “no thanks” pile. Why?

Here is what leading with your “passion” says to me:

  • You have mostly enthusiasm, rather than experience.
  • You don’t have any hard skills to bring to the table.
  • You are emotional, not practical

If you are one of those people with “passion” in your cover letter, you might be arguing with me right now—insisting that you do have practical skills, that you are results-oriented, and that you have the right kind of experience to excel in a sustainability job. And you might be right—but I’ll never know because you are hiding those elements (the ones that will REALLY get you the job) under a obfuscating cloud of enthusiasm.

Solution: be enthusiastic—but let that excitement show through your discussion of your skills, your experience, and your approach to working on sustainability projects.

Mistake #2: Trying a Buckshot Approach

Don’t just shoot off a resume and cover letter to every sustainability job that comes across your computer screen. Please, please, please show a little restraint. For one thing, you will forever be on my hiring blacklist if you send me a cover letter addressed to the WRONG COMPANY because in your hurry the copy-and-paste job got a little sloppy. (I wish I could say that this happens only rarely.)

Even if you don’t make an obvious mistake like that one, let me assure you that it is easy to spot a “buckshot” approach to sustainability job seeking. The same generic resume, the same boring cover letter. It’s a waste of your time. You need to switch from shotgun to sniper mode.

The individuals that have gotten my attention are able to instantly demonstrate that they know my company, understand how they fit into the larger sustainability industry, and are familiar enough with me to avoid my hot button issues. (For example, on the “about Jennifer” page of my website, I clearly state that I hate when people use the term “passion” when talking about sustainability.)

DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE YOU APPLY. I know this is a no-brainer, but I’m pretty sure that every job-hunting advice column continues to include this recommendation because people just don’t get it. You need to be able to demonstrate, at a minimum, the following things:

  • You understand the organization’s approach to sustainability (treehugger vs. techie geek, antagonistic advocate vs. industry partner, “right thing to do” vs. “drives innovation”, environmental sustainability vs. triple bottom line, etc.)
  • You have skills that meet their needs (e.g. don’t spout off about your experience in renewable energy when talking to a sustainable forestry outfit unless you have a stellar reason for doing so, but don’t make the opposite mistake of leaving your skill set vague.)
  • You fit in their organizational culture (you love that it’s a small company, or you thrive in teams, or you love the challenge of working with big, bad companies facing a swatch of sustainability issues)

If you can’t answer those questions, then you haven’t done enough homework. If this information isn’t readily available, you’re going to have to do some digging. Check out their executives LinkedIn profiles, stalk their Facebook page, follow their Twitter stream (be a dear and RT once in a while—it flatters the ego and shows that you can contribute to spreading the word). Exhaust your network until you find someone who can tell you about what it’s really like to work there, what kind of projects have been keeping people busy, and what the internal atmosphere is like.

…you need to do this research BEFORE you make an official inquiry about a job…

I hope that it goes without saying that you need to do this research BEFORE you make an official inquiry about a job there…you need to come to the table totally prepared. The executives on the receiving end of your attention need to feel like you already belong there, that you are ready to come onboard immediately, and that you’ll fit right in with the team. The best way to do this is to be so knowledgeable about the organization that you really DO seem like one of the team before you walk in the door.

Yeah, it’s going to take a LOT more time than you may want to spend. But if you can narrow down the number of potential organizations that you want to work for (by avoiding that buckshot approach), you’ll have more time to spend on your short-list of the most relevant and exciting prospects.

Mistake #3: Not Following Directions

This is an easy one, with an easy solution. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. If the website says no phone calls, then don’t call. If they say only the applicants selected for an interview will be contacted, then don’t harass the poor HR manager about whether or not you have been chosen. I know, it’s so tempting to just break all the rules and go after the job you want (and I’m ashamed to see other job advice and career counselors recommending breaking the rules) but I promise, it doesn’t work.

(You probably know someone, or have heard a story about someone who broke the rules and by showing persistence got the job. This is the exception to the rule, and it has the unfortunate effect of making lots of people think that they too can be the exception to the rule.)

By not following directions in the job seeking process, you are essentially telling me that you won’t respect my organization’s rules, policies, and procedures.

By not following directions in the job seeking process, you are essentially telling me that you won’t respect my organization’s rules, policies, and procedures. In effect, you place your own desires above the success of my company. And yikes, that is not a person I want to spend my time talking to—let alone a person I want to hire.

However, that doesn’t mean that you are powerless. Here are three examples of how people successfully got around my company’s rules for contacting us about informational interviews, internships, and full time positions.

  • Use someone in my network as an “in”. If you can get introduced to me through one of my colleagues, there is a MUCH better chance that I’ll agree to have coffee with you. Even if I’m not at all interested, I feel a sense of obligation to my network—and once you have me in your grasp, you can unleash your sustainability magnetism and make me forget all about my reluctance.
  • Run into me at an event. Through my company’s blog, e-newsletter, my Twitter account, and our Facebook group, you can pretty much figure out where I’m going to be. And since I hate standing awkwardly alone, a public event is a great place to corner me and chat me up about your sustainability goals.
  • Offer to do me a favor. Can you introduce me to someone that I might want to meet? Connect me to an organization that might want my services? Get my company free publicity? The sad truth is that the job seeking process is very one-sided. You take, and I give (or at least, that’s the way it feels on this side of the equation). If you can help even that balance, I’ll be more amenable to seeing how I can help you.

I’m sure there are other common mistakes, but these three are the ones that push my buttons the most frequently. Talking to other organizations, I fear I’m not alone. So do us all a favor (including yourself) and take a harsh look at your job-search process and see if you are committing any of these mistakes. They are easy to rectify, and will drastically improve your chance of landing your next position in the sustainability industry.
Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter.

42 Responses

  1. Stephanie Bertels

    I absolutely agree. I raise these same points with the undergrad and MBA students that come to me looking to break into the field. Thanks for taking the time to write it all down!

  2. sandi

    Interesting perspective on hiring Jennifer. Thank goodness it’s only perspective.

    As an employer I would not be pleased to note I was not getting the right quality of candidates because of your don’t call me I’ll call you approach. Very short sighted.
    With so many employee’s and job seekers being lazy and unwilling to make an effort these days should one actually take the time to pick up the phone and reach out to introduce themselves I would be thrilled with their initiative.
    the entire sustainability industry was created by people who wouldn’t take the status quo as their bible. They had to look at things differently in order to make a difference so of course they are going to do things a little differently…it’s the nature of the beast.

    With your approach you probably don’t like sales people to call either or too show a little assertiveness. Each job appeals to a type of character and those characters all have methods of dealing with issues that are unique.

    That’s what makes a company effective.

    As a person responsible for bottom line performance and growth I wouldn’t consider your approach value added.

    • Jennifer

      Nothing like being called “short sighted” to put a spring in my step…

      If you will go back and re-read my article, you will note that nowhere did I say that job seekers should be passive lumps that only support the status quo. Likewise, I didn’t say they should quash inclinations towards assertiveness and initiative. I simply said they should take care to follow the directions laid out by the organization they are trying to impress.

      My guess is that you, who would be thrilled to be inundated with calls from bright and enthusiastic young folks with lots of passion and “get up and go”, probably don’t have a “please, no calls” directive on your website. Therefore, job seekers should feel free to call and introduce themselves.

      I’m in a different situation. My company is not hiring any full time staff – something we state VERY CLEARLY on our website. We ask that people not contact us about full time positions, that our model is different, and then provide a bunch of different ways to get involved with our sustainability consulting (as a freelancer, as an intern, as part of our consultant network, etc.)

      I’m not an ogre. I connect with likeminded people (including the ubiquitous job-seekers) in a variety of ways – on Twitter, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, through our e-Newsletters, and through regular events like webinars, conferences, and the like. I frequently give talks about the state of the sustainability consulting industry, a “day in the life” of a sustainability consultant, and how to find jobs in this challenging industry.

      So I hope you can see how obnoxious it is to have all of this information CLEARLY spelled out on our website and STILL to get inquiries (almost daily) from people seeking to get hired. And then, three days later, to get a follow-up call from that person, who wants to ensure that we have received his information and to see if we can set up a time for an informational interview. And then another call the following week, just to “check in”.

      See the difference?

      Please allow me to turn the tables and ask you a question: when was the last time that you hired for a sustainability position? Because I find it REALLY difficult to believe that you are unable to find a group of very talented and qualified candidates and instead are stuck with mostly people who are “lazy and unwilling to make an effort”.

      If anything, I believe the opposite to be true in our industry: people are SO enthusiastic (and yes, passionate) about sustainability that they are running scatterbrained towards anything that hints of a job in sustainability. Hence, my article on ways to hone that focus and avoid annoying the pants off the poor people at the receiving end of their inquiries.

  3. Mirna Kragulj


    Interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, however, do you think you are being a little hard on the ˜passionate about sustainability~ applicants? I agree that it is obviously a generic way to present yourself and hence, creates a generic first impression of the individual, however I don`t know if I quite agree with the fact that it means the person is emotional rather than practical or the other indicators of the individual you listed in your article.

    In fact, if I was looking for someone to work particularly in marketing and publicity of my sustainability oriented organization, I would definitely prefer that they know how to publicly express that passion for sustainability as it is probable that the same reaction will be recieved from the public absorbing the message.

    Lastly, I would say that a resume is a very small representation of the actual capabilities of the applicant, and it is difficult to pin down the perfect introductory sentence. Perhaps you could tell us, what you would like to see, or what WOULD grab your attention in that first line. Interesting read though!

    • Jennifer

      Hi Mirna,

      You (and others) make some good points. Yeah, I’m probably a little harsh in this article, although I prefer to think of it as “tough love”. 🙂

      And as I mentioned in my earlier comments in reply to Sandi, I’m not at all telling you to suppress your enthusiasm (or even “passion” if you prefer) about sustainability. What I’m saying is “don’t make it your #1 selling point”. When you open with “I am so passionate about sustainability” you are lumping yourself in with all of the people who have no skills in the sustainability arena. They HAVE to open with their passion, because they’ve got nothing else to “sell” to the hiring manager.

      Let’s take your example: hiring a marketing manager for my sustainability-minded business. Here is a cover letter opener that would really capture my attention:

      “In the last ten years of my career in the marketing department, I have seen companies try and fail to effectively communicate their commitment to sustainability. Greenwashing, conflicting messages, a lack of clear strategy and goals — you name it, I’ve seen it happen. And I’d like to devote the next ten years of my career to making sure that your company can confidently and robustly communicate your sustainability commitment to stakeholders.”

      (Ok, I took only 90 seconds to come up with that — but do you see the difference? I’m not spouting off about some kind of general passion about sustainability — instead I’ve made it clear that 1) I understand the specific sustainability issues facing the marketing department, 2) I have experience with where it can go wrong, and 3) I am passionate about fixing the problem for you.)

      My message is this: let your enthusiasm shine through in how you would solve the problem, and how you would contribute to the team — NOT about generic passion for sustainability.

  4. Dan Dugal

    Jennifer, Thanks for a very thought provoking article. I read a lot of articles and this is one that I just can’t shake. I think the reason is that I understand your perspective and agree with you on some of this, but disagree with other parts.

    First, a tiny bit of background. I was laid off a few weeks ago and am making a mid-career change to sustainability work. My new career focus is not negotiable, despite a lot of advice to just get any job where my background fits the position. I also realize that it is on me to transfer my skills.

    Leading with Your Passion: This one really ruffled my feathers the first time I read it. Given my determined commitment, and so many job-hunting articles’ advice, so many position descriptions that read “we are looking for dedicated, passionate blah blah blah” it seems that showcasing your passion has just become another component in the “cost to compete”. But after I read it several more times, I think what’s at the root of this is that job seekers can’t substitute passion for actual pragmatic skills and abilities that get the job done. With this perspective, point taken – I’ve already made adjustments to my cover letter that I think make it better. (thank you!)

    Trying a Buckshot Approach: I think I understand why job seekers resort to the buckshot approach. And its really simple. Their first ten or twenty sniper shots missed. If other job seekers are like me, they read 30 or 40 position descriptions before they decide to apply for one. And by the way, do you know how many aweful position descriptions are posted on the internet? Let’s just say that slopiness spills both ways. It’s not an excuse, agreed, but still. Most position descriptions are written to such a narrow skill set, that a very few people even qualify. Nobody has that exact mix of skills, and if they did, how would they find your job post among the millions of other job posts vying for their attention? Both sides feel like they are looking for a needle in a haystack.

    Not Following Directions: Every article from recruiter types says “Just follow the directions” but leaves off the subtext ‘because it makes my job easier/I don’t want to be bothered or annoyed by you’. But there are also so many articles that read “Be sure to follow up, stay in the recruiter’s mind space, persistence pays off”. So which is it? There is plenty of advice on both sides of this one. One side says, If you follow all the rules, you’ll never stand out from the crowd. The other side says, if you get out of line, you get culled from the flock. When I see a “no calls” directive, I admit that I don’t call as I know it only frustrates my counterpart. But at the same time, I’ve sent many a resume into a “no calls” black hole where there is never any response that comes back. It can be frustrating from either perspective.

    • Jennifer

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with everything that you say, and totally understand why job seekers make the mistakes that I list. I totally hear the frustration — it is a REALLY tough job market. The number of people trying to move into the sustainability sphere far outweighs the number of available jobs.

      That’s why its so crucial to set yourself apart from the pack. (And I really do mean “pack” — in talking with companies who advertise for sustainability-related positions, they are getting HUNDREDS of applicants within the first week that a job description is posted.)

      And I will also agree with you that many, MANY of the job descriptions are terribly written. This is probably a whole other article, but the gist is that these positions are often newly created, which means the company is largely guessing about what they want in an applicant. Sometimes their requirements are so absurd I have to laugh (because only five people in the world are qualified for the job as it is written), but they have to start somewhere.

      Finally, one other thought — and forgive me for rambling because it’s almost midnight and there are so many good comments and I could discuss this stuff for AGES:

      In my experience, the HR manager is NOT the person you want to be following up with. Figure out who the sustainability job candidate will report to. And stalk them (in a nice way, of course.) Check out their people on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter, research their Facebook Page.

      You are MUCH better off getting some attention from the “right” people if you focus your attention and follow-up on the people who will actually be working with the sustainability personnel. The HR manager has a very narrow set of criteria (which may or may not be truly relevant) — in fact many times they won’t really know how to separate the “good” from the “bad” applicants. But if you can connect on LinkedIn with their VP of Operations, or their Director of Investor Relations, etc. then a whole other world opens up in terms of where that relationship may go.

      The truth is that most of the time, these jobs are not hired by someone who simply submitted a resume (no matter how brilliant the associated cover letter). Most of the time these jobs are going to people who had an “in”. An employee says to their boss “you should really check this guy out” or you meet a manager at a networking happy hour.

      So yes, follow the directions — but be creative about building those relationships with the companies you want to work for OUTSIDE of the HR hierarchy.

      Phew. I think I should probably stop now. Thanks again Dan, and best of luck in your job search. Hope the next time we talk you have “sustainability” in your job title!

  5. dana

    I think your post is a bit harsh. In fact I am sure you will miss a lot of good professional applicants, very dedicated, loyal, great starter and many more, only based on your personal assumptions.
    At the end, I trust my guts, and I avoid as much as I can, dealing with 3rd party.
    But good luck to you, to find, your wish, applicants. Reality is you need a good fit, not a perfect wording in a “perfect world”.
    And to be honest with you, the frustration at your end are absolutely nothing with what is at the other end.

    • Jennifer

      Hi Dana,

      Thanks for your comment. As you’ll see above, I have already admitted to being a little harsh in the article. But it got a lot of people’s attention and sometimes it’s that jolt that gets people thinking.

      Anyway, I agree with your comment. I probably DO screen out a lot of dedicated, loyal, fabulous job applicants by pre-judging them based on my disinclination to value passion as a key indicator of job performance.

      But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter — because in the numbers game that is today’s sustainability job market, I could screen out 90% of the applicants and still come up with 10 times more excellent applicants than I need.

      The reality is that there are LOTS and LOTS of excellent candidates for every single sustainability job out there. I never have a problem finding a good group of people to interview. (And based on my conversations with other companies that are hiring, there is no shortage of talent.)

      So to be very blunt and honest: it doesn’t matter if I screen you out, there are five others that can step in to fill your shoes. I realize how truly obnoxious that sounds. But I apply the same standards to my own work as a consultant. I’m not the only consultant that a client can hire that will do a fantastic job — in fact there are usually a handful of competitors for every job that I think would do an equally excellent job of delivering the service that I propose to give.

      Right now, in this economy and with the supply/demand tension between sustainability job seekers and available sustainability jobs, your priority needs to be on setting yourself apart from the pile of hundreds of resumes that have flooded in. And because the pack is leading with passion (and frequently isn’t demonstrating in that first impression that they have the skills and competencies that the job needs), the first thing to do is to switch things up and start with the pragmatic solutions that you can bring to the table.

      I realize in all of these comments I’m coming across as a terrible, heartless person. And maybe that is a little bit true. (I do foster rescue puppies, which I hope turns the scales a little bit in my favor.) But I promise — I’m not trying to be antagonistic, just for the sake of stirring people up. This article came from talking and meeting with really excellent and skilled (and yes passionate) people who I would LOVE to have on my team, and then seeing their resumes and cover letters and realizing that they are NEVER going to get to the interview stage because their materials look like everyone else’s stuff.

      To be an effective advocate for my colleagues and my friends in the industry (and those trying to get into the industry), I need them to look different. I need to be able to point to their cover letter and say “this is what you need”. Hopefully, this article will help some of those folks make my sell on their behalf a little bit easier.

      Thanks again for your comment — I had no idea this article would spark so many passionate (and I’m not ever using that term ironically, for once!) opinions.

      • Lexi

        Indeed, there are more applicants than there are positions. But screening people out based on the fact they have the word “passion” in the opening paragraph does not filter applicants in any meaningful way. It is akin to throwing out a random 90% of cover letters. The quality of applicants who don’t mention passion in their cover letter is a credence to the high quality of applicants in general. Your filtering process would produce the same results if you just threw the first 90% of cover letters in the garbage, regardless of whether passion is incorporated. I suppose since you are the one doing the filtering, it becomes meaningful, but not for the reasons that relate to job skill

      • Lexi

        Of course, it doesn’t matter how you filter because demand is larger than openings. But you are purporting that your filtering process is meaningful when it isn’t. And that is the issue. I’m sorry if I sound rude, I don’t mean to be. And I don’t think you are heartless at all – you have to filter out applicants in some way. I am am responding, not because you are heartless, but because you are illogical.

  6. Brad Zarnett

    First of all, let me be clear that anyone who fosters rescue puppies is in my good books, but Jennifer, even without your contribution to the canine world, I’m definitely on your side of this debate.  In fact, I think that there is actually much less ‘debate’ going on than there seems to be.  Everyone who has commented, yourself included, agrees that passion is a good thing.  But passion isn’t the only thing.  As you have now repeatedly explained, you’re not against people with passion.  However, you not only want, but also insist upon, hiring people who prove that they offer a level of relevant skill and initiative that will move your company forward.  I would expect that as a consultant, your clients would expect nothing less of your hiring practices.
    Your article indicates that you look for an applicant who has relevant skills, who has researched and understands both you and your company, who demonstrates attention to detail in his/her application. Attention job seekers: No matter how many applications you are submitting, you must use the utmost care to assure each employer of your genuine interest in the position – if you can’t find the time or inclination to fully research a position and customize your application, why should that company find the time or inclination to interview you, let alone hire you?  Attention, again, job seekers: If an employer states rules unequivocally (e.g. no phone calls) then show your respect by not disregarding clearly stated policies – this doesn’t mean you can’t creatively work around them, of course – reflect upon the REAL potential of Jennifer’s advice about personal introductions, LinkedIn connections, conferences, etc. 
    In my view, your article and follow up comments offer some very useful insights and advice for applicants on how to get noticed in a competitive industry populated by no shortage of people who, as Sandi has so aptly observed, “look at things differently in order to make a difference.”  What this means for job seekers is that passion and outside the box thinking simply aren’t enough.  You need to showcase your relevant skills and experience, rather than rest on what has become an industry standard claim of ‘passion’.  You need to prove your interest in the position through thorough research and attention to detail, rather than leave a potential employer feeling a form letter application has been received.  You need to demonstrate your enthusiasm through meaningful initiative (e.g. making a personal connection at a conference), rather than simple disregard for stated rules.   Is anyone really arguing with these three ideas you presented? 
    I hope all of the frustrated job seekers out there will heed your helpful advice Jennifer and hone their efforts and focus in their job search – for the sake of employers like yourself, and for the sake of the applicants themselves – who will soon, hopefully, be ‘passionate’ employed members of the sustainability industry!

    • Jennifer

      Thanks Brad for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate hearing all sides of the dialogue, and I like the way that you sum up the take-aways in your second-to-last paragraph.

    • Lexi

      But she implies that she throws out the cover letter before looking at
      whether the applicant is qualified. She actually doesn’t look for
      applicants based on their relevant skills – she looks for applicants who
      don’t use the word passion in their cover letter.

  7. Daniel Diaz

    Hello Jennifer,
    Enlightening, I see myself doing the buckshot search but not for me. As Training Coordinator it is my duty to allocate internships for our graduates. We contact lots of companies to be able to serve them all and the entire process efficiency is very low. In my experience using this approach, the applicant must send CVs in the hundreds just to get one internship or job offer.
    I am not sure the sniper approach is the right one for us since we serving a buck of people (it would take me ages!). In the other hand it is obvious the buckshot is totally wrong for individuals.

    • Jennifer

      Hi Daniel,

      Internships are an interesting point. I agree with you that interns probably need to cast a wider net — if only because they may be interested in a wider variety of positions. However, I still think that there needs to be a focus. For example, during our last summer internship application process, a full 25% of the applications that we received were from people who had no interest in sustainability (but had IT experience, etc.).

      Each one is easy to screen out, but the cumulative effect of having to go through each application and eliminate the obviously bad fits adds up.

      The sad part is that it’s probably only a few bad apples that are ruining it for everyone. I’m sure that if I compared my “bad intern applications” with other sustainability consultancies, we’d find the same names cropping up again and again.

      So I agree with you, but still feel that interns should be strategic about their applications.

  8. Rich H.

    I loved this article. Good, solid advice that needs to be said instead of “coddling” those looking to break into the sustainability field.

    Show value and pragmatic solutions, understand your target company and do your research, build network connections. My experience is that those leading with a statement of passion are also generally inexperienced and looking for that first break – this isn’t a bad thing, but the fact is (in my experience) there are not large companies that hire entry-level sustainability workers and train them. There is not that type of career development. You have to find and complete projects and build your experience through your own initiative.

    Thanks and will send this along to others!

  9. Bindu Rammohan

    I applaud Jennifer on her very thought provoking article on Sustainability Job Seekers. Taking a couple of steps back, it is easy to see that Jennifer’s words of wisdom are not limited to Sustainability Job Seekers. The ideas shared can be true for any job segment. There again it brings to the table Jennifer’s perspective. It seems immaterial whether the word “passion” was used in the cover letter or if the applicant’s approach was dogged or not. Why shouldn’t the reader accept it as “a” perspective, one that is a point of view rather than the ONLY point of view that seems reasonable?

    I was surprised by the number of comments that I thought were over critical of her perspective. Yes – the job market is tough. And yes – there are a lot of emotions at play. And yes – we have time on our hands where we follow blogs, respond to articles and post comments.

    Just the number of responses Jennifer received and the detailed responses Jennifer felt that she should provide, made me think that we are taking things too literally and using up way too much energy, when we should be focusing our efforts on locating opportunities that are exciting and taking our time to gear our resumes and cover letters in a manner that will be rewarding for both the applicant and the potential employer – along with the creative suggestions on networking provided by Jennifer.

  10. Lesley O´Connor

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for the article and insights – very helpful, and certainly made me examine a cover I sent (generically I must add) to a “green” recruitment agency… last night. Which I guess is a little different seeing as it is not to a specific job – I would always research the company carefully as you recommend and try to link my own skills, experience and values to theirs and their needs.

    Regarding the use of “passion” however, I certainly see that it must be cliche by now, but can you suggest how else to describe it? What would you say about opening with a brief introduction to you and your specific transferrable skills/experience and then going on to reference how your passion for the field drove or motivated you to do something substantial already, to demonstrate you are actively making the transition? e.g something like:

    “I am an International MBA candidate (I will graduate in December this year) at IE Business School, Madrid, which was ranked 3rd in Europe and 8th worldwide by the FT in January 2011.

    Renewable energy is critical to power a sustainable prosperity, and my passion for renewables motivated me, as President, to drive the growth of the IE Energy Club this year, until it became the most active sector-based club on campus. I want to share this same passion, initiative and drive for results with an equally ambitious company that shares my values and ambition for a sustainable world.”

    – still making you cringe and getting dumped to the “Out” pile, or getting places?

    Really appreciate your feedback (which based on the above is both generous and genuine, thank you) because lets face it – as you say we are all passionate, and if something is to be created from all this shared passion we have to collaborate.

    Best of luck to all,

    • Jennifer Woofter

      Hi Lesley,

      Thanks for your comment, and your practical example. Two things jump out at me:

      1) you are using “passion” twice in a single paragraph. If you MUST use it, perhaps you can find another word for the second sentence?

      2) You’ve made it all about you. As a hiring manager, I am more interested in what you can do for me. I think you can keep most of your language, but I would strongly recommend that you start the cover letter off with something specific that demonstrates your understanding of the challenges/needs they are facing.

      So…instead of:

      1) I have a great degree.
      2) I was a great President of the Energy Club
      3) I want to bring my passion to your organization

      I would restructure it to:

      1) Company is looking for Energy Manager/Customer Service Rep/Sustainability Consultant, etc. (tailored based on job description)
      2) I understand what you need and can fill that role (demonstrate knowledge of their industry/business model, client base, etc.)
      3) My qualifications (MBA, Energy Club, etc.) back up my competency claims

      Everyone likes to feel like the center of attention, so make it easy for them to like you. Keep the cover letter about them, how you can help them, the problems that you can solve for them, etc. Let your qualifications and enthusiasm flow from your pleasure at meeting their needs, and not about your passion for the topic in general.

      (Make sense? Do other people have opinions?)

      Would love to hear from others with their advice!

  11. Michael Healy

    Hi Jennifer,

    I recently quit the industry I was working in, which was film production, to search out something more rewarding and useful in life. I recently read a book titled Ishmael and it made me want to get into sustainability and the preservation of Earth. As someone who grew up doing manual labor on people’s yards, what advice can you give me for getting into a career in sustainability. I know it is a bit off topic from what your article talks about, but my “passion” is really all I have at this point. I graduated in a completely different field and want to make the switch to sustainability. Where do I start? How do I approach employers with a cover letter? Where do I look for such jobs for beginners such as myself?

    Hope you can help! Thanks,


  12. Sam

    I’d just like to point out some things that came to my mind while reading your post:

    1) You know very well what you want. Actually, you’re so result-oriented that it gets scary. Paraphrasing one of your previous comments: “I could screen out 90% of the applicants and still come up with 10 times more excellent applicants than I need.” – Applicants are for you some sort of raw materials. You have your perfectly predefined sieve and you get the ones that fit best. That’s certainly promises success.

    2) The other applicants are worthless. If they do not meet your criteria, they are discarded with disdain. Your post’s title begins with “stupid mistakes”. You may of course argue that you are not insulting the applicants, which is mathematically correct. But it doesn’t feel like there is much difference between a stupid job seeker and an applicant which makes stupid mistakes.

    3) I get the impression that you don’t take the time to evaluate candidates deeply. With deeply I mean trying to understand their language or measuring their potential according to a scale different than yours. You are of course no NGO. If there are 10 excellent applicants within just 10% of your applications, this would be truly a waste of time! But who knows? Perhaps someone has an excellent reason for including your favorite banned word in the first line of his application, and she will be misunderstood due just to your different styles in writing. You may get an excellent worker and discard the next Einstein due to minutiae.

    Yours is doubtlessly an effective approach. You make the maximum profit out of what you can get in a reasonable amount of time. I would certainly expect this from the CEO of some big bank, but I am shocked to read it from the president of an apparently sustainable consulting agency. If you loathe applicants who include one wrong word in their cover letters, what things will you recommend to your clients? How wil you be balancing profit and side effects in other circumstances?

  13. Cody

    well i stopped fully reading this blog as soon as you said because somebody states they are passionate its a no thank you. being somebody who has vast work experience in sustainability what sets me apart from others in the industry is i live and breathe an environmentally conscience lifestyle and it isnt just a job for me. if a company could not recognize that from my saying i am personally passionate about sustainability it is not a company i am interested in working for. this just shows the mentality that the work force has towards applicants these days with their willingness to toss aside a resume knowing there is a stack of equally desperate candidates.

  14. Milka

    I love your article and specifically your views on passion

  15. Lyan

    Hi Jennifer. I just moved to the states, finished a certificate program in sustainability from ucla, did a short internship with ucla. And now desperately looking for a job in line with my training. How do you suggest I apply when 1. Its true I don’t have experience, 2. I really am passionate about sustainability, the reason I pointed my efforts in educaion towards it, 3. everyone demands experience. Thank you

  16. Gitte Feingeist

    I really respect you and your work but people whose position clearly states that they want a bunch of emotionsless, functioning nutz within their company could not make themselves less attractive to an employee. What would drive me to apply for a job at a company that does not respect my position or opinion, is not interested in critique, is even less interested in individuals, operates just like any other boring bullshit company on the planet. There s no point to this 🙂 I m glad that at the international environmental research institute we are pushed to be a pure version of ourselves and not always follow the rules but establish new paths even if they are uncomfortible at first glence. but this approach seems to be pretty rare

  17. Joss Tantram

    Dear Jennifer (and everyone),

    As another person running a boutique sustainability consultancy I get a lot of enquiries from people wanting to move into a career in sustainability and asking for help.

    In order to balance helping with saving my own time, I wrote the following piece to provide advice and insight.

    It covers both new entrants and early entrants and also discusses putting sustainability in all careers…

    I hope it is useful.


    Best regards,


  18. Ron Grantham

    I totally understand and agree with your viewpoints, but in this day-and-age, many of the jobs we are seeking go through a computer system rather than a living, breathing human being. For example, on USAJOBS, your application will go through a computer system that will look for “key words”; oftentimes your resume does not even make it past the computer screening. I am not saying that the word “passion” would be considered as a “key word”, but some unnecessary words are programed in the system. Some “stupid” people, or very smart people depending on how you look at it, copy and paste the position descriptions into their resumes just to get past the computer screening. As an interviewer, this quickly irritated the mess out of me because, unlike others, I read every single word in the resumes to offer the best applicants the opportunity for a face-to-face interview. That being said, I would much rather read a bunch of resumes from passionate people than those that are replica’s of someone else’s ideas.

    • Kraken

      Not to sound insulting, but most job-seekers do not have confidence that HR people know the actual professions you are recruiting for. They use the wording from your posting because they don’t want to risk the chance of you bypassing actual competent workers because you don’t understand some technical terms.

  19. Kraken

    I got to give it to you guys straight. There’s no such thing as a green job. Most of the “green jobs” being touted are really old jobs advertising themselves differently. Ex. A green builder is first a builder, who sells himself as LEED or other titles. You guys ought to see thru the “green” label and invest your time in real industries.

  20. timmy

    sounds like you hate your job. be nicer, i bet you had no clue what you were doing at our age too…

  21. Anonymoys

    Has anyone thought about the idea of actually making it a mandate of HR to read thoroughly, completely and with total impartiality every applicant, without recourse to screening software, keyword necessaries, or an out-and-out policy ban on knee-jerk “twinges” of irritability at a word, phrase, reference, idea, or other intellectual short-cut that has no real virtuous merit, just practical merit? Read applications fully, with genuine heart, and sensibility, and you will find the best applicant period. If you are sea-sunk in too many applicants, that is no excuse. Read, read, and read – hire someone, to just READ. That is the only way to get the best. Otherwise, these HR heuristics will consistently rule out the Steve Jobs, the at-the-edge thinkers that have no interest in participating in short-cuts. Look for visionaries, eschew sledge-hammer applicants that dump their snazzy productivity as examples of their brilliance.

  22. Lexi

    This is a ridiculous post. 1) People generally state they are passionate
    in cover letters, regardless of the job they are applying for, and it
    makes no sense to overlook an applicant’s other qualities because they
    state they have passion. You kind of sound ego-maniacal to me, and
    insulting to many applicants, who took time to write cover letters to
    join your company. 2) “Not following directions” –
    Thanks, are you my grade 6 teacher? This advice isn’t specific to
    the sustainability industry. Thanks for wasting 5 minutes of my
    time on this post

  23. betterthandonuts

    Pros and Cons come to mind as I read this, so I’ll skip the “sermonette” and go with what comes from my heart:

    Q: Wouldn’t it be a greater loss to a company if of those tossed letters could have been the best gem overlooked because ofhe prejudicial filters because someone didn’t use “the right words.” Just my thoughts…no harm no foul. We all have room to t grow no matter where we begin, no matter how we say it. Isn’t that what the “skills” and “references” part of a resume’ is designed to do?

    A. We are all gifted, and the celebration of that gift leads one to feel “Passion!” (Peak Appreciation Showing Sustainability, Inspiring Optimal Networking.) Isn’t it great to find an employee or intern or business associate who may be that special gem of a person, because truth be told, robots don’t have passion, and robots can’t share their experiences with others once you get to know them. And if anything can be said about the law of attraction, a brilliant mind sees opportunities as diamonds among the coal minds.

  24. Oscar Segura

    Interesting mirror for job seekers… I have read from top to bottom. I would like to know what recruiters consider job experience and why it is so important if every company is allegedly so different that candidates have to adapt their cover letters and cv´s for each specific case. If companies and roles are so different, why experience becomes so important? At the end, no one has enough experience in any position. Further, there are uncountable skills and abilities that cannot be told by just mentioning them. Experience is embedded in the specific job position and context you worked in. Academic formation is a kind of experience, where candidates can show their willingness and motivation to learn. Daily life is a kind of experience, where the observer becomes participant as a citizen, customer and professional. Perhaps, these are well-known topics, though precisely because of it they should not have to be disregarded or displaced to a second or third position by the recruiter or anyone else.
    Exceeding requires experience, of course… you might or might not know the keywords and professional jargon for an specific sector and role within a professional network of interrelationships. However, when we talk about competitiveness in the field of sustainability, we will better suspect about the term itself. If a candidate is qualified for a position, it does not regard to whether or not he or she exceeds over other candidates. A more fairer approach should be “whether or not the candidate is the most suitable for the specific position”.
    Finally, I would like to sound kind, though sometimes it can be difficult: 1) no one recruiter really knows the specific role of any job position (group dynamics does not allow such wisdom), 2) no one candidate really knows the real job position just because she or he has read the job offer (even when the candidate has a large experience), 3) the evaluation process, therefore, regards to the task of skimming to find uncertain evidences among fuzzy and diffuse clues. As you, Jennifer, had said, even recruiter agents are people trying to exceed… with a substantial difference: you should not become sharks of the techniques and the jargon. Instead, you shall remember you job and importance when beginning to read each single one of all the cover letters and CVs you have received. They are people on your hands and they are giving you an opportunity as well… so, please, remember the social pillar of the quadruple bottom-line.
    Thank you for your attention and support.
    Sincerely yours,

  25. Aynur Maharramova

    Very interesting article, thank you. But I do not agree that the job-seeking process is one-sided. Fundamentally, it is about selling an individual’s labor force. Where you may mark a point, is the case when the job-seeker has no valuable skill to offer. But in no way “offering you a favor” can cure this one-sidedness.