Help me out here.  At what point did the simple notion of “appropriate follow-up” in a job search or sales situation suddenly get so gosh darn complicated?  Things used to be pretty straightforward.  You’d go through an interview with a company, send them a thank-you card, and then they’d follow up with you in a few days (either by phone or postcard) to let you know how you did — and whether you got selected for the job or they ended up moving forward with another candidate, instead.

These days, that’s all changed.  It’s not quite as simple anymore and I probably get as many questions along the lines of “I haven’t heard back from an employer I interviewed with — should I follow up?” than almost any other topic out there, pound for pound.  People are spooked.  They don’t know how to handle these situations.  At the same time that they’re dying with curiosity to know where they stand in the hiring process, they’re equally scared (based on stories or direct experience) that any type of follow-up might be perceived as “needy” or “pushy” from the employer and end up costing them the job.

So where do you draw the line?  What type of follow-up is appropriate in a job hunting scenario and what type/frequency of such behavior might get you into trouble?  While there’s no perfect equation to follow, and you always have to trust your instincts, here are a few standard guidelines that you might find helpful:

1. Always follow up, unless instructed otherwise. While some companies might be petty enough to penalize those professionals who check in on occasion, to see where things stand, candidates can’t afford to doubt themselves in this regard.  If you believe you’re a great candidate for a job and can add value to their operations, you can’t hamstring yourself by worrying about whether a little proactive communication will turn the employer off.  You need to keep pushing forward and fighting for what you want and need to happen.  At the same time, there’s one huge exception.  If the company TELLS you not to follow up, explicitly, or informs you they won’t be making any progress or decisions for a certain period of time, honor this information and don’t bug them before the time period in question has elapsed.  There’s a difference between being confident and being “that guy” or “that gal” who just doesn’t listen or follow directions.

2. Don’t use negative (guilt, shame, anger) emotions. This may come as a surprise, to some, but in my experience the modern interview process is NOT a level playing field.  Until you are extended an offer, you, the candidate, have almost no leverage or power to control the series of events that will take place throughout the hiring process.  As a result, it will do you no good (even if warranted) to lash out at any employer in any way, no matter how badly they’ve dropped the ball or misrepresented certain timelines and such.  Don’t whine.  Don’t curse.  Don’t give them a guilt trip for dragging their feet.   There could be things going on behind the scenes to which you’re not privy, like a budget shortfall or a total change in priorities from the CEO, so alienating the key point of contact you’re working with isn’t going to get you anywhere, no matter how justified you might be in giving them a piece of your mind.

3. Don’t try to control the employer. Similar to the point above,  the interviewing process isn’t a negotiation, and no matter how much of a big cheese you’ve been in past positions, you’ll find it doesn’t get you very far to be a bully or to try and exert forceful control over the situation.  Don’t threaten to withdraw your candidacy, or give ultimatums, unless you’re prepared for this reality to come true.  One client of mine, for example, was told at the end of his first interview that he’d “made the cut” and would be contacted to schedule a second interview.  Not having heard back from them in over a week, he told me he was planning to call them and say “I’m contacting you to schedule that next interview you promised.”  Surprisingly, I told him that this line of communication was too aggressive, at least for the Seattle area, and that it would be much safer to say something along the lines of “I remain very interested in this role, following our preliminary discussion, so just wanted to check in and see what the next steps might be.”  Others may disagree, but my feeling was that the “promise” term and tone of his message could be taken as an attempt to control the process, damaging the positive rapport he’d built and not helping his cause one iota.  If the company still intended to interview him, it would happen.  If they didn’t, it wouldn’t, no matter what they might have promised him previously.

4. Don’t stalk the employer. As much as it may seem that way, most employers aren’t evil or intentionally rude to the people they’re trying to hire.  They’re simply overwhelmed, or juggling a million other priorities, or caught between warring or indecisive factions in their organization who keep changing their minds about the job description or ideal hiring profile.  So an overabundance of contact can (and will) backfire on you, if you push too hard.  I recommend that people check in with their point of contact no more than once a week, following an interview, barring special circumstances.  Any more than that, and again, you may come across as overly desperate or somebody who is annoyingly impatient.  You need to recognize that the hiring wheels these days turn more slowly than they did in the past.  I had one client, in fact, who called me in a panic on a Tuesday wondering why she hadn’t heard back from an employer after an interview on Monday.  Naturally, I asked her, “So you’re asking if you should follow up after eight days of not hearing anything?”  Her response: “No, I met with them yesterday.”  Needless to say, I had to explain that 24 hours was a bit soon to start assuming the worst…

5. Distract yourself with other lead-gen activities. At the end of the day, the simple truth is that the perception of time is inexorably different between those individuals who are working and those who aren’t working.  To folks who are unemployed, a few days can seem like a lifetime, especially if you’re waiting on pins and needles for positive news about a job.  When you find yourself back in the saddle, however, you’ll suddenly remember how fast a week can truly fly — and how many things on your to-do list you just weren’t able to get to, even working 50-60 hours a week.  So the best thing you can do, in these cases, is check in on your viable leads about once a week, then move on and distract yourself with a furious regimen of other lead-generation and prospecting activities.  It’s the best way to keep sane, as well as avoid putting all of your eggs in a single basket!

Again, it’s fascinating how complex this simple subject has become in recent years, and how few “rules of their road” there really are anymore in terms of what the appropriate level of follow-through might be out in the modern marketplace.  Hopefully the tips above will help you steer a middle line, however, between being too pushy and too passive.  Without question, you have every right to follow up and continue promoting your candidacy, if a company seems to have dropped the ball on you, and the most effective job hunters carefully track when to “nudge” each of their contacts — usually following a weekly pattern, as I mentioned, on average.  You just want to avoid the other extreme, since most hiring personnel already get plenty of grief from the people around them, both internally and externally.  Tick them off by being too needy or aggressive, and you’re toast!