Charles Brown was looking for a job last spring, and his resume looked good. He'd most recently worked as a marketing manager of a Kraft pumpkin division, leading teams that drove annual sales of $750 million. He earned his MBA from the University of Michigan, where he was president of the entertainment and media club.
But Mr. Brown ran into some blockhead moments when he applied online for positions at all the places on Fortune magazine's 2012 list of the best 100 companies to work for. He had problems finding the career pages at some companies' websites, had to answer irrelevant questions at others and just three let him check the status of his application.
Six weeks later, just 28 companies had let him know that he did not get the job or was not qualified.
Mr. Brown, a fictional character best known for his appearances in the long-running Peanuts comic strip, served as this year's mystery job seeker helping the Kendall Park, N.J., staffing strategy consulting firm CareerXroads check on online systems that help applicants try for positions and companies sort through candidates.
The project, which the firm has been doing for a decade using characters such as Security Systems Programmer Kris Kringle and Administrative Assistant Ted E. Baer, backs up some complaints that job hunters regularly raise about the tedium and frustration in the Internet-enabled employment scene.
CareerXroads found nearly 1 in 4 employers didn't ask any questions to screen out candidates, while fewer than 3 in 10 asked questions specific to the job, according to the company's report issued in August.
Meanwhile, investment firm Edward Jones asked 150 questions and used car chain CarMax asked 250 questions of applicants, said Mark Mehler, chief strategist and co-founder of CareerXroads. That seemed excessive.
The firm advocates for online employment systems that ask a few pertinent questions, make it easy to upload resumes and give applicants prompt feedback -- even if it's a polite rejection letter that helps the company bolster its public image.
Online retailer Zappos won praise for its letter to Mr. Brown that said, among other things, "I wish I had better news for you, but after reviewing your background and experience against the position requirements, we just felt that there wasn't a strong enough match."
Mr. Mehler said job seekers need to recognize automated systems typically look for key terms. Out of thousands of resumes submitted, the technology might choose 50 to forward to human employees.
And those people tend to quickly skim the first two or three paragraphs. Mr. Mehler said one company called to complain after it had forwarded a mystery seeker's application on to a hiring manager who actually read the whole thing. If all the fictional references in the mystery resumes aren't obvious enough, each ends with a CareerXroads statement congratulating recruiters for reading that far.
Still, Mr. Mehler has little sympathy for job hunters who complain they can't get past the online filters. The Internet has made discovering job openings around the country much easier than in the past. "They take it for granted," he said.
But just like in the olden days, it takes more than a resume dump to get in the door. He said one-third of all jobs are filled based on employee referrals. In this world of social media, job hunters should track down people they know who might be willing to deliver their resumes to those doing the hiring.
"That takes work," Mr. Mehler said. "You've got to do the work."
In addition, he said job seekers should use all that online technology to research the company and find out who might be involved in the department they want to join. And every resume sent should be tailored to the job sought.
Once a candidate has some names, it's necessary to make a connection. Where did that person go to college? Is that executive giving a presentation at the local chamber? That might be a chance to hand over a resume.
"Why would you just send it into the black hole?" Mr. Mehler asked.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.