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Validating Your Merit in Letters of Application for Employment

Abstract: Letters of application for employment are instances of self-presentation. Readers of such letters are skeptical and job applicants need to grab their attention. Job applicants therefore have to try to convince in their letters that they really have certain qualities that would make them good employees. We find and describe five supporting sources that letter writers use to convince readers of their merit: Self-report, important others, objective indicators, achievements, and previous roles and experiences. The idea of introducing evidence to convince target people (e.g., potential employers) can be generalized to any context in which actors seek to convince a judgmental audience about self-presentation claims. This idea, which we label ‘self-validation,’ suggests that the ‘truth’ in self-presentation and in applications for employment is not as clear as may be thought.

Don’t be so humble. You are not that great.
(Golda Meir, 1898-1978)

It is difficult to apply for a job. You really want to sell yourself, but you worry about overselling. You know you are competing with others, but don’t know how to win this competition. A big part of the problem is that the process is one where you have to stand out, yet you cannot be too assertive in this self-presentation, else you will come across as arrogant. Presenting oneself to potential employers therefore requires job applicants to seek ways that will communicate their “real” merit, and make their “audience” (managers) pay serious attention to the application in legitimate ways. Research on self-presentation of job applicants has focused mostly on the employment interview (cf. Harris, 1989; Kacmar, Delery, & Ferris, 1992; Rynes, 1992; Stevens & Kristof, 1995). We focus here on the somewhat mundane — yet essential — letter of application for employment, which is often the first contact between an employee and an employer (cf. Knouse, 1989; Knouse, Giacalone & Pollard, 1988). This letter is a critical part of the drama of everyday life (Brissett and Edgley, 1990). The impressions it forms determine who will and who will not be seriously considered, or at least invited, to a job interview. But how do writers of such letters improve their chance of being allowed to continue in a screening process? What can they do in their letter to convince the reader of their merit? These are the questions underlying this study.

The conceptual context of the study is an unresolved debate regarding the truthfulness of what is presented in social interactions. Some scholars assume that the presented self represents an individual’s genuine qualities (cf., Schlenker, 1980; Schlenker & Weigold, 1992) suggesting that what people write in a letter of application is basically true, though it may emphasize some aspects more than others. As James (1890) noted, people have as many ‘selves’ as there are audiences that they encounter, so how they present themselves may vary according to the community they are addressing. In this vein, job applicants are often advised to prepare multiple versions of an application letter, to meet the requirements of different jobs (e.g. Brown & Campion, 1994; Donaho & Meyer, 1976; Yate, 1995). Although different versions may appear to include slightly different information, all can present a valid image.

Self-presentation can also be seen as the display of an image that is not necessarily accurate. This line of thought considers pretense or even deceit to be problems that should be eliminated from application materials. It has led scholars and practitioners to seek ways for weeding out individuals who are presenting themselves as something they are not (e.g. Becker & Colquitt, 1992; Herman, 1994; Kluger, Reily & Russell, 1991; Yate, 1990). Job applicants must navigate this tension between wishing to make a good impression and being suspected of false self-presentation.

One way to manage this tension is through attempts, within an application letter, that may convince the reader that what you are writing is ‘really’ true. Such elements of a letter allow applicants to ‘set the stage’ for future interactions between themselves and potential employers (cf. Goffman, 1959; 1967). We wondered if within the text of letters we could identify such attempts. We thus saw letters as attempts to define oneself in a manner that will convince a potential employer to pursue future interactions with the applicant. There may be a utilitarian aspect to this self-presentation, such as attempting to make a positive impression on a target person. But we cannot judge such behavior to be dishonest if it merely involves presenting the same ‘self’ in a light that would fit the particular situation (Rosenfeld, Giacalone, & Riordan, 1995; Schlenker, 1985, Schlenker, Dlugolecki and Doherty, 1994; Swann, 1987). The question is what writers do to shed the right type of light upon their application.

The self-presentation predicament

Application letters are part of the routine flow of interaction between individuals and organizations (cf. Martin & Langhorne, 1994), but they are a complicated part because writers cannot receive any immediate feedback on what they have written. Writers want to entice a genuine interest in inspiring a desirable image for their audience, but do not know how this can be done. Jones & Pittman, (1982) described this as “the self presentation predicament”: The self-presenter may be perceived as dishonest, but he or she does not have an opportunity to refute such perceptions. Letter writers face the problem of how to convince the reader of the letter (a potential employer) that the claims they make in their letters are valid, before and often without seeing how the reader reacts to the letter (cf. Mailloux, 1982). Unlike the employment interview – where the interviewer reacts verbally or non-verbally to the applicant – applicants cannot typically see such reactions to their letters.

The question therefore is what do writers do to help minimize the damage that the dilemma can cause. We assume letter writing to be what Tedeschi & Melburg (1984) labeled assertive self-presentation: an actor initiated it with the intent of influencing a target person. It is also tactical (rather than strategic) because it has a specific target audience and is intended to achieve concrete, short-term goals, such as getting a job interview or a job offer. Strategic self-presentation would be intended at building a certain image or reputation, such as that of a competent or motivated person. Although letter writing may entail self-presentation tactics that are intended to verify one’s image or reputation, letters have the short term and proactive goals of getting an interview and receiving a job offer. Accomplishing these goals depends on writers’ ability to convince readers that they have certain qualities. Our study suggests that letter writers manage potential suspicions of their claims by using conceptually and empirically distinct tactics that help them validate their merit claims to a critical or cautious audience. The tactics capitalize on a variety of sources, but share the structure of “I really have the merits I claim because ….” The set of sources used by writers constitutes our findings, which will be described following a description of our sample and our analytic methods.

Method

Overview: We examined and analyzed 418 letters sent by individuals applying for employment in response to employment ads that appeared in major newspapers in central Israel during the summer of 1989. Packets of materials sent by applicants varied widely. This led us to develop a working definition of an “application letter” as any and all materials contained in an envelope in which an applicant conveys his or her interest in an employment opportunity. Although a distinction can be drawn between a resume and a cover letter (c.f. Donaho & Meyer, 1976), we found such differentiation to be impractical because many applicants combined their personal information with their application letter. Indeed, this finding is a part of our thesis in the paper: the way applicants presented their resume has to do with how they want to convince others of their merit.

Informed Consent: The letters led to individuals being hired, but they were transferred to us only after the screening and selection process had been completed, and we had no contact with the hiring organizations regarding individual applicants. Names and other identifying information were erased from all letters to maintain anonymity and avoid breach of confidentiality. The findings presented here were presented to the organization only after screening decisions had been made. Hence the study did not in any way inform or influence the screening and selection process, bore no influence on the hiring decisions, and had no effect on what the letter writers actually experienced. Although we could not obtain informed consent from each applicant, the procedures of the study did not generate any risk whatsoever for applicants and was therefore consistent with ethical standards set by the American Psychological Association (1982: 39).

Sample: A small manufacturer in central Israel who was looking to fill three positions – a sales representative, a marketing person and an administrative assistant – provided us with the sample of 418 letters. Letters varied in length from one page (42.30%) to eight pages (0.72%) with a mean and median length of two pages, and a mode of one page. Some applicants (9.4%) appended materials other than a personal letter or a resume (e.g., letters of recommendations or test results). Such additions ranged in length from one to seven pages, with a median of two pages but a mode of 1one page. Most applications (61.2%) were for an office manager position, and a third (31.2%) of the writers were female. Level of education of the writers varied from high school to a university MA degree and age varied from 22 to 62 (mean age 36, median age 34).

Data Analysis: Data analysis comprised four distinct, though tightly interrelated, phases, following the methods described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Strauss and Corbin (1990).

1. Searching for Themes. First, we identified components of, or themes of self-presentation in the letters. We generated a long list of notes that included trivial assertions (e.g., “people write on different quality of paper”) and more intriguing themes (e.g., “people talk of how other people view them”).

2. Organizing Themes into a Coherent Conceptual Framework. We then brainstormed what overarching framework could describe the set of unexpected themes noted in the first phase. Our insight here was that writers call upon various sources to support the claims they make about their self in their letters.

3. Differentiating between Conceptually Distinct Themes. Next we identified the elements of our overarching framework, namely the five conceptually distinct sources of support apparent in letters. At the end of this phase we had identified quotes from letters that illustrate each of the five sources.

4. Identifying the extent to which different sources are used. In this final phase we examined the nature of use of the sources in the complete set of letters, and checked for variations in use of the sources among demographic subgroups.

Findings

Letters of application contain two broad categories of information: Relatively objective information, such as age or level of education; and relatively subjective information such as personal attributes. This distinction between objective, verifiable information and subjective, more fluid information may be obvious (Becker & Colquitt, 1992; Mael, 1991). Our findings revealed, however, that the two types of information engage different self-presentation styles. Presenting more objective attributes engages accepted conventions of vocabulary and style. By using accepted terminology (e.g., “I am 32 years old,” “I have a BA”), writers can present themselves to a target audience in a fashion that appears reliable and trustworthy.

In contrast, presenting more subjective attributes (e.g., having initiative or being driven) can more easily be challenged or dismissed. The use of validation sources can make a writer feel that the risk of claims being dismissed is reduced. Thus, our reading of letters suggests that writers (job applicants) are aware that their claims regarding subjective attributes may be doubted and they try to convince readers the validity of their claims. They do so by introducing what we label sources of validation of their claims – in presenting relatively subjective information in a job application job applicants introduce sources that provide additional validation to their application. The validation efforts are intended to convince the reader that the applicant really has the merit claimed. Validation attempts can rely on five sources: Self-report, important others, “objective” indicators, previous achievements, and previous roles and experiences. Five validation tactics all take the form of “I have the merit I claim because …”, as summarized in Table 1.

Validation efforts vary in the parties or entities implicit or explicitly involved: the simplest (first) tactic involves only the letter writer, while other tactics call in other people (e.g., former supervisors), various agencies (e.g., psychological testing institutes), or various jobs (e.g., noted results, or roles performed). The tactics also vary in objectivity, which is the extent to which the writer relies upon a source whose evidence can be viewed as impartial, or the extent to which the evidence reported by the source is objectively verifiable. Results of psychological tests can be viewed as more objective than self-report because an external and impartial agency – the testing institute – is involved, and their information is more easily verifiable. Below, we briefly describe how the five tactics are used.

Table 1: Sources of validation used by letter writers to bolster the truth of merit claims

Source Implicit argument: Example from data
1. Self report You know I have the merit I claim to have because …
… I say so.

My personal dispositions, the communication skills I have and my professional attitude toward sales promotion and the selling process, combine to a mature energy and to my motivation to succeed. (#183)
2. Important others You know I have the merit I claim to have because …
… other important people say so.

We certify that [name] fulfilled all her tasks with devotion and expressed responsibility, initiative and involvement. Independent in her work, has the ability to work in a team, good human relations and ability to work under pressure. (#280)
3. “Objective” indicators You know I have the merit I claim to have because …
… there is a formal certificate that says so.

The results of up to date psychometric tests are stored at a vocational institution. (#11)
4. Evidence of achievement You know I have the merit I claim to have because …
… I have been successful in previous accomplishments.

Because of my success in sales and advertising, I was sent to a marketing and advertising course of (name of instructing institution) — an intensive course, which for me was a promotion in the area of advertising and sales. (#388)
5. Previous roles You know I have the merit I claim to have because …
… I have previously performed a particular job or role.

This job required high abilities in the areas of: organizing and executing ability, high administrative ability and good human relations. (#399)

1. Self -report as a validation tactic

In the least objective tactic an applicant declares him or herself as qualified to fill the position in question. In the frame of the general argument (“I have the merit I claim to have because …”), applicants here essentially say: “I have the merit I claim to have because I say so.” For example, an applicant for the sales representative’s position argued:

My abilities and experience, as detailed in my commercial resume enclosed, allow me to accept the offered job and perform it, according to all the demands listed, maintaining a high professional level. (#384)

In an extreme variation of this strategy, an applicant not only describes himself, but also offered his audience a conclusion — that no one is more qualified than he is. This applicant opened his letter as follows:

I am a systems analyst and marketing person. Or, have you found the person you are looking for? (#232)

Although this self-presentation may be argued to be immodest, it clearly communicates a conviction that the applicant has merit. The problem is that this conviction relies on the least objective source, since the applicant is validating his or her own claim (Greenwald, 1980; Zerbe & Paulhus, 1987). The other five validation sources serve to overcome this objectivity predicament.

2. Reference to important others as a validation tactic

A second tactic introduces additional actors – “important others” — to the self-presentation scene. Individuals using this tactic are claiming: “I have the merits I claim because my previous manager says so.” This tactic comprised several versions: The simplest version was mentioning the availability of references, noting “References available” or “I will provide names of references upon request.” A more committed variation was including a specific name and phone number of references. In both cases, the implicit assumption is that mentioning availability of references leads readers to trust that the applicant possesses the merits claimed because there is another individual who can validate it. In a most committing variation of this tactic a letter of reference was actually enclosed with the application letter. A validating enclosure may be a formal letter of recommendation, or an informal note. The following note, attached by an applicant for an office manager position, is illustrative:

I want to thank you for the nice way in which you manage the office and the day to day operation of the company, and especially for the effort you invested in preparing our trips. As a token of appreciation, I award you a weekend for two at a hotel of your choice (and if you don’t have a babysitter, take the kids as well). HAVE FUN! (#280; emphasis in original).

Merely mentioning references runs the risk of leaving the exact nature of the attributes that the self-presenter holds unstated. To reduce this risk a combination of this tactic (mentioning of references) can be appended to the first tactic (self-report of traits and attributes), as done by the following applicant for an office manager position:

In my current employment I certainly prove high administrative and organizational ability, and my superiors can testify to that. (#46)

More simply, as evident in the following example, an applicant can claim that an attached letter of recommendation can “speak for itself” in validating a self presentation claim:

I have the experience, knowledge, and ability in all the areas required, and enclosed is a letter of reference that speaks for itself, and can testify to that. (#64)

Note how what the qualities of individual “really” are is sidetracked in this letter in favor of the qualities the letter of recommendation presumably implies. The evidence of another person is seemingly more objective than self-evidence but it is not completely objective, since the person being presented selected both the reference person and the reference letter (Cialdini & Richardson, 1980; Knouse, 1989). Yet self-presentation that includes others has a more objective ‘air’ than the simple self-report.

3. External indicators as a validation tactic

A third validation tactic relies on formal documents, figures or other authorizations that appear to validate the applicant’s virtues. Application letters included grade sheets, reports of psychological tests or performance evaluation forms. Here applicants seem to be saying: “I really have the merits I claim, because there is a formal authorization that says so.” A new agency is implicitly introduced in such letters: The agency providing the external indicators, be it a psychological testing agency or an institution granting a diploma or a grade sheet. Again, one manifestation of this tactic is a simple mention that external indicators are available:

The results of up to date psychometric tests are stored at a vocational institution, and I can release them to anyone who requests. (#11)

Alternately, external indicators can be physically enclosed, and the enclosure can be combined with self-report to verify the inferences it suggests. In a creative example of a combination of the first and third tactic an applicant included a time card, that revealed very long hours of work. She then argued that her willingness to maintain long and unusual hours of work validates her dedication and diligence. Relying on external indicators is more objective than the first two tactics in the sense that it includes external and quantifiable data. The combination with the self-report, however, can moderate the objectivity.

4. Evidence of achievements as a validation tactic

In a fourth tactic, applicants call up accomplishments to validate their merit seemingly saying: “I have the merits I claim to have because I have been successful in the past.” One version of this tactic builds upon visible results:

The sales established during the first four months of my work were in the sum of $125,000. This is my proven experience in sales. (#409)

More detailed descriptions of qualifications are implicitly assumed by this applicant to be unnecessary. Another version describes developments in one’s career:

I started working in a full time job in the (bank) in (city). There I started as a supervisor of the investments of (clients), within the bank’s international unit. After about a year I was promoted, because I excelled in my job, and became supervisor of the international credit cards department. (#226)

Here again, listing the career progress is presented as a lead-in to the claim that the applicant ‘really’ has merit. This tactic relies upon real-life occurrences which are usually visible (e.g., money earned, bonus granted or achieved promotion), hence it is relatively objective. However this objectivity can, again, be compromised in the personal involvement of the writer (job applicant), who may come across as too eager:

The increase of my job from a part time job, for which I was first accepted, to a full time job could testify to the satisfaction of my employers, since they were the ones who pressured me to work more and went above and beyond customary, as long as I would work as much as I could more. (#126)

5. Previous roles as a validation tactic

Previous roles can also be introduced to validate one’s merit, implicitly connecting between role expectations and the merit of the individual performing a role (Katz & Kahn, 1978). Here applicants are saying: “I have the merits I claim to have because I have performed a particular role.” In one version of this tactic applicants described their roles in a way that indicated their own qualities and merit:

I have experience in an advertising and tourism office as an office manager and production assistant. This job required high skills of organizational and administrative ability, teamwork, good human relations, initiative, responsibility, and routine office administration. (#28)

This statement can be viewed as a writer declaring “I am a person with high abilities.” But it can also be viewed as a third-person statement claiming, “The roles I filled indicate that I am a person with high abilities”. The difference in focus is critical; a reader construing arrogant self-report is less likely to be impressed than a reader construing a set of role experiences. It is less legitimate (and likely less effective) for a person to provide evidence about him or herself than it is to describe a previous job or experience (Jones & Pittman, 1982; “let another man praise you and not your own mouth” Pr. 27, 2).

Finally, a somewhat sophisticated version of this tactic was highlighting the similarity between previous experiences and current demands, clarifying and emphasizing the resemblance between previous experiences and the job at hand. The idea here is to not only mention previous experiences but to explicitly relate them to the currently desired role (c.f., McEnrue, 1988; Schmidt, Hunter & Outerbridge, 1986). To illustrate, an applicant for the office manager position noted:

I present my military experience in this context because during my military experience I acquired the best skills for running an office.

Establishing similarity between previous experiences and desired positions is not trivial, and one wonders how it can be done. One way to establish similarity appears to be to use terms that an applicant saw as describing the position (e.g., terms which appeared in an employment ad) into the application letter. Thus, the following two applicants for the office manager position, with very different prior experience, both found a way to use the term ‘administration’ which appeared in the ad to describe their experience:

(1) I managed the general secretariat of (company). I also managed the offices of the (company) and of (professional organization). These positions involved administration and organization. (emphasis ours)

(2) I did my military service as a trainer in officer training in the personnel department, and I stayed on for one year, in the job of deputy commander of officer training — which is a non-easy administrative job. (emphasis ours)

Alternately, a writer can explicate the implicit inference of similarity:

My last job as a coordinator resembled the offered job. In the context of my work as coordinator of the (name of choir), I was in charge of the technical-operative aspects: Organizing transportation, rehearsals, stage setting, coordination with stage staff, managers, directors, players, etc. (emphasis ours)

Such explication can be especially creative and focus on one aspect of a previous experience. By identifying a key quality being sought for the job, and presenting it as the core element of the applicant’s previous experience, writers seem to be presenting themselves as more similar to what an employer may seek than might otherwise be apparent. The following application for the marketing position, for example, turned a predicament – of changing professions — into an opportunity by framing her self-presentation in terms of similarity to the desired job:

I propose myself for the job even though I do not have any practical experience outside the teaching domain. However, if you try to understand the teaching profession, then it is marketing through persuasion and selling of knowledge.

Use of tactics

To what extent are the tactics described widely used? Are some tactics used more frequently than others are? Do some people use certain tactics more than others? To answer these questions we systematically coded the use of tactics in letters. The coding was of segments of a letter rather than of a complete letter, since any one letter could contain multiple and distinct tactics. A segment of a letter was defined as a distinct part of a letter, apparent in a structural partition made by a writer’s physical arrangement of text, or by a shift in content. Each segment was coded as using no tactics, one tactic or more than one tactic. Inter-judge reliability for coding was highly satisfactory (r =. 94). We analyzed both the extent to which distinct tactics were used and the extent to which any of the tactics were used (as opposed to letters that may not have made use of any tactics).

Most common was reliance on previous roles, evident in 42% of the segments, and self-report, evident in 18% of the sample of segments. The other three tactics were used far less frequently, each evident in less than 10% of the sample of segments. No significant relationship was found between sex of writer and the use of any of the tactics. As well, a moderate but statistically significant correlation was found between age and education and use of any one of the tactics (r=0.13, p< .05; r=0.1, p< .05 respectively). Frequency tests showed that younger people (22-35 years) tended to use fewer tactics than middle aged or older people (age 36-50 and 50-62) (c 2(9) = 35.9, p< .001). Summary Letters of application for employment reveal five tactics that job applicants engage to validate their merit: Self report, important others, external indicators, achievements, and previous roles and experiences. Some of these sources have been discussed in other work on self-presentation. For example, self-report and evidence of achievements are respectively similar to the tactics of self-enhancement and entitlements identified by Jones & Pittman (1982). But our effort identifies an anxiety that self-presenters seek to address, that their claims will not be trusted, and explains how this anxiety is handled, namely by expanding the nature of the information and the number of the parties involved in a self-presentation episode. Such validating efforts, which are efforts to enhance one’s credibility, are likely not unique to application letters and can be found in other contexts. For example, instead of an employee telling a peer that his or her presentation went well, they may merely say, "It went really well." Or they may say: It went really well, the client told me it was a really good presentation, and asked me to present it to a second group of people. In introducing and verbalizing the reactions of the client additional information is introduced into the conversation, and this information seems to validate the simple assertion that the presentation went well. Whenever there is room for concern about whether self-presentation claims will be trusted, we would expect these tactics of validation to appear. Thus, as the old cliche states, there is more than way to tell the truth. People can be creative in making a convincing case about themselves. Failing to exercise such creativity can be costly if other job applicants engage in it. Letterwriters have ample opportunity to plan their self-presentation, and we find that they obviously care about how they come across. Although all applicants were applying for the same positions, and many had the same set of basic skills, the self-presentations were completely different. What is the impact of the different sources upon different target persons? This is an open question, for future research. Also of concern is the question of the use of these sources by writers coming from different cultural, social, or professional backgrounds. Tannen’s (1995) insightful analysis suggests that females may engage different presentational styles, and such styles may lead to attributions that hamper employment opportunities for females. The issue may be pure discrimination on behalf of managers and organizations. Or it may be one of a lesser impact of self-presentation styles favored by females than of styles favored by males. Similar problems may occur with members of minority groups (cf. Xin, 1997). This may help explain cases of employment discrimination that is unintentional on behalf of managers, but nevertheless damaging. All in all, however, what this analysis shows is that there is more than one way to say who you are. 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She is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management of the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology. She has spent time as a visting professor at the University of Michigan, at Stanford University, and at INSEAD (France). Anat has published research on various aspects of emotional and symbolic behavior in organizations. Her studies focus on the content and context of employee behavior and the interactions between service employees and their customers. She also studies the meaning and impact of various organizational symbols as instances of self presentation. She has studied organizational dress, organizational advertising and employee letters of application for employment as instances of self-presentation. Before her academic career Anat worked in managerial positions at the Wells-Fargo Bank in San Francisco and at the management development center of IBM at Armonk, NY.

Alona Harness received her MA in social psychology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and currently works as a consulting organizational psychologist for the Israeli Defence Forces. This project was conducted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for her Masters’ degree. The project represents her academic work and is unrelated to her current work.

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