Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

I'm currently job searching, and when I learn about an opening, I'll often reach out directly to department heads as opposed to HR. However, sometimes after these directors/V.P.'s email me back saying they've forwarded along my résumé to HR, it goes no further.

I like being proactive and cutting out the middleman seemed to make sense to me. However, I don't want to offend anyone or burn bridges with these companies. Should I re-think my approach? Is it wrong to reach out to department heads regarding a position instead of HR?

Green responds:

Well, if an employer provides specific instructions about how to apply, that's how they want you to apply, and they have reasons for that.

Deciding not to follow those instructions and to instead reach out to the hiring manager directly will mostly (not always, but mostly) annoy those hiring managers, who will wonder why you think those instructions apply to everyone but you.

And yeah, I know that there's a bunch of advice out there about how you should always go around HR and apply to the hiring manager directly. The problem with that advice is this: By definition, the vast majority of candidates who are applying aren't going to be especially strong ones. And statistically speaking, you're likely to be in that majority. So more often than not, the hiring manager is just going to forward your application on to HR to be processed like all the others (or will just tell you to apply that way yourself)--and often this is going to be mildly annoying to them. So now you've wasted that effort, come across as if you think the rules don't apply to you, and maybe associated some annoyance with your name.

Now, here's the tricky part of this: While this is annoying if you're most candidates, it's a little different if you're a truly great candidate. In that case, doing this can actually be helpful in some (but not all) cases. If the hiring manager opens your materials and sees that you're a truly fantastic candidate, she might pass them on to HR with a note saying that you look worth interviewing...and that might prompt HR to put you in the interview pile when maybe they otherwise wouldn't have. However, note that this scenario relies on having an incompetent HR department who otherwise wouldn't have spotted this unusually great candidate--and that's pretty uncommon. It does happen (particularly in fields where HR has no clue about the substance of the work of the job they're hiring for), but it's not happening the majority of the time. So for this to work to your advantage, you have to a) be an unusually strong candidate (and again, by definition, most people are not), and b) be applying somewhere with incompetent screeners.

And that's what makes this so tricky. Tons of people think they're amazingly strong candidates when they're not, and candidates also tend to overestimate the likelihood of incompetent screeners. As a result, you get loads of people thinking "oh, I'm in the category of people for whom this makes sense" when in fact they are not...and so hiring managers get a bunch of these emails and are generally annoyed that people aren't just following the damn application instructions.

And that, in turn, leads to this: Since the majority of these "ignore the directions and email directly" people aren't actually great candidates, it gets associated in many hiring managers' minds with mediocre applicants. So now when they see those emails, they're already biased against you--because in their experience, the people who do this aren't people they're going to be excited about anyway. And so you're joining a club you probably don't want to join--the "slightly aggressive candidates who think they're stronger than they are" club.

However...there's one exception to everything I said above: when you know the hiring manager personally or have a connection who does. When that's the case, emailing the hiring manager directly will come across totally differently, and can be really helpful to do. Even if you're not a top-5-percent candidate, if you're at least reasonably qualified and you have a personal connection, the hiring manager might handle your application differently if she knows you or you're referred by someone she knows. So in those cases, it's worth reaching out directly.

In the other cases, follow the directions. Submit a résumé that shows a track record of achievement and write a compelling cover letter about why you'd excel at the job, and that's going to help you far more than trying to circumvent directions will.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Jul 16, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.