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Why & how you should give employers an ultimatum

In the April 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader meets an employer who is losing the best job candidates to the competition because he uses interviews to reject applicants — not to hire them.

This week’s story is long, but it puts a sharp focus on the trouble with employers these days. It just seems that, no matter how motivated a manager might be to hire, the actual process to hire has gone haywire. Demoralized by such experiences, job seekers often go along with silly demands from employers. In my reply, I offer a solution that more folks need to learn how to use.

Question

I had an interview with a VIP at a huge local tech company looking to hire a designer with video/animation experience. Our initial phone interview started with him sounding very disinterested. After briefly explaining what he’s looking for, he said he’s disappointed with the candidates he’s getting because they are all print designers. As he spoke I uploaded a few of my videos to my website and told him to take a look. His demeanor completely changed. “This is exactly what I’m looking for! I’ve gotta run to this meeting but do you have time again today to talk more?” He came right back from that meeting to continue our call.

wasting-my-timeYou would think this would have a happy ending, no? No.

First, he ends the call not by inviting me in for an interview, but by saying, “I think I’ll have all the candidates look at the stuff we’ve had done by an agency (which he wasn’t happy with) and see what you all would do to redesign it.”

Oh, great, the “test,” that is, work for free. The call ended and I wrote the place off. Then HR e-mailed, saying he’d like to schedule an interview. It lasted 90 minutes. I have never had a better interview experience. More than once he said that I’m the only candidate who appears qualified. Again, it ended a bit sour with him saying, “I’ll probably have the final candidates come back and meet with the team”: the dreaded “approval by committee.” But I left feeling good.

The following week, I get an e-mail from him: ”You have offered examples of your work, however, I am asking all candidates to take a shot at creating something for us.” And he listed not one but three design projects he wanted to see redesigned. One was a video. “Just re-do the first 30 seconds.” WTF? This guy clearly has no clue as to how much work and effort goes into something like this. So, I did a few story board sketches, made a few recommendations and ended the e-mail by saying I have received an offer for another opportunity and hence am no longer available.

And that was the end of that. No doubt he will either continue to struggle to find the “perfect” candidate or he’ll just send my comps to the agency he’s currently contracting with. And I have gone through this exact scenario more times than I care to recall over the years.

Initially, I blamed my field of design, but I don’t think it’s that anymore. I met a guy over on StinkedIn, a systems analyst with a Ph.D. who’s in his 40s and unemployed for two years. He flew out of state for an interview, met with twelve people over two days, showed that he knew his stuff (“here’s your problem, here’s what I recommend”), they were clearly excited and he thought for sure he’d get the job. He didn’t. When he asked why, the hiring manager told him the two twentysomethings on the team didn’t like him because he “came across as arrogant.”

So, who’s to blame for these scenarios? HR’s only job here was to schedule the meetings. Do they send a brochure to all who put in a hiring request with tips on how to disqualify your best candidate? I dunno…

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for sharing your story. (Readers may have noticed this “Question” was no question!) You should have just given that VIP an ultimatum. I’ll explain why and How to Say It.

While I advocate a “show what you can do” approach to interviewing, there’s no guarantee that any method will lead to a hire — or that an employer won’t abuse the candidate who’s ready to show he or she can do the work profitably. You must know where to draw the line with greedy, unreasonable employers like the manager in this story.

And if you manage to get a meeting with a manager who’s also a jerk, jerk-ness spoils any intelligent interview activity of the job seeker. Anyone who wastes your time is a jerk. (See Work for free, or no interview for you!)

This manager will keep looking for the “perfect” hire — while his competitors eat his lunch. They will jump to hire people like you, rather than concoct yet one more exercise to get free work out of you.

There are two important lessons here. One is to use the ultimatum, and the other is to survive and thrive if it doesn’t work.

First, never get bogged down in just one job opportunity. Really, really wanting one particular job is a dead-end strategy. You took the wise route. You controlled your outcome by developing other opportunities in parallel, so you wouldn’t get sucked into waiting and wishful thinking. You put that greedy VIP into healthy competition with another employer, so you won. He lost.

I’m a big believer in showing how you’ll do the work in order to get hired, but when employers demand free work during the interview process, tell them to take a hike. (By the way, I think you made a big mistake in delivering those story boards, having already seen what the VIP was up to.)

Second, force the manager to decide now. You handled this well, but I’d have given the VIP an ultimatum. After he told you that you were the only qualified candidate, you could have told him you wanted a decision on the spot.

commitHow to Say It: “I’d like to work on your team. With the right offer, I’m ready to start in two weeks. You can keep looking for other candidates, but I agree I’m the best for this job. I can do it for you profitably. Either hire me, or let’s end this process, because if you don’t hire me, your competitors will. You need to decide now.”

Sometimes the strongest position a candidate can take is to draw a line and insist on a decision. Be ready for NO, but also be ready to walk away from an indecisive manager who probably doesn’t know what he wants — and who routinely loses his best candidates to competitors, which is probably where you should be working.

Congratulations on a successful job search. I hope others consider the lessons from your story. Employers lose their best candidates all the time because they think their mission is to hire perfection and to ensure they reject anything less. It’s how they wind up with weak candidates who will do anything for a job.

I discuss more methods for “Playing hardball with slowpoke employers” and how to “Line up your next target,” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers. You don’t need to be the one left holding the bag!

Do you have the guts to issue an ultimatum to an interviewer? Or am I nuts? Where do you draw the line with a greedy employer?

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41 Comments
  1. Nick,

    I actually disagree that it was a big mistake to deliver the story boards. You can consider it as a waste of time for the job at hand given he had accepted another job, but in the long run it can have impressed and only good things can come out of that, in reputation and/or in future job opportunities in the mid-future, who knows?

    All the best.

  2. In terms of the three design projects, I would have simply responded with, “This is beyond the scope of a normal interview. If you’d like me to work on these on a contract basis, I’d be happy to do so. Here are my estimates for each project…..”

    We do this all the time in my field where customers send out RFQs and want everything: not just pricing, but everything down to the last detail so they can just take it and go somewhere else. We always take exception to such stuff and either give vague answers or simply say, “Provided upon award of order.” If they want a bunch of engineering work done for free, we simply tell them what our hourly rates are and how long we think it would take.

    Simply politely and professionally tell them that they’re engaging in scope creep and real work will cost money. A good employer will realize this and either drop the request or negotiate a more reasonable. A bad employer will stick to their guns, in which case you leave the ball in their court by essentially telling them you’ll wait for the PO or check….and go find another employer who’s worth working for.

  3. I am intrigued by an overlooked detail in this story, specifically the acquaintance of the writer who was not hired because twenty-somethings thought he was arrogant. The writer may have had a similar problem and not have known it.

    (No, I’m not saying he is actually arrogant, but it is a remote possibility.)

    This is a fundamental problem with the Ask the Headhunter approach to getting the job—prove you can solve problems and do the job during the recruitment process.

    Sure, the hiring manager wants someone who can do top work but the current employees who would be peers often feel threatened by a strong candidate.

    During the interview process, what these twenty-somethings label arrogance can actually be the candidate’s confidence and competence. The younger employees fear that once hired for creative work, a stronger employee than themselves may present improvements to coworkers’ projects that are well received by management. In addition, if the candidate is older and more experienced, potential peers may fear this individual will have the inside track to manage them and the rest of the department in the future.

    There can also be age discrimination on the part of the younger staff members. A ten-year gap (25 versus a 35-year-old) is plenty to have age discrimination. The younger staff may want someone to play nerf basketball with them while the older person wants to get home to his family or spend his time differently. This is especially possible if the older person is good at the job and expresses his creative ideas with confidence. It’s not called discrimination, it’s called “not fitting into the corporate culture” and people are terminated for it all the time.

    There can be a problem in the hiring process when the manager holds out for a unanimous departmental vote. One or two nays can hold off hiring forever or at least until a weaker, “nicer” candidate is found.

    The problem is more disturbing if the boss hires the best person who can do the work but won’t stand up for them along the way. Since creative ideas are, well, creative, they can’t be quantified and are open to judgment. Coworkers turn negative to the best ideas because the ideas are not theirs and may require more work on their part to implement. They may even subterfuge a project to put themselves in a positive light.

    Sometimes the problem is political. The insecure person is a long-time employee whose skills have not kept up but they can never be fired and are free to torment others.

    Sometimes the manager is male and the underlings are female. The interpersonal issues are laughed off as “women issues” and the male boss simply doesn’t care. He’s off to the golf course with the other VPs.

    Sometimes highly creative people are more sensitive and can’t take the crap though the manager thinks it should roll off their backs just as it does his/hers.

    Nick, have you witnessed these problems in hiring the candidate who proves he can solve problems and do the job?

    -d

  4. As a communications pro who does both print design and video, I totally understand the job seeker. No one knows how much goes into our work!

    On the other hand, I wanted to mention two situations in which I felt OK about doing or asking someone to do “work” as part of the interview process. I once went to an interview where the manager had me work on a project for about 45 minutes to see my approach and speed with copywriting and design. Then we used that work as the context for the interview. I thought this was great – I had already budgeted this time for the interview and it gave me a chance to show him I knew my stuff right there on the spot. It also showed me, as a candidate, exactly what I’d be asked to do. (I was offered the job, FWIW.)

    As a hiring manager myself, I once asked a candidate to write a long article. We loved the candidate but the job was a career change for him and he simply did not have a solid portfolio. I was very transparent about the situation. I told him he was great but we both know he didn’t have a portfolio. He turned around a great article over the weekend and then we hired him!

    It is important to note that in both cases the work being done was of no benefit to the company. My test project in the interview was based on a past project long completed, and the news article our candidate wrote was not meant for publication. So while neither of us was paid for our time, the work was not exploitative.

    In my field it may be easy to demonstrate some quick results like this – not sure if these would work for everyone, but I don’t advocate one-size-fits-all solutions anyway. I’m interested to see if others have different interpretations of these job search experiences.

  5. Diana nailed it! People who are threatened by confidence and competence are living in fear. That is a terrible atmosphere to spend 40 hours/week.

    I’m glad the designer walked away. There were multiple signs that the organization was not healthy. The manager was giving off signals loud and clear that he wanted “the best” but wasn’t willing to commit. Add to that the 20-somethings calling people out for “arrogance”…no thanks!

  6. Great answer to force a decision from an employer! I wish I said those words a few times. Job seekers need to remember that not everything is the “opportunity” it presents itself as, and in these cases, not getting the job is no loss.

  7. I’ve routinely asked candidates to do work during an interview – usually something that takes no more than 5 or 10 minutes. It’s often the most valuable part of the interview. Tasks are selected to get at issues important to the particular job. I learn whether a candidate understands how the job fits into a whole program and if the purpose of the program is understood. I learn if the candidate has reasoning skills by asking them to do a simple calculation based on assumptions. After a brief overview of the job responsibilities, I learn if a candidate can write a nuanced response to a typical question he/she might expect to get on the job. I ask them to imagine conflicting work assignments and how they’d decide what to do first — few understand that one choice could result in an entire crew with nothing to do that day. Now and then, a candidate says, “I don’t know – I haven’t learned about that yet – but I’m eager to.” instead of giving it a shot. That person will move to the bottom of my ranking.

    Since I usually hire for summer internships, I get a huge insight into the amount of training required and the ultimate responsibility level I can expect to give to the candidate if hired. All the candidates are from an elite college so they can all handle the technical demands – it’s on these other issues that I can differentiate.

    In rare cases, I’ve asked for a sample of writing – but I never can be 100% sure that the applicant is the real author. I’d rather have the applicants write in front of me.

    I also treat the interview as a learning exercise for the candidates. I flat out tell them what I was hoping they’d say. I ask if they wouldn’t have felt more competent if they’d gone to the engineering library and read the first chapter of a survey text since they knew the job involved surveying. I know I improve the interview skills of all the applicants – for the next job!

  8. @Pedro: I understand your point about the story boards. But this employer has a lot to prove at this point. All I see is a manager who can’t make a decision, who rationalizes, and who expects free work. I don’t think that will ever be an “opportunity” for this candidate. Though I do agree that demonstrating value is a great way to land a job – with a good manager.

    @Chris: You nailed it with your suggestion to do the work on contract. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but this column was already too long! :-)

    @Diana: I’ve seen all the problems you’ve described. One or more of them in evidence during interviews can be a signal to run, don’t walk, to the exit.

    “current employees who would be peers often feel threatened by a strong candidate.”

    That’s a sign of a problem in the company.

    @Ian: You make an important point about giving the applicant a project to complete: Is it, by itself, of any benefit to the company? A manager with integrity will never ask for free work. But since the applicant probably doesn’t know the manager well enough to make that judgment, I think it helps for the manager to be candid about the work sample. “Look, just so you understand: What I’m asking you to do has no value by itself to my company. I’m not asking you to do sample work that we will profit from. If you’re concerned about that, let’s discuss it. I want so see what you can do, but I also want to be fair.” I think that would go a long way.

    @Lynne: You just wrote a little handbook of hiring for managers :-). Great stuff! Thanks for sharing it! My favorite:

    “Now and then, a candidate says, “I don’t know – I haven’t learned about that yet – but I’m eager to.” instead of giving it a shot. That person will move to the bottom of my ranking.”

    “instead of giving it a shot” – what a lucid judgment!

  9. Responding to what Diana and Jen have said….

    I agree that that last little blurb is easily overlooked and intriguing. I would say that not getting the position was a blessing. As a hiring manager, my job is to make sure that I have the best team to do the work on hand. I certainly give everyone an opportunity to provide input, and I listen carefully to that input. However, the final decision is mine and mine alone. I am not going to tell a candidate to whom no offer was made that “it wasn’t me, it was someone else on my team.” I am going to stand up for myself and say that I was concerned that you might not fit into the team because you came across as arrogant. But only if I agreed with the comments.

    I see three possibilities here:

    1) Hiring manager lacks confidence and won’t step up to be the boss. Feels that all employees need to be his friend.
    2) Hiring manager has put in place a team of B and C players who are unable to see the benefits of being surrounded by high quality colleagues.
    3) There was some other reason for not making the hire, but the hiring manager is afraid that someone he/she will likely never see again will get mad.

    Would you really want to work in any of those scenarios?

  10. Letting two dissenting 20somethings break a hiring decision is ridiculous.

    I once went through a 7 interview gauntlet with a company, only to have them ‘go ghost’ on me. It turns out (heard it thru grapevine) that only 16 out of 17 people wanted to hire me.

    Thankfully, one of my potential coworkers had a full melt down in interview 7 when I asked about workload and prioritizing things (other people in the room visibly cringed), so I knew right then that they were a sweatshop.

  11. @Rkc No, I wouldn’t want to work for such an organization… and I’m also not sure I’d want to work for an organization that a: demands unanimous approval/ liking of a candidate from every interviewer, b: isn’t courageous enough to let the 20-somethings speak for themselves (their opinion of he candidate’s “arrogance” reeks of hearsay and may or may not be true) and c: instead of just saying they decided to go with someone else, felt the need to malign the candidate’s character. Why was that needed? To make the candidate feel he brought it on himself, and make him feel too ashamed to question his poor treatment?

  12. @Carl– “only 16 out of 17 people wanted to hire me”… why did it need to be unanimous? If that’s the standard, then it’s harder to prove yourself a “good fit” than I thought.
    I wonder what the unemployment rate would be if some misguided psychological ideas didn’t make us believe it’s OK to not hire someone because they have different hobbies or have different ideas on how they want to spend their personal time.

  13. @Lucy I think I’m a reasonably intelligent, capable, good-looking, reasonably charming guy with a solid work history and education.

    Unfortunately, I am going on 41 years old and male, and nearly every place that has actually hired someone for a position (less than 25% of the time, someone is hired) has gone for someone 5-6 years younger, female,very attractive, and slightly less experienced. “Cultural fit”, I guess.

    I only job searched for a year, and have not been doing much searching in the past year. I am too busy networking/ hustling for new business/contract work, and volunteering on the side. I work and volunteer for two prestigious organizations and they are both happy with my help.

    My attitude is this: Talk to me if you need the work done effectively and profitably/on budget. I love talking shop and learning from people. If you want to put me through hoops/waste my time, buzz off.

    On a good note,however horrific my year plus of searching was, the world has not ended. I pay my bills, it’s springtime, and the sun is shining.

  14. One of the traditional tools used by successful sales people is to:
    1. Do a checkpoint summary. Which basically summarizes where the conversation is at this point, while gaining a confirming consensus with the buyer — “just so everything’s clear and we’re on the same page”. Followed by

    2. A trial close. Which in essence answers the question “If I can do this (create a sample for you, etc.) — will you do that (hire me; or at least move further down the line to closure)?”

    At every point during the negotiation, trial closes should be used, otherwise you’re just doing all the selling and the hiring mgr is doing nothing. That gives the manager all the cards and all the power in the negotiation.

    Trial closes will also confirm and eliminate all the potential issues that the manager comes up with that would disqualify you. Once you’re past all the objections, the last trial close becomes the final close on the deal… “Well, if you don’t see anything else that prevents me from coming on-board to help meet the business challenges — when would you like me to start?”

  15. The letter writer said that he ended his last email to the VIP with “…I have received an offer for another opportunity and hence am no longer available.” He didn’t say that was necessarily a true statement. I got the impression that the letter writter wrote that to diplomatically end the discussions with the VIP and not burn any bridges.

  16. @Carl– hiring for “cultural fit” is stealth discrimination at its finest. The main way that cultural supremacy gets passed along today. It’s always been interesting to me how often the “good fits” are high in all sorts of privilege: white, religious (depending on the area), attractive, wealthier (fitting in to your company culture can cost money), able-bodied, coupled/familied (relationally fortunate), and the idea extroverted American personality.

    Put it all together and it’s bias in favor of the status quo: people who won’t rock the boat. Who are either happy to keep it up, too scared to challenge it… or too hard at work fitting in to challenge it.

    Neat system, eh?

  17. Wow, you dedicated a full post to my obscure little comment! (I think it was in the ‘bait and switch’ post…) I’ll see if I can address some of the comments so far…

    First, let me say that I applied for that job back in November. The phone interview was a week before Xmas, I “walked away” from the whole mess the 2nd week of January. They have readvertised the job 3 times now, most recently as a few weeks ago. !!! Something tells me this job might have just been fake all along.

    Near the end of that 90 min interview, I offered to start out as a contractor, so that both of us could “test the waters,” then after a few weeks it doesn’t work out we go our separate ways. I mean, how much easier could I have made it for him here? But he was just “eh, okay, I’ll consider that.”

    Regarding whether I should’ve done the work, I figured even if I had there would be yet another hoop to jump thru, like the committee approval. And those never go well for me — I’m not young and pretty anymore. Honestly, I just felt like he wasn’t excited to hire me.

    Regarding whether I really did have another offer, luckily I did, but it’s a seriously boring role, it’s contract with a former employer (which led to nothing the first time around), not very creative…of the two, I really wanted this job, and I continue to cry about it wondering what was really going on behind the scenes, I really am convinced there was nothing I could do here to get an offer (I’m pretty sure if I were ten years younger I’d have gotten hired).

    Oh, and this job I accepted came thru when an SVP contacted me, he remembered me from when I last worked here three yrs ago and what great work I did and wanted me on the new team he was assembling. No ATS, no HR, this truly is the only way to get a job today, to know the right person! (Although HR gave me a hard time about my recent unemployment, I almost had to give them my tax returns to prove I had done some freelance work, they backed down after I explicitly asked “so does that mean you don’t hire the unemployed?” But that’s a topic for another day.)

    The guy whom I mentioned being turned down for “arrogance,” he wrote about it on linked in but deleted it (probably for fear of being further blacklisted by corp America), he turned it into a slide share, I’ll see if I can find it. He also pointed out that they loved his ideas and are “are going to start using them” before the rejection came.

  18. Here is a comment I posted on hrreview.co.uk today in response to an article about “less than half of job seekers feel prepared for the workplace”. I doubt it will show up because I’d never posted there before and it’s quite polemic, meaning it probably got caught in the moderation filter:

    a third said they lacked self-confidence when presenting themselves in a work environment. One in four said they didn’t fit in or know how to deal with the different personalities.

    These feelings were created in the first place by corporate culture and the hiring process!

    Whether it’s employers looking for the perfect employee (purple squirrels), interview teams demanding unanimous approval of a candidate (one applicant commenting on Asktheheadhunter.com said that he failed to get a job because “only 16 out of 17 of the people” who interviewed him liked and wanted him), or just plain hiring for “fit”, which has outweighed the education, experience and passion of millions of job candidates– what reason do job applicants have for feeling confident in the workplace?

    Why shouldn’t people be scared and confused about how to act at work, when the unspoken message those in hiring positions give them is, “your qualifications and interest in this position mean nothing if your coworkers don’t want to go to a bar or play Nerf frisbee with you.”
    Or, “disagreeing with the boss, even in a polite and respectful manner, represents a lack of alignment with the company mission and is therefore a firing offense.”
    Or, “we are going to do whatever it takes to make sure you fit into our company culture, including monitoring your personal life”.
    Or, “good soft skills have been redefined. Now everyone at our company is expected to be a salesperson/ ambassador. Which means, no constructive criticism allowed about working conditions, wages, unfair treatment… or the fact that we talk a great game about diversity but all our leaders have similar looks, backgrounds, attitudes and personalities. If you can’t say something positive about the company, don’t say anything at all.”

    Why shouldn’t a lot of people worry that they don’t fit in, when the bar for fitting in keeps being raised? Now you aren’t just expected to be cordial to your coworkers, you’re expected to be friends with them. Cordial is realistic; demanding friendship is not.

    Everybody in a hiring position complains about a skills gap, but fails to see their own part in creating the skills gap. And the workplace picture will not improve unless they do.

    Besides, unquestioning obeisance to my employer is not a workplace social skill I want to have, anyway. I would rather my employer treat me as an equal and allow me some control of my own life. Autonomy makes for much happier employees. :)

  19. @sighmaster: Thanks for chiming in! I should have included a link back to the column where you posted your story as a comment. I saved it because it was such a great one – I don’t often use comments for new columns, but yours was a winner.

    For those who’d like to peek back at the original sighmaster comment: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/7778/bait-switch-job-offers (I did some minor editing for the newsletter, and I hope I didn’t butcher any of sighmaster’s meaning.)

    Thanks for adding this critical point: “I just felt like he wasn’t excited to hire me.” That’s reason enough to walk away. Clients (employers) have often explained to me why they didn’t hire my candidate – “He or she just didn’t seem very motivated to work with me.” Job seekers and employers: Please note. This is an ENORMOUS decision factor, so don’t dismiss it when you’re trying to impress someone. So I drill this into my candidate’s heads prior to interviews. Don’t fake it, but don’t omit it if it’s real.

    FWIW, I never considered that the other offer you referred to wasn’t real.

    “No ATS, no HR, this truly is the only way to get a job today”
    Yep…

  20. Any manager who hires only when the team agrees should just pack it in. Team input is good, but there’s no need for a manager’s judgment when the team is cited as the decision maker.

    Kudos to the managers who decide.

  21. The problem with “just say no” is that you end up looking like the “fake” who “couldn’t perform a simple design task — boy, we dodged a bullet not hiring her!” Of course, trying to design “on the blind,” you’re bound to fail, it’s like they’re setting you up for failure.

    If you can stand one more insanely long story from me (last one, I swear!), I had an almost identical situation happen one year earlier. It was the week before Thanksgiving, I met with the “communications manager” at another huge local corp for a design job. It went very well (he came right out and said he really liked me) and I was brought in for a 2nd interview to meet the “committee” which seemed to go well (he confessed I was up against one other “finalist” for the job).

    The following Thursday I received a phone call from some HR twit (she could barely construct a sentence) telling me to expect an email with a design “test.” It would be an understatement to say I was heartbroken that her phone call was NOT to tell me I got the job. Whatever, I said, fine, send me the test.

    Friday 5pm rolls around with no email, so I figured since next week is Thanksgiving I guess that test won’t be coming until after the holiday. And Saturday was my day to make my annual ten-hour drive home to Pittsburgh to spend the holiday with my family. Imagine my shock (again) when I received the email at 6PM that night!!! With orders to redesign an interface on their webpage but with no real creative direction beyond “Keep it consistent with the corporate brand” but at the same time he says “BE CREATIVE!” And they send me this at 6PM meaning the jerk is gone and I can’t ask questions, I’m just supposed to design using guesswork here — here’s a newsflash, no design project can succeed without a review between designer and client first, and sure enough I had loads of questions.

    Oh, and the deadline was first thing Monday morning. THEY DIDN’T EVEN ASK ME IF I HAD PLANS FOR THAT WEEKEND!!! That 10hr drive requires a full day recovery, so I postponed my trip (my mom was understanding because she knew my job situation was bleak).

    I worked on it Saturday and emailed my work Sunday afternoon. I explained that because I couldn’t ask questions I have offered THREE different designs that addressed different scenarios — did you want to keep the current flat style? here ya go. prefer something three-dimensional? here ya go. can I do something completely different? here ya go. I was surprised to get a quick response from the comms mgr (as the only email I had was for the HR girl, didn’t expect them to be checking email on Sunday)…he said “I guess I didn’t do a good job of communicating what I wanted with this…what I want you to do is just forget everything I said in the first instruction email and just do what you think would work, just remember to keep it within the corporate brand.”

    Are you kidding me? It’s now Sunday pm, and he just dismissed all three designs and I’m supposed to start over?

    I emailed back with “this job is clearly not a good fit.” And with that I swore I would NEVER perform this “beg for a job” act ever again. And it still infuriates me how someone who can’t communicate for squat earns the title of “communications manager.”

  22. Christopherc great answer. Good sale people also understand 1) it is a numbers game always be prospecting for leads/interviewing 2) know when it is time to walk. I (before personal computers yeah I am over 70), was asked to develop a business plan as part of the hiring process for a new division for a mid sized company. Desperate for work I did. Yep they took the plan, made a few changes and used it, never did I work for nothing again, in the future I used the contract idea.

  23. @Lucy @Diane words of priceless wisdom you both have spoken that I could not have stated or said any better. Good stuff! Corporate culture has deviated from its original intended meaning and is now code for almost “accepted discrimination.”

    @Lynne If all people with responsibility to hire were like you, I would take a stab to assume that finding and getting a job would be a more pleasant experience, benefiting both the candidate and the employer and not leaving candidates feeling demoralized if they weren’t up to task.

  24. Thanks, @Nick & @Gwen,

    Nick,I learned it from you – applied your concepts to my needs. Thanks for making me a better employee – and teaching me to help students learn how to become better employees.

  25. This discussion hits on a lot of interesting points.
    1. The 1st thing I noticed was the shot at HR ” HR’s only job here was to schedule the meetings. Do they send a brochure to all who put in a hiring request with tips on how to disqualify your best candidate? I dunno” This is not about HR, this is about “be careful what you wish for” This person found the Holy Grail…”The hallowed Hiring Manager” and got a taste of one of life’s career building realities, that managers are people…many of whom have a bad case of incisiveness. Your idol may have clay feet. The writer just got a taste of what you find with a lot of hiring managers these days…they can’t pull the trigger, That HR person you think is in your way?…they’re also trying to wrestle these people to the ground to get a decision..and can’t. In this case the person got valuable insight…there’s a very good chance this is the way that person manages his team. So if you eventually get hired..you enter a very frustrating environment where your manage can’t address your needs…in any time frame you can live with. And it will drive you nuts!
    2. His request to get some insights on applicant’s work isn’t bad, if reasonable. the optimum word is insights, not doing a full project. This part of the discussion reminds me of a real case when I was an agency recruiter and submitted a candidate I knew fairly well to a client. And some others. Turns out the client was asking each to submit presentations (on a consulting level) for an IT project. And then not hiring anyone. It was obvious he was just picking up free consulting work..loathesome. We fired that client. In this case it just comes across as another sign of inability to decide, to avoid any hiring risks, as someone said to find a perfect person.
    3. Sending a “drop dead” date to the manager is fair if politely composed. After all in most cases offer letters have an expiry date for your decision. As a recruiter I ask candidates to let me know if they get an offer and need an answer from the manager..which I pass along. Why not the other way round? …And I don’t mean BS them & say you have an offer, I mean the way Nick noted..Your time is valuable, you prioritize your search, you need to know if the discussion is real enough to effect a decision..nothing personal, it’s business. In this particular case the manager’s been dancing around a decision to a point where a nice note noting your need is fair.
    4. As noted the quest for a perfect candidate is there too..indecisiveness is the usual clue. Hiring is all about risk management. That hunt for the perfect candidate is an indicator of someone afraid to take a risk. They have streets names after them “One Way” You take a risk on them and their company (and you do) but they don’t want any. Believe me you don’t want to work for someone who’s risk adverse. It won’t give you a good base of operation for career building or satisfaction.

  26. So many great comments in this thread. First @Lucy Montrose: Hear hear!

    Since I live in the land of the startup (Austin, TX) it’s not only expected to play Nerf football and drink beer at work, you also have to be ready to ride that scooter or skateboard down the hallway…. Which doesn’t really appeal to me that much.

    Let me say though, that the best team I’ve ever been on had people of all ages on it, including multiple 20 somethings who really made work fun and added dimensions to our work as a team that we did not have before. I’ve never enjoyed work so much.

    That said, the company named after a fruit has declined to hire me repeatedly because I am not a member of that 20-something age group (nor am I male, which is another issue with that company, and that’s documented). My skills were a perfect fit, the telephone interview was great, but the in-person interview body language told me all I needed to know: the interviewer reading his questions from his laptop screen thought she’s “too old” and that was the end of that. He could barely listen to me, his disgust was so obvious.

    About giving work samples: In all the years (since 1990-something) I’ve been using Nick’s method to find and secure a good job, I’ve only been taken advantage of once by providing a “free sample.” And that’s their karma to deal with, not mine.

    I will be looking for a new position soon (I contract or freelance as a writer/editor nowadays). I will continue to use the Ask The Headhunter method to find a compatible company to work with where I can enjoy my job.

    Thanks for the great discussion.

  27. Great post and comments.

    I would agree that the Manager is suffering from analysis paralysis at best and trying to get free work at worst.

    I do agree though that an “audition” of sorts is the best way to interview, though. Here is an interesting article I came across this morning:

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/psychologist-says-interviews-terrible-way-194956519.html

  28. It’s apparent from reading all the responses that this topic hits a truism for all responding.

    I am a copywriter and have been asked by a number of employers in the Bay Area to take real-life writing tests for their real-life clients. I regret to say that I appeased them all with these freebie requests, but I really needed to work and thought this was a Bay Area norm. I’m good at what I do, so the rejections were not based on my writing samples (yes, that’s called confidence, not arrogance), but based on other external factors noted in others’ comments above.

    Specifically, I’d like to share my story of taking back the power in this ugly interviewer/interviewee seesaw. First, here’s the back story …

    After interviewing in the Bay Area for an entire year and going through all these cruel hiring hurdles, I decided to draw a line in the sand. I vowed to end my job hunt in this market and “pivot” (borrowing from the stupid tech phrase).

    I was waiting for one last employer to say yeah or nay before officially pulling the career ripcord on this area. I pretty much made up my mind that either way, (rejection or not), I was ready to get out of the area.

    Two weeks after the interview, I followed up with the hiring manager about my interview. She apologized for the time lapse and wrote a quick, arcane email apologizing for the time lapse and promised to follow up the next day with a second interview time “to get to know me more.” I waited three more days and finally wrote a more straightforward email to elicit a simple yes or no.
    [My email to hiring manager]
    “Hello [manager name]. I know you may be busy with other pressing needs, but when you get a chance, can you drop me a quick email letting me know if I am still in the running for this position? I have decisions to make about other opportunities, so knowing this piece of the puzzle would be helpful.”

    [hiring manager response]
    Hi Kathy,
    My apologies on the delays and thank you for following up.

    I was hoping to sit down with you again to get to know you more. We are not in a rush to hire. We are more interested in identifying the right person for the role and our team rather than filling the position right away.

    Sounds like that approach and timing may impact your decisions with other opportunities?

    [My response to her]
    Hi [manager name],
    Thanks for your follow up. I completely understand your logic to hire right rather than rush the process. Unfortunately from my perspective, I am reaching my personal deadline for exploring opportunities in San Francisco. I have contacts [in another market] whom have great opportunities for me to explore there, so I’m considering those options as well. I just wanted to clarify where I am at within your process so I can plan accordingly.

    Please let me know your thoughts on this. Thanks much. [email ends here]

    She deflected the question by dropping a question in my lap, and I retorted with a question thrown back into her lap. Unfortunately, most of us know how this story ends.

    The hiring manager never responded and the job was essentially fed back into the LinkedIn job feed by a different HR recruiter for some other sucker like me to waste their precious time submitting for a job that will probably sit in cue for another six months while this person pretends to find the perfect fit.

  29. @Kathy, the only time I have seen the’perfect fit’ come out of a wish list was in the 1980s movie Weird Science. Two teenage boys input their requirements for their dream girl into a souped-up IBM PC , and voila- 1980s hot Kelly LeBrock came out.

    NB for hiring managers and HR: This was a fictional event in a movie, so creating a spinster-sized wishlist into an ATS/HR machine on steroids WILL NOT create a perfect fit out of thin air.

  30. RE: “the job was essentially fed back into the LinkedIn job feed…that will probably sit in cue for another six months.”

    At what point can we say that both these jobs we applied for were fake, i.e. not real? I mean, how can anyone take seriously a “job” that never gets filled?

    I’d like to know why posting fake jobs is even legal. And I don’t see any incentive for companies to stop doing this. My only thought was to create an app that submits fake job applicants to company career sites, so when a company pulls this kind of stunt, you’d just pull up the app, plug in all the job details directly from the description, and you’ll get a “new” resume with all the perfect keywords to submit to the company’s ATS, including a fake name and fake contact number. Then when the useless recruiter sees that “perfect” candidate profile who has all 30 bulleted requirements, they call only to get the recording “we’re sorry, this number is not in service.”

    I know, I know, that would be mean, but can you imagine the outrage by the “job creators” running to Congress to outlaw such an app? lol…

  31. Love this post and the different perspectives!

    I just had my first – and I think best – “Nick C. ATH” interview with a ten year Tech/Comms start-up. I communicated only with the president, two interviews, one phone, one in person. At the end I said, I Want this Job!
    All seemed well – he discussed salary (we are both on target – he spoke first about their salary intentions, I congratulate myself on this) and then…it happened. A total regression to stupid pointless time-wasting moronic game playing.

    Here I am hoping, praying to the employment gods that THE OFFER IS IMMINENT. But it wasn’t. He said, Well I have one more person to interview. What I’d like to do is maybe have you come into the office to fill out an application so we can run your background check. Floored, disappointed (and I’m sure it showed) I struggled to remember what Nick says to say in this situation – couldn’t remember- then calmly asked, Ivan when do you INTEND to make a decision?

    About three weeks, he tells me. Three weeks? WTF?

    Shook hands, yada yada, I went home like a stunned bunny. By the time I got there I was feeling furious!

    My take is, it’s over. He’s not going to offer, and I’ve decided I will only fill out paperwork and do the background check WHEN I have a firm offer on the table in writing. If its contingent upon a drug test & former employers, no problem, I’m aces. But I gotta have the offer.

    Later that day I got an email from a previous employer (HA!) asking me to apply for a particular position. I intend to use this toward credentials AND getting Ivan’s best-best offer on the table, if by chance I should get a call back from him. My sister suggests I call him personally to let him know that “something suddenly came up” and that this prior employer tagged me for a job. I think she’s right.

    Any insights? thoughts about this man Ivan’s behavior? Is he gaming me?

  32. @Sara, Ivan does sound like he has an agenda and / or isn’t being entirely truthful and / or is indecisive or procrastinating and / or simply takes for granted that job seekers will jump through whatever hoops and stay available indefinitely. Something is going on, even if you and I can’t say for certain what it is. Unfortunately, this kind of employer behavior seems to be the norm. Employers don’t care what experience potential new hires must endure, because the bottom line is that potential hires need to eat, and they will grit their teeth, and do what is asked. Have you decided that you definitely want to work with him if he makes an offer? If yes, and you can look past the hiring process frustrations, then definitely call him, and let him know that you have an offer. It shows you are in demand and he may not have 3 weeks. The situation needs some urgency interjected and Ivan needs to put skin in the game. I don’t know how your previous employer was, but if they were okay, and the job is right for you, then you should seriously consider it. If not, time to keep looking. I would not count on a job from Ivan. 3 weeks from now, he will probably be dodging your calls and / or extending the waiting period. I do not think your request to fill out additional paperwork upon an offer contingent upon passing their background check and drug test is unreasonable, unless they legitimately need certain info to vet you in advance. Your time is free to them, so better for them to have the info now. Really think about the likely interpersonal dynamics in the 3 possible work situations (Ivan, prior employer, some other possibility.) Happiness and being able to trust and respect the people you are working for matter a great deal. Listen to your gut.

  33. @Sara: It’s time to show some control. I’d let Ivan know you want the job, and that if they’d like to make an offer within 5 business days, you’d welcome it. (Of course, you’re still free to reject it if you don’t like the terms.) Tell him that, past that time, you respectfully withdraw your application. If he asks why, tell him you’re discussing a job with one of his competitors.

    The problem is, employers feel no pressure to make a decision, so they drag it out. Give them a friendly, reasonable deadline, and you’ll find out how serious they are. If they’re not, why bother getting frustrated with them? :-)

    Let them see that YOU made the decision, and that YOU ended the engagement. Let them go figure out what just happened. Meanwhile, there’s a good employer out there that will deal with you candidly and quickly, whether they hire you or not. Learn to say “we’re done” to indecisive employers who think they hold all the cards.

  34. EEDR, Nick, thank you so much for the feedback.

    I just met with Ivan today – a truly gorgeous meeting in terms of my ATH productivity. I expected The Offer. Silly me.

    This guy purports to love me but we hit that snag – I handed over my application (my version of reciprocity) all filled out but no SSN, no birth year, no signature. I calmly explained to him that privacy is very important to me, as I’m sure it is with others, and that he absolutely will have my info when he decides to hire me. He really threw down the gauntlet!

    He asked me outright whether something bad would be revealed on my background check. Then he began grilling me about – of all things! – my resume! Again? This stinks of ego-driven retribution. I’ve moved 7 career-ruining times with my husband who is former military 20 years. I’m also a writer and author and part time consultant occasionally, and I swear employers don’t seem to think that organizing and managing your writing day and a house plus a senior in high school are “work.” I finally leapt into a pause and said, “Ivan would you agree we’ve thoroughly covered my past accomplishments? Could we move on to the challenges your facing and (again) how I’ll make your company even more profitable?”

    At the end of the meeting, I asked him where WE stand and it’s back to the game. “Well, I’ve got one more person…” He ended with a comment about running the other person’s background check.

    I value my privacy. I value integrity and I value environments where people are treated fairly and with esteem and a little good grace. And my disappointment right now is really, well, quite crushing. I’ve never had a first or second interview where I didn’t get a solid offer I was delighted to accept.

    Boy, those must have been ‘the good ole days!’
    Thanks Nick & EEDR. It’s time to show some control.

  35. Hi Sara, Don’t waste any more time being disappointed. Sometimes not getting the offer, or not accepting it, is a real blessing. I know it doesn’t seem like it at the time, but it really is true. I am glad that you are going to show some control. You will find work.

  36. @Sara: I’ll go back to what I suggested earlier. Politely say you want the job, but need a decision and written offer within 5 days. Then it’s on them. Gives them time to think about it and act.

    Don’t be surprised if he comes back to you. My guess is he’ll realize no one else is demonstrating your kind of motivation and commitment. Another employer will get it.

  37. Hi Nick, I’ve done it. I’ll be glad to report back here if an epiphany happens and Ivan contacts me.

    Thanks again! : )

  38. Well, here we are seven months later…guess what job just got reposted on their careers page?

    As the job I took is now ending (sad story, the svp who hired me got fired so they want me gone as well, I’ll be unemployed again in a few weeks) I figured I’d reach out to the HR rep to see if I could dig a little and find out what’s going on. I sent a very simple email Sunday night asking if this was the same job I interviewed for last winter. Three days later and I have yet to receive a simple response. My conclusion = this job was fake then, and it’s fake now.

  39. @Diana, I believe this may have happened to me.

    “Sure, the hiring manager wants someone who can do top work but the current employees who would be peers often feel threatened by a strong candidate.

    During the interview process, what these twenty-somethings label arrogance can actually be the candidate’s confidence and competence. The younger employees fear that once hired for creative work, a stronger employee than themselves may present improvements to coworkers’ projects that are well received by management. In addition, if the candidate is older and more experienced, potential peers may fear this individual will have the inside track to manage them and the rest of the department in the future.”

    I interviewed last week at a small local financial services company – and once I got there I really really wanted to work with these people. Two women my age (late forties) did the interviewing together, one an Office Mgr and the other had worked her way up to Equity Partner. Both have been there 10 or so years. They were very interested in my broker-dealer experience and finance background, and asked with amazement why I wasn’t employed. All went well, a very congenial and engaging meeting. When it came down to the job itself and my background, I think this is where they became afraid. It was posted as an Admin spot – turns out it’s Receptionist Plus…

    Honestly I didn’t care. I just wanted to work at this company and with my experience I know I could bump up, if not soon, then within a reasonable amount of time. I always add value to whatever position so I wasn’t worried. They were SELLING me on the job – benefits, retirement plan, etc. All going swimmingly and then the partner said, almost abruptly not quite, it’s a receptionist position. I said, Yes, and I’m interested in _this_ job.

    Last people in the job – the owner’s son, a recent grad simply helping Dad by interning. Previous person moved up and out of the company after two years.

    I understand the whole “OMG she’ll find a better job, want to move up or be bored” fear. But I felt I’d addressed that well. I REALLY wanted to work there! and still do.

    When discussing the interview with my sister, we touched on the possibility that while I might fit in in terms of personality, if as an “outlander” I am bringing newfangled ideas, creativity, gusto and engagement, perhaps the women felt I would “show them up.” They have been there, after all, kinda comfy, for many years…

    Here’s the rejection. Note the careful wording.

    ‘Thank you for meeting with us to discuss your qualifications for the Administrative Assistant position.

    We were fortunate to have several qualified candidates apply for this position. We talked with each of the top candidates, and, after careful consideration, we have determined that the credentials of another candidate are a better fit for the position.

    Thank you for your interest in XXOO Financial Services. We wish you success as you continue your job search.’

    Umm, Qualified? Top candidates but not me? the Credentials of another person were better? FIT?? arghhh, How?

    My sister recommends that I call and say, blah blah blah where did I sink my boat? and pray they’ll actually give me a response.

    Thoughts? ideas? If I showed excitement and interest, spoke well and engaged them both (which I enjoyed very much and they seemed to do too!) then WTF? (sorry, hate to swear on a public forum)

    -Sara : {

  40. @Nick, is there a How To Say It to ask a CEO to create a position for you??

    Thank you!
    -Sara

  41. As of today, “Ivan” has re-posted the job for which I interviewed 3x.
    LMAO

    Guess that mystery second candidate didn’t work out…

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