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Cover Letter: Write it then burn it

In the March 28, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants to get in the door. Will a good cover letter do it?

Question

cover letterI’ve been a loyal reader of your blog for about eight or nine years. I grew up in real tough circumstances on the streets of Detroit and as time went by I left that life and became an artist. I went west to Seattle where I became moderately successful with my music and was able to support myself by learning carpentry and eventually running my own business. I did this all without any formal education or training, but I worked my tail off.

All would be fine and well if that was all there was to the story. Ten years ago I was in a traumatic accident which changed my perspective. This accident planted in me a burning desire to go into medicine. After looking around and doing some research, I decided that instead of being a doctor, I would become an occupational therapist (OT). It’s a respected position that pays well.

Now I am less than a year away from graduation. While I have chosen a profession where I might be hard pressed not to find work, at 55 I do have some concerns.

My resume is all rock music and construction work. I don’t really know anything about corporate culture. In my old biz, you either know your stuff or you don’t and if you don’t, your ass is down the road. I’d love to be able to write a cover letter that can get me to a manager that actually hires. I’ve busted my butt to get good at this and I know I can do the job for them profitably. I’ve just got to find my way in.

By the way, I’ve also decided that not only do I want this “impossible” job but I also want to get hired at one of the top ten facilities for my specialty (trauma center rehab). How do I write this cover letter? Do you have any suggestions for me?

Nick’s Reply

Okay, it’s loaded question time. Two people want a job. One submits a well-written resume and a thoughtful cover letter. The other meets the hiring manager at an industry event and they talk for half an hour about their industry, their work, projects they’ve each done and share insights — and maybe a couple of beers.

Who’s more likely to get hired?

Now let’s add a twist. The second job seeker also wrote a thoughtful cover letter. The first, as we said, sent it in. The second burned it but discussed the topics from the letter with the manager.

Who’s more likely to benefit from their cover letter?

Now let’s get real. Most people would feel very awkward walking up to a manager at an event — it’s just uncomfortable. The second job seeker didn’t feel awkward because he used his cover letter as an outline for what to talk about.

Both job seekers did the work of writing a letter. But only one used the information in the cover letter effectively.

To get the right employer’s attention, you should write that cover letter, then burn it — because very few employers read cover letters any more. More important, you need to tell them your story face to face. We’ll discuss that in a minute, but first let’s start with what makes you a very good candidate.

Be the right candidate

People write resumes and cover letters to “market” an image of themselves. But it’s more important to be the right candidate for a particular company. That means picking the company is more important than what’s in your letter.

I think what you wrote in your e-mail can get you hired by the right employer. What you wrote tells me:

  • You’re in command of your life and yourself.
  • You decide where to go and what to do – and you do it.
  • You learn whatever you need to learn to do a job.
  • You persevere and you succeed.

That’s 90% of any job. I’d hire someone like you in a minute, over someone more skilled. The best managers want motivation and you have it in spades. Everything else can be taught and learned.

Your task is not to write a marketing letter. It’s to pick the right employers. See Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Once you choose a handful of the best OT facilities, write your cover letter to show why you’re the right candidate — but don’t send it.

Write the cover letter

Write a cover letter similar to your e-mail. But use the old military rule for writing and speaking. Structure it in three parts.

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you told them.

That’s what makes a message sink in. It works.

Step 1

First, start by stating your goal:

“I want to work at one of the top ten trauma rehab facilities — yours. And I’d like to tell you why I’d be the best, most productive and profitable hire you can  make.”

Step 2

Then move on to the substance. Briefly list:

  • What you’ve done to prepare for the job: education, interning, and so on.
  • Outline your background, and explain you chose OT after experiencing trauma yourself.
  • How you came off the Detroit streets. Mention how many years ago that was, to show you’ve come a long way.
  • Talk briefly about becoming a successful artist, musician, carpenter, and having your own business.

Make it clear that you succeeded at everything you did by working very hard to make up for lack of formal education. Be brief. Then explain that OT was worth getting an education and that, like everything else you’ve done, you’ve accomplished it.

The most important part of this step is to name three things you know that are required to be successful in OT. Talk to your teachers and anyone you know in OT — ask them what it takes to be the best occupational therapist. It’s critical to get these three things right. You want to show the employer that you know what they really need in a hire.

Then close this part of the letter by making this commitment:

“I will work as hard as it takes to do those three things better than anyone else you might hire. That’s the commitment I make to you. It’s the same commitment I made to myself when I chose each line of work I had throughout my life.”

Phrase that so you’re happy with it. I’m just trying to give you the idea. Find your own words, so it sounds like you.

Step 3

Finally, recap and summarize what you’ve told them.

“I plan to work for one of the top 10 facilities in trauma rehab, to work hard, to learn quickly, and to help make my employer more successful and productive — just as I always have. I’d like to meet you to discuss your specific needs, and to show you how I’d handle them. If I can’t show you that, then you should not hire me.”

The best employers want commitment

The last sentence in the summary might seem a bit extreme. It’s the most important part of your statement.

Do you see what you’re doing with this letter? Making a commitment. Telling the employer I know what it takes to get hired — and that you don’t view interviews as a game. I’m going to show up ready to rock and roll. And if I don’t, don’t hire me. That’s a powerful statement.

Some centers won’t like this approach. Some will love it. Any kind of approach you make to an employer is risky, because if they don’t view life, work, and the world the way you do, they will not hire you and you’ll never even know why you were rejected. You don’t want to work with people like that.

The best employer for you sees things the way you do, and will instantly want to meet you.

If you want any job anywhere, then write a traditional cover letter. I’d never criticize you for that. But if you know exactly what you want, then portray yourself the way you really are. Embedded in the second of those three military presentation steps are three messages that will get you hired by the right employer:

  • Show you understand what the employer needs you to do.
  • Show how you’ll do it.
  • Make a commitment to do what it takes to be one of the best at the job.

If you need detailed help with that, see How Can I Change Careers?

Burn your cover letter

After you write that cover letter, you will have the outline for any interview you do. But please also remember this, which we discuss on Ask The Headhunter all the time: Most of the time, employers don’t find people through resumes. They find them through referrals from people they know and trust. (See How to launch a seemingly impossible career change.)

Employers don’t find their best hires in resumes, cover letters or databases.

So throw out that cover letter. Or burn it. Do not give it to any employer. HR departments and managers who don’t know you are not worthy of that letter. What I’m saying is, devote your job hunting efforts to finding ways to talk with worthy employers. When you meet the manager, say what you wrote in your cover letter.

Please read Getting in the door for advice about how to meet the manager who needs to hear, not read what you wrote.

Do your own talking

You can do this. Go hang out with people who do the work you want to do at the places where you want to do it. The person who gets hired is the one that isn’t afraid to walk up to the manager, and who has something valuable to say. That’s why you should write a cover letter — but don’t expect that letter to do your talking.

My guess is, this is how you got every job you’ve ever had. That puts you ahead of your competition, who will send documents (resumes and cover letters) to speak for them.  Maybe you don’t realize it, but you have an edge over all of them because your work ethic and motivation matter more than anything else at this juncture.

It’s good you have some time before you graduate, because this takes time. I’m impressed with how you live your life and make your choices. If this helps in anyway, I’ll be glad. Let me know how it goes! I wish you the best.

Do you use a cover letter, or do online application systems make them useless? How would you advise this highly motivated job seeker to get a hiring manager’s attention?

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Age Discrimination: The green antidote

Quick Question

age discriminationWe all know age discrimination is not legal. I’m an analytical chemist with a graduate degree and 40 years experience in analytical chemistry. Although I would love to retire and enjoy my grandchildren, I still have the desire (and mental capacity) to work. My issue is simple. I can’t get past the front door. Employers just look at the experience in years and it becomes a matter of “Let’s interview him so we can check off the EEO box.”

What’s the best way for anyone over the age of 50 to meet age discrimination head-on?

Nick’s Quick Advice

Part of what you’re experiencing — perhaps 20% — is definitely age discrimination. But the big backdrop is automated recruiting. That’s what is killing job opportunities across all age brackets. (See Why am I not getting hired?) In other words, your obvious concern is actually overshadowed by a far bigger problem.

Age discrimination is just part of it

I think 50% of rejections are about the algorithm missing the match. 30% is the personnel jockey reviewing the match and deciding this chemist can’t really do that particular job. Of course, that personnel clerk knows little if anything about chemists, chemistry, or the actual job, but since executive management doesn’t care what HR knows, you’re still screwed.

The best way to meet this problem is to avoid all automated recruiting tools that funnel you to personnel jockeys. You just have to get over the idea that “this is how hiring is done.”

It’s the people

The only solution I know is to carefully select companies you’d like to work for, figure out what problems and challenges each faces, and triangulate to find people who know people at the company. It’s all about the people who are near the job.

  • Hang out with them.
  • Talk with them, whether by phone, e-mail, discussion forums or over beers.
  • Make friends.
  • Then ask for advice and insight about that particular company.
  • Finally, request an introduction to someone in the department you want to work in.

Then repeat with each level of contacts as you get closer to a hiring manager. Never submit a resume or ask about jobs or job leads. Talk shop. This approach takes a while, but it works. Most managers prefer to hire through trusted referrals.

The Antidote: Get the manager past the grey

So you’re not looking for a job. You’re looking for people connected in some way to the company who will talk shop with you. That leads you to managers.

There’s an antidote to age discrimination. It doesn’t always work. For it to work, you must be talking with an employer whose goal is making profit. So pick employers carefully.

Your age doesn’t matter when someone tells a manager, “Hey, this person can do XYZ for you” — and XYZ is what the manager is dying to have done as soon as possible. At some level, XYZ always means making a business more profitable — always. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

When you show a busy manager the green, the manager looks past the grey. Here’s the catch: If this were easy, everyone would be doing it. So get to work.

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Is a 3-page resume too long?

resume

In the March 21, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks a perennial question about the resume.

Question

I have been receiving your weekly newsletter for some time and  I always appreciate your insight. What is your opinion of a three-page resume? I have been in professional positions since 1985. I find myself in job-search mode and I am having difficulties in keeping an updated resume to two pages. Thanks in advance for your time.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words.

I’ve seen good one-page resumes and I’ve seen good 20-page resumes. I think a resume should be as long as necessary to accurately communicate what an employer needs to know about you.

That doesn’t mean you should not try to keep it as concise as you can. A resume is no place to list everything about your past. Employers don’t need to know everything. All they need to know is what is exactly relevant to them. The rest is interference that can lead to rejection.

What’s a resume for?

More important, a resume is not your “marketing piece.” That pronouncement is a career-industry marketing ploy to sell you unnecessary resume services. (See How (not) to use a resume.)

Most of the time, a resume does not get you in the door. Personal communications and referrals are the best way to get in the door. Your resume should be used to fill in the blanks about your credentials after you’ve established substantive contact with a hiring manager. (Yes, I know that’s not easy. That’s why the person who works hardest and smartest at this is most likely to win the job.)

While you’re waiting for one of the many resumes you sent out to get you an interview, your competitor is meeting with the hiring manager because he was referred by someone the manager knows and trusts.

What should your resume do?

Do you know how long the average manager spends reading a resume? Six seconds.

If your resume doesn’t deliver the goods — “Why you need me to boost your profits” — quickly, you lose. See Resume Blasphemy and “Put a Free Sample in Your Resume,” pp. 23-26, in How Can I Change Careers? (This PDF book is not just for career changers. It’s for anyone who wants to show they are the most profitable hire.) Here’s a brief excerpt from the book to get you thinking about your resume in a new, potent way:

“Give the prospective employer a free sample of what you can do. This will get the employer’s attention and it will distinguish you as a job hunter whose goal is to do the job for the employer, rather than just to get a job… You need to package the information in a way that says explicitly to a prospective employer: This is what I can do for you. Before you can deliver this job-offer-eliciting gift, you need to understand an employer’s needs. That means understanding the problems and challenges his company faces. And that can take quite a bit of research. Do it. There are no shortcuts to delivering value.”

Make your resume as long as it needs to be. Does it deliver instant answers to the questions on the manager’s mind? If you don’t know what those questions are, you’re not ready to write that resume. When you’re ready, you’ll know exactly how long it needs to be. (See Tear your resume in half.)

How long is your resume? How long is too long? More important, how do you use your resume? What’s the interview yield of the resumes you hand out?

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What the Federal Reserve doesn’t know about recruiters

In the March 14, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we look at what some economists at the Federal Reserve say about jobs.

federal reserveRecent reports from the Federal Reserve suggest that switching jobs — and probably employers — is the best way to boost your salary and your career.

In this special edition, we’ll explore what the Federal Reserve doesn’t know about recruiters, and why you should stay away from recruiters who waste your time with been-there-done-that jobs and lower salaries.

Are recruiters killing careers and the economy?

The best recruiters and headhunters boost employers’ productivity by finding discounted talent and up-and-coming talent to fill jobs those people may not have done before. By stimulating capable job candidates with new, motivating career challenges, insightful recruiters help create value for an employer — and boost our economy.

But untrained, inept recruiters lack insight and foresight. They don’t bother to understand an employer’s future needs or a job candidate’s untapped potential. They look for quick and easy “perfect matches” turned up by automated recruiting algorithms. These keyboard jockeys do little but process resumes whose key words match key words in job descriptions. They add no value. They kill career growth and job productivity.

Inept recruiters far outnumber good ones, and that’s killing our economy. Companies aren’t filling jobs with the best hires. But the fault lies with employers themselves, and with Human Resources executives, who buy — hook, line and sinker, and at enormous cost — the reductionist job applicant sorting systems that drive hiring today. (See Why HR should get out of the hiring business.)

New research and analysis from Federal Reserve economists reveals a problem of mismatches between workers, salaries and productivity, but fails to identify and discuss the structural cause of the problem — counter-productive recruiting.

The mad rush to fill jobs mindlessly

With the Department of Labor reporting lower unemployment and increasingly scarce talent, employers are rushing to fill jobs by relying on methods that yield staggeringly low signal-to-noise ratios.

By design, these systems actively solicit as many applicants as possible for each job. (Consider the applicant funnel ZipRecruiter, which exhorts HR managers to post a job on “one hundred-plus job sites.”) The ease with which these systems enable and encourage job seekers to apply for any job in a mindless feeding frenzy contributes to understandably low yields. Then HR managers, who fail to realize that more is not better, claim to be shocked and cry “talent shortage.”

When matches are made, they’re often undesirable to the candidate. It’s a common complaint among Ask The Headhunter readers: Employers want to hire you for a job only if you’ve done that job for three, four or five years already — and they’ll often pay you less. Even when they offer you a raise, the job is usually a lateral move. It’s not a career opportunity or a chance for you to hone new skills  — it’s just an easy database match.

This seems to be much more than a job-seeker frustration. According to economists reporting from several branches of the Federal Reserve, it may be one of the causes of inflation and lower productivity. (See Bloomberg Businessweek: Job Switchers Solve An Inflation Mystery.)

But the economists don’t attempt to explain why employers are making such short-sighted, self-defeating hiring decisions — and I think it’s because the problem is so pervasive that it’s invisible. Although job seekers have long been very vocal and angry about it, the backdrop of reductionist, rude, automated recruiting across America seems to be such a necessary evil that no one but the job seeker sees or questions it. (See HR Technology: Terrorizing the candidates.)

The compelling need to fill jobs obscures the importance of planning to hire strategically and wisely — not just to fill round holes with round pegs quickly. American companies seem unaware of their mad rush to fill jobs mindlessly, and economists seem content to accept the prevalent recruiting infrastructure without reviewing it, simply because employers are content to keep paying for it.

This seems to be what the Fed’s economists don’t know about recruiters and the job market.

The failure is on the front line

Job seekers report wasting enormous amounts of time today fielding fruitless recruiting inquiries and participating in interviews for the wrong jobs. The question arises:

Why do employers look for perfect matches between workers and jobs?

The assumptions behind this quixotic search are incorporated into the ads that candidate vendors like Indeed, LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter run constantly:

  • Employers must hire without training anyone or allowing time for a learning curve.
  • Perfect hires are best.
  • Talent can be had at a discount.
  • Employers don’t have time to find talent on their own.
  • Every job can be posted to “a hundred-plus” job boards instantly.
  • “Big data” makes perfect hiring possible.
  • More job applicants is better.
  • And so on.

These assumptions push employers head-long into automated recruiting. But when we start questioning those assumptions, we’re left with the boots on the ground that create the biggest constraint on hiring the best talent: Inept recruiters on the front line.

When complex factors make it difficult to suss out what triggers the choices business people make, I get lazy. Though I’m not a scientist, I was trained as one, and I find that even if a problem seems complicated, it’s best to start with the law of parsimony: The simplest explanation is probably the right one.

If employers had better recruiters, they’d hire better people, increase productivity and stimulate the economy.

Yet, an employer’s first contact with an engineer, a scientist, a software developer, a machinist, an accountant — anyone the employer needs to hire — is through a person who is probably the least likely to understand qualities and characteristics that make the candidate the best one for the employer. It’s a person least likely to understand the work and the job. Except in rare, wonderful cases where employers have very good recruiters, it’s an incompetent recruiter.

Because employers believe they now have “intelligent applicant systems” at their disposal, many (I think most) dispense with highly trained and skilled recruiters. Employers on the whole have unsophisticated, untrained recruiters who quickly eliminate the best candidates because they’re rewarded for making the easy choices, not the best ones.

The Federal Reserve connects the dots between talent, pay and productivity

Bet you’ve been waiting to see how the Fed fits into this. Let’s dive in.

The job boards say employers can hire the best talent for less money because their databases are bottomless and the perfect candidate is in there, if you just keep looking.

But the Federal Reserve says higher productivity coupled with better career opportunities and higher salaries is better for everyone — and for the economy.

Consider the ambitious little Bloomberg Businessweek article referenced earlier, Job Switchers Solve An Inflation Mystery, that deftly puts the jobs puzzle together:

“Labor economists… are increasingly studying how job-hopping Americans drive compensation gains and affect the traditional interplay of low unemployment, wage gains, and inflation.”

It turns out those economists are now focused on what we already know: The surest way to get a big salary boost is to change employers and stretch yourself.

Consider this handful of factoids and data cited by Bloomberg, from economists at the Chicago Fed, the Atlanta Fed, the New York Fed, and the St. Louis Fed:

  • “23 percent of employees are actively looking for another job on any given week, putting in four or five applications over a four-week period.”
  • “Employers are poaching workers, as 27 percent of offers to the employed are unsolicited.”
  • “Job switchers earned 4.3 percent more money in July 2016 than a year earlier, while people who remained in the same job enjoyed only a 3 percent increase.”
  • “The so-called quit rate, a favorite indicator of [Fed Chair Janet] Yellen that measures voluntary separations from an employer… has almost recovered to levels seen before the recession of 2007-2009.”
  • “Job-to-job changes and the threat of job-to-job mobility are strongly predictive of wage increases.”
  • “Job switching is ‘a good sign for the economy’ and ‘an indication of dynamism,’ according to the [Atlanta] Fed’s [President Dennis] Lockhart.”

And note this nugget of gold in the Bloomberg story:

“While [St. Louis Fed economist David] Wiczer said that the bulk of wage hikes occur from job switching, he cautioned that the gains are highly cyclical, as the median job switcher didn’t reap much of a salary increase during recessions.”

What this means to you: With the economy shifting from recession to inflation, your best bet to make more money today is to switch jobs. I’ll stick my neck out and say that my reading of the Fed analysis — and my own experience and reports from Ask Headhunter readers — is that that you also need to switch employers if you want that dramatic pay increase.

But you can and should optimize that bet by making sure the next job you take also enables you to be more productive. Of course, recruiters sabotage that objective almost daily when they solicit you for jobs that would set your career back five or ten years.

Warning! Warning!

We already know that most recruiters love to stick you into a “new” job that’s not new at all. They don’t get paid to give you a chance at career development — or to help a manager hire for the future. They offer the same job you’ve been doing because you’re the least risky choice for them.

They pluck you from thousands of job applicants only when their database algorithms show that you’re already doing the exact job they’re trying to fill. There’s no need to train you. You will require no learning curve. You are the safest bet and, if you’re unemployed, the recruiter knows he can probably nab your desperate ass for less than you were earning at your last job because you need a job.

But that recruiter is dangerously naïve. The “perfect match” won’t increase productivity because you’re being plugged into the same job you were doing elsewhere, and your motivation is going to plummet along with your value.

Even if the new job pays more than your last one, this is a huge red flag for employers, warns Giuseppe Moscarini, a visiting scholar from Yale at the Philadelphia Fed:

“What we should worry about are wage raises for workers who stay on the same job and are not getting more productive.” [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Whether the “same job” is at the same employer or a new one, Moscarini suggests wage inflation without higher productivity seems to fuel inflation in the economy.

Recruiter failure

I don’t think employers or economists see the razor that’s cutting into productivity and economic growth. But it should be clear to any Ask The Headhunter reader.

It’s the recruiters.

Most recruiters look for an exact match of a resume to a list of key words in a job description. They’re not assessing job candidates to find value a competitor missed or the value an employer can leverage into higher productivity and profit over time. They tell managers to interview any candidates the automated recruiting system flashes on their displays.

Recruiters, who are an employer’s front line in the talent war, are generally not equipped to do their own jobs. They’re doomed to fail because they’re not really recruiting. They’re checking boxes on a database app. The result is hires that are less than optimally productive.

Job Seekers: Follow the money!

The Fed economists are offering job seekers and career-oriented workers a gift of tremendous insight, even if it seems obvious: Your smartest career move may be to switch jobs and employers.

Pursue only jobs that offer you substantially more money and require you to stretch your skills and capabilities — that is, to do more productive work that’s more profitable for you.

That strategy, they also suggest, may be best for employers and for the economy.

Smart workers don’t change jobs or employers without an opportunity to learn and develop new skills, to take on greater responsibility or authority, to stretch themselves — and to make more money. Those who accept been-there-done-that jobs do it reluctantly or because they feel they have no choice, especially if they’re unemployed.

The Fed tells us not only that lots (23%) of employees are actively looking for new jobs, but that competitors are trying to steal them away. Done for the right reasons and for the right opportunities, switching jobs and companies can pay off big. Employers give people who switch 40% higher raises than they give to people who stay where they are (4.3% vs. 3%).

So, follow the money. When a recruiter pitches you a re-run job for little or no extra money, suggest he go find a job he’s better at — because he’s not helping you or the employer. He could be killing your career and the economy. Has anyone told that to the Fed’s economists?

Did you get a better raise for staying in your job, or for switching out? What was the percentage? Did a recruiter move you into another same-old job, or help you advance your career? What’s your take on the Fed’s findings and conclusions?

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The only 2 reasons to tell recruiters your salary

In the March 7, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions advice about divulging salary information to recruiters.

Question

recruitersI have your book, Keep Your Salary Under Wraps, about how to avoid telling an employer your salary history. I agree: Disclosing salary hurts your ability to negotiate the best job offer.

But now HR expert Liz Ryan asks, Should you tell a recruiter your salary? (Recruiters Don’t Need Your Salary History — But Here’s Why They Want It.)

She says absolutely not, and hundreds of people have posted their comments. Can we hear from another HR expert? I want to know what you say. Is telling a recruiter your salary different from telling an employer?

Nick’s Reply

I’m not an HR expert and I’ve never worked in HR — perish the thought. I always worked on the outside as an independent headhunter. According to Liz Ryan’s LinkedIn profile, her experience is in HR, not in independent recruiting or headhunting. That might explain our difference of opinion.

I don’t think you should ever disclose your salary history to any employer. (See Should I disclose my salary history?) But that’s not what Ryan’s column is about. What she is recommending is a dangerous whitewash of a more complicated issue. She’s saying you should never disclose your salary to a recruiter or headhunter.

2 kinds of recruiters

Let’s be clear on one thing, because it’s important. When she says don’t tell a recruiter your salary, Ryan is referring to a third party recruiter, or a headhunter — not a recruiter working in the employer’s HR department. (When you disclose to an employer’s recruiter, you’re disclosing to the employer.)

The recruiter she’s talking about will earn a fee if you are hired, and also stands to gain tremendously if you’re happy with your job offer and new job. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, to avoid confusion here, when we’re talking about an independent, third-party recruiter, we’ll call that a headhunter. A happy, newly placed candidate refers more great candidates that are worth a lot of money to a good headhunter.

Ryan is wrong because a headhunter’s motivation is very different from an employer’s. A good headhunter can use your salary history to help you, not hurt you, in part because the headhunter wants valuable referrals from you after you accept a new job she’s helped you land.

Employers and headhunters have different motives

Never tell an employer your old salary because he’ll use it to cap any offer he makes to you. In other words, your old salary becomes what’s known in behavioral economics as an anchor. It pulls down the job offer. (If your old salary is higher than the employer hopes to pay, you might be rejected outright, but that’s another discussion. Please see How do I prove I deserve a higher job offer?)

A headhunter actually earns a higher fee when your job offer is higher, so she’s motivated to get you the best offer possible without jeopardizing an offer altogether.

There’s no good reason to give employers — or their recruiters — your salary history.

But the only good reason to tell a headhunter your old salary is if it’s going to help you get a higher job offer.

And that’s where Ryan blows it while she bangs the drum to say no. She’s confusing motives, and that’s naïve. There’s more to it.

When to tell a headhunter your salary

testHere are my two rules about salary disclosure:

  1. If it’s an employer asking — the hiring manager, the HR manager, the HR recruiter, or the company’s online application form — do not disclose your salary, ever.
  1. If it’s a headhunter or third party recruiter, disclose your salary only if:
    (a) The headhunter agrees not to disclose it to the employer without your express permission. No exceptions.
    (b) The headhunter explains how she’s going to use the information for your benefit — and the reason had better be good.

If the headhunter can’t pass tests (a) and (b), don’t tell.

A good headhunter’s obligations

While a headhunter is paid by the employer and thus has a fiduciary duty to get the best deal for the client, the headhunter is also beholden to you if she wants introductions to more good candidates — and a sterling reputation in the professional community she recruits in.

So a good headhunter will not use your salary history to low-ball your job offer for the benefit of her client. If you think she’s going to do that, then walk away immediately — because that’s not a headhunter you want playing middle-(wo)man for you with any employer. (See How to Judge A Headhunter.)

When Ryan says not to disclose salary to a recruiter, what she should be saying is, Walk away from any headhunter you’re not sure you trust.

And that means most headhunters that solicit you — because they’re not headhunters. They’re unsavory spammers and telemarketers dialing for dollars. They’ll never do a good job for you. Work only with the best, or don’t work with a headhunter at all. Satisfy yourself that the headhunter is going to optimize your job offer — and, more important, get you in front of the right manager for the right job. Those are the headhunter’s obligations to you.

Now let’s discuss what Ryan avoids.

Why disclose your salary to a headhunter?

What legitimate reasons could a good headhunter possibly have for wanting to know your salary? If it’s me, I want to understand how your career growth and salary growth reflect one another so I can make a good placement — for you and for the client paying my fee.

  • Do I think you’re over-paid? Under-paid?
  • Do I think you’re squandering your abilities for too little money?
  • Is your salary expectation unreasonably anchored by your current salary?
  • How does that affect how you behave in interviews?

I’d rather discuss these questions with you before you talk with my client, because it could affect how I advise you to interview and negotiate.

Maybe you’re on the wrong career trajectory. You might be earning at the top of the range for, say, a digital design engineer. If you want to be an R&D engineer, you may have to take a step back in salary to shift to the new career direction. I want to prepare you for that. I don’t want you to get sticker shock after you’ve invested your time in interviews with my client.

If you don’t trust a headhunter like you’d trust a doctor when sharing your personal information, then don’t work with that headhunter. If a headhunter isn’t discussing these questions with you, run.

The 92% salary increase

I’ll give you an example of when it pays to tell a headhunter your salary. I recruited a candidate who was earning $40,000. I helped him get a 92% salary increase.

He was hoping to get a 10% salary bump. After a lot of assessment including talking with his references and having him talk with an industry expert whose opinion I respected, I knew he’d be great for a very different kind of job with my client.

If I hadn’t asked for his salary history, he’d have blown the interview, because the job paid over $70,000. His jaw would have dropped if this came up in the meeting with my client, and he’d have betrayed his old salary if only in his body language. My client never would have offered what he was worth. I’d have had no idea, if I didn’t know the candidate’s salary.

We had a long talk about how to behave while discussing a job that would almost double his salary. Based on the candidate’s aptitude, I negotiated a $77,000 job offer. My client never batted an eye, and never learned what its new hire had been earning. The candidate and his wife were able to buy their first house. I earned a nice fee — and several great referrals. The new hire performed so well that I got more search assignments.

I asked for, and got, the candidate’s salary history — but I never disclosed it. I used it to coach him properly so he could get a better deal.

If you’re not satisfied a headhunter is going to work that way with you, hang up the phone or delete her e-mail.

Liz Ryan is wrong

A headhunter is not an employer. Different rules apply when a job seeker deals with a headhunter. It’s up to you to understand the differences. That’s why I wrote a 130-page book about How to Work with Headhunters, and how to make headhunters work for you. What I just explained is in the book.

Liz Ryan sometimes offers good advice. This time Liz is wrong. She sounds right because she’s being contrarian, but she’s whitewashing a question that requires more insight and discussion.

Her advice to not disclose your salary is reasonable only if you’re dealing with a questionable or unsavory headhunter or recruiter — but in that case, you shouldn’t be working with that recruiter anyway! Just as there are lots of lousy HR people who will waste your time, there are loads of unsavory headhunters. (See Why do recruiters suck so bad?)

Know when to say yes

If you’ve properly vetted the headhunter, and the headhunter gives you satisfactory answers to the two tests I posed above, you might gain a lot by letting the headhunter know your salary history so she can assess and coach you properly. Make sure the headhunter will:

  • Keep your salary information confidential — that is, won’t disclose it to the employer — and,
  • Use the information to your advantage.

A good headhunter stands to make a lot of money by helping you get the right job for the best possible salary. And the headhunter’s client never needs to know your old salary. But it’s up to you to draw a line in the sand. Don’t be afraid to say no — and know when to say yes.

9 tips for dealing with recruiters and headhunters

If you don’t know how to separate good headhunters from unsavory ones, check the nine tips in The truth about headhunters.

Do you tell recruiters your salary? Why? If you’re not sure why, then don’t do it. How do you handle headhunters and employers’ own recruiters? How do you keep control of being recruited?

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Should I quit before finding a new job?

Quick Question

quitWould you ever advise quitting a job before having another one lined up? I have completely lost faith my employer and job and I fear getting fired or worsening what’s left of my relationships here. I’d like to quit now. Is that a bad idea? Thanks.

Nick’s Quick Advice

People do it all the time — they quit their job before finding a new one. I suggest taking a little time to think it through. Emotions can carry us away and lead us into poor decisions. Time has a way of separating our feelings from the facts. (See Is it time to quit my job?) I’m not saying you should not just up and quit — that’s up to you.

There’s also the “how” of quitting to consider. For more about this, see Quit, Fired, Downsized: Leave on your own terms. Make sure you control your exit and that “the door doesn’t hit you on the way out.”

Think before you quit

But if there’s no urgent reason to act now, pause and:

  • Consider what options you really have, and,
  • Map out the possible consequences of whatever you decide.

That is, is quitting your only option? Can you transfer to another job or department or company location that might solve your problem? And, if you quit suddenly, how will that affect your life?

Here are some other questions to consider:

  • Can you afford a protracted unemployment if you quit without a new job?
  • Do you have enough savings to tide you over for 3-6 months — or longer?
  • Do you have good job prospects that you could develop quickly?
  • Considering the area where you live and work, are you job hunting in a field where being unemployed will affect how you’re perceived in job interviews?
  • Will being unemployed help you devote the necessary time to job hunting? Will it improve your state of mind?

Depending on your answers, quitting immediately could be a good idea. But only you can make the judgment.

Unemployment bias and misery

As a headhunter I’ve never worried that a good candidate was presently unemployed — but some headhunters, recruiters, HR people and employers have a bias against unemployed people. It’s goofy — it reveals that employers and recruiters don’t trust their own judgment of a person’s value, and they don’t know how to identify discounted value that they can capitalize on. But you may find yourself dealing with that bias.

If you’re planning to get a new job through strong personal contacts, those contacts may have enough positive data about you that irrational biases won’t affect you.

The flip side of bias against unemployed job seekers is bias against demoralized, discouraged and unhappy job seekers. If staying at a miserable job while you’re interviewing for new jobs renders you ineffective, then it may be better to just quit and get excited about getting that new job!

I don’t offer quick and easy answers because there are none. My mentor taught me long ago: “Use your judgment, and do the best you can.” Focus on the two bold-faced words. Think about the benefits and risks, and go from there. I really think that’s how to go about it. I wish you the best.

(If you’re going to quit, do it right. Take a look at the topics list for my PDF book, Parting Company: How to leave your job. How you leave can affect a lot of things you may not be aware of.)

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WANTED: Top talent to work for dog food

In the February 28, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, the talent (a nurse) would rather walk dogs than work for kibbles and bits.

talent foodQuestion

There’s no skills shortage, no matter what anybody says. If there’s a shortage why am I working as a waitress making more than I could nursing, which I’m certified in? I have a college degree, because I was told it was necessary in today’s market to compete. One interview after another is a waste of time. HR tells me I “look good” and to expect a call. And the permanent and contract offers I’ve gotten — I could walk dogs and make more. There’s so much talent that hospitals just wait for somebody who will work for peanuts. And they are rude. Does anybody want to hire an experienced RN for a living wage?

Nick’s Reply

Two reports from the Pew Charitable Trusts issued late last year tell us a lot about the problems you’re describing — but you’re not going to like what they say:

Imperfect candidates need not apply

A lot of healthcare facilities need experienced RNs (registered nurses) and require degrees. But they don’t want to pay for your degree and experience. I suggest you send a few quotes from Pew to your legislators.

“Hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and doctor’s offices, like a lot of employers across the country, have a specific resume in mind. Employers often want new hires to have experience in a specialty such as operating room nursing.”

They’re looking for perfect candidates. (See The Training Gap: How employers lose their competitive edge.) The problem is clear: Employers don’t want to invest in training, on-the-job experience and development, or in a learning curve. They want someone who’s been doing the exact job for three years already. The question is, why would someone like that change jobs just to get the exact same job?

Where are competitive wages?

Pew offers a suggestion that healthcare administrators should be spanked for pretending not to understand:

“A long-term solution for the nursing workforce also would have to resolve critical pay issues, including whether Medicare and Medicaid fee schedules support competitive wages, and figure out how to make sure nurses don’t get burned out and quit.”

Pew also addresses another common problem:.

“Employers also have a retention problem. Being a nurse is demanding, and new nurses, like new teachers, are particularly likely to leave their jobs: About 20 percent of new nurses quit within a year, according to a 2014 study.”

Duhhh… Do you think it has something to do with the fact that you can make more money waiting tables at a good restaurant? (For tips about negotiating a job offer upwards if you manage to get an offer at all, see Negotiate Even The Worst Job Offers: Say Yes, IF.)

Meatball management

This is not a problem just in healthcare. The Pew reports cover all kinds of jobs, and reveal that employers across industries are eyeing talent they want but refuse to pay for it.

“To [the head of Minnesota’s Labor Market Information Office] … the focus on work experience suggested that employers were being too picky. They wanted to hire someone who could be fully productive on day one. But at the same time they weren’t willing or able to pay enough to attract that perfect candidate.”

There’s that problem again: Cheapskate employers.

An accounting manager told me last week that his company — whose business and profits are “growing like gangbusters” — has a customer support staff of seven. “We really need 15 just to support the customers we already have,” he complained. “But it’s impossible to find qualified people.” I asked what the job pays. “$7.50 an hour,” he answered. “Our turnover is over 20%. It’s terrible.”

No kidding.

Pew suggests businesses’ eyes are bigger than their budgets. But it seems the real problem is a kind of cognitive deficit in the ranks of management.

“It’s worth noting that employers can’t always diagnose their own problems. Only 22 percent of employers surveyed by Utah’s Department of Workforce Services last year named low wages as a hiring problem, but 68 percent of those employers were offering below average wages.”

Someone is thinking steak, while budgeting for meatballs.

“We want college degrees we don’t need!”

Then there’s the claim employers make that today’s workforce just isn’t well-educated. Or, is it possible that employers want more education than jobs require?

Pew hits the nail on the head again:

“The overwhelming majority of open production jobs across south central Minnesota don’t require a college degree, in fact. Nor do almost two-thirds of openings statewide.”

Yet employers ask for a degree — just because they can. It used to be a nurse needed only a certification to get a job in a hospital. It seems now hospitals want education they don’t need — but aren’t willing to pay for.

Reports Pew:

“In New York, for instance, there are more licensed RNs in the state than there are jobs for them. So employers are raising the bar, saying, ‘Hey, if I can get a [nurse with a] bachelor’s degree, why not?’ said Jean Moore, director of the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Albany.”

WANTED: Top Talent Cheap!

So there you have it. The Pew Charitable Trusts suggest employers are the problem, not nurses, or anyone else. While more training and education can certainly be beneficial to anyone who wants to excel in their line of work, it seems employers think training, education, and talent shouldn’t cost much to hire.

I wish I could give you an answer to your problem. And I wish the Pew reports covered the other elephant in the room — recruiting tools used by employers that make it easier to reject good applicants than to hire them. For more about that, see Employment In America: WTF is going on?

Meanwhile, what are we going to do about cheap employers?

Is there a talent shortage, or a shortage of good pay for good workers? Are modern, automated recruiting systems the solution, or do they just make it easier for employers to reject imperfect job applicants who won’t work for peanuts?

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Recruiters: Raise your standards or get out

In the February 21, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to test recruiters, and hangs up on them.

Question

recruitersI keep getting random e-mails from recruiters. I have finally hit the breaking point and now I have a new response: “Thank you for your interest. I am not searching at this time. In addition, I work only with hiring managers, never a recruiter.”

Am I being arrogant or even cocky? I mean, people are writing to me about jobs where I do not see a good fit. I have only worked with one good headhunting firm, but they usually only deal with positions 2,000 miles away from me. (They placed me twice when I lived near them and I did very well in both positions.)

On one hand, I don’t want to burn bridges, but on the other hand, as a 51-year-old engineer who plans to continue working for as long as I can, the positions I look for are not going to be listed on monster.com — they are going to come about through people I know. I want to know what you think. Is there a good way to test recruiters?

Nick’s Reply

You’ve given me an opportunity to say something to recruiters, also known as headhunters. I’ve wanted to say it a long time: Raise your standards, or get out of the business. The rest of us are sick of you.

But first let’s get to your problem with recruiters.

If they’re e-mailing you about the wrong jobs, they’re not recruiting you. It’s called spam and it’s generated by software. That’s the first way to test recruiters. (See Help! I’m a floundering headhunter!)

A good headhunter knows how to contact you properly, how to get your attention honestly, and what kinds of jobs to bring to you. You would be worth tens of thousands of dollars to a headhunter. Why would he trust an e-mail? Good headhunters call you — they don’t e-mail. That’s the second test.

The rest of those “recruiters” are finding your name or profile on LinkedIn, running a key word match, and pushing a button — or using an app — to send the same mail to thousands of people. (See Good Headhunters: They search for living resumes.) I wouldn’t be afraid of alienating recruiters who don’t even know who you are! If they knew you, they wouldn’t waste your time, as you’ve already noted:

“the positions I look for are not going to be listed on monster.com — they are going to come about through people I know.”

Test recruiters

So here’s the most important test. When a “recruiting” mail or call comes in, do you know the person? No?

BAM. Delete or hang up. It’s a blind solicitation. When the Publisher’s Clearinghouse is ready to give you a prize, they come to your door with a check. They don’t e-mail you.

In fact, that’s a very good analogy. Consider this warning from The Balance about scams purporting to be the Publisher’s Clearinghouse contest:

“Although PCH’s sweepstakes are legitimate, you still need to be very cautious if you receive a prize notification from PCH. Like other big companies (including Reader’s Digest, Heineken, and more), scammers try to seem more legitimate by sending letters or e-mails that claim to come from Publishers Clearing House. These scams can look official, but they are not backed by PCH.”

In the recruiting world, you must ask yourself, “Is this recruiter backed by a real employer?” That is, does the recruiter have a contract to fill jobs for an employer? If you don’t know, or don’t ask for proof, then you’re either wasting your time or being scammed. Most recruiters are not for real because they’re not really recruiting for an employer. If they find a willing candidate with good credentials, they will then shop you to thousands of employers like they shopped a job description to thousands of e-mail addresses.

I think you get it. You don’t need my permission to delete junk mail. (See How to judge a headhunter.)

If a solicitation intrigues you, here’s how to test recruiters you don’t know.

How to Say It

“Who is the employer?”

If they won’t tell you, I’d hang up. Don’t bother with excuses about how it’s confidential. Either the recruiter wants to do business or doesn’t.

“Are you employed in the HR department of the employer whose job you’re trying to fill? Or, are you a third party?”

If they’re a third party — that is, an independent recruiter, headhunter or search firm — that’s not a bad thing. But you need to know whether they’re legit. And there’s just one way to determine that:

“Can you give me proof you are authorized to recruit for the employer?”

That’s right: Make them prove they recruit for the employer. How? I’ll tell you in a minute. A legit recruiter can prove it, and you’ll know when the proof is presented to you.

You’re not the only Ask The Headhunter reader who complains they’re fed up with jerks pretending to be recruiters. I hope that helps. 51-year-old engineers are pretty smart. Trust your judgment.

Recruiters: Raise your game

Now let’s get back to what I really want to talk about, thanks to a reader who’s brought up the problem. And it’s a huge problem. Employers, job boards, ATS vendors, the HR profession, LinkedIn, Indeed — the entire bloated employment system turns a blind eye and tacitly ignores this problem for the sake of making money:

Most recruiters suck.

If you’re a typical recruiter, I’m sure you’d like to smack me upside the head for the advice I just gave the reader who asked this week’s question. You’ll argue that you can’t just disclose the identity of all your clients when you’re recruiting — not until you’re sure the candidate is right for the job. You’ll argue that there’s no documentation you can show the person you’re calling, to prove you’re authorized to recruit for the employer.

Bunk.

Do you suck?

If you’re a good recruiter or headhunter, you know what a mess the employment system is. You know you face staggering competition from unsavory recruiters who pollute the pond you’re trying to work in — recruiters who suck. So it’s up to you to raise the standard of conduct when you solicit people for jobs.

Show them you stand out:

  • Be ready to disclose what company you’re recruiting for.
    Sound risky? Figure it out because if you don’t, it’s going to cost you business. People are fed up with a corrupt, smelly recruiting industry. Rise above it. Be the recruiter who answers the question, because the candidate needs to know.
  • Be ready to show proof you recruit for the employer.
    Yep, I know this is a new idea. Adopt it. You don’t need to show anyone the recruiting contract you have with the employer. That’s confidential. But get a letter from your client that states you’re authorized and under contract to recruit for them — and arrange a confirming call with your client if necessary. Or, consider yourself no better than the scum who are competing with you, dialing for dollars, wasting talented people’s time.
  • You say you don’t want to disclose who your client is…
    …until you’re sure the candidate is worthwhile? Then you’re not doing your job. Your job is to check people out before you contact them. If they’re not worth disclosing your client’s name, then they’re not worth calling. Do the hard part of your job first — vet people before you expect them to invest their time with you. It’ll raise your game.

If the best recruiters and headhunters raised the standard of recruiting on just those three points, the whole system would change for the better. Seasoned, desirable engineers and other professionals like the one who submitted this week’s question would be a lot easier to work with with because they’d be able to trust the person calling them. But that trust has to be earned. Otherwise, you’re just a spammer and the person you’re contacting should delete your e-mail or hang up. Get out of the business!

If you’re a good recruiter, how do you make it easy for people to know that? If you’re getting calls from recruiters, how do you test them? What other sound, reasonable rules of conduct would you like to see recruiters obey?

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Referrals: How employers waste proven talent

Quick Question

How far down the employment ladder do the Ask The Headhunter principles of the job market go? Do personal referrals and recommendations help at all levels?

referralsMy daughter worked an entry level position for a clothing chain in New York, and left to move to California.  Her three managers each wanted her to stay, and said they would act as references, because she showed initiative on the job. Since she did what needed to be done instead of just what she was told to do, they wanted to keep her with the company, even if not in their store. She followed the chain’s instructions, and brought a completed application to a store that has openings in California, according to their website. Despite that, they told her they don’t have openings.

Does the principle of getting a position by being recommended by someone known to the manager apply even at this level? Or do stores fill half their entry level positions with people they don’t know?

Nick’s Quick Advice

Your question is about how your daughter can get a job using insider referrals. But the real story here is how employers waste proven talent. First let’s help your daughter get the job.

I think hiring by insider referrals is actually more likely with lower level jobs than higher level, simply because it’s not very risky. Even if the manager makes a mistake, it’s not like they just hired a pricey executive.

  • It’s faster. If the employer has good information about a candidate, it’s just a quicker hire.
  • It’s easier. Because lower-level jobs attract lots more applicants than higher-level jobs, the employer usually loves to avoid culling through thousands of applicants. Hiring by trusted referrals is much less work.

Lazy referrals

I think your daughter didn’t get invited for a job interview because her old managers are lazy. It sounds like they urged her to apply at the new location because they think so much of her, and offered to be references, but it ended there. They basically told her to apply like thousands of other people would.

Those managers didn’t pick up the phone to call managers at the California location to actively recommend her in advance of her applying. That means they did nothing.

If they want to help her and help their company, they should pick up the phone. Their offer to be references — after she applies, and after she’s selected for an interview, and after someone in HR asks for references — is meaningless. References aren’t referrals.

How to Say It

If I were your daughter, I’d contact her old bosses, tell them what happened, send them copies of the open job postings, and say this:

“Your faith in me and your recommendation to the California store mean a lot to me. Would you please call the manager of the store in California, explain your thoughts about me, and suggest she or he interview me? Your call will make me stand out among other applicants they don’t know — and it will help them fill the job faster and with less work.”

What I really want to suggest she say in the last part is, “…it will help them fill the job faster and with less work, you dopes!” But of course, she should not add that.

How employers waste proven talent

Here we have an employer that has valuable, proven talent in hand, ready to fill another job in the organization, but doesn’t even know it, because its managers don’t truly understand what that means. It’s partly due to the managers at the old store, and partly due to the company’s failure to actively promote internal employee mobility.

If those three managers won’t do as your daughter asks, then they’re not helping your daughter, and they’re hurting their company. Wasting talent is worse than letting people steal clothes off the rack. See References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.

I hope your daughter makes that call and I wish her the best.

Have you ever gotten a new job in your own company with a solid internal referral? Have you helped someone in your company make an internal move?

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Topgrading: Employers looking for liars

In the February 14, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader discovers topgrading and the A, B, Cs of hiring.

Question

As an employer and interviewer I’ve been reading about topgrading and would appreciate your thoughts and expertise on this topic.

  • How familiar are you with it?
  • Have you performed many topgrading interviews?
  • Have you seen many companies using it? How well did it work for them?
  • Do you know any topgrading experts I could connect with and learn from?

topgradingNick’s Reply

I don’t have to drink cynicism to know it’ll poison me. And I think topgrading is as cynical a way to assess job applicants as any job-interview tool you’ll encounter.

Topgrading was invented as a selection technique by Brad Smart at General Electric, during the tenure of “Neutron Jack” Welch, the CEO who invented stacked ranking of GE employees. It’s hard to tell which idea was the parent and which the evil spawn.

Also known as “rank and yank” and “forced ranking,” stacked ranking  was how Welch routinely got rid of 10% of his workforce. Managers were forced to rank all employees and to fire the bottom 10% — supposedly the weakest ones. As you can imagine, a team of top workers runs paranoid when everyone knows 10% will be cut regardless of how productive they are.

In other quarters, the practice is known as an HR Witch Hunt.

Topgrading is really nothing more than stacked ranking applied before hiring.

I’ve never performed a topgrading interview because I want to go to heaven. And I don’t have clients that use it because I wouldn’t subject my job candidates to it. If you want to find a topgrading expert, you’re on your own.

What is topgrading?

It’s worth understanding what topgrading is, especially if you’re going to be subjected to it when you’re applying for a job.

Like stacked ranking, it assumes that there are three kinds of workers. A people, who are worth keeping or hiring. B people, who aren’t. And C people, who have a kind of corporate leprosy or pellagra and will infect your A people if you let them in the door. (Don’t worry, there’s a way to keep them out — we’ll get to it.)

If you view the world as A, B and C people, you have no business in business. You’re a cynic who likes everything neatly labeled, and who likes things that don’t change.

The other big idea in topgrading is that you can figure out who’s an A, a B, and a C. Of course — here it comes — you can pay Topgrading, Inc. to learn how to separate the As from the Bs and Cs. The company claims its sorting method yields 75% A hires.

If you believe that, you probably have a stockbroker whose stock picking method delivers 75% winning investments. Which means you lost all your money to Bernie Madoff.

You might well ask, if Topgrading delivers 75% A hires, why isn’t every company using it? You might well ask.

A bad attitude

Ranking people to identify who will and won’t succeed isn’t so much a mistaken idea as it is a bad attitude.

Topgrading is based on a cynical premise — that candidates lie in job interviews. That’s a hoot coming from the guys who invented it — interviewers from GE who fooled loads of companies into using stacked ranking.

I’m not a fan of tricky interview methods. It would be interesting to see a corresponding methodology that attempts to identify employers who lie in interviews, and when they’re recruiting.

Consider what Topgrading, Inc. says to managers who’d like help hiring more effectively:

  • “there’s no verifying if candidates tell you the truth”
  • “Topgraders hire A players most of the time using because they use the ‘truth serum’ technique”
  • “It is an inexpensive tool that scares away low performers”

It sounds like a panacea for managers who believe most job applicants — non-A people — are liars that need to be scared away. Perhaps an effective sorting technique for companies is to look at which managers want to use topgrading, and fire them to get rid of the cynics.

The big idea

There’s just one big idea in topgrading: a technique used to expose all the liars who apply for a job.

Topgrading, Inc. calls this big idea “Threat of Reference Check” or TORC. It’s simple. You threaten all job applicants with reference checks before you even let them in the door. Here’s how they explain it:

“Because candidates know they will arrange reference calls, they tell the whole truth. And finally, you verify everything by talking with bosses (and others YOU choose); there is no phone tag because candidates arrange those calls.”

Get it? This threat “scares away low performers.”

An HR exec unloads on topgrading

Mike Smith is an HR executive in the San Francisco Bay Area who produces a blog called Back West. He rips the heart out of topgrading in Talent Wars: The “A” Player Hoax.

Smith says topgrading is a lie, and cites “performance research wonks” whose work suggests topgrading is simplistic:

“The prevarication that success comes to companies that systematically hire and develop only ‘A’ players is twofold:

  • “One, that talent is innate and that you really can’t do much to develop the 65% of your workforce that are “C” players, and
  • “Two, that filling your roster with all stars – and forgetting about things like right role, right culture, right boss and workgroup – is the simple (although it’s simplistic) fix.

Smith offers this caution to gullible employers: “Performance, both with individuals and organizations, just doesn’t work that way.”

The stack crashes

I think the best evidence that topgrading is crap lies in the highly publicized crash of Neutron Jack’s stacked ranking.

In 2014 The Wall Street Journal declared, “It’s Official: Force Ranking Is Dead.” The HR blog, Namely, tells how GE settled a $500 million lawsuit alleging forced ranking was biased against women. Yahoo! got sued over a claim that forced ranking was rigged — against men. In 2015, The Atlantic ran story about How Millennials Forced GE to Scrap Performance Reviews.

It turns out you can’t invest your money using a special method that ensures 75% of the time you’re going to win. And you can’t ensure 75% of your hires will be A people because, well, there’s no such thing as A, B and C people — or a way to separate them into bins.

Topgrading ranks right up there with Jack Welch’s two-dimensional vision of how to manage people — “rank and yank.”

There are far better, more direct ways to assess job candidates. For example, invite them into live, working meetings of your team, and watch how they behave and perform. (See Big Data, Big Problems for Job Seekers?)

Run

The prevalence of indirect job candidate assessment methods like stacked ranking and topgrading has led management in America off a cliff. Perhaps it’s because managers expect just-in-time, perfect hires. They have no idea how to develop and invest in their employees. If they did, they’d know how to find them and interview them, too. (See HR Technology: Terrorizing the candidates.) If managers were looking for talent, they wouldn’t be using techniques that focus on finding liars.

If you’re a job seeker, and a company tells you it does uses topgrading interviews, I think that should tip you off to find out whether management also practices stacked ranking — openly or surreptitiously. If it does, my advice is, Run. It’s not healthy to work for cynics. Find an employer that respects you. (See Smart Hiring: A manager who respects applicants, Part 1.)

Have you been topgraded, sliced, diced and cut from the list? Ever been stack ranked, yanked and jerked around? Ever interview with a company that assumes you’re a liar? If you think tograding is a great idea, tell us the A, B, Cs of how it works for you.

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