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The Intimidated Job Applicant: Pay me whatever you like!

In the May 3, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a wishful job seeker tries pandering to employers.


I was reading your advice about when to bring up money in a job interview. The advice from outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas here in Chicago is to never bring up compensation until an offer is made.

Puppy beggingWith the job market being more favorable to employers, they suggest that getting into the dialog too early can remove you from consideration quickly. While none of us wants to waste time going through the motions only to discover the salary may be too low, it may be more important to stay in the game as long as you can, getting them to like you. It gives you more of an opportunity to sell yourself, too.

When the salary question comes up too early in the discussion by the employer, they are not focusing on what you can bring to the table. So, when they ask you what you expect to earn, I was told to respond with, “This is a great company/organization, etc. I’m sure you’ll be fair.”

This throws the ball back in their court. If you stay in the game long enough, and they really like you, you could be offered something else or better.

Nick’s Reply

So Challenger Gray & Christmas told you to warily stroke the employer and say, “This is a great company or organization, etc. I’m sure you’ll be fair.” — hoping they’re going to like you and thus not abuse you. Pandering is not a negotiating strategy.

Why am I not surprised at the advice you were given? If your employer paid CG&C to help outplace you, consider that outplacement firms get paid whether you land a job or not. It’s unbelievable that any employer would hire a firm like this to spoon-feed pablum to the people it’s letting go.

The outplacement mistake

Let’s discuss outplacement for a minute. Here’s a cautionary note from Parting Company | How to leave your job, p. 30:

Outplacement might be helpful, but never forget that you are responsible for your next career step. Don’t be lulled into thinking that a high-priced consultant — who works for your former employer — has any real skin in your future. The skin is yours alone…

Outplacement might extend your unemployment, rather than help you land the right new job expeditiously. So, take ownership of your status, and maybe put some extra cash in your pocket. Here’s how.

Some employers will give you cash in lieu of outplacement services, if you ask. (You might have to sign a release to get it. Talk to your lawyer.) This might be the best deal, and it might help you get into high job-hunting gear faster. If you decide to spend that cash on assistance from an outplacement firm that has excellent references, that’s up to you — you’ll get to choose the firm and the counselor. If you use the money to tide you over while you conduct your own job search, that’s also up to you.

It helps to understand how the outplacement industry works. This is from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), pp. 12-13:

Big outplacement firms have a business model. Their objective is not to help you land a good job. The goal is to sell multi-million dollar counseling contracts to big employers that are downsizing. Almost by definition, your individual needs cannot be met by the packaged services these outplacement firms sell. If they really wanted to help you, they’d arrange personal introductions to managers who need you. They don’t do that, because that won’t win them a new gig. To win big contracts, these outplacement firms have to demonstrate a cookie-cutter process for handling thousands of newly-unemployed people. Their clients buy that process, and the more structured it looks, the more it appears to be worth… It’s too generic to work.

The last thing you need is a cookie-cutter approach to job hunting. If you want to stand out, you must make it personal. And that takes time, careful thought, and diligence. Every situation is unique, so these packaged methods you’ve been given aren’t going to work.

Outplacement that someone else chooses for you and pays for could be the biggest mistake you make when trying to land a new job after you get laid off.

Wishful thinking is not business

Let me explain why that lame, over-used response would reveal you to be naive and unsophisticated. It tells the employer that (1) you don’t know what you want or are worth, and that (2) you don’t know how to negotiate.

How businesslike is that?

Let’s say you were applying for a top sales position, and the VP of Sales asked how you’d respond to a prospective customer who asks, “How much do you want me to pay for what you’re selling?” Suppose you gave the CG&C response: “You’re a great company. I’m sure you’ll be fair.”

The VP would never hire you because you’re failing to negotiate by communicating the value of your product. You’re pretending the other guy will figure it out. If you worked for him, he’d fire you — and I’d compliment him.

Wishful thinking is not a sales strategy or a negotiating strategy. It’s childish, naive, and dangerous.

CG&C’s response is canned, silly, thoughtless and nothing but a sign that the applicant has no business in a job interview. Please: Don’t do it.

Negotiating is not a game of appeasement

Many job seekers are intimidated in interviews. And a common, visceral response to intimidation is to appease who frightens or intimidates  you. Trying to be likeable is a childish form of appeasement.

dog bonesIf you think trying to be likeable and saying “I’m sure you’ll be fair” will help you “stay in the game” longer, you’re going to lose because the employer will take advantage of the fact that you invested all that time — and correctly surmise that you’re going to take whatever they offer you. This is one of the oldest psychological tricks used in negotiating — look up cognitive dissonance. People have a tendency to rationalize and accept lousy job offers because they’ve spent so many hours in interviews.

There’s another side to this. If you continue interviewing while knowing an offer is not likely to be in your acceptable ballpark, and then you try to “sell” the employer on a much higher salary, do you really think they’re not going to get upset with you for misleading them?

Don’t play games so you can “stay in the game,” because interviewing and hiring is not a game.

  • Learn how to calculate what you’re worth, so that you’re prepared to ask for a compensation range you can defend. That demonstrates you know what you want. (See How much money should I ask for?)
  • Learn how to ask the salary range of a position before you invest in interviews — that’s how to establish your negotiating position. It also shows the employer you’re not counting on being likeable; you’re prepared to demonstrate your value and to justify what you’re asking for. (See Ask this question before you agree to an interview. Yes, CG&C is so wrong that you should explicitly talk about money even before going to a job interview!)

You’re not a puppy. You don’t need to be meek and likeable so an employer might throw you a bone. I think Challenger Gray & Christmas are wasting your time and that of the employers you’re talking to — not to mention wasting your old employer’s money.

Do employers intimidate you in job interviews? Are you ready to state what you want? Do you ask what the employer is ready to pay? Have you used outplacement services? How did it work out?

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How to launch a seemingly impossible career change

In the April 19, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to get in the door for a seemingly impossible job change.


leavingI want to make a big career change into medical device sales, but it’s going to be tricky. My experience is in teaching, primarily English as a second language. I don’t expect to get a sales job to start, so I want to start out in sales support. I’ve done tons of research on the company I’ve chosen, its technology and products, and I’ve even talked to some of the company’s customers — doctors and medical centers. I know that their salespeople’s time is worth a little over $1,000 an hour, so good sales support is key to profitability.

Two contacts — an old friend and her friend — work in the company where I want a job, and I’m using LinkedIn to find more contacts. I have read both your How Can I Make a Career Change? (I thoroughly enjoyed my library vacation) and Fearless Job Hunting books, and I am following your advice. But my execution might be a bit rocky. How can I parlay these contacts into more connections that might help me get in front of the right manager to talk about a seemingly impossible job change?

Nick’s Reply

You’re right — that’s a huge, daunting leap. Medical sales is a tough field to get into. Your odds aren’t good, but I don’t believe in odds or in luck. I believe in hard work. If you really want to do this, do all the hard work and don’t let anything deter you until you either get the job or exhaust every avenue.

But you didn’t ask my permission. You asked how to get in the door.

It’s going to require more than one or two contacts, so you need to leverage your two friends to meet more people in the company. I’m both a fan and an antagonist when it comes to LinkedIn. It’s the best online phonebook ever developed. On the other hand, it’s become just another job board after squandering its future as a true networking tool.

Leverage LinkedIn

Here’s how to use LinkedIn to help you with this. Ask your friends for one or two names of people who work in or near the department at the company where you want to work. Then search both LinkedIn and Google to find them, and then more people who are connected to the company’s product areas where you want to work. (I suggest you re-read “A Good Network Is a Circle of Friends,” pp. 27-32 in How Can I Change Careers?)

Search Google for the company name plus the product names and related technologies. Let me caution you here: Google Search and Google News are different. You’ll turn up different results. I prefer News because the results will surface names of specific people and stories about them — and that’s what you want. The more relevant names you can dig up this way, the better. Then look up each person on LinkedIn — and ask your friends if they know them.

When you contact someone you found this way, you don’t have to rely on that tenuous LinkedIn “connection” to get their attention. (I hate it when someone reaches out to me and says, “I found you on LinkedIn!” So what? They might as well have found me in the phone book!) You should refer to the news article you read about them. Talk shop, and mention the two people you know at the company:

How to Say It:
“I was just talking to Mary Smith, who works in the Blah-Blah department at your company, and I also just read this article in the Wall Street Journal about your role in your company’s…”

Talk shop!

You’ve clearly done your homework — Good for you! — so you can actually ask them a couple of intelligent questions about their work. This tells them you’re not some LinkedIn opportunist who ran a keyword search to “find” them. You actually know something about what they do. This puts you on a very different footing from someone who’s calling around for job leads via LinkedIn.

Having started a work-related — if very simple — discussion, you can move on to your objective:

How to Say It:
“I wonder if I could ask you for some advice. My background is… and I’m considering a job in sales support. I don’t just want to send in a resume, because I’d like to learn more about the support function in sales of XYZ devices. I know that a sales person’s time at your company is worth about $1,000 an hour, so sales support is an important lever for profitability. Is there someone you can recommend that I talk with in sales or sales support so I can learn more about the role?”

Isn’t that more powerful than saying, “Hey, do you know of any job leads at your company?” You will leave your competitors in the dust. Here’s another way to break the ice with such a contact:

How to Say It:
“I noticed in the article I read that you work with the Hannenframmis device line. Another company, X, makes a related device they call a Thingamajig. What do you think of their product?”

A question like that tells the person you’ve studied the company, its products and its competition. What LinkedIn query goes into such detail? Your request is out of the ordinary. You’re not asking for a job lead — you’re talking shop. When you ask someone for their opinion or advice about something relating to their work, I find they usually want to share their thoughts.

Once again, having established a bit of credibility, it’s easy to switch to:

“Hey, I wonder if I could ask you for some advice…” and use the How to Say It suggestion above.

Critical Mass: Nobody said it was easy

If they don’t recommend anyone, just say, “Thanks — it was good to meet you. Thanks for your time,” and move on. But my guess is they will offer you some help. One new contact and referral thus leads to another. You learn something new every step of the way, and you will build a critical mass of contacts and insight. Some of them will know one another — and that builds your credibility further as you navigate the company to find the right manager in sales.

One of your new friends will refer you to a manager who will recognize a highly motivated person who wants to work in sales support. Without applying for a job, you’ll be an insider. When you get near that manager, re-read Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Share Experiences: The path to success,” pp. 12-14, and “Pest, or manager’s dream?” pp. 18-19.

I’ll caution you: This is not easy or quick, nor should it be. While your competition is sending keywords to HR managers, you’ll be talking to insiders — that requires dedication and focus. Managers tend to hire people they know, or people referred by trusted contacts. That’s what this approach gradually turns you into — an insider — if you invest the time to do the homework, to talk with people patiently, and to learn all you can about the company you want to work for so you can demonstrate why you’re the profitable hire.

How do you get in the door when the job you want is a big change from what you’ve been doing? Ever make a big career change? What would you suggest to this earnest reader?

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The Bad-Business Job Offer: Negotiating not allowed!

In the March 22, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wastes time with an employer who doesn’t negotiate.


I received a job offer for $80,000, which is low for what my position gets in my industry. I responded that I’m excited about joining the team, and I counter-offered for $85,000, outlining what my value is, how I plan to benefit the company, and overall how the raise is justified. That’s my understanding of the proper way to negotiate — you must justify your counter-offer.

i win-you loseInstead of just turning down my counter-offer and staying at $80,000, which I would’ve gladly taken, they rescinded the offer completely. The hiring manager wouldn’t even respond to my calls or e-mails, even after he said he’d be glad to discuss any questions.

I spoke to friends who are hiring managers, who in turn asked other hiring managers, and the consensus was that it was a total shock and an anomaly to rescind the offer because I tried to negotiate it.

Is this becoming more common, or is this just plain bad hiring practice? Was I in the wrong to negotiate? The hiring manager did claim that he already pushed for the $80,000, which is the maximum they could offer. But anyone with negotiating experience knows that might be a negotiating technique of the employer.

In all, this experience scared me into never wanting to negotiate again, and I’m afraid I’ll never get a job that pays at least the average value for my position. I would love to know your thoughts!

Nick’s Reply

When employers talk money, job applicants are supposed to gratefully nod YES. When job applicants say MAYBE and try to negotiate, more and more we’re seeing employers say NO and withdraw offers altogether.

That’s when you should say GOODBYE, because negotiating is part of any business, and hiring people is business. Any employer that doesn’t respect the negotiating process — even if it declines to increase a job offer — is doing bad business.

Here we go again: Another rescinded (or retracted) job offer. (See Protect yourself from exploding job offers and Protect Your Job: Don’t give notice when accepting a new job.) What is up with human resources management?

Your story is an interesting twist, because your offer was retracted simply because you dared to negotiate it. But more troubling is that I’m seeing a shocking number of rescinded offers reported by readers.

Don’t beat yourself up about what just happened to you. As long as you do it respectfully, there is nothing wrong with negotiating. It’s part of business. I compliment you for negotiating responsibly. (See Only naïve wusses are afraid to bring up money.) Here are my thoughts:

  • The manager is within his rights to not offer more money. But taking offense at a negotiation is puerile. As a job applicant, I’d walk away from this employer without another thought. As a headhunter, I’d never work with this employer again. (Employers should read Why you should offer job applicants more money.)
  • The company’s HR department reveals it is meaningless, clueless, powerless, or all three. (See Why HR should get out of the hiring business.) Yes, I said HR. Even though you were dealing with a hiring manager, it’s the HR department’s job to ensure the hiring process is conducted in a businesslike way by all managers.
  • The company’s Marketing and Public Relations departments are to be pitied because, while they are working to create a good image of their company before their customers and investors, hiring managers are tearing that image down in the company’s professional community. (I’m sure you’ll be sharing your story with your friends in your industry.)
  • You have dodged a bullet. Better to know now that this person doesn’t negotiate, than after you take the job.

What this company did doesn’t make sense. But please consider that the risk of working with people whose behavior doesn’t make sense, doesn’t make sense!

Move on. There are good employers out there who know how to conduct business. Business between honest, smart people is always a negotiation. You did nothing imprudent or wrong. When someone won’t negotiate, they’re not worth doing business with.

We learn through negotiating. As you pointed out, negotiating by offering sound reasons for your counter-offer is a way to find common ground and a way to understand one another better. This kind of back-and-forth is the foundation of all commerce. It’s how we learn to work together. (See The ONLY way to ask for a higher job offer.)

This employer doesn’t get it. It never feels good when someone dumps us. It makes us question ourselves. But if you take a deep breath, I think you’ll realize that a company that refuses to have a dialogue — a negotiation — with you, doesn’t care about you. There can be no commerce in that case.

I think such appalling, irresponsible behavior by employers has become much more common, because HR now so dominates recruiting and hiring that hiring managers are less and less likely to understand even the most fundamental rules of engagement with job applicants. They do stupid things that cost their company money and good hires. Even worse, HR is so dominated by automated hiring tools, regulatory blinders, and “best practices” that even HR “professionals” are less and less likely to understand the basic rules of doing business.

Responsible business people don’t just walk away from a negotiation like this employer did. They respectfully close out the discussion. And if an employer makes an offer that the recipient tries to negotiate, the employer doesn’t withdraw the offer as its answer to a request for more money. The employer just says, No, no more money. Do you accept the original offer?

Don’t beat yourself up. You can always negotiate with good people. The rest aren’t worth worrying about or dealing with. I wish you the best.

Do you negotiate to get the best job offer you can? Did the employer pull the offer as a result? If you’re an employer, are you willing to negotiate with job applicants? How would you deal with an employer that doesn’t negotiate?

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No resume, no job posting, no application, no interview: Microsoft Video Edition

In the March 15, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we do something completely different. We take a video approach to “the mountain” that stands between you and your next job.

Surviving the new economics of work

Microsoft recently asked me to talk for 20 minutes to thousands of IT (information technology) professionals whose jobs are at risk due to rapid changes in technology and in the economy. What can they do to save their careers? What kind of work should they do next?

Sound familiar?

I tuned my comments for Microsoft’s 3-day TechNet Virtual Conference (March 1-3, 2016) — but what I told the audience applies to any line of work, and it’s from the core Ask The Headhunter ideas we discuss here every week. This video includes about 20 minutes of me talking about the new economics of work, and 15 more of Q&A we did via Skype afterwards. A big thank-you to Microsoft and Channel9 for sharing this video with the Ask The Headhunter community.

Questions & Answers

This video raises in-your-face questions.

But I also show you how to answer them Yes! (I’ve added links to take you to more resources. Most of these are free, but there’s a link or two to my books.)

I talk about the #1 problem job seekers face: They let a mountain of obstacles interfere with their efforts to get a job.

  • They try to beat the online job boards.
  • They struggle to tunnel through Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSes).
  • They play the keyword game with automated job application systems.
  • They keep failing to reach the top of a mountain of competition.

In the video, I talk about why there is no mountain — no resume to write, no job postings to select or decipher, no job applications to file, no interviews to play to. I’m not kidding. I don’t think any of those “tools” help employers hire or job hunters get hired. I think our economy is bogged down by the detritus of phony, automated recruiting — it doesn’t work!

There’s just fearless job hunting.

  • You become part of the circle of friends that naturally leads people to jobs — and that leads to hires.
  • You show up with a clear definition of the problem or challenge that needs to be tackled.
  • You deliver a viable business plan for the job.
  • You show how you’ll do the work. And you create a new, profitable outcome the company never contemplated.
  • You make yourself the job candidate who stands out from all the rest.

Does it matter what kind of work you do?

Virtually every kind of work today is under siege of one kind or another — but for the same reasons. Every industry, every company is increasingly focused on the bottom line. The shift that everyone faces is not just technological. It’s economic — and it’s about accountability. That’s what I talk about in the video. Economic pressures supersede all others — and technology jobs feel the pressure most because that’s where efficiencies that solve economic problems are supposed to come from. But no matter what kind of work you do, the shift must be in your own perspective.

Success is not about chasing hot jobs, because there’s really no such thing. (What’s hot changes by the time you catch it!) It’s about whether you are hot. What makes you hot? You have to make yourself and your work accountable. If you wait for the bean counters to do that, you’ll probably lose your job if you have one.

If you work in IT, the video will get you started on how to advance your career in the face of stunning shifts in technology — changes that probably put your current job at risk.

And if you don’t work in technology, you’ll quickly see how my suggestions will help your career in today’s turbulent economy. As I said, the 20 minutes of this video summarize many of the core ideas we talk about on Ask The Headhunter all the time. Of course, I couldn’t squeeze every Ask The Headhunter method, tip and lesson into a 20 minute video. For more about how to be a fearless job hunter who stands out from the competition by delivering profit, check out the Introduction to Fearless Job Hunting, which also details which of my books address which challenges.

I hope you enjoy the video, and that it inspires you to forget about mountains and obstacles while you plan how to deliver profitable work to a worthy employer — work that’s profitable to you, too.

Many thanks to my good buddies at Microsoft for the opportunity to get in front of the company’s enormous audience — and for their generous hospitality while I was in Seattle and on the Microsoft campuses in Redmond and Bellevue. Mostly, I’m grateful for the freedom to work unscripted — every word in the video is mine. No one told me what to say or what to talk about. (If you’re among the many Ask The Headhunter subscribers who work in IT, don’t miss the other great videos about the future of IT in the TechNet 2016 archive.)

Okay — let’s hear what you liked and didn’t like about what I said in the video. Then hit me with the in-your-face questions — what do you want to know more about? What would you like to see in future Ask The Headhunter videos — because I’m planning to make more. Let’s pound these topics!

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Will employers explode if you squeeze them for interview feedback?

In the March 8, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to make failed interviews pay off.


I had a good interview, or so I thought. The manager complimented me on our discussion, and I could tell she was impressed, but I guess I just wasn’t the right fit. I know everyone goes through this. But when you add up all the interviews across a long career, you wonder why. I try to learn something from every such failure, but the time spent just doesn’t seem to be compensated by what managers share after a meeting. Do you have any advice about how to benefit even from interviews that don’t result in a job offer?

squeezedNick’s Reply

Not every job interview results in an offer of employment, but every interview should provide you with information that helps you land an offer next time. An interview is an investment of time and effort. You should always get a return on that investment — either in the form of an offer, or in the form of useful feedback.

Many employers won’t tell why they rejected you. Indeed, their legal eagles (or hatchlings in the HR department) may have warned managers that they’d get sued for telling you too much. But, if you press, you may get something you can use. Just remember: You don’t want grounds for a lawsuit, you want useful information. An employer owes you that in exchange for your participation in their hiring process.

Here’s how to get truly useful information if you’ve been rejected.

First, make sure you’re getting feedback directly from the manager and members of her team. The most valid information usually comes from the hiring authority and from others who understand the work in question, not from a clerk in HR. (A good HR person might offer you something useful, but it’s usually the manager who can really help you.) So call the boss after your meeting.

Second, don’t ask why they turned you down. (That’s what prompts the legal heebie-jeebies.) Instead, thank the manager for considering you, then shift the discussion to career development.

How to Say It

“I learned a lot from our discussion. Can I ask you for some advice? Someday I want to work in the kind of position I interviewed for. I want to become one of the best people in this field. Can you suggest what I ought to be reading, what kinds of further education or training I might get, and where I should focus myself to develop the right skills? What would you do if you were me, to develop myself professionally?”

Keep your request informal and friendly, and a good manager will advise you. Note that you are not asking why you were rejected. (See Play Hardball With Slowpoke Employers.)

Finally, don’t take “no” for an answer. If you’ve asked diplomatically but a manager ignores your calls or won’t provide honest feedback after a rejection, recognize that you’re dealing with an irresponsible member of your professional community. She has a one-sided view of business. She expects people to be open and honest in interviews, but refuses to be candid herself.

My next suggestion will probably have you scratching your head, but think about it.

E-mail or call the CEO of the company, or the top executive in the department that interviewed you. (Don’t be intimidated — he or she is just another employee of the company.) Politely explain that you interviewed in good faith, and that you expect the same in return.

How to Say It

“I value my reputation as a responsible, forthright [marketer, software engineer, whatever you are]. I hope your company values its reputation as a responsible member of our professional community. I invested many hours in interviews with your team, and I would simply like some honest feedback about my meetings with your company. But no one will call me back. I look forward to hearing from you.”

A good CEO will get the message. A bad one will ignore you. It’s worth finding out how a company you’re interested in is managed, and whether they behave with integrity.

Shocking suggestion, isn’t it — that a top executive would make sure her management team does the right thing. The world has been conditioned to accept bad behavior, so we don’t ask for good behavior. That diminishes the entire business world. My guess is, awkward as such a call or e-mail might seem to you, the CEO will remember you. If the CEO is respectful, it’ll pay off. If the CEO is dismissive, you’re the one who will remember. And you’ll let others know.

After investing hours talking with a company, you should see a return on your investment. But it’s up to you to collect it. Nobody said doing collections is easy, but consider how much you can learn throughout your career by chasing down the value of every interview you do.

The bonus is, after a few of these calls, you’ll have all kinds of good questions to ask employers at the end of your interviews, so you can collect the ROI without having to call anyone later.

A rejection can be delivered in one of two ways: with good faith and respect, or with thoughtless disdain. When you invest in an interview, make sure you get the most out of it. Ask. Learn. (See Loopy feedback failure.)

Do you make sure every interview pays off? We all know employers are lousy about providing useful feedback. I frankly don’t know how they get away without it. How can they be squeezed, without making them explode?

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4 You’re-Kidding-Me Questions & Snappy Answers

msft-technetToday (March 1) we’re joined by some special guests! A big welcome to IT professionals from Microsoft’s TechNet Virtual Conference 2016, where I’m doing a presentation titled “Top Tips From A Headhunter” to help IT folks deal with career crises.

For those new to Ask The Headhunter, I invite you to check out Ask The Headhunter In A Nutshell: The short course. For more in-depth methods to handle your own career challenges, please also see 600 Editions: The Best of Ask The Headhunter! Related to what I discussed in the video you just watched on TechNet: Please! Stop Networking! Advance your career by learning to “talk shop” with people!

The ATH portion of the conference is March 1, 11:30am PT with Q&A to follow. If you’re reaching this in time, please join us: enter the event here.

Microsoft Week! Save 25% on any Ask The Headhunter PDF books this week only! Use discount code=MSFT when checking out! This offer is limited-time only! Save now!

In the March 1, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, readers seek wisdom on all manner of things, including how to make big bucks! File under Gimme a break… but we try to cover it all! Is this week’s Q&A tongue-in-cheek? You decide…


I love speaking in public, giving presentations, leading group discussions, and teaching classes. If I were given the challenge of speaking in front of 500 people with 60 minutes notice, I would rub my hands together with glee. Please help me understand how to turn my talents into $100,000 a year.

Nick’s Snappy Reply


Ask The Headhunter: Where your dreams come true! Ask yourself, What company or organization could make a lot of money and profit by having you do those things you love? That’s who to go to about a job. You need to come up with a mini-business plan for each company you target.

  • What problem or challenge do they face?
  • How can you tackle it to produce profit?
  • What’s the best way to explain it to the company?
  • Who’s the best person to explain it to?
  • How can you track down people that “best person” knows or works with — people who can introduce you?

You’re not going to get hired to do what you love. You’ll get hired to do what you love if you can show how that will pay off to an employer. That’s your real challenge. You must figure it out and communicate it, because no company is going to figure it out for you. For more about this, see The Basics, then rub your hands with glee!

Question 2

I worked in San Francisco and Silicon Valley for 25 years recruiting. I have references from great companies. No one seems to be interested in my valuable experience. In fact, I was told no one would hire me in Silicon Valley. I need someone to check my experience out. I would very much appreciate a referral that could help me track these rumors down.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

Ah, let me get out my little black book… You’d need to hire a private detective. I don’t know any. Just because someone told you that you’d never get hired in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean anyone else feels that way. If you’re concerned about your references, you might ask a hiring manager at any company (someone you’re friendly with) to contact them and ask them what they think of you. You might identify the problem that way, assuming you have one. In the future, Take Care Of Your References.

As for the value of your experience, please see my reply to Question 1.

Question 3

I came across your article, Wanted: HR exec with the guts not to ask for your social security number, after a local recruiter asked me for information I’m not comfortable sharing.

RECRUITER: “I need the last four of your SSN and middle initial to submit you to Company X.”

ME: “Is this absolutely needed at this stage? What is it being used for? Understandably, I’m hesitant to give out that information.”

RECRUITER: “It’s the only way you can be submitted to our client for a job. It’s part of their ATS (Applicant Tracking System) to ensure that candidates are not being double submitted.”

I guess I’m really hoping that you might offer a bit of advice — whether I’m right in thinking this is a red flag, and how I might further respond to her request and comments.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

How to Say It: Up your xiggy with a blowtorch!

Recruiters love applicants who speak the local jargon, so that should go over well. But employers have no legitimate reason to demand your SSN just so you can apply for a job. The recruiter gives away the problem when she admits the employer’s ATS needs your SSN to avoid duplicate submissions of your credentials. They use it as a hash — a unique database key to identify you. That’s how the employer avoids fee battles between recruiters who both claim they submitted you.

Lazy ATS system designers misuse a federal ID number for their own purposes. In the process, the recruiter, the employer and the ATS vendor are intimidating job seekers and putting them at risk of not getting a job over the ATS vendor’s silly database trick. Hence the need for a blowtorch.

Should you play along? That’s up to you. (A related employer trick is demanding your salary history. See Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?) It’s also up to you to hand over any 4 digits you choose, for the time being, to beat the system, and explain later to the employer if the 4 digits don’t match your actual SSN — which will matter only if you’re hired. “Someone obviously made a mistake.”

I don’t like lying. But I also don’t tolerate stupid bureaucratic tricks by employers and ATS vendors — at the expense of job seekers.

What you do is up to you, of course. What I’m suggesting could cause you problems. But what the recruiter and ATS vendor are demanding could cause you problems, too. I’m just telling you what I’d do. Always follow the instructions that come with a blowtorch.

Question 4

Should I disclose in a job interview that I applied to grad school a few weeks ago, and that if I get in I won’t be taking the job? The job interview is in about two weeks.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

First thing I’d do is buy a lottery ticket and put it in your pocket. Would you tell an employer you have that ticket in your pocket, and that if you win, you won’t need the job?

I see no reason to disclose your graduate school application, unless and until you’re faced with a choice about going to grad school. Make sense?

How would you deal with these four situations? Geez, I am on a roll! Post your comments before I slow down!

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The ATH Field Guide: Overcome resume gaps to land a job

In the February 23, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is ready to chuck it all to save his sanity. Should he?


I’ve been a project manager running million dollar software projects for 15 years. However, I’m sick of the stress, never-ending deadlines, and frantic pace of technology. I’m 41 and I can’t keep this up for another 10 years.


I’m trained to recognize classic burn-out syndrome but dealing with it in myself isn’t easy. I find myself wanting to go pound nails for a builder or mow lawns or just to do something mindless. I think I could step out of corporate life for a while and come back later, but I will have lost my contacts. What’s the answer? “Would you like some fries with that, Sir?”

Nick’s Reply

No, no fries… but welcome to burn-out. It happens to many talented people. It’s nature telling you to flip the burger because one side is done. It’s time for the other side.

The conventional obstacles

Before I offer you suggestions about how to overcome the resume gaps you’re about to create, so you can land a new job later, let’s consider the obstacles you’re going to face. I’m sure you’ve read or heard the conventional wisdom about what you’re suggesting. Let’s play it:

  • It’s harder to get a job if you don’t have a job.
  • Employers discriminate against the unemployed.
  • If you stop working, your skills will go stale.
  • When you leave the work world, your network dries up.
  • Gaps in your resume are the kiss of death.
  • And so on…

To one degree or another, all those statements are true, of course. But it’s also true that we’re all gonna die… so what’s the point of living? (Consider the killer quote from Ring Lardner.)

What’s the point of being burned out and miserable?

The conventional wisdom doesn’t matter when you’ve got good reasons to do what you’re talking about: You’re free to get out of the kitchen and go kick the can for a while. Give yourself a break, or you will indeed burn up.

Jobs can be replaced, but you get only one body, one mind. There’s no reason to lose your contacts — it’s not hard to maintain the best ones when you take time off. Your skills need not dry up. You can learn new skills.

Afraid to get off the burner?

I was about 40 when I chucked it all to write a book, start a website, and follow my gut. Yes, it was a risk. But getting off the burner is necessary when you feel burnt. With the relief will come new experiences and new choices you forgot you had.

burn out

If you’re good at what you do now, I can almost assure you that you’ll be good at whatever you decide to do after some time off. And if you stay in touch with your best contacts, you’ll always have the support system you need to succeed again. More important, if you don’t get lazy, during the time you take off you’ll make loads of new contacts that can help you get back to work when the time comes.

Here’s the thing: Conventional wisdom is for the conventional person. It’s for whoever wants to nail themselves to a job the rest of their lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that (even if I apply a derogatory metaphor to it). If you’re going to be unconventional — and take time off — then you can’t let the rules apply to you. You must forge your own rules and methods for getting back to work later.

And that’s what Ask The Headhunter is all about. My test of the value of any method for landing a job is this: Does it make enough fundamental business sense that it can work under any circumstances — including taking a break?

Screw convention

I don’t like tricky job-search methods intended to mollify HR managers and personnel jockeys who scan credentials for excuses to reject someone without meeting them. For example, clever resumes that hide your gaps in employment, “functional resumes” that hide your age, and “consulting gigs” that cover up your unemployment.

There’s only one way to get a job under any circumstances without relying on luck, or faking it:

Get someone that knows the person in charge to introduce you and vouch for you, then don’t waste the employer’s time. Show why hiring you will pay off, so the manager won’t be able to do anything but hire you.

Who cares if you’re not employed?

Because what’s far, far worse is staying in the job that’s burning you out, and then showing up at job interviews shell-shocked and demoralized. Then no one’s going to hire you.

My vote — assuming you’ve got your finances in order — is to go away and come back later. Screw convention.

Here’s the secret: If you’re good at your work, then trust your ability to earn a living and to do useful work again. When you’re done kicking the can, you’ll be able to dust yourself off and figure out again what to do next, after flipping burgers and offering fries with that…

Life is short. Do what comes next now, and I think you’ll be better able to do what comes after that.

The Field Guide

Need help getting back to work after you’ve been away for a while — whatever the reason? Maybe you’ve just got gaps in your resume that raise red flags.

Here’s an Ask The Headhunter Field Guide that I’ve compiled from some of the best ATH resources. It’s more than you probably need, but I hope some of these tips will help you get introduced to the right employer and show why hiring you will pay off — even if you’ve been out of the market a long time. All are free online except where indicated:

Career coaches and pundits tend to avoid the “in-your-face” questions job seekers really need answers to. To explore the daunting obstacles that can stop you dead in your tracks — and to choose the help you need — check out the topic titles in the 9 PDF books that make up Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection ($49.95).

Would you dare to chuck it all to survive burn-out on the job? Is this a risk worth taking? If you’ve done it, how did you get back to work — or did you choose another path?

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Protect Your Job: Don’t give notice when accepting a new job

In the February 16, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader talks about breaking the “rules.” Good.


There is a good chance that this spring I will score the federal job I’ve wanted for years. I finally have someone pulling for me on the inside and HR is waiting to pull my application as soon as they post the announcement and I apply.

at-your-own-riskIf I get this job — and even with help it’s still a big IF, — it will be my last job. The salary and perks will get me through my last 20 years before retirement, and a few years in, I can even move anywhere I like in the world and work remotely. Sweet.

I’ve done a lot of googling about giving my current employer two weeks’ notice. I despise my job and everything it represents, and sometimes I wonder if they’d even notice I hadn’t come in for days on end. But here’s where it gets complicated and emotional.

A few months ago, I was offered and accepted a position. I had even created an account in their online HR system and chose my benefits. Three days later, the job was rescinded for no more than vague “funding issues.” So, now I’m terrified that if I get an offer, it will vanish after I’ve quit and I’ll be left destitute — a not-so-improbable situation since I lost my job in the Great Recession, was unemployed for two years, and lost my house to foreclosure. It left a lot of emotional damage.

So, finally, my question: Do I really have to give notice? I’m thinking of just saying I’m going on vacation, moving back to D.C., and then calling on my first day and saying I won’t be back. I know that even though I think I’ll never need them as a reference again, it’s a small world and blah blah blah, but honestly I don’t think I even care.

The world has changed a lot and I’d really like to think this won’t come back to bite me. Am I right?

Nick’s Reply

What I love about Ask The Headhunter readers is that you ask the tough, in-your-face questions. The conventional wisdom about quitting without giving notice is etched in stone: Don’t do it! Always give notice!

Bunk. Life and business are full of choices, and the conventional wisdom is always wired to benefit employers and to make life easier for career coaches, who just love simplistic edicts and soft pablum.  So let’s explore deeply the hard choices for your benefit. I won’t let you off the hook — but not for the reason people might think.

You’re asking me for permission to do something that is bad form and bad business practice. I can’t give you that permission — you must decide whether to do it.

You’ve put a new spin on giving notice. Having had one job offer rescinded, you don’t want to risk it again. You want to actually start a new job before you resign the old one — and this hedge against disaster makes giving notice virtually impossible. Let’s distinguish between what’s allowed, what’s bad, and what’s advisable.

Is quitting without notice allowed?

I don’t know of any law that requires you to give your employer more notice than “I’m leaving today.” (You’d have to check with a lawyer if you want to be absolutely certain it will not bite you legally.) So I believe you can quit your job and leave without notice. Bear in mind that in most jurisdictions employment is at will and an employer can fire you on the spot for no reason or any reason. Employers do it frighteningly often.

You’ve already experienced the ultimate termination: A job offer was rescinded, effectively firing you before you started. See Protect yourself from exploding job offers.

The only other consideration here is whether your current employer imposes any sanctions or penalties for what you’re considering doing. I know employers that will withhold severance or other benefits, or attempt to recover educational investments they’ve made in the employee. If you work in sales, there might be a recoverable draw you’d have to pay back. (Readers making job changes between commercial companies should read Gotcha: The Non-compete agreement.) Check your employee policy manual to make sure you’re not missing anything.

If the law doesn’t prohibit it, you can do it, even if somebody else doesn’t like it.

Is it bad form?

Now let’s consider bad form. As you point out, leaving without notice could leave a bad taste in your employer’s mouth — assuming they care that you’re gone. But don’t skip giving notice thoughtlessly; don’t hurt your employer unnecessarily. Lousy references could follow.

If word gets out, your action could tarnish your reputation more widely. You might upset a co-worker who respects you. The HR manager at the company might mention to HR people in other organizations that you left them in the lurch. A bad reputation can grow from leaving without notice.

Will this come back to bite you? It might. Is it worth the risk? If you do indeed spend the rest of your career at the new job you hope to get, it may not really matter.

Is there any chance your old employer might contact your new employer after you’re hired and poison your new well? Scorned employers sometimes do stupid, irresponsible things out of spite. I’m not sure how much I’d worry about this, but be aware of the possibility and factor it into your decision — and take precautions. Since you’d be taking a federal job, I’m not sure how easy it would be to immediately terminate you. (See The 6 Gotchas of Goodbye.)

The warning I’ll give you: Do not disclose to anyone what you’re about to do or where you’re going until you’re already at the new job.

You don’t want your old employer — or anyone else, whether intentionally or not — to nuke your new job or your old job before the deal is sealed. The risk may seem small if you talk, but the consequences could be huge. That makes taking the risk imprudent.

Is it advisable?

This brings us to what’s advisable. An action that might hurt your reputation may be worth the risk and the price — you must make that judgment. It requires balancing the costs and benefits.

In another, related scenario — I call it juggling job offers — I point out that the consequences of a choice that upsets others may very well be worth the benefits. This is from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master Of Job Offers, pp. 15-17, and I think it addresses quitting without giving notice:

“Do I think it’s a nice thing to do? Of course not. It’s a crummy thing to do to a company… You will have to live with your decision and its consequences. It could affect your reputation. But life hands us painful choices sometimes, and we have to deal with them.”

In other words, calculate the adverse consequences of your sudden departure and be ready to pay for them. The new job could be worth it, and the risks may be acceptable. Hey — nobody said this was easy, and I’m saying there is no free ride.

What did you sign up for?

Finally, there’s the matter of contracts and agreements. People don’t realize what a can of worms they might leave behind when they quit. Think carefully. Plan ahead.

Study your company’s policies, because there could be grounds for legal action against you if you violate agreements you’ve made. Re-read the job offer you signed when you joined up — what did you agree to? Consider what you may have to sign in order to get your last paycheck. HR can be sneaky. (See The HR Gantlet: How to leave your job without getting hurt.) You don’t have to violate a law to get into trouble. You may subject yourself to a breach of contract that could cost you dearly.

Eyes open!

The last thing I’ll point out is that leaving a job — no matter how you do it — poses many routine risks. In Parting Company: How to leave your job, I provide a seven-page “Crib Sheet” about many of the gotchas people don’t think about. Leaving your job can exact costs you didn’t consider. Among the challenges covered in Parting Company:

  • What will happen to your stuff? Will you be able to take it with you?
  • Are you sure your vacation time will not be charged against your last paycheck?
  • Will you lose any benefits you are owed?
  • What happens to your pension plan?
  • Can the company take action against you over company property in your possession?
  • Do you know for sure “what’s theirs” and “what’s yours?”

I’m not trying to scare you. The new job you describe sounds great for you. And if you really despise your current job, it may be worth doing what’s bad form for the benefit of your career.

Hedge against HR

You shouldn’t have to risk your job if you want to accept a new one.

Nowadays, rescinded job offers have become frighteningly common — and as far as I’m concerned, it’s HR’s fault. You should consider whether you need a hedge to protect your current job when you get a new job offer. It may be prudent not to give notice when you get a new offer in case that new offer goes south — but be ready to pay the price of your choice.

If HR managers don’t like this advice, they should call on their brethren to stop rescinding job offers, because that’s what gives impetus to this hedge.

In any case, until employers start behaving with more integrity, proceed with eyes wide open. Protect yourself. Use your best judgment.

Did you ever quit without giving notice? How should this reader handle this situation? What other factors should you consider when deciding whether to give notice?

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Can I play one employer against another to get a better job offer?

In the February 9, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks whether it’s okay to threaten one employer with a job offer from another employer.


I’m a recruiter and I want to address what happens when people are interviewing with multiple employers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting an employer manipulateknow you’re interviewing at other companies. After all, employers acknowledge they’re interviewing more than one candidate. But I think it’s bad form to use one job offer to leverage another one.

If an offer is not what you want, just reject it after trying to negotiate a better one. But don’t threaten an employer with an offer from another employer. I had two employers pull job offers from candidates when the candidates played hardball during negotiations. They said they had other, better offers, hoping to get the employer to raise their bids. In both cases, of course, the candidates were stunned and disappointed the offers were pulled off the table. Lesson learned for them.

Do you agree?

Nick’s Reply

So, there are rules of engagement in interviews? (I know, I’m baiting you, but it’s friendly.) If there are any rules, it seems they’re all designed to benefit employers.

The double standard

I can’t think of one thing employers are expected to do out of respect for candidates.

  • They waste applicants’ time with silly screening interviews by personnel jockeys. (How is it an HR person with no engineering expertise can judge whether a computer design engineer is worth interviewing?)
  • They arrive late for interviews with impunity. (“We are very busy.”)
  • They want urine samples.
  • They leave applicants hanging for months after promising feedback “in a couple of weeks.”
  • They demand private information — social security numbers and salary history — before even meeting the candidate!

A double standard has long been in place. It’s time to remove it. Job applicants are constantly and sternly warned by HR and “career experts” about what to wear, say, not say, how to act, and so on.

  • “Don’t ask what the job pays.”
  • “Don’t tell us you’ve got other opportunities.”
  • “Don’t try to leverage a better salary.”

Think about it. Would you give your SSN to someone who asked you out on a date? Would you give them your home address, before the date? Would you agree to take a personality test before going to dinner? Of course not. Employers’ expectations are bizarre and self-serving. But there’s an intimidation factor at work: If you want to be considered for a job, learn to heel, learn to beg.

I don’t agree with you

If a job candidate believes using one employer to force another employer’s hand might work, by all means do it. You point out that employers interview lots of candidates. They often say, “We found some other very good candidates, so we’re not making a decision about you yet.”

How’s that statement any more legit than, “I’m talking to another excellent employer who is interested in hiring me, and we’re talking about a higher salary than you’ve suggested”?

On the other hand, if you don’t want to disclose that you’re talking to other employers (or who they are), then it’s also legit to decline to disclose even if you’re asked.

A job interview is a negotiation on all levels. Be honest, be polite and professional, and demonstrate integrity — but you’re not required to pull punches. (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball After The Interview.)

If you think you can get more money by pointing out that another company has made you a better offer, then use that as leverage. Of course, be aware that you might not get a higher offer. (And please don’t confuse my advice about using one offer to leverage another with using a job offer to extort a higher salary from your current employer. See “Don’t use an offer to get a raise” in Naive young grad blows it.)

If the employer plays at being offended or appalled, move on to someone who is an adult and ready to negotiate. (See Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money.)

Be realistic about negotiating

There is, of course, a difference between trying to leverage a better deal and threatening or offending someone. Negotiating requires tact and integrity, and it requires that you behave reasonably and realistically. Perhaps most important, you must demonstrate that what you’re suggesting will benefit both you and the employer. Never ask for more money just because you want it; show why you’re worth it. (See The Basics: The New Interview and The New Interview Instruction Book.)

As for those employers who pull offers because the candidates played hardball during negotiations, that’s the employers’ prerogative. It’s also up to candidates to decide whether those employers are worth working for. (Please note: I think pulling an offer during negotiations is very different from rescinding an offer that the applicant has agreed to accept. See Protect yourself from exploding job offers.)

Employers have a lot to lose by disrespecting job applicants. Pretending that salary doesn’t matter is just plain goofy — yet many employers act like it’s bad form to talk money before agreeing to a job interview. But, why would anyone agree to lengthy discussions if they don’t know whether the salary for the job is high enough to justify all the talking? It’s just not realistic, and employers don’t get a pass when they’re goofy.

Leverage if you want to

Telling an employer you’ve got a better deal elsewhere may not be inappropriate. Use your best judgment. There’s nothing inherently wrong in playing one option against another — employers do it every day when they interview candidates! It doesn’t make you bad or rude unless you behave badly or rudely. Money is a serious factor in doing business. Just ask the company’s CFO. It matters all the time. So, don’t let employers intimidate you into a corner. Think about your situation, and decide whether to use one employer to leverage a deal from another.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve seen employers end interviews when candidates admit they’re interviewing with other companies. That’s akin to dumping a date who says they’ve been on other dates. We’re dealing with naivete.)

For more about negotiating higher job offers successfully, see these sections of the PDF book Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers:

  • Am I unwise to accept their first offer? (pp. 8-9)
  • How to Say It: I accept, but I’d like more money (p. 9)
  • The bird-in-the-hand rule of job offers (pp. 12-14)
  • Juggling job offers (15-17)

How do you negotiate? Do you let employers impose a double standard? Are you intimidated by “employers’ rules” — or do you insist on candor in the negotiating process?

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What’s the secret to the thank-you note?

In the February 2, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks about adding value after a job interview.


Your newsletter has been an education for me. First as an employer, now as an applicant seeking to move on. But, there’s one topic you haven’t mentioned: the thank-you, or follow-up letter. When should it be sent? After the first interview, after the interview with the top dog, or both? And, what should it say?

value-addedI just sent one, after talking to the top dog. I repeated that I am interested in the position and told him of my immediate schedule. More importantly, and motivated by your columns, I told him about some activity of a standards committee that might have a strategic impact on his operations. I said I would be joining the committee, ex officio, by contributing some research I was doing, and I also told him what my input would be if I were working for him.

Back to my question: I think the best way to show I can solve his problems (and that I am more “dialed in” than his present staff, who are unaware of the standards committee) is in the follow-up letter. What do you think?

Nick’s Reply

Ah, you’re living proof that the employment system brainwashes us all and that smart people dumb down when they go job hunting! (See Employment In America: WTF is going on?)

You have answered your own question, but I think you’re worried you’re violating some interviewing protocol. Your idea is good — you did the right thing.

When to send a follow-up letter or e-mail is up to you. Trust your judgment. The main purpose of such a note is to add value for the benefit of the employer. My advice would be to send it to the manager you’d work for if you were hired, right after you’ve met with him. That’s the person you need to impress with your value. (See The most important question in an interview.)

I like what you did in your follow-up letter. You provided value. You offered information and a suggestion that could — if used properly — contribute to the employer’s bottom line. That’s a very powerful follow-up to an interview, because it demonstrates your commitment to help the business. Now that I’ve set you loose, here are a few tips that might help you avoid going a little too far next time.

  • Be judicious when communicating your value. Remember that some managers might feel threatened by too much “value” in your presentation. Be careful you don’t come across as a know-it-all.
  • Balance your ability to do the work with your ability to work with others. If this top dog’s team doesn’t know about the standards committee, you might suggest how they could use what you know, rather than emphasize that they don’t know it.
  • Be diplomatic. Avoid expressions like, “I can solve your problems” or “the best way to do this is…” It may seem obvious, but while you’re trying to follow The Headhunter’s approach, it’s easy to fall into the self-aggrandizement trap. You may be the best solution, but the manager needs to feel that’s his conclusion, not yours.

So, how do you go about communicating your value without risking going too far? Pretend you’re sitting around a conference table with the manager’s entire team. All eyes are on you. Your presentation will determine whether these people decide to hire you.

Batter up!

How would you present yourself? How would you articulate your ideas in that setting? Do you want to whack one out of the park, or hit a ground-roll double to knock in a few guys who are already on base? The choice is yours, but consider what the employer is looking for: a team player, or a solo star? Then craft your note to suit the situation. (See The New Interview.)

I think that’s how you want to come across in your follow-up letter. That’s the secret to a powerful thank-you note. (For more tips about thank-you notes, see Thanks is not enough.)

Do you send thank-you notes? Are they even necessary? If you use them, what do you include? To whom do you send them? Please share the outcomes of your best and worst efforts.

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