The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

Monthly archive for November 2011

You’ll never get hired if you’re self-employed

In the November 29, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader who’s run a business for years wants to know whether it’s true that the self-employed are unemployable.

I was on a discussion forum today where the consensus is that you’ll never get hired if you’ve been self-employed. Is that true?

I have had my own consulting business for the past 19 years. My original client base is drying up, but happily I have had some luck with a new market. I can definitely stay on my own, and there are good reasons to do so. BUT… I have not explored many job options over the years. Lately I have seen friends & neighbors get good-to-great jobs, things I would love to do professionally and personally. New challenges, terrific companies… and I find myself envying those folks.

I have been going on some job boards where I’ve seen jobs I would love to have. I’ve studied your approach and I feel confident that I could make good contacts with good companies. I know I would be a great, business-enhancing employee.

Then I came across that discussion forum today. Would it be hopeless for me to even try now? Given what you have written across-the-board, I feel like that forum’s assertion can’t be right. But I figured I’d rather ask you before embarking on a doomed-to-fail effort. (The people on the forum suggest all kinds of subterfuge to hide the “shame” of self-employment. I am very much against subterfuge!)

I have also read that people will “never get hired” if they’re over 50, stay-at-home moms, job-hoppers, or felons (!). I figure that, with the exception of the felons, there must be plenty of people in those categories who get good jobs. Yes?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

I’ll tell you what I said to a young man I know who is applying to colleges. He wants to study physics. Princeton is virtually impossible to get into and everyone has told him not to bother. But he wants to go to Princeton.

I told him that if you want to do something, then go after it like it’s the only thing in the world. Your goal is to succeed, not to worry or even to think much about the so-called odds. And you certainly should not listen to the comments and speculations of people who are afraid of failure.

Odds matter only if we’re talking about a population of people, because odds are descriptive of a population. They don’t matter much when we’re talking about an individual. Odds don’t prescribe the right action for an individual. That is, just because Princeton rejected 20,000 applicants is no reason not to apply. What matters is what one person is capable of doing — and what he’s motivated to do.

So, ignore and stop reading that stuff on the forums. Do what you want to do. Do it the best way you know how. People with their own businesses get hired. I don’t know how many, and I don’t care. Even if every single one of them has failed to date, your objective is to be the first one to succeed. If you think you can be a great, business-enhancing employee, that’s what matters. It’s better yet if you can demonstrate those qualities. That’s what will get you hired.

My advice is to ignore everything you’ve been told. Then go do what you set out to accomplish. Either smile or smirk at the naysayers. They don’t matter. They’re pretty pathetic. Failure in America is built upon their fears and chatter.

A 63-year-old reader told me last year she’d landed the new job she wanted — in part because she ignored all the discouraging things she’d heard about age being a obstacle. The young man I mentioned applied to Princeton. Will he get in? Will his outcome affect whether you pursue the jobs you want? Go for it. Stay away from the “You can’ts.”

Did anyone ever tell you you’d never get hired? What’s the secret to success in a “lousy” job market? (Hint: There’s no such thing as a job market.) Tell us what you’ve pulled off in the face of incredible odds — that’s what matters.

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Jumping Employment Gaps

In the November 22, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful executive who took time off then worked as a consultant says headhunters won’t touch him. What’s up?

I was an executive with a financial services software company for 20 years. I joined when it was a start-up. After the company was sold, I took a package and left, as did the co-owners and, eventually, all of the senior management. I have a five year gap in my resume after which I had a couple of consulting engagements, one of which lasted a year, the other approximately six months. I speak with recruiters frequently, but invariably the gaps prevent me from getting an interview. The recruiters will not even present me to the client. I would truly appreciate any advice.

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

Most recruiters suffer from a buzz words syndrome. If the buzz words aren’t on your resume, then you’re not a candidate.

Happy Thanksgiving!Those recruiters obtain lists of “candidate criteria” from their clients, and they pattern-match those criteria to someone’s resume. My guess is that among those criteria are “stable work history” or “must be currently employed.”

You had a long, successful career building a company from the ground up. That’s trumped by “currently unemployed” only in the mind of a foolish recruiter.

If you had been as narrow-minded as those recruiters about whom you hired while building your start-up, the business would likely have failed. I’m willing to bet you hired people who spent time consulting or running their own businesses. You relied on your ability to recognize what people could do; you didn’t judge them on buzz words or on what they had done in the past. You probably hired people that others wouldn’t touch.

What I’m telling you is, those recruiters are helping you weed out companies you should not work for. I know this sounds like sour grapes, but think about it. We all have a selection process in mind that supports the way we live and work. We pick people and we make choices that reflect who we are and how we operate.

Now, think about what that means. You’re being rejected by recruiters and companies that are looking for “the perfect fit” to their narrow criteria. But when did you ever encounter “perfect circumstances” and “perfect solutions” to the business problems you faced at your start-up?

Kiss those recruiters goodbye, because they’re working for narrow-minded employers that you probably won’t be happy working for. Instead, track down insiders who work with the kinds of companies where you’d shine. Start talking to lawyers, bankers, investors, realtors, landlords, accountants, consultants and other folks who do business with dynamic, growing companies that want talent — not perfect fits to static job descriptions. (You and I both know there’s no such thing in either case.)

Those recruiters don’t work for the companies that will hire you. You will find your next employer through external consultants (like those I listed) who work with companies like the one you helped grow. The company that hires you next won’t be looking at the gap you’re facing — it’ll be looking at how effectively you can leap over that gap to help grow its business.

How did you leap over an employment gap? Did you ever hire someone with a gap? What the heck does a gap really say about a person, anyway?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Half-Assed Recruiting: Why employers can’t find talent

In the November 15, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter who tries to take a personal approach to an employer is told to “go tell it to our website” in order to comply with federal rules:

Nick, this is a new one to me. Do we really need to apply online for positions before contacting anyone in a company, “to be compliant with government programs?”

Is this true, or are they using a federal smokescreen here? I made a personal inquiry about a job through LinkedIn, and they sent me to their website to apply. Here is the reply I received:

“In order to be considered for any of our positions at [Fortune 100 company] it will be important to apply to the position. To be compliant with our Govt programs, a candidate has to apply to the positions to be considered. Also, if you are interested in moving forward, can you please send to me a copy of your resume and I will send it over to our hiring manager.

Mary [surname omitted]
[tel omitted]
[e-mail omitted]
Global Recruiting
BE VITAL in your career, Be seen for the talent you bring to your work. Explore opportunities within the [Company] Family of Companies”

When I did as I was told in the past and applied online at this company’s website, they immediately sent out a notice of rejection, thanking me for applying, saying they have no open positions at this time, and wishing me best of luck in my job search.

How do they expect to get good candidates?

My Advice

Many companies have policies requiring submission of an application online, even if they don’t cite federal law. (The feds require employers to document their compliance with equal opportunity hiring laws, and this may be why some companies like to have an online audit trail of applications.)

But what does this have to do with intelligent recruiting and hiring practices? Nothing at all. Employers can be total dumb-asses when it comes to hiring and recruiting, and still obey the law.

You’ve encountered a company recruiter who is more concerned about dotting i’s and crossing t’s than recruiting competitively. Telling you that the personal approach you took is inadequate, and to go fill out the online form, is not smart, competitive behavior. (I do give her credit for requesting your resume. But after you went to the trouble to make a personal contact, her suggestion is no more personal than filling out that online form.)

Even if this recruiter were to respond to you outside the confines of those online forms, she could still make sure that your application was properly documented — later. To answer your question, I don’t know how a company expects to attract “VITAL” candidates and to “see the talent you bring to your work” when the first order of business is to shunt them to the website, where applicants can do the HR staff’s adminstrative work — filling out forms and tracking applicants.

What you should do

Keep taking the personal approach. If you can make a good contact through LinkedIn, go for it — but don’t bother with contacts in the personnel department. Find a manager in the company who actually needs to hire someone. Establish mutual interest, and even get an interview if possible. If the discussion becomes serious, then you can submit the online stuff to satisfy the bureaucrats who had absolutely nothing to do with attracting you to the company. In the meantime, you’ve got the ball rolling with that hiring manager, ahead of your competition.

The personnel jockey who told you to go fill out the online form will be busy driving away good candidates — to her competitors.

Half-assed recruiting

Your experience isn’t unusual. Employers seem to have turned half-assed recruiting into a top-level strategy for turning away top talent. “Recruiting” has been reduced to running ads, telling people to fill out forms, and waiting for talent to show up. In New Jersey, lazy, mindless recruiting practices are getting companies busted for violating the law: See my blog posting, Employer Fined for Stupid Recruiting, about the first employer to be fined for posting a job that requires applicants “to be currently employed.”

I’ll keep saying it: Stories like this prove that the talent shortage is in the recruiting department and in the leadership of many companies. It’s why employers can’t find talent when we’re in the biggest talent glut in history. Goof-ball personnel jockeys send talent away, while foolhardy CEOs (see the aforementioned New Jersey story) would rather leave a job undone for three years than even consider jobless talent.

Did you go sour on an employer who wouldn’t give you the time of day after you went to the trouble to make a personal contact? Have you opened a door to introduce yourself to an employer, only to wonder, “Is there anybody in there?” What behavior do you see among employers that tells you they’re not doing this right?

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Employer Fined for Stupid Recruiting

New Jersey is the only state where it’s illegal to publish job ads that exclude unemployed people. Is that because New Jersey has especially stupid employers, or because New Jersey is the first state to recognize that there are too many employers everywhere that behave stupidly?

Does it matter? Here’s what matters: The company that took the first bust under this new law reveals a lot about Stupid Recruiting.

CEO J. Michael Goodson explained Crestek’s recruiting strategy. The job posting for a service manager included the requirement, “Must be currently employed” because Crestek wanted someone “at the top of their game and not people who have been unemployed for 18 months.”

Now for the punchline: According to the Star-Ledger, Goodson “spent three years seeking the right person and sifting through resumes was time-consuming…” [Emphasis added.]

Recruiting is hard work: You have to sit and wait an awfully long time.

This $185 million company spent three years trying to fill a position so important that the CEO waited leisurely for a resume to come along and nibble on his job-ad line. Translation: Hiring what comes along. Gee — I wonder how much it cost Crestek to leave that job unfilled for three years while Goodson sifted incoming resumes. Did it ever occur to Goodson to go out and find, cultivate, cajole, steal and otherwise recruit the person he needed?

The Talent-Shortage Brain Fart

Waiting for job ads to deliver a top candidate to your front door is like waiting for customers to show up. Doesn’t Crestek have a sales force that goes out to find customers? Then why doesn’t Goodson get out there to find top talent? Why is this company banking its future on want ads? I can see Goodson’s next initiative: Fire the sales force and run more ads!

Why did this company resort to warning jobless applicants away? “This was the only time we ever advertised that way and we only ran it when the other ads failed to produce any viable candidates.”

Ahhh… this was an experimental, state-of-the-art job ad. A new way address the talent shortage. A brain fart.

Remember the talent shortage? 4.2 million Americans are out of work, and almost half a million of them in New Jersey. Not one qualified applicant came along while Crestek was dipping its line in the water. Must be the talent shortage at play — or poor management?

Stupid Recruiting: A sign of lousy management

Says Goodson: “For this job, I wanted somebody that’s in the service business and is employed. If someone is out of work for 18 months, my concern would be that their last job was in a bakery or pumping gas.”

If I were looking for a job at a good company, my concern would be that the service manager’s job at Crestek was empty for three years because the CEO didn’t know how to fill it. I’d wonder whether the the company might be better off if the CEO would go pump gas.

Running ads and waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right to show up at your company is passive recruiting and poor management. Now that the CEO has tripped over his tangled recruiting line, Crestek’s corporate resume has been updated with a rap sheet for violating New Jersey employment law. But no state in the union fines companies for Stupid Recruiting.

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Reference Abuse: Don’t do it

In the November 8, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a seasoned professional takes employers and recruiters to task for demanding detailed references too soon:

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: Recruiters are asking for detailed references before I even meet them or decide I’m interested in the job. They want multiple references before they’ll even present me for a face-to-face interview with their client. I don’t get it.

Mind you, my references are consistently stellar, so I’m not afraid of giving them out for a serious inquiry. But if I’m still collecting information on the job myself, haven’t met the hiring manager, and haven’t even had any serious discussions about terms and conditions, I don’t want my references to be bothered. When I direct them to LinkedIn, where I have strong references from former managers and peers, they aren’t pleased. They want to speak with someone in person.

What gives with this new fetish of checking references so early in the conversation, and how can I get seen by the hiring manager without having multiple agencies pestering my past managers “just in case” I might be a good fit on a particular job? I have always been taught that one’s references must be protected. Your thoughts?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

In some cases, headhunters and employers are just being more cautious — they can’t afford to make mistakes. They want to check candidates out thoroughly. But I think they’re making a mistake by asking for references rather than peripherally reviewing a potential candidate before initiating contact.

Whew — what does that euphemism mean? “Peripherally reviewing” someone? For a recruiter or headhunter, it means doing your homework by talking to people who know the candidate, to make sure you’re approaching someone who might truly be right for the job. Otherwise, don’t call the person. So my point is, the headhunter should check you out before even contacting you. That’s his job.

In other cases, when they ask for your references so early they’re fishing for new contacts — potential sources of additional candidates, or actual candidates themselves. (Ever see your references get recruited to fill a position you were being considered for? It happens.) You become a source, under the guise of being a potential candidate.

You have to use your judgment. A lot depends on how credible you feel the headhunter or employer is. I agree that it’s not prudent to let just anyone contact your references. Your references will get sick of the calls. Why put your references at risk? And that’s what I’d say to those who request the references. “Once you put some skin in the game, I will, too.” (See Take Care of Your References.)

Peripheral Review: The test of a headhunter

But lets explore further my point about peripheral review. This is something that inept employers and headhunters ignore: The very fact that a recruiter has contacted you suggests they have done their homework on you. They have good reasons to recruit you. That is, they have already checked your references — that’s what led them to you. Or — maybe not. Maybe they’re just fishing and they got your name out of a database. What then?

Well, then you’re wasting your time, because those recruiters aren’t doing their jobs. They want you to do their work for them. They want you to provide references that prove you’re worth recruiting. I think you see my point.

When an employer has a strong, well-founded interest in a candidate, they’re almost always flexible and respectful. They’ll work with you, and they will be sensitive to issues like this. They won’t be so insistent, because they don’t want to turn you off. They want to meet you.

If you don’t know the headhunter, and if you have never had contact with the employer — or they contacted you first — then there’s no reason to comply with unreasonable requests. Everyone has to ante up, including the recruiter and employer.

How do you get around this obstacle so you can talk directly to the hiring manager? You might not be able to. When a job opportunity comes to you, you relinquish significant control. But you can gain control by taking a firm stand. If this sounds overly aggressive, remember that no opportunity is real unless you are free to examine and judge it first. Be polite, but be firm. Try this:

How to Say It

(Sorry! This How to Say It tip is available only in the newsletter. Subscribe now! It’s FREE. Don’t miss next week’s extra content!)

Or, try this:

How to Say It

“Tell you what. You’re recruiting me. If you can provide me with the names of two people who endorsed and recommended me — That’s why you’re calling me, right? — then I’ll give you two more very good references. But if you don’t really know why you’re calling me, why would I give you more names?”

A good headhunter will defer to a candidate he’s serious about recruiting. The rest will hang up because you busted them. The best they can do is try to make you feel you must give up the goods if you want that good opportunity… it’s a classic sales ploy. Don’t let your references be abused.

(How can you distinguish a good headhunter from a lousy one? See The truth about headhunters.)

Just because a headhunter or employer asks for references doesn’t mean it’s time to hand them over. How do you use your references properly, and protect them from abuse?

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Big Brother & The Employment Industry: “All your employment are belong to us!”

Suppose that every time you applied for a job, some guy in a little room checked an Excel spreadsheet and notified the employer: “No interview for this guy. He’s a bum.”

It’s already happening.

Several years ago I published a series of articles about identity theft via job boards, including a report about’s troubling practices by Pam Dixon from the World Privacy Forum (Click, You’re Hired. Or Tracked). Later, I published a newsletter titled Does HR go too far when screening candidates? in which HR consultant Earl Rice warned that:

“…in their zeal to protect themselves and their companies, HR departments may be covering up illegitimate and possibly illegal practices. When HR outsources background checks and investigations of candidates, is HR doing its job, or is it ensuring plausible deniability while letting loose an investigative demon that systematically violates people’s privacy and feeds the specter of identify theft?”

Trading privacy for Big Brother’s social initiative

It’s a world where Facebook routinely collects and profits from massive amounts of personal information. It’s a world where people enjoy the benefits of “social networking” and just want to keep up with their friends minute-by-minute. It’s a world where Big Brother has taught people to shrug and say, “Privacy? There’s no privacy any more. My information is in lots of databases and it’s not worth worrying about it!”

It’s a world where corporate employers are covering their legal asses while you get rejected for jobs that have long been vacant because “there’s a talent shortage.”

It’s also a world where opening a financial account in your name doesn’t take much more than your name, address, social security number (SSN), and a signature — any signature. But in today’s economy, the permissions you grant to employers when you apply for a job can continue to cost you lots of jobs — and you’ll never know it.

Let’s go back to what HR consultant Rice said back in 2003:

“If you have signed one disclosure for one employer, the investigations company that did the checks will keep the information about you in their database and then just re-sell the results to their next client.”

How does this happen? HR outsources the investigations, and the third party investigations company owns the information it gathers about you. The next employer rejects you for the same reasons the last one did. Were those reasons legit?

“This total invasion of privacy beyond your wildest dreams (actually, nightmares) is outsourced. The worst part is that much of the data and information these outsourced security agents collect is erroneous.”

You sacrifice privacy; employers buy legal protection

But while you’re giving up your privacy for certain “social” benefits (like the ability to apply for a job), employers are capitalizing on the holes you just punched in your life. Then, those same employers are buying legal protection in case you sue them for peeking through the holes. Rice reiterated that the quality of information about you in those databases isn’t the issue; insulation of employers from legal liability is the issue. Rice warned warned that an employer’s intentions could be far more complex:

“This is an industry that is almost totally unregulated. The multiple levels of outsourcing and subcontracting yield enough plausible deniability to the companies themselves,  and their clients, that abuses run rampant.”

Are employers using third parties to distance themselves from legal liability when checking you out? Who’s responsible for auditing and tracking the use and security of personal information an employer gathers about you?

Like many people, I put all this aside and chalked it up to Big Brother’s ubiquitous presence in our lives… the Internet, after all, is the Big Brother we’ve invited into our lives, choosing to accept the quirks of his behavior in exchange for all the social gifts he bears.

The little man who controls your career

That’s how I compartmentalized it all, until a reader sent me the story of his recent experience with a major American corporation with operations around the world. The reader is a 20-year veteran of the information technology field, and has more than a passing knowledge about security. Read it and decide how worthy a trade we’re making — some of our privacy, in exchange for the wonderful social gifts Big Brother delivers into our lives.

During Q4/2010, I was being considered for a position with [Company X]. Before I could be submitted for consideration to the hiring manager, the recruiting agency required my name and full SSN so that it could be checked against a database of Company X’s former employees. I decided to dig into their process.

Each agency was collecting names and SSNs within their offices in a spreadsheet, then submitting them periodically to a third-party agency via unencrypted e-mail attachment (Excel file). I went as far as to contact the individual at the third-party agency who was receiving and processing the queries.

He told me that he logged into a Company X mainframe application to enter the names and SSNs, then returned the spreadsheets to the agencies with a Yes or No indication for whether the candidates were acceptable to Company X on the basis of when and how they may have might have been terminated, or if his check could verify that they had never worked for Company X. He then combined each of the spreadsheets into one of his own so that he could independently track and verify the names and numbers he had already processed.

Me: “Where do you keep that spreadsheet?”

Him: “In my in-box in Outlook.”

Me: “Do you see any security risk in that?”

Him: “No, it’s just on my desktop.”

I was shocked.  That was when I decided to pass on the opportunity. I also informed the agency rep who had contacted me about the job that this was how it was being done, and while he agreed that it wasn’t very good, he had no way to change the process put in place by Company X.

All your career are belong to us

You worry that you’re too old, or that you lack the proper college degree or skills. But employers are rejecting you before they check any of your work credentials. Your career is subject to “judgments” far more stupid and unsophisticated than you could imagine — judgments that could well be incorrect, and over which you have no right of appeal.

In 1991, a poorly-translated warning appeared in a popular video game: “All your base are belong to us.” Today, the game ends for many job applicants before it even starts.  Your career belongs to the little man with the spreadsheet, who operates at legal arm’s length from the employer that rejected you. He works for an agency that is contracted by lots of employers to handle candidate investigations, and to notify employers whether you should be interviewed.

But, the business is not about hiring; it’s about selling and re-selling data about you whose accuracy you cannot confirm.

“The larger outsourced security/investigative companies have started keeping databases of their own. One advertises they have a database of over 1.5 million people for employers to run their candidates against.”

At the time Earl Rice contributed his commments to Ask The Headhunter, he was working for a major employer that outsourced background investigations to third parties that weren’t even in the United States. They were based in what we used to affectionately refer to as Iron Curtain Countries.

“They start with a name and phone number and e-mail address from a resume or application. Then, they cross-reference information until they get a date of birth or social security  number and go from there. When an applicant walks into HR for that first  meeting, they already may have been investigated. Never mind that much of the  data gathered may be erroneous. The ‘data’ was gathered at arm’s length, but the  employer will treat it as absolute fact.”

Advantage Employment Industry

Employers are ultimately responsible for the way job applicants are treated, no matter how carefully they’ve instituted legal protections by outsourcing candidate rejection. But the problem job hunters face is a systemic one. There’s an entire employment industry that now relies on Big Brother and the holes you permit in your personal privacy. Privacy expert Pam Dixon boils it down:

“The business of searching for jobs online has grown from a market niche to a multi-billion-dollar, rapidly consolidating industry that relies on the eager search activities — and employment dreams — of millions of job seekers.”

Every time a job hunter submits an application through the rote channels established by corporate HR departments, the employment industry gets paid — whether a match is made or not. The job hunter loses, and the hiring manager cries about the talent shortage. Employers give the advantage to the employment industry — a mafia of consultants and contractors who bear no responsibility, because they just manage that spreadsheet.

Every time a job hunter agrees to apply for a job via Big Brother methods, rather than through a personal contact with a hiring manager, the job hunter sets in motion the wheels of an entire data industry designed to make money — not to match people with jobs. Most of the time, the job hunter gets taken down in a drive-by data attack. The little man with the spreadsheet wears a hood, and even the employer has no idea who’s driving the data base. Or where the keys are.

The IT manager who shared the story above decided to skip the little middle man — and Big Brother. His next contact with an employer was direct, and he hasn’t submitted to a strip search of his personal information. His job search isn’t easy, but he still owns his career.

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