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Monthly archive for February 2013

Bet you can’t answer this one interview question: A challenge to Lou Adler

In the February 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager wants to know what one question I love to ask job candidates:

When I interview people, I use questions my personnel department gives me, as well as a few of my personal favorites. What’s your favorite interview question to ask job applicants and why?

Nick’s Reply

question-marks-2Lou Adler, another headhunter who also teaches recruiting and job hunting techniques, has an answer to that question that you should consider. But much as I respect Lou, I totally disagree with him. I’ll explain why and then I’ll tell you what is the only question that really matters in a job interview.

In a recent LinkedIn posting, Lou says “The Most Important Interview Question of All Time” is this:

“What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career, so far?”

Lou’s suggestion is useful because the sub-questions it spawns stimulate wonderful discussion between a job applicant and the employer. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that asking a job candidate about his or her most significant accomplishment is so important.

In fact, I think it’s a distraction. It makes it harder for you (the manager) to really assess what an applicant will do for your business. Don’t worry what the job candidate has done. You can ask about that later. Like every investment prospectus says, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. What matters is what a person will do next, if hired, to make your business more profitable.

The future matters more

In a friendly spirit of “I don’t think so…” I’m going to challenge Lou Adler’s advice and offer a better interview question to ask every applicant, before you talk about anything else:

“What’s your business plan for doing this job profitably?”

Any job applicant can walk into an interview and rehash past accomplishments on a moment’s notice. A dog with a note in its mouth cdogwithnotean do that. The person in Lou’s scenario could be visiting any company, talking with any manager, about any job. In other words, Lou’s applicant can be totally unprepared and you’d never know it.

But the truly prepared job candidate has researched your company’s business in detail and is ready to deliver a “mini business plan” about how to do the job you need done, showing why he or she would be your most profitable hire. There is no way to fake it. This is the only interview question that really matters because if the applicant’s answer isn’t a good one, then there’s no reason to waste time business-plantalking about anything else.

I think this approach is more important today than it’s ever been, because while many employers enjoy hefty profits, they nonetheless hesitate to hire. But, why should you fill a position and increase your overhead, when you have no idea about whether the new hire can deliver profitable work?

Coach your job applicants!

Of course, if you’re going to expect a job applicant to deliver plans, you need to give all applicants a heads up:

  • Call each one at least a week before the interview.
  • Tell them you expect a brief, defensible plan for how they will do the job.
  • Tell them what to study and give them useful material to read.

If you’ve selected your candidates carefully, it very smart to…

  • Yep: Let them talk to members of your team prior to the interview. (Heck, encourage them to call!)

That’s right — coach them to win the job! Help them prepare a thoughtful, custom presentation, so you can see their best performance. (Isn’t that what you do for your own employees, to help them succeed?)

The added benefit of this approach is that most applicants you talk to will never show up for the interview — and you’ll save a lot of valuable time. Most job hunters can’t be bothered. They don’t want to invest the time and energy to get to know your business. They’re too busy applying for a job — any job.

The very few who come to meet you are truly motivated and really want to work for you. They’re ready to prove it. They will accept your challenge and show up ready to demonstrate how they will do the job. So, Open the door — welcome your most motivated candidates.

Why ask dopey questions?

Several years ago, Fast Company magazine produced a special edition of advice “for the perplexed exec.” It was a collection of questions and answers designed to help managers succeed. They asked me to answer the question you’ve raised, the question Lou Adler tackles in his own column. My full answer and advice are here: “What is the single best interview question — and the best answer?

As an employer, you can ask a job applicant for virtually anything you want. So, why ask for a dopey resume about their history? Why assess them indirectly by asking about their “most significant accomplishment” when you can directly assess how they’d do this job now? Your most profitable hire will jump at the chance to produce a plan to do the work. The rest aren’t worth talking to.

Two final notes: First, the purpose of this approach is to gauge a job candidate’s ability to do the work — not to use an interview to get free work or project plans out of interviewees! Be reasonable, and be respectful. Second, I think a lot of Lou Adler’s advice about recruiting and job hunting. Just not this piece of it.

Which “best” question more directly assesses the job candidate? If you’re a manager, what do you ask in interviews? If you’re a job hunter, how would you answer my “best interview question?”

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Beat The Salary Surveys: Get a higher job offer

In the February 19, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant resists lower job offers “justified” with salary surveys:

I don’t like telling employers my salary history when they ask, and I know you advise to keep the information private. But I’m happy to tell an employer what salary range I expect. That way we’re all on the same page, or why bother having interviews? The problem is that employers sometimes gasp when you tell them you want more than an average salary. When they trot out a salary survey and tell me what I’m asking is too far on the high end, how do I say, “You should offer me more money?”

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the advice I offer in my PDF book Keep Your Salary Under Wraps:

If an employer cites a salary survey, ask to see the curve. Point to the leading edge of the curve, where the most unusual individuals are earning the highest salaries.

salary-curveHow to Say It
“I believe I’m on the leading edge of the curve. If I can’t prove that to you during our interviews, then you shouldn’t hire me. But please understand that I’m not looking for a job on the middle of the graph, this part of the curve.” [Point to the fat middle of the graph, where average workers earn average salaries.]

Your challenge is to demonstrate that your performance would indeed be at the leading edge of the curve.

I realize this borders on sounding cocky, but remember that if you don’t make your case in this meeting, you probably won’t get another chance. Be polite and respectful, but be firm. Your future compensation is on the line. Obviously, you must be prepared to justify what you can do that makes you worth a higher salary. There is no way around this. Employers don’t increase job offers just because people ask for more money. You have to give them good reasons based on what you will bring to the job. (You also must decide what is the minimum you will accept. This article will help you flesh that out: How to decide how much you want.)

This is where I call employers and human resources departments to task. While the job offers they make are often only mediocre at best, they claim they reward “thinking out of the box,” and that they are in the forefront of their industry. This is where they need to prove it. I suggest you politely (and perhaps quizzically) address the person you’re negotiating with.

How to Say It
“I’ve studied your company carefully, and I’m impressed at your philosophy. Your company prides itself on thinking and acting out of the box. That’s why I’d like to work here. Of course, out of the box is another way of saying on the edge of the curve. I’d like to show you how I can bring edge of the curve performance to the job — but of course that means edge of the curve compensation. If you will outline what you consider to be exceptional performance, I’ll try to show you how I will deliver.”

There is nothing easy about this. You must do your homework in advance. (For more details on this assertive approach, please see The Basics.) It’s important to open a serious discussion on salary. Companies, and HR departments especially, love to talk about how people are their most important asset. We all know that assets are cultivated so they’ll grow. We want to maximize their value. So we hire the best people, pay them the most, and cultivate them well so they’ll pay off, right?

Well, that’s not what happens when an employer insists on knowing your past salary so it can base a job offer on it. It’s hypocritical — and risky business. It’s how companies lose great candidates who won’t stand for average job offers.

But you can make an employer’s pretensions work for you, if you can be firm but diplomatic, emphatic but gentle, challenging but cooperative. My suggestion above is one way to do it.

Putting Ask The Headhunter to work usually requires saying something to someone to make it pay off. My suggestions about How to Say It are not the only way. There are many good ways to tell an employer that you want more money when you’re negotiating a better deal.

What do you do when you want more money? How would you say it — and what’s worked for you?

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Surprise! Guess who owns your personnel file?

In the February 12, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a frustrated reader loses her job, then asks for her personnel file. And the results might shock you:

I was asked to leave my job (not a good fit for the position) last fall. I requested a copy of my personnel file from my employer. I finally heard back and they are telling me that I need to travel to the company’s headquarters in another state to view it. It’s almost a 1,000-mile trip! They will not make copies. Do I have any recourse? Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

My view on personnel files is that, if it’s information compiled about you by your employer, you should have a right to see it. But my view isn’t the law. In fact, I never pretend to give legal advice since I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t want my ire to lead anyone into legal jeopardy.

personnel-fileBut this is such a good question that I turned to my friend Lawrence Barty for his comments. Get ready for some shocks.

Larry is a retired attorney who specializes in employment and labor law, and particularly in employment contracts. Please note: Nothing in this column is legal advice for a particular situation, and laws vary depending on your jurisdiction. If you need legal help on a specific matter, consult with an attorney who knows the law in your state. Take it away, Larry…

Larry Barty: To start with, most employees suffer from a misconception: That is, they assume that their employee file somehow belongs to them. If fact, it does not. It is the employer’s file concerning the employee. To better understand that, assume a company maintains a file of correspondence and records concerning one of its customers. Why should the customer have the right to see what is in that file? So, with respect to employment files, the key fact is that the file is the employer’s, not the employee’s. So, the question properly phrased is, under what circumstances, if any, may an employee view that particular employer-owned file?

The answer to the question is that the employee may see that file without the employer’s permission only if a State law so provides. Without a State law giving the employee a right to see the file, the employee is at the mercy of the employer. Only about a third of the States have any laws concerning the right to view or copy employment files. (Employee medical files, as opposed to employment files, are often made available by State law). In the remaining two-thirds of States, the employee’s only “right” is whatever may be set forth in the employer’s rules or handbook.

In those States that do have laws permitting employees to see their files, the conditions vary widely. For example, California law provides that an employee may view any personnel record relating to performance at reasonable intervals, but only on the employee’s own time. The employee may copy records, but only those records that bear the employee’s signature. In Illinois, by contrast, an employee may view the entire file and copy anything in it.

In California, Pennsylvania and most other States that authorize employee viewing, if the records are kept off-site the employee must go on his or her own to that off-site location. Only a few States, such as Michigan, require the employer to provide a copy for viewing at the employee’s work site.

As for getting a copy of the file, a few States, such as Maine, require the employer to give the employee a copy of the file at the employer’s cost. However, most States that authorize viewing require the employee to pay reasonable copying costs.

Former employees are almost out of luck

Now for the punch line to these laws. What Larry has discussed so far pertains to access of personnel files by current employees. Once you’ve left the company, things change. Larry explains:

“Former employees’ rights to see employee files are even more limited. Less than a dozen States permit former employees to view personnel files at all and, in most of those States, the right to view is limited to sometimes as little as only within 60 days after employment ends. If a former employee wants a copy of his or her file after that, a lawsuit would be required.”

So the news is not good for ex-employees. As you might expect, the law makes access to your former personnel records complicated — mainly because they’re not your personnel records, but also because the law varies depending on where you live and work.

How to protect yourself

my-documentsBut this wouldn’t be Ask The Headhunter if we didn’t close with some useful advice that you’re probably not going to find anywhere else. Larry hands you a wonderful tip about how to get and keep the information you need:

“The bottom line for all employees is that you should keep your own file. Keep copies of annual evaluations, notification of wage increases, letters or e-mail complimenting or praising your work and, perhaps most importantly, disciplinary notices. If you know that a document concerning you has been generated that might be important someday, ask for a a copy. I think that most managers will give you one.”

Thanks to Larry Barty for sharing his knowledge about personnel files. Please don’t construe anything he says as advice for your personal situation; it’s not. Consult an attorney if you need specific legal guidance.

Was this a surprising education? Have you ever run into problems accessing your personnel file? Or, have you turned up surprises that caused trouble? Think you’ll need your personnel file after you leave your employer? Please chime in on how employers keep you on file… and how you can keep your files!

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How to screen headhunters

In Does the headhunter own my job interviews? we explore where headhunters fit in the recruiting equation — when employers contact the same candidates on their own. Who “owns” the candidate and who “owns” the job interview?

The best question that’s come up in that discussion is, What value does the headhunter add? to recruiting and hiring?

exclusiveThe answer goes back to the employer. If an employer wants to do a sound, thorough search for the best candidates to fill a job, the employer will not post the job. (Do you really want 10,000 applicants? If yes, why? Back to Personnel Hell with you.) The employer will conduct its own quiet search, or use a headhunter to conduct it.

In this case, the headhunter has an exclusive on the job. It’s not posted. The employer isn’t doing the search. Nor is any other headhunter. Basically, no one else knows the job is open. One headhunter, chosen by the employer, under a contract, is handling the search.

I imagine all the personnel jockeys tugging at the underwear wedging itself up their butt cracks. Oooh… How silly not to post the job! How will the world know about the job? You’ll miss tons of great people!

Yep. You’ll miss lots of tire-kickers and the “recruiters” who drive them around the job boards. No job posting. That’s where the headhunter adds value. That’s what the headhunter is paid for.

Here’s what you need to know: Only the best headhunters get assignments like that. The rest are scraping job listings and resumes, trying to talk their way past one another and past the employer itself.

So, you want to know how to screen headhunters that contact you? Ask the headhunter, “Do you have an exclusive on this job?” If the headhunter claims yes, ask who the hiring manager is. If the headhunter has an exclusive assignment, he’s got no worries about divulging his client’s name. The hiring manager isn’t going to “go around him.” The headhunter has a contract. The headhunter controls the interviews at that point. And you’re not competing against tire-kickers and the “recruiters” who are ferrying them around the Net.

If the headhunter doesn’t have an exclusive, or is worried that someone is going to beat him to the placement, you’re probably wasting your time. Hang up.

(For 62 more myth-busting answers about nagging headhunter questions: How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

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Does the headhunter own my job interviews?

In the February 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know who comes first: The employer, or the headhunter?

I have a thorny problem. A recruiter just called me with a great job opportunity. I said, of course, submit me! Then, minutes later, I got an e-mail directly from the same company saying they’d seen my resume on a job board, and would like to talk to me about an open position.

Do I let the hiring company know that they should talk to the recruiter, or should I call the recruiter and say, don’t submit me, they contacted me directly? Which way is better overall? Does the headhunter own my interviews just because he found my resume online?

Nick’s Reply

resume-for-saleAh, your online resume bit you unexpectedly. And now you’re in a bad spot. For all you know, the recruiter found your resume the same place the company did.

First, you can’t tell the company to contact the recruiter, because it already found you itself. It’s not going to want to pay a recruiter.

(Of course, it’s possible the employer is trying to stiff the recruiter. You’ll never know.)

Second, you can’t tell the recruiter to forget it. You already told him to go ahead. When he calls the company, they’re going to tell him they’ve already talked to you. If he argues that he’s “representing” you, then the company may drop you like a hot potato. You lose. This is the sort of thing that can kill a candidate’s credibility.

The way that’s “better overall” is to stop posting your resume on the Net. The situation you’re in is why. For all you know, 20 recruiters have already plucked your resume and have forwarded it to hundreds of companies on their own letterhead. That’s one of the many risks you take when you publish your resume online — whether it’s on a job board or on LinkedIn. It can result in what’s referred to as a “fee fight.” If you’re hired without a recruiter’s direct involvement, the recruiter can still claim he’s owed a fee because he submitted your resume (even if it’s without your permission). The company might argue. The recruiter might sue.

But companies don’t like being put in this spot. More likely, they just decline to talk to (or hire) the candidate to avoid litigation. Like I said, you lose.

The generally accepted rule in such situations is this: Whoever introduced the candidate to the company first gets credit for the placement, and earns a fee. But that doesn’t preclude a fee fight.

What if some headhunter submits your resume to a company without your approval, and claims a fee when you don’t want him involved? Lotsa luck. How can you prove you didn’t approve the referral through the headhunter? Is the company really going to spend time gathering evidence to battle over you?

Heads up: This is how lots of “headhunters” operate. (I discuss how to distinguish the slime balls from the legit headhunters in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. The book includes an entire section titled How to find a good headhunter.) Not understanding how the good headhunters and the lousy headhunters operate can cost you a new job — and a whole lot of money.

So, what’s your best bet in this situation? Since the company controls the job and the fee — and also decides whether to interview you — I’d accept the interview from the employer promptly, and notify the headhunter that the employer has contacted you directly as a result of its own efforts. He cannot guarantee you a job interview. It’s not his to offer.

Unless the headhunter has a written contract with the employer, and can show he has prior claim to an interview that he scheduled between you and the company, he’s out of luck. This is how many “headhunters” (I hesitate to even call them that) get themselves into trouble: They don’t cultivate relationships with candidates and their clients. They find resumes online and they play the match game too fast and loose. In the end, this controversy is between the employer and the headhunter, because you’ve got no contract with the headhunter. Heck, he’ll be lucky if he has a contract with the employer. The only claim he can make is on the company — he can make no claim on you.

Nonetheless, I wish you the best. You’re going to need it. Posting your resume online might seem a great way to increase your odds of success, but it also increases the chances that your resume becomes a commodity out of your control. The headhunter doesn’t own or control your interviews — the employer does. The only thing the headhunter controls is the copy of your resume she plucked off the Net. Good luck getting control back.

Have your job hunting efforts ever run head-first into a headhunter’s? What happened? Has your online resume caused you problems like this? Help us sort out this mess.

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