The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

Monthly archive for April 2013

Why employers should pay to interview you

In the April 30, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant invests more than eight hours in interviews and asks why the employer acts like her time is free:

The rudeness of employers seems to be pervasive out there. I had interviews with a company recently. The second round involved four finalists meeting 12 employees over eight grueling hours. They said in mid-March that they would make a choice by April 1. I called the HR person on April 7 and got her voice mail. I said I wanted to know their decision based on the timetable she provided and asked her to call me. On April 17, I e-mailed the hiring manager to reinforce my interest and asked if they had made a decision.

The next day the HR manager responded that they hired a candidate who started work the last week of March. She said that a formal notice would be sent to other applicants within the week.

April is over. There’s been no notice. One of the other three finalists told me she heard nothing at all. Are manners and simple courtesy totally dead?

Nick’s Reply

Job applicants appear on time for interviews, devote hours of unpaid professional time to an employer, and then wait patiently for a hiring decision by the promised date. Inevitably, a company ignores its own timeline without any update or comment to the candidates. Why? Because candidates are free.

You could be bold instead of free. Send the HR manager certified mail with a copy to the hiring manager and the CEO of the company: an invoice for your time.

Am I crazy to suggest this? Would you be crazy to actually do it? Imagine the note:

pay-to-playDear [name]:

My time for our first interview was free, as it was an exploratory meeting. You requested more time for the second round of meetings, which I provided at no cost, contingent on your company fulfilling its commitment to respond with a decision by the date you chose, April 1. You ignored my calls, e-mails, and your own deadline, without the courtesy of a notice.

I am thus billing you for the eight hours of my professional time spent in the second round of meetings with your team. As a professional, I would never dream of being irresponsible with the time of my clients, my vendors, or my employer. Time is money. I live by the deadlines I commit to, and I expect others to do the same. Anything less would be irresponsible to our industry and to our profession. None of us could operate with integrity if we ignored our commitments. This is not a joke. I expect payment within 10 days.

Yours truly,

If this seems extreme, why should it? Is there a more polite way to notify a company that it has erred? Sure — but you’ve already done that, several times.

Every day, companies ignore these time commitments with impunity. Why is a deadline for a hiring decision any less important than a deadline to deliver a product to a customer? The company’s ability to meet either deadline establishes its reputation. (See Death By Lethal Reputation.) Yet, while companies worry plenty about dissatisfied customers, they don’t give a thought to what other professionals in their industry will say about them.

A job applicant treated with disrespect can do as much — if not more — damage to a company’s business as a dissatisfied customer. Do employers really think word doesn’t get around?

Maybe hiring managers just assume that their HR departments handle all the necessary niceties with applicants. But, just how accountable are HR departments? Does this company’s public relations department realize that while it’s spending millions on good press, the HR department is scuttling it? If you’re a hiring manager, and you’re not sure how job candidates are treated after they leave your office, please read Respecting The Candidate.

Your HR department might explain that processing applicants, job offers, hires, and rejection letters is cumbersome. Tell that to your customer who cancels the order that’s a month late, or to the prospect who’s waiting for a sales rep to return her call.

The technology to keep candidates informed is here. The will isn’t. Why? Because job candidates don’t cost anything. Companies can get all your professional time they want, for free, without any obligation to you whatsoever.

That’s wrong. Don’t you think it’s time for employers to put some skin in the game, if only because it would make them think twice about the costs they impose on applicants?

What if employers had to pay for job interviews? Should you really send an invoice if an employer ignores its obligation to you?

Good questions. Would it make any difference if you actually sent in that invoice? It might, if you copy the company’s public relations department and three leading industry publications. (Don’t forget to add me to your list.) To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” imagine if 50 people a day sent interview invoices to employers. Employers might learn to behave.

You don’t want to ask an employer to pay you for an interview? Then consider Conrado Hinojosa’s provocative The No-Nonsense Interview Agreement instead.

Bad behavior is un-businesslike. I challenge any HR manager to explain why it’s okay to ignore even an implied commitment to a job candidate. If your company shines in this regard, I’d like to hear from you, too. In fact, I’ll gladly highlight your company in an upcoming column.

In the meantime, I think employers should start paying to interview applicants — perhaps then they’d behave the way they expect applicants to behave.

If you could carefully select job candidates for a job at your company, would you pay them to interview with you? What is a candidate’s time worth, anyway? Even if the person is unemployed, if they’re worth interviewing then they’re worth money.

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Is it ethical to go on this job interview?

In the April 23, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a loyal employee wonders whether it’s honest to go to a job interview:

I’m working for a great tech company on the west coast in a job I enjoy, but I was approached by a recruiter from a large company in the midwest for an interesting job. It would be a significant move up in management in a bigger and more well-known company. My concerns are these:

  • I like my colleagues and current employer, so I’d feel bad about leaving this role after being here only a year.
  • There are budget cutbacks and delays in bonuses that worry me a bit.
  • I’m not sure whether there will be layoffs or more austerity in the future.
  • I’m not sure that I want to leave this job and move, or that the new job is any better than the one I have now.

My question is whether it is unethical for me let them fly me in to interview if I don’t feel 100% sure I’d take the job. They approached me and seem to think I’m a good candidate, so they’re moving a bit faster than I’d like.

Nick’s Reply

I admire your integrity, but exploring the unknown doesn’t subject you to a higher ethical standard.

This company is recruiting you. As long as you have a sincere curiosity and interest in exploring what they want you to do, I’d go. When we meet someone and ask them out, we don’t explain, “Well, I’d like to go out with you, but I’m not sure we’d ever get married.” Of course you’re not! The only question is, are you attracted enough that you’d like to get to know one another better?

ethical-choices-signThat’s where pleasant surprises come from.

Keep this big fact in mind: No one has asked you to marry them yet. I mean, no one has made you an offer.

Some companies (and people) move faster than others. Frankly, among employers that’s rare and it’s a good sign. If the new company seems to have good people, a good reputation, and exciting new products in its pipeline, then I think it’s a solid potential employer. But you’ll never know what might stimulate you to take it very seriously unless you show up.

In the end, if they make you an offer, it’s still all up to you. You’ll never figure out what weight to assign to each of your concerns until you have a real choice to make. It’s better to have a new choice than not to. Even if you say no, you can still be friends. And if you say yes, you can still be friends with your old company. Remember: People leave companies, and companies lay off people — it’s called business. How the personal and social sides of it play out is really up to you. And I get the sense you’d make it okay either way.

You might not be sure why you’re interviewing with this company, but I am. Your list of concerns tells me you don’t feel safe. That’s reason enough to explore other gigs, and there’s nothing unethical about it. The Wall Says It’s Time to Go may be a helpful map through your concerns.

What triggers you to consider another job? What stops you? Can you have an honest interview if you’re not sure you want the job?

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New Grads: How to get in the door without experience

In the April 16, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a parent asks how her son, a new college graduate, can get a job when he’s got no experience.  How can he get experience when he can’t get hired? He’s done internships and earned good credentials in school, but keeps losing out to other applicants. How can he get in the door for an interview without experience?

Nick’s Advice

It’s difficult to guess at the problem, partly because I don’t know what your son’s degree is in and what jobs he’s been applying for. But in general, he’s encountering the age discrimination problem: He’s too young!

hire-new-gradIronic, isn’t it? Either older workers are “too experienced” and “over-qualified,” or younger workers lack skills and experience. Here’s what has become very clear to me, and we’ve discussed this in other columns: Employers demand job applicants who have done the exact job before, and who will take less money to do it.

It makes me wonder what Human Resources departments mean by, “Our company offers exciting new opportunities!” — when they offer no new opportunities at all. Why would anyone aspire to a new job doing the exact same thing they’ve been doing for years already? Why would they take a salary cut to do the same old job? (Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School of Management has documented this in his short book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.)

When you hear the CEO of a corporation proclaim, “People are our most important asset!” it seems what that really means is, “People are a depreciating commodity at our company — and you’re next in line, so take a salary cut to do the same work you did last year!”

Sorry to rant, but I get fed up with companies that pretend they’re offering careers when all they offer is the same old grind. But back to your son: What can he do?

Substitute personal recommendations for experience

New college grads do get jobs, so your son needs to reconsider “How to Start A Job Search.” (Few schools teach effective job hunting to their students.) He should also consider what is an acceptable substitute for experience and skills. I think the most compelling substitute is a personal referral for a job — from someone the employer trusts. This doesn’t mean your son will get hired because he knows someone. It means he may get hired because someone will vouch for his intelligence, for his work ethic, and for his ability to learn a new job quickly. Even a cold-blooded employer realizes it can hire talent at a lower cost if it starts with a new grad who shows promise.

“Promise” is the key, and the lynchpin is the personal referral.

Work backwards

Your son should carefully select the companies he’d like to work for, and then proceed “backwards.” Before applying for any job, figure out who he knows that knows someone at the company. This may require multiple steps — but it’s a time-honored way to get in the door for a first job. He will have to spend time talking with each person along the path, to make them comfortable that he’s worth their recommendation. After all, they’re putting their names on the line for an unknown entity. (Sorry, but a new grad is usually an unknown in the job market.)

Your son should:

  • Contact the alumni office of his school, and identify people who work at his target companies — and then contact them.
  • Talk with parents of former schoolmates — ask for their advice.
  • Ask former professors for introductions to people they know in business and industry.

Then keep talking. Trust is the coin of the realm, and your son must build it if he wants a referral.

Learn to talk shop to get help

In How Can I Change Careers? I offer some tips about “getting in the door” that are perfect for new grads. (After all, shifting from college to the work world is a career change, right?)

Don’t worry if you’re not good at introducing yourself or making cold calls. Write a little script and use it until the words start to come naturally. After a few calls, they will. For example,

“I’ve been considering a move into the widget industry and I want to learn more about it. What books or articles have you found helpful in your work?”

This phone call should have nothing to do with asking for a job. Make it a casual but intelligent discussion with an expert who can educate you. This is a great way to make insider contacts. I know it’s not easy to make such calls, but if you’re asking for advice and insight rather than a job, you’ll find that some people will talk to you for a few minutes. Some may take you under their wing. Why? Because people love to talk about their work with others who are interested. When you demonstrate your willingness to invest time and effort to learn about their business, you’re not likely to be shrugged off as another desperate job hunter.

In short, learn to talk shop!

One problem many new grads have is taking advice from people who might help them. Please see “How to Get Coached.” Don’t waste those new contacts!

We can all cry that this is unfair and that employers should hire more rationally. But there are 27 million people actively looking for work in the U.S. Employers seem to think the perfect worker will come along, so why take a chance? Employers do hire new grads. But with so many new grads looking for work, the personal referral makes a crucial difference.

Are you a new grad looking for a job? What’s standing in your way? What are you doing to overcome the obstacles? Got advice for new grads? Join us in the comments section below!

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Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door

In the April 9, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a transitioning military officer asks how to break through:

I have spent the morning drilling through Ask the Headhunter. Thank you for the time and effort you put into that forum. I especially appreciate the reasoned, personal responses you give to select comments on your posts.

I would like to ask you for some advice if you have the time. I am retiring from the U.S. Army after 24 years as a senior commissioned officer and rated aviator, but I want to work outside the defense industry. My skill set is very broad and leadership-focused. I’ve been looking for jobs at the executive level, and over the last three months I’ve selectively submitted resumes for jobs (7 total) that I think would rock my world. My evaluation of these job postings put them right in my round-house. I’m not getting any responses to my resumes, though, and I don’t know how to break through. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter — glad you’re finding it helpful. And more important to me, thanks for your service to our country and to all of us. I’m particularly troubled by how difficult it can be for military folks to transition into the commercial world.

I’ll try to offer a few suggestions.

First, please keep in mind that the average manager spends an average of 30 seconds reading a resume. That means you need to tell managers quickly how you’re going to address their specific problems and challenges. Here are a couple of short articles that might drive this home:

Tear Your Resume In Half

Resume Blasphemy

triangulateI recently gave a presentation to Cornell’s Executive MBA Program — these are managers who’ve been running companies for 7-15 years who invest about $145,000 for a two-year business degree. I’ll tell you what I told them:

When you hand your resume to an employer, what you’re really saying is this: Here’s everything you need to know about me. My education, my credentials, my work history, my accomplishments, my skills — Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!

Managers suck at figuring this out. Just consider that they’re looking at hundreds of resumes — not just yours.

In How Can I Change Careers?, I talk about how show a manager that you’re the profitable hire for his or her specific organization. This process can be used to produce a “blasphemous” resume — but the work involved essentially eliminates the need to use a resume to get in the door. It’s all about doing your homework on the problems and challenges the manager faces, by talking shop with people connected to the company. They will educate you and tip you off on what to say to the manager. The objective is to let these contacts lead you directly to the manager, while your competition is sending in resumes.

This set of articles may also help you get started: The Basics.

You have already selected your target companies, so you’re already ahead of the game. Most people can’t do this. They insist on applying for jobs they find.

Please also check this article: Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Having specific targets is more than half the challenge. Honing in on them is the rest. If you do it this way, it almost doesn’t matter if they have open jobs. Believe me, managers open up jobs when they meet someone who can drop profit to their bottom line. It’s what a consultant does when pitching services to a prospective client. She shows up with very specific solutions.

One caution: Don’t deliver so much up front that you’re doing free work they can poach from you. Offer a plan for solutions, but leave them hanging a bit, until they make a commitment to you.

The best way to “break through” is to triangulate. Find and talk to people near the manager: customers, vendors, other employees, consultants — anyone who touches the operation. Never ask for job leads or to “take my resume in.” Instead, ask for advice and insight about the manager and his operation. Then close by asking if there’s someone in the operation you might talk to, to get more insight and advice: “I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get ready for a job in this operation.”

Finally, avoid HR at all costs. See last week’s column: Why HR should get out of the hiring business, and this audio segment from KKSF talk radio: What’s HR got to do with it?

I hope you land the job that rocks your world!

How would you advise this military officer in transition? Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

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What’s HR Got to Do With It?

Fast on the heels of last week’s column, Why HR should get out of the hiring business, I did Gil Gross’s talk radio show in San Francisco (KKSF Talk910 am). We discussed what’s broken about America’s employment system, why good workers can’t get hired, and what HR (human resources) departments have to do with it…

What’s HR got to do with it? This audio segment is about 10 minutes long:

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Why HR should get out of the hiring business

In the April 2, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter complains about HR:

Throughout my career I have gotten new jobs by meeting and talking to managers who would be my bosses. Now I keep running into the Human Resources roadblock in companies where I’d like to talk to a manager about a job. Honestly, I just don’t see the reason for silly online application forms or for “screeners” who don’t understand the work I do, when companies complain they cannot find the right talent. I really don’t get it. Why do companies even have HR departments involved in hiring?

Nick’s Reply

Good question. Better question: Should Human Resources (HR) be in the recruiting and hiring business? My answer is an emphatic NO for three main reasons, though there are many others.

this_way_outFirst, HR is qualified to recruit and hire only other HR workers. HR is not expert in marketing, engineering, manufacturing, accounting, or any other function. HR is thus not the best manager of recruiting, candidate selection, interviewing, or hiring for any of those corporate departments.

Second, HR takes recruiting and hiring out of the hands of managers who should be handling these critical tasks. Finding and hiring good people are two of the most crucial jobs managers have. In The Recruiting Paradox I offer employers three simple suggestions for improving recruiting:

  • Don’t send a Human Resources clerk to do a manager’s job,
  • Put your managers in the game from the start, and
  • Deliver value to the candidate throughout the job application process.

I think companies suffer when they subject applicants to the impersonal and bureaucratic experience of dealing with HR.

Which brings me to the third reason HR should be taken out of the recruiting and hiring business: HR has no skin in the game. It virtually doesn’t matter who is recruited, processed, or hired because HR isn’t held accountable. It’s hardly HR’s fault, but it’s a rare company that rewards or blames HR for the quality of hiring. HR is typically insulated as a “necessary overhead function.”

Don’t get me wrong: There are some very good people working in HR, and there may be a legitimate role for HR in many companies. But HR’s domination of recruiting and hiring has led to a disaster of staggering magnitude in our economy. In the middle of one of the biggest talent gluts in American history, employers complain they can’t fill jobs.

Don’t miss Harvard Webinar Audio: Can I stand out in the talent glut?


talent_shortageAccording to PBS NewsHour estimates, there are over 27 million Americans looking for work, either because they are unemployed or under-employed. (The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are 12 million unemployed.) I prefer the NewsHour figure because it tells us just how big the pool of available talent is. Concurrently, BLS also reports there are 3.7 million jobs vacant.

HR has a special term for this 7:1 ratio of available talent to vacant jobs. HR departments and employers call this 7:1 job-market advantage “The Great Talent Shortage!”

While the economy has put massive numbers of talented workers on the street, HR nonetheless complains it can’t find the workers it needs. That’s no surprise when HR’s idea of finding talent is to resort to database searches and keyword filtering, which are disastrously inadequate methods for finding and attracting the best hires.

The typical HR process of recruiting and hiring is most generously described as hiring who comes along via job boards and advertisements. It’s a rare (and precious) HR worker who gets up from behind the computer display to actually go find, meet, and bring home good candidates.

“The typical explanation for why HR recruiters have no time to recruit actively is that they have too many resumes to sort. This very real problem is solved easily: Stop soliciting and accepting resumes.”

Go recruit! (That’s just one of 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.)

I could write pages about corporate maladies that arise from employers’ over-reliance on HR to recruit and hire. Instead, I’m just going to list some of the ways HR can kill any company’s competitive edge by interfering with these management functions:

Wasting money
Last year, almost a billion dollars was sucked up by just one online “job board,”, which was reported as the “source of hires” only 1.3% of the time by employers surveyed. HR could be advocating for the personal touch in recruiting, but blows massive recruiting budgets on job boards with little to show in return.

Hiring who comes along
Job boards and similar advertisements — the high-volume, passive recruiting tools HR relies on — yield only applicants who come along, not those a company should be pursuing.

Wasting good hires
Good candidates are lost because database algorithms and keyword filters miss indicators of quality that are not captured by software. And highly qualified technical applicants are rejected because they are screened not by other technical experts, but by HR, which is too far removed from business units that need to select the best candidates.

Mistaking quantity for quality
HR has turned recruiting into a volume operation — the more applicants, the better. This results in impersonal, superficial reviews of candidates and quick, high-volume yes/no decisions that are prone to error.

Excusing unprofessional behavior
Soliciting far more applicants than HR can process properly results in unprofessional HR behavior, angry applicants and damage to corporate reputations. HR routinely suggests that the high volume of applicants it must process explains its rude no-time-for-thank-yous-or-follow-ups behavior — while it expects job applicants to adhere to strict rules of professional conduct.

Failing to be accountable
Because HR does not report to the departments it recruits for, it tends to behave inefficiently and unaccountably with impunity. The bureaucracy grows without checks and balances, and the hiring process becomes dull, rather than honed to a true competitive edge.

Marginalizing professional networks
HR tends to isolate managers from the initial recruiting and screening process, further deteriorating the already weak links between managers and the professional communities they need to recruit from.

Bureaucratizing a strategic function
The complexity of corporate HR infrastructure encourages isolation and siloing. Evidence of this is HR’s over-emphasis of legal risks in recruiting and its administrative domination of this top-level business function.

Wasting time
With recruiting and hiring relegated to an often cumbersome HR process, managers cannot hire in a timely way. Good candidates are frequently lost to the competition. (HR doesn’t have to deal with the consequences, but when a good sales candidate is lost to a competitor, the sales department loses twice.)

Killing a company’s competitive edge
HR owns two competing interests, further dulling a company’s competitive edge: the hiring process and legal/compliance functions. Because hiring is a strategic, competitive function, it deserves its own advocate. If business units and managers took full responsibility for recruiting and hiring (while HR handled compliance) the daily abrasion of these competing interests would strengthen a company’s edge.

take_a_hikeThis catastrophe didn’t occur overnight. It crept up on business in the form of a smothering shroud of red tape. Today this HR bureaucracy is propped up by an industry of “consultants,” “professionals,” and “experts” who advise corporate HR departments about how to maintain their administrative stranglehold over the key differentiator that defines any company — its people. And in turn, HR funds the database-induced job-board stupor and online-application-form addiction that’s killing employers and job hunters alike.

It’s time for HR to get out of the recruiting and hiring business, and to give this strategic function back to business units and managers who design, build, manufacture, market and sell a company’s products. Who better to decide who’s worth hiring? Who better to aggressively go find the people who will give the company an edge?

In the meantime, job hunters have no choice but to Outsmart The Employment System.

Should HR relinquish its recruiting and hiring functions? Have you experienced related problems with HR, either as a hiring manager or as a job applicant? What do you think should be done about it? (And if you think I’m wrong, please tell me why.)

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