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Don’t suck canal water

I advise job hunters to avoid trying to swallow a broken job. These are jobs where:

  • There might be a formal job description, but it’s not clear exactly what work needs to be done;
  • There’s no simple, objective measure of performance in place;
  • The manager is throwing bodies at a problem that he himself doesn’t really understand; or,
  • The manager desperately needs to have a short-term task done, but can’t specify what the job will entail afterward.

When a job is broken, it’s impossible for you succeed at it and it’s impossible for management to assess your performance. The outcome is that your morale suffers, your career is put at risk, and your life becomes miserable. In other words, you’re sucking canal water.

To avoid a broken job, ask the interviewer to explain the work in detail in his own words; to lay out specific, objective measures of success; to sketch out the future of the position; and to explain how the work you’ll be doing will contribute to the profitability of the business.

One good way to do this is to ask what the deliverables are for the job — in the first week, month, three months, six, a year, and a year and a half. You’ll force the manager to talk shop, and if you are really prepared for that interview, you’ll be able to demonstrate why you’d be the most profitable hire.

(Whether you are changing careers or changing jobs, it’s important to have a sense of the answers to these questions before you attend an interview. Be prepared to control the interview by having your own answers prepared.)

If you don’t get straight answers and you’re left wondering why the job even exists, toss the boss a quarter and suggest he call you when he’s got a real job for you to do. Don’t suck canal water.

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