Special Edition

I periodically do webinars and teleconferences for professionals, where I make a brief presentation — then we have an “open microphone.” Anyone may ask any question about job hunting or hiring, and I do my best to provide useful advice on the spot.

I love doing such events because I don’t have to prepare. In fact, I can’t prepare. I have no idea what anyone will ask. I also enjoy doing it because it tests me — how much value can I deliver, to someone with a problem, in the space of a few minutes?

These events grew out of a series of online chats I did a few years ago, before audio was really possible for large groups online. (The webinar I did for Harvard Business School attracted hundreds of MBA students and Harvard alumni.) We always promoted the old chats like this:

Show up online at noon tomorrow — and pound Nick with your questions! We’ll see how many he can answer, and how fast he can type, in the course of 90 minutes!

Chats aren’t very popular any more (and I can talk faster than I can type!), so I’ll be doing more webinars and teleconferences for various groups in 2012. But I’ve never done an “open mic” here, for my own Ask The Headhunter community. So here we go!

It’s Open Mic: What’s your problem?

Every week in the newsletter I answer one question from a reader in the traditional Q&A format. This week, I will do my best to answer any and all questions you post here on  The Blog — and I welcome our community to chime in on the discussions. The more variety, the better!

  • Lost your job and don’t know how to start hunting for a new one?
  • The employer wants you to do a stress interview?
  • Wondering how to deal with a headhunter who just called you?
  • They want your salary history, but you don’t want to share it?
  • Your company posted a job and you got 5,000 applicants. What now?
  • The manager made you a good offer, but HR just called to rescind it?
  • What’s your problem? Please post it and we’ll tackle it.

(You don’t have to include any identifying information.)

I’ve answered over 30,000 questions from Ask The Headhunter readers since 1995. This week I’ll answer as many as you post. So… please ask away!

(This column was published before the comment threading feature was added to Ask The Headhunter, so my replies to questions do not appear immediately below each comment. Please scroll down in the comments and look for my reply “@commenter-name” to each question. Sorry for the inconvenience!)

: :

  1. I agree with your strategy of targeting companies that I want to work for. How do I go about identifying or finding those companies?

  2. @Bob U: It’s kind of like finding a girlfriend… you can’t really just go “find” one. You have to ask yourself what your interests and values are, then go hang out where others like that hang out. Meet them, become part of their circle, and they will introduce you to your next job (or to your next date).

    That sounds simplistic, but it’s not. It’s profound. There’s no better way to match you to a job and employer (or two people). It’s “organic.” It only works because it takes a lot of work, and often a lot of time. This is why it’s so important to cultivate friendships at work all the time.

    (I find it hilarious that the online job/candidate matching process takes into account so much less information about the parties involved than dating sites like eHarmony!)

    Try this: Make a list of the companies you most admire. Places where you’d love to work in your fantasy. Cull the list down to 3-4. Then go after them. Don’t worry whether they’re hiring. Focus on making contacts and friends – through existing contacts (6 degrees), by contributing to professional discussion forums, by attending relevant events, and just by dropping a note to people you read about.

    It’s amazing to me that job hunters don’t focus on the biz press – that’s where “the names” are! Get in touch with them! Talk shop! Ask good questions, have a discussion about their work. That’s how you meet people – and get introduced to others. This is how “insiders” get hired while you sit on the sidelines.

    This article may help:

    I discuss how to get into the right “circle of friends” in “How Can I Change Careers?” It’s not just for career changers. It’s for anyone changing jobs that wants to stand out.

    You don’t find the right companies. You already know who they are. You just need to map your skills to their needs – and then go explain it to the manager you want to work for.

    If this sounds over the top, consider that this is what companies pay headhunters for: Our relationships, contacts, and ability to cultivate more. ANYONE can do this, if you can just get past all the crap about job applications and resumes and interviews.

  3. Hi Nick,

    I was in the restaurant business for 17 years, waiting tables and 4 years co-owning a restaurant, which falls right in the middle of the time frame. I put myself through college, got a degree, and have been working in another industry for 14 years, most recently at the director level.

    An industry recruiter just asked me to combine my restaurant experience in one paragraph because “all that restaurant experience might not be such a good thing”. I am speechless – any thoughts?

  4. I’m not sure what I want to do. I’ve taken a couple years off, because the industry I was in was not “friendly” to a single parent and my child was showing the signs. If I apply for a job and get an interview, can I mention my hesitation?

  5. Nick,
    I’m 56-yr-old woman who went back for a PhD at age 48.Since graduating, Ive sent hundreds of resumes with one or two unfruitful bites. I believe the problems are two-fold: my age and the fact that was out of the “career” track for ten years while finishing school and a book. How can I prove to employers that neither of these facts prevent me from being a great employee? Should I address both factors directly in my cover letter? Should I cover them indirectly by emphasizing my experience in my field and why I went back to grad school? Im mystified. I thought my doctorate would give me an enormous edge, but it seems to be the opposite.
    thank you for your informative newsletter and spot-on advice!

  6. I find it cruelly ironic that in this new age of “interactive” relationship and credibility building that social media and blogging are supposed to foster that we are seeing a proliferation of door slamming devices such as no-reply emails from employers (one is signed “candidate care” dept.), refusal of hard copy documents, and “stay away” linkedin profiles by executives with no contacts or group memberships. I know we are supposed to go trawling around looking for contacts and “engaging” them, but even if we get lucky and get a small dialog going, that will shut down the minute they get a communication or item that doesn’t interest or energize them.
    Any other suggestions? I have worked on reconnecting with one party for a year who had definitely expressed an interest in the beginning and, when pinned down, was a little apologetic, but enough’s enough.

    A build on Lisa’s question: I doubt that we’ll ever see a job spec calling for 10+ years doing xyz preceded by 10 years doing something else. Therein lies the challenge for the experienced worker in being a fit for a role or an industry, especially with all the career (not just job) shifts going on. They perceive Lisa’s restaurant experience as “diluting” the other parts they are interested in, not enriching it. The standard coaching advice is to turn it around and convince them what a renaissance man/woman you are, but the listener craves simplicity, not “enrichment”. Comments welcome.

  7. Nick,as someone who graduated recently from nursing school, have passed my boards, but can’t land a position becuase I have no experience. But I can’t get any if I don’t get hired. I did do an internship at a philadelphia hospital, and was told once i passed the boards I would be hired, but of course that didn’t come to fruition. I can’t believe that every nursing student got their job directly from the internship. How does one get around this old catch 22?

  8. After being laid off in 2009, I have been searching for a solid 2 years. I’ve had offers for sales positions; however, the offers either don’t meet my expectations (very low salary offer), or the company has a bad reputation (after a little digging) and the offer is unreasonable. I feel as if I’m starting over on my job search. Any job search methods I should focus on? I don’t want to take something for 2 years when it doesn’t meet my salary expectations. I’ve been doing some consulting on the side, which has held me over and allowed me to be selective. Also, am I being unreasonable?

  9. Excellent advice as always, Nick. As a school career advisor, I try to relate this to all my student but, as you find with the public in general, not everyone is willing to do the work. And they wonder why they are still unemployed.

    By the way, excellent reader comment on the newsletter this week from Richard Bolles. What a fantastic recommendation for you!

    Marie, I would recommend looking at everything Nick says again. You mention sending out hundreds of resumes. That’s the opposite of what he advises. You need to target who you want to work for and network your way in. And, unless your Phd is required for the job you want, it probably only screams “overqualified”, at least as far as educatio, to the employers who do look at your resume. Do you have experience to go along with that degree?

  10. I work at a company who’s HR typically follows the old-school methods you teach against. I can see how those methods are ineffective, but I myself am just a technical geek doing my job.

    Is there anything “someone on the inside,” who’s not in HR, can do to help the company “do it right” or help candidates who are trying to come in?

  11. Nick,

    After working in IT for a decade I’m considering a career move into bakery work.
    Am thinking about approaching potential employers and request some sort of work shadowing or free work to get my feet wet, but am not sure if that would be perceived well, nor what the best way to go about it would be (phone? turn up at the shop and ask? write?).

    Also, would it be worth trying to shrink my now useless past work experience on my resume? Thank you for your advice

  12. I was laid off 2 years ago, shortly after, my Mom had a stroke and because of scarce funds I handled all the care issues for her. Since then she passed on and I want to return to work. How do I present the 2 year gap?

    I know I could really fill my resume with stuff not relevant to my career path like the process of dealing with medicare, estate planning, probate taxes ect. and how to deal with all the professionals and concepts involved. (guess again this is NOT trivial straight foward stuff. You need to really think out the options and their ramifications and don’t get a second chance to correct mistakes. It is a real eye opener) But this is not the field that I desire to return to.
    How do I present my self on this career deviation at an interview?

  13. Nick,

    How do recruiters and hiring managers view legitimate self employment?

    I came out of corporate america working for two Fortune 100 companies. I started and have been running my own small business for the last 4 years which has been successful but not rewarding. I am thinking of going back to corporate. Any advice?

  14. Nick,

    Companies always want references, yet my last two employers had policies prohibiting anyone working for them from providing references. Since the people at those two companies had the best chance to view my work, how do I supply the references that companies want?

  15. Nick:

    Have you considered making ATHH available electronically? I have recommended it probably a hundred times, and I keep having to tell people to buy used copies off Amazon. I’m NOT giving mine up. ;-)

  16. here’s some food for thought germane to people who are trying to restart after a lapse. As it so happens we’re interviewing a couple of people who stepped off the merry-go-round to take different directions. They are serious contenders for jobs at my company. One was an engineer in the oil/gas industry who rose to an engineering manager, left for 20 years to run his own totally unrelated business (convenience stores) and wants to return to the game. Here’s a to-the-mark quote from one of his references, a former manager. I love it as it makes absence a minor point.

    “Some people assume when you go away you go stupid. But getting away matures you in ways & directions the industry can’t provide. But the oil/gas engineering fundamentals don’t change. And he’s solid on the fundamentals.”

    That old adage about not forgetting how to ride a bicycle has substance. Every field has fundmentals, that’s what really counts, the other stuff are variables. The base of adding value is knowing the fundamentals.

    Ask yourself what the fundamentals are, and if you are solid. I’m sure you’ll find you are. Then drive that point home until you find a hiring manager and a company that understands the point.

    In the case of the engineer we are taling to…someone who has started and ran their own business successfully for 20 years definitely has dimensions to offer that peers who stuck around plying their trade don’t bring to the table. And we value those dimensions.

  17. Hi Nick, I’ve been a stay at home mom for 12 years. How do I account for this on my resume? I’m a hard worker, quick learner and eager to get the job done right. Should I start through a temp agency, so companies can see they’ll get their money’s worth out of me?

  18. How does a candidate flush out information when receiving an offer? For instance, I was offered a job with a bonus. The bonus was contingent on performance.

    Later I found out that the bonus was contigent on performance, and the performance was measured on how much overtime I did and also the percentage of gross margin the division brought in.

    What research can one do to flush out this data so one can make a more informed decision about an offer?

  19. @Jim D

    My sister is a nurse and she got her job in a way that actually encompasses a lot of what Nick talks about. While she was in school, I saw a nursing job fair advertised in the newspaper. Despite her protests that she did not have her BSN yet or for that matter passed her boards, I convinced her to go. She met the VP of Human Resources for a large hospital system in the area. The VP gave my sister, her business card and encouraged her to keep in touch. My sister kept in touch. Once she graduated and passed her boards, she was given an interview which she nailed. You have to go out and meet people and try to make connections. Also, if you have good relationships with any of your clinical instructors, you may be able to get leads there. Also, if keep in touch with any of the nurses that worked at the hospital where you did your internship, you may get leads as to what other hospitals are hiring.

  20. Transition from Part-time to Full-time

    I’ve been working in my current role for about 3 years. The first 2 years were as contract hire, and this past year I’ve been on staff as part-time (32 hours weekly). Recently, I approached by employer about moving to “full-time” status, and he agreed that it was a natural progression and the timing looked right for that to happen. He asked me to submit a salary figure for what I thought that move would look like. I did some research into average salary figures, different areas of the country, and spoke with other people who either have a similar job description or who would hire someone with my experience/ background/ credentials, etc. My research seemed to corroborate what I’d already thought was a reasonable figure for a full-time salary. When I brought this up to my employer, they were shocked and said that what they were thinking was “not even in the same ballpark.” I think because I’ve been there for 3 years already (as opposed to a new hire), they feel as if what I asked for (even though they asked me to submit a number) was outrageous. I love my job and want to advance in it. I just feel as if now their perception of me has changed, and I won’t reach what I believe is fair compensation for full-time in this position. For now, we’ve agreed to keep things as is at part-time. How is that transition best made, and will I just continue hitting my head against a glass ceiling?


  21. Like a lot of IT Pros with a career track, I took a lower position during the Great Recession to keep beans and rice on the table. Now I am getting calls from recruiters who say they have my resume, but can’t seem to look beyond the current position to the project management and QA work that I want to move forward with. They couch it with phrases like “employers really are only interested in your most current skills” or “What have you been doing recently?” It is apparent that they either cannot read beyond the first paragraph, or they think that if they browbeat me enough, I will accept another crappy break-fix / help desk / bench tech position.

    Your thoughts?

    (Disclaimer: I have never ever been contacted by a real headhunter; however, I look forward to the experience!)

  22. @L.T.

    I agree. That’s a great question.

    I am in IT, took a “lower” position (a.k.a. I program but not in anything you probably ever heard of) way back when, when I got out of school.

    Almost a decade later I’m still at the same company. Can’t really complain about my current employer as I have moved up the pay ladder, have had some good oppurunity, but I would like to get into something more mainstream.

    Much like you, it has been really hard to crack the egg the last few years and get any so called recruiters to take you seriously since you don’t have all the latest buzzwords, even though there are a lot of parallels.

  23. Nick, as a ten year veteran in the oil industry I have no problems getting face to face interviews. However, several times now I have been flown cross-country at the interviewing company’s expense, and the interview turned out to be for a different job than the one I was told I was applying for. Being prepared has no benefit when they want a different skill set than I was told they were seeking. Most recently, I sat down with the interviewer and an HR rep and within 3 minutes both myself and the engineer interviewing me knew this job was not something I was qualified for, but the HR rep actually asked me what in the job description made me think I was qualified. Both myself and a headhunter had gone over this job description with great detail, because I was reluctant to waste my time on a job that I might not want. They specifically said “exploration” in the job description but the job was “operations.” These totally different skill sets. This has happened to me even when a headhunter was not involved and I was interviewing at the request of a company HR representative. In one case, at a company I really wanted to work for and had targeted, I was interviewed by about 5 managers, all looking for operations experience, and at the end of the day the exploration manager came in and sheepishly admitted he had no budget to hire with. Needless to say I did not get a job offer and I walked away somewhat offended and disappointed that a company could be so inefficient. I had tried to salvage the interview by emphasizing that I could train for operations more quickly than a less experienced hire, but that got me nowhere. Why do companies want to waste time and money interviewing candidates whose resume has no indication that the job would be appropriate? Do they even read my resume? And why are they not honest about the job they are trying to fill? I’m tired of attending my own beheading. I now refuse interviews unless I have already met the hiring manager or at least had a phone conversation with that manager, but getting to that point is not easy and most companies interpret this attitude as lack of interest.

  24. @Lisa: Your restaurant experience may or may not be helpful in getting an interview for a particular job. What you have to decide is whether you respect and trust the recruiter. If the recruiter is astute, and decides it’s best to limit the information for some reason, then go with it. If you’re not sure what the recruiter’s rationale is, then ask. An expert is useful only if you trust him or her to be acting in your best interest. Before you decide whether to pursue this particular job, you must make a decision about the recruiter. So, I’d have a talk with the recruiter, and decide when you’re satisfied you have the information you need.

  25. @Jen: I think what any job applicant owes an employer is motivation to do the job. If you’re not sure you want the job, the employer has a right to judge you on that point. I’d rather hire a very motivated candidate who needs training, for example, than someone with good skills who isn’t so motivated.

    Many people go on interviews “to learn what the job is all about,” then they make a decision about whether to pursue it further. I think this is a huge mistake. Find out about the job first, then go on the interview. If you must, call the employer and ask for more details. Better yet, pursue only jobs you already know a lot about. (Why chase the unknown? I’m mystified when people chase jobs they know little about, then they get upset when they get rejected. It matters how motivated you are.)

    If you’re not sure what you want to do, start hanging around with people who work in businesses that interest you. Educate yourself about them. So that when you do choose a direction, you’ll be pumped and read to shine. If you “apply for an interview” with hesitation, you will lose.

  26. @Marie: Please think about how people apply for jobs. They send out lots of resumes and wait for a “bite.” (Don’t feel bad – it’s the ocmmon approach. It’s taken decades for employers and HR workers to brainwash people into thinking this is how it’s done. But that’s totally wrong.) For an employer to become interested in you, it needs to believe you are powerfully interested in them. Why else would they want to interview you? But consider what it means to send out tons of resumes. What does it mean to the n-th company? It means you don’t know what you want to do. You just want a job. (Hey, I get that. We all have to pay the rent. But the reality is that employers want motivated candidates who know what they want.)

    I’d send out fewer resumes. In fact, I’d stop sending them out. Set this objective for yourself: You will interview only for jobs where you have already spoken to the hiring manager. No blind resume submissions. This creates a lot of work for you. Homework. Phonecalls. E-mails. Developing contacts and introductions to people. A ton of work.

    And that’s as it should be. You’re a much more powerful candidate when you’ve invested that time and effort – and guess what? It shows. A manager who sees that several people around her know you is more likely to talk to you. That’s how “insiders” get hired ahead of unknowns.

    Pick your target carefully. Hone in. Make it personal. They’ll think more of you, and you’ll be better prepared to impress them.

  27. @Kent V: All good points. You put it well: They want “social,” but they don’t want to respond. But it’s all B.S., really. How much do you have to invest to make a “social contact” online? Very little. That makes communicating with you as trivial as communicating with the next person who followed suit. Hence the rude “candidate care” notes. (A buddy of mine contends that as soon as a company creates a department with a name that reflects “quality,” that’s the signal that there is no quality. They’re hiding behind the name.)

    HR consultants sell companies a bill of goods when they “explain” that “social is good.” There is precious little “social” in social. I’ll tell you what companies really want that most social networking tools fail to deliver: They want shared experiences. They want to see what you can do, and they want you to see what they can do. That’s the “interaction” they’re really looking for – but “social tools” online don’t really do that, do they? All they accomplish is to fill the pipeline with too many people flailing around trying to be relevant. (Where’s the shared experience on LinkedIn?)

    Try this. Read an article about someone who works in a company you’re interested in. Send them a note. Ask them something about their work. Don’t mention jobs. Trade notes back and forth. Do the same with 2-3 other people in the same biz. Compile what you learn. Introduce the 3 to one another. Stimulate some dialogue about the work you all do.

    THEN ask for advice and insight about working for the company. Your shared experiences will pay off a lot of the time, but not always. That’s the investment and the risk.

    Without the shared experiences, your “interactions” online are just a few more bits flying across the ether. Substance matters.

  28. re: read an article about someone who works in a company you’re interested in. Great idea, beats hoping they get interested in something you wrote or prepared. After all everyone reacts better to their own name than anything else. Like the narcissistic date who says “Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. How do you like my dress?” We don’t have to look upon it as venal, just greasing the skids. Starting with a show and tell of your own runs the risk of sounding like “what do you think of my starving artist master works?”

  29. Several years ago I changed careers to computer programming, and worked as a mainframe programmer for almost 10 years. Eventually my job was outsourced, and I went back to school for computer networking. I worked as a contractor for a while, but the job did not work well for personal reasons.

    I currently work part-time in a retail position, but prefer to return to full-time, programming work. I was researching classes in more recent programming languages, and a few people told me that I would need a master’s degree in either computer science or engineering. I see reports that the computer programming field is growing, and ads for positions in particular languages. By the time I finish classes, do you believe that will that still be the case?

  30. @Jim D: Here’s the funky little secret. Employers hire people they know. Your internship actually gave you a tremendous edge – but it was no guarantee. I’m sorry it didn’t pay off, but you did the right thing doing the internship.

    There are other ways to become “people they know.” But don’t focus so much on the specific job you want. Check my article, Pursue Companies, Not Jobs: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/hapursuecos.htm

    Then identify other jobs in your target company. Try pursuing those – preferably via personal contacts you can develop. (Well, you MUST develop them. There is no shortcut. Employers hire people they know. So get an edge by meeting them.) Pick a good organization to work for, and pursue any jobs you have to, to get in the door. In this economy, that may be the only way to get in. We all hate “trading down” to get a job, but the alternative may be “no job.” You must decide for yourself – I’m not telling you how to live.

    Take the job you can get, and then they know you. The job you want is now closer. It’s not instant gratification, but nor is unemployment.

    If this were easy, everyone would be successful. It’s not. It’s usually step by step. I wish you the best.

  31. @SN: No, you’re not being unreasonable. Lower salaries suck. Period. Working for lousy companies sucks more. When you process all that, and experience it as you have, then you must start making decisions. If you opt to wait for what you want, more power to you. But if you get tired of that, and you want a job and a paycheck, you must decide what you’re willing to accept. Only you can decide. My advice: Take less money to work for a good employer before you take more money to work for a lousy one. A good employer will have more good jobs available as the economy improves.

    I think the most valuable thing you can do when the whole scene sucks is to position yourself as best you can for when things get better.

  32. @Erin: Thanks. Dick Bolles and I met some time ago when he sent me that nice note. I had no idea he was reading my stuff. (For anyone who doesn’t know, Dick Bolles is the only true “personality” in the career field. He’s sold over 10 million books. And he’s a very smart, very nice guy.)

  33. KP-

    A master’s degree in either computer science or engineering is NOT required for a programming job. You should only do that kind of degree if you are interested in the subject for its own sake. Very, very few programming jobs require it and they’ll all be at big companies. You might want to take a few courses in areas of particular interest to you but start with the free online ones from Stanford and MIT.

    What you need is to show programs that you have recently written. Learn one or two current languages using whatever method (tutorials or in-person or online classes) you prefer and then write something in those languages. Publish what you write on github.com or other public code repository. Publish lessons learned in a blog as you go along, making connections to things you know from your mainframe days. Once you’ve done some for practice, see if you can publish an actual small working app. You will then have a portfolio of recent work.

    Join the community for your chosen programming languages: Participate in online discussions about programming topics. If you live in a city, attend users group meetings. Talk to people who do what you want to do and find out what kinds of skills are needed now. Practice doing those kinds of programs and post them on github.

  34. @Stacey: You can definitely help your company. Let your HR department do what it does. Focus yourself on introducing good people to managers who can use them. Do it below the radar. Invite one of those people to stop by for lunch – either in the company cafeteria, at your desk, or at the local eatery where employees and managers hang out. Make casual introductions. Talk shop. Help the person and the manager get to know one another without pressure. Introduce them way before either one wants to hire or to get a job. That’s the true “recruiting pipeline” – not the database HR is busy building on CareerBuilder.

    The best thing you can do for your company is to become a hub of talented people and managers. Help them meet. Then goose it along when necessary… ;-)

    Kudos to you for asking a question like this. I hope your company realizes that you understand the biggest asset it has: Its people and their ability to attract other good people to the business.

    Note to managers: The next time you interview someone, ask them how they help introduce great people to their boss. Try it. It’s a great way to identify truly great hires. Great hires ACTIVELY help you make more great hires.

  35. @S.E.: I know a guy who was a VP of Sales for an international software company. He chucked it to start a bakery. The business failed, but he went on to become a chef for a high-end private school. Go figure. He’s happy.

    I’d start shopping at the bakery. Chat up the staff. Ask to meet the manager/owner, and compliment him or her on one of the products you really like. Then walk away. Let a little time go by. Keep going in. Become a regular. Bake something really good – take it to the owner. “Hey, your pastries give me such pleasure, I thought I’d return the favor with my best, even if it’s not so great.”

    Let a little time pass. Ask for the owner again on another visit. “Can I ask you for some advice? I’ve been successful in IT. Am I crazy because I want to work in a bakery? Can you tell me what the business is like? Can I buy you breakfast and pick your brain?”

    Then shush and listen. Then make an offer, if you don’t get one first. “If you’ll hire me and teach me how to bake, I’ll also help you tune up your computers and your software. I want to work with you.” (You have to say that last sentence, and make the commitment.)

    Hope you have to do this with only one bakery… ;-)

  36. @Edward: Dealing with this on a resume and in an interview are two different things. This sort of situation is why you should NOT use a resume. No resume, no problem. Get in the door by meeting people, making contacts, getting introduced by insiders. This takes time. I discuss it here:

    And one of my books:

    Resumes are not the best way to get in the door, and as you’ve realized, in such situations they can hurt you. A resume cannot defend the choice you made, and you never know who will be okay with it and who won’t.

    In interviews, just fess up. Make no excuses. Just say what you did and why, then move on. Ask the manager, “Can you lay out a live problem you’d want me to tackle if you hired me? I’ll show you how I’d approach it. And you shouldn’t hire me if my approach isn’t satisfactory.”

    The point is to shift from talking about you, to talking about what the boss needs. Talk about the work. If the manager is impressed with what you can do, your time off won’t matter so much, if at all.

    Keep in mind that nowadays, lots of people have “gaps” – many because they’ve simply not been able to find a job. The manager interviewing you may have been one of them recently.

  37. @Doug: In my experience, recruiters and employers often view self-employment differently. Recruiters/headhunters just want to get a position filled. It’s easiest to find someone who’s doing the work now for another employer. Self-employed folks are often more complicated, and recruiters often perceive them as risky – for many reasons, some valid, some silly. If a recruiter indicates he’s got a problem with you for this reason, move on. You’re not likely to “fix” his bias.

    Employers may react more positively, if they see that your self-employment will pay off for them. And it’s up to you to explain that. An employer wants one thing: Someone to do the job profitably. So stop defending your history, and instead lay out your “business plan” for the job at hand. Show how you’ll do it so it will pay off for the employer. If that won’t get you hired, then you’re talking to a dope. (Sorry. I’m blunt.) If the manager gets it, but is worried you’ll want to run your own business again, make a commitment if you dare: “If you hire me, unless you fire me I’ll guarantee you that I will work for you for at least three years. I realize you’re worried I’ll bolt. So I wanted to make that commitment to you now.”

    I think people hesitate to commit like that in interviews. They should decide in advance whether they’re willing. Then do it if it feels right. It could mean a lot to the interviewer.

  38. @Daniel Smith: Just because your last employer has a policy against references doesn’t mean your old coworkers won’t be references for you. Call them and ask them. Don’t mention the policy. Ask if they’d be willing to “talk with this employer from home – not from work.”

    I think any company that prohibits references should be prohibited from hiring anyone. It’s stupid. The world goes ’round based on people’s reputations. If you can’t ask around about people, you’re killing the economy. I know they worry about litigation in the event someone gives a bad reference and the company gets sued. So teach employees how to handle reference calls properly.

    Please read “Take Care of Your References”: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/hareferences.htm

  39. Hi, Nick –
    Longtime reader, first-time submitting a question.

    Here’s my question: as a military veteran (Navy officer for 4 years), as well as someone who holds a Tier 1, full-time MBA in my chosen field of marketing, how do I convince a hiring manager that my military experience and MBA are beneficial? I have been told by several HR types, after receiving rejections, that my “true” experience, or that which is directly applicable, is the four years of corporate marketing experience since earning my MBA. I disagree, especially since HR’s rationale puts me in the same ballpark as an entitled and less-qualified mid-20-something. How do I present my time in the military and real-world grad school projects as actual experience that is relevant to an employer?

  40. @Brandon Riley: Yep, that project is in the works. My old book, “Ask The Headhunter,” has been out of print for a couple of years. I recently reacquired the rights from my old publisher, and a new edition will be in the works shortly – I’ll publish it myself. I may even issue a word-for-word “original edition” electronically in the meantime. (I didn’t realize I’d have to have the physical book re-typed! The systems that big publishers use are arcane – you can’t export an old book from their software into, say, Word. But that’s done now.)

    Hey, thanks for asking! For anyone who is interested in a copy of the original book, please drop me an e-mail: nick@asktheheadhunter.com and use subject=THE BOOK. I could use a bit of market research… that is, how many people want it?

  41. @Adele: Getting back into a job via a temp agency can be the quickest path. But no matter how you do it, it’s really important to decide what kind of work you want to do, and which companies you want to do it for. Making these choices, and then doggedly pursuing those companies, demonstrates the kind of motivation (and self-knowledge) employers like to see. It’s simple: Someone who knows exactly what she wants to do is a better risk than someone who’s just “looking for a paycheck.”

    My PDF book, “How Can I Change Careers?” is a great start on this path. It offers suggestions for how to start making choices, and then teaches how to ‘splain it all to an employer so the employer will see the reasons to hire you. Learn more here:

  42. @Bob: Good question about how to evaluate an offer that includes a bonus based on performance. This is how employers play games. You can protect yourself by insisting on definitions in the offer.

    1. What’s the bonus based on?
    2. How will it be calculated?
    3. Show me a spreadsheet so I can play “what if” before I accept the offer.
    4. The offer letter itself should include the spreadsheet or a clear reference to it.
    5. The “measures” that trigger the bonus should be OBJECTIVE (no one can argue about them), CLEAR (so you understand them), and MEASUREABLE (not open to interpretation). And they should be in WRITING.

    Any company that tells you they can’t put all that in writing is playing games. It means they don’t know what your bonus will be, or how it will be determined. So it’s no bonus at all.

  43. @M.L. re: Jim’s question about nursing.

    YES! ML nails it. KEEP IN TOUCH. This is such a huge part of networking, and so few people get it. You can’t “network” to get a job when you need a job. You must start networking 5 years in advance. (That means NOW. Or in 5 years you’ll wonder what you did wrong.)

    This article kind of socks it home:

    (Thanks, ML!)

  44. @Ray: Salary surveys are the work of the devil. Check out the 2-part article I recently wrote for CMO.com:

    I’d go back at them, without the surveys in hand. Instead, take along a mini business plan for the “revised” job – in other words, a proposal about how you plan to do it. And how your methods will pay off. And how your plan will more than pay your new salary.

    Employers don’t like to hire anyone because it costs money. They like to produce profit. Show them how you’ll do that, and then you’re in a far better position to negotiate your salary.

    Make this next meeting a dialogue that starts with a brief presentation from you. Ask for input on your assumptions and plans for doing the job. Estimate how you think you can boost profits. And ask how much that’s worth to them.

    Get a dialogue going about how you can contribute to profitability, and you’ll have a place to start talking about your pay.

    Lots more about this approach here:

    And in “How to Perform in a Peformance Review”:

  45. @L.T.: Fact #1 about most recruiters: They want the shortest path to their next fee.

    That means they take the job description and your resume (physical, paper versions), one right on top of the other, and they hold them up to the light. They look to see which words (technical term: keywords) on one doc exactly overlap words on the other doc. If enough overlap, you get an interview. If not many overlap, well, they’ve got 10,000 other resumes to try this with.

    Fact #2 about most recruiters: They can do this all day long, because it’s easier than talking to anyone about skills and work.

    My advice: Pick the companies you want to work for. Prepare a brief plan for how you’ll do the work they need done, and present it to them. Note that this doc does NOT require you to have done the work before, or to regurgitate your past accomplishments. This doc is a plan for what you can do for them, and how (without giving too much away). Technical term: Teaser.

    I find that employers are far more interested in a compelling story about what you’re going to do for them, than in what you did last year. Recruiters, on the other hand, can’t find their butts with both hands – much less a candidate who can do something new. Finding someone who can do something old again and again just seems to work a whole lot better for most recruiters.

    So pick your next job yourself, and hunt yourself a new employer. You’ve been around this blog long enough that I know you know how to do that. This is just a gentle kick ;-). I always enjoy your blunt assessments.

  46. As technology allows more and more people to connect more easily and without any real cost, what’s your outlook on the contingency recruiting profession? I recognize finding a candidate and completing the search are two very different things, but nonetheless, what’s next?

  47. @Dave: You can’t wait for the job you want to come to you, or to appear on a job board. Figure out what you want to do next, talk to people who work at companies you admire, and work your way in the door informally. No resumes, no interviews. Just talk shop. It really works.

  48. @ Nick – your advice to Doug is brilliant! Here’s a question for you (I’ll probably have an answer before you answer by reading through your newsletters and blogs).

    I know there’s a job open in 1 of my contact’s division (it’s been posted online) – instead of applying through HR, I was going to email him to ask him to see if we could meet to discuss the job and to see if I’d fit so I can demonstrate that I’m able to do the job..

  49. @Tony: Don’t try to talk yourself into a job that’s not for you, just because they brought you in.

    The problem you describe is endemic in many companies. The internal recruiting process is so convoluted and bureaucratic that they’ll invite a blow-up doll for an interview and not realize til it’s the doll’s turn to speak that it’s not qualified.

    Your challenge, should you decide to accept it, is due diligence: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/hadiligence.htm

    But, do it in advance. Don’t get on the plane til you talk to some managers and team members on the phone, and via e-mail. Ask your questions. Make your visit contingent on getting them answered. Don’t worry about “blowing an opportunity” when the blow-up dolls in HR won’t answer you, or they get ticked off.

    Remember: A job candidate has as much right to accurate information about the job as the employer has a right to an accurate resume. Here’s how to say it:

    “Thanks for the invitation. I’d like to meet with you to discuss the job. I was glad to send you an accurate resume portraying my experience. But before I come to visit, I’d like to make sure I’ve got an accurate description of the job. May I talk with the hiring manager and a couple of staff members first, by phone? This could save us both time and money – and if we have an accurate potential match, I’ll be able to present you with a coherent outline of how I’d tackle the job when I visit with you.”

    If they give you a hard time, tell them you don’t date blow-up dolls.

  50. @G re: KP’s question: I knew if I skipped ahead on the questions before answering KP, I’d find a good answer already posted by someone well-versed in the IT world. Thanks! KP, take heed, G said it all.

  51. @WD: The best way to do this is to skip past morons who don’t understand what military training means. The HR wonk who discounts what you did for 4 years should go visit a military base, you know, for “experience.”

    A couple of years ago I was asked to do a presentation to an auditorium full of soldiers returning from Iraq to Fort Dix, to be processed out of the Army and into civilian life. Here’s what I told them:

    Find companies that hire military folks. Don’t bother with the rest unless they come to you. Use that edge to your advantage – employers that “get it.”

    How do you find them? Through former military folks who work there. Start by participating in online forums for ex-military. Get to know the participants. Then ask them for their advice and insight – not for a job lead. (Being asked for a job lead is like being asked to carry a monkey on your back.) Ask what companies they know that hire military. Then start reading about those companies. Contact people you encounter in those articles. Ask for more advice and insight. This trail will help you make friends – and get you introductions.

    The problem with sending out resumes in response to ads is that you aren’t selecting employers – you’re waiting for them to reject you. Make the appreciation of the military experience one of your criteria for targeting employers.

    I wish you the best. Thanks for your service to us all. Only an idiot would believe that when you left the military, you also left behind all you learned because it’s useless.

  52. @Brandon:

    As technology allows more and more people to connect more easily and without any real cost

    It doesn’t. The prevalence of job boards and software that puports to match people to jobs doesn’t mean it really works. It doesn’t. If it worked, America would not have 3.2 million empty jobs when there are 14 million people unemployed.

    It’s a fallacy. Don’t buy into it.

    Contingency search will always exist because there’s no risk to the employer, and a handsome fee for the headhunter who does a good job.

    What’s next is what we’ve always had: A small number of good contingency headhunters being used by employers who need to hire.

  53. With 20+ years of solid and credible experience, but no college degree, I find myself excluded at the online application stage from available positions in my industry. I’m also “mature” aka older than many applicants, which is readily gleaned from online applications requiring that one insert year of graduation from high school. I’m willing (not excited) to accept a lot less money than I was previously being paid, but I sense that my past pay rate is a barrier to even being considered for a new position. I know I have skills and energy to contribute to a new employer, but have found no way to convey that message in person.

  54. Nick,

    Thank you so much for providing this unique opportunity.

    I am a graduating senior from The University of Tulsa. I am very interested in recruitment and love advancing organizations and institutions I am a part of and believe in. Obviously, a career in this very thing is something I am pursuing, but it seems as if few people my age are pursuing this type of career, and quite frankly, my confidence is a bit shaken without some support from others following my path or from others in the field. It seems very unclear what sources I should pursue and what steps I should take to recruit for a living. Therefore, my question is this: how does one in my position get into recruitment? Do I need to pursue a masters in H.R. MGT? Do I need to be an established expert in a field before I can move into recruitment for said field? Really what I’m asking is, what next? No one seems to provide me any real advice; people in similar positions that I’m looking at say they just kind of ended up there, and it seems like they were not necessarily pursuing that career anyway.

    Thanks for your wisdom and support!

  55. Nick,

    Thanks so much doing this open questions session.

    My question to you is: how do I handle the gap in employment on both my résumé or sales letter (I’m moving away from using résumés) and in the interview?

    I’ve been unemployed since Sept. 2010. I’ve been dealing with some family health and wellness issues (my mother’s), but I’m concerned how prospective employers will view my employment gap. Is there a way I can put a positive “spin” on it?

    I know that lots of people probably have employment gaps now, but I still read stories about employers who list as a qualification “only the employed need apply”. The job market is lousy, making it hard for me to find work, and with my mom’s health issues, I’ve been spending much of my time in doctor’s offices and running to p.t. appointments and to hospitals for tests.

    Thanks for your insight and ideas.

  56. @Thomas: You could contact the manager directly to discuss the job, but you’d be stepping into a “script” that’s already playing. That is, the manager is probably already reviewing applicants. If you call, he’ll crank up that script and tell you to submit your resume, so that you can get in on the script. Make sense? He’s primed to tell you to forget about jumping into another story line.

    Of course, you might handle the call so deftly that he agrees to meet you. If you can pull that off, more power to you!

    On the other hand, if you call the manager and start a new script that’s appealing to him, you might have a better chance of getting what you want. Example: Do a search on the manager. Does he have a blog? Was he written up somewhere in an article about his company? Contact him and ask about that – have one or two intelligent questions about his work, and tie it to your work. Spark a dialogue. (This is Dating 101, by the way.) Then ask for his advice: “I’ve thought about working for your company. My interests are in XYZ. I don’t like floating my resume out there, but I’d sure like to know more about your business. Can you offer me any advice?” It’s the soft way in the door, and it bypasses the resume script.

  57. @Gus: Please check my replies to some of the other questions here on this thread – I think you’ll find some useful suggestions.

  58. @Robbie Bennett: I joined a small search firm in Silicon Valley straight out of graduate school, recruiting engineers. I knew nothing about technology OR recruiting. I learned like this:

    If you want to recruit in an HR department, my advice is forget it. It’ll turn you into a bureaucrat sitting in front of a pc all day long. If recruiting seems interesting to you, learn to headhunt. It’s where the action is. And the money, too, if you get good at it. It can be a fun business, especially if you start totally green and learn from a pro who really loves the business. I wish you the best.

  59. @marybeth: Sorry to hear you’ve been dealing with family health issues. But the problem with resume gaps isn’t so much the gaps as the resume. It’s a barrier by itself. Once you hand that document over, you’re cooked. It cannot defend you when the employer has a question or concern – and you’re not there to address it. So be there. That is, don’t use a resume – apply in person. Try this for a while: Apply for jobs only by calling the manager directly and striking up a conversation. (I discuss this extensively in some of my other replies on this thread.) When you talk with a manager, talk shop. Find out what he or she needs done, and explain how you’ll do it. Focus on the work. If you can impress the manager with your skills, your planning, your motivation – then what you did last year isn’t so relevant. Good managers are far more interested in evidence that you can do THIS job NOW. Once you’ve demonstrated that, then answering questions about what you did for your family is secondary and not such an obstacle.

  60. Hi, Nick – I found myself participating in what turned into a comedy of errors over two possible temp placements at the same company because I’m scared about finances.

    This was my first interview since my last contract ended in May, 2010; I did my best to stay relaxed and not put my foot in my mouth. I used your suggestions several times throughout the whole process, and they worked in all regards – except that the actual position was deadline oriented without enough flexibility on scheduling, and my first priority is being my dad’s caregiver.

    (I had advised the agency I needed flex scheduling and couldn’t be tied to deadlines, but they didn’t pay attention this time. I’ve got an excellent reputation with them and have made them a lot of money over the years.)

    Both of the people I interviewed with had been in the same situation, so they knew I might not be able to serve two masters despite my best intentions. In retrospect, I’m glad they decided the way they did. I would have hated having to make the choices. I just have to believe things are the way they are for a reason.

    Thanks for all the great guidance you give us, and also for providing such a quality open forum for people to share their experiences and information.

  61. @ Nick – thanks again for your feedback. I’m going to implement your ideas!

  62. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for offering this opportunity to ask you questions directly. My concern stems from prospective employers doing background checks and having access to credit report data.

    Until recently, my credit has been excellent, but due to the past several months of unemployment, as well as an incompetent, uncooperative lender who denied me assistance on my mortgage, the picture is less rosy than it once was. So, my question is how to handle that with a prospective employer. Knowing that this will be part of, if not the final, step toward an offer, does it make sense to address this with the employer? I know legally there are limits to what they can and cannot do with this information, but, I’m sure they will never admit that you were denied employment due to your credit report. With long term unemployment rates and big banks that were given bailout money to help customers, but don’t, I’m sure I’m not the only one whose credit has been affected.

    I’m not applying for high-level positions with banking or financial institutions. And while the roles I’m seeking would deal with departmental budgets, there would be checks and balances to any approved spending. Also, I’m not a person who takes their (or their employers) financial obligations lightly. So how do I best address this “elephant in the room?” Thanks in advance, for your help and insights.

  63. Nick, I have a Master’s and some advanced certifications. I am white, 58 yrs old, English-speaking male. I have I have successfully succeeded in leading 4 non-profit corporations, a national organization, and a regional association from the brink of bankruptcy and foreclosure to restoration, expansion, debt elimination, and resigned to do the same thing when they had up to $1/3 mil cash reserve in the bank. I also have been a prof for 16 years on a P-T basis at nights, being certified to teach for courses. I have held “titles” of Pres/VP/and Exec Director. I hired an Executive Mentor to help me secure another leadership position after failing to do so on my own. Over $5k and years later, I have yet to get an interview. I would be happy to be offered a 5-digit salary, not a 6 or 7-figure one! I have a foot-thick stack of applications and letters I have sent out with no positive results. My resume has been rewritten for times. I am told I am overqualified OR that the hiring agent believes I will want too much money OR leave if offered a better-paying job. The end result is the same: no job offers or interviews. It is despairing to be so successful and yet not be able to get in front of anyone. Any advice?

  64. Nick,
    I am a long-time fan of your concepts and approaches, especially in the business world. I have frequently passed on specific articles or suggested that job-seekers sign up for ATH.

    But now, a recent PhD who seeks employment in higher education is telling me that those approaches don’t work there. He claims that academia requires extensive paperwork from its applicants — that they do not accept candidates through direct contact.

    How would you propose approaching the hiring process within academia?

  65. @Mona: To borrow a popular analogy used frequently on maternity wards, that would be like stretching your lower lip up and over the top of your head.

    Your friend the PhD is correct. Academia does require extensive paperwork, and the process is so prescribed that you could have a baby in the time it takes to get processed. Nonetheless, personal contacts do count. I’ve seen it happen. A school will go through the motions, then hire a favored candidate. But all candidates must submit the required paperwork to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake and that no one who really stands out has an advantage. (Heaven forbid.)

    I think the best way to approach this is to work backwards. If you assume that personal contacts do count, you need to figure out how they matter in a particular school. Who needs to be approached? What do they need to hear? What factors matter most? Then handle it accordingly.

    In the end, unless a school’s hiring is corrupt and nepotism walks the halls, personal contacts merely emphasize that a particular candidate has qualities the school wants – if the candidate really does. That is, personal contacts can still give you an edge, because all those professors and administrators, way underneath the gloss, are really human beings who have personal preferences.

    But you still might prefer to give birth before you go looking for a job in academia.

  66. Hi Nick:

    I’ve been out of work for two years. The past year I have been in school updating my computer skills. My former supervisor often discriminated against me and set me up in order to prevent me from getting promotions. She set me up in order to get me fired. In negotiations, I was able to get severance pay and resign due to the abuse and discrimination I suffered. In order to get the severance pay, I had to sign a statement that I wouldn’t bring discrimination charges against them.

    What do I tell potential employers about this mess? Most job applications require us to sign our rights away and allow anyone to say anything about us in background and reference checks. We have to agree to hold them all harmless regardless of the damage they cause.

    I am concerned that this former employer may be preventing me from getting a job. This past summer, I was close to getting a job I really wanted. After checking my references and work history, the potential new employer gave me a quick brush off and hired someone else.

    I have a list of references that include former co-workers, a former supervisor, and a teacher but I am concerned that the potential employers may still be contacting the former employer/supervisor who sabotaged me.

    Do job applicants have any rights whatsoever? How do we protect ourselves against hateful former employers or supervisors? To make matters worse, I am 50+ years old and may be shut out due to my age.

    I need to get back to work soon. What advice do you have for me?

  67. Dear Nick,

    I am currently 28, unemployed for mostly 2 out of the last 3 months, live at home with mom and dad, and am constantly walking a tight rope that could leave me homeless in a county where there aren’t any homeless shelters.

    Some educational background:
    A.)Bachelor’s Degree, Communications, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
    B.)Certificate of Completion, Business and Information Technology, The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars (successfully finished program working alongside high-level executives on the International Marketing Team for Blackboard, Inc.)

    I have sought everything pertinent to my degree since graduation. I enjoy learning, but my largest premise to go back and put myself in debt was because salary breakdowns of the college graduate have generally been understood to be higher than the drop-out or the High School Grad (My 7th grade teacher gave us an annual income break down of each, and I was given multiply similar lectures that sent me back to school in 2005.)

    I have a serious qualm that fumes me: I know of drop outs, derelicts, and drunks making more money than me and haven’t a degree at all. So without carrying on further, let me list some questions. Answering only a few is understood and appreciated, but answering all will be greatly adored.

    A.) *What am I to do with this degree that I have?* I added a stressful internship because I saw that Communications itself wasn’t going to be enough of a demand. I worked briefly as a Staff Writer for my campus newspaper, and later worked as a Headlines Examiner (Examiner.com) collecting near-to-nothing ad-revenue for posting news columns pertaining to my suburban New Jersey county.
    B.) *How am I to gain not only experience, but maybe ONE interview granting me a tiny chance at some marketing, journalism, or other work experience if no one will hire me first?!* The majority of my work experience is 8 years of part-time, retail, food-service (I could send you a copy of my resume if you feel this may be a resume tuning issue. I’d think after this much time and revision, it would have stood out.)
    C.) I tried my luck switching industries to Warehouse/Production in May, 2011. I started off as an attendant, and then quickly moved up from attendant to line leader within a month of being hired. I was punctual, and for two out of five months employed, I performed duties valued to direct-hires of $15.00 p/hr. for only $9.00 p/hr. Two weeks prior to my contract’s end, I was “granted” an interview for a lesser-paying, attendant job. My interview frequented to my non-relative work experience on my resume, and they never called me back. I proved day-in, day-out I could perform the job with higher or lesser responsibility in a field where I had no prior experience.
    *How do I NOT think this was a result of a company taking advantage of cheap labor?*
    D.) I have a DUI from 2003. *How do I know if this has been barring me from employment despite its occurrence over 8 years ago (I have inquired without response.)*
    E.) My credit score is bad because I ran up credit cards surviving at school. *When does someone recognize that someone with a crappy credit score will DEFINITELY work hard to get his/herself out of this mess rather than be perceived as a louse, a thief, or an irresponsible individual?*
    E.) Lastly, I wanted to present my most important question because my employment problems after graduation have left me to be a strong supporter of The Occupy Movement. I have a few friends telling me “ANYTHING YOU POST ON A FREE WEBSITE CAN BE SEEN REGARDLESS OF YOUR PRIVACY SETTINGS! (speaking of Facebook, etc.)” I confess, I frequently post “Occupy Material” much less out of naivety and protest, but more adamantly because of it’s potential to be one of the biggest violations of freedom of speech rights in American History. My question is: *How certain are you, or do you think it is even possible, that there is some form of a “beta-search” or other “secret well” of data where anything I post can be found and used against me without my knowledge or discretion?*

    My situation is much more complex than my academically-lacking peers have been snickering at me for since my graduation. This is horrific to me not only because I am far from self-sufficient at this point, but I may never topple my debts or my own morale in my quest for financial freedom and holistic solitude.

    This state has gotten disgusting, and I know I did not go to college simply to enhance my pride. It is very hard for me to not take it all to heart, and I really think there needs to be immediate emphasis on the fact that a minor part of the population, like me, have a degree and only debt to show for it (feeling strategically pinned against the uneducated and the educated who are oblivious to me with their own careers.) I haven’t made more than 11 dollars per hour since I was 20, and as stated, am 28.

    Help, and thanks.

    –Sean McDermott

    PS: Sorry for the chapter here.

  68. @CB: There’s no way of telling what an employer has unearthed about your background, and whether they got it legally or otherwise. You really need to make a judgment call and it should depend on the employer and on your motivation to work there. My first inclination is to avoid bringing up anything unnecessarily. But if you believe they’re “looking,” then a preemptive mention of the problem by you can be helpful. The idea is to make it forthright, short, and sweet. By sweet, I mean a quick explanation of how you’re dealing with it. Then move on – talk about how you’re going to do the job successfully. Focus on the reasons to hire you, not on your personal problems.

    In many such cases, a new job with a paycheck is the solution to the tarnished financial record.

  69. I am working with a headhunter but the HR department of the company keeps wanting to talk to me directly. Is this appropriate? We are at the point of scheduling the onsite interview.

  70. @Jake: You’re asking me for a complete job search strategy, which I can’t do in a posting. It’s what all of Ask The Headhunter is about. Start with the free stuff on http://www.asktheheadhunter.com, then read through the blog. If you want to spend a few bucks (less than $5k!), I think you’ll find “How Can I Change Careers?” helpful. It’s for any job hunter who wants to stand out in today’s market – not just for career changers.

    The problem most people face is pursuing jobs that “come along” in postings or ads. That makes you a very weak candidate. The better approach is to select companies carefully, and work your way in by triangulating – talking with people who deal with the company. This gets you introduced, so you become one of those “insiders” who are “wired” for a job. In many cases, there is no job. Recognizing your value, a company creates a job, or fits you into a path toward the job that’s ultimately right for you.

    Unfortunately, you’ve seen what career counseling can be: A cash suck. It’s important to have defined deliverable in the agreement, and periodic payments based on milestones – not an up-front lump-sum. Check this:

  71. @H.M.: You’re asking a lot of legal questions, but I’m not a lawyer and I don’t give legal advice. You need to talk with your state’s labor office to find out what the rules are in your state.

    As for references, check this:

    The best reference is the person who refers you to a particular manager in a company, and who speaks up for you. Applying blindly through ads just doesn’t work well, because no one in the process really knows you. Throughout Ask The Headhunter I discuss ways to “get inside” and avoid the claptrap of applications and blind job hunting. Please check some of my articles.

  72. @Inquiring Mind: Keep one thing in mind about headhunters. They don’t work for you; they work for the employer. Second thing: You are not bound to the headhunter because you have no contract. You can do what you want. Don’t do anything to tick off a good headhunter, but don’t dis his client, either. If HR wants to talk with you, let the headhunter know – and talk. Your goal is a job. The headhunter’s job is to manage the process properly.

    One way to handle this: Tell HR thank you, you’re gald to meet and talk, and would they please notify “their” headhunter about what they’re doing. That should cover you.

    Remember: The headhunter can be incredibly helpful to you if you have a candid relationship. Don’t “go around” the headhunter unless the client instructs you to. If you’re going to be dealing with headhunters, learn “How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make them work for you.” http://www.howtoworkwithheadhunters.com

  73. @Sean: I think you’re suffering from Liberal Arts-itis. I was commissioned to write this article by the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    You might find it helpful. Here’s another, about How to Make Your Liberal Arts Degree Pay Off:

    We get pretty brainwashed in college about work – most schools behave as though your education has nothing to do with earning a living. That’s a pathetic, irresponsible attitude for schools to have.

    In the end, they teach you to pursue work related to your degree. In reality, there’s often no such thing. What matters is the skills you acquired, not the knowledge. It’s up to you to figure out what a particular employer needs – one you carefully selected – and then to demonstrate how you’ll meet those needs. A resume doesn’t cut it. A little business plan for the job – that can do it for you.

  74. It’s hard to avoid giving out salary information when asked. I ended up giving a salary range when pressed but it was lower than the amount I actually wanted or had received in the past.

    Is it really possible to dodge this question?

  75. @Sean,

    I am not much older than you and had a little trouble out of the gate too in terms of finding a job.

    I think temp agencies will get you in the door. With a major in Communications, you probably could do Advertising/PR. I don’t know how far you are from NYC or the larger cities within NJ such as Jersey City, Newark and Hoboken. Temp agencies offer two advantages: they usually do not do stringent background checks beyond reference and education checks and a roster of mid-size and large companies as clients. Usually, if a temp agency does a drug test or credit check, it is because a client specifically requests it (mainly financial services oriented companies do this).

  76. Hello Nic:

    How do we handle the over-qualification issue? In this economy, just getting a job is the goal. Most of us cannot afford to hold out for the perfect job.

    I was advised to only list the most recent ten or twelve years of my work experience but that leaves off some of my most important experience.

  77. Hi Nick,

    Thanks so much for hosting an Open Mic session and offering your professional expertise.
    Here is my question. My career is in IT and although I feel more like a commodity these days then the business professional that I am, there are interviewing techniques that throw up a big red flag.

    Recently I was asked to do a Skype interview. I do not find this as an ethical interviewing practice because it is in my opinion discriminatory. There are many factors with a Skype interview that can be held against a candidate because it introduces things that are not common with the typical phone and face-to-face interview process.

    The interview is with a local company but regardless, I still find it as an unfair practice.

    What are your thoughts?

    Best Regards,

  78. Hi,

    I have a job offer but I’m reluctant to accept. Mainly b/c of three point:

    1. I would have to move to city where the cost of living is higher.
    2. The base salary is low.
    And, 3. (most importantly) They offer a base + commission and tell me I should land at $53,000. However, they will NOT supply the commission rate. They tell me it’s based on a team goal. When I pressed the hiring manager for the commission formula I was told she didn’t know the formula. Really?!? Then how will I get from my base of $35,000 to $53,000.

    Currently I am unemployed, been searching. However I feel uncomfortable accepting a position where I have to move to a higher priced city (Chicago) not knowing all the detail of compensation. I left Chicago 6 years ago making this amount, and it’s not easy. Is this common practice for companies when it pertains to sales positions? I’ve never heard of not releasing how commissions are calculated. Additionally, when I asked for sales goals in 2012, I was told I wouldn’t find out until I started.

  79. Hi Nick,

    I have been reading your newsletter and have your book since 2004. About 4 years ago I followed your advice and made a career change which I wanted. Now, I work in consultancy/analysis, however when I look for new opportunities with companies I really want to work for, I have to face another challenge.

    I have strong analytical skills which are proven through my work. However, I am bad at tests. As you know, quite often consulting companies test candidate’s analytical skills by asking to complete a certain number of problem solving tasks within a limited period of time.

    Every time I get to the stage when a potential employer selects me and asks to complete a test, I know I would not be able to pass that stage. Under usual circumstances, I can complete all tasks successfully, but when I have to do the test, I fail.

    Could you please advice how to pursuade a company I am still capable at doing a great job, when I am unlikely to pass the initial screening?


  80. Thank you so much for offering to do this, Nick.

    I feel like there is something very basic I am missing about networking and contacting the people I want to work for outside of job postings. That seems to be the major advice for finding an awesome job, but it largely doesn’t make sense to me (I don’t have the best social aptitude, so I do sometimes totally miss things). The places I try to target are university libraries and museums and historical societies. I just cold-call or write to people who work in these settings at the places I am targeting? I call and say, “hey, I really want to work with you and/or do the things that you do here”? Then what? That seems like such an awkward and random interaction that I struggle to understand how that transforms to being an “insider” that they consider in particular when there is a job opening. I understand how volunteer work in a big non-profit library or museum or historical society can make me an “insider”, though does not guarantee it. Taking classes with these people and finding a mentor among these people (but how?) also makes sense. But this cold-calling sort of thing is totally beyond me. Does this start with informational interviews and job-shadowing or asking for career advice? But how does that turn into something more than a one off interaction? Why would these people want to do me favors?

  81. NOTE TO ALL: The problem with recruiters seems to be such a big topic here that in the midst of addressing one reader’s comments, I realized he deserved a longer explanation. So I responded with a new posting:
    Recruitomatic & The Social Jerk (Or: Why you hate recruiters).


  82. @H.M.: Hey, you’re not reading the blog… ;-)

    Check all the discussion about disclosing salary: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/3686/salary-history-can-you-afford-to-say-no

    And check the article I reference. Lots of people have learned to say no, without getting booted out of the interview.

  83. @H.M.: I’m starting to think you don’t love Ask The Headhunter. There’s a little search box way down the right-hand side of every page. Search for what you need.



  84. @Rick D: I’m with you. Phoners or any kind suck. You can’t tell companies to stop doing these, but you can politely decline.

    Here’s How to Say It:

    “I’d be glad to invest time to come meet with you. I think I can demonstrate how I can contribute to your bottom line by doing X and Y for you. But I’m sorry – I get so many requests for e-mail and phone-type interviews that I respectfully decline them. I need to know that a company is really interested in talking shop. When I attend such a meeting, I’ve done my homework – I’ll be ready to show you what I can do for you, not just recite my credentials.”

    Honestly – a company that balks is wasting your time. Are they hiring, or not?

    I really get fed up with the “social” tools that employers use as an excuse to avoid really assessing a candidate. Skype is just another such tool. Check my rant about this:

    I hope the “How to Say It” above gives you some ideas. Sometimes, you have to push back firmly but politely.

  85. @Sandi: Sheesh. Here’s How to Say It to those guys:


    Forget the offer — I wouldn’t stand in the same room with people like that. Your intuition and common sense are working just fine. Anybody who makes a salesperson a job offer without including a commission spreadsheet that allows the candidate to play “what if” before they take the offer — is a clown looking to take advantage.

    This is up to you, of course, because I have only the details you’ve shared. Maybe there’s a reason to sign on anyway… like they’re deposting a million bucks in your account before you make the move. I’d toss them a quarter, tell them to find a payphone, and keep recruiting.

    As for the 2012 sales goals — it sounds like management has no idea what they are, either, until they can sign on a few suckers.

    I think you figured this one out on your own. And, no, good sales organizations don’t play this way. They actually want to attract reps like you, not turn them off.

  86. @Jessa: I think you already get it. Cold calling is not networking. Networking — yecch. I don’t even like the word any more. The second half of your post is where you need to go. Meeting people and doing things with them. That’s how you make friends in professional circles. Share experiences. Invest time. Choose only groups or people who are worth spending time with.

    Never open by asking about jobs or working together. You’re right: People hate that.

    What most folks don’t get is that this takes time. It’s not a job hunting method. It’s a way to live. If you start now, it might not pay off for a couple of years. But in a couple of years, if you haven’t done this, you’ll look back and realize… Hey, I should have been making friends, and now it would be paying off.

    I think you get it. But you have to nudge yourself to join groups and actually walk up to people (in person or on line) and talk to them. Talk about what? Here’s the magic: Talk shop. Ask them about their work. Let them talk. Then ask for “insight and advice” about their field — what it takes to be successful.

    One thing leads to another, but not all the time. And that’s okay, because when you don’t get referred for a job, you still make a friend. And that’s what it’s all about.

    In the PDF book, “How Can I Change Careers?”, I talk about how to go the next steps, and actually show how you could help a business — and help the manager justify hiring you. http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/store/bundle1.htm

  87. @Maya: I’m a big believer in honesty and candor. You’re clearly good at your work, so you should be able to show that you can do it properly. Focus on that.

    Here’s where the candor comes in. What do you think would happen if you were to say to an employer, when the testing is brought up…

    How to Say It:
    “Look, I want to be up front with you. I’m great at my job. But I suck at tests. I can show you a plan for how I’d do this job profitably for you. But that’s not going to come out in a test. Tell you what: I’ll take the test, and I’ll ask you for half an hour where I can actually show you how I’d do this job. Or, I’ll volunteer to come in for half a day and actually work on a project with your team. What do you say?”

    When you just flat-out know you’re going to blow it, tell them up front, and suggest an alternative. A smart manager will appreciate your candor and your emphasis on proving what you can do.

    Hope that helps!

  88. Thanks for the advice Nick. I appreciate it. I also appreciate the open mic this week–lots of questions and comments, far more than I see in a normal week.

    @Mona: I worked in academia in my last job, and Nick is right–it takes a very long time, a year, maybe longer, to fill a position, and that’s when the dept. already knows who they want to hire before they post the position. At my last job, one of the divisions within the dept. wanted to hire someone–they knew precisely who they wanted to hire, but still had to play the game. Everyone on the hiring committee knew this, and even the dept. sec’y, who had to submit all of the paperwork and make sure that the ad ran for the position, knew who was going to get the job no matter how outstanding any other candidates who applied were. Everyone involved openly discussed it and called it the Kirby (not the real name of the person who was hired) search. How’s the Kirby search going? Did you submit the paperwork for the Kirby search to the faculty on the search committee? Did you notify HR of the Kirby search? Did you close the Kirby search? The sec’y said that there were some really good candidates, but they never had a chance. And yes, Kirby was hired. But we knew that in advance.

    Since you don’t know if any of the jobs you’ve applied for are like the Kirby search (they already know who they’re going to hire, but they’re running the ad, posting the position just to cover themselves), maybe it would be more productive if you contacted faculty who mentored you in your Ph.D program and ask them if they know of any job openings, what they know about the reputation of Scaramouche University’s biology dept. (or whichever dept. you’re trying to find jobs in), whether they know Dr. So-and-So at the UConn medical school. You never know–they might not know anything, but they might know the faculty in that dept. (they might have worked with them, attended conferences with them, even gone to school with them)–it can be a very small world.

    And sometimes a dept. does do a legitimate search, i.e., they don’t already have someone they plan to hire, and it can still take over a year. At my last job, the dept. sec’y did all of the paperwork for a search for 3 faculty positions in one division; she received over 400 CVs and supporting documents, and ultimately the faculty on the hiring committee decided to hire none of applicants. They set their standards too high, didn’t get the kind of applicants they wanted, so there were no hires. The sec’y had to start the process all over again the following year….and with a different hiring committee.

  89. @marybeth

    Sounds like a nightmare.

  90. @Dave:

    Yes, it is a nightmare, especially for the secretarial staff who have to do all of the paperwork for a faculty search. And for the members of the search committee (talk about a time sink–the hours you spend going over CVs and other documents that could be better spent doing research, bringing in grants, and other things that will guarantee that you’ll still have a job the next year)

    I hope I didn’t scare Mona, but if intends to work in academia, especially as a faculty member, then having an idea of the amount of time the hiring process takes is a good thing so she can plan and figure out what she needs to do to support herself while the committees make up their minds (if it is a bona fide search) or approach it from a different angle (such as getting intros and connections from faculty in her field who know those who are doing any hiring). Sometimes it is a shell game–there is a position open, but it has long had a name on it. If she can get info, she might be able to avoid those and the frustration that goes along with applying for a position that she has no chance of getting.

    Oh, and I worked for a public (state) university. I don’t know if the process is as political and/or long at private universities and colleges.

  91. OK, here’s my current issue:
    I’ve been doing pretty much the same kind of work for about 20 years, and I’m very good at it. Currently, it’s very difficult to find this type of work. Partly that is because of the state of the economy, and partly it’s because changes in technology make it less necessary. I’m also getting a bit bored. So I’m thinking about how to reposition myself, or to change careers. I don’t know what that will turn out to be. In the end I might end up doing different work for the same kinds of companies that I have traditionally worked with, or I might work for different kinds of organizations completely, or I might continue doing basically what I’ve been doing in the past. But it’s clear that talking to people will be a large, and critical part of the process.

    So, how do I talk to people about what else I could do without potentially talking them out of hiring me for the bread and butter work that I’ve been doing? I’ve been considering beginning all my conversations with something like “I don’t want to discourage you from hiring me for xyz, but … ” [xyz = what I’ve been doing up to now]

    That seems kind of kludge-y. Do have any other ideas?

  92. I’ve been temping and searching for permanent work for several years – through the duration of this recession – with a focus on entry-level admin work. I have the qualifications and have the experience and have the know-how, and have interviewed well, but after all this time, I still have not received any job offers.
    It probably doesn’t help that I have no idea how to network in person with total strangers. Am I completely screwed? What should I do?

  93. @Jeff K: There’s no way around learning to talk to people without your head exploding at the thought. You need to practice, and you need to stop thinking about it as if you must make stuff up in order to talk. Talk shop. Check these blog entries for ideas:




    And consider looking up your local Toastmasters Club. Most people are afraid to speak up and get a conversation going. Toastmasters helps you get past that. And you’ll meet some interesting people.

    (BTW: They’re strangers only until you start talking to them…)

  94. @ZA: I wrote an entire (short) book about How Can I Change Careers?


    But here’s the short version: You can talk to people “about what else you can do” by first figuring out what they need done. Not by reading job ads, but by talking to specific people in a company. This takes effort. (Check the links I provided in the comment just above this one, to Jeff K.) People can’t figure out what to do with you if they hire you — you must explain it to them. Learn enough about their biz so that you can offer one or two suggestions about what you could do to improve their biz — keep practicing at this, and you’ll get people’s attention. Don’t “sell” — instead, present your ideas, and then as for “advice and insight.” Start a conversation. People love to talk shop with others — as long as you’re not asking them for a job interview!

  95. Nick,

    Your site is a gold mine. I look fwd to reading “How to Work With Headhunters”.

    I am just starting my job search, and no headhunters have reached out to me (yet). So I am doing what I can to reach out and build relationships with headhunters that handle my geographic and/or career areas.

    My question is this…

    When screening headhunters, what do I look for (or ask) to find out what type of headhunters they are? I wish to work with the fee-for-service (employer-paid) types that have been retained by employers to fill high-level positions. I wish to AVOID the type of headhunters that simply peruse employer job postings and blast resumes out to them. (After all, I could find these jobs myself, and blast out resumes if I wanted.)

    Plus, in my experience, the highest-level opportunities tend to not be posted on company web sites, and these are the jobs for which companies hire executive search firms.

    So how to I find the RIGHT type of search firms and headhunters?

  96. @David B: Glad you like ATH. When you get your copy of HTWWH, jumpo to page 59: “How can I find a good headhunter?” It’s all in there.

  97. I recently applied for a records technician & I did receive a call the next day but not to schedule an interview. They called to ask me qualifying questions. I was given the impression since I don’t have experience that I’m not being considered for the position. The description of the position didn’t say anything about experience. I willing to & capable learning new skills but they’re not considering that. I’m available now but the position will probably stay open for months.

  98. @Lisa: You’re probably right. It seems this employer isn’t communicating very well and wasting everyone’s time – including its own.