Why un-do your resume? 25 cats.

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In the June  25, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants yet another look at the resume.

Question

resumeI think you once wrote that your resume can’t defend you, because if the answer is no, you’re not there to defend yourself or explain why you still deserve an interview. I get that, but I still need to use a resume. I like how you turn a resume on its head in Resume Blasphemy, so it seems you’re not entirely opposed to resumes as long as they deliver a different kind of message. Since I’m going to use a resume anyway, got any other interesting ideas about what I could do to make it more alluring?

Nick’s Reply

Sheesh. You want to make your resume alluring? Like fast food, a resume isn’t very alluring! Why not just list your employers, jobs, titles and what you did? Keep it simple. But I think I see where you’re going, so maybe we can have some fun with this.

I’m forever telling people to skip the resume when they’re looking for a new job. And I realize some think this is kooky advice, or that it must be a headhunter’s hyperbole. Actually, my advice is intended to make you think about how to express your value in terms that make dollar signs appear in an employer’s eyes. But there’s another view of what a resume should do: make your story memorable.

The trouble with a fast-food resume

Everyone knows resumes are processed by applicant tracking systems that check your words against enormous databases. So you try to use keywords that might make those databases yield job interviews. But what you may not realize is that few jobs are actually filled that way. You’ve been suckered by Indeed’s, and LinkedIn’s, and ZipRecruiter’s marketing into feeding fast food to their algorithms.

So if you really want to experiment, try some marketing of your own. Here’s an example that might get you thinking about how a resume can be something else — if that’s what you want. Remember, we’re exploring ideas, not trying to come up with a perfect solution.

Un-do your story

My good buddy, marketing guru Mark Levy, tells about visiting a Quiznos sandwich shop in How You Tell A Brand Story Matters. Waiting in line, he read an advertising placard that told “The Quiznos Story.” This sign, of course, is Quiznos’ resume. In his article Levy rips that sign to shreds, while I’ll bet millions of other Quiznos visitors didn’t give it a second thought.

And that’s Levy’s point exactly. The sign turned the story of Quiznos into a cheesy clone of virtually any dish on the menu at Chipotle or Applebee’s, or any of a number of high-volume themed eateries that produce overly cheesy, nondescript chow. It’s all the same.

Levy writes:

“I felt duped. Here I was excited to learn what separated a brand I enjoy from the rest of the pack, and what I was fed was a surface story that… could have been trumpeted by any competitor.”

While I preach un-doing your resume to turn it into a story of how you’ll produce profit for an employer, Levy is more interested in what’s iconic and memorable about you. After all, that’s what good marketing is. I can just imagine what he thinks of resumes he receives himself. Levy’s criticism tears into all banal marketing — including the marketing that comprises your professional resume or your LinkedIn profile.

A resume that makes a dent

What can we learn from Levy’s critique? Is your resume larded with the kind of fast-food twaddle that’s on Quiznos’ sign?

“For a sub shop to say it believes in great-tasting food, consisting of freshly-sliced quality ingredients, is like a automobile manufacturer saying it believes in building cars that drive forwards and backwards. Or, a computer maker bragging about how its machines can connect to the internet.”

Is that what your resume sounds like? I’ll bet you it is. And I’ll bet, like the Quiznos sign, it’s totally forgettable.

“The story Quiznos told may be true, but it wasn’t told in a way that would make a dent in anyone’s consciousness… I’m guessing few customers have read that sign fully or remember what it said if they did.”

And that’s why you come off tasting like just another bag of fast food when you apply for a job with a resume. Oh, the keywords probably match up just fine, along with those in a million other resumes. But eventually the hiring manager who’s going to interview you has to read that thing — and you cannot tell a compelling story in your own resume if you’re using the keywords you found in some advice column about “what employers are looking for.”

25 hungry cats

Levy says your story must include “a context… an insight… a promise… a substantiation… a frank detail… an unexpected bit of color.”

Are all those ingredients in your resume? Or is your story just more bland fast food?

Nothing good can come of this column unless you click to one more page on Mark Levy’s website. Try this resume test. Please read Levy’s follow-up article about 25 hungry cats: The Best Brand Story Is Often Informal.

If you’re going to un-do your resume and re-do it as your “marketing piece,” is your story this unexpected and iconic? Sometimes you have to leave the signs and resumes behind, and tell a story that makes a dent.

What’s on your resume? What do you think of Mark Levy’s example about the 25 cats? If you’re going to do something clever, or creative, or more meaningful with your resume, what is it? Or, should we just leave resumes alone?

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Inside a counter-offer disaster

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In the June  18, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wonders whether it’s ever smart to make or accept a counter-offer.

Question

counter-offerAfter I accepted a new job at a better company, my employer brought me in for a high-level meeting with management and made a counter-offer to get me to stay. I politely turned them down, even though the money was higher, because as I said, the new company is a better place to work. As a manager myself, I’ve never made a counter-offer to a departing employee. My view is, if they want to go, they should go. Am I wrong?

Nick’s Reply

I think you’re right. It’s a very rare situation where a counter-offer is made and accepted and the outcome is good.

Counter-offers are almost always made and accepted out of fear. An employer fears an empty position. An employee fears the next unknown job. But counter-offers almost never resolve the underlying reasons for why the worker looked elsewhere for a job, simply because more money doesn’t satisfy other hungers — which linger until satisfied.

A counter-offer delays the inevitable

Headhunters routinely advise candidates who receive counter-offers from their current employers to turn them down. Some keep a sheet with a list of reasons to reject counter-offers handy. It’s of course self-serving — why would you want a candidate you’re about to place for a hefty fee to stay at their old job?

But in almost all situations, counter-offers are a big mistake for both the employee and the employer. Here’s why:

At the point where a candidate accepts a job offer, the myriad factors that led them to consider a new job coalesce to reveal just how potent the desire for change really is. Relying on a counter-offer to squelch all those factors just spawns other problems, or delays the inevitable until it reaches crisis proportions.

Virtually every case I’ve seen where a counter-offer was accepted still resulted in a parting of ways — it was merely delayed. And that’s why in most cases employers should never make counter-offers. The cat is out of the bag. Let the employee go.

There is no better lesson about counter-offers than the very-high profile story of Robert Kelly, CEO of Bank of New York Mellon, that was reported by Fortune magazine in 2011. It’s a case study that everyone should read.

Wishful thinking breeds mistakes

A person can work happily at a job for years before feeling the urge to move on. But as soon as they realize “it’s no longer working out,” the job is a bad match because something’s changed. There may be no fault in that scenario, as long as the match is broken up before the misery begins.

I often counsel overly eager job seekers that they should be very careful what job they take next, because the reason they’re job hunting is probably because they took the wrong job last time. This goes double for employers.

In BNY’s case, it seems clear Kelly was a bad match from the start. The fault seems to rest clearly on BNY’s board of directors, whose wishful thinking led to a bad hire and to ongoing agonies.

The article describes BNY as “a highly conservative, old-line institution that specializes in mundane, grind-it-out businesses and prizes tradition, self-effacement, and loyalty.” In 2006 the board nonetheless hired Kelly, a CEO with a huge ego who craved publicity, courted controversy, and relentlessly pursued “the next new thing — a grander job, more money, and more excitement.”

Kelly lacked the conservative nature that marked BNY’s reputation, but the board “decided that Kelly was just the change agent it needed to revive the fabled institution.”

Right there the board blew it on the match: Change was the last thing the board really wanted. And his urge for change drove Kelly away from the board.

A counter-offer is a mistake

CEO Kelly secretly pursued a bigger job with the bigger Bank of America. When he finally disclosed his intentions, the board of BNY resigned itself to announcing his departure. But BofA soured on Kelly and never made an offer. The premature news about hiring him turned into a public relations disaster for all involved.

According to Fortune, burned and burned out from pursuing BofA, Kelly returned to the BNY board with his tail between his legs and begged to keep his job — just moments before the board was to announce his replacement. You’d think BNY would have sent him packing, but Kelly pleaded and BNY’s board rationalized.

The board should have considered all the reasons they were already dissatisfied with Kelly; all the disconnects between his style and their corporate mission. An overpaid spendthrift wasn’t the right leader for the bank Alexander Hamilton founded on frugality in 1784.

But they took Kelly back — “not wanting to disrupt the bank’s operations and management, and hoping to avoid a potentially messy succession.” Translation: BNY’s board was scared. They made him a lavish counter-offer even though the guy was on the street with nowhere to go. The board renewed its vows for a bad marriage.

Never take a counter-offer*

The BNY board members weren’t the only foolish party in this story. Kelly’s next two years were marked by the board’s growing suspicions, and by the dearth of loyalty between them. Kelly should have rejected the rich counter-offer the BNY board made, because the factors that drove him away lingered.

BNY feared change. Kelly was terrified of being left without a job. But the counter-offer deal did not resolve the underlying problems between them. The rapprochement didn’t last. In the end, the board gave Kelly such a boot that the story became an expose in Fortune magazine. Then the board replaced him with the kind of CEO that BNY should have promoted to begin with — a lifer whose style and values matched the company’s.

Even if you part on good terms, remember that the decision to part company probably stems from a complex tangle of factors that cannot be so easily cut with a counter-offer.

* I can think of only one case where a counter-offer turned out very well for both the employer and employee. Maybe you’ll get lucky!

Have you ever made a counter-offer to keep one of your employees who already had both feet out the door? Have you ever accepted a counter-offer yourself? Did the counter-offer change any factors that triggered the departure?

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Should you kill the Buddha?

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In the June  11, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader questions using a personal marketing plan and the power of an executive coach.

Question

executive coach

I hired an executive coach with whom I’ve spent many hours developing a personal “strategic marketing plan.” But I have failed to meet the deadlines for some of the objectives we came up with. So, I have cut off working with this coach. I am not so quick to blame the coach. It may be a matter of my own preparedness. I’ve learned a lot, but I wonder now if this personal strategic marketing plan has not taken over my daily calendar and my life. Have I made a misguided plan, or am I just not an adequate strategist? What is your view on coaches and this general approach to planning — written goal, objectives, strategies, tactics?

Nick’s Reply

It can be useful to develop a detailed plan for yourself, and it is certainly a lot of work if you pursue it with care. I believe in careful thought, preparation and planning in life. But when I hear, well, marketing phrases like “personal strategic marketing plan,” I cringe.

Coaches & plans

There are good coaches out there who can help you, but when you hire any kind of coach — a career coach, a psychological therapist, or even an accountant (they’re all coaches of a sort) — you’re subjecting yourself to the coach’s philosophy. That means you must judge the fit. If your philosophies don’t mesh well, you could be headed for serious trouble.

However, you may also be falling for a marketing pitch yourself, and for a pricey bundle of hoopla that’s more fluff than substance. (There is an ugly under-belly to the coaching industry that you should be aware of: “Executive Career Management” scams.)

Assuming it stems from a legit coaching program, any detailed plan will nonetheless encounter obstacles, and some of them can be fatal. On the other hand, some important and satisfying milestones can be achieved along the way. But must a person achieve every milestone defined in a plan? Further, does failure to meet the plan’s deadlines suggest the person is doing something wrong?

Planning & living

This is where I part company with dogmatic coaches who impose rigorous planning and schedules on their clients. Life can turn into a series of bets on the plan. Rather than being instructive, the inevitable failures can be debilitating. Worse, as you note, this planning process can become a lifestyle in itself and distract you from real life. This can make your plan an albatross.

There is a line in a John Lennon song (though he may have borrowed it from cartoonist Allen Saunders): “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I try to remind myself that at any moment, in any day, I may have to drop my plans, because something more compelling confronts me and I have to deal with it — like it or not.

I think planning is a good thing because, as you point out, you can learn a lot from the process. But planning is an idea. It’s not real life.

Coping vs. planning

In a short, potent book called Management of the Absurd, Richard Farson suggests that there is no such thing as planning — only coping. He says that coping is far more important a skill than planning. Why? Because the world keeps coming at us in unexpected ways. Planning implies controlling the world around us. Coping — to Farson and to me — implies changing ourselves to effectively meet the challenges of what the world throws at us.

The planner can be left destroyed by the unexpected. But the coper can ride any wave, to one extent or another, and survive or even flourish.

Plan as best you can, but be ready to cope with all the wonder, pain, disaster, and opportunity that life throws at you. That’s where life is — on the edge of change, in the way we deal with everything we encounter, and in the ways it changes us.

Kill the Buddha

Please don’t surmise that I believe coaching or getting coached is a bad thing. But you hired the coach, and only you can fire the coach. The coach might have been wonderful, and now it may be time to stop working together. It may be time for you to cope with your coach.

Remember what the guru told the pilgrim who was searching for the Buddha. The pilgrim wanted to know, “When I find the Buddha, what should I ask him?”

The guru replied, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hmmm. The bookend to John Lennon’s quote may be the title of a (very good) Van Morrison album: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Could it be that at the end of every path you choose, the best answers must come from within yourself? Should you kill the Buddha? Don’t ask me.

Have you used an executive or career coach? What was your experience? What advice would you give this reader — and others — about coaching services? Do you believe in planning, or in coping?

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How down-hiring destroys companies

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In the May 21, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader worries down-hiring is an irreversible catastrophe.

Question

down-hiringI joined my company six years ago mainly because every manager and employee I met impressed me. For the first couple of years, we were wildly successful. I’m convinced it was because of the people. As a manager, I am careful to hire only people who match that caliber. But things changed. A mediocre vice president was hired who brought in two managers who were not technically competent. They in turn hired weak staff. Customers started complaining.

Now my team and I spend most of our time putting out fires. Recently the first two people I hired quit in disgust. It’s hard to keep others who report to me motivated. I was asked to do a presentation to our board of directors and I was blunt with them. Two weeks later I was offered the job of CEO. I’m not sure I want it. Is the damage reversible or should I move on?

Nick’s Reply

Strong managers work to build the success of a business by hiring the best people. Insecure managers struggle to preserve their positions in the pecking order by “down-hiring.” That is, they hire weak employees who will not threaten their status.

A people hire A people, but B people will hire C people. When enough B and C people fill critical roles, A people leave. That VP you mentioned — and the weak managers she hired — are bringing down your company because its best people won’t tolerate it.

Like a virus, one B person can devastate your entire organization. I think you need to decide whether you can turn the company’s management team and staff around. That’s a tall order.

Rebuilding by hiring and firing

Think about the critical path: While you can try to purge your company of B and C people, the real challenge is keeping A people focused on hiring more A people.

Companies routinely delegate the hiring process downward to managers and staff who have progressively less skin in the game. If you become CEO, you need to take complete control of hiring until you have re-set the standard. You need to eliminate every B and C manager and replace them with A managers — then ride them to re-build the organization. (Eliminate might mean mentoring and training B’s and C’s into A’s, but that depends on the resources at your disposal and the time frame in which you must pull this off.)

Is this possible and worth attempting? I can’t tell you that. You have to make the judgment. I agree that you need to think hard about accepting the CEO role. I’ll try to offer you some thoughts that might be helpful, with the disclaimer that I am not a management expert. My suggestions are based on what I’ve seen and heard in many years of helping companies hire. I expect lively debate from readers about this Q&A!

Never down-hire

Always try to hire people better than yourself, and reward your managers for doing the same.

Your first problem may be in your human resources department. HR often fails to ensure managers are up-hiring. It lets managers down-hire. That’s no strategy for any company. HR’s job is to up the ante and to raise the standards of hiring.

Many HR departments routinely reject what they term “over-qualified” job candidates, fearing these folks will become quickly dissatisfied with the job and the pay and quit when something better comes along.

This is corporate suicide. Turning away “over-qualified” job applicants is a tacit admission that a company is already infected with B managers who don’t know how to profitably apply the extra skills that the most advanced job candidates offer. Worse, it reveals that a company is not a learning organization — it does not advance itself by adding and developing better talent.

A company’s response to “over-qualified” candidates should be glee. It should find the money and tweak the job so the company can benefit from the extraordinary good luck it has to hire extraordinarily qualified talent.

Down-hiring results in more B and C people in the ranks. The objective must always be the opposite.

Judge managers on the quality of their hires

If managers can’t find, hire and retain A people, fire the managers. (Don’t blame HR alone. It’s up to managers to manage hiring. HR is only a tool.)

You can tell quickly which managers are A people: They build teams filled with A people who meet challenges and deadlines with smiles on their faces. (See Talent Crisis: Managers who don’t recruit.) There’s no serious dissent among them because they all respect one another, their work, and their bosses.

Perhaps most obvious: Your best managers are not afraid to hire people who are smarter or more talented than themselves. They manage talent; they are not threatened by it.

Sever the rotting B manager, or lose the whole body. In this case, the head can be grown back if you have one A person who can take control.

Reward performance quickly

As you’ve seen in your company, when you let B people hire C people, your A people will leave. A people don’t stick around B or C companies. That’s the disaster of down-hiring.

When you bring an A person on board, you must reward them. The most effective reward you can give an A person is more A people to work with. (You’re the best example. The presence of A people inspired you to join up.) The next important reward is authority, which an A person will use to hire more A people and to weed out B and C people.

But don’t forget that another critical reward is money. A people can always get more money, but will they get it from you, or from a competitor? Feed your A people, and they will build an A company to ensure your success along with their own. (See Why employers should make higher job offers. My HR buddy Suzanne Lucas agrees.)

Can you fix it?

It’s a good sign that your board listened to the blunt truth you shared and trusts you to run the company. You need to make sure the board will back that up and fully support you. I’d ask to meet with a few of the key board members individually. Meet each for a working breakfast. Satisfy yourself that this request to turn the company around is real. Then have similar meetings with your best A managers and A employees. Ask for their judgments, advice and support. Only then would I make the decision you face.

Do I think up-hiring can fix a catastrophe caused in part by down-hiring? It matters only what you and your prospective new team think. I wish you the best.

Is my taxonomy of A, B and C people legitimate? Are B and C people really the problem this prospective CEO faces? Do you think it’s possible to turn this company around?

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Never work with jerks

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In the May 21, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader fails to see that the problem is jerks.

jerksQuestion

I need help with a recent job interview. The position was customer service work in a software engineering office setting. This is a start-up company with an 18-month history. I was interviewed for 3 hours by 5 people including the CEO and COO. The CEO asked me, “Why is your English so good? You don’t have an accent?” I have an ethnic name and I am a woman in a male-dominated field. Unbelievable! Then he asked me where I was born. Right here in this city, I said. The guy was speechless, puzzled. But how could that be? How should I respond to this?

Nick’s Reply

You must decide for yourself, but I’ll share the advice Gene Webb, my mentor at Stanford, gave to me and his students many years ago: Never work with jerks.

Period.

How we deal with jerks

The first time Gene Webb shared his rule about jerks I of course understood it — intellectually. But it took me 25 years to accept it, because we rationalize working with jerks. We all instantly know a jerk when we encounter one. Then we make a profound and very stupid mistake.

We tell ourselves that, “Dealing with jerks is part of the job. I just have to do it.” It’s so much a part of our social and work culture that articles and books abound and preach that, “There are jerks everywhere. We must learn to work and live with them.” We’re told that dealing effectively with jerks is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

None of it is true, yet we knowingly walk ourselves into a hornet’s nest only to act surprised when we get stung.

Rule #1 and Rule #2

I dealt with jerks most of my life. Like you, I was proud that I knew a jerk when I encountered one.

Rule #1 is to recognize a jerk and accept the fact.

That was when my “dealing with jerks” skills kicked in. I could deal with the worst of them. But that wasn’t Gene’s instruction. Gene didn’t say, “Deal with jerks.” He said don’t work with them. Ever. That was very difficult for me to act on.

I finally learned there is no reward in dealing and working with jerks. I got hurt one too many times. It had become exhausting to accommodate yet another jerk. Jerks depend on our ability to deal with them. You can’t win with a jerk when you concede to be around them.

Rule #2 is: Leave.

I quit two jobs in rapid succession before I realized my pain was caused not by me, or by circumstances, but by two specific people. In the end, Gene’s truth hit me extra hard because the second jerk had surrounded himself with more jerks. It was like showing up every day to a Jerk Fest. Maybe I was lucky to be surrounded by jerks because what should have been obvious was now blinding.

So I finally started practicing what Gene Webb taught me: Decide whether someone is a jerk. Act immediately — don’t rationalize. Leave.

Listen to jerks once

Judge the manager

Judge a manager’s sincerity about working together. Does she want to hire you because you can add something to the way the work is done, or does she want another interchangeable part for her machine? Listen carefully to what the manager says. You will hear either a mind interacting with your own, or a machine waiting to grind you up.

Excerpted from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: Play Hardball With Employers, p. 28

This book includes: “Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer,” “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it,” and “Judge the manager”

With a few short questions, that CEO told you he’s a jerk. He wanted you to know his biases. He wanted you to acknowledge him.

If you think you’re dealing with a jerk, pause, consider carefully and be brutally honest with yourself, no matter how much you “really, really want this job.” Do the calculation: Is this person telling you they are a jerk? If yes, walk away and don’t have any regrets. Jerks will always hurt you – maybe not for a month or a year or two, but they will hurt you.

(Legal recourse is your other option. You can hire a lawyer and pursue action against the employer for possible discrimination. It’s a long, costly path. For more tips about avoiding trouble at the end of the interview process, see 13 lies employers tell about job offers.)

The good thing about jerks is, they can’t hide it. Their jerk-ness slips out in little ways, like the comments this CEO made to you. He believes he’s entitled to give you a backhanded slap during your interview, perhaps to test how willing you will be to tolerate him in the years to come.

Here’s the hard part: You must listen when a jerk tells you they’re a jerk. Listen just that once and you won’t have to suffer.

My advice

Unfortunately, there is nothing unbelievable about how this CEO behaved toward you. “Unbelievable” is the fallacy his ilk rely on to convince people to take a job with their company anyway. It will all be very believable once he’s your boss.

Like I said, you must use your own judgment. But you asked my advice, so here it is: Find a good CEO to work for. This is not one. He just told you so. Listen to him.

There are lots of good, honest, respectful, smart people in the world. Find one of those to work with for the next several years. No jerk is worth fooling yourself about – because you will have only yourself to blame if you rationalize.

Let’s explore jerks.

  • How do you recognize a jerk?
  • Who’s the biggest jerk you ever worked with and why?
  • How have you accommodated a jerk and why?
  • Can someone make a good case for working with a jerk? (There may be a case and it might make sense to some people.)
  • Got a good story about a jerk’s demise? Or success?
  • Did you have an epiphany about jerks like I did? What was it and how long did it take before you had it?

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Why do headhunters act like this?

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In the May 14, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter some readers get fed up with headhunters who waste their time.

Question

headhuntersMy friends and I are successful IT (information technology) types and receive calls about positions from headhunters often. We are all experiencing the following:

  1. The initial salary range presented is higher than what the employer discusses or offers and thus, everyone’s time is wasted. The recruiter then weasels out of the lie.
  2. The headhunter calls with a “hot” opportunity, gives us the details, finds out if we’re interested and then tells us that interviews will be conducted very soon. We never hear from the headhunter about that particular position after that and our phone calls go unanswered, until another opportunity comes up and the process starts all over again.
  3. The headhunter asks if we will interview but he doesn’t know any specifics about the job, like what the company specializes in or what technologies they use.

Are these really legitimate positions? Why don’t headhunters take the time to research the position in order to convince the candidate to pursue the opportunity? Why don’t they return our calls or explain what happened to the “hot” position? Do they really think we will recommend potential candidates when they are so unreliable and inconsistent with their stories? (We are called upon to refer candidates to fit entry level and lateral positions.)

What’s going on? We don’t have time to waste talking about positions that don’t exist, or to interview for positions not in our specified salary range. Many thanks for your input!

Nick’s Reply

Most “headhunters” are no better than most personnel jockeys. They’re ignorant of their own business, they have no clear business goals (other than to make money), they don’t understand the jobs they’re trying to fill, their strategy is to “dial for dollars,” and they lose their credibility quickly.

The problems with headhunters

You must understand two things.

First, the cost of entry into the headhunting business is so low that anyone (and I mean anyone) can give it a shot. All it takes is a cell phone and a free LinkedIn account.

Second, turnover in most of these firms is very high because they do next to nothing to train new headhunters (I shiver to even call them that) properly. The result: the experiences you describe.

You hit the nail on the head. Refuse to have your time wasted.

Play hardball

The solution is to grill the headhunter. Play hardball.

Get references: Ask to talk with three people in your field that the headhunter has placed and three managers that have hired the headhunter’s candidates.

Issue a warning: Assuming you get those names, tell the headhunter that if she doesn’t call you back when she says she will, her name will be mud among your associates.

Know headhunters from telemarketers

Fast-buck artists who talk a good line, make little sense, and don’t keep promises aren’t headhunters. They’re telemarketers playing long odds to get a fee every now and then. Most of them don’t know the first thing about dealing with the professional community they recruit in. If they sound like they don’t know anything about your work, it’s because they don’t. Heck, most don’t even recruit — they copy and paste keywords, job descriptions and resumes.

Make them earn their money.

(To any “headhunters” reading this, if this describes you, don’t send me your complaints. You get no sympathy from me for treating candidates like this.)

Good headhunters

Should I give a headhunter my references?

If a headhunter presses you too soon for the names of references, politely take control of the discussion.

How to say it: “I think you’ll enjoy talking with my references — have you already talked with people who know my work? If not, then first we need to talk about the position you’re working on. If you decide I’m a viable candidate, and if I decide I want to pursue it, then we can talk about my references. So, tell me more about the position. Who is the manager?”

From How To Work With Headhunters, p. 84

Good headhunters are few and far between. Remember my advice to ask for references? The “headhunter” who contacts you is very unlikely to give you any because he doesn’t have any. That’s the first sign you’re going to waste your time.

  • Good headhunters will share references.
  • Because they circulate in your professional community, they probably know people whose names you will recognize.
  • They will treat you with respect, and they will do what they say they’re going to do.
  • They will also instantly reveal that they know a lot about the work you do.
  • They will ask intelligent questions, and they can answer yours.

It really is that simple. For a good primer about headhunters, please read Joe Borer’s How to Judge a Headhunter. Joe is a good headhunter, but please don’t try to contact him. Good headhunters don’t field unsolicited calls from job seekers. (See Headhunters find people, not jobs.)

Be your own headhunter

The purpose of Ask The Headhunter is to teach you how to be your own headhunter — even when you’re not actively seeking a job. Cut out the middle man when necessary. But when you meet a good headhunter, you’ll know it – they’re worth your patience and your attention, because they’ll treat you with respect and negotiate a deal like you never could on your own.

I usually rant about personnel jockeys and career counselors and coaches. Did I ever tell you the one about the inept headhunter…?

How do you judge headhunters? Give us three signs that quickly tell you who’s for real and who’s going to waste your time. Let’s compile a list everyone can use.

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Should I quit Microsoft after a week to join Facebook?

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In the May 7, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader juggles job offers between Facebook and Microsoft.

Question

I accepted a position at Microsoft and started the job. Within a week I got an offer from Facebook. The pay at Facebook is far better. What should I do?

Nick’s Reply

This is not a bad problem to have. Congratulations on getting two offers, even if this seems to put you in a quandary.

A common concern in a situation like this is about leaving a new job so quickly. Don’t worry too much about it. Sometimes employers make a new hire walk the plank early or even before they start the job — it’s a business decision. We discussed a related issue last week in Should I keep interviewing after I accepted a job offer? and we’ve considered the problem of employers rescinding job offers.

But I’ll caution you not to worry so much about the money. Your long-term career success and income are more likely to hinge on the people you work with and on other factors including product quality and the company’s prospects. (See It’s the people, Stupid.)

Microsoft vs. Facebook: The people

I’m not privy to Facebook’s or Microsoft’s hiring practices, so I can’t advise you on how either company might react if you follow my suggestions. But before you accept Facebook’s offer, ask for some additional meetings with three classes of its employees:

  • People on the team you’d be a part of.
  • People upstream from your work flow. For example, if you will work in software development, ask to meet with the appropriate product design team. These are the people who will hand off projects to you. Are they good at their work?
  • People downstream from your work flow. For example, quality assurance people who will review and test what you build. Their skills and practices will impact you a lot.

Assessing these three groups will help you see how successful you are likely to be, because all of them will directly affect the quality and success of your own work. Of course, the company’s sales, finance and other departments will affect you, too. Decide which operations you want to know more about before you throw your lot in with any company.

Due diligence

If Facebook balks at letting you have these meetings, why would you want to work there? You’re about to invest your life. They should be glad you’re willing to invest an extra day’s time to meet your future co-workers and to see how they operate!

Of course, you should have done this before accepting the job at Microsoft, too. Maybe you ought to quickly spend some time with those three groups at Microsoft, too, before you decide what to do. It’ll give you something to compare to your findings at Facebook.

This kind of investigation prior to accepting a job offer is called due diligence. There are all kinds of due diligence. There’s a section about this in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers, — “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it,” pp. 23-25.

Decision factors

Money, people, and many other factors should play a role in this decision. I won’t argue you shouldn’t move for more money, as long as other important factors are to your satisfaction. While I think loyalty is a good thing, don’t let anyone tell you that you “owe” an employer two years on the job you just accepted before you move on to a better opportunity. There is little meaningful difference between leaving a job after two years or two days if the reasons are compelling. “Juggling job offers” (pp. 15-17) may also be helpful, in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers.

I’ve offered a few factors to consider before making your decision, but there are many more. I’d like to ask our community to suggest what else you might consider and what you might do to help ensure you make the best choice.

How would you decide whether to make a move like this? Would you jump from one employer to another after just a few days? Is there anything wrong with that? What factors should this reader consider before making the leap?

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Should I keep interviewing after I accepted a job offer?

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In the April 30, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader questions a CEO’s advice about interviewing.

Question

interviewingI just read an article where a CEO warns that it’s unethical and dishonest to keep interviewing after you’ve accepted a job offer. “It’s not cool.” He calls it lying and says you’re just damaging yourself! Moreover, you’re causing damage to the company because it stopped recruiting after it hired you, and having to restart recruiting will cost it a lot of time and money. So you should behave with “class and grace.” Then he drops the bomb: It’s “all Millennials” doing this — ghosting employers. (I’m 29 years old so I guess he’s talking to me.) Is it so wrong to keep interviewing or to take a better offer if it comes along?

Nick’s Reply

You should absolutely continue interviewing with no qualms whatsoever.

I think that CEO is 100% wrong when he suggests that if you continue to interview for other jobs after you have already accepted an offer, you’re being “unethical,” “dishonest,” or “damaging yourself.” That’s nonsense. Hedging your bets is simply prudent business.

Interviewing? Hedge your bets.

As for the CEO’s contention that the company stopped recruiting after it “hired” you, that’s pure bunk. I started headhunting a long time ago and I can tell you that a Human Resources department (HR) will probably routinely continue interviewing more candidates not only after it makes you an offer, but after you accept it, and — often — after you’ve started the job.

Why would HR do that? To hedge its bets.

For example:

  • HR might give you that verbal offer, then run a background check and decide it doesn’t like what it found — even if it’s a minor problem that it never discloses to you. The offer you accepted is rescinded without explanation. (Don’t believe me? See Behind the scenes of a rescinded job offer.)
  • While HR obtains the necessary signatures to complete the hiring process, some manager might change their mind about you, or funding for the job could be cut. (I’ve seen both happen many times.) There will be no written offer. Or, your written offer will be cancelled. Because employment is “at will” in most U.S. states, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason or no reason — including on day #1. Now you’re on the street. “It’s not personal.” (See Protect yourself from exploding job offers.)
  • HR worries that you might change your mind — just like it might change its mind — and wants to have one or more backup candidates. You’ve probably already experienced this, when an employer tells you you’re a finalist and that it will “get back to you” in a week — then they keep delaying. They may be “keeping you warm” until they are sure their #1 candidate actually shows up for work. (That means you may still get the job.) Some employers will even issue multiple offers to ensure they get one viable hire. You’ll never know.
  • HR believes it might find a better candidate while your offer and hire are being processed — because it’s got several more impressive resumes to work through but is trying to stick to a deadline. HR will have no qualms about telling you “something has changed and we will not be able to proceed.” Meanwhile, you may have already resigned your old job. (See Quit, Fired, Downsized: Leave on your own terms.) HR will tell you, “It’s nothing personal, just business.” Unless you’re willing to hire a lawyer, you probably have no recourse.

Interviewing: The double standard

More obviously — and I’m sure you’ve encountered this many times — while that CEO calls you “dishonest,” his HR office will leave a job posting up long after the job is filled. It’s “ethical” when he’s hedging, but you’re “lying.” It’s a double standard that employers use to gain an edge.

When you continue interviewing after accepting an offer — even if it’s in writing — you’re being prudent, not dishonest or unethical. Unless you sign an agreement to the contrary, what you’re doing while you wait to start the job is no one’s business but yours.

Should you be cavalier about it? Of course not. Act as responsibly as possible. But play your cards close, keep your options open, and continue to develop your alternatives. Always hedge your bets — just like the employer is doing.

Is this business or is it ghosting?

As for the CEO’s suggestion that if you back out, the employer will have to restart its search, costing time and money, that’s true only if they’re inept. What company doesn’t plan for contingencies in the event a deal goes south?

Any good headhunter can share stories about “fall offs” — people who accept jobs then quickly quit or get terminated for any of a number of reasons. Every good headhunter (and employer) has a backup candidate ready to fill that job. It’s not unethical. It’s prudent business.

Worried about being accused of “ghosting?” The employer should be worried about its own ghosting behavior — every time it interviews a candidate, promises a decision, but then ignores you completely. See Ghosting: Job candidates turn tables on employers.

Anything can go wrong

I understand that CEO’s perspective. It’s self-serving, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you, as a job seeker, take his advice at face value, you’re not serving yourself best in a highly competitive hiring market where too many employers demonstrate an astonishing and callous disregard for job seekers. Let the CEO think like an employer. You should think like a job seeker.

Just like an employer keeps other candidates on the hook until a new hire actually shows up for work, you’d be wise to keep working on other job opportunities until you are firmly ensconced in your new job. You are absolutely right. Anything can go wrong. And that’s why the company that “hired” you is likely to continue recruiting and interviewing other candidates while your “hire” is being processed. (Many readers have complained about companies that make job offers then withdraw them. In that case, the company doesn’t “fire” them — because they’re not yet employees!)

Who’s not cool?

Now I’ll tell you what really troubles me: That CEO is “not cool” when he makes generalizations and reveals blatant bias against your cohort. Millennials are no more likely to ghost employers than CEOs are likely to pontificate about right and wrong like sanctimonious jerks.

You can behave with class and integrity — and still protect yourself. Keep interviewing if you want to, until you’re actually on the payroll at your new job. It’s good business. I’ve seen countless people stranded without jobs because they didn’t understand that employers hedge their bets during the hiring process every day.

Knowing what to do when you get a job offer is just one of many ways to have an insider’s edge when job hunting. For more tips, see Ask The Headhunter Secrets in a Nutshell.

Is it unethical or dishonest — or not cool — to continue your job search after you’ve accepted a job offer? Should you trust that you can take a job offer to the bank? And even if the job offer is bona fide, is that any reason not to hedge your bets to ensure you get the best deal possible?

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How long should I wait for an interviewer to show up?

How long should I wait for an interviewer to show up?
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In the April 23, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader waits too long for a truant interviewer.

interviewerQuestion

I arrived for a job interview on time and waited for the interviewer an hour and 15 minutes past the scheduled time. I finally left thinking, why would I work for a place that can’t keep an appointment? How long would you have waited? What if this was the only interview you had lined up?

Nick’s Reply

Don’t let your need for a job lead you to tolerate bad behavior from interviewers. I would not have waited longer than 10-15 minutes, at which time I’d ask the receptionist, “I’m concerned. Is my interviewer okay?”

Give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt

The receptionist will ask what you mean. You could ask whether the interviewer got hit by a truck. Or you could be more diplomatic. Respond in all seriousness with a hint of alarm:

“Well, our meeting was scheduled for a quarter of an hour ago — I’ve heard nothing and I’m concerned. Did something bad happen to my interviewer?”

This is a deft — if backhanded — display of respect for an interviewer who might be delayed because of a serious problem. It’s better than expressing your ire. Besides, there might be a perfectly acceptable reason for the delay, so it’s wise to grant the benefit of the doubt at this point.

Time to wave buh-bye

However, if you are not given a satisfactory explanation (and apology) and no one arrives to interview you, it’s time to shift your approach. You must use your own judgment, but I’d say to the receptionist:

“Could you please have someone from your HR office come out? I’d like to make sure my resume and job application are removed from your files. I’m not comfortable with my information in the hands of a company that can’t keep an appointment.”

buh-bye

I’m not kidding — that’s what I’d say. It’s a test. What will the employer do?

Because you waited so long, they owe you an exceptional “right” to this wrong. A responsible employer who blew the appointment will go out of its way to demonstrate regrets for your inconvenience — and thereby salvage the interview and your respect. But if you’re given lame excuses without sincere apologies, and the gaffe is not somehow corrected immediately (or at least compensated for), then you’ve put a good stake in the ground.

Wave buh-bye and don’t look back.

If anyone suggests your demand to be removed from the employer’s files is unprofessional or risky, tell them you demonstrate high standards of conduct and expect employers to do the same. Then ask whether they believe your time is valuable. You deserve an answer.

Your host’s reputation is on the line

If I seem cynical and intolerant, perhaps it’s because I’ve seen employers disrespect job candidates too much. Life is too short to waste time on people who don’t do what they say they’re going to do. While delays and even no-shows are sometimes unavoidable and forgivable, the responsible employer will make appropriate amends on the spot. That’s why it’s important to give them a chance.

We all need to get real. If the employer does’t apologize profusely after you’ve waited an hour and a quarter and doesn’t act to correct their behavior, I’d forget about that job. Human Resources managers are the first to tell us to mind our reputations, and this cuts both ways. In this case, the employer’s reputation is on the line. I’d tell all my friends how I was treated.

Whether this is the only interview you’ve got, or one of ten, it doesn’t change the character of this particular employer, and it doesn’t bode well for what life would be like working there. Please think about that.

For more examples of interview missteps by employers, see Dissed By HR: Can you top this? and How employers waste your time.

What’s the longest you’ve waited for an interviewer? Is an hour too long? How would you handle this situation?

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10 reasons your company’s HR can’t fill jobs

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In the April 16, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a job seeker exposes rude HR recruiting practices and 319,000 people take notice.

HRQuestion

Hundreds of LinkedIn users have commented on a clever cover letter someone sent to a company about a job. The reply he got was an unsigned e-mail blast the company sends to all rejects, suggesting his application wasn’t even read. But he got the last laugh. His cover letter was a series of “Arfs.” He posted it and their canned reply. How embarrassing for the employer to be exposed like that! This is yet another example of how employers treat job applicants. They solicit us then ignore us! What’s the solution to this?

Nick’s Reply

Shawn Gauthier (shawngauthier.com) is a copywriter and creative director in the advertising industry. He’s one of the 155 million members of LinkedIn in the U.S. who turn to this “professional networking service” to find a good job match. But, like many frustrated LinkedIn users, Gauthier finds that this jobs-and-people database is more about robots than true networking.

Fed up with employers who solicit job applicants but then don’t read their applications, Gauthier applied his considerable writing skills to create a compelling cover letter to apply for a job at Chewy.com, an online pet store:

The links are to his website and profile. After Gauthier received the reply below, he posted both to his LinkedIn page:

The lesson Gauthier learned is trivial — that this “boilerplate rejection” practice is pervasive. LinkedIn’s 155 million members have all been treated to such robo-rejections more times than they can bark. I mean count. And they’re talking about it. There are over 440 comments on Gauthier’s post.

Who let the dogs out?

Employers are increasingly complaining that they can’t fill critical jobs because of a low unemployment rate coupled with an inadequately trained workforce. In other words, employers claim the right talent just doesn’t exist.

Comments from hundreds of job seekers on this LinkedIn thread, however, suggest the talent problem is in the Human Resources suite, where a troubling brand of clueless disdain for job applicants seems to destroy companies’ ability to recruit the workers they need.

HR bites back on LinkedIn

“Wrong, Shawn. I’m sorry that you feel so entitled to a lengthy and witty response telling you how immature and childish you are…It’s in the company’s best interest to send you the formal, pre-written rejection rather than, again, telling you how moronic you are.”

“why do you assume they didn’t read your letter? They are just more professional then you. So they rejected you on a correct way. And i feel you need to do some growing up in this matter.” [sic]

“Maybe they don’t have a letter crafted in their ATS that would be appropriate to address a nonsensical cover letter. It appears that you tried to set yourself apart as a candidate and it didn’t work. Don’t blame the company…maybe you just weren’t a good fit.”

“HR departments are required by their companies not to give an applicant any reason to sue them for discrimination. Particularly if they aren’t selected. It’s easier to be completely neutral than to respond with humor or give the writer honest feedback.”

Despite the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm in his cover letter, Gauthier continues to maintain an incredibly high level of professional conduct in his many replies to the hundreds of comments he received on his LinkedIn post — even when the commenters are HR managers out to shame him by rationalizing Chewy’s behavior. This has become the mark of clueless personnel jockeys. They don’t seem to realize that their disdain for job applicants destroys their companies’ reputations in the professional communities they need to recruit from.

10 reasons your company’s HR can’t fill jobs

The problem is not a talent shortage. HR itself is the reason so many companies can’t fill jobs.

What’s the solution?

  1. HR should stop posting jobs on cattle-call websites that generate 100s or 1000s of applicants. You want only a handful of the right ones. The job boards are not designed to do that, so stop using them. To ensure you can send personal letters to every applicant you reject, learn how to recruit fewer people by recruiting only the right people. This is not a numbers game unless you’re gambling. (See Why cattle-call recruiting doesn’t work.)
  2. Stop relying on keyword job descriptions. Ever have a job that six months into it matched the job description you were hired for? I ask this question at workshops I do for Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, Northwestern, Cornell and other top business schools. Everyone laughs. The answer is always Never! — because job descriptions are fabrications of HR. So stop relying on keywords and on any kinds of job descriptions. Move on to #3.
  3. If you’re going to recruit, then become expert in the work of the company teams you recruit for. Be able to mix it up with engineers, marketers, finance people, programmers and production line workers. Understand their work. Asking job candidates what’s their greatest weakness and how they handled a difficult situation isn’t interviewing. It’s fake.
  4. Recruiting means going out into the professional community where the people that you need to hire hang out, talk shop, learn, and teach one another. Everything else is B.S. I know you know that. So stop pretending because some whitepaper published by some HR Consulting Shop told you to waste your time and money on Indeed or LinkedIn. Go out into the world and participate in the professional community you need to recruit from.
  5. Make your hiring managers spend 20% of their time each week recruiting. If it’s not worth it to them, then they’re not managers. They’re individual contributors. A manager’s job is to recruit, hire, train, cultivate, enable, mentor and manage the people who do the work.
  6. No matter who’s doing the recruiting, do it all the time. Those EMBAs always ask me, “My company’s going to merge or get acquired in 6-18 months. My job may be at risk. When should I start job hunting?” I give them a long pregnant pause, then I tell them, “Two years ago.” After they’re done laughing nervously, every single one of them gets it. Likewise, you and your managers must be recruiting all the time. Posting jobs and waiting for “who comes along” isn’t recruiting. It’s lazy.
  7. Do you believe job applicants are too much trouble? Then you’re doing it wrong. You’re not your company’s solution to its problems and challenges. The people you’re trying to hire are. Start treating them with respect all the time.
  8. If you believe it’s okay to insult and talk smack to job applicants, then get out of HR. The next time you feel like being snarky with a job applicant, quit your job.
  9. You don’t need headhunters like me to fill jobs. You need to be an active part of the professional community you need to recruit from and to cultivate sources and friends who trust you and that you trust. NEWS FLASH! We all know how most jobs are found and filled: Personal contacts. So stop spending 99% of your recruiting budget on job postings. Start spending it taking great candidates to dinner.
  10. Please — stop pretending! It looks very bad to those people your company desperately needs to hire. They tell their friends.

It doesn’t sink in

Shawn Gauthier noticed in his LinkedIn dashboard that lots of people at Chewy were viewing his post — and that a lot of other LinkedIn users were sending the link to Chewy employees. So he decided to reach out to Chewy’s HR department directly for a second chance at a job. The best the recruiter could do was “explain” the excuse for why he was treated impersonally:

“…the role had been filled and there were 670 applicants that needed to be rejected. So as you can imagine, it would be a little difficult for our team to send out 670 personalized rejection letters.”

It still doesn’t sink in at Chewy — or in most HR organizations. If you’ve got too many applicants that “need to be rejected,” then you’re soliciting too many of the wrong people — which means you are the problem and your recruiting methods are the problem.

There is no talent shortage except in HR, where it’s “a little difficult” to let the truth sink in. Your team should not need to send out 670 rejection letters to anyone!

I asked Gauthier what this suggests to him. He replied:

“The response from fellow LinkedIn members suggests that this isn’t limited to Chewy. It doesn’t help Chewy’s image for sure… but if it is standard practice (as it seems), they will not stand out for the thoughtlessness. It does demonstrate that there is an opportunity for a business to stand out and win brand ambassadors through an extensive overhaul of hiring and rejection practices.”

Message to Chewy’s Public Relations department: Shawn Gauthier’s LinkedIn post has 319,381 views and counting. Do you know what the world thinks of your HR department and your company? (Hint: 68% of job seekers own pets. How many customers can you afford to lose?)

Why can’t HR fill jobs? Is it because of a talent shortage? I offered up 10 suggestions to help HR fix HR. What else is HR doing that hinders recruiting and hiring? What else should HR do so companies can fill jobs?

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