Subscribe
The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

The Q&A

How can I find the truth about a company?

In the April 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders if it’s possible to figure out what an employer is really like — before accepting a job offer.

Question

You emphasize the importance of showing how you’d “do the job” in a job interview, and how you’d produce value for the employer. But that is in a perfect world. What about the real world?

How does one ascertain in an interview what the political environment is in a company? Most companies have some kind of political system, defined here as the messy arrangements one goes through to actually get something done.

What questions could one ask to determine the real political environment as opposed to the happy faces they present in the interview? They are all “team players” and they all want team players, but what are the rules of the game in that company? Is there any way to really determine this before taking a position? What questions could one ask that wouldn’t just generate “the company line?”

Nick’s Reply

under-the-rugOuch — please don’t accuse me of giving advice in “a perfect world.” If it were perfect, who would need advice?

Your questions are excellent, and there’s only one way I know to get them answered: Look under the proverbial rug! Meet the people who will affect your life and job at the company. Before you accept an offer, ask to talk with:

  • Others on the team you’ll be joining.
  • People who have jobs in departments that will affect your success at your job.
  • Managers who run teams that will interface with yours.

Don’t ask these people about the politics. Just ask them to tell you how they do their jobs and who they interact with in the company. Then hush and let them air their laundry. You’ll learn a lot. If you talk with enough of them (at minimum, one from each category and preferably three from the team you would join), you will get a very good sense of how the company really operates. (See also It’s the people, Stupid.)

Another good approach is one I try to use whenever I’m meeting with a prospective client. Have lunch in the company cafeteria and ask to be introduced to the people they work with. You will learn a lot while people talk as they are sipping soup or munching sandwiches.

If a company refuses to schedule such meetings for you prior to you accepting an offer, that ought to tell you something. A good, healthy company will be proud to show off its people, and management will be impressed that you’re willing to take the time to meet them before making a commitment. Frankly, I’m surprised all employers don’t insist on such activities before making a job offer. (See Kick the candidate out of your office.)

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, I explain how to expand your due diligence on an employer. This includes tracking down former employees of the company, and talking to its customers and vendors.

Does that sound like a bit much? The employer will check you out in detail — so it’s astonishing how little a job seeker will do to check out an employer! Here’s one specific tip from the book (pp. 12):

Check a company’s references. Talk with people who depend on the company for a living: attorneys, bankers, investors, landlords, and others. This will give you a community-wide perspective and also help keep you out of harm’s way. Explain that you are considering an investment in the company. (Your career is indeed an investment!) Ask for their insight and advice. Is this a good company? Why?

It isn’t a perfect world, so we’ve got to scrutinize jobs and employers closely. In my experience, most people who go job hunting do so because they took the wrong job with the wrong employer to begin with. Don’t make that mistake! Do your due diligence, and look under the rug!


For more about how to judge an employer, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, which includes these sections:

  • Introduction: Don’t walk blind on the job hunt
  • Do I have to “kiss ass” to win a job?
  • How can I make up for lack of required experience?
  • How to pick worthy companies
  • Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Age discrimination or age anxiety?
  • How do I deal with an undeserved nasty reference?
  • Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies

How do you examine a company’s culture and politics before you accept a job offer? Have you ever made the mistake of not looking closely before jumping into a new job?

: :

Why & how you should give employers an ultimatum

In the April 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader meets an employer who is losing the best job candidates to the competition because he uses interviews to reject applicants — not to hire them.

This week’s story is long, but it puts a sharp focus on the trouble with employers these days. It just seems that, no matter how motivated a manager might be to hire, the actual process to hire has gone haywire. Demoralized by such experiences, job seekers often go along with silly demands from employers. In my reply, I offer a solution that more folks need to learn how to use.

Question

I had an interview with a VIP at a huge local tech company looking to hire a designer with video/animation experience. Our initial phone interview started with him sounding very disinterested. After briefly explaining what he’s looking for, he said he’s disappointed with the candidates he’s getting because they are all print designers. As he spoke I uploaded a few of my videos to my website and told him to take a look. His demeanor completely changed. “This is exactly what I’m looking for! I’ve gotta run to this meeting but do you have time again today to talk more?” He came right back from that meeting to continue our call.

wasting-my-timeYou would think this would have a happy ending, no? No.

First, he ends the call not by inviting me in for an interview, but by saying, “I think I’ll have all the candidates look at the stuff we’ve had done by an agency (which he wasn’t happy with) and see what you all would do to redesign it.”

Oh, great, the “test,” that is, work for free. The call ended and I wrote the place off. Then HR e-mailed, saying he’d like to schedule an interview. It lasted 90 minutes. I have never had a better interview experience. More than once he said that I’m the only candidate who appears qualified. Again, it ended a bit sour with him saying, “I’ll probably have the final candidates come back and meet with the team”: the dreaded “approval by committee.” But I left feeling good.

The following week, I get an e-mail from him: ”You have offered examples of your work, however, I am asking all candidates to take a shot at creating something for us.” And he listed not one but three design projects he wanted to see redesigned. One was a video. “Just re-do the first 30 seconds.” WTF? This guy clearly has no clue as to how much work and effort goes into something like this. So, I did a few story board sketches, made a few recommendations and ended the e-mail by saying I have received an offer for another opportunity and hence am no longer available.

And that was the end of that. No doubt he will either continue to struggle to find the “perfect” candidate or he’ll just send my comps to the agency he’s currently contracting with. And I have gone through this exact scenario more times than I care to recall over the years.

Initially, I blamed my field of design, but I don’t think it’s that anymore. I met a guy over on StinkedIn, a systems analyst with a Ph.D. who’s in his 40s and unemployed for two years. He flew out of state for an interview, met with twelve people over two days, showed that he knew his stuff (“here’s your problem, here’s what I recommend”), they were clearly excited and he thought for sure he’d get the job. He didn’t. When he asked why, the hiring manager told him the two twentysomethings on the team didn’t like him because he “came across as arrogant.”

So, who’s to blame for these scenarios? HR’s only job here was to schedule the meetings. Do they send a brochure to all who put in a hiring request with tips on how to disqualify your best candidate? I dunno…

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for sharing your story. (Readers may have noticed this “Question” was no question!) You should have just given that VIP an ultimatum. I’ll explain why and How to Say It.

While I advocate a “show what you can do” approach to interviewing, there’s no guarantee that any method will lead to a hire — or that an employer won’t abuse the candidate who’s ready to show he or she can do the work profitably. You must know where to draw the line with greedy, unreasonable employers like the manager in this story.

And if you manage to get a meeting with a manager who’s also a jerk, jerk-ness spoils any intelligent interview activity of the job seeker. Anyone who wastes your time is a jerk. (See Work for free, or no interview for you!)

This manager will keep looking for the “perfect” hire — while his competitors eat his lunch. They will jump to hire people like you, rather than concoct yet one more exercise to get free work out of you.

There are two important lessons here. One is to use the ultimatum, and the other is to survive and thrive if it doesn’t work.

First, never get bogged down in just one job opportunity. Really, really wanting one particular job is a dead-end strategy. You took the wise route. You controlled your outcome by developing other opportunities in parallel, so you wouldn’t get sucked into waiting and wishful thinking. You put that greedy VIP into healthy competition with another employer, so you won. He lost.

I’m a big believer in showing how you’ll do the work in order to get hired, but when employers demand free work during the interview process, tell them to take a hike. (By the way, I think you made a big mistake in delivering those story boards, having already seen what the VIP was up to.)

Second, force the manager to decide now. You handled this well, but I’d have given the VIP an ultimatum. After he told you that you were the only qualified candidate, you could have told him you wanted a decision on the spot.

commitHow to Say It: “I’d like to work on your team. With the right offer, I’m ready to start in two weeks. You can keep looking for other candidates, but I agree I’m the best for this job. I can do it for you profitably. Either hire me, or let’s end this process, because if you don’t hire me, your competitors will. You need to decide now.”

Sometimes the strongest position a candidate can take is to draw a line and insist on a decision. Be ready for NO, but also be ready to walk away from an indecisive manager who probably doesn’t know what he wants — and who routinely loses his best candidates to competitors, which is probably where you should be working.

Congratulations on a successful job search. I hope others consider the lessons from your story. Employers lose their best candidates all the time because they think their mission is to hire perfection and to ensure they reject anything less. It’s how they wind up with weak candidates who will do anything for a job.

I discuss more methods for “Playing hardball with slowpoke employers” and how to “Line up your next target,” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers. You don’t need to be the one left holding the bag!

Do you have the guts to issue an ultimatum to an interviewer? Or am I nuts? Where do you draw the line with a greedy employer?

: :

A headhunter locked me out of jobs for 6 months

In the April 14, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader says getting referred for a job by a headhunter cost him the job — because the employer didn’t want to pay the fee.

Question

I applied for a job on Indeed.com at a medical facility. A person called representing herself as working for the facility. She did a five-minute pre-screening interview, and set me up for a phone interview with an HR representative. The short version of this long story is that the organization wanted to hire me, but wasn’t able to because of a recruiting fee of $12,000.

I’ve been informed that this recruiting company has put a six-month “lock” on my name. Is this legal? This kind of thing has never happened to me before. I’m appalled that they can get away with it! Do I need to contact the state attorney general’s office? I never signed any documents stating any agreement for them to represent me. Please help!

Nick’s Reply

This is a deep crack in the law that you’ve fallen into. Employment agencies and third party recruiters (a.k.a. headhunters) are not regulated everywhere. The recruiter has submitted your resume as one of her referrals — and if the employer hires you as a result of that referral, it may owe the recruiter a fee.

(Of course, the recruiter serves a purpose. Without her, you may not have gotten the interviews with this employer. But her intervention should not cost you a job!)

I’d do two things.

Get the facts first

Call the employer’s HR office. Don’t tell them what happened. Just ask whether they have a contract with that recruiter.

My guess is they do not, but the recruiter’s referral may be interpreted by the employer as an obligation to pay a fee to hire you. That’s the crack in the law.

Recruiters will sometimes find and use resumes like yours as an entree to a company they don’t have a contract with. They will threaten the employer with a lawsuit to collect a fee, because they were the source of the referral. This may not stand up in court, but the easy way out for the employer is not to hire you. So you lose. My guess is that’s what’s going on here. The loose interpretation of the law might be that if the hospital hires you within six months of the referral, it owes the fee. After that, there’s no fee. That’s what the “lock” refers to.

But all this is questionable. What recruiters like this one bank on is an HR department’s unwillingness to risk legal action — which is silly.

What’s important for you to realize is that — I’m sorry to say — you are at least partly responsible for all this:


Have you ever put your resume on an online job board? Then you may have slimed yourself because anyone who has access to that resume can do exactly what that troublesome headhunter did with your implied blessing. You’d have a hard time convincing a judge or jury that the headhunter did anything wrong if your resume is already widely available.

Excerpted from How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you, p. 114.


Use regulatory powers

The second thing I’d do is call your state’s department of commerce. Find out whether the recruiter is licensed. Not all states require licensing. If yours does, and she’s not, she’s out of luck. I’d explain that to the employer — and I’d turn her in to the authorities..

Of course, it’s possible the recruiter has a contract with the hospital. In that case, what the lock means is the hospital has agreed to pay a referral fee for up to six months after a referral is made. Thus the lock is not on your name, but on the employer. You are not bound by a contract you are not a party to.

But here’s the risk you face, and it’s significant: If this recruiter circulates your resume to lots of employers, under her letterhead, such referrals may be construed by those employers as an obligation to pay a fee to hire you — even if you later apply directly. A good headhunter or recruiter would never refer you to any employer without your knowledge or consent. An unsavory recruiter will plaster your resume all over kingdom come — under her letterhead.


There are two sections of How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you that you’ll find helpful in the future. “How should I judge a headhunter?”, pp. 26-27, defines a set of standards that good headhunters adhere to. “How should I qualify a headhunter?”, pp. 28-33, goes into great detail about how you can separate the good headhunters from the unsavory ones.

Some of the book is about how to protect yourself, but most of it is about how to leverage headhunters and recruiters to your advantage.


Assert yourself & protect yourself

I would immediately send the recruiter a certified letter, with a return receipt, stating that she is not to refer you to any employers, and demanding that she notify you what companies she may have already referred you to. Again, recruiters like this one bank on people not fighting them legally. It can be a nasty game.

Depending on what you learn, you may want to contact your state’s department of labor and employment. Explain what happened and ask their advice. If the recruiter misrepresented herself as an employer, I’d consider filing a complaint of consumer fraud and possibly identity theft, citing the recruiter’s misrepresentations, and for her failure to tell you that it would cost a fee to hire you.

Much depends on whether the employer is willing to stand up to the recruiter. I doubt the employer or the recruiter would want to see an article in the newspaper about a job seeker in a tough market finding out he got screwed out of a job because of all this.

I’d love to know what you learn and decide to do. This is a murky situation because much depends on who did what, and on whether the employer has a contract with the recruiter.

Keep this in mind: None of these agencies or recruiters work for you. Their client is always the employer. They have no contractual obligation to you, or you to them. Yet many such firms will use phrases like, “We will represent you…” They do not represent you. The employer pays them, and their fiduciary duty is to the employer. But it’s an odd business, because they can imply that they represent you — with the result that employers might lock you out of jobs due to the fee they’d have to pay.

Finally, remember that posting your resume or profile online makes it easy for anyone to “refer” you to an employer and to claim a fee. You can fight this, of course — but good luck, because employers are more likely to protect themselves than fight to hire you.

Has a recruiter or headhunter ever cost you a job? What would you do if you were the job hunter in this week’s Q&A?

: :

Reddit’s Ellen Pao: Your pay is what I say

ellen-paoReddit CEO Ellen Pao sounds like an HR manager whose goal is to save salary dollars: If you interview with her, you’re not allowed to ask for more money than she offers you. See Reddit CEO Ellen Pao bans salary negotiations.

Well, I’ve got a simple answer to that: I’ll go interview somewhere else, where candid dialogue is welcome.

Pao’s purported aim is to help women avoid discrimination. According to studies she cites, male and female managers reject women who negotiate assertively. But changing the rules the way she has at Reddit will likely result in lower compensation packages for men and women — something CEOs get patted on the back for by shareholders.

I don’t think much of anyone who doesn’t negotiate assertively, male or female. Curtailing negotiating hurts everyone and avoids the real problem. Here’s an analogy: Certain people are not allowed to sit at the lunch counter. So the lunch counter is removed to eliminate discrimination.

Is that a solution? Of course not. Neither is Pao’s policy.

If the studies Pao bases her action on are correct, the way to create salary parity is to change the way men and women respond to women who negotiate. Pao’s solution cheapens women who dare to negotiate — but in the end, it’s those women who will change the system. Shutting them down accomplishes nothing in the long term but to save money for employers.

Is Pao’s policy really going to make getting a job more fair for women? Or does it make dumbos of us all — men, women, job seekers and hiring managers alike?

: :

Dissed By HR: Can you top this?

In the April 7, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader hears a tired, old story from an HR manager. How much bad HR behavior will job seekers and employers put up with?

Job hunters say the darndest things — things that sometimes cost them interviews or job offers. But job hunters don’t represent entire companies, while HR does. So, when HR (Human Resources) says something really dumb to a job applicant, it costs the entire company its reputation.

A long-time reader sent me a brief exchange he had with the Human Resources manager at a company that interviewed him — and the diss he received in reply is so transparent, so foolhardy, and so naïve that it’s worth a discussion.

It really is a nightmare world out there, folks. Lots of HR people are clueless about what constitutes a royal F-you to a job applicant. Is this what they’re teaching in HR school?

A reader’s not to HR after an interview

Dear [HR Manager]:

It’s been four months since I first came in to interview and, based on the “radio silence,” I am assuming that I am not being considered for hire. Could you please confirm that the position has been filled, or that it has been put on hold? Thank you.

The HR manager’s reply

Hi [applicant],

Well, as I told you, an old employee appeared on the scene and he became our first choice, based simply upon the fact that he had quite a tenure here and could have hit the ground running. We dissedwaited for schedules to coincide and then some travel came up on both ends and then he eventually decided to stay with his current company.

We have yet to fill the position and I’ve not been told that you are out of the running but I think it would be safe to say they hoping for more of a perfect fit, personality-wise. (That is based on the personalities that are already ensconced here…) I will keep in touch with you.

Warm regards,

[HR Manager]

Where do I begin?

The job applicant shared a draft of the response he planned to send, but I know there are a few very young subscribers to this newsletter, so I can’t print it. I advised him not to send it, and he expressed this concern:

“There’s a local recruiter I know, who said that people get blackballed in the local HR groups.”

Yes, HR folks have pretty good back channels for sharing such stuff and for exacting punishment. But let’s get back to what the HR manager wrote. It’s one of the best F-you e-mails I’ve ever seen from HR to a job applicant, mainly because it’s so innocent and reveals a staggering naivete and nonchalance about the HR manager’s role in representing the employer.

Where do I begin? I’m going to make just three comments about it, and I want to throw this out to the Ask The Headhunter community.

First, this is a company manager writing the note. It’s not some greenhorn personnel clerk — but a person with authority to make decisions and to represent the employer. This company is dead meat in the public relations crucible — and the HR manager belongs in the Thunderdome.

Second, rejecting a candidate is one thing, but the entire note is all about the company’s hiring problems. There’s not one word about the job applicant’s qualifications. Why is the HR manager disclosing details about the company’s travails in trying to re-hire an old employee who’s not interested?

Third, I understand that employers don’t like to give applicants reasons for rejection — to avoid litigation — so, why does this HR manager tell the applicant that his personality is the problem? But the capper is the psychopathy: The HR manager closes with warm regards.

I don’t think this HR manager’s intent was to diss the applicant, because it’s plain that the manager is naïve. That makes this the company’s fault because it chose this manager as the interface to its professional community. And that’s why this is one of the worst disses I’ve ever seen.

(If you’re a hiring manager, and this story troubles you, you’re not alone. Please see Hiring Manager: HR is the problem, you are the solution.)

I suggested to the reader that his best course of action was not to reply at all, because the risk in expressing his ire is greater than zero. It’s not worth venting to someone who can hurt him.


In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources Obstacles, “Should I accept HR’s rejection letter?” (pp. 15-16), I suggest that a job seeker should “Get past the guard: You don’t get into a company by asking the human resources department to let you in. That’s for tourists.”

This 26-page PDF book includes sections about:

  • Does HR go too far when screening job candidates?
  • Who is the decision maker?
  • Don’t let HR isolate you
  • Time for HR to exit the hiring business
  • Candidate 1, Boss 1, Morons 0

…and lots more!


Make no mistake: Job hunters are often guilty of faux pas as bad as this. But when an HR manager does it, an entire company suffers because job applicants spread the story throughout their professional community. And that’s how companies like this one are taught a terrible lesson. (For more about how employers hurt themselves, see Death By Lethal Reputation.)

Okay, it’s time to share your thoughts:

  • What do you think is wrong with this e-mail from HR to the job applicant? (There’s so much more than the three issues I pointed out!)
  • Can you top this reader’s story? What’s the biggest diss you’ve been dealt by HR when applying for a job? And, to balance this out, what’s the best behavior you’ve seen from an HR manager?

: :

Say NO to tests prior to an interview

In the March 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains about investing time in employment tests before the employer invests time in an interview.

Question

I applied for a Senior Director position with a large healthcare software company. I was “selected” by HR to begin the recruitment process, which starts with “assessment tests” such as aptitude and personality tests. The largely canned e-mail they sent me states that I should block off two hours to complete these examinations, and I was provided with a link and logon information to the assessment website. Mind you, I still have not talked with the hiring manager.

no-to-testsI don’t really have two hours to perform these silly tasks, though the job itself does sound challenging from the description provided. Is there anything I can do to bypass this process, or should I just run and hide from this firm? How can I be sure the third party contracted to perform the assessment isn’t selling or trading my information with other employers without my knowledge? Thanks very much, I am a big fan of your blog.

Nick’s Reply

Glad you enjoy the blog — thanks for your kind words.

My approach to situations like this is not to say no. It’s to set terms you are comfortable with, and then let the employer say yes or no. If your terms are prudent and reasonable, and they say no, then you know something funky is up — and that you’ve really lost nothing in the bargain. You merely avoided wasting your time.

But I don’t think it bodes well when a company wants you to do tricks to get an interview, so you’re justified to be concerned. What I’m about to suggest will likely result in your being rejected from further consideration by this company.

  • I’d tell HR you’d be happy to comply with their request, but your busy schedule precludes you from filling out forms and going through administrative processing (tests) until you and the manager “establish good reasons to pursue the possibility of working together.” In other words…
  • No testing prior to meeting the hiring manager. Why invest your valuable time if they won’t invest theirs?
  • No testing with third-party firms unless they provide in writing (a) a disclosure that defines who will have access to your results, (b) a confidentiality statement (signed by the testing firm and the employer) stating that they will not disclose your results to anyone without your express written permission, (c) credentials of the test administrators and those who will score and interpret the results, and (d) written assurance that they will provide you with results and interpretation of your tests.

The last word about why pre-employment tests should concern you is this article by Dr. Erica Klein: An Insider’s Biggest Beefs With Employment Testing.

Now let’s get down to business. You’re interested in the job you read about, so pursue it on your own terms.

I’d contact the office of the person you’d be reporting to if hired. (See Should I accept HR’s rejection letter? for some tips.) I’d politely explain that you’re glad the company wants to interview you, and that you’d be happy to come in to meet and talk. If you mutually decide to continue discussions about a job, you’d be happy to take tests and suffer through the HR gauntlet.

How to Say It
“I get a lot of requests to do such tests but I judge how serious an employer is about me as a candidate by whether they will invest the time to meet me first. I always go the extra mile for a company that demonstrates that level of interest. In fact, if you have time to meet, I’ll be glad to prepare a plan for how I’d do the job — and we can discuss it.”

I’m sure you get the idea. The point is to say this to the hiring manager — not to HR. If you need help with that last part, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, particularly the sections, “How can I demonstrate my value?” and “Are you an A or B candidate?”, pp. 8-11. I think that offering to arrive with a business plan in hand will reveal whether the manager is on the ball. How could any good manager not be intrigued?

As you’ve already surmised, the odds are extremely high that the HR department really doesn’t know whether you are a viable candidate. They’d rather spend money on tests to filter you in or out, than spend the hiring manager’s time to interview you to make a judgment. So, I don’t think you have much to lose. At this juncture, you’re probably not a serious contender. If you were, they’d handle you with kid gloves and they’d be seducing you rather than harassing you.

Of course, the tests might be useful, interesting and valid tools to judge your skills. After you talk with the manager.

Your last concern is valid. Those third-party testing companies invariably own your results. The papers you sign usually give them the right to share your results with anyone they want to, including some other company that obtains your resume — and looks up your test results because it’s already the testing firm’s client. You could get rejected without ever knowing why.

Be careful. Use your judgment. Be polite, be professional, but don’t be a sucker. Expect the kind of professional treatment and consideration that you give others.

Have employment tests taken the place of screening interviews? Is this just another way to save HR time? More important — does this extreme testing practice waste your time or help you get interviews?

: :

How to fix a bad reference the hard way

In the March 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader needs to deal with an old boss who’s probably also a bad reference.

Question

bad-referenceI just had an interview where I followed your advice in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6. I took control, offered to show how I’d do the job, and demonstrated to the manager how I’d take care of one of her most perplexing problems. She loved it, and I think I’m going to get an offer. Sounds great, right?

It is, except for one problem. This manager — let’s call her Ann — knows one of my past employers quite well (let’s call her Brenda). Brenda probably will not give me a glowing reference. I suspect Ann will contact Brenda. How do I handle this delicate situation?

Nick’s Reply

I’m glad to hear Book 6 got you so far! References are a very valuable asset — learn to manage them all the time, not just when they turn into trouble. (See Take Care Of Your References.) Now let’s deal with your problem.

Even if the reference is unfavorable, a smart employer will rely first on her own judgment — and ask you to explain your old boss’s comments. So, anticipate the question and be prepared with a good answer that is honest and not defensive.

Then there’s the tactical approach. Tell the new manager (Ann) what your old boss (Brenda) is likely to say before they talk. Since you cannot block that conversation, own up to the facts and impress Ann with your candor.

The Hard Way
When confronted with a problem like this, I like to take it head-on. Talk to your old boss! It’s the hardest way, and it will force you to develop the best solution. I think it’s the best way. If you leave this to chance, you will have no idea what the outcome might be.

Call your old boss before Ann does. Surprise Brenda and ask her permission to list her as a reference. You might have to swallow your pride, but nothing of value comes easily.

If she agrees, fess up that you believe that, when you worked together, Brenda may not have seen you in the most positive light.

How to Say It
“I know I could have been a better employee, and I could have done better at XYZ. Since then, I’ve beefed up my skills considerably. [Explain how, but keep it brief.]”

This may allow Brenda to blow off any steam about you before she speaks with Ann, and give you a chance to change her mind a bit. If Brenda responds candidly, pose this magic question:

“May I ask you for some advice? I really want continue to get better at what I do. What advice would you give me about improving my performance or anything else about how I do my work?”

Profit from The Outcome
Then be quiet and listen. If your old boss blasts you, or explains that you’re better off not listing her as a reference, then you know what’s coming when the new boss contacts her. Now you’ll have to use the tactical approach I mentioned above: Prepare Ann for what Brenda will say, and explain yourself. You will have profited from the call.

On the other hand, your candid phone call to Brenda might help her see you in a new, more positive light. Discussing how you’ve changed and improved might give her the words she needs to soften the reference when she talks to Ann. Now you’ve really profited from the hard way.

This might work. It might not. I just believe in facing problems like this head-on, and in trying to make the best of them.

Do you see what we’re doing here? We’re trying to influence Brenda to help the new, improved you. In the process, you’re also learning how this may play out so you can better manage your discussion with Ann.

Whatever happens when you talk with Brenda, you’ll learn something, and you’ll be better off for knowing. Be polite. Be respectful. Do not argue. Don’t be defensive. Listen carefully and try to get some good advice. Say thanks and move on.

Congratulations on impressing the new manager. Now get your old boss on board — or mitigate the damage she might cause.

There are other very powerful ways to use references and to parry bad ones. I discuss these in lots of how-to detail in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” and “The preemptive reference,” pp. 23-25.

Can this reader avert disaster? Have you ever turned around a bad reference? Are my tactics risky?

: :

My boss won’t deliver a promised raise

In the March 10, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains that the boss laughs off a “small” raise.

Question

underpaid-crumbI work for the CFO of a huge company and I am grossly underpaid. When I brought this to his attention (several times) he finally thanked me and laughed it off, saying that I was slightly underpaid. He promised to work with HR to get me the small difference. That was in January. We are now in March. He even pointed out it wouldn’t really affect the budget for the year. It’s so small — yet he has no time to follow up on the paper work. I’ve been in contact with the compensation manager, who said they are waiting on my boss to make the next move. My boss keeps saying “it’s in process.” A “slight increase” to me is enough to cover gas for the week. I’m sure if he’s measuring it up to his $500k salary, it would be considered slight. What should I do?

Nick’s Reply

I’ve been in your situation myself, and I rationalized that “these things take time.” They do, but it’s incumbent on your boss to keep you apprised of progress — and to get it done. Or why is he the boss?

It sounds to me like he’s not on the same page about this, no matter what he says.

I see two disconnects:

  • You think you’re grossly underpaid, but he thinks the difference is slight.
  • He says he’s taking care of it, but the comp manager says that’s not true.

These are not good signs. You must decide whether these are signals that you need to be working for a company and boss that value you the way you think you should be valued.

I’m not suggesting you should stir up trouble. If you press this, you could get under your boss’s skin. Because this seems to be a trifling matter to a man who’s paid handsomely, it might be more of an irritation than he thinks you’re worth. In other words, it might cost you your job — and I don’t want to contribute to that if it’s not worth it to you.

But if your boss doesn’t come through with a reasonable increase, you should perhaps hedge your bet by having other options ready to go.

When I went through this once, I waited and negotiated for months. Nothing came out of it. But I finally lined up another job elsewhere. When my boss once again delayed a resolution, thinking he’d just keep me hanging, I submitted my resignation — and I let him figure out what happened.

Nothing makes you more powerful; nothing lets you make intelligent choices; and nothing keeps your spirits up — like having a good option B when option A doesn’t work out.

Because my option B was ready to go, I didn’t even vent my spleen on my jerk of a boss when I quit. I just smiled and moved on. It wasn’t worth explaining it to him because, thanks to the existence of option B, I really didn’t care and mentally I had already moved on! If I wasn’t worth an honest effort at correcting my salary, then my employer wasn’t worth a worry on my way out the door.

We came across a more extreme example of your problem last year: What to say to a stingy boss. While your boss doesn’t sound as bad, you’re still stuck without a raise after a lot of talk. Three months is plenty of time to be patient.

My advice: Even if you don’t need to use it, get yourself an option B. It will free you to look at this in an entirely different way. It’s not good to be under someone else’s thumb with nowhere to go.

For your next job, try this approach to compensation: How to decide how much you want.

How long would you wait for your boss to do what he promised? What else could this reader do?

: :

Should I take a big counter-offer?

In the March 3, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader considers a big, fat counter-offer not to leave a job she hates for one she really wants.

Question

counter-trapI work in the financial services industry. For a year and a half, I was promised project management work but never got it. Recently I landed another job in another company — something I’ve wanted for two years. But it comes with a $6k pay cut. Then my boss made me a counter-offer, promising everything he had promised before, plus an $18k raise and a promotion to Project Manager.

It’s a big pay difference and a major promotion, and that’s the only reason I’m considering it. I could live off the lower salary with some lifestyle changes, in exchange for having a job I really want. The reason I was looking in the first place was that I am miserable at my job. It’s the wrong culture in the wrong industry working for a narcissist boss. Of course, the extra money would really help. Please help me figure this out.

Nick’s Reply

Far be it from me to tell anyone to reject an extra $18k. But I will tell you what every good headhunter knows: A counter-offer usually has hidden strings.

I discuss this at length in “What’s the truth about counter-offers” in Parting Company | How to leave your job, (pp. 50-52):

“To a company, a counter-offer is sometimes a purely pragmatic tactic that enables it to sever a relationship on its own terms and in its own good time. That is, companies use counter-offers defensively. A company would rather have a replacement employee lined up, and a counter-offer buys time. The extra salary offered may be charged against the employee’s next raise, and the work load may increase. The employee is a marked man (or woman).”

In other words, there’s a good chance your boss is keeping you until he can find a replacement.

Of course, I could be wrong. Your boss may have seen the light. Even so, you must ask yourself, why didn’t your boss do the right thing before you announced you’re leaving?

You refer to lots of things that make you unhappy with your employer. The extra money would be nice — and I’d never blame you for taking it. But if this deal is designed to cover the job until they find someone new for less money, will you be on the street soon without another job waiting for you?

Again: Why didn’t your boss do this before you signaled you were leaving? Will any of the other problems you describe be corrected by this counter-offer?

I don’t get the feeling you went looking for a new employer because you wanted your boss to counter. But if you had, here’s the strategic advice I’d have given you, also from Parting Company:

“Before considering a job change, ask yourself if you would consider a counter-offer. If the answer is yes, identify exactly what changes you would want in your current employment and compensation and try to negotiate these with your boss before you step out. If there’s nothing you really want, then you’re ready to move on. (See “Learn to Move On,” p. 31.)”

It seems you already tried this, when you asked your boss for a job change and a raise. I know this is a very loaded question, but, why didn’t he give you what you asked for when you asked for it?

I think you know what you should do. The hard part will be deciding whether you can forgo all that extra money to have a job you really want, working with people you respect, in a healthier environment.

These are all things to consider. I wish you the best.

Would you take the counter-offer, or the job you really want? Am I too heavy handed with the risks of counter-offers? Have you ever gotten burned by one — or has a counter paid off for you? More important, what other factors would you advise this reader to consider?

(The reader who submitted this question has let me know what she decided to do and why. I’ll post the outcome as the discussion takes off! UPDATE: After letting our community post comments for a while… I’ve posted what the reader told me she decided to do, in bold down below in the comments… along with some additional information that she shared about her boss… Gotta give her credit for handling this so well!)

: :

How can shy people make job contacts?

In the February 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to overcome shyness and capitalize on personal contacts as the path to a job.

Question

shyI am an intelligent, hardworking analyst who is also an introvert. Once I’m on the job, I’m fine and people like me. But getting contacts lined up to meet people to get the interview for the new job is difficult. There seem to be so many steps with so many people that I don’t know! I’ve read most of your web articles and haven’t seen this addressed. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for me?

Nick’s Reply

Believe it or not, I was quite introverted and shy when I was young. I would freeze up in front of a group. It was painful and embarrassing. Gradually, I realized I had to deal with other people, and I started listening to friends I trusted — they helped me practice appropriate behaviors. I’m still somewhat introverted, and sometimes I hesitate to initiate contact with others, but I’ve learned to behave in more outgoing ways. It doesn’t always work, but each time it does, I enjoy the rewards and I try to do it more.

I know quite a few folks who’ve tried Toastmasters groups to good effect. Toastmasters participants help one another hone their public speaking skills, working with one another in a safe, supportive setting. Their small successes make it easier for them to be a bit more outgoing with other individuals in public.

I don’t doubt being introverted can cause difficulties, but most human behavior is subject to conditioning and learning. (Sometimes the terms introversion and shyness are used loosely and interchangeably.) Look up social learning theory — you might find it intriguing and helpful. I had the good fortune to study under Dr. Albert Bandura at Stanford, and what I learned from his research about human behavior and modeling has had a profound effect on me.

The best advice I can offer is this: Think of one or two small behaviors that are more outgoing, then practice them as much as you can. For instance, walk up to someone (in an appropriate setting that doesn’t feel threatening to you) and say, “Hi, I’m [your name].” Reach out at the same time to shake hands. Then say, “I understand your work involves XYZ.” Then ask a simple, honest question about XYZ, and let them talk.

The secret to this technique (I hate calling it networking) is that most people love to talk about their work if you ask them. If they ask you about your work next, talk as much as you feel comfortable. If you get nervous, you can always just say, “Thanks, it was nice to meet you,” and move on.

The key to changing your thinking is to start by changing your behavior, but only one step at a time. Keep practicing. You’ll get to enjoy your little successes, and it will not seem phony or contrived as you get better at talking to others. This is the fundamental behavior behind meeting people to get job interviews.

Here’s an excerpt about making new contacts from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), (pp. 6):

Scope the community:
You could skip the resume submission step completely, but if it makes you feel good, send it in. Then forget about it.

More important is that you start to understand the place where you want to work. This means you must start participating in [your] community and with people who work in the industry you want to be a part of. [See Meet The Right People.]

Every community has a structure and rules of navigation. Figure this out by circulating. Go to a party. Go to a professional conference or training program. Attend cultural and social events that require milling around with other people (think museums, concerts, churches). It’s natural to ask people you meet for advice and insight about the best companies in your industry. But don’t limit yourself to people in your own line of work. The glue that holds industries together includes lawyers, accountants, bankers, real estate brokers, printers, caterers and janitors. Use these contacts to identify members of the community you want to join, and start hanging out with them.

Jobs aren’t found on computer screens and in postings — or even on LinkedIn, which is, after all, no more “social” than a phone book. You actually have to get out and meet people face to face! Most jobs are found and filled through the personal contacts we make and turn to.

Do you find it hard to talk to people when you want to make professional contacts? How do you break the ice?

: :