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The Q&A

Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance

In the June 24, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions the value of spell-checkers:

A friend of mine applied for a job as a “Principal Engineer” at a local software company. The company recruiter asked lots of questions about his writing ability. It turned out that the recruiter almost threw his resume out, believing my friend had misspelled “principal.” The recruiter said the title is “Principle Engineer.” However, anyone who knows this position knows that “principal” is the correct spelling. That is, one shouldn’t be engineering one’s principles!

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Once he got to the Real Engineers, my friend wowed them and got the job. In this linguistically-challenged era of the spell-checker, I wonder how often good resumes get tossed because the screener can’t spell. (A quick check of Monster turns up dozens of ads for “Principle Engineers.”)

Nick’s Reply

Okay, it’s time for my literacy rant, right after my rant about resumes. Thanks for sharing this common story, which often has a less happy ending.

This is one of the many ways resumes (or LinkedIn profiles) can sink you. They are dumb pieces of paper (or characters on a computer screen) that cannot defend facts, spelling, or credentials. When resumes are screened by personnel clerks, you lose. That’s why I advocate using personal contacts to get interviews. Your friend got lucky. Don’t rely on luck. (See How (not) to use a resume.)

Now let’s tackle “the other problem,” because it’s far more important: Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance.

It isn’t just illiterate recruiters who create problems. It’s become distressingly common in business and in the professions to hear that “your point” is more important than “how you express it.” That’s bunk. (Watch the Taylor Mali video.) People shrug off poor spelling and incorrect grammar as though it’s inconsequential. I see people smirk and roll their eyes when someone points out errors in their writing, as if to say, “Look, I’m successful. I don’t need no spellin’!”

(You say you use a spell checker? Lotsa luck! In the example we’re discussing, “principle” would not be flagged as incorrect — the word is spelled correctly. But it’s the wrong word.)

What’s a discussion about language doing in Ask The Headhunter? Poor spelling, incorrect grammar, lousy writing and poor oral presentation are all signs of illiteracy. I don’t care what field you work in, how much you earn, or whether you’re a production worker or a vice president. The way you use language reveals who you are, how you think, and how you work. And that will affect your career profoundly. You can pretend otherwise, but you can also walk around buck-naked believing you’re invisible because you’ve got your eyes closed.

We all make mistakes when we write or speak. When I’m in a hurry, I type too quickly. I’ll drop a suffix, substitute a word and fail to delete the original one, or use the incorrect case. That isn’t the point. The point is to know the difference between correct and incorrect usage, and to be able to use language properly.

Incorrect use of language will cost you a job or an opportunity, if it hasn’t already. If you have a problem with usage, I urge you (that is, anyone reading this) to get help. Remember that a software spell checker knows nothing about semantics, and that no grammar checker understands grammar. Take a writing course. Get some good reference books and use them. I write for a living so I’ve got more of these than you’re likely to need, but here are some of the references I keep on my shelf where I can reach and use them. Buy one to get started and use it. Over time it will improve your reputation, your self-confidence, and possibly your income.

Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook. You may remember this little book from college. It’s standard issue for English 101. Most students sell it back to the bookstore, glad to be done with their basic composition course. Too bad, because it’s indispensable and lasts a lifetime. The Handbook will help you quickly find the answer to almost any question about writing and grammar. Keep it next to your dictionary.

Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. This is my favorite reference because it’s fun to read. Garner writes about language with a great sense of humor. This book will teach you more than definitions — it will educate you about how to use words more effectively and precisely.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. There are lots of good dictionaries, but this one will teach you about words through good examples and discussion of their history. It costs a few bucks, but you can pass it on to your grandchildren. I’m taking mine with me.

Literacy matters in business and at work. People who notice your errors will rarely correct you, but they will always judge you. When I goof, feel free to nail me. I welcome it because I want to get it right. Try the same with your friends, in a polite way. Then invite them to monitor your usage, too. Don’t be offended when they point out your errors. Instead, “go look it up,” or suffer the hidden consequences.

Does spelling matter to you? Do you judge people by how they use language and express themselves? I do. And I love hearing success stories and horror stories about the role of our language at work. Please share yours!

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Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire

In the June 17, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader says that not all jobs produce profit:

I have read this in your advice more than once:

If I can’t show you how I will boost the company’s profitability with my work, then you should not hire me.

There are many positions in “the company” that do not have a direct impact on profitability, and I would argue it could be difficult to prove they even have an indirect impact.

It seems to me much depends on the size of the company, the culture of the organization, the management structure, as well as the specific position and the ability and authority of that position to influence more significant factors (such as staffing levels or budgets) that could impact profitability.

If one is seeking one of these lower- to mid-level management positions (such as project manager, for example) exactly how would a candidate show how they will “boost the company’s profitability?” The concept is understandable, and I can see where at some level this might be valid, but the majority of job seekers are not operating at that level, are they? Is your advice targeted only at the highest-level positions?

Nick’s Reply

profitable-peopleMost of my columns are written for all levels of work – though some people have preconceived notions about what “profitable work” means. They are brainwashed, and I say that with a smile. Every job – every one – affects profit. Trouble is, few people (including employers) talk about it or even worry about it. That’s why we see layoffs and down-sizings.

I think it’s incumbent on every manager to have some sense of how each job in the department contributes to profit – either by boosting revenue or controlling costs. Both require work. There is no job that doesn’t affect one of those financial terms in a business, and – put very simply – PROFIT=REVENUE-COST.

Every job fits into one of the two terms on the right side. We can pretend it doesn’t, or we can avoid calculating it and thinking about it, but in the end, people lose their jobs and companies go out of business because one or more jobs aren’t contributing positively to the profit equation.

As an employee (many years ago) I sought out the CFO of my company to talk about how my job affected profit. The CFO was stunned that anyone would come in to discuss this – puzzled but pleased. I instantly made a new friend. (This experience was what prompted me to write How Can I Change Careers? and Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.)

The profit from one job is a hard thing to calculate, as you point out, especially in larger companies. But go tell that to the board of directors and they’ll laugh at you. They’ll point to the P&L statement and ask you where your job is located – because it’s in there. Trouble is, management has learned not to talk about it. It’s long past time we fixed that and owned up.

I recommend this approach to job seekers because I know the effort to estimate a person’s role in profitability makes them stand out in job interviews. It makes them powerful candidates who show they care about the bottom line.

So please think twice about what you said:

There are many positions in “the company” that do not have a direct impact on profitability.

My response to that is, eliminate those positions, because they’re dangerous. And fire the managers who don’t know how jobs under their command impact profit directly. The people in those jobs may be great, but if management doesn’t know how they impact profitability, the jobs should be cut until management figures it out. It’s called a business plan – and no venture capitalist would put a dime into a new venture if the biz plan didn’t justify every single employee.

Why should a mature company be held to a lower standard? It shouldn’t — yet I know bigger companies are, with the excuse that they are “more complex.” So what? It’s okay for bigger enterprises to have sloppier profit metrics? Just look at the news — it’s why we see massive down-sizings. Management lost sight of profit for too long! (See Bloomberg: Profit-based job hunting and hiring.)

As for the “how,” if you do your homework as best you can prior to an interview, then open the profit topic for discussion in the interview, you’re head and shoulders above your competition. Estimate as best you can. Discuss the components that contribute to the calculation – even if you don’t have the numbers. Encourage the manager to get into it. The two of you may never come up with a fixed answer, but I guarantee you’ll have a discussion the manager will never forget, and you’ll learn more about the job than any other applicant.

If this were easy, everybody would be doing it. They’re not. And that’s the point – everyone isn’t because they’re not paying enough attention to why an employer pays anyone to work: profit. If you want to stand out from your competition, be ready to present the business plan for your job – as best you can. Be ready to assess the business plan with your boss. (See How do I prove I deserve a higher job offer?)

I know it’s not what you’re accustomed to – and it’s not what employers are accustomed to. I’ve had executives in Executive MBA classes at top biz schools ask me what you asked. When I explain it, light bulbs go off and they get it. They start laughing at themselves, and they get it. That “aha” moment is priceless. And that’s what I want the employer to experience when you complete your interview.

Rich Mok, a seasoned executive in Cornell’s Executive MBA program at the time, put it better than I can. He had just interviewed for a job after attending my workshop:

“The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now. Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: (1) Never divulge my current salary, and (2) Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done. They oughta make you a Cornell professor! I can already see that the one hour you spent with us will have as much impact on my MBA ROI as any class that I have taken in the program, if not more so.”

Rich presented his plan for profit and surprised the employer. (See Don’t Get Hired, Get Acquired: Audio from Cornell workshop.)

I love questions from readers about topics like this. You’ve nailed a key underlying issue in Ask The Headhunter. Thanks! I hope my lengthy comments are helpful.

What’s the point of the job you want? Be ready to talk about it, because your resume is history. What you’ll get paid for is what you can do next. How do you talk about profit to an employer, and to your boss?

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Make interview travel pay off

In the June 10, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader doesn’t want to pay so an employer can interview him:

I applied for a sales job, but it’s in a distant city. I don’t think the company pays relocation costs. They insist that applicants pay a portion of the interview costs, including mileage, airfare, hotel, meals. (The job posting says interview expenses are “negotiable.”) I’ve never faced this before. I may be willing to pay my own relocation if I want the job, but I don’t want to get stuck paying interview costs. The airfare alone could be several hundred dollars. I’m thinking this puts them in the “no skin in the game position” and would allow them to interview as many people as they want, for as long as they want, at almost no cost to them. What is your feeling about this, and how would you negotiate the arrangement?

Nick’s Reply

We recently discussed Why employers should pay job applicants — but this is another subject. Some employers will pay for interview travel, others won’t. Usually the employer will just tell you they don’t interview out-of-towners mainly because, if they hire you, they don’t want to incur the relocation cost. This is really up to you. It depends on how much you want to work for this company.

airfare-costsIn any case, you can make some moves to protect yourself and to optimize your chances of getting a job offer.

Remember that everything is negotiable, even if they tell you it’s not. As long as you are really willing to pay your own relocation, you can take a position even on this.

Tip #1

I’d ask them (now, before you fly out there), “If I split the interview travel cost with you, and you hire me, will you cover my relocation costs up to some maximum amount?”

They will likely say no, but they might also compromise, saving you quite a bit of money when you move. It’s worth asking, especially if you’re interviewing for a sales job. Demonstrate your negotiating skills.

Now let’s make sure you’re protected from unexpected losses.

Sometimes a company will tell you to pay your expenses and submit receipts for reimbursement later (even if the reimbursement is only partial). I hate that. What if they don’t hire you and decide to ignore the reimbursement altogether? It’s rude, but it happens.

Tip #2

Split the costs into portions that each of you pay up front, and settle the rest later. For example, make them this offer: If they pre-pay the airline ticket, you will pay for the hotel and meals and then submit for reimbursement. That way you don’t get stuck holding the entire bag, even if they ignore your requests later. Of course, if they decline to front any costs for your trip, you must decide whether to gamble. My advice is: Don’t. A company that won’t pay to fly you out is trouble.

Overall, I think your analysis is correct. If you pay interview expenses, they will have no skin in the game, leaving you in a weak position. But two can play at this game. This is where you turn the tables a bit, capitalize on your trip, and optimize your chances of getting an offer — even if it’s from another company.

Tip #3

If you decide to make the trip, do some research and figure out who are the employer’s best and biggest competitors in the same city. Call them. Talk to the head of sales, not to HR. Be frank. “I’m going to be in town interviewing with company A — but I’ve heard great things about your company (B). If you’re available on such and such a date, I’d like to stop by at a time convenient to you to introduce myself. Can we schedule a cup of coffee?”

Do this with as many companies as you can. Even if you have to pay for another night’s stay, this may be an excellent investment because your trip will be more likely to pay off. It’s a funny kind of employer psychology that I’ve seen again and again. When company B hears that company A is interviewing you, B is suddenly motivated to get in on the action, especially because there’s no travel cost. Ordinarily, company B might not interview you, but when one company deems you attractive, you instantly become attractive to its competitors.

(In my opinion, even if company A is paying for your travel, you’re still free to conduct other meetings as long as they don’t interfere with A’s meetings. If your favorite aunt lived in town, you’d make time to see her, right? What you do in your spare time is your business.)

Decide whether you really want to work in the distant city, and negotiate your way out of financial costs as best you can. Then take advantage of a trip to meet as many employers as you can.

Have you ever had to travel for a job interview? Who paid for it? Did you ever get stuck for the costs of an interview trip? How did you optimize your experience?

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Smart Hiring: How a savvy manager finds great hires (Part 2)

In the June 3, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager tells how she finds great hires.

Last week we heard from Annie, a manager whose approach to interviewing and hiring reflects how she likes to be treated as a job applicant. She doesn’t rely on job boards. She treats applicants respectfully and always gets back to them. She explains interviewing procedures clearly in advance. She doesn’t waste applicants’ time. And she doesn’t demand their salary history.

find-hiresSo far, so good — but does this work? Does it help her hire great people?

Annie and I have kept up an e-mail conversation, and she has generously shared the process and outcome of her hiring efforts. You can review the story to date — and we’ll pick up where we left off last week.

From Annie

I don’t ask for salary history

Hi, Nick! It’s exciting to see the story up and people engaging with it. Our top candidate just accepted our offer today, so I’m able (and delighted) to say that our search process has been a success.

We suspected (but didn’t confirm) that the candidate was probably under-paid at his current position. I had to campaign pretty vigorously to pay him what he’s worth instead of some calculation based on his current number. He was such a promising candidate that he likely wouldn’t take less, and I wouldn’t feel right offering it to him. After we had finished our internal budget negotiations and arrived at a range, I simply asked him what he was hoping to make. Luckily, the numbers worked out!

Nick Replies

Annie, good for you for making the case to pay the candidate what you think he’s worth. Asking what he wanted to make is the honest way to come to terms on salary. A good alternative would have been to quote your budget range for the job. Kudos to you for not falling back on a request for his salary history. Job applicants should keep their salary under wraps.

Someone on the blog (Eddie) asked this question:

It is good to hear that hiring managers are attending networking events. But how do I find these?

Can you share with us how you network to recruit?

From Annie

Where I network to find great job candidates

Your commenter Dave is spot-on: Meetup groups are the way to go. The position I was hiring for is a technical one (and I’m in a technical role myself), so most of my networking was at groups focused on programming languages, technology stacks, etc. These aren’t (on the surface) career/hiring events. These are places where people in the industry get together and discuss their craft. So, if you are deliberate about hiring, it’s the sweet spot: places to form relationships with people who already have good jobs in the area, who know their stuff, and who might want a job someday. [Don’t say, “I don’t know anybody!” -Nick]

Making friends at meetups

The tricky thing about relying on a network is, you have to start building it before you need it. I’ve been going to most of these groups for years. They give me the opportunity to make friends, pair-code with people, toss around project ideas, and share answers to problems. In other words, to demonstrate my interest and involvement in our field, and get enough face time that people can safely conclude I’m probably not a terrible, awful person to work with.

Really, I can’t stress enough how important this kind of interaction (again, on your advice) has been in my career. I’ve gotten jobs based on the recommendation of people I’ve pair-coded with at meetups. I’ve got job leads in my pocket because of it. And I found the young man that we eventually hired the same way: a personal recommendation from someone I trust, who knows both of us through meetup groups.

Diversity in recruiting

Following on the recent news of Google releasing their demographics data, I think this is also the perfect (and possibly only?) way to go about recruiting a diverse staff. I make sure to contribute in groups targeting women and other minorities in engineering, in part so that I can be sure to know diverse candidates in order to include them in my hiring process. You know, everybody says, “We need more women / African Americans / Latinos / etc. in computers,” but it seems like companies make next to no effort to go out and recruit them. Unfortunately, they won’t just fall into your lap. As with everything, it takes work.

Nick Replies

Annie: You’ve made an eloquent case for real networking. Your method of making friends to find great hires is the flip-side of making friends to get referred to great jobs. (I cover this in detail in How Can I Change Careers?, in the section titled “A Good Network Is a Circle of Friends.”)

Thanks for acknowledging that “networking” — as some people practice it — can be “icky.” By investing the time to demonstrate your genuine interest in talking shop, you help people judge that you’re a good person to talk with and get to know. This is the essence of making friends and getting introduced to jobs.

Thanks again for showing us how you actually recruit and hire using the ideas we discuss here every day. Some managers respect job applicants and go out of their way to make good hires intelligently and with care. My advice to job seekers: A manager like Annie doesn’t need many great applicants, and you don’t need more than just one good manager to hire you. Don’t lower your standards. Go where managers like Annie will find you.

Where do you find great managers? How do you network effectively to find great jobs? There is nothing easy or quick about investing time in your professional community to get ahead. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Since they’re not, it means you have less competition. Does this shake up your world?

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Smart Hiring: A manager who respects applicants (Part 1)

In the May 27, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager explains how she hires by respecting job applicants:

I’m a longtime reader. Your advice has helped me in my job searches and salary negotiations. I recently landed a great job with a great salary, where I have done very well. Well enough, in fact, that I’m now the one in charge of my team, and we are hiring! So now I’m on the other side of the job-search equation.

Since I take your advice to heart, as I conduct my candidate search I am:

  • respectNot relying on job boards. I am pursuing local networking opportunities.
  • Treating my applicants with courtesy by replying promptly and keeping them updated.
  • Communicating clearly about our interviewing procedures.
  • Trying to be respectful of my applicants’ time, and not requiring multi-day interview processes.

The one place where I’m a little stuck is about salary history. As an applicant, I would never give away my current or past salary. When pressed about my expectations, I hedge with statements like, “I hope to be paid a market salary commensurate with my skills.”

But as a hiring manager working with a limited budget, it seems it’s my responsibility to play hardball and try to get the best candidate within our price range.

Do you consider it unethical to press for salary history? Is there any happy medium? Is there any way I can determine quickly if someone is out of my range, without asking them to compromise themselves? Do you have any advice for a well-intentioned member of “the other side?”

Best regards,
Annie

Nick’s Reply

Your four bulleted hiring techniques speak for themselves. Unfortunately, too many managers and companies fail to follow your simple rules. That means you have less competition — good applicants will recognize a good manager.

I’m glad to hear my salary strategy (Keep Your Salary Under Wraps) has been helpful to you as a job hunter. I think it can be just as helpful now that you’re hiring. Please consider approaching this the same way.

If you have a budget for a job, what’s wrong with stating a compensation range to your serious candidates? (That is, the ones you’re going to interview.) It’s easy enough to say, “Just to be clear, our comp range is $X to $Y, and if we’re going to go to $Y, you’d have to demonstrate how you’re going to contribute to our profitability to justify it.”

You don’t need to announce this in advance, but I’d make a phone call to each of your best candidates when you have identified them. I think they will appreciate it. “I’m disclosing this to you because I don’t want you to interview unless you’d be happy with an offer in that range. I like to be above board.”

As long as you stay within your budget, I don’t think you’ll have a problem. You have a clear obligation to your company to stay within budget – and I think this accomplishes that.

“Hardball” is actually just honest ball. I don’t think you’re going to lose a great candidate by being honest. Anyone outside your range is, well, outside your range. And if someone outside your range is honestly willing to interview for less than they’re making or have been making, that’s up to them.

Make sense? Of course, knowing someone’s salary history doesn’t help you decide what to offer them. What other employers paid is their judgment, within their business. Value is relative, and you must make your own judgment for your own business. It seems to me you’re already okay with this, and that gives you an edge over your competitors.

I think it’s always best for employer and applicant to agree on the general salary range they’re both comfortable with before they start talking seriously. The best way to ensure this is for the employer to state the range of salary for the job. This does not mean you must let yourself be swayed to the high end if you don’t think the candidate is worth that much — which is why I suggest making that clear from the outset. (Job applicants can make their case by following the methods in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers.) Of course, you should phrase this in a way that’s right for you — my words are mine, not yours!

My highest compliments for demonstrating such high standards in your hiring practices. You’re a manager who respects job applicants. I wish more managers would follow your simple rules.

The manager follows up

Hi, Nick,

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I think your suggested script is a good one. As with all aspects of salary negotiations, I’ll just have to practice saying it out loud about a hundred times, until I don’t cringe anymore when it comes out of my mouth. Never was there a thing more uncomfortable than talking salaries!

It’s nice to hear that you think I’m on a good track. I’m absolutely convinced that this approach is getting me better candidates than LinkedIn and Craigslist have gotten us. But it has also given me a new respect for HR departments and recruiters! This process takes an incredible amount of work! I’m so focused on “people” stuff right now that I couldn’t write a decent line of code if I tried.

Thank you again, I was very touched to hear back from you.

Annie

Nick’s Reply

It makes my day when I hear from a manager as thoughtful as you. I’m happy to help if I can.

I know recruiting and hiring are incredibly time consuming. It’s why I tell managers, expect to invest at least 30% of your time doing it — or you’re not being a good manager. Done right, this investment pays off handsomely. You’ll never be as productive as you can be if you don’t have great employees doing the work. A manager’s #1 task is hiring great people to get the job done. If more managers approached it this way, I think turnover would be much lower, productivity higher, attendance higher, and promotion from within a better bet. (To further enhance your success rate, hand-walk the offer once you’ve made it.) Good hiring makes strong companies.

Please let me know how this works out for you..

Coming next week…

Manager Annie tells us how this all turned out!

What can managers do to show respect to job applicants? If you’re on the hiring side, what do you do? What does it mean to hire smart today?

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Too rich to land a job?

In the May 20, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader with a trust fund just can’t get it in gear:

I got a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature three months ago, and I’ve been unemployed ever since. The only job that my Ph.D. would lead to directly is an academic one, but I was so tired of the academic world that I had to do something else.

trust_fund_babyI come from a wealthy family, and they’ve set up a trust fund for me, so I’ve had enough money to survive on, but just barely. I thought I’d use this time to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. And guess what? I haven’t. I thought at first that I’d like to be a freelance journalist writing commentary on current events and the arts. But it’s very difficult to break into that business.

So I’ve decided I’d like to get a normal job. My family really wants me to get a life, and they’ve got a lot of money, so they’d pay for any kind of training. And so that leads me to my question here: What kind of training is the most likely to get me a middle-class job as soon as it’s done?

Personality factors are important here. I’m intelligent and hard-working, but I don’t really have people skills. I can usually be polite with people, but not friendly. I’m not good at small talk. At a recent dinner, I was talking over a career in financial planning with my family, but they said that I don’t have the people skills for it. They’re probably right. I need anonymity. I would not be good at anything that required a great deal of schmoozing.

Probably a lot of the other typical job tracks for humanities people, like editing and publishing, would require a lot of schmoozing, too, so you’ll understand why I’m leery of them.

So, what would you recommend for a person like me?

Nick’s Reply

Your candor is a good sign, so I’m going to be extremely blunt with you. Sorry if I sound like I’m punishing you for your family’s wealth. I’m not. It’s clear that you could not live on your trust fund anyway, but I want to help you get past it, because I think your money is stopping you from moving on with your life.

You need to work. Any kind of work. If you didn’t have the little bit of money your trust fund provides, you’d be tackling any job you could get to pay the rent. The outcome of that would be a process of exploration and elimination. You’d quickly learn what you like and don’t like — at a very fundamental level — about the jobs you’ve taken.

Get a job

Flip burgers. Wash floors. Wait tables. Work on a production line. Do some typing. Answer phones. Crunch spreadsheets. Anything. I’m not suggesting that any of those might turn into a career, but rather that the experience of working would illuminate life and work in general for you. In any of the jobs I’ve listed, you’d be part of a larger company that encompasses all kinds of work and jobs. (For a good start, try Fearless Job Hunting, Book 1: Jump-Start Your Job Search.)

For example, crunching spreadsheets at a public relations company could illuminate editorial, marketing, finance and other kinds of functions. Working a production line could teach you a lot about working with your hands. Like a rock band once sang, life is a minestrone. There’s a lot in that bowl, if you take time to look, and it’s all quite filling.

Get to know everyday people

Once you start working at any job, you will also meet your biggest challenge: dealing with people. Forget about anonymity. It’s not an option, especially at your age. If you let your lack of “people skills” be the excuse for not doing certain kinds of jobs, you will die half a person. You need to get close to other people if you want to find yourself. Trust me: You are one of us, and us has nothing to do with wealth.

Know where I developed my people skills? While I was in college — a shy, introverted, relatively asocial kid — I worked summers and holidays in a factory. My co-workers had third-grade educations, fast cars, long knives, drug habits, crazy girlfriends, very spicy food in their lunch bags, mean streaks, happy-go-lucky attitudes, and very high standards about who they called their friends.

It took a while, but I finally lost my holier-and-more-educated-than-thou attitude and learned to pay attention to the people around me. By the end of my first summer, I had friends who would take a bullet for me. (I mean that literally.) I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud to be accepted by other people. I graduated from that factory with a lot of people skills. And I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do. I passed many hours doing menial, repetitive work fantasizing about things that interested me. That’s how I found some direction — by working very hard, getting lost, and taking time to think while I collected a paycheck.

Start your life

Your bit of money is killing you. I’m not suggesting you throw it in the river. I’m suggesting that you get a job — any job. Learn to work with people, no matter how awkward it feels. (Don’t worry. If you’re rude or inattentive, they will slap you into shape, literally or figuratively. We all need that sometimes. I know I did.)

Your experiences with others will bring your real interests and motivations to the surface. And that will drive your choices. If you come up with something you’d really like to do, don’t do it. Make yourself wait until you’ve had a chance to change your mind. If you’re still focused on that one thing, then go do it. If it doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to move on to something else. (For help getting in the door, try Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention.)

The first rule: Make choices now. No sitting around trying to figure things out. No waiting for your family to bless your choices. Work.

Second rule: Be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why. But don’t feel you must explain it to anyone, least of all your family.

This is not career counseling. It’s life. Don’t let “the world of opportunity” bog you down. Don’t be too rich to land a job. The opportunity you need is to see yourself work with other people. You’ll learn a lot about yourself — no matter what the work is. Sometimes menial work is better. Sometimes you can learn more by working with laborers who are closer to “work” than white-collar “professionals” are.

Please start your life now. Don’t let yourself develop a disdain for the world that is matched only by your fear.

By the way. I, too, was a Comp. Lit. major for a while. The result: Today, my friends are puzzled by my reading habits, but they have no idea that Turgenev, Nabokov, Dickens and Flaubert have influenced my writing style as much as Lenny Bruce. :-)

Never let any of this boggle your mind or make you despair. A fine mind can have a good time with any kind of work if it stops worrying. No more education — at least not yet. The best training for you is on-the-job-training. Go work anywhere to start. But go work.

(Beware of career counseling. For many, its sedative properties can be lethal. To get on your own path, try the short version of Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. The full version is in one of my PDF books.)

Did you discover yourself (and other people) through an unlikely job? What kinds of work have you done that shaped your work ethic? Which job taught you how to be a successful human?

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Desperate: No degree, can’t get interviews!

In the May 13, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader says she can’t get interviews:

My husband works for a recruiting firm and suggested I reach out to you. I have been actively searching for a job for almost two years. I built my own firm from nothing to one of the largest in my city and sold it for a modest profit, and I was named a finalist for a local Business Woman of The Year award.need-job

I received one call for an interview a couple of weeks back, but was passed by for the position because I do not have a college degree. I usually don’t get a call, just a letter in the mail or an e-mail stating that I was not selected for an interview because I do not hold the basic requirement needed for the position: a bachelor’s degree.

I have explained this to my husband several times, but he thinks I am being lazy and refusing to work. I have attached my resume for you to review. If you can shed some light on why I am not getting interviews, I would greatly appreciate it. However, if the reason is simply because I do not have the bachelor’s degree, please, let’s not waste an hour of each other’s time, or $225 for a Talk to Nick session that I will have to ask my husband for. That will create yet another fight in my household. I look forward to your response.

Nick’s Reply

I’m not contributing to a domestic fight. I accept Talk to Nick clients only when I’m sure I can help. (I judge this by asking for a 50-word description of what exactly you need help with and how you think I can help. It must be very specific.) I don’t take clients who start out worrying it’s a waste of time or money.

I looked at your resume. Your experience is stellar. But no one’s going to give you a job, because nowadays they’re not giving them out. Even to people with college degrees. You’re not getting interviews because you’re doing it all wrong. So I’ll offer you some advice because it seems your husband is a fan, and I love my fans even if I don’t know them.

(I suggest you read my PDF books, How Can I Change Careers? and Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection. Together they cost far less than the $225 for an hour’s consultation on the phone with me. Each suggestion below comes from one of the books.)

  • Pick 4 companies you’d love to work for. Forget about whether they have jobs open. Research them in depth. What’s their problem? What challenges do they face? Then prepare a brief business plan about how you’d help them. Don’t send it. (See How Can I Change Careers? It’s not just for career changers. It’s for anyone who wants to stand out as the profitable hire to an employer.)
  • Track down a handful of people who are somehow connected to each company — employees, customers, vendors, lawyers, bankers, consultants. Call them and explain you’re considering doing business with the company and you’re doing research. (If you’re considering a job at the company, this is a true statement.) Can they give you some insight about the business and the people who run it? (Also in How Can I Change Careers? — the section about how to network.)
  • One of those conversations will be good enough that you can ask for an introduction to the head of the department you want to work for. DO NOT ask for a job lead. People hate that. Instead, say, “Is there someone, preferably a manager in the X department, that you’d suggest I talk with to learn more?” (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door Way Ahead of Your Competition.)
  • Contact the manager that you’re referred to. Say that so-and-so suggested you call — and that you have a business proposition about X that you’d like to discuss. Briefly outline what’s in your biz plan, but not all of it. Request an in-person meeting. (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.)
  • Present your ideas in the meeting. (How Can I Change Careers? shows you how to “Put a Free Sample in Your Resume” — which in turn serves as the script for your in-person presentation.)

That’s how you’ll get a job, college degree or not. Managers sometimes create jobs for people who can show how they’ll drop profit to the bottom line. But managers don’t figure that out from resumes. You must present a plan.

One last piece of advice. Stop fooling around, pretending a degree doesn’t matter. Go get a degree. I don’t care how old you are. I recently met a guy who is 62 who just completed his B. A. A degree is not necessary, but it matters. If you think not having one is hindering you, find the time and earn it.

Job hunting and hiring are the two biggest rackets in America. Employers don’t know how to hire, and job seekers follow silly rules that don’t work. It’s why America is unemployed, degrees or not.

You can tell your husband you got a bunch of advice from me for free. Don’t have any more fights. I wish you the best.

What does it take to get a job interview nowadays? Do you need a degree? Or, what are employers really buying when they demand a degree? 

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I’m still waiting for the job offer!

In the May 6, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders what to do while waiting for the job offer:

I went in for an interview and all went great. I met with the personnel manager and the division manager. They called me back in a few days later to meet with the regional manager since he was in town. It also went well. The discussion was more general and laid back. I went back today to take a test.

I am trying not to get too fired up about all of this. But, I have to think that no company would subject an applicant to all of this without leaning toward the hire. When should I expect an offer? I figure that there can’t be much more for me to do than meet with some more top-level managers and take a personality test. Do you agree?

Nick’s Reply

Great expectations can leave you high and dry.

“I have to think that no company would subject an applicant to all of this without leaning toward the hire.”

Never, ever, ever get into this mindset. This is the point where people start to build unreal expectations because they feel they’ve “invested so much.” They’ve been invited back for lots of interviews. Everything “has gone well.” They start to believe the employer is now “heavily invested,” too. They wonder not whether an offer will be made, but how long it will take. The outcome is obvious, right?

Absolutely not.

Twaitinghe truth is, you have no idea what a company’s threshold is for taking action. Some companies will string you along — often unwittingly — for months, then take no action at all. As a headhunter who has dealt with more interviews than any job hunter ever will, I can tell you that most job opportunities go south.

In my experience, there is little correlation between how well the interviews have gone and whether a hire is made. Of course, when the outcome is positive, we can look back and see that everything clicked in the interviews. But much more often we’re left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.

For reasons that are usually clear as mud, a seemingly positive interview process often stalls and dies. You never find out why. And you couldn’t have predicted the result.

So what is my point? Manage your expectations so you can manage your job search. Don’t get sucked into foregone conclusions, because that will lead you to waste your time. While you’re counting on that “sure thing,” you’re missing other opportunities. There is no sure thing.

You should do your best with every job opportunity. Follow the process through to the end. Remain motivated and enthusiastic. Ask for feedback as you proceed. (That’s legit and important.)


What can you do to optimize your chances for a job offer? See “Playing hardball with slowpoke employers”, pp. 15-16, in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers.

Excerpt:
How to Say It: What should you say to the hiring manager before your job interview ends? This question baffles job hunters, but the answer is simple. Say: “I want this job.” Just four words. If the employer is on the fence, expressing this simple commitment can lead to a job offer.

You’ll find this and more tips in Play Hardball With Employers:

  • Do they owe me feedback after an interview?
  • What’s the secret to the thank-you note?
  • How can I push the hiring decision?
  • Thanks is not enough
  • Get an answer at the end of the interview

But don’t build expectations that distract you from your larger goal. Always have another opportunity on deck because most deals go south.

Don’t let my advice discourage you. Use it to strengthen your strategy. Motivation and a positive attitude are crucial. But never start believing, “I can tell they’re going to make me an offer.” Because you can’t. While you’re waiting for that offer, set the next opportunity in motion. That’s the only way to control your job search.

Where’s the job offer? What holds up job offers? How have you dealt with delays? Is there anything you can do to force a decision to hire you?

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Rutgers Business School Webinar – Q&A Overflow

This evening I presented a webinar to the Rutgers Business School Alumni Association, co-sponsored by the University Alumni Association: Fearless Job Hunting: Be The Profitable Hire.

rutgersThe Q&A section of the presentation was great — but of course, there were so many questions that we couldn’t get to them all.

So I invited attendees to post their questions here — and I’ll do my best to respond to as many as I can. And don’t be surprised when other Ask The Headhunter “regulars” chime in on these topics — and offer you even better suggestions than I do!

Congratulations to those who won copies of Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection.

If you didn’t win Fearless Job Hunting but would like to purchase the collection, I invite you to use this $10 discount code: OLDQUEENS, which will be good through May 15. (Please note: This discount is good only when you purchase Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection.)

Thanks for joining us this evening, and special thanks to the Business School Alumni team for their kind hospitality!

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Why employers should pay job applicants

In the April 29, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader suggests getting paid before getting hired, or why waste time interviewing?

Again and again, companies waste my time while they “assess” me in endless interviews and with employment tests. They’re wasting my time and theirs, but they don’t care because they are getting paid. I’m not.

The problem is not hard to see: The managers and HR people don’t select their candidates very carefully to begin with because it’s no skin off their backs. If they had to pay for my time, I’d bet they’d be a lot more accurate. Do you think it would be wise for employers to pay for the privilege of assessing job applicants, as a way to make hiring more efficient and productive? (And to stop wasting my time!)

Nick’s Reply

I wrote a column about a related subject last year: Why employers should pay to interview you. I’m even going to crib from it a bit.

pay-applicantsJob applicants devote hours of unpaid professional time to an employer, and then wait patiently for a hiring decision by the promised date. Inevitably, employers interview way more applicants than they can justify and ignore their own timelines without any updates or comments to the applicants. Why? Because job candidates are free.

That’s wrong. I agree it’s time for employers to put some skin in the game, if only because it would make them think twice about the costs they impose on applicants. More important, I think it would improve the quality of the selection process and of their hires.

What if employers had to pay to assess candidates for jobs? What if one employer started doing the right thing? Would others follow?

Matt Mullenweg is the creator of the most popular website platform in the world: WordPress powers over 60 million websites, and 66% of all English-based websites. The Ask The Headhunter blog runs on WordPress, and I consider it one of the best software tools I’ve ever used. WordPress is an open source project, but Matt’s company, Automattic, is a for-profit business.

Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review published a short article by Mullenweg: Hire by Auditions, Not Resumes. Automattic’s interview and hiring process is unusual: The interview isn’t over, and you’re not hired, until Automattic pays you to complete the process.

Now, let’s be clear: You don’t get paid to show up for your first interviews with Automattic. But once the discussion gets serious, so does this employer. According to Mullenweg:

“Before we hire anyone, they go through a trial process first, on contract. They can do the work at night or over the weekend, so they don’t have to leave their current job in the meantime. We pay a standard rate of $25 per hour, regardless of whether you’re applying to be an engineer or the chief financial officer.”

In my first book, The New Interview Instruction Book, I called this “doing the job to win the job.” That is, if you want a job, show up and actually do the work to show you’re worth hiring.

But if you’re going to invest that kind of time and effort to be evaluated hands-on, you shouldn’t be doing it for free. The employer should put skin in the game, too — and Automattic does. The ROI for the company is tremendous.

“There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone, working with them day by day,” writes Mullenweg. “It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews, or reference checks. At the end of the trial, everyone involved has a great sense of whether they want to work together going forward. And, yes, that means everyone — it’s a mutual tryout. Some people decide we’re not the right fit for them.”

Automattic hires about 40% of people it tries out. Turnover is ridiculously low. Paying job candidates while Automattic assesses them pays off. In virtually every other company, the hiring process is rote, stupid, and inaccurate because it’s automated. Human review of applicants is the last thing any employer wants to invest in.

Around the world, hiring is a massively screwed up process because business doesn’t make any meaningful investment in it. Buying resumes from job boards and paying personnel jockeys to scan applicants’ keywords isn’t an investment — it’s a joke. But paying for the benefit of assessing people on the job, inside your company, on your time — that’s an investment. I doubt Automattic selects candidates lightly.

Mullenweg says, “It’s a huge time commitment, coordinating the short-term work being done by job applicants.”

Of course it is. And it should be. It’s costly, so a lot of care goes into the process up front, and this limits errors markedly. Mullenweg personally spends a third of his time on hiring. That’s more than even I recommend. (I suggest managers need to spend 15%-20% of their time recruiting and hiring, and I know few managers that do.)


What if you’re the job hunter?
Would you ask an employer to pay you to check you out? If that’s too much, then at least consider Conrado Hinojosa’s provocative The No-Nonsense Interview Agreement instead. It serves a similar purpose: It adds a measure of thoughtfulness to the experience.


I challenge any HR manager to explain why it’s okay to take hours and hours of a job applicant’s time without paying for it. I also challenge them to show me how their hiring methods are more accurate than Mullenweg’s. If your company does what Automattic does, I’d like to hear about it. In fact, I’ll gladly highlight your company in an upcoming column.

In the meantime, I think employers should start paying job candidates to assess them. My bet is that it would improve their business and operations dramatically.

What is a job applicant’s time worth to an employer? What are hiring errors worth? Would paying job applicants pay off to employers?

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