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The Q&A

Why HR should get out of the hiring business

In the April 2, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter complains about HR:

Throughout my career I have gotten new jobs by meeting and talking to managers who would be my bosses. Now I keep running into the Human Resources roadblock in companies where I’d like to talk to a manager about a job. Honestly, I just don’t see the reason for silly online application forms or for “screeners” who don’t understand the work I do, when companies complain they cannot find the right talent. I really don’t get it. Why do companies even have HR departments involved in hiring?

Nick’s Reply

Good question. Better question: Should Human Resources (HR) be in the recruiting and hiring business? My answer is an emphatic NO for three main reasons, though there are many others.

this_way_outFirst, HR is qualified to recruit and hire only other HR workers. HR is not expert in marketing, engineering, manufacturing, accounting, or any other function. HR is thus not the best manager of recruiting, candidate selection, interviewing, or hiring for any of those corporate departments.

Second, HR takes recruiting and hiring out of the hands of managers who should be handling these critical tasks. Finding and hiring good people are two of the most crucial jobs managers have. In The Recruiting Paradox I offer employers three simple suggestions for improving recruiting:

  • Don’t send a Human Resources clerk to do a manager’s job,
  • Put your managers in the game from the start, and
  • Deliver value to the candidate throughout the job application process.

I think companies suffer when they subject applicants to the impersonal and bureaucratic experience of dealing with HR.

Which brings me to the third reason HR should be taken out of the recruiting and hiring business: HR has no skin in the game. It virtually doesn’t matter who is recruited, processed, or hired because HR isn’t held accountable. It’s hardly HR’s fault, but it’s a rare company that rewards or blames HR for the quality of hiring. HR is typically insulated as a “necessary overhead function.”

Don’t get me wrong: There are some very good people working in HR, and there may be a legitimate role for HR in many companies. But HR’s domination of recruiting and hiring has led to a disaster of staggering magnitude in our economy. In the middle of one of the biggest talent gluts in American history, employers complain they can’t fill jobs.


Don’t miss Harvard Webinar Audio: Can I stand out in the talent glut?


 

talent_shortageAccording to PBS NewsHour estimates, there are over 27 million Americans looking for work, either because they are unemployed or under-employed. (The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are 12 million unemployed.) I prefer the NewsHour figure because it tells us just how big the pool of available talent is. Concurrently, BLS also reports there are 3.7 million jobs vacant.

HR has a special term for this 7:1 ratio of available talent to vacant jobs. HR departments and employers call this 7:1 job-market advantage “The Great Talent Shortage!”

While the economy has put massive numbers of talented workers on the street, HR nonetheless complains it can’t find the workers it needs. That’s no surprise when HR’s idea of finding talent is to resort to database searches and keyword filtering, which are disastrously inadequate methods for finding and attracting the best hires.

The typical HR process of recruiting and hiring is most generously described as hiring who comes along via job boards and advertisements. It’s a rare (and precious) HR worker who gets up from behind the computer display to actually go find, meet, and bring home good candidates.

“The typical explanation for why HR recruiters have no time to recruit actively is that they have too many resumes to sort. This very real problem is solved easily: Stop soliciting and accepting resumes.”

Go recruit! (That’s just one of 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.)

I could write pages about corporate maladies that arise from employers’ over-reliance on HR to recruit and hire. Instead, I’m just going to list some of the ways HR can kill any company’s competitive edge by interfering with these management functions:

Wasting money
Last year, almost a billion dollars was sucked up by just one online “job board,” Monster.com, which was reported as the “source of hires” only 1.3% of the time by employers surveyed. HR could be advocating for the personal touch in recruiting, but blows massive recruiting budgets on job boards with little to show in return.

Hiring who comes along
Job boards and similar advertisements — the high-volume, passive recruiting tools HR relies on — yield only applicants who come along, not those a company should be pursuing.

Wasting good hires
Good candidates are lost because database algorithms and keyword filters miss indicators of quality that are not captured by software. And highly qualified technical applicants are rejected because they are screened not by other technical experts, but by HR, which is too far removed from business units that need to select the best candidates.

Mistaking quantity for quality
HR has turned recruiting into a volume operation — the more applicants, the better. This results in impersonal, superficial reviews of candidates and quick, high-volume yes/no decisions that are prone to error.

Excusing unprofessional behavior
Soliciting far more applicants than HR can process properly results in unprofessional HR behavior, angry applicants and damage to corporate reputations. HR routinely suggests that the high volume of applicants it must process explains its rude no-time-for-thank-yous-or-follow-ups behavior — while it expects job applicants to adhere to strict rules of professional conduct.

Failing to be accountable
Because HR does not report to the departments it recruits for, it tends to behave inefficiently and unaccountably with impunity. The bureaucracy grows without checks and balances, and the hiring process becomes dull, rather than honed to a true competitive edge.

Marginalizing professional networks
HR tends to isolate managers from the initial recruiting and screening process, further deteriorating the already weak links between managers and the professional communities they need to recruit from.

Bureaucratizing a strategic function
The complexity of corporate HR infrastructure encourages isolation and siloing. Evidence of this is HR’s over-emphasis of legal risks in recruiting and its administrative domination of this top-level business function.

Wasting time
With recruiting and hiring relegated to an often cumbersome HR process, managers cannot hire in a timely way. Good candidates are frequently lost to the competition. (HR doesn’t have to deal with the consequences, but when a good sales candidate is lost to a competitor, the sales department loses twice.)

Killing a company’s competitive edge
HR owns two competing interests, further dulling a company’s competitive edge: the hiring process and legal/compliance functions. Because hiring is a strategic, competitive function, it deserves its own advocate. If business units and managers took full responsibility for recruiting and hiring (while HR handled compliance) the daily abrasion of these competing interests would strengthen a company’s edge.

take_a_hikeThis catastrophe didn’t occur overnight. It crept up on business in the form of a smothering shroud of red tape. Today this HR bureaucracy is propped up by an industry of “consultants,” “professionals,” and “experts” who advise corporate HR departments about how to maintain their administrative stranglehold over the key differentiator that defines any company — its people. And in turn, HR funds the database-induced job-board stupor and online-application-form addiction that’s killing employers and job hunters alike.

It’s time for HR to get out of the recruiting and hiring business, and to give this strategic function back to business units and managers who design, build, manufacture, market and sell a company’s products. Who better to decide who’s worth hiring? Who better to aggressively go find the people who will give the company an edge?

In the meantime, job hunters have no choice but to Outsmart The Employment System.

Should HR relinquish its recruiting and hiring functions? Have you experienced related problems with HR, either as a hiring manager or as a job applicant? What do you think should be done about it? (And if you think I’m wrong, please tell me why.)

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Headhunters Are Harassing Me!

In the March 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains about troublesome headhunters:

What’s your advice to someone who is dealing with unwanted cold calls from headhunters?

Somehow my name has been shared around as someone who is looking for a change. (I’m not. If I were, I would be the one making the calls.) I seem to get cold calls at work every other day. E-mails come about once a week, and I get cold calls at home about once every other week. I don’t respond to the e-mails, and my standard answer to the phone calls is, “Sorry, but I’m not currently interested.” Most people accept that at face value so the phone call is all of 30 seconds, but some have become downright rude, saying things like, “Well, if you don’t want to double your salary, that’s not my problem.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

Other than keeping notes about who is acting in an unprofessional manner, do you have any other suggestions? Thanks in advance.

Nick’s Reply

What you’re experiencing is partly a reflection of the economy and partly an display of poor headhunting practices.

harassingphonecallsReal headhunters — those who actually work on specific assignments from clients — really are looking for good candidates. If you’re good at what you do and people in your industry know it, these headhunters are getting your name from people they know and trust. It’s possible that several headhunters who are working on a handful of the same positions have all heard about you. That may be one reason you’re getting a lot of calls.

However, my guess is that only a few of those calls are from good headhunters. A good headhunter’s job is to entice, cajole and steal a good worker for his client. But, a good headhunter won’t be rude or pushy about it — and he won’t bother you. If you politely say, “No thanks,” he’ll respect you and leave you alone. He will also ask your permission to stay in touch periodically. My advice is to keep such connections open, and judge the headhunter on how he behaves.

The other class of headhunters — the ones who play “dialing for dollars” — don’t have legitimate search assignments. Their approach is to get someone like you interested in the idea of a new job. All they want is the resume of a good professional. Once they’ve got it, they call companies that may or may not be hiring, and use you as bait to get an assignment. Yours won’t be the only resume they will submit. Their hope is that they might get a hit here and there.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Call it supply-side headhunting, or call it desperation. Some people love it. But, when these guys become a nuisance, it’s time to cut them off.

I like that you keep a list and make notes about who’s good and who’s not. Once you judge someone to be rude, you should have no qualms about just hanging up. This works as well with nasty headhunters as with telemarketers. (If you argue with them, they’ll just keep calling.)

Make a list of questions that you want any headhunter to answer before you’ll even jot down his name. Here’s an important one from How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. Put it at the top of your list:

“Can you give me two clients and two candidates as references I can check before we talk further?”

Headhunters who are looking for a warm body will decline, then you hang up. (Some are not even really headhunters.) The ones who provide references are worth putting on your A list. Don’t worry: You won’t get enough legitimate calls that you’ll have to devote much time to this. The hang-ups will be quick and much more frequent. Your A list will be correspondingly short.

You can of course just hang up on everyone soliciting you. But that’s not a great idea — especially in today’s economy.

Do headhunters harass you? How do you decide which ones to talk to, and which to hang up on?

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Cornell Presentation: Be The Profitable Hire

This is a special posting connected to a presentation for Executive MBA students at Cornell:

  • Ask The Headhunter / Be The Profitable Hire
    Cornell University Johnson School of Management
    March 23, 2013, in Palisades, NY

cornell-logoI’ll add more content here after the event — but the main purpose is to answer attendees’ questions that we didn’t have time for, and to carry on the discussion.

Please feel free to post your questions and comments below — I’ll do my best to respond to them all. Thank you for joining me, and special thanks to Cornell’s Johnson School for the wonderful hospitality!

Quick access to resources I referred to:

How to Work with Headhunters

How Can I Change Careers?

Keep Your Salary Under Wraps

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo Frank

Six Degrees: The science of a connected age by Duncan Watts

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TheLadders sued for multiple scams in U.S. District Court class action

ladderscomplaintAsk The Headhunter readers have been asking for it for years, and it’s finally happened. A consumer protection class action was filed against TheLadders on March 11, 2013 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, for:

    • breach of contract,
    • money had and received,
    • breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,
    • violation of the Arkansas Deceptive and Unconscionable Trade Practices Act, and
    • unjust enrichment

The suit alleges that:

“From its inception until September, 2011, TheLadders scammed its customers into paying for its job board service by misrepresenting itself to be ‘a premium job site for only $100k+ jobs, and only $100k+ talent.’ In fact, TheLadders sold access to purported ‘$100k+’ job listings that (1) did not exist, (2) did not pay $100k+, and/or (3) were not authorized to be posted on TheLadders by the employers.”

Click here for a complete court-stamped copy of the class action complaint.


UPDATE March 19, 2014
Angry, frustrated customers of TheLadders who say they were scammed finally get their day in court. Federal Court OK’s Suit Against TheLadders: Breach of contract & deceptive practices


More:

“Unlike other online job boards which are free to join, TheLadders charged a premium subscription fee to members for ‘hand-screen[ing] every job post and recruiter so you only see real, open $100k+ jobs in your area.’ In reality, however, its job postings were not hand-screened. They were ‘scraped’ from the Internet without authorization from employers or recruiters, and the employment opportunities were not for ‘real, open $100k+ jobs.’ Moreover, TheLadders had no process in place to ensure that these posted positions ever truly existed, remained open, or that they met its minimum advertised salary criteria of $100k+.”

If you believe you were scammed by TheLadders, you can obtain more information from Bursor & Fisher, the law firm that filed the complaint.

I’m laffing my ass off.

Not just because I’m happy TheLadders is finally getting exposed for its stupidly arrogant empty promises. But because it took so long for an attorney to read TheLadders advertising:

“Only $100k+ Jobs. Only $100k+ Candidates.”

In 2010, a very unhappy CFO who had spent loads of money on TheLadders — and even more of his valuable time — ran the numbers and reported that the numbers just didn’t add up. There was no way that TheLadders could deliver the number of “$100K+ jobs” that it promised: TheLadders: A long-shot Powerball lottery tucked inside a well-oiled PR machine.

TheLadders has been lying for years. Evidence from TheLadders’ own customers — reported here and elsewhere — has revealed again and again that TheLadders’ database never had “only” $100K anything in it. TheLadders own representatives were admitting it to angry customers in customer service chats — that at least one customer had the good sense to save.

ladders3When it seemed job hunters doubted the database, TheLadders’ chieftain, Marc Cenedella, came up with a claim even stupider than that: TheLadders had experts checking over very single job to make sure they’re always $100K+.

Yah, right. Not long afterwards, after repeated reports that TheLadders was still lying, Cenedella dumped the $100K lie altogether. The salary checkers are gone (Oh, I’m laffing my noogies off, Marc!) and any salary goes!

But the lawyers at Bursor & Fisher saved all the advertising graphics and the lies and stuck them into a class action complaint. Funny how stuff like that follows a company around — and drags it into court.

I expect Marc Cenedella is gagging on that jpg right about now. There’s more where that came from, Marc. Read the complaint — and don’t miss all the nice graphics you paid for over the years. The filing is loaded with them.

A little history

TheLadders is not a new subject on this blog. We’ve covered the company’s questionable behaviors many times. No one should be surprised that Marc Cenedella’s company is being sued. Here’s a selection of posts:

TheLadders: How the scam works

The dope on TheLadders

TheLadders: A long-shot Powerball lottery tucked inside a well-oiled PR machine

TheLadders: Job-board salary fraud?

TheLadders’ rigid set of criteria

One tiny $100K+ mistake

Got a Ladders story of your own? Tell it, tell it — now maybe something will come of it! Did you save some documentation that no one would pay attention to before? Share it, share it! Now somebody’s listening.

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Commit Resume Blasphemy

In the March 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job changer wonders if his resume is any good:

I was terminated along with dozens of other people when my company got into trouble. I’ve had to look for jobs in totally different industries because I want to stay in this city. Attached is my resume. I paid good money to have it professionally written, but it has not led to even one job interview. Do you think it’s any good?

Nick’s Reply

Talented people get downsized out of their industry, but they don’t realize that jargon prevents other employers from understanding their experience. Let’s look at some of the wording in your resume:

  • blasphemer“Utilize strong facilitation skills to significantly improve PVA results.”
  • “Provide research expertise to the BU/Ds and the STS/NRSO Delivery Teams for initial facility availability studies.”
  • “Use a systematic process to develop globally focused training interventions and performance support tools.”

Say what?

How can you expect to be hired by an employer who can’t understand what you’re talking about because the terminology is so arcane? Fancy explanations and acronyms don’t impress anyone. Employers are impressed by simple English that explains who you are, what you’ve done, and how you might add profit to a business.

No matter how specialized your field, try to explain your work so your grandmother (or a 12-year-old child) would understand it. I mean no offense to erudite grandmothers or children, but I use this test on my own writing. If you can’t express it simply, you’re not helping the person you’re addressing, and you’re not helping yourself.

Just because you paid to have your resume written doesn’t mean it’s better than one you could write. (See The Truth About Resumes.) In fact, I strongly recommend that people write their own resumes. I know it’s not an easy task, but it’s worth the effort. It will help you crystallize your story about why employers should hire you. Unless you work with a rare resume writer who interviews you in depth, this “story development” won’t happen when you let someone else do it. Your local library has lots of books on resume writing. Study them and use only the best tips that make sense to you.

Re-write your resume and explain your experience and skills as simply as possible, so managers in other businesses and industries will be able to see how your credentials might be relevant to them.

If you would like to try something really different, consider committing Resume Blasphemy. This is one of the most popular articles on asktheheadhunter.com, in which I suggest that a really good resume actually violates every rule of resume writing. It “doesn’t show any of your past experience and it doesn’t list any jobs you ever did. No accomplishments, no achievements or awards.” Instead, “it requires you to do the job, not just apply for it.” I call this a Working Resume™.

So, what do you put in it? The article outlines four components that your Working Resume should include:

  • An outline of the business of the employer you want to work for
  • Proof you understand what work needs to be done
  • Your brief plan for doing the work
  • Your estimate of how much profit you can add to the job

That’s right: This resume is not about you. It’s about the employer and job. (That’s what’s so blasphemous.)

Can anyone tell me what makes this kind of resume such a challenge to use when you’re looking for a job? And, what makes it a huge challenge to any employer you give it to?

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Bet you can’t answer this one interview question: A challenge to Lou Adler

In the February 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager wants to know what one question I love to ask job candidates:

When I interview people, I use questions my personnel department gives me, as well as a few of my personal favorites. What’s your favorite interview question to ask job applicants and why?

Nick’s Reply

question-marks-2Lou Adler, another headhunter who also teaches recruiting and job hunting techniques, has an answer to that question that you should consider. But much as I respect Lou, I totally disagree with him. I’ll explain why and then I’ll tell you what is the only question that really matters in a job interview.

In a recent LinkedIn posting, Lou says “The Most Important Interview Question of All Time” is this:

“What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career, so far?”

Lou’s suggestion is useful because the sub-questions it spawns stimulate wonderful discussion between a job applicant and the employer. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that asking a job candidate about his or her most significant accomplishment is so important.

In fact, I think it’s a distraction. It makes it harder for you (the manager) to really assess what an applicant will do for your business. Don’t worry what the job candidate has done. You can ask about that later. Like every investment prospectus says, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. What matters is what a person will do next, if hired, to make your business more profitable.

The future matters more

In a friendly spirit of “I don’t think so…” I’m going to challenge Lou Adler’s advice and offer a better interview question to ask every applicant, before you talk about anything else:

“What’s your business plan for doing this job profitably?”

Any job applicant can walk into an interview and rehash past accomplishments on a moment’s notice. A dog with a note in its mouth cdogwithnotean do that. The person in Lou’s scenario could be visiting any company, talking with any manager, about any job. In other words, Lou’s applicant can be totally unprepared and you’d never know it.

But the truly prepared job candidate has researched your company’s business in detail and is ready to deliver a “mini business plan” about how to do the job you need done, showing why he or she would be your most profitable hire. There is no way to fake it. This is the only interview question that really matters because if the applicant’s answer isn’t a good one, then there’s no reason to waste time business-plantalking about anything else.

I think this approach is more important today than it’s ever been, because while many employers enjoy hefty profits, they nonetheless hesitate to hire. But, why should you fill a position and increase your overhead, when you have no idea about whether the new hire can deliver profitable work?

Coach your job applicants!

Of course, if you’re going to expect a job applicant to deliver plans, you need to give all applicants a heads up:

  • Call each one at least a week before the interview.
  • Tell them you expect a brief, defensible plan for how they will do the job.
  • Tell them what to study and give them useful material to read.

If you’ve selected your candidates carefully, it very smart to…

  • Yep: Let them talk to members of your team prior to the interview. (Heck, encourage them to call!)

That’s right — coach them to win the job! Help them prepare a thoughtful, custom presentation, so you can see their best performance. (Isn’t that what you do for your own employees, to help them succeed?)

The added benefit of this approach is that most applicants you talk to will never show up for the interview — and you’ll save a lot of valuable time. Most job hunters can’t be bothered. They don’t want to invest the time and energy to get to know your business. They’re too busy applying for a job — any job.

The very few who come to meet you are truly motivated and really want to work for you. They’re ready to prove it. They will accept your challenge and show up ready to demonstrate how they will do the job. So, Open the door — welcome your most motivated candidates.

Why ask dopey questions?

Several years ago, Fast Company magazine produced a special edition of advice “for the perplexed exec.” It was a collection of questions and answers designed to help managers succeed. They asked me to answer the question you’ve raised, the question Lou Adler tackles in his own column. My full answer and advice are here: “What is the single best interview question — and the best answer?

As an employer, you can ask a job applicant for virtually anything you want. So, why ask for a dopey resume about their history? Why assess them indirectly by asking about their “most significant accomplishment” when you can directly assess how they’d do this job now? Your most profitable hire will jump at the chance to produce a plan to do the work. The rest aren’t worth talking to.

Two final notes: First, the purpose of this approach is to gauge a job candidate’s ability to do the work — not to use an interview to get free work or project plans out of interviewees! Be reasonable, and be respectful. Second, I think a lot of Lou Adler’s advice about recruiting and job hunting. Just not this piece of it.

Which “best” question more directly assesses the job candidate? If you’re a manager, what do you ask in interviews? If you’re a job hunter, how would you answer my “best interview question?”

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Beat The Salary Surveys: Get a higher job offer

In the February 19, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant resists lower job offers “justified” with salary surveys:

I don’t like telling employers my salary history when they ask, and I know you advise to keep the information private. But I’m happy to tell an employer what salary range I expect. That way we’re all on the same page, or why bother having interviews? The problem is that employers sometimes gasp when you tell them you want more than an average salary. When they trot out a salary survey and tell me what I’m asking is too far on the high end, how do I say, “You should offer me more money?”

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the advice I offer in my PDF book Keep Your Salary Under Wraps:


If an employer cites a salary survey, ask to see the curve. Point to the leading edge of the curve, where the most unusual individuals are earning the highest salaries.

salary-curveHow to Say It
“I believe I’m on the leading edge of the curve. If I can’t prove that to you during our interviews, then you shouldn’t hire me. But please understand that I’m not looking for a job on the middle of the graph, this part of the curve.” [Point to the fat middle of the graph, where average workers earn average salaries.]

Your challenge is to demonstrate that your performance would indeed be at the leading edge of the curve.


I realize this borders on sounding cocky, but remember that if you don’t make your case in this meeting, you probably won’t get another chance. Be polite and respectful, but be firm. Your future compensation is on the line. Obviously, you must be prepared to justify what you can do that makes you worth a higher salary. There is no way around this. Employers don’t increase job offers just because people ask for more money. You have to give them good reasons based on what you will bring to the job. (You also must decide what is the minimum you will accept. This article will help you flesh that out: How to decide how much you want.)

This is where I call employers and human resources departments to task. While the job offers they make are often only mediocre at best, they claim they reward “thinking out of the box,” and that they are in the forefront of their industry. This is where they need to prove it. I suggest you politely (and perhaps quizzically) address the person you’re negotiating with.

How to Say It
“I’ve studied your company carefully, and I’m impressed at your philosophy. Your company prides itself on thinking and acting out of the box. That’s why I’d like to work here. Of course, out of the box is another way of saying on the edge of the curve. I’d like to show you how I can bring edge of the curve performance to the job — but of course that means edge of the curve compensation. If you will outline what you consider to be exceptional performance, I’ll try to show you how I will deliver.”

There is nothing easy about this. You must do your homework in advance. (For more details on this assertive approach, please see The Basics.) It’s important to open a serious discussion on salary. Companies, and HR departments especially, love to talk about how people are their most important asset. We all know that assets are cultivated so they’ll grow. We want to maximize their value. So we hire the best people, pay them the most, and cultivate them well so they’ll pay off, right?

Well, that’s not what happens when an employer insists on knowing your past salary so it can base a job offer on it. It’s hypocritical — and risky business. It’s how companies lose great candidates who won’t stand for average job offers.

But you can make an employer’s pretensions work for you, if you can be firm but diplomatic, emphatic but gentle, challenging but cooperative. My suggestion above is one way to do it.

Putting Ask The Headhunter to work usually requires saying something to someone to make it pay off. My suggestions about How to Say It are not the only way. There are many good ways to tell an employer that you want more money when you’re negotiating a better deal.

What do you do when you want more money? How would you say it — and what’s worked for you?

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Surprise! Guess who owns your personnel file?

In the February 12, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a frustrated reader loses her job, then asks for her personnel file. And the results might shock you:

I was asked to leave my job (not a good fit for the position) last fall. I requested a copy of my personnel file from my employer. I finally heard back and they are telling me that I need to travel to the company’s headquarters in another state to view it. It’s almost a 1,000-mile trip! They will not make copies. Do I have any recourse? Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

My view on personnel files is that, if it’s information compiled about you by your employer, you should have a right to see it. But my view isn’t the law. In fact, I never pretend to give legal advice since I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t want my ire to lead anyone into legal jeopardy.

personnel-fileBut this is such a good question that I turned to my friend Lawrence Barty for his comments. Get ready for some shocks.

Larry is a retired attorney who specializes in employment and labor law, and particularly in employment contracts. Please note: Nothing in this column is legal advice for a particular situation, and laws vary depending on your jurisdiction. If you need legal help on a specific matter, consult with an attorney who knows the law in your state. Take it away, Larry…


Larry Barty: To start with, most employees suffer from a misconception: That is, they assume that their employee file somehow belongs to them. If fact, it does not. It is the employer’s file concerning the employee. To better understand that, assume a company maintains a file of correspondence and records concerning one of its customers. Why should the customer have the right to see what is in that file? So, with respect to employment files, the key fact is that the file is the employer’s, not the employee’s. So, the question properly phrased is, under what circumstances, if any, may an employee view that particular employer-owned file?

The answer to the question is that the employee may see that file without the employer’s permission only if a State law so provides. Without a State law giving the employee a right to see the file, the employee is at the mercy of the employer. Only about a third of the States have any laws concerning the right to view or copy employment files. (Employee medical files, as opposed to employment files, are often made available by State law). In the remaining two-thirds of States, the employee’s only “right” is whatever may be set forth in the employer’s rules or handbook.

In those States that do have laws permitting employees to see their files, the conditions vary widely. For example, California law provides that an employee may view any personnel record relating to performance at reasonable intervals, but only on the employee’s own time. The employee may copy records, but only those records that bear the employee’s signature. In Illinois, by contrast, an employee may view the entire file and copy anything in it.

In California, Pennsylvania and most other States that authorize employee viewing, if the records are kept off-site the employee must go on his or her own to that off-site location. Only a few States, such as Michigan, require the employer to provide a copy for viewing at the employee’s work site.

As for getting a copy of the file, a few States, such as Maine, require the employer to give the employee a copy of the file at the employer’s cost. However, most States that authorize viewing require the employee to pay reasonable copying costs.


Former employees are almost out of luck

Now for the punch line to these laws. What Larry has discussed so far pertains to access of personnel files by current employees. Once you’ve left the company, things change. Larry explains:

“Former employees’ rights to see employee files are even more limited. Less than a dozen States permit former employees to view personnel files at all and, in most of those States, the right to view is limited to sometimes as little as only within 60 days after employment ends. If a former employee wants a copy of his or her file after that, a lawsuit would be required.”

So the news is not good for ex-employees. As you might expect, the law makes access to your former personnel records complicated — mainly because they’re not your personnel records, but also because the law varies depending on where you live and work.

How to protect yourself

my-documentsBut this wouldn’t be Ask The Headhunter if we didn’t close with some useful advice that you’re probably not going to find anywhere else. Larry hands you a wonderful tip about how to get and keep the information you need:

“The bottom line for all employees is that you should keep your own file. Keep copies of annual evaluations, notification of wage increases, letters or e-mail complimenting or praising your work and, perhaps most importantly, disciplinary notices. If you know that a document concerning you has been generated that might be important someday, ask for a a copy. I think that most managers will give you one.”

Thanks to Larry Barty for sharing his knowledge about personnel files. Please don’t construe anything he says as advice for your personal situation; it’s not. Consult an attorney if you need specific legal guidance.

Was this a surprising education? Have you ever run into problems accessing your personnel file? Or, have you turned up surprises that caused trouble? Think you’ll need your personnel file after you leave your employer? Please chime in on how employers keep you on file… and how you can keep your files!

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How to screen headhunters

In Does the headhunter own my job interviews? we explore where headhunters fit in the recruiting equation — when employers contact the same candidates on their own. Who “owns” the candidate and who “owns” the job interview?

The best question that’s come up in that discussion is, What value does the headhunter add? to recruiting and hiring?

exclusiveThe answer goes back to the employer. If an employer wants to do a sound, thorough search for the best candidates to fill a job, the employer will not post the job. (Do you really want 10,000 applicants? If yes, why? Back to Personnel Hell with you.) The employer will conduct its own quiet search, or use a headhunter to conduct it.

In this case, the headhunter has an exclusive on the job. It’s not posted. The employer isn’t doing the search. Nor is any other headhunter. Basically, no one else knows the job is open. One headhunter, chosen by the employer, under a contract, is handling the search.

I imagine all the personnel jockeys tugging at the underwear wedging itself up their butt cracks. Oooh… How silly not to post the job! How will the world know about the job? You’ll miss tons of great people!

Yep. You’ll miss lots of tire-kickers and the “recruiters” who drive them around the job boards. No job posting. That’s where the headhunter adds value. That’s what the headhunter is paid for.

Here’s what you need to know: Only the best headhunters get assignments like that. The rest are scraping job listings and resumes, trying to talk their way past one another and past the employer itself.

So, you want to know how to screen headhunters that contact you? Ask the headhunter, “Do you have an exclusive on this job?” If the headhunter claims yes, ask who the hiring manager is. If the headhunter has an exclusive assignment, he’s got no worries about divulging his client’s name. The hiring manager isn’t going to “go around him.” The headhunter has a contract. The headhunter controls the interviews at that point. And you’re not competing against tire-kickers and the “recruiters” who are ferrying them around the Net.

If the headhunter doesn’t have an exclusive, or is worried that someone is going to beat him to the placement, you’re probably wasting your time. Hang up.

(For 62 more myth-busting answers about nagging headhunter questions: How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

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Does the headhunter own my job interviews?

In the February 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know who comes first: The employer, or the headhunter?

I have a thorny problem. A recruiter just called me with a great job opportunity. I said, of course, submit me! Then, minutes later, I got an e-mail directly from the same company saying they’d seen my resume on a job board, and would like to talk to me about an open position.

Do I let the hiring company know that they should talk to the recruiter, or should I call the recruiter and say, don’t submit me, they contacted me directly? Which way is better overall? Does the headhunter own my interviews just because he found my resume online?

Nick’s Reply

resume-for-saleAh, your online resume bit you unexpectedly. And now you’re in a bad spot. For all you know, the recruiter found your resume the same place the company did.

First, you can’t tell the company to contact the recruiter, because it already found you itself. It’s not going to want to pay a recruiter.

(Of course, it’s possible the employer is trying to stiff the recruiter. You’ll never know.)

Second, you can’t tell the recruiter to forget it. You already told him to go ahead. When he calls the company, they’re going to tell him they’ve already talked to you. If he argues that he’s “representing” you, then the company may drop you like a hot potato. You lose. This is the sort of thing that can kill a candidate’s credibility.

The way that’s “better overall” is to stop posting your resume on the Net. The situation you’re in is why. For all you know, 20 recruiters have already plucked your resume and have forwarded it to hundreds of companies on their own letterhead. That’s one of the many risks you take when you publish your resume online — whether it’s on a job board or on LinkedIn. It can result in what’s referred to as a “fee fight.” If you’re hired without a recruiter’s direct involvement, the recruiter can still claim he’s owed a fee because he submitted your resume (even if it’s without your permission). The company might argue. The recruiter might sue.

But companies don’t like being put in this spot. More likely, they just decline to talk to (or hire) the candidate to avoid litigation. Like I said, you lose.

The generally accepted rule in such situations is this: Whoever introduced the candidate to the company first gets credit for the placement, and earns a fee. But that doesn’t preclude a fee fight.

What if some headhunter submits your resume to a company without your approval, and claims a fee when you don’t want him involved? Lotsa luck. How can you prove you didn’t approve the referral through the headhunter? Is the company really going to spend time gathering evidence to battle over you?

Heads up: This is how lots of “headhunters” operate. (I discuss how to distinguish the slime balls from the legit headhunters in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. The book includes an entire section titled How to find a good headhunter.) Not understanding how the good headhunters and the lousy headhunters operate can cost you a new job — and a whole lot of money.

So, what’s your best bet in this situation? Since the company controls the job and the fee — and also decides whether to interview you — I’d accept the interview from the employer promptly, and notify the headhunter that the employer has contacted you directly as a result of its own efforts. He cannot guarantee you a job interview. It’s not his to offer.

Unless the headhunter has a written contract with the employer, and can show he has prior claim to an interview that he scheduled between you and the company, he’s out of luck. This is how many “headhunters” (I hesitate to even call them that) get themselves into trouble: They don’t cultivate relationships with candidates and their clients. They find resumes online and they play the match game too fast and loose. In the end, this controversy is between the employer and the headhunter, because you’ve got no contract with the headhunter. Heck, he’ll be lucky if he has a contract with the employer. The only claim he can make is on the company — he can make no claim on you.

Nonetheless, I wish you the best. You’re going to need it. Posting your resume online might seem a great way to increase your odds of success, but it also increases the chances that your resume becomes a commodity out of your control. The headhunter doesn’t own or control your interviews — the employer does. The only thing the headhunter controls is the copy of your resume she plucked off the Net. Good luck getting control back.

Have your job hunting efforts ever run head-first into a headhunter’s? What happened? Has your online resume caused you problems like this? Help us sort out this mess.

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