Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried

In the July 8, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader thinks his references ruined his chances at a job offer:

Help! I received a verbal offer of employment, but before the written offer they needed to verify my references through an online survey program. After two weeks, I’ve heard nothing from the employer and they’re not returning e-mails. Is it safe to say that the very people I trusted to provide good references (one that even promoted me) totally sandbagged me, or that they perhaps provided mediocre references? Do I have any legal recourse to obtain a copy of the reference report that the potential employer received? It’s absolutely devastating that some of my co-workers would do this.

Nick’s Reply

Whoa, there! I would not assume your references sandbagged you. There are other issues to consider first.

  • referencesFind out whether the online reference service has even contacted your references. Two weeks might seem like a long time, but employers routinely take months to process job applicants.
  • The problem might be no references at all. If I were one of your references, I’d never fill out such an online form. I’d have no idea who has access to it or how it will be used. I’d also find it offensive. If an employer wants me to invest my time to give you a reference, I expect the hiring manager to invest the time to actually talk to me. If your references declined to participate in an impersonal “check” like this, would you even know? Take care of your references.
  • You have no idea what questions the “survey” asked or whether the questions are valid. This puts you at risk the minute you grant permission for such checks.
  • You have no idea whether the personnel jockeys who “read” the results of these reference checks are qualified to interpret them. If the software merely assigns a score to your references, then the employer may not even have made a judgment. You may have been rejected by software.
  • If your reference used terms the personnel jockeys don’t understand correctly, is there a way built into the system so the reference can clarify what they mean?

I think using a “survey program” to check references is unprofessional, stupid and insulting. It’s like the classic children’s game known as “telephone.” By the time a reference’s opinion is processed through software and other intermediaries, who knows what it means? I’d never use such services myself, and I’d never consent to letting software check my references.

Reference-checking services

This raises another question: Is it legitimate for an employer to use a third-party reference-checking service, even if it’s a human being that calls your references? I think not. I don’t even accept a personnel office checking references. The hiring manager should do it. Nuances can make all the difference. The answer to a question might trigger certain other questions that only the hiring manager would know to ask. A reference check is not a survey; it’s a discussion. It’s an exploration.

Remember: References are judgments, and so is their interpretation. When an employer inserts third parties and middlemen in a judgment process, they’re more likely to make mistakes. Far too much of the hiring process is outsourced; so much, I think, that the decision making is effectively removed from the hiring manager. (See We don’t need no stinking references.)

Headhunters checking references

What about headhunters? I check references on my candidates, and I share the results with my clients. Should my clients, the references and the candidates trust my judgment? Yes — because next to the hiring manager and the hire, I have the biggest vested interest in the hiring decision. No personnel manager, no third-party service and no “online survey” will earn more money when a hire is made than I will. My living hinges on doing it well. I’d better be good at it, and I’d better be a good interpreter of what my client wants and needs.

But, even then, I will have the hiring manager talk directly with references before a hiring decision is made. Why? For the same reason I already shared: I have a lot riding on a prudent hiring decision. I don’t want to have to refund my fee. I want the placement to stick, and I want everyone involved to be happy. I want the manager using his or her judgment to make the final choice.

What should you do now?

  • I’d contact each of the references you provided to the employer. Don’t ask them what they said to the program. Ask them if they even received a reference request, and whether they completed it.
  • In the future, I would explain to employers that your references are busy people who would be happy to talk about you — but you’d never dream of asking them to fill out forms online. “Just as you wanted to talk with me in person, I’d like you to talk with my references in person. I’m sorry, but I can’t ask them to complete a form online.” Why risk irritating a reference when the irritation might be reflected in their comments about you?

My answers to your other questions:

  • It’s possible that it’s just taking the company a long time to process your offer and that everything’s fine. But to let you hang out there, waiting like this, is unprofessional in any case.
  • I doubt the reference company will give you the reports. It’s worse if they do — that means the references are not confidential. Check the agreement you signed (or clicked on!) when you granted permission for reference checks. My guess is you relinquished any rights to see the results. My bigger concern is, what other rights did you grant to the reference company? Are they free to give your reference reports to other subscribers without asking you? (That is, you might interview at another company that has access to your references without even asking you. Surprise!)
  • As for your co-workers delivering bad references: That would be my last concern. If you’re not sure what someone will say about you, then why are you using them as references? Finally, did you give your references a heads-up that they were going to be polled? That’s crucial — they need to be prepared for the request so they can think about how they’re going to respond. (If you need to deal with an undeserved nasty reference, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.)

The bottom line is, impersonal, automated reference checking can cost you a job. What you think are references may be little more than checked-off responses to canned questions processed by software that gets your references angry.

I’d start by confirming the references were checked. Then I’d ask your references what they thought of this “online reference checking” system. You might get an earful. Finally, take a strong position on how employers check your references.

If you want maximum leverage with an employer, “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” That’s a section of Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) that explains how to use preemptive references.

A note to employers: Why do you bother interviewing job candidates in person, and then rely on impersonal, indirect reference checks conducted by software? If you’re going to talk to the candidate, then talk to the references, too! Or why not just let the software make the hiring decision? (I take that back. I get the feeling that, lots of the time, software does make the decision.)

Are your references real or software? Do you let employers “poll” your references rather than talk to them? What’s the best way to handle your references?

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How your old boss can cost you a new job

In the April 15, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about how much “notice time” is enough when quitting a job:

I’m a licensed professional working in a small firm. During lean years a few years ago, my boss arranged for me to do some other work so that he wouldn’t have to lay me off. I even did some dog and house sitting for him. So we are close. Nonetheless, now it’s time for me to move on. I will not consider a counter-offer or any back-and-forth negotiations.

I’ve heard my boss say that if anyone leaves the firm, he’d like a month or two notice. I’ve read your thoughts on this, and I agree a long notice is a bad idea — potentially a trap for being abused during the transition period, and who would wait one or two month’s for a new employee to start work? Frankly, I’m hoping to give two weeks’ notice and to take a third week for vacation between jobs.

When I leave, I’ll do all I can to leave my desk in good shape for my replacement, but the firms I’m interviewing with will want me to start quickly. Is there a good way to go about this?

Nick’s Reply

Your boss’s wishes are one thing. Reality is another. As you’ve clearly realized, your own career safety is paramount, no matter how friendly you feel toward your current employer. Your old boss can cost you your new job.

quittingHere’s the message you need to deliver to your boss when — and only when — you have a bona fide, written job offer in hand and you’ve accepted it and have a firm start date:

How to Say It
I’m afraid i It’s time for me to move on. I’ve accepted a job at a firm where I can continue growing my career in directions that are important to me. I’d like to give you two weeks’ notice. Of course, I will devote that time to helping organize my work to facilitate the transition to someone new – anything you need.”
[Note: I’ve modified this suggestion thanks to a comment from GEM below.]

Stop there. Your boss may not ask for more time. Or, it’s unlikely but I’ve seen it happen, he may ask you to leave immediately. (There’s no guessing at how an employer will react, so plan for the worst.)

If he presses you to stay for more time, try this:

How to Say It
“I wish I could do more, but in today’s economy no company I’ve talked with permits the kind of transition time I’d like to give you. My job offer is contingent on a quick start date.”

Don’t complain and don’t explain in any more detail. Do the right thing within the constraints you have. And let your old employer deal with the rest. Don’t let him turn your business with your new employer into his business. Don’t fool around with requesting an extension on the start date for your new job. The answer might be a withdrawn offer. (Be sure you’re Starting a job on the right foot.)

Again, be prepared to be shown the door immediately if your boss gets upset. (Now I’ll shock you a bit: If you have personal belongings in your desk, get them out before you announce your plans.)

There’s a standard for doing the right thing, and that’s two weeks’ notice. I know it sounds cold, but you don’t owe anyone any more, even if they cut you a break during hard times. If you want to try to return that favor, do it in a way that won’t cause problems at your new job. Offer to recommend a candidate for the job, if you can. Offer to help write the job description and to help interview applicants during your notice period. Offer to work late during those two weeks, if necessary. (The guy did you a solid; do one for him to the extent you can.)

Part friends if you can. And when you get that new job offer, remember that there is no sure thing. I wish you the best.

What do you owe your employer when it’s time to move on? I’m sure you have more ideas and even some personal policies. Should this reader try to extend the start date at a new job?

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Play Hardball With Slowpoke Employers

When your job search stalls, two things stand out as big culprits: resumes and wishful thinking. Last week we discussed how your resume can hamper your job search. In this edition — Part 2 –, we’ll discuss how slowpoke employers can distract you from your goal of landing a good job.

In the March 18, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to do about employers who take forever:

fingers-crossed-2I’ve been interviewing with a company for about a month, including several phone calls and local interviews, and a flight to their HQ for five more interviews. It’s been three weeks since our last meeting. They say they are working through my references, but my references confirmed they have been contacted. All the while, the company is actively interviewing other candidates for the position I interviewed for. Am I’m being strung along until someone better shows up, or what? Also, how often should I follow up with them?

Nick’s Reply

There’s no explaining why a company takes so long — you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out. Don’t. Are you talking yourself into believing “this is a sure thing?” Don’t.

Is the employer hedging, stringing you along while it looks for a better candidate? Why worry about it?

Your question appears in a different form in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8, Play Hardball With Employers, in the section titled “How can I push the hiring decision?” Here’s an excerpt from my advice:


This is a very common mistake when job hunting. The next act in the script is normally “the offer,” so job candidates ignore the clear signal to leave the stage. They desperately launch into their next speech — even when there’s nothing doing. I’ve seen top executives in utter denial when the employer stops the process, and they make fools of themselves trying to “get the process back on track, because I really want this job.”

Don’t try to push an employer that has told you it doesn’t want to go. Instead, move yourself toward your next opportunity. (If they call you back later, that’s great — if you’re still available.) Otherwise, you’ll waste precious time on a company that can’t make a decision. Be grateful they were honest about it. But move on. If you pester them, you’ll tick them off. (“Didn’t this person hear us? We’re not making a decision right now. We’re busy.”) Annoying puppies get kicked — no matter how enthusiastic they appear.

Reprinted from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8, Play Hardball With Employers, “How can I push the hiring decision?” p. 14. Book 8 includes:

  • Put the manager on notice
  • Skip The Resume: Call the CEO
  • Do they owe me feedback after an interview?
  • hardballWhat’s the secret to the thank-you note?
  • Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer
  • How can I push the hiring decision?
  • Playing hardball with slowpoke employers
  • One interview stalled, one moving too fast
  • Line up your next target
  • Thanks is not enough
  • Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it
  • Judge the manager
  • Get an answer at the end of the interview
  • PLUS: 8 How to Say It tips
  • PLUS: 4 sidebars packed with advice to give you the insider’s edge!

I’ve seen people put their job search on hopeful hold for weeks if not months, waiting for “the job I really want” to come through. When the slowpoke employer doesn’t come through with a job offer, they realize they’ve wasted precious time. Their motivation and job-hunting energy has waned. Their enthusiasm has turned to helpless depression. And it all shows as they try to revive a moribund job search.

Don’t take a rest while you wait for just one employer to “decide,” no matter how promising the situation looks!

But there’s another important reason why “moving on” is a good strategy. You might find that the employer you’ve been waiting on is just a slowpoke who finally gets back to you with an offer. If, rather than waiting, you have cultivated other opportunities, you’re suddenly in a much stronger negotiating position. With other options in play, now you have choices. Having options may empower you to negotiate a better offer — and even to avoid taking a job you don’t really want, just because there’s nothing else.

Play hardball with slowpoke employers. It’ll keep you out of trouble, and it’ll make you feel better, too. Follow up once. If an employer is being a slowpoke and hedging its bets by trying to find better candidates for a job, your best bet is always to control your job search by continuing your efforts to find more opportunities.

What’s the excuse the employer gives you for its decision delay? It may be legit, or it may be a hedge so it can find a better candidate. Who cares? How do you spend your time while waiting on a job offer?

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Should I stay at my current company?

In the February 18, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader can’t decide whether to stay or go:

I’m feeling itchy — I think you know what I mean. This is probably what a headhunter like you looks for in a job candidate for your clients. Someone who is ready to move! I’m happy at my job at this company, but I’m wondering if something better is worth jumping ship for. But then I realize how good I’ve got it here. How do I know whether I should stay?

Nick’s Reply

This question is more common than some people might think — it’s natural to ask it again and again during your career. Since I’ve already covered it in one of my books, I’m going to reprint the pertinent section. I hope it helps you work this out!


From Fearless Job Hunting, Book 1: Jump-Start Your Job Search, pp. 11-12.

Why should I stay at my current company?

should-i-stayQuestion: I’m considering leaving my company. I’ve been pretty happy here and the company has been good to me. Now there are some good opportunities I’ve learned about that would pay better. But I’m worried about “the grass is always greener” effect. That is, my current company and job might in fact be the best thing for me. How do I go about evaluating what I’ve got here?

Nick’s Reply: You’re smart to consider this so carefully. I’m convinced that the most common underlying reason for job change (whether as a result of employee dissatisfaction, or downsizing) is that people take the wrong jobs to begin with. Sometimes they jump to a new job without good reason.

The key to success is to judge any company — including your current one — by its people, its products, and its reputation.

Another issue, of course, is the compensation. Be careful. There’s more to compensation than a few extra bucks. It’s up to you to figure out how much the intangibles at your current company are worth. There are some valuable intangible benefits to consider. (Their value to you depends, of course, on the quality of your current employer and job.)

  • Credibility. Your reputation and credibility are probably well-established. You don’t have to waste a lot of time and effort proving yourself to your employer. You can focus on being productive. Your credibility also positions you for internal career growth, so go talk to your boss.
  • Culture. You understand and can work within the culture and politics. You’ve paid your dues. In a new company, you’ll have to learn all over again how to navigate the system.
  • Efficiency. You’ve probably got your work organized well enough that you’re working efficiently and without working any more hours than necessary. In a new company, you will of course learn new things, but probably at the cost of a longer work day.
  • Community. You have established solid friendships and working relationships. It’s good to meet new people and learn new ways of doing things, but there’s also something to be said about being part of a solid community.
  • Seniority-based benefits. You have been around long enough to qualify for a pension program and other seniority-based benefits. For example, there’s often a significant delay before you can participate in a new employer’s 401(k) plan. That can cost you a lot over the years. If you’ve held your job for several years, you probably get several weeks’ vacation each year. Changing employers may reset your vacation time to two weeks.

Before you accept an offer elsewhere, make sure you know what you’re giving up and what you’re getting into. Be ready to accept the price, or enjoy what you’ve got.

If your desire for something new is stimulating your interest in changing jobs, consider changing jobs internally. Staying with your employer doesn’t mean you must stagnate. You can begin an aggressive campaign to change jobs without changing employers.

This Q&A is reprinted from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 1: Jump-Start Your Job Search, which includes these sections:

  • Introduction: How to start a job search
  • The myth of the last-minute job search
  • Changing careers 1-2-3 (and 4)
  • How to start job hunting now
  • Can old experience win a new job?
  • Why should I stay at my company?
  • I’m losing my job!
  • How do I say I got fired?
  • How do I explain being unemployed?
  • Why can’t I keep a good job?
  • How can I change careers mid-stream?
  • PLUS: 8 How to Say It tips
  • PLUS: 9 sidebars packed with advice to give you the insider’s edge!

To pick up where the reprint leaves off, if you’re considering changing jobs internally, check out JHBWA (Job Hunting By Wandering Around). That new opportunity might be nearer than you think — with virtually no competition.

There are of course many more factors to think about before you jump ship, but these are some that I think are easily forgotten.

When the itch to move comes upon you, what do you do? What other factors do you consider? How do you evaluate your options?

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Fired for my ethics!

In the January 14, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets fired for not cutting corners:

I am about to be “removed” from my present position. The background reason is because I do my work by the book and will not take shortcuts that are unethical. Management says I’m not a team player. In 15 years, I have never been fired or had this kind of problem before. My question is, how do I handle this in interviewing for a job? And can I leave this company off my resume? The situation has me very depressed. I’m not dealing with it well, but need to get on and find a job. How will a prospective employer view this? Thanks for your time and help.

Nick’s Reply

Don’t ever apologize for your integrity. Don’t complain about anyone else’s lack of it when you interview. Those two rules will stand you well.

youre-firedIf you’ve been with the company more than six months, it will be hard to leave it off your resume. When asked why you left your employer, it’s perfectly honest to say, “I want to work for a better company.”

If you’re asked what specifically made you leave your job, tell the truth, but keep it very brief and unemotional. Don’t dwell on it in an interview, but don’t be defensive about it, either. Decide what you’re comfortable saying, and stick to it. The employer’s reaction will depend a lot on how your attitude comes across. (Learn to use one and only one brief, business-like explanation no matter who you’re discussing this with — family, friends, or new people you meet.) The key in the interview is this: Turn your discussion back to the topic that really matters — how you are going to bring added success to the manager you’re meeting with.

This is where your good references come in. You need to provide an employer with compelling proof of your abilities. You’re going to need to be selective about what references you use from your last employer — but you should definitely have references from people there who know you well. This includes co-workers and managers in other departments that know you. (You don’t have any such references? Tell me who your friends are.)

Remember that your old company’s customers, vendors, and professional consultants (lawyers, bankers, accountants) can also be powerful references, if you had such contacts in your last job.

But take this extra step: Ask your references to call a prospective employer before he calls them. (I discuss this and other powerful reference techniques in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, especially in the section titled “How do I deal with an undeserved nasty reference?”, pp. 19-21.) A good reference won’t have a problem doing that for you, as long as you don’t ask too often. An employer will see this as a very powerful recommendation.

Don’t be depressed. Moving on is the right thing. When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, you’ll be looking at someone with integrity. Your previous employer may find an image in his own mirror that isn’t so pleasing. There are lots of companies that want ethical workers. To find them, keep your standards high.

Ever get fired because you didn’t “fit?” How did you handle it? What did you do for references?

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4 Fearless Job Hunting Tips

In the November 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, there’s no Q&A. Instead…

autumn-leaf1I normally take a break during Thanksgiving week and skip publishing an edition of the newsletter so that I can cook, bake, and fill the larder with goodies for Thursday. But I’m cooking up something different for you with this edition. Rather than normal Q&A, I’d like to share four tips from the latest Ask The Headhunter publications. If you find something useful in them, I’ll be glad.

The idea behind the new Fearless Job Hunting books is that finding a job is not about prescribed steps. It’s not about following rules. In fact, job hunting is such an over-defined process that there are thousands of books and articles about how to do it — and the methods are all the same.

What all those authors conveniently ignore is that the steps don’t work. If they did, every resume would get you an interview, which would in turn produce a job offer and a job.

But we all know that doesn’t happen. The key to successful job hunting is knowing how to deal with the handful of daunting obstacles that stop other job hunters dead in their tracks. Here are some excerpts from Fearless Job Hunting — and if you decide you’d like to study these methods in more detail, I invite you to take 20% off your purchase price by using discount code=GOBBLE. (This offer is limited until the end of the holiday weekend.)

4 Fearless Job Hunting Tips

You just lost your job and your nerves are frayed. Please — take a moment to put your fears aside. Think about the implications of the choices you make. Consider the obstacles you encounter in your job search.

FJH-11. Don’t settle

From Fearless Job Hunting Book 1: Jump-Start Your Job Search, p. 4, The myth of the last-minute job search:

When you’re worried about paying the rent, it seems that almost any job will do. Taking the first offer that comes along could be your biggest mistake. It’s also one of the most common reasons people go job hunting again soon — they settle for a wrong job, rather than select the right one.

Start Early: Research the industry you want to work in. Learn what problems and challenges it faces. Then, identify the best company in that industry. (Why settle for less? Why join a company just because it wants you? Join the one you want.)

Study the company, establish contacts, learn the business, and build expertise. Rather than being just a hunter for any job, learn to be the solution to one company’s problems. That’s what gets you hired, because such dedication and focus makes you stand out.

2. Scope the community

From Fearless Job Hunting Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), p. 6, It’s the people, Stupid:

FJH-3You could skip the resume submission step completely, but if it makes you feel good, send it in. Then forget about it.

More important is that you start to understand the place where you want to work. This means you must start participating in the community and with people who work in the industry you want to be a part of.

Every community has a structure and rules of navigation. Figure this out by circulating. Go to a party. Go to a professional conference or training program. Attend cultural and social events that require milling around with other people (think museums, concerts, churches). It’s natural to ask people you meet for advice and insight about the best companies in your industry. But don’t limit yourself to people in your own line of work.

The glue that holds industries together includes lawyers, accountants, bankers, real estate brokers, printers, caterers and janitors. Use these contacts to identify members of the community you want to join, and start hanging out with them.

3. Avoid a salary cut

From Fearless Job Hunting Book 7: Win The Salary Games (long before you negotiate an offer), p. 9: How can I avoid a salary cut?

FJH-7Negotiating doesn’t have to be done across an adversarial table — and it should not be done over the phone. You can sit down and hash through a deal like partners. Sometimes, candor means getting almost personal. Check the How to Say It box for a suggestion:

How to Say It
“If I take this job, we’re entering into a sort of marriage. Our finances will be intertwined. So, let’s work out a budget — my salary and your profitability — that we’re both going to be happy with for years down the road. If I can’t show you how I will boost the company’s profitability with my work, then you should not hire me. But I also need to know that I can meet my own budget and my living expenses, so that I can focus entirely on my job.”

It might seem overly candid, but there’s not enough candor in the world of business. A salary negotiation should be an honest discussion about what you and the employer can both afford.

4. Know what you’re getting into

From Fearless Job Hunting Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers, p. 23: Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it:

FJH-8I think the failure to research and understand one another is one of the key reasons why companies lay off employees and why workers quit jobs. They have no idea what they’re getting into until it’s too late. Proper due diligence is extensive and detailed. How far you go with it is up to you.

Research is a funny thing. When it’s part of our job, and we get paid to do it, we do it thoroughly because we don’t want our judgments to appear unsupported by facts and data. When we need to do research for our own protection, we often skip it or we get sloppy. We “trust our instincts” and make career decisions by the seat of our pants.

When a company uses a headhunter to fill a position, it expects [a high level] of due diligence to be performed on candidates the headhunter delivers. If this seems to be a bit much, consider that the fee the company pays a headhunter for all this due diligence can run upwards of $30,000 for a $100,000 position. Can you afford to do less when you’re judging your next employer?

Remember that next to our friends and families, our employers represent the most important relationships we have. Remember that other people who have important relationships with your prospective employer practice due diligence: bankers, realtors, customers, vendors, venture capitalists and stock analysts. Can you afford to ignore it?

* * *

Thanks to all of you for your contributions to this community throughout the year. Have you ever settled for the wrong job, or failed to scope out a work community before accepting a job? Did you get stuck with a salary cut, or with a surprise when you took a job without doing all the necessary investigations? Let’s talk about it! And have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

If you purchase a book,
take 20% off by using discount code=GOBBLE
(This offer is limited until the end of the holiday weekend.)

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Outplacement Or Door Number 2?

In the November 12, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks about outplacement:

My company is downsizing and I know I’m going to get cut. HR tells us they’re going to give us help finding a job from a top firm that specializes in this. What do you think of outplacement?

Nick’s Reply

When you get fired, outplacement is often the consolation prize. The employer spends 10 or 15 grand to help the employee “transition” (that’s used as a verb, so help me) and the gullible departee is grateful that someone is going to find her a job.

door-no-2Now read my lips: Outplacement might extend your unemployment rather than help you land a new job. So take ownership of your status, and maybe put some extra cash in your pocket. Here’s how.

Some years ago, when AT&T was doing a big downsizing, I got a call asking if I’d like to help with outplacement. I explained that I don’t scale — I can’t coach 5,000 people into new jobs because I don’t think anyone can do that. No, no, no, they said — you’ll be working with just a handful of managers who really need your help. So I took the gig.

The handful of managers comprised the career development team — that branch of the human resources department responsible for outsourcing “transition assistance” for 14,000 employees to a bunch of huge outplacement firms at a cost of $15,000 per person.

But the career development team didn’t want to go sit in cubicles with thousands of other newly minted job hunters. They wanted something better. They wanted highly customized help. Now, this was a huge feather in my cap. I represented “something better,” and I was proud of it. I did a good job helping every single one of them land in new jobs, and I got paid well.

But the point of this story is that the HR exec who hired me explained that outplacement isn’t so much for the departing employee. It’s mostly for the legal protection of the employer. I’ll over-dramatize how it plays out in court:

Downsized employee: “Your Honor, after 20 years on the job, they cast me out on the street!”

Judge: “Did they give you expensive outplacement services to help you find a new job?”

Employee: “Well, yes. They spent 15 grand on Transition Gurus, Inc. to help me, but they never found me a job.”

Judge: “Fifteen grand on a big-name company like Transition Gurus?! Why, they gave you the best! No matter that it didn’t work. No company ever got sued successfully for retaining Transition Gurus, Inc. Case closed! Next!”

While there are some boutique outplacement firms that do good work, the outplacement industry is dominated by a few big players that process the downsized like cattle. Make sure you know what you’re getting into.

Here’s how big-time outplacement often “works”:

  1. You don’t choose the outplacement firm or the counselor you work with. Your employer does. So from the start, you’re in the back seat of this adventure.
  2. The outplacement firm works for your employer, not for you. The firm’s job is to get you out of your employer’s hair, keep you busy, and make you feel like someone’s going to get you a job so you won’t sue your employer for wrongful termination. Outplacement is mostly about the company’s liability, not your future.
  3. Outplacement firms earn more money when you don’t find a job. Say what? Just what I said. Some of these firms drag out the process to milk the client for more fees, and to make it look like their “process” is thorough. Many programs are boilerplate presentations conducted by lightweight trainers. In some cases, they’ll talk you into buying “premium” services with your own cash.
  4. While you try hard to swallow the drivel some greenhorn counselor is feeding you (after all, you really do need help…) months drift by and your status deteriorates due to protracted unemployment. The firm looks busy, while you look like damaged goods.

Outplacement might be helpful, but never forget that you are responsible for your next career step. Don’t be lulled into thinking that a high-priced consultant — who works for your former employer — has any real skin in your future. The skin is yours alone.

(Special Case: Rip-Off Edition: Who’s trying to sell you a job? This is where outplacement and “career management” turn into scams. Beware.)

Some employers are willing to give you cash in lieu of outplacement services if you ask. (You might have to sign release to get it. Talk to your lawyer.) It might be the best deal, and it might help you get into high job-hunting gear faster. If you decide to spend the money on outplacement with a good small firm, that’s up to you — you get to choose the firm and the counselor. If you use the money to tide you over while you conduct your own job search, that’s also up to you. I’d take Door Number 2: Go for the cash.

Have you ever been downsized and outplaced? Tell us about your experiences!

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How to get into a company that’s not hiring

In the August 20, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants to break down the barriers to get into companies that are not advertising jobs:

There are several companies I’d like to work for that don’t have any positions posted, but my skill sets should make me a very viable candidate for them. I don’t have any networking connections to these companies. A few years ago, I submitted resumes and cover letters to these same companies for future consideration, as suggested on their websites, but they never went anywhere.

Do you have any tips for breaking through the barrier to get into these companies?

Nick’s Reply

Yes: To get into these companies, you must identify, make, and cultivate contacts. You’ve already seen that resumes don’t work. No matter how viable your skills may make you, the chance you’ll be considered is small unless you are recommended by someone they trust. There is no easy path.

not-hiringWhen I read your question, here’s what I see. First, you tell me you know where you want to work, and you explain why these companies should hire you. Great! By picking your targets thoughtfully, you’re ahead of the game!

But then you quickly say that you can’t do what’s necessary to achieve it — that is, make connections. You’re saying you’re doomed without even trying!

You’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Thinking you have no networking connections is a common mistake — don’t feel bad. The employment system just programs people to think this way.

But, then you make things even worse. You suggest that employers should figure out for themselves why they need you by reading your cover letters and resume. They won’t. Employers absolutely stink at this.

This is why companies have HR departments that offer excuses galore why, in this talent glut — 26 million Americans looking for full time work — those clowns can’t fill 3.2 million vacant jobs. They have an 8:1 advantage. Eight job seekers available for every job!

What HR says to all these job seekers is, “You’re all under-educated or not educated in the right new skills! You are not the perfect candidate!”

My A!

HR is just lazy. HR wants Instant Workers Who Can Do The Job Now, when what they really need is Smart People Who Can Learn Quickly. People like you.

No offense intended, because I don’t know you. But, virtually everyone I talk with who is in your shoes has the same problem: They learn to be helpless. But don’t feel bad, because helplessness can be unlearned.

So please rewind to your second sentence. You have to make the contacts who will vouch for you and recommend you even if you’re not the perfect candidate — and even if a company isn’t presently hiring.

Check these articles to get an edge

To get new contacts to take you seriously, start with The Interview, Or The Job? Next, Outsmart The Employment System to avoid getting buried by the system. Finally, when you get in front of the right people, Tell ‘Em What They Need to Hear.

Some tips about how to get in the door — even before a job is posted

From How Can I Change Careers?
Learn to initiate insider contacts. (1) Make friends before you need them. Meet people before you need them. Start by talking shop — about the work you both do. (2) Seek advice, not help. No one wants to help you find a job. But if you ask for advice and insight about someone’s employer or work, they’ll talk to you. That leads to introductions to other insiders. (3) Give before getting. Developing insider contacts requires time, effort, follow-up. You may even have to have lunch or a beer with someone. Express your interest in their work first!

From Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition)
(1) Don’t give references–launch them! Traditional references answer questions about you. Preemptive references call the employer first, and recommend you. (2) “I don’t know any insiders!” Bunk. You just don’t know them yet! Identify customers, vendors, consultants, lawyers, bankers, accountants who deal with the company. Call them. (See “Seek advice, not help” above.)

From Fearless Job Hunting, Book 1: Jump-Start Your Job Search
(1) Hang out with people who do the work you want to do. That’s where hot tips about unadvertised jobs come from. (2) Learn how to say it: “I’m trying to meet the best marketers in my field. Is there someone in your company’s marketing department that you think I should talk with?”

This is how to break through the barriers. Keep in mind: If this were easy, everybody would be doing it. That means you have less competition.

How do you get in the door? What can job seekers do to earn your help to get into your company?

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Who will lead you to your next job?

In the July 16, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to do after getting screwed by a long-time employer:

After ten years, my sales performance at my company started topping the charts. The boss could not understand how I did it, but it was the personal attention I gave my customers. I did all I could to help them be more successful themselves. One day I brought on a big new client and closed a record-breaking deal worth millions. A few days later, my boss fired me. My confidence was shattered. I’ve been working the job postings but I’ve been out of work for months. Where do I go from here?

Nick’s Reply

Unless you did something unethical (or illegal) that you’re not telling me, my suspicion is that you got fired because your employer doesn’t want to pay the kinds of sales commissions you are earning. That’s silly — everyone’s making money and the customer is happy. But I’ve never been able to understand a company’s resentment against successful sales people.

screwedThis happened once to me. I took a sales management job under a very aggressive commission plan. The head of sales designed it, and I accepted it. It was so aggressive that there was no salary or draw. It turns out they never thought I’d make the plan work for me. I was making so much money (for them and for me) that they cancelled the plan. I quit.

If this is your story, I don’t know why it would shatter your confidence. I’d talk with a lawyer to determine what (if anything) you’re owed for closing the deal.

It’s not uncommon for sales companies to fire a top sales rep and turn big accounts over to junior salespeople who are paid far smaller commissions.

Here you’ve been in this particular business for ten years, and you’re desperately using job postings to find a job! Cut it out! You’re wasting your time. Use the ten years of excellent contacts you’ve got! (Please don’t say, “I don’t know anybody,” because you do!)

Sit down and make a list of your best customers — companies and specific people you’ve worked with at big companies and small ones. Review the quality of your relationships. Think also about what companies they do business with — their customers, vendors, consultants and other professionals. Make a list. (If you’re reading this and you don’t work in sales and you don’t have customers, then some of the other people you encounter through your work are potential employers and potential sources of referrals to a new job. Where do you think good headhunters find new clients and great candidates?)

Note: If you have Non-Compete or Non-Disclosure Agreements (NCA or NDA), make sure you don’t violate them. Talk with a lawyer. (Ouch. That’s twice I’ve recommended lawyers in one column! You don’t think lawyers can help? Read Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection.) I think it’s worth at least an initial consultation to understand your position before you take action.

Your former customers are people who know you well and respect you. These are the kinds of references you can use. Call them. Don’t ask them for a job. Tell them you’re going to work only for a top-notch company — big or small — and you would value their advice. What companies do they respect? Which ones would they recommend to you?


What do you do when a friend refers you to a company? That’s when the fun starts — and that’s when you must get to work! Fearless Job Hunting Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention delivers the obstacle-busting answers you need:

  • Don’t walk blind on the job hunt
  • How to make up for lack of required experience
  • Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Age discrimination or age anxiety?
  • How to deal with an undeserved nasty reference
  • Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies
  • And more!

Overcome the daunting obstacles that stop other job hunters dead in their tracks!


You may find yourself referred to a competitor of your last employer. Or there may be a department in one of your old customer companies that’s dying to hire you. Or an old customer may have a customer who needs you.

Why waste time with the unknown? That’s what the job postings will get you. Focus on the people who already know you, and with whom you have good relationships and something in common.

The job market is not just job postings and want ads. It’s people. Focus on the ones who care about you because you have treated them well. They will help you if you let them.

Has anyone used this approach, whether in sales or any other line of work? I think it’s the best “insider” method for meeting your next boss!

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How should I quit this job?

In the May 21, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant invests more than eight hours in interviews and asks why the employer acts like her time is free:

I currently work for a tiny family-run office and have just gotten a job offer elsewhere. It’s an offer I cannot refuse. I am feeling guilty because they have trained me and I am needed. How much notice should I give and what should be said (what information can be shared)?

I’ve been at this office less than one year, which may or may not make a difference. I would like to remain friendly, but I don’t want to get into a whole big dialogue about where I’m going, why, and so on.

And what about being paid for vacation time earned? Is is reasonable to ask about this?

Nick’s Reply

Congratulations. Some jobs end quickly, while others last years. But changing jobs is no different from a company doing a layoff — it’s business. Don’t make it personal. I admire your desire to keep it on good terms. But the first order of business is to protect yourself while you pull away from your old employer.

leaving-your-jobWe recently discussed a related question, Is it ethical to go on this job interview? Now let’s talk about how to quit when you feel kind of uncomfortable about it.

I’d ask HR about the vacation pay, but first I’d check with your state’s department of labor. Find out what your state requires of the employer.

I think offering two weeks’ notice is the right thing to do. Some companies want only one, some just want to make sure you train someone to do your job — or just that they know where your work flow is so nothing gets dropped. Some employers will walk you out the door immediately and ship your belongings to you later. So be careful. It might be best to gather what’s yours first, before you resign.

I’d never tell the employer where you are going next, but I’d tell them I’d be glad to share that once you are settled at your new job.

How to Say It: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to disclose my new employer until I’m actually working there.”

Some people quit a job without another to go to.

How to Say It: “I’m still considering where I’m going to take my next job. I’d be happy to call and tell you after I decide.”

That makes it easier. You don’t owe anyone the information. All you owe them is a smooth, friendly, responsible transition so your work flow is not disturbed at the old company. I find that when a departing employee gives that assurance from the start, the parting can be on very businesslike terms.

I wish you the best. Please keep in mind that my advice is based on the scant information you provided. You must use your judgment and decide which of my advice to use in your situation for the best outcome. (Finally, remember to hedge your bet just a little bit because There is no sure thing.)

What’s your best and worst departure story? And what are your tips to this reader?

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