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

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

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

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

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

From Annie

I don’t ask for salary history

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

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

Nick Replies

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

Someone on the blog (Eddie) asked this question:

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

Can you share with us how you network to recruit?

From Annie

Where I network to find great job candidates

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

Making friends at meetups

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

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

Diversity in recruiting

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

Nick Replies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,
Annie

Nick’s Reply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The manager follows up

Hi, Nick,

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

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

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

Annie

Nick’s Reply

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

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

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

Coming next week…

Manager Annie tells us how this all turned out!

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

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Why employers should pay job applicants

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

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

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

Nick’s Reply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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Executive Search: Don’t pay lazy headhunters

In the September 17, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks why headhunters charge you to join their database so they can “find” you and earn big fees by placing you. Where’s the search in that?

I run a small, high-tech company and I’ve been looking at various models for hiring top-level executive talent, and also in case I decide to look for a new executive job myself. What’s your quick take on the BlueSteps Executive Search service that I keep seeing advertised? I know you say the candidate should never be paying to find a job. BlueSteps charges executive job seekers $329 to join its database. Is it the same story here? I thought headhunters got paid big fees to go find people — not to charge me to join the database they search.

Nick’s Reply

You nailed it. The candidate should never pay a dime to find a job — especially when a corporation is paying a big-name “executive search firm” huge fees to find the right candidates. (Real headhunters go out and find good candidates; they don’t charge candidates to be found.)

payoffWhat is it, anyway, with this new “business model” online? Create a database, charge job seekers to add their information, then charge employers (or headhunters) to find the information. Everybody pays! And the entrepreneurs doing business this way come off like slimeballs. Great business model!

We’ve discussed TheLadders, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, and other job boards that charge job seekers — and then charge employers. (You should never pay for access to jobs — or to headhunters.)

Now there’s a new player in this league. BlueSteps — an operation of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). It’s doing what LinkedIn does: tapping job seekers for fees. It’s a racket.

Then the executive search firms that belong to BlueSteps charge their clients — corporate employers — one-third of a new hire’s salary to fill executive positions. We’re talking $100,000+ fees.

What makes these search firms worth so much? It’s a good question, because according to BlueSteps’ website, (1) they fill jobs by surfing a resume database, and (2) they deliver job seekers who paid to join the database. That’s not worth $100,000.

Real executive headhunters don’t sit in front of a screen reading resumes that come across the BlueSteps — or any other — database. They actually go out into the world and hunt the people their clients need. They travel in their professional community. They go where top talent hangs out and mix it up. They talk to respected members of the executive community and form long-term relationships. They track down talent that is hidden or unknown to their clients and bring it home.

lazy_recruiterWhen headhunters find their candidates in a database that job seekers pay to join, something smells. This is not headhunting.

Consider: BlueSteps is an association of search firms that get paid in the vicinity of $200,000 to fill a $600,000 job (one-third of the new hire’s salary). So, why is the AESC charging people to put their resumes into a database that its members can then query to find candidates? It rightfully raises an alarm. Suddenly, executive search is not worth $200,000. Any employer’s own personnel jockeys can surf databases to find people at any salary level. The same executives that populate the BlueSteps database are in other databases, like LinkedIn.

The suckers here are not just executives who pay $329 to “join” the BlueSteps database. The really big suckers are corporations that pay exorbitant fees to lazy headhunters who while away their hours feeding at the database trough.

Check this testimonial on the BlueSteps website from a managing partner at a world-class executive search firm:

“BlueSteps is a very effective way of being visible to the retained search community, as its database is constantly mined by AESC member firms.”

Mined?? Why aren’t these lazy headhunters out actually finding top executive talent? Why are they relying on job seekers who paid to get into the database?

Another managing partner (Don’t you love that title?) at another executive search firm testifies:

“Through BlueSteps, we quickly located three of our top candidates located in a broad geographic cross-section including Los Angeles, New York City, St. Louis and London. The candidate signed on for a total compensation package of $500,000+.”

This headhunter collected a fee that was probably around $166,000 — for querying a database. This is not executive search. This is lazy. This is a racket.

BlueSteps says that “in the past 90 days 3,549 BlueSteps database searches [were conducted] by executive recruiters,” and that executive profiles in the BlueSteps database were viewed 12,732 times.

What those managing directors are saying is, We no longer conduct the searches we’re being paid to conduct. We search databases, just like you do — and we charge you $200,000 to fill your open job the way your own personnel jockeys do it.

So, now that we’ve dissected this silly proposition, let’s get to my advice.

If you need to hire an executive, and you have a $200,000 budget to pay a headhunter, go to a small boutique search firm that actually has good contacts in your industry. Use a headhunter who flies below the radar, and who will go out and meet, talk with, and cultivate the best industry sources to get credible, trusted referrals to the best candidates. These are often solo practitioners who are highly respected in the industries they hunt in — headhunters who have relationships that yield excellent referrals. They don’t need LinkedIn, and they don’t need BlueSteps. They make their money the old-fashioned way: They earn it. (You can learn How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make [real] headhunters work for you.) They invest in people and in relationships — not in cheap recruiting tricks. And they get off their butts and actually recruit.

But if you want candidates from a database that people pay to join, then try BlueSteps.

Or, if you have $200,000 to spend and you’re smart, my guess is you could fill the job yourself. And that’s the lesson here. Filling top jobs properly, by finding the best people, is hard work, but it’s not rocket science. It’s just astonishing that AESC and BlueSteps and their members, who call themselves “executive search” firms, conduct “searches” by surfing databases, and by charging job seekers fees “to be found.”

That’s not worth $200,000. Or even $329. Don’t pay lazy headhunters.

If you’re an employer, how much do you pay headhunters, and what do you get in return? If you’re a job seeker, have you ever paid a headhunter?

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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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Yada, Yada, Yada: Desperate hiring

In the November 13, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager asks how to distinguish acting from honest interviewing:

Hiring great people is a noble goal but it raises two challenges: how to attract candidates with those rare, valuable qualities into your pipeline, and how to identify them in the interviewing process when everyone is telling you how talented, motivated, curious, and ethical they are (yada, yada, yada). How do we get past all that so we really know who we’re hiring? How do we avoid hiring in desperation?

Nick’s Reply

Let’s talk about two fatal flaws in the entire recruiting/hiring process. First, we try to attract people when we need them. That limits us to cold, calculated, rushed recruiting methods that don’t work well.

Worse, these methods stimulate rote responses from candidates to trigger our interest in them. We’ve all seen it — candidates with the “I’m your (wo)man” smile on their faces. As you note, that’s the “Yada, yada, yada” interview. You can spend the entire time trying to figure out what’s real and what’s an act. Here’s the problem:

You can’t assess someone in a job interview.

You need to see them in action. That takes time, which employers don’t have in a job interview.

To recruit effectively, we need to attract good people long before we need them, so our relationships will be based on common interests, not common desperation.

Second, we can try to “attract people into our pipeline” all day long. But the ones we want aren’t out looking for pipelines.

We must find and enter their pipelines.

We must meet them on their career tracks, and be present at the critical points in their work lives. People make career changes only at certain points. We can be there waiting for the best when they are ready, or we can be out chasing people who are chasing jobs.

My suggestion: The people we want are all around us on discussion threads on work-related forums all over the Internet, talking shop. Talk shop with them, get to know them, establish your own cred and you’ll always have someone to turn to when you need help.

The Zen of it is this: You can’t really identify the people you want in the interview process. At that point, it’s too late, and it’s all too scripted.

You identify the people you want to hire on the street, on the job, and in the throes of dialogue with their peers. Then you follow them and get to know them. You enter their circle of friends. You should talk to them about a job only when you know them well enough. Not when the pipeline needs to be filled. That’s how you avoid mistakes. But show me one human resources department that recruits that way — they don’t. Last year, the world spent $1.3 billion for “just in time hiring” through one job board alone: Monster.com. How stupid.

Yada, yada, yada, the pipeline needs to be filled. Indeed, but you need to fill the pipeline long before you need to hire anyone, with relationships. If your pipeline is full of just applicants and resumes, you’re hiring in deperation.

Desperation hiring: That’s when you need to fill a job right now and you flap your lips Yada, yada, yada through 20 interviews pretending you’re getting to know someone. You can’t assess someone in a job interview. It can’t be done. If you want to hire the right way, you start last year.

How does your company hire? Do you “Yada, yada, yada” through your interviews? Or do you cultivate relationships? Tell me why it takes too long to do it my way…

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Pssst! Here’s where you should be recruiting top talent!

Here’s an excerpt from a comment posted by Mason on another column, Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke:

The problem is this. Employers actually LOVE this current job market. They can control costs by paying exactly what they want for a given job/position…and they have an ENORMOUS pool of willing applicants from which to choose. Some of them, I would say most of the Fortune 1000, are doing well and extremely profitable. There is little reason or incentive for them to hire more people.

I just got rejected after 9 AM in the morning after I applied for a job at midnight. Something tells me a human didn’t actually read my application.

Companies who treat the employees like crap will be emptied out of their good employees once the economy gets better. Of this I am convinced. If a company craps on people in the bad times, they certainly cannot be trusted in the good times….

I think Mason is right. I saw his prediction come true in Silicon Valley more than once, after a bust cycle turned into a boom. Here’s how it works — and you tell me if you agree.

During a bust, revenues and profits crash. Business tanks, and companies lay off workers because they can’t afford them. As the cycle turns and we start toward a boom (or think we are, anyway), sales take off, revenues spike, and profits surge.

Junk profitability

The dirty little secret, though, is that a big part of the soaring profits stem from higher productivity that results from lower staffing levels. Fewer workers are doing more work, which yields higher profits for employers. This is nice. But it’s unsustainable. It’s junk profitability.

While some of the higher productivity can be attributed to increased efficiencies created by technology, much of it is still due to artificially low staffing levels. Companies today are teetering on the bleeding edge of high profits, and they really don’t want to start hiring again if they can avoid it.

Where the talent is ripe for the picking

The question is, how long can they sustain these levels of productivity and profits? Over-worked employees will leave the minute someone makes them a better offer.

And that’s an enormous opportunity for companies that get it. Riding the wave requires deft skills, and greed just causes more crashes. Some top-notch workers are already looking for better deals — because the economy is at a tipping point.

If you want to recruit top talent — dedicated workers who are ready to move — you need look no farther than the most profitable companies that haven’t been hiring. They may be advertising jobs, but as Mason suggests, they’re just pretending. They’re not hiring at levels significant enough to sacrifice their artificial profits. Their best employees are ripe for the picking.

Note to those employees whose eyes are wandering — these signals point to renewed freedom to negotiate really good compensation and benefits deals. I believe it’s always good to leave a few bucks on the table when negotiating, as a sign of good faith, but don’t leave too much. As Mason suggests, you still can’t really trust them, so take some profit of your own on the front end.

What’s your take?

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Could you score an interview with this manager?

In the September 11, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager takes us into “the lab” and shows us how he actually interviews candidates to determine whether they can do the job.

Special Edition

Ever wonder whether the job hunting and hiring methods we discuss on this blog really work? Do you wonder whether there are managers that actually expect applicants to do the job in the interview? In this Special Edition, get ready to sit down at the table for an interview with a manager who gets it!

Ray (I’m withholding his last name) heads up product development and business development for an enterprise software company based in the midwestern U.S. This column is not an endorsement of his business — he is not my client — but I sure love his approach to hiring, because it’s what I teach job hunters to do in How Can I Change Careers? The method is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to stand out in the job interview by demonstrating how they’ll do the work profitably.

And that’s what this hiring manager does — he asks job candidates to show how they’ll do the work, right in the interview.

I’m ready to tie on a napkin and let Ray serve up his methods in his own words — from a recent series of e-mails, with minimal commentary from me. Then I’d like you to join us on the blog to chow down on these interviewing and hiring methods. Do you think you could score an interview with a manager like this? (You might even have a few comments about how he does it!) This all started innocently enough with a nice thank-you e-mail Ray sent me last week:

Dear Nick,

I love your approach to interviewing. As a hiring manager, I turn my interviews into exercises designed to give job candidates the chance to show me that they can do the job. Sort of Reverse Crocodile Headhunting! Thank you for the wonderful ideas in Ask The Headhunter!

So I asked Ray about his business and how he interviews.

I hire product evangelists, product managers and product marketers for a software company. Our products are sold to large enterprises. Successful candidates need to combine business skills with software technology skills to help design product strategy and product positioning. The sad part about my method is that, as a hiring manager, I have to step candidates through the whole process of showing their value. I have 99% given up on the idea that a superior candidate is going to walk in and be prepared to do this all themselves, without me asking. They all need to read your book!

What do you ask, and what are you looking for in those candidates?

The first question I ask: What two people would you start a software company with?

Some candidates limit their answers to personal friends or family, instead of best-in-the-world business owners or technical software geniuses. E.g., Pete and Mary instead of Warren Buffet and Richard Branson. When I explain they could have mentioned anyone in the world, they say, “Oh, I didn’t know it could be anybody like that.” It kind of implies a closed mind set that won’t work outside the box.

I want to determine whether they study business people and the software business in particular. Most great business people study role models. If they want to work in the software industry, you would think that they actually study the best software companies and the best business minds at some point.

What’s a great response to the question?

My personal response would be Steve Jobs and Leonardo Da Vinci. Give Da Vinci a few months to understand iOS and Objective C and his apps would be remarkable, I suspect! By the way, I’ve never limited the choice to living people.

What I like about Ray’s approach to interviewing is that, while he opens with a “blue sky” question about starting a business, he quickly starts asking candidates how they would actually do the work:

What will your first product be? This is a perfect chance to demonstrate their analysis and strategy skills in our exact business area. If they do their pre-interview homework, this is a lob shot for them to use it to astound me with their ability to think and thus to do the job.

I love it. Ray asks people to do the job — conceive a product! Next questions in the interview?

If they make it this far, our meeting now turns into a chance for them to start working with me as if this were a real product discussion:

  • What will you price this at?
  • What will our first target market be?
  • Who should our first prospecting call be with?
  • Who will our competitors be?
  • If our first product is destined to never sell successfully… what will be the cause of the failure?
  • If it fails because of that reason, what should our next product be?

I might then give them an exact product situation using our current product line and current product market conditions. By the end of this exchange, I know already if I want this person to work for me, or for my competitors! We’ve already had a full dialog about a completely relevant and plausible project idea that would be similar to their eventual work if hired. Nick, in your words, they’ve already shown me that they can do the job and they should already know if they’ll like collaborating with me.

Dear Ray,

Thanks for serving up this week’s column, and for showing readers how a real manager applies Ask The Headhunter methods to interviewing and hiring. Whether you got your ideas from me, or developed them on your own, all I care is that they work!

Now I hope readers will join us on the blog to talk further about this approach. And if there are folks in the audience interested in working for your company, they’re welcome to say so — and if they can show they can score an interview with you, I’ll be happy to put you in touch with them off-line. And if something comes of it, we’ll report back.

What do you think of Ray’s approach to interviewing? Could you score an interview with a manager like this? How would you apply Ray’s methods in other kinds of jobs and companies?

I didn’t ask Ray whether he’s worried that he’s revealed all his interview secrets — and that, now, anyone who applies for a job at his company “will know what’s up.” Do you think it matters? Want a shot at an interview with Ray? You’ll have to prove you’re worth it!

[UPDATE: If you have a serious interest in talking with Ray about a job at his company, drop me a note and I’ll get it to Ray. It’s got to get past me first. Please: No tire-kickers or resume spammers. In fact, don’t send a resume. Just use the ideas discussed here to make your case. My e-mail link is way the bottom of the right-side nav bar of the blog.]

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Pop Quiz: Can an employer take back a job offer?

In the June 5, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a guy gets honorably discharged from the military, carries a secret clearance, but has a misdemeanor conviction from 2003 for which he’s done probation. He gets a job offer. Then the nightmare begins:

Today I received a job offer from a large, well-known and respected company. I have a misdemeanor criminal conviction from 2003. I told the headhunter about the conviction. I put it in the application before my interview. I put it in the e-application for the background check. I even discussed it with the HR person that was giving me the offer.

After discussing the conviction, she extended me a verbal offer. At the end of the call, I accepted the offer. She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears. After the phone call, I turned down a competing job offer from another company and told my headhunters that I am no longer on the job market.

Less than an hour later, the HR person called me back and said she has to withdraw the offer because my three-year probation was cleared in 2006. Since that’s less than the company’s policy permits — seven years — I am ineligible for the job. The company’s security regulations would prevent me from gaining access to their campus.

The job posting required that the applicant must qualify for a government secret clearance. I was just honorably discharged from the military, where I held a secret clearance that I was able to renew after my misdemenor conviction.

It seems quite unethical to extend an offer prior to assuring that the information that I provided multiple times wasn’t an issue. This should have been caught well before I got the interview. Is this legal?

My Advice

This sounds like you got the shaft, but it’s a bit more complicated, based on the information you’ve provided.

I published your story in this week’s Ask The Headhunter e-mail newsletter, but I did not publish my advice and comments because I wanted to challenge our community to figure this one out. I asked subscribers to think about your story, and then come to the blog ready to post their take on it.

  • Did HR give this job applicant the shaft?
  • What went wrong?
  • How could this situation have been handled better?

Here’s how I see it.

HR blew it.

While it was nice of the enthusiastic HR lady to give you the offer on the phone, she jumped the gun when she “welcomed you to the team.” You weren’t on the team yet, and she had no business implying you were. Someone needs to call her on the carpet.

The HR lady tipped you off.

The key to this entire unfortunate episode lies in this sentence: “She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears.” That meant she made you a contingent offer. It was not bona fide. That is, it was dependent on the background check. In other words, you had no offer to act on.

You jumped the gun.

I always tell job applicants who “get an offer,” to never, ever, ever resign their old job, or turn off other opportunities, until they’ve been on the new job for two weeks. Sounds kind of extreme, eh? Yah, well, so’s what happened to you. While odds are pretty good that a job offer will turn out fine, the enormity of the consequences if anything goes wrong is why no one should do what you did. [Correction: My bad on a poor turn of phrase that confuses two issues — when to turn off other job opportunities and when to resign your old job. Please see my comment about this below.]

Before even orally accepting the offer, you should have waited for a bona fide offer in writing, signed by an official of the company.

Before setting aside other opportunities (because there is no sure thing), you should have completed the company orientation, met your new boss, started the job, and ensured nothing goofy was going on at your new job. I’ve seen many people quit new jobs within the first two weeks. It takes that long to… well… make sure nothing’s goofy. You don’t want to be out on the street with nowhere to go if the new job goes south. (Likewise, an employer should not stop recruiting and interviewing just because a candidate accepts its offer.)

You did the right thing, again and again.

You disclosed, from the start and throughout the interview process, that you had a misdemeanor conviction. That takes guts, and it was the smart thing to do. The company had an obligation to be as candid with you, and to disclose its policy about hiring people convicted of crimes. It had no excuse for not detailing its policies once you made your disclosures.


Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer's Full AttentionDo all employers behave like this? Absolutely not. It’s up to you to find the right employers and to know how to get their attention — because lousy employers aren’t worth your time or aggravation! Learn how to:

  • Stop walking blind on the job hunt!
  • Pick worthy companies.
  • Test the company. Is it a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Recognize and beat age discrimination. (Or is it your own anxiety?)
  • Deal with a bad reference. Don’t get torpedoed!
  • Investigate privately-held companies — Here’s the secret!
  • And more!

Don’t waste your time with the wrong employers! These methods are all in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention


But somebody didn’t do their job.

As soon as this employer learned about your conviction, HR should have pulled out its policy book and mapped it to your situation before making you an offer. The HR lady explained the policy clearly to you — too late!

What bunch of numbnuts knows it’s got a policy issue from the start, but ignores the implications of its policy? Especially because you were so candid and forthright about your problem, HR should have had the background check completed far sooner, and should have inquired about the dates of your conviction, sentence, and the resolution.

(I’m waiting for someone to suggest that, for legal reasons, the background check could not be done until you accepted the offer. That would be a good trick — accepting an offer for a job that company policy prohibits you from accepting.)

Who’s on the hook now?

I think the HR lady is on the hook. She should have made it crystal clear to you that the job offer was not yet bona fide, and that it was contingent on the background check. I think she should have even gone so far as to advise you not to take any other action until the check was confirmed. She blew it. She should be on the hook, but you’re the one who got hurt.

You’re on the hook because you rejected another (more bona fide?) job offer, and notified the headhunters that you’re no longer a candidate for a job.

Most important, this company’s HR practices are on the hook, and they need to be gutted and cleaned.


Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources ObstaclesThere’s no way to beat HR, is there? Sure there is! Learn how to recognize and overcome these HR obstacles:

  • HR demands too much private information, like your salary history. But two can play this game!
  • HR throws a “behavioral interview” at you.
  • Online job application forms — learn to get past them.
  • HR gets between you and the decision maker. Learn how to go straight to the hiring manager!
  • The HR rejection letter: Why you should reject it!
  • And more!

HR isn’t as tough as you think! You’ll find myth-busting answers in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources Obstacles


Doubling HR Costs: Time to change company practices.

Poor HR practices are what make HR executives scream that, “There’s a talent shortage!” Well, here’s the talent, fresh out of the military, worthy of a job offer, but… Aren’t an honorable discharge and a fresh secret clearance enough to merit more careful treatment when the company is looking at an applicant who qualifies for a secret clearance?

Now where’s the talent shortage? In HR.

HR spent a lot of company money to process this hire — only to stumble at the last minute. Now HR will spend the money again on another candidate. HR costs just doubled in this case. I wonder what the board of directors would have to say? Because HR will sweep the mistake under the rug, along with all the other good candidates HR lost because:

  • An otherwise excellent applicant’s keywords “didn’t match;”
  • A wise applicant didn’t want to disclose her salary history;
  • A highly motivated applicant dared to contact the hiring manager directly;
  • HR interviewed the engineering applicant but doesn’t understand engineering;
  • The applicant seems a bit old;
  • The applicant refused to meet with HR until he first interviewed with the hiring manager;
  • And on and on… through the myriad wasteful practices we discuss on this forum that cost companies good hires every day…

It’s time for this company — and many companies — to take a good, hard look at HR practices because good talent is not easy to come by.

Whose bad?

That offer was no offer, so give it back! Has an employer ever given you a job offer, then rescinded it? Why? What was the reason? What did you do? What’s your take on this reader’s experience?

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HR Wags The Dog

In the May 21, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an executive who’s about to be interviewed by another executive wants to know why HR is sticking its nose into the process:

You are going to love this. (NOT!)

I was contacted by an ex-colleague to ask if I’d be interested in the position of Regional Sales Manager at his company, which is actively recruiting. I said yes. The VP of Sales called me and we had a very positive discussion which progressed to setting a meeting in their corporate office. He was going to fly in from his office, and I was going to travel hundreds of miles from my home. But, the meeting has stalled because the HR person who was to attend was busy.

Two questions. What has HR got to do with an initial interview whose purpose is to (a) determine my suitability to do the job, and (b) the company’s ability to satisfy my needs? What sort of company insists on having HR present at an initial interview?

If ever there is a case of a “tail wagging the dog” — this is it. How can a VP of Sales operate like this? I now patiently await the availability of His Royal Highness — the HR Manager.

My Advice

HR can provide valuable input on executive-level positions. However, recruiting people like you is a sales task. It’s no surprise that you view such interference as a serious management error.

If sales people know one thing, it is the importance of striking when the iron is hot. Success in closing sales often depends on the sales person having the authority and the power to act quickly.

Get HR out of recruiting.

You have highlighted the main reason I advocate against HR being involved in recruiting. (See 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.) HR is largely a bureaucratic function that is at least once-removed from the action. Depending on how you, the candidate, view this delay, you may decline further discussions because you could reasonably surmise that the company is not nimble. The Sales VP could lose an excellent candidate thanks to the bureaucracy. That’s not good. That’s very bad.

Take heed: Running a sales operation within this company could prove frustrating to an assertive sales manager. If HR can delay the Sales VP’s meeting when recruiting, who might hinder your sales team from closing a deal?

You are right to be concerned. This is bureaucratic meddling of the worst sort, and it leads me to repeat this caution to companies: It matters what image you project to the professional community from which you recruit, as much as what image you project to your customers. An HR manager who contributes only to overhead is controlling the agenda of an exec who produces revenue? Get HR out of your recruiting.

Now let’s discuss what to do. You could have some fun with this, but this approach can be risky. Decide how assertive a sales manager you are. I’d call the VP of Sales and politely tell him you’d be glad to meet the HR manager at some point, but your schedule is very tight for the entire month.

How to Say It

“I’ll be frank with you. I am available this day and that day only. When an opportunity arises to make a deal, I like to strike while the iron is hot. I have some ideas for your business that I’d like to discuss with you, and I’d like to suggest that you and I get together to talk shop as soon as possible.”

If you can support it, suggest a specific sales objective. For example:

Hot to Say It

“I think I can show you how to increase your regional sales by 20-30% without increasing your costs more than about 5%. But, I really do not want to let this wait. Opportunities come along every day — but great ones like this disappear over night. If I can’t convince you, then you shouldn’t hire me. But I think you will like what I have to share with you…”

Let him assume you may not be around to talk a month later.

Remember: You’re a salesman. This is a sale. Be respectful, but show the VP of Sales that you home in quickly and accurately and will not be deterred by underlings. See what he says. If he cowers at the idea of bypassing HR so he can talk business with you, well, why would you want to work with him? Imagine what it would be like trying to hire a top sales rep if you take this job. Get past the guard. Your mission is to meet with the VP now. Sell.

Patiently awaiting HR to find time to join the meeting is not a sign of a good sales ethic. This is how companies lose prospective customers to the nimble competition. It’s also how they miss the best hires.

HR can be part of the process. But HR should not lead or limit a recruiting effort.

Is this another stupid HR trick? Are great candidates slipping through the HR cracks? Has HR ever intruded into your interviews with a manager? Do you know how to parry the move? If you’re a manager, do you let HR control your interviews?

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