Branding yourself suggests you’re clueless

In the May 26, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, readers ask about branding themselves and about self-marketing. Two brief questions this week reveal the bunk in “branding” yourself when job hunting. The fallacy in this marketing tactic is that getting a job is about you. It’s not. It’s all about the employer and the work you need to configure yourself to do.

Question

What is your advice for promoting oneself through personal branding? How can a person do it elegantly, effectively, and without overdoing it?

Nick’s Reply

Michael Jordan has a brand. So does Madonna. You don’t have a brand. (I’ll prove that to you in a minute.) You have a reputation.

Here’s the problem with applying “branding” to yourself. Consider the definition of “personal branding” on Wikipedia:

Personal branding is essentially the ongoing process of establishing a prescribed image or impression in the minds of others about an individual…”

The point of branding is to fix an image in people’s minds. It’s to define the person or the object and maintain that prescribed image — like Michael Jordan and Madonna.

cluelessBut consider what happens when you apply for a job. It’s the job that’s prescribed, not you. Your objective is to map your skills, abilities and qualities onto the work. Conveying a fixed image to an employer tells him he must fit his job to you. But what he wants to see is how you will fit yourself to the job. Winning a job means showing how you’ll apply yourself to the work; it doesn’t mean displaying your brand and waiting for the employer to figure out what to do with you. (See The $30,000 Strategy.)

Sports stars are brands. Star entertainers are brands. When your name is worth millions, you’ll be a brand, too. In the meantime, figure out how to shape yourself to meet the requirements of a job.

Don’t come off as clueless. You can try to show the employer your brand, or you can do what really matters in an employment transaction: Demonstrate that you understand the employer’s problem. I think the single best way to promote oneself is to promote the company’s overriding objective:

  • Show how your work will help produce profit for the business.

It’s so easy to forget this when the media scream at us that success is all about “branding.” Bunk.

Think instead about your reputation. A reputation for focusing on your employer’s bottom line is the best way to be successful yourself. (Unless, of course, you want to start your own business and hire others.) Don’t wait for management to figure out how you contribute to the bottom line. Tell them before they ask. (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.)

One Ask The Headhunter reader explained what he did in a job interview:

Instead of worrying about my credentials or self-consciously seeking their approval, I talked about their business and how I could impact it. It was a working meeting [Book 6] more than a job interview, and I felt more like an employee than a job seeker. They called me the next morning with the offer.  – R. David Fox

Question

From the recruiter’s perspective, what are the self-marketing techniques that really impress a potential employer?

Nick’s Reply

What did people do before marketers sold them self-marketing? Like branding, I think that self marketing is bunk. The purpose of such terms is to sell books and services about self marketing!

The basics have been around forever. What impresses me in a person is their reputation — and the hard work they have done to earn it. A person who has devoted time and effort to be among the best in their field — no matter what it is — is a person whose name is on the lips of others in the business. Good headhunters, and smart employers, find their best candidates through personal referrals. (See The preemptive reference.) But that’s not marketing; that’s earned respect.

  • Rather than branding and marketing yourself, pick something and get very, very good at it.

If you have a good reputation, then I’ll find out about you. No marketing is necessary when respected people recognize your value. Their recommendation creates your future because they’ll hire you and tell others to hire you. (See Tell me who your friends are.)

You could try to focus on marketing your brand; or you could focus on being very, very good at your work — and by working with others that are, too. (See Work with people who are better than you.)

Here’s truth in the face of feel-good marketing: Winning a job is not about you. It’s about the employer and the work.

Michael JordanI said I’d prove to you that you don’t have a brand. After brushing aside the marketing bunk, it boils down to this:

  • Are employers calling you with huge unsolicited offers?
  • Are the media interviewing you and writing headlines about you?

Please take no offense, but you’re not Michael Jordan or Madonna. You might get famous, and one day your name might be worth millions.

On the other hand, you can prove today that you’re very valuable to an employer if you show you’ve got a clue about how to improve the business. Don’t talk about yourself. Produce a business plan that shows how you’ll do the job that needs doing.

How do you market yourself? Do you have a personal brand that anyone recognizes? What convinces employers to hire you?

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How can shy people make job contacts?

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

Question

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

Nick’s Reply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Tis the season to land the right job

In the December 23, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, several job seekers bemoan the state of employment:

Question

  This week’s edition addresses submissions from several readers:

  • “I don’t understand it. I must have responded to over 50 job postings in the last month, and I haven’t gotten a single interview.”
  • caneI’ve completed over a dozen job applications, and I haven’t heard from one company.”
  • “The tight market puts employers and recruiters in the driver’s seat once again. Fewer jobs are available, and there’s a larger talent pool to choose from.”
  • “Companies that once had to make offers on the spot to snare candidates now have the luxury of time. They can postpone making hiring decisions until they find someone who meets all their criteria.”

The question behind all these plaintive protests is clear: Why am I not getting hired?

Nick’s Reply

Whoo-whee! It’s that time of the year — the best time of year to get a job. Companies are indeed hiring. They’re just not doing it the way you’d expect. They’re in a hurry but they don’t want to make mistakes. All across this blog, we discuss how to help employers make the decision to hire you. These concepts are laid out in how-to fashion in the Ask The Headhunter PDF books, and we’ll summarize some of them here.


If you’d like to buy one or more Ask The Headhunter books, I’ll offer you a holiday discount! Take a jolly 25% off your purchase by using discount code=JOLLY.

[Discount code JOLLY extended through New Year’s weekend!]


Consider the logic of the frustrated job hunters above. It’s not logic at all. It’s pure frustration that stems from not being the right candidate. Who’s fault is that? Difficult as it might be to hear this, please listen:

  • Don’t approach a company if you’re not the right candidate.
  • Don’t make rationalizations when a company ignores you.

It’s true that many companies are hiring fewer people because things are tight, but that doesn’t mean they have the luxury of time. In fact, the opposite is often true. Some managers are under great pressure to fill precious slots before the year ends and budgets close (or are cut). Thus, employers are not hiring slowly because they can, but because they can’t get the right candidates. They are deluged with every Tom, Dick, and Jane who has a minute to submit an application — and those same managers are burdened with applicant tracking systems that can’t distinguish strong candidates from weak ones.

Remember that most hires are made via trusted referrals and personal contacts. Why? Because this is the most reliable source of good, appropriate candidates. When managers can’t get a hire through this preferred channel, they turn to lesser sources, like ads and resume submissions. They know the odds of finding a good candidate are low, but they, too, are frustrated and desperate. They need to fill a job now. Put that in your Santa’s pipe and smoke it — and you’ll sweep past your competition.

wreath‘Tis the season to be truly right. If you are the candidate a manager needs, you can capitalize on the rush to hire. You can give a manager the gift he’s been waiting for: your earthly presence. Help him to spend his budget and make the hire. Be ready to articulate your value, but do it face-to-face or on the phone.

Make it personal. Like Baba Ram Das said in 1976, “Be here now.” A resume doesn’t cut it. An application doesn’t cut it. When you hide behind a form, you’re admitting that you’re not sure you’re the right candidate. You are afraid to face the manager because you have nothing compelling to say. If you’re the right candidate, then you have exactly what it takes to make a manager smile and say, “Yes!”

There aren’t 400 jobs out there for you. You can be the truly right candidate for only one, or two, or maybe three different jobs. Pick them carefully. Study, prepare, create a business plan to prove your value to the specific manager, and go after those two or three jobs and no others.


Here’s the secret to showing an employer why she should hire you: Estimate as best you can how your work produces revenue or reduces costs for the company.

Excerpted from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, p. 8:

Identify your role in the profit equation
If you work in sales or product design, you help produce revenue by selling or by creating products. That’s good for the company. The more you contribute to revenues, the more value you add to the business.

If you work in information technology or in manufacturing, you have a daily impact on the company’s costs. (But, of course, every worker is part of a company’s costs.) High costs are not good. Your job contributes to the success of the business by helping minimize costs (also known as increasing efficiency) while performing a function necessary to help produce revenue.

The difference between revenue and cost is profit. So, regardless of what your job is, ask yourself what you do to enhance profits. Do you sell more stuff at higher margins, or do you do some other job smarter, faster, and cheaper? Explaining this to an employer helps you demonstrate your value.


The frustrated candidates who submitted the complaints above are not being dismissed because their resumes are lousy, but because they are cows. If you merely send in a resume, what’s the chance you are really the right candidate? If you rely on nothing but a dopey job posting, how can you know what a job is about or what a manager wants? Please: Be realistic. Take the most reliable, proven path to a job. If you are really the right candidate, prove it by getting referred by someone the hiring manager trusts.

hollysprigI know I sound a bit harsh. My suggestions seem like an unreasonable burden on a job hunter. The notion that it’s up to you to pick the right job creates a daunting task. And making personal contact with hard-to-reach managers is so difficult. This is all very hard work.

Yep. But so is the great job you want. The task of finding and winning it has never been easy. If you believe otherwise, you’re grasping at straws. You already know this isn’t simple. You already know that being dead-on for a job is a rare experience. But if you don’t make it happen, it’s not likely to happen on its own.

Take advantage of this high-pressure time when managers really do want to fill jobs. But don’t be casual about it. Get personal. Be the right candidate who picks the one right company, the one right job, then picks up the phone and delivers the solution a manager has on his wish list.

(For more on job hunting during the holidays, please read The Third Fallacy.)

The candidate who does all that is who you’re competing with, whether she learned this approach from me or whether it’s just her common sense. Long-time ATH subscriber Ray Stoddard puts it like this:

“The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”

These are some key tips to help you get the edge you need over your competitors:

I hope Ask The Headhunter helped you get an edge in 2014. We will continue to discuss the details of the methods outlined here in upcoming issues of this newsletter. Meanwhile, here’s wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays (no matter what you celebrate or where you celebrate it), and a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year! See you with the next edition on January 6!

Save a JOLLY 25%!

If you purchase one or more Ask The Headhunter PDF books in the Ask The Headhunter Bookstore, please take advantage of this jolly holiday 25% OFF discount.christmas-tree

When you order, use discount code=JOLLY and I’ll deduct 25% from your purchase price — no matter how many PDF books you buy! (This is a limited-time offer for the holidays! Expires Jan. 1, 2015!) [Discount code JOLLY extended through New Year’s weekend!]

How have you used the ATH methods to land the job you want, or to hire exceptional employees? What methods of your own have you used successfully? Please share, and let’s discuss — what matters most is what works best out in the field!

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The Magic Resume Calculator: Save 95% of your job hunting time!

In the December 9, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker asks how to format a resume for best results:

Question

When you reply via e-mail to a job ad, what is the preferred method of sending a cover letter and a resume? A formatted document, or plain text? Many don’t specify.

Nick’s Reply

First let’s use my Magic Resume Calculator to figure out how many resumes you should send out. Then we’ll discuss how to format them.

How many resumes?

resume-calculatorThe Calculator needs to know the number of resumes you’ve already sent out, and the number of job applications you’ve completed, in the past several months. What percentage resulted in no job offers?

I’m guessing 95%. But, use your actual results. I’ll stick with 95% for this example, based on my experience with all the job seekers I know. Pretty pathetic, eh? Yah, that’s why you’re so frustrated, and it’s why you’re asking for advice.

Now let’s consider the next number: What percentage of the time did you submit a resume or application to someone you actually know, who knows you? I’m guessing maybe 5%. (Sheesh, eh?)

The Magic Resume Calculator tells us you can save 95% of your time by sending out 95% fewer resumes. To maximize your chances of success, send resumes only to people you know who know you.

Obvious, huh? Well, then why aren’t you already doing that?

How to format your resume

When you submit a resume, whether via e-mail or on paper, it’s reasonable to assume that an employer will shove it through resume scanning equipment. So your first step is to call the company and ask exactly what format the machine prefers. That is, if you really want to compete for a machine’s attention.

resume-mistakesAs a headhunter, what matters to me is whether your resume demonstrates your ability to do the job and to add profit to the company’s bottom line. To a smart employer (where a human is doing the reading), formatting doesn’t matter if the information is valuable. You could put it in the body of an e-mail, in an attachment, or on a piece of paper.

Here’s what matters most to me when I receive a resume:

1. Is the sender someone I know? If not, it gets deleted. I have no time to waste with people who have not taken the trouble to track me down and talk with me before they send me a piece of paper.

That’s not to say I like unsolicited phone calls. The people I’m most likely to talk with have been referred to me by other people I know and trust.

My advice to job hunters: Get introduced. Make contact through someone the hiring manager knows. I’ll bet you don’t pick up hitchhikers, or give telemarketers your credit card number, or ask strangers for money. Get the point? Don’t send a resume to someone you don’t know who doesn’t know you.

This single piece of advice is lost on almost everyone. Because this requires real work and effort, most people skirt past it. I know, I know: It’s just so much easier to send resumes out in bulk anywhere you find jobs posted…. So, why not do it? Because it’s really stupid.

In a contest between a trusted referral and your blind resume, you will always lose. I won’t open your resume, and what’s in it doesn’t matter. That’s how hiring managers and I save 95% of our time.

2. Is the information useful? Let’s say you get my attention through someone I know. Here’s your next hurdle. If your cover letter is a boring, empty pitch about how available you are, and your resume is a recitation of your experience, I won’t spend any time on it. Nor will any hiring manager

Why? Because we don’t have time to figure out what to do with you. You have to explain it to us quickly and clearly. (See Resume Blasphemy.)

My advice: Whether you’re calling an employer or submitting a proposal about a job, learn how to make a compelling presentation, and make it brief. A very helpful book is Milo Frank’s How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less. Be ready to discuss the work I need done, exactly how you’ll do it, and how the outcome will be good for me. The hard work lies in editing your message down to only the information that will matter to me. Figuring that out is your challenge; don’t make it mine. (This is how to profitably use the 95% of your time saved.)

In general, a resume by itself is a dumb piece of paper (or e-mail), no matter how it’s formatted. It cannot represent you or defend you. (See the section of How Can I Change Careers? titled “Put A Free Sample in Your Resume.”)

What matters most to an employer or headhunter reading a resume is that it came via a personal introduction from someone we trust. Your competitors will almost always come in second.

Disclosure: I didn’t invent the Magic Resume Calculator. It’s prior art. Back before we had the Internet, phones, and reliable mail, people had a great incentive to pursue only jobs for which they were recommended: They couldn’t afford to waste their time. Today, employers waste your time and theirs, too, simply because they can. Use the Magic Resume Calculator to save time, and don’t worry how your few resumes are formatted. What really matters is that you know the few managers you hand your resume to, and that they know you.

I know you understand all this. But, do you send out unsolicited resumes anyway, hoping for the best? What’s your hit rate with blind resumes?

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Wanted: HR exec with the guts to not ask for your SSN

In the December 2, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker hesitates to hand over a Social Security number:

Question

The more I read your columns, the more I realize that the employment process is not just broken. It’s inappropriate and run by people who think they can demand anything from people who need a job. Like private, personal information you’d never just hand over to anyone.

I viewed an employment application yesterday and I didn’t have issues with most of what tssnhey asked for, until I got to the request for my SSN. What do they need that for? My thinking is that providing your SSN would only be appropriate if and when you are hired. In your opinion, when would it be acceptable to provide your social security number (SSN) to a potential employer?

Nick’s Reply

Employers, like your phone company and gas company, use your SSN to identify you in their databases because it’s a unique number. It’s the lazy vendor’s way to track customers, and the lazy HR department’s way to track job applicants. And it’s frankly irresponsible.

Here’s what Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum, says:

“Never put a Social Security Number on your resume. You can provide it when you are invited for an interview or when the employer obtains your permission to conduct a background check. Widespread access to your SSN puts you at risk for identity theft.”

(So, uh… do employers ever conduct background checks before meeting you, or without your permission? Yep. For an example, see Big Brother & The Employment Industry: “All your employment are belong to us!”)

I know many HR workers will shake their heads and say I’m being overly cautious, and that they really do need a job applicant’s SSN. So here’s my challenge: Give me one good reason why an applicant’s SSN is necessary to proceed with a job interview.

I’ve asked this question of HR again and again, and no one has been able to answer it satisfactorily. We’ve already discussed how this “SSN protocol” has spawned unintended scams: How employers help scammers steal your Social Security number.

If it needs a unique identifier, why doesn’t the employer just ask for your credit card number? For that matter, why don’t you — the applicant — ask the HR representative for his SSN, as well, so you can do a background check on him? (Two can play this game, if one thinks he can justify it.)got-guts

Yes, these are rhetorical questions — but they’re no nuttier than improper requests for your SSN.

I don’t believe any employer really needs your SSN until you are hired, when it’s necessary to process and report your contributions to your social security account. If the employer needs it to conduct a background check, wouldn’t you want the employer to put some skin in the game first — for example, by actually interviewing you and indicating it’s interested in hiring you? I’d take that a step further and ask the employer to (1) disclose exactly what kind of check it’s going to do, and (2) agree to show you everything it finds. (Even credit bureaus are required to show you what they find. Which reminds me: You should be just as wary of requests by employers for your credit report: Presumptuous Employers: Is this HR, or Proctology?)

If you think my suggestions are a bit over the top, then try responding to the employer with these two businesslike questions: For what reason do you need my SSN? Or, What are you going to do with it?

The reality is, some software designer included an SSN field in the employer’s database, and the HR department bought the software without questioning the design and intent. Because HR relies on such software to process you, HR doesn’t know what to do if you decline to provide data the software “requires.” Go figure. Suppose the software included a credit card field instead — that’s unique to you, too, right? But no one would expect you to provide it, because the employer doesn’t need it.

I feel your pain. Some employers will boot you out of the hiring process if you don’t give them your SSN (and your salary history) — just like a phone or cable company will refuse to sell you service without it. I wish someone would file a lawsuit.

When you’re stuck, blocked by a faceless job application form that asks inappropriate questions, there’s just one thing left to do: Go mano a mano. Yes, I’d call the employer — on the phone — and explain that you’d like to apply, but that you will provide your SSN only if you are hired. “So, how do we proceed with my application?”

Of course, HR might have a problem dealing with a human applicant, and it may have a policy against talking to applicants on the phone. Hey — where did you get HR’s private phone number, anyway…?

Do you hand over your SSN when applying for jobs? Is there an HR executive out there with the guts to stop asking for job applicants’ SSNs until after HR has decided to make an offer?

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How to tease a job interview out of a manager

In the November 4, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker’s mail to a hiring manager winds up routed to HR:

Question

What if the hiring manager forces you to deal with the personnel department?

My friend’s mom works at the company where I want to work. She came through with the name of the hiring manager for the job I want. I’ve learned from your articles that it’s best to go straight to the manager. So, I wrote a good letter demonstrating how the strong points of my background would make me the right person for the position and sent it to the manager. Now I find out the manager just passed it on to the recruiter for review!

So, what do you do when the hiring manager forces you through the recruiter?

Nick’s Reply

passing-along-the-resumeEvery time I hear that someone had a friend “get me a manager’s name” I want to laugh uncontrollably.

You went to a lot of trouble to develop a good inside contact, but then you squandered it. No offense, but I’ve got to say this: You’re acting like just another job candidate, and the manager is treating you that way.

When you get a personal referral to a hiring manager, you don’t write a letter. You use that referral to establish a more personal level of contact.

(For an example, see How to get the hiring manager’s attention.)

You would have gotten the most mileage out of this by having your friend’s mother actually go talk to the manager. She should just poke her head in the manager’s door and make a clear referral:

How to Say It

“I heard you’re looking for someone to do XYZ, and I thought I might be able to help you out. There’s someone you should talk to who would be great at this job. His name is… Would you be interested in talking with him?”

This is a preemptive reference. If your friend’s mom isn’t willing to go the extra mile to help you, then you’re wasting your time and hers, too. To boost the mom’s willingness to help, first get your friend to introduce you to her mom. Make it personal.

Here’s the key to this approach: There is no resume. Offering the manager a resume — or even a letter — is the best way to make him ignore you. (And that’s exactly what happened.) If you ever want to recommend someone to a manager, tease the manager. You read that correctly. Tease. It’s what every advertisement does to make you want to try or buy a product. Make the manager crave an introduction.

If the manager is interested, what your friend’s mom says next is crucial.

How to Say It

“He’s being pursued by a couple of companies and you’d have to move quickly if you want to interview him. If you’d like, I’d be glad to invite him over for lunch in the cafeteria and you could drop by to meet him.”

This builds the tease to a higher level. It forces the manager to make a choice immediately. Does he want to meet an in-demand job seeker, or not? Does he want to beat his competitors to the punch, or not? This is how to Get past the guard.

One way or the other, you’ll know immediately. Inserting a letter or resume into this process merely drags it out. But you want a clear indication now about whether the manager is really interested. So, force the manager to take an action now. Having lunch is an action. Passing your resume on to HR is a cop-out for you, your friend’s mom, and the manager.

If your friend’s mom’s pitch works, and you get to talk to the manager, here’s how to get an in-person meeting.


How to Say It

“My name is John Jones. Ellen Smith suggested I give you a call, after she explained that you’re facing some challenges with doing X,Y,Z. I’ve put together a brief business plan. If you have a few minutes to meet, I’d like to show you how I could tackle those challenges and related problems you’re facing, to help make your business more successful.”

Reprinted from “Pest or manager’s dream?” (pp. 18-19) in the PDF book, Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3, Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition).


If the manager doesn’t invite you in after that, then anything else you do will be a waste of time because the manager simply doesn’t get it. In another section of the same book (“Drop the ads and pick up the phone,” pp. 9-11), a successful job seeker tells how she got an interview without providing a resume at all.

It’s very common for a manager to route all resumes to HR. Here you had a great inside contact, but you still relied on an impersonal approach that made it easy for the manager to ignore you. If your contact had gone a step further, you’d be talking directly to the manager (whether in the cafeteria or on the phone) while your competition wallowed in that stack of resumes on HR’s desk.

What should you do now? Ask your friend’s mother — do this yourself, not through your friend — to go tell the manager he’s going to miss out on a great candidate. “I suggest you call him directly yourself as soon as possible. He’s in demand and won’t be around by the time HR calls him. I’m not sure he’d even talk with HR at this point in his job search — I believe he’s got offers.”

Yes, this is assertive. It requires a strong referral, or the referral is worthless. (Most referrals, like the one you’re using, are weak.) In the meantime, move on to something else while you wait. But please: Do this differently next time. Don’t send letters or resumes. Call. Job seekers who rely on documents usually see those documents routed around while the assertive applicants are having interviews.

Of course, it could be that this particular manager just won’t talk to candidates until they go through HR. I’d think twice about working for such a manager. (See The manager’s #1 job.)

How do you get in the door? Have you learned the art of teasing managers, or do you let managers tease you by “passing your resume along to HR?”

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Resume Blasphemy

In the August 26, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker asks whether I’m serious about the Working Resume:

I recently stumbled upon your website and found it most useful. Thank you for sharing your insights and advice. I am starting to implement them in my job search. With respect to the Working Resume article (Resume Blasphemy), are you simply referring to a pitch book or some kind of presentation that acts as a discussion facilitator? Do you have any examples to guide someone looking to build something similar?

Nick’s Reply

resume-blasphemyHere’s the blasphemy: You write your resume only after you’ve talked to the hiring manager. It’s not your “marketing piece” and it doesn’t “introduce you.” You introduce you.

I have many examples of blasphemous resumes, but I do not publish them — everyone should create their own because the point is, each is and must be unique and tailored to a single employer. Besides, the examples I have belong to people who wouldn’t want their edge shared — it’s an enormous amount of work.

You can think of your blasphemous resume as a pitch facilitator or whatever works for you — but I intend it as an actual resume that takes the place of the traditional one. (See The truth about resumes.)

The reader follows up

At what point do you submit this “alternative” resume? Most trolls in HR don’t know the difference between a Working Resume and a blank piece of paper. I can see how preparing a Working Resume would help with the interview because one would be very well prepared, but getting through the screening round is usually the toughest part (unless of course someone within the company recommends you).

Are you still helping people find work or are you mainly focused on publishing?

Nick’s Reply

You’d never give a Working Resume to HR — that would be like needing a doctor but asking the doctor’s receptionist for a diagnosis! HR is usually clueless.

You need to get the document to the hiring manager. The catch is, if you can’t identify and talk to the hiring manager in advance, then you can’t possibly produce a Working Resume — that’s why virtually no one tries this and why, when you do try it, you have virtually no competition. It’s a lot of work. (That’s part of what’s so blasphemous about it — nobody wants to do the work!) But I believe that without this effort, no one has any business in a job interview. It’s the reason most interviews result in no job offers — just a waste of time.

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention, there’s a How to Say It box that suggests how to get the information you’ll need from the manager:


How to Say It

“I’d like to make our meeting as profitable as possible for both of us. It would help me to know a bit more about the job, so that I can prepare to show you how I would apply my skills specifically to the tasks you need done. May I ask you a couple of brief questions?”


That’s a powerful request and a powerful indicator to the manager about what you’re going to deliver in your interview — and in your Working Resume.

Unfortunately, job seekers and employers have it backwards. They start with the resume when they should start with a conversation about what the manager needs a new hire to do. So, commit resume blasphemy: Talk first, plan your Working Resume next, share it with the manager — and only then should you meet to show why you’re the profitable hire.

As a headhunter, I don’t help anyone find work. My clients pay me to find them the people they need. I publish Ask The Headhunter to share my expertise with job hunters. I also do very limited one-on-one coaching by phone, one hour at a time — I don’t believe in long-term “career coaching.” I think it’s a racket.

How blasphemous is your resume? Do you throw resumes around and wait for employers to catch them and call you? A Working Resume is a lot of work — but so’s that job you want. Do the work to win the job. Let’s talk about how.

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An insider’s biggest beefs with employment testing

cover-shadowLast fall I was tickled to publish the first guest author in the Ask The Headhunter Bookstore: Dr. Erica Klein, who wrote Employment Tests: Get The Edge. The book stemmed from enormous interest in a short article Erica wrote for the Guest Voices section of the Ask The Headhunter website. I asked Erica to turn it into a book, and boy, did she!

Employment Tests: Get The Edge is the only book of its kind — we dare you to find anything like it on Amazon! It’s been a runaway bestseller, providing insights and advice about employment testing from someone who has been developing and administering employment tests since 1998. (Erica has also taken more of them than she can count!)

Following a recent spirited discussion I had with Erica, she came back to me with a list of her concerns about employment testing — concerns that I think every job hunter who has ever faced such a test has, too. She’s turned her worries into a great article that serves as a companion piece to the book — and she asked me to publish it as a way to help job seekers deal with three more daunting obstacles they’ll encounter when employers want to test them. You may read her full article here: An Insider’s Biggest Beefs With Employment Testing.

It’s housed in the Guest Voices section of the website, but I wanted to share with you here the gist of her three biggest beefs — because I’d love to have a discussion about your comments and experiences with employment testing.

Erica writes in her new article:

My #1 complaint about pre-employment testing is the disrespectful treatment of test takers. This can start when you are asked to take a test without warning or explanation. It continues through tests that seem to make no sense in the context of the job, and it can culminate when employers provide no feedback to test takers about test results.

My #2 complaint about pre-employment testing is lack of “face validity.” Face validity is a subjective judgment the test taker makes about at test, not a quality of the test. A test is face valid if it appears to be measuring what it is actually measuring. Since pre-employment tests are always measuring and predicting attitudes, behaviors and knowledge related to work, the test is face valid when it asks questions related to the work.

For example, in my opinion, face-valid pre-employment tests should not be asking about how you act at parties, your personal life, whether you take the stairs two at a time (I’m serious: this is a famous, real test question!) or anything that does not appear to be related to the work.

My #3 complaint about pre-employment testing is that some employers use tests that are no better than horoscopes. [An article about bad tests] by Dr. Wendell Williams: “Is Your Hiring Test A Joke?”… says it very well: “When something looks good on the surface, but [is] completely without merit, it is called a joke. You might not have thought of this before, but many hiring tests fit that bill. I’m talking about tests that deliver numbers and data that look good on the surface, but do nothing to predict candidate job success.”

Employers have an obligation to use tests that are good at predicting success, and you have a right to expect that any test you take will indicate your chances of doing well at a job. As a job applicant, you might find it difficult to tell bad tests from good tests — especially given that not all good tests will look like what you think they should (see complaint #2).

Dr. Klein goes on, in the article, to suggest what you can and should do to protect yourself in these three key testing situations — because it could have a significant effect on the outcome of your testing — and job application — experience.

Please read her tips — and come back here to share your thoughts!

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How employers help scammers steal your Social Security number

It was inevitable: Scammers are stealing job seekers’ identities using over-the-top interview protocols established by employers to gather sensitive personal data. Have employers gone too far demanding too much of job applicants before they even need the information?

Great news! A well-known employer in your area sends you an e-mail saying it wants to interview you by phone — they found your resume online or your profile on LinkedIn. You answer the phone at the appointed time and have a job interview. Perhaps the interviewer makes an offer on the spot — your lucky day! He helps you complete the job application right there on the phone. What’s not to like?

steal-ssnHighmark, a BlueCross BlueShield healthcare company, warns on its website that the interview you think the company just conducted with you was a fraud — and someone stole your private information in the process:

Important Notice
Recently, Highmark has received several reports of possible fraudulent online activity in which an individual posing as a Highmark human resources representative contacts job seekers by e-mail or phone/text, conducts interviews and makes employment offers on behalf of the company. In most instances, those contacted have never applied for a position with Highmark. These false job offers are likely made in an attempt to gain access to your private information, such as your social security number.

— Warning posted on Highmark’s Careers page, detailed further in this notice

While fake online job postings are common and used to get you to fill out forms with personal information that can be used to steal your identity, this fraud is bold. Someone posing as a well-known employer actually calls you up and interviews you — and by the time it’s over you’ve got a phony job offer and the scammers have your very real social security number and other private information.

How can this happen?

An alert job seeker might recognize a phony e-mail address behind the official-sounding name of the company and the recruiter. But some won’t. Job seekers are understandably excited to get an e-mail asking for an interview and will quickly follow the “script” we’re all accustomed to — an e-mail expressing interest, a phone interview with a recruiter, and an intimidating demand for highly detailed “job application” information that includes private personal data that no employer really needs — but demands anyway.

Of course, not all victims will believe they just got a job offer on the phone without an in-person interview — but some will. And even if the “recruiter” doesn’t make an offer on the phone, he makes it awfully easy to “complete the application” on the phone while he does all the writing for you. He’ll even write down your social security number and your home address and phone number. What’s not to like?

How employers help scammers steal your SS#

Employers have programmed job seekers to quickly disclose private, confidential information — when there’s no real benefit to doing so, but lots of risk. Long before the employer decides you’re even a serious contender for a job, it demands your home address, your social security number, names and contact information of your references and permission to contact them, your salary history (which you should never disclose) and loads of other information that’s none of their business at this juncture and which they don’t even need. (When you fork over your references, you’re putting them at risk, too — probably not a good idea if you want good references!)

Why do HR departments routinely demand all this information? Simply because they can. You’ve been trained to  deliver “the required information” just to apply — while the employer hasn’t even checked your qualifications or indicated the slightest interest in talking with you much less hiring you. (See Does HR Go Too Far When Screening Candidates? — especially comments by HR manager Earl Rice. As you’ll note from the 2003 date on this article, this is not a new employer protocol.)

That’s why you become an easy target for scammers. Scammers exploit the intimidating “script” employers have taught you to follow. That’s how unreasonable, over-the-top job application requirements put you at risk. But it’s even worse.

Where’s your data?

Even a real, live employer that collects your private information puts you at risk. Many employers use third-party applicant tracking systems (ATSes) to log your application information and personal data. It all goes into “the cloud” — and good luck protecting it. When you complete that application, you’re usually asked to sign a waiver that gives the employer and its “agents” (translation: any third parties it deals with but that you don’t know about) permission to do with your data as they please.

You have no idea where your data goes, who has access to it, or how well (if at all) it is secured. Personal job application data is stored in unregulated, central repositories that even employers have no control over. Who controls these enormous databases? Companies like Oracle Taleo, Bullhorn, HRIS, IBM’s Kenexa, iCIMS, JobVite, HireBridge, JobScore, and ADP VirtualEdge among others. (For more about the applicant tracking system racket, see Employment In America: WTF is going on?)

Of course, to apply for a job you must provide basic information. But it’s up to you to be judicious about what you share and at what point in the recruiting process. Do they really need your social security number — when they haven’t even met you or given you any clear indication that they’re going to make a job offer? Most people today have already been brainwashed by the employment system to hand over anything and everything an employer says it “needs” to “process you.”

BAM! It’s that misconception that turns you into a sucker when a phony recruiter calls you and asks for all your data.

It’s time for employers to behave

It’s time for employers to stop demanding information they don’t need to recruit you. Today, HR departments ask for the kitchen sink simply because they have a database for kitchen sinks. “We’ll just get all the person’s data up front, so we don’t have to do it later.” More cynically, “We’ll get all their data before we even decide they’re viable candidates because then we can use a keyword scan to quickly reject people we haven’t even talked to yet.” (Less politely: Presumptuous Employers: Is this HR, or Proctology?)

When employers put some of their own skin in the game, then they can ask applicants to do the same. For example, what’s the salary range on the job? How much did you pay the last guy in that job and the one before that? What’s your Employer Identification Number? May I see some references from your customers, vendors and former employees? How about your credit rating? You’re privately held? I still need that information — I’m privately held, too. Are some of those questions over the top? Hmmm…

It’s also time for job seekers to stop being suckers. You are always free to politely but firmly decline to disclose any information you think is too private to share — until you think it’s warranted to process your job offer. Don’t be a sucker for either a legitimate employer who asks for too much — or for a scammer. See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers for tips about how to stay in control when you’re talking with an employer.

(For more on this story, see the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which interviewed me about the scam: Insurer says swindler posing as Highmark job recruiter.)

Where do you draw the line when disclosing private information to apply for a job? Do employers ask for too much, too soon? How do you apply for jobs while protecting your private information?

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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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