Advice for the long-term unemployed

In the May 23, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how “starting a business” can be the path from long-term unemployment to a new job.

Do you have any advice for the long-term unemployed? Since I’m not getting anywhere by job hunting, I’m considering starting a business, if only to keep myself busy! Then I remembered: You wrote somewhere that, in this economy, starting a business might be the best way to get hired. This sounds like a mental puzzle. Can you explain?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

You say this sounds like a mental puzzle, but it really isn’t. You’ve been brainwashed to believe that your objective is to find a job. It’s not. Your objective is to make money and to earn a living. Shift your focus, and you’ll save yourself a lot of agony…

What does it take to start a business? You need a concept, a business plan, the right talent, and evidence that it will work. Ask any venture capitalist: That’s what she looks for before investing.

…To get a business started, you need to demonstrate that it will produce profit. Otherwise, who will give you money? Not investors and not customers. (Whether they realize it or not, this is why employers don’t give out job offers, either. They don’t see the profit.) So, you must bust your buns to produce a sound plan. That’s really what this is all about.

…In the process of producing a plan to start a business, you’ll show how you’d “do the job.” In courting investors and prospective customers, you’ll have proved your concept and yourself. You will have gone a hundred miles beyond the typical job candidate, who sits and answers canned questions with clever answers culled from some book that lists thousands of them.

What’s this got to do with ending long-term unemployment, and getting a job?

The plan is the job. When you deliver your business plan to a savvy prospective customer, to a potential business partner, to an an investor, to a supplier, or even to a competitor, you will find that some of these folks will want to hire you to work for them.

This is how I once landed a job. I shared my plans to start a business with the president of a company that would have been my competitor. (Don’t be surprised—such discussions happen all the time. Smart executives are always glad to meet with up-and-comers. It’s their way of defending their turf.) When he saw how good my plan was, he realized I would be serious competition. Since I’d “figured out the business,” that made me worth hiring. There was no job interview, just the discussion of my business plan. I planned this from the start, but the company president never figured that out. I made a lot of money for that guy—and for myself.

(…Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire “Answer” and commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

(Don’t wrinkle your nose or shake your head, just because this suggestion is foreign to your notions of what job hunting is. Remember? They’re not giving out jobs. So, why worry whether this is “proper job hunting?”)

People wind up long-term unemployed in this economy for many reasons. One step out of this quandary is realizing that you must be able to show how you’ll make money and profit — so, get to work starting a business. Formulate a plan — it can be a very simple one — and shop it around. Do you really think a resume would be more impressive?

Tired of being unemployed? Hire yourself. Or threaten to. A competitor might hire you first. Can a business plan really get you hired?

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How to get noticed for a C-level job

In the May 3, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to get noticed among all the competition when competing for a C-level job, especially when he doesn’t have 100% of the “requirements” on his resume.

I believe I have a good, detailed resume. I am trying to make the jump from SVP/Division President to COO or CEO. How can I get noticed? I am also finding out that, in times like these, no one will talk with you unless you meet 100% of the requirements. Most of the times I meet 85%-95%, but I still get rejected. Any tips?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Think about this. Why would you apply for a C-level job by sending your resume to an X-level personnel jockey who’s working deep in the bowels of the company, far away from the C-suite? Honest, I’m just astonished at the degree to which smart, skilled managers get sucked into the bureaucratic herd mentality of corporate “recruiting” practices.

…Thanks to the prevalence of job-board databases, HR-department “resume scanners,” and the idiotic reliance on “keywords,” that’s where the problem of meeting 100% of the requirements comes in.

It used to be that someone with a brain would review a resume, read between the lines, and make an informed assessment about a candidate. That was before employers started soliciting thousands of applicants for one job. The most egregious example of executive job-hunting roulette is TheLadders, which claims to provide “exclusive” access to its “4.5 million subscribers”… for 50,000 “$100k+” jobs in its database! (Come look at the math.)

…We all know that you don’t need to be a perfect match to the job description to be the perfect candidate. So, how do you avoid being judged and rejected by your resume?

It’s simple: Avoid applying via resume!

Withhold your resume as long as possible. Navigate your way to a member of the board of directors or to the president of the company, without applying for the job. (Even a VP can help you get in the door.)

When you want to date a girl to get to know her, the last thing you say is, “You’re the perfect wife for me! Let’s get together to talk about getting married!”

Gimme a break. Show some finesse. Just because HR tells you to act stupid is no reason to do it.

Don’t walk blind on the job hunt. Establish a personal connection first. Rather than cry about your competitors, who seem to have the inside track, get on the inside track.

With this approach, you’re impressing a key decision maker or influencer with your acumen and your character — qualities that are not captured by keywords, but that are key decision factors for making a hire. Qualities that put you on the inside track.

How should you approach such top-level officers? By asking them for insight about the position that’s open.

How to Say It(Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get all the answers in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

You will be judged not by “100% of the requirements,” but by how you approach the challenges the company is facing. If the discussion goes well, suggest that you’d like to meet to discuss those challenges further. (Note that I said “discuss those challenges,” not “the job.” Top execs can smell a job hunter a mile away. They don’t want to talk about the job. They’ll let HR do that, with all those applicants who crowd the pipe. Top execs want to talk shop with a peer. Be that peer.)

That’s how you avoid an interview and have a friendly, peer-to-peer meeting instead. That’s how you get noticed for a C-level job: by behaving like a C-level exec.

If you’re a CEO, and you want to talk about acquiring another company, you don’t call that company’s HR department. You call the company’s CEO, or someone on the board of directors. So, why do you send a resume to HR when you want to talk about a CEO job?

I’d like to hear your stories about how you got in the door by going around HR to the decision maker — whether you were looking for a C-level job, or a staff position. It works the same way. The finesse comes in knowing how to get in the door without crawling through that sewer pipe full of resumes.

How do you get in the door?

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Presumptuous Employers: Is this HR, or Proctology?

In the March 29, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains that employers’ demands are very inappropriate. She says she’s applying for a job — not a loan. What’s up with consent forms to access personal credit records and other private information?

I had a good phone interview for a job that seems interesting. I’m visiting them next week for an interview. Today, they sent me an e-mail application (a wee bit premature… I’m not sure I want to apply until after the in-person interview) and, more shocking, a consent form to check my credit report. I think this is beyond inappropriate, not to mention the fact that my report is locked because my husband had his identity stolen a few years ago, and we have no idea where it was swiped from.

So, my question, how do I politely tell them I’m not filling out the forms until after the interview, and until I’ve decided to move forward? Do I even need to explain about the credit report? Is this a new thing? Why on earth would they need my credit report in the first place? They’re not loaning me money.

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Proctology?Imagine being asked to fill out a marriage license and to take a blood test before you have a first date with someone. Or to hand over your credit report before visiting a car dealer? Or to bend over for an exam before going on a job interview?

The explanation for this is simple. The HR department at this company doesn’t recruit or impress. This company’s HR department practices Pure Bureaucracy. Clueless about attracting talent, it serves warrants for information instead. I’m surprised they haven’t asked you to provide a urine sample yet. (Don’t laugh.)

You are right to question the request, and to decline to provide the information until after you have met with the hiring manager. If the company doesn’t have adequate information on which to base an interview, then it should not be talking to you.

Will saying “No” result in the interview getting cancelled? It might. There is always the chance that a company will dump you if you don’t do what it asks. On the other hand, most such requests are routine, and when people ignore them, companies often don’t even notice until it’s “too late.”

Here are your options:

  • Politely tell them you’d like to meet with the manager first. “If there’s mutual interest, then I’d be glad to fill out the forms. But a meeting is necessary to help us both decide that.”
  • Just ignore the request, show up, and do the interview. If they ask where the paperwork is, don’t pretend you forgot or were too busy. That would make you appear irresponsible. Instead, use the statement above. By then, you’re there, and they can deal with it.
  • Give them what they want. I don’t think this is a good option, because as you point out, it not only puts you at risk, it’s inappropriate and it’s a waste of your time.

I would not provide consent for a credit report, or even fill out application forms, until after you decide you’re really interested… [The rest of this advice is in the newsletter. Want more? Subscribe to the free newsletter, which will tell you more each week.]

If they press you, and you’re still interested in talking to a company that funds a bureaucracy, I I’d be frank: Your credit is locked because your identity has already been stolen:

How to Say It
“Many companies rely on third parties to perform credit and background investigations, and I know some of that checking is done overseas, in countries with no privacy protections. Having been seriously burned, my policy is not to grant consent unless I know exactly who is doing the checking, who will have access to my private information, and what will happen to it afterwards. I don’t permit my private information to be stored in anyone’s database. My lawyer would slap me if I did otherwise — this has already cost my husband and me a lot of money. I’m sure you understand.”

You could also ask the employer to sign a letter accepting liability if your information falls into the wrong hands. Then ask for a list of names of people who will have access to the information.

How to Say It
“I’m sure you realize… [Sorry, you’ve gotta get the free newsletter for the rest…]

Invasions of privacy by employers who have no vested interest in you, and that have not put their own skin into the game yet, are common. This is not a new thing… But again — taking a strong position could cost you an interview or a job. It’s up to you how far you go…

Sometimes you’ve got to wonder which department you’re walking into when you appear for a job interview. Is this HR, or Proctology? If people keep letting employers, investigators and background checkers poke around where they don’t belong, can the doctor be far behind?

Do companies seriously believe they’re recruiting when they tell you to drop trou and stand for inspection? Even before an interview? That’s not recruiting. It’s a joke. How far will HR go to abuse people before it tries to attract them? How impressed are you with a company that behaves this way?

And HR wonders why there’s a “talent shortage.” The only shortage is of common sense when recruiting and hiring. What do you do when employers want to check your teeth before they make you smile? (In case anyone got offended, I switched metaphors… so please post your comments and share your stories and suggestions.)

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Readers’ Comments: Turn rejection into a very potent referral

In the March 14, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader says rejection isn’t so bad, if you learn something about your career objectives in the process. I think rejection can lead to a whole lot more.

I found work that I love and that I’m good at, at a small, award-winning company. My meetings with the hiring manager and her team were very positive, and we hit it off very nicely. I was called back for a third interview, with the general manager. He yawned a lot and clearly did not want to be interviewing people, but went through the motions. Perhaps he had already decided who would be hired. In any case, I did not get the offer. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to tell you that even rejection can produce a pretty positive attitude, because now I know that such places are still here, and I just have to find them!

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Most job interviews result in rejection. But smart job hunters learn from every experience.

I think the most common lesson is that the candidate applied for the wrong job to begin with…

Your case is different, and it’s an important lesson of another kind. You actually found a job and a company that seemed to be right for you. You clicked with the manager and her team. And you walked away with renewed confidence that you’re going after the right kinds of companies — and that the jobs you want are in fact available. That’s all good news.

So this really is a win for you, and you should not waste it. I know that you will now go look for other such companies, but I’d like to suggest something even more powerful.

…Forget about the general manager and his poor attitude. Focus on the hiring manager and her team. These are people with whom you clicked. Focus on the good match you found with the company itself.

There are more such managers and companies. And they know one another!

So let’s get to work. Don’t waste your momentum… The hiring manager and her team members are potentially your best references right now.

Go back to your new friends at the company that didn’t make an offer. Thank them again for the stimulating meetings, and let them off the hook for not hiring you. Start with the manager, but then follow up with the other interviewers you clicked with.

How to Say It
“I know you can’t hire everyone, and I’m not troubled that I didn’t get an offer. But I’m glad that I met the kinds of people I’d like to work with. Thanks.”

Then let them talk. They will probably wish you well in your job search. But don’t let it end there.

How to Say It
“I wonder if I could ask you for a professional courtesy. You didn’t make me an offer — but if your appraisal of my abilities was high enough, I’d like to ask if you would be willing to serve as a reference for me. I’m planning to apply for jobs at companies X, Y and Z. Is there any one there to whom you’d be willing to recommend me?”

All you need is one referral and recommendation. If no referral is offered, don’t fret. Just say, “Thanks, anyway. Again, I enjoyed meeting you. I’d be glad to talk with you again if another position opens up.” But, if you get a referral, don’t just say thanks.

How to Say It
“Your faith in me means a lot. If I can ever repay the favor, please don’t hesitate to call me. I’ll let you know how it goes. I want to make sure I…” [The rest of this How to Say It is in the newsletter, which includes lots more suggestions. Want more? Subscribe to the free newsletter, which will tell you more each week.]

Close with a thank you. Then contact the person you’ve been referred to, using the methods we’ve discussed here on Ask The Headhunter. (For a nice, neat package about how to apply the Ask The Headhunter methods when you’re talking to a prospective employer, check How Can I Change Careers? It’s for anyone who wants to stand out, not just career changers.)

…This is a very powerful way to leverage one good contact into another. It’s not such a long shot as it might seem. Since you made it through several rounds of interviews to the final one with the general manager, it seems the hiring manager and her team thought a lot of you. So my guess is, they may be willing to help.

If you get an interview based on this referral, remember that the reputations of the people who recommended you are on the line. Make them look good!

Now I’ll give you one more tip about how to make a rejection pay off, even months, if not years, after your interview. Stay in touch with the nice folks you met, and do them a favor. When you hear about an interesting opportunity — maybe it’s a job they’d be interested in, or a professional event, or even a sales opportunity for their company — , drop them a note (or call) and tell them about it. “You made an impression on me when you interviewed me a few months ago… and I thought I might return the favor by telling you about this…”

This is what makes the professional world go around.

The rare job interview turns into an offer. And few interviews yield friendships, or even mutual respect, between the employer and candidate. But even when two people click, they usually lose the momentum they’ve just found, and they both miss an opportunity. A rejection based on a strong interview can be turned into a powerful referral, if you know how. What do you take away from a great job interview, even if you are rejected?

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Work for free, or no interview for you!

One of my favorite job-advice pundits is The Evil HR Lady, Suzanne Lucas, who calls ’em as she sees ’em. In her current post, Job Interview or Bake-Off?, she deals with the subject of employers who tease job hunters with interviews… if only they will do some free work first.

Say what?

It happens more often than you’d think. The employer wants to see samples of your work. Well, not just samples, but, Here’s an assignment that will take you a few days to complete. Bring us the results… heh-heh… and we’ll see which “candidate” did the best job.

Then it’s off to the bank with your work… while you cool your heels “waiting to hear back.”

ConmanI’ve known a handful of people who have actually worked for a few days at no charge, to show an employer that they are really expert at the work. (In every case, the person got the job, and also got paid for the time they invested. Why would anyone even try this if they weren’t 100% confident of the outcome?) But it wasn’t because the employer asked them to — it was because they suggested it. It was never a case of, Do the work, or you get no interview.

My bet is that the “creative” job hunter in the Evil HR Lady’s column is being scammed, whether intentionally or not.

While I advocate “showing the employer what you can do,” I draw the line at doing free work, unless the integrity of the employer is beyond reproach. This reader wouldn’t be asking the question if it were.

If the employer here is merely naive, I’d like to know whether “the work” to be delivered is something the employer can actually use and profit from, or is it merely a demonstration of your skills? Even if there’s nothing in the work that the employer can profit from, the problem is that “2-4 days of work” is going to cost the job applicant a lot.

It’s simply unethical (and perhaps illegal) to ask job candidates to deliver actual work like that. But it’s not uncommon. It’s part of Deceptive Recruiting, a topic I’ve already covered in its myriad nasty forms.

If I were the applicant, I’d offer other means of demonstrating my abilities. If the employer insists on a bake-off, I’d submit a bill in advance for my time and ask the employer to pay it prior to submitting anything.

What if the employer says no dice, as the job applicant in this story fears? Then I’d submit a detailed non-disclosure agreement for them to sign — along with an agreement that they will not use the work product in any way, shape or form except to evaluate you.

Let’s see how ethical they really are.

There’s nothing wrong with showing an employer what you can do, and the extent to which you do that must be based on the employer’s integrity. And there’s nothing wrong with walking away from jerks who want free work. Because, what do you think they’re going to want from you if they hire you?

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Readers’ Comments: How can you fight bad references?

We discuss references here periodically — most recently, in We don’t need no stinking references.

While many companies dismiss references as an afterthought, and job hunters think they can get by without them, I believe references are the coin of the realm. Employers shouldn’t hire anyone without checking them (though by “checking them,” I don’t mean that rote telephone query most HR folks make), and job hunters should be suspicious of any company that doesn’t check them.

In the January 18, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about his last boss torpedoing him:

You’re supposed to say, “I left Company A because I wanted a more professional environment,” when the truth really is, “Company A fired me because we couldn’t deliver a product and because the boss refused to invest in some critical tools and training.”

When a reference says, “We fired him because he wanted some expensive training, and couldn’t learn certain technologies,” that leaves a person who is trying to leave an unprofessional environment in a terrible position. Any advice in dealing with that? Or are people basically doomed if they work for a scum-bag employer who doesn’t treat them like professionals?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

This is where other references come into play. A reference call is about you, but if it is handled deftly, it can also be about your other references.

At least one or two of the references you provide to the new employer should be (other) managers or employees at your old company who know the old boss’s attitude and behavior. Make sure they know the old boss might try to torpedo you.

The reference explains you did a good job, discusses your skills and talents, and endorses you. Then the reference explains how unfortuanate it was that the lack of necessary tools and resources made it impossible for you to do the job you were assigned.

“I felt bad for the guy. He used all his skills to work around the lack of resources, but I’ll be frank with you: His boss found it easier to blame him than to buy the tools we needed. I think it’s a shame the company lost a great worker due to poor management. I’m going to miss working with him, but our loss is your gain. If you run a good operation, this candidate will do a phenomenal job for you.”

The reference counteracts the half-a-story that the old boss provides. This is subtle, and you must handle it with care… You cannot count only on your boss to be your reference. You might be surprised at what helpful references your associates can be, if you tell them the whole story.

I’ve used this method when delivering references about my candidates to my clients. I don’t try to hide the bad reference. But I make sure to provide a reference about the bad reference, who in turn casts doubt on the negative comments, and reinforces the candidate’s better qualities.

Put an unavoidable negative reference in context, and help a new employer see you in a positive light.

Sometimes you know that a former boss is going to torpedo you on a reference call.

Should you try to prevent a company from calling your old boss? Sure, but the call might be placed anyway. Your objective should be to counter the bad reference by providing references about your references.

Have you ever done that? Have you cultivated professional associates who would stand up for you in the face of such an attack? If not, start now.

How have you prepared to defend against unfair negative references?

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Readers’ Forum: Is there anything you won’t do to stay in the running?

In the November 9, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader thinks I’m giving bad advice that costs people job offers. Or at least interviews. You decide:

You regularly advise against divulging past salary in an interview because it might prejudice an employer’s offer. I disagree with you. After going on over 25 interviews (most were second or third round) in the past nine months, I suspect most people would gladly reveal their salary history if required, so as not to be disqualified. What do you say to this?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Do you really want to get stuck defending what your last employer paid you? Do you want to be stuck trying to change the value that an old employer put on your head?

This salary issue is more than a question of being cooperative. It’s about making sound judgments. In my opinion, an intelligent disagreement and discussion about salary reveals integrity and it stimulates an important dialogue. Employers who rely on salary history to judge you are trusting another company’s evaluation. Think about that. It’s almost insane. What really matters is what you can do for this company now and in the future. Is the company able to make that judgment? Why does it need your last employer’s “salary input?”

Declining to divulge salary history is not about being uncooperative. It’s about shifting the interview to a higher plane. Don’t worry so much about getting disqualified.

Some employers will try to pry any information they can out of a job candidate. Should you give them anything they ask for, just so you won’t be disqualified? Where’s the line?

What have employers asked you to say or do, just to stay in the running? Have you ever done anything you’ve regretted?

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Readers’ Forum: Don’t provide references, LAUNCH them

In the October 12, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

I have two questions about references. First, I would like to use my current boss and co-workers as references. What’s your advice about that? Second, some companies actually expect references from a current boss. Do I have to provide these?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

This is a sticky topic. Your current boss and buddies at work might be your best references, but if you let them know you’re interviewing elsewhere, that could jeopardize your current job.

In a moment, I’ll show you how to launch references preemptively, rather than just provide them when an employer asks.

But first let’s take your questions one at a time. You can indeed ask people you work with for references, but you must accept the risks. Once management finds out you’re job hunting, you might be tagged as a dissatisfied employee and if there’s a layoff, you could wind up at the top of the termination list.

Must you provide references from your current company if another employer asks? Absolutely not, for the same reasons we discussed. The new company has no right to put your present job in jeopardy. If you prefer not to provide such references, you can and should decline.

Now let’s talk about how to use your best references by launching them before Referencesthe employer expects it. I once landed a job I really wanted by using a Preemptive Reference. I didn’t wait for the manager to ask me for references. Before the manager even knew I existed, I arranged for a credible mutual contact to pick up the phone and recommend me. Other than my abilities, that call was what convinced the manager both to interview me, and to hire me on my terms.

Since then, I’ve taught job candidates how to do that, and I’ve used the approach to influence people to do business with me. A recommendation from a credible colleague can make a manager want to hire you before you even apply for the job.

(That’s just part of the newsletter. Don’t get stuck short next week — Sign up now for your own free subscription!)

Smart employers check references. But there aren’t a lot of smart employers out there. Too many will make a hire without checking out a person’s reputation. When an employer asks you for references, who you gonna call?

Sometimes it’s all about who calls the employer before you even apply for the job.

How do you use references? Ever have a reference “make or break” a job offer for you? Has a reference ever torpedoed you?

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Readers’ Forum: How to get the hiring manager’s attention

In the September 14, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

I know that a local company has new positions in the works, but I can’t get anyone to talk to me. The personnel office doesn’t return calls and I don’t know how to reach the manager. Is my only alternative to send a resume and hope it is seen by the district manager? 

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

No, don’t give up yet. Call the company’s sales department—those calls always get connected. Ask for advice.

Sales reps are usually talkative as long as you don’t waste their time. Be polite and be respectful. Learn all you can, then ask for a referral. “I don’t want to apply for a job until I learn more about the operation. I’d really like to have this kind of discussion with someone who works in the department I’d be applying to. Can you recommend someone—other than the personnel office—who might talk with me? I’d be beholden to you.” 

In the newsletter I explain what to say to the manager when you finally make contract. (For detailed advice about how to give managers what they’re looking for, see the section titled Put a Free Sample in Your Resume in the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers?) But the main message is to contact people peripheral to the hiring manager to establish direct contact. In other words, to get introduced. Don’t waste your time with the personnel office or with a blind resume.

Never send a blind resume. Make a good contact and get introduced to the manager. Most important: Have something useful to say.

Approaching the hiring manager through the sales department is not a ruse; it’s honest, but it’s also clever. It’s just one legitimate method for sidestepping the HR office to talk to the hiring authority. I’m sure you know other ways to do it.

Got tips? That’s what this edition of the blog is about: Your suggestions and stories about how to get the hiring manager’s attention. Please post them!

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