2 Rules About Working for Start-Ups

In the July 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is in a pickle — er, start-up — without a salary, and without protection on the upside or the downside.

Question

Your advice in the newsletters is brilliant. However, I haven’t seen you say much about start-ups. I’m in my 50s and enjoy the chaos of a new company. I have been doing it for nine months, and I love it. I am not getting paid, or receiving any benefits. The company has been getting exposure, and a few small projects, but no investment backing. That means no money. The CEO continues to tell the development team, the editors, and writers that “we are so close.”

bait-and-switchShe also mentioned they are moving to Silicon Valley, but will be using distributed-teams software to push more projects out.

The problem is that my budget and time are expanding. I am worried that my “job” will be lost by their move. I have only a handful of e-mails outlining the stock certificates, with promises of full-time employment when investors come through. However, I have nothing legal or tangible to suggest they are serious.

I’m ready to quit, but need some guidance. How do I approach her about my concerns without questioning her integrity? Should I suggest several options that have some legal teeth that protect me? So far I have all the risk while she continues to pump out projects. Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

There are two good reasons to work at a start-up:

Why work for a start-up?

One, you’re an owner with ironclad shares that cannot be diluted without your approval. If the company takes off, you’ll get your reward. If it doesn’t, you at least had a deal that protected your upside.

Two, you’re an employee being paid a fair (if not good) salary, and you’re expected to work hard over and above anything resembling “reasonable” — because you have some shares and stock options as a reward if the business takes off. Your salary protects your downside.

If you’re working at a start-up under other circumstances, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re probably a chump — unless you’re independently wealthy and love that kind of work.

I’ve got two rules for working at start-up companies.

Rule #1: Don’t get screwed

star-wars

I love start-ups. Been there, done that, had great experiences… except the time I got screwed because I had nothing in writing. When the founder decided to bring in other investors, my 250,000 shares were instantly diluted down to virtually nothing. (See Start-Up Stock: What’s it “sort of” worth?) The first rule when joining a start-up is don’t get screwed. Invest in legal and accounting advice to protect your up- and downside.

Let’s discuss how to handle your boss. You’re being naively nervous about offending a founder that you’re giving free work to. It’s time to make it legal.

I’d sit her down without any apologies and without hesitation in your voice.

How to Say It
“I’m excited about what we’re doing and I love the work. However, this is a business proposition — I’m working for free for equity and the promise of a full-time job. I think it’s time we put this in writing for our mutual protection.”

If she indicates any problem with that, then I think you’re being taken for a ride, and that you’ll be summarily dumped by the side of the road. She should be apologizing to you and extending every courtesy — you’ve been working for free with no written assurance of any reward!

You might want to talk with other “employees” to see how they feel — and to find out whether they have contracts. You all need them. You may want to speak with her as a group. But in my opinion this has already gone too far. You’d be pretty upset if she took advantage of all of you at this point — so don’t fret about having this discussion.

Rule #2: Don’t get screwed

Before you do that, I’d talk with an attorney. (See Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection.) Equity deals and contracts with start-ups are complicated and fraught with risk. If it’s not worth the legal fee, then how can the promise of this job be worth anything? Please take this seriously.

The other issue is that if and when investors come in, your boss will have very little to say about your equity share. Investors don’t like seeing their shares diluted. You could wind up with very little, if anything, if you don’t have a solid contract now — and the right kind of shares.

I don’t mean to scare you, but I’ve seen this again and again. Even a well-intentioned founder can wind up hurting the team that poured its blood and sweat into the business. Working with no contract is totally imprudent and un-businesslike. I’d get to it asap. Did I caution you not to get screwed?

Don’t forget about IP (Intellectual Property) rights. Have you signed an NDA or NCA? Have you signed over any IP rights to anything you’ve developed? Your boss could be screwed, too, without these. It’s another reason you need a good employment lawyer.

Get compensated

My philosophy is, get value for value. Your work is valuable. Ask for salary, and ask for equity. I don’t think suggesting “several options that have some legal teeth” will help you unless you talk to a lawyer first. This is easy: Just tell her it’s time for a written, signed agreement — and stock certificates. Something tells me that’s when she’ll tell you you’re not part of the move — though I hope I’m wrong.

Before you quit, give your boss a chance to protect your investment in this business by compensating you fairly for the risk you’re taking. Get compensated. That’s not a rule; that’s good business. Do your best to prepare yourself in advance. These Ask The Headhunter PDF books will help you with your “boss”:

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview – Be The Profitable Hire. This works even when discussing salary with your current employer!

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games (long before you negotiate an offer), especially “The Pool-Man Strategy: How to ask for more money,” pp. 13-15. Sometimes it helps to ask casually!

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers, especially “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it,” pp. 23-25. This is a must when considering a job at a start-up, though this section applies to established companies, too.

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers, especially “Non-Compete: Did I really agree to that?”, pp. 5-7.

There’s a lot more to start-ups, of course. (See Ben Slick’s excellent article, Evaluate a Start-Up Job Opportunity Like a Venture Capitalist.) If something I’ve said is helpful, I’m glad. I’d love to know what you decide to do and what comes of this. Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter!

For those considering the excitement of working at a start-up, if it’s what you really want to do, don’t be dissuaded by risk. As this reader points out, it can be an exciting experience. Just follow my two simple rules, and make sure you protect yourself on both the upside and the downside. I hope you get rich, but don’t end up losing your shirt.

(If you’re thinking about making the leap to starting your own start-up, learn more about Trading Your Job For Venture Funding.)

Have you ever worked for a start-up? How did it turn out? Did you protect yourself? (Did you get rich?) How would you advise this reader?

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How to deal with a micro-manager

In the May 5, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a happy employee becomes unhappy when the new boss gets overbearing.

Question

After four months of working very independently and successfully in my current position, reporting directly to a manager who loves my work (as does the senior manager), they have decided that all of us “little people” (non-exempt, hourly employees) should report to a supervisor on a weekly basis instead. Our manager is too busy to manage us.

I am now the direct report of a micro-manager, a real control freak (she said so herself) who wants everything done her way, yet insists she doesn’t want to micro-manage me.

In our first meeting of 45 minutes, she insisted at least six times that she wasn’t trying to micro-manage me. (Of course, it felt like 20.)

What should I do? I am trying to be cooperative and play it low-key, but I feel I may need to speak with the senior manager about it. Any advice on how to handle micro-managers? I really need my job. I am well-liked, work hard and effectively, and was quite happy before she was appointed.

Nick’s Reply

First, I would sit down with your new supervisor. Show her a list of the tasks she has assigned to you, as you understand them. Ask her if there is anything she’d like to change or add. If there is, add it as you sit in front of her. Be very polite, very respectful.

When the list is complete, ask her what timeframes she sees for the deliverables — that is, when should the tasks be completed?
Negotiate to make these realistic. Once you both agree, tell her this:

How to Say It
“I find I can get the most work done when I’m free to get tasks done my own way, with the full understanding that I’m responsible for delivering exactly what my boss asks. The commitment I will make to you is that all these tasks will get done on schedule. I’d like to ask you for a commitment, too — to permit me to manage my work on my own. If I don’t deliver, then I will accept any consequences. But during the work period on these projects, I would like to manage my own work. Can we do that?”

(These two articles may help motivate you: Be known first for the truth and Don’t be afraid to do the job your way.)

If she says no, then sit down and write up a log of your conversation, date and sign it. Put it in your file. You may need to show it to the human resources manager later. Then, go talk to your old boss and explain to him that your supervisor will not permit you to manage your own work. Ask for his support. Do not make any threats. Do not get angry. Just calmly focus on your work and on your commitment to get it done on schedule. Don’t even appear upset.

How to Say It
“Being micro-managed is very distracting and decreases my efficiency. I accept my responsibilities in my job. However, I cannot do my job if I am micro-managed. Here is the commitment I will make to you: If I do not deliver after being left alone to do my job, you should fire me. The commitment I ask of you is, get my super off my back so I can do my job. Can we do that?”

If you get no support, you should be prepared to leave the company and find another job. In fact, I would start a job search, just in case. Odds are pretty high you will have to leave. As Dear Abby is fond of saying, people are not likely to change.

I try not to be cynical, and I try to expect the best, but life is short. No one should have to live and work like this. A boss who micro-manages has an emotional problem and is not likely to change. You must have a good contingency plan.

The best outcome would be if your supervisor recognized how serious a problem she has created for her department. Like I said, odds are that you will have to move on. Don’t let that bother you. It’s a natural thing. Not all companies, bosses, and employees can work together effectively. Staying in a dysfunctional organization is wrong. But, give your managers a chance to recognize the problem, and to fix it. The key is, you must be very respectful about your approach. No anger. No recriminations. Just matter-of-fact business. It’s all about doing your job.

I wish you the best. There is a significant risk in doing what I suggest. There’s an even bigger risk in working with such frustration. For more about how to leave your job fearlessly, see Parting Company: How to leave your job. [THIS WEEK ONLY! Save $3 on this book! Use discount code=SAVE3. Order now!]

Have you ever worked for an over-bearing boss? What’s a diplomatic way for this reader to deal with the boss? My suggestions are just one way to approach this. Let’s hear some other angles!

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Why & how you should give employers an ultimatum

In the April 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader meets an employer who is losing the best job candidates to the competition because he uses interviews to reject applicants — not to hire them.

This week’s story is long, but it puts a sharp focus on the trouble with employers these days. It just seems that, no matter how motivated a manager might be to hire, the actual process to hire has gone haywire. Demoralized by such experiences, job seekers often go along with silly demands from employers. In my reply, I offer a solution that more folks need to learn how to use.

Question

I had an interview with a VIP at a huge local tech company looking to hire a designer with video/animation experience. Our initial phone interview started with him sounding very disinterested. After briefly explaining what he’s looking for, he said he’s disappointed with the candidates he’s getting because they are all print designers. As he spoke I uploaded a few of my videos to my website and told him to take a look. His demeanor completely changed. “This is exactly what I’m looking for! I’ve gotta run to this meeting but do you have time again today to talk more?” He came right back from that meeting to continue our call.

wasting-my-timeYou would think this would have a happy ending, no? No.

First, he ends the call not by inviting me in for an interview, but by saying, “I think I’ll have all the candidates look at the stuff we’ve had done by an agency (which he wasn’t happy with) and see what you all would do to redesign it.”

Oh, great, the “test,” that is, work for free. The call ended and I wrote the place off. Then HR e-mailed, saying he’d like to schedule an interview. It lasted 90 minutes. I have never had a better interview experience. More than once he said that I’m the only candidate who appears qualified. Again, it ended a bit sour with him saying, “I’ll probably have the final candidates come back and meet with the team”: the dreaded “approval by committee.” But I left feeling good.

The following week, I get an e-mail from him: ”You have offered examples of your work, however, I am asking all candidates to take a shot at creating something for us.” And he listed not one but three design projects he wanted to see redesigned. One was a video. “Just re-do the first 30 seconds.” WTF? This guy clearly has no clue as to how much work and effort goes into something like this. So, I did a few story board sketches, made a few recommendations and ended the e-mail by saying I have received an offer for another opportunity and hence am no longer available.

And that was the end of that. No doubt he will either continue to struggle to find the “perfect” candidate or he’ll just send my comps to the agency he’s currently contracting with. And I have gone through this exact scenario more times than I care to recall over the years.

Initially, I blamed my field of design, but I don’t think it’s that anymore. I met a guy over on StinkedIn, a systems analyst with a Ph.D. who’s in his 40s and unemployed for two years. He flew out of state for an interview, met with twelve people over two days, showed that he knew his stuff (“here’s your problem, here’s what I recommend”), they were clearly excited and he thought for sure he’d get the job. He didn’t. When he asked why, the hiring manager told him the two twentysomethings on the team didn’t like him because he “came across as arrogant.”

So, who’s to blame for these scenarios? HR’s only job here was to schedule the meetings. Do they send a brochure to all who put in a hiring request with tips on how to disqualify your best candidate? I dunno…

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for sharing your story. (Readers may have noticed this “Question” was no question!) You should have just given that VIP an ultimatum. I’ll explain why and How to Say It.

While I advocate a “show what you can do” approach to interviewing, there’s no guarantee that any method will lead to a hire — or that an employer won’t abuse the candidate who’s ready to show he or she can do the work profitably. You must know where to draw the line with greedy, unreasonable employers like the manager in this story.

And if you manage to get a meeting with a manager who’s also a jerk, jerk-ness spoils any intelligent interview activity of the job seeker. Anyone who wastes your time is a jerk. (See Work for free, or no interview for you!)

This manager will keep looking for the “perfect” hire — while his competitors eat his lunch. They will jump to hire people like you, rather than concoct yet one more exercise to get free work out of you.

There are two important lessons here. One is to use the ultimatum, and the other is to survive and thrive if it doesn’t work.

First, never get bogged down in just one job opportunity. Really, really wanting one particular job is a dead-end strategy. You took the wise route. You controlled your outcome by developing other opportunities in parallel, so you wouldn’t get sucked into waiting and wishful thinking. You put that greedy VIP into healthy competition with another employer, so you won. He lost.

I’m a big believer in showing how you’ll do the work in order to get hired, but when employers demand free work during the interview process, tell them to take a hike. (By the way, I think you made a big mistake in delivering those story boards, having already seen what the VIP was up to.)

Second, force the manager to decide now. You handled this well, but I’d have given the VIP an ultimatum. After he told you that you were the only qualified candidate, you could have told him you wanted a decision on the spot.

commitHow to Say It: “I’d like to work on your team. With the right offer, I’m ready to start in two weeks. You can keep looking for other candidates, but I agree I’m the best for this job. I can do it for you profitably. Either hire me, or let’s end this process, because if you don’t hire me, your competitors will. You need to decide now.”

Sometimes the strongest position a candidate can take is to draw a line and insist on a decision. Be ready for NO, but also be ready to walk away from an indecisive manager who probably doesn’t know what he wants — and who routinely loses his best candidates to competitors, which is probably where you should be working.

Congratulations on a successful job search. I hope others consider the lessons from your story. Employers lose their best candidates all the time because they think their mission is to hire perfection and to ensure they reject anything less. It’s how they wind up with weak candidates who will do anything for a job.

I discuss more methods for “Playing hardball with slowpoke employers” and how to “Line up your next target,” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers. You don’t need to be the one left holding the bag!

Do you have the guts to issue an ultimatum to an interviewer? Or am I nuts? Where do you draw the line with a greedy employer?

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Say NO to tests prior to an interview

In the March 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains about investing time in employment tests before the employer invests time in an interview.

Question

I applied for a Senior Director position with a large healthcare software company. I was “selected” by HR to begin the recruitment process, which starts with “assessment tests” such as aptitude and personality tests. The largely canned e-mail they sent me states that I should block off two hours to complete these examinations, and I was provided with a link and logon information to the assessment website. Mind you, I still have not talked with the hiring manager.

no-to-testsI don’t really have two hours to perform these silly tasks, though the job itself does sound challenging from the description provided. Is there anything I can do to bypass this process, or should I just run and hide from this firm? How can I be sure the third party contracted to perform the assessment isn’t selling or trading my information with other employers without my knowledge? Thanks very much, I am a big fan of your blog.

Nick’s Reply

Glad you enjoy the blog — thanks for your kind words.

My approach to situations like this is not to say no. It’s to set terms you are comfortable with, and then let the employer say yes or no. If your terms are prudent and reasonable, and they say no, then you know something funky is up — and that you’ve really lost nothing in the bargain. You merely avoided wasting your time.

But I don’t think it bodes well when a company wants you to do tricks to get an interview, so you’re justified to be concerned. What I’m about to suggest will likely result in your being rejected from further consideration by this company.

  • I’d tell HR you’d be happy to comply with their request, but your busy schedule precludes you from filling out forms and going through administrative processing (tests) until you and the manager “establish good reasons to pursue the possibility of working together.” In other words…
  • No testing prior to meeting the hiring manager. Why invest your valuable time if they won’t invest theirs?
  • No testing with third-party firms unless they provide in writing (a) a disclosure that defines who will have access to your results, (b) a confidentiality statement (signed by the testing firm and the employer) stating that they will not disclose your results to anyone without your express written permission, (c) credentials of the test administrators and those who will score and interpret the results, and (d) written assurance that they will provide you with results and interpretation of your tests.

The last word about why pre-employment tests should concern you is this article by Dr. Erica Klein: An Insider’s Biggest Beefs With Employment Testing.

Now let’s get down to business. You’re interested in the job you read about, so pursue it on your own terms.

I’d contact the office of the person you’d be reporting to if hired. (See Should I accept HR’s rejection letter? for some tips.) I’d politely explain that you’re glad the company wants to interview you, and that you’d be happy to come in to meet and talk. If you mutually decide to continue discussions about a job, you’d be happy to take tests and suffer through the HR gauntlet.

How to Say It
“I get a lot of requests to do such tests but I judge how serious an employer is about me as a candidate by whether they will invest the time to meet me first. I always go the extra mile for a company that demonstrates that level of interest. In fact, if you have time to meet, I’ll be glad to prepare a plan for how I’d do the job — and we can discuss it.”

I’m sure you get the idea. The point is to say this to the hiring manager — not to HR. If you need help with that last part, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, particularly the sections, “How can I demonstrate my value?” and “Are you an A or B candidate?”, pp. 8-11. I think that offering to arrive with a business plan in hand will reveal whether the manager is on the ball. How could any good manager not be intrigued?

As you’ve already surmised, the odds are extremely high that the HR department really doesn’t know whether you are a viable candidate. They’d rather spend money on tests to filter you in or out, than spend the hiring manager’s time to interview you to make a judgment. So, I don’t think you have much to lose. At this juncture, you’re probably not a serious contender. If you were, they’d handle you with kid gloves and they’d be seducing you rather than harassing you.

Of course, the tests might be useful, interesting and valid tools to judge your skills. After you talk with the manager.

Your last concern is valid. Those third-party testing companies invariably own your results. The papers you sign usually give them the right to share your results with anyone they want to, including some other company that obtains your resume — and looks up your test results because it’s already the testing firm’s client. You could get rejected without ever knowing why.

Be careful. Use your judgment. Be polite, be professional, but don’t be a sucker. Expect the kind of professional treatment and consideration that you give others.

Have employment tests taken the place of screening interviews? Is this just another way to save HR time? More important — does this extreme testing practice waste your time or help you get interviews?

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Your Boss Hates You: The politics of CYA

In the January 27, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is fed up with a boss whose idea of management is bad politics.

Question

mean-bossI work for a failing organization that brought in a new manager to turn things around. The problem is that the new manager has threatened to dismiss me. He clearly hates me. I have never been in this situation before.

Earlier this year I was given a merit raise and was told by my manager’s boss that they were very happy with my work. I’ll be resigning, but how do I insure that this company doesn’t say negative things to a future employer? Should I see a lawyer? How should I handle this in the meantime?

Nick’s Reply

You’re going to have to play politics, because your new manager started the game. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t play because it’s distasteful. This is part of managing your career and work life, so learn to play well. The key is not to go it alone. I’ll offer you some suggestions, but remember that your judgment matters more than mine because you’re in it, and I’m just watching.

First, assess where you really stand.

I’d go talk to your manager’s boss about what’s happened; that is, to the person who told you what a good job you were doing.

How to Say It
“I just got a merit raise and you gave me some nice compliments on my work — this motivated me to work harder and smarter. Now I need your advice. What am I to make of this threat to dismiss me? I want to do the right thing, for the company and for myself. But it’s very distracting to have my new boss threatening me. Can you please advise me?”

You must find out whether you have support, or whether the company will let the new manager toss you aside. It’s hard to say whether the big boss will come to your aid. Managers don’t like to battle with one another, but you must ask for guidance. Hopefully, you’ll get the help you need.

Regardless, you must also take action to protect yourself.

Second, establish a record.

Visit HR and get the facts. What does HR have on file about this matter?

Then create your own record. Start a written log of events (including names, dates, times, conversations), which may be helpful in the event you take legal action. Bring this with you to the HR office, where you can inquire about the problem you’re facing..

How to Say It
“For the record, have any negative reviews or complaints been filed against me? I have not seen a PIP (employee Performance Improvement Plan). Is there one on file?”

When you ask HR these questions, also submit them in written form. HR relies on records; you should, too. It’s part of playing politics well. If your manager is planning to fire you, HR will use a PIP to document your “problem behavior” and the company’s attempt to help you correct it. HR uses the PIP as a kind of CYA action to protect the company legally. It will tip you off to how serious your new manager is about canning you.

If there’s nothing like this on file, then I suggest letting HR know that your manager has threatened you. Bring along a short letter to HR that states what you’re about to say, and include accurate quotations of (a) what your manager’s boss said to praise your work, and (b) what your manager said to threaten you. If you wind up taking legal action, these documents may be helpful. When HR sees this in writing and observes you taking notes, you may not need a lawyer — your manager may need more help than you do.

Then ask HR for help.

How to Say It
“I’d like to ask your advice and help. My manager has threatened to fire me, but his boss recently said XYZ about my work, and I was given a merit raise. So, I’m confused and very concerned. My performance has been praised and rewarded, but now I’m threatened with dismissal, but there’s no warning in your files. Should I be talking with an attorney?”

please-fire-meWhile it’s a bit risky to bring up hiring a lawyer, providing HR with written documents puts HR on notice. Now, HR — if it’s got any integrity at your company — has to take this seriously. (Do you question HR’s integrity? See What’s HR Got to Do With It?) Ask for a response in writing. If HR doesn’t give it to you, log that fact, too. Lawyers love logs. Whether you go to a lawyer is of course up to you. I’m not advocating that, but I want you to be prepared with information a lawyer may need to help you.

While you’re meeting with HR, let HR see that you’re making notes about your conversation — and doing your own CYA. It’s part of playing politics, whether your idea of winning is a lawsuit or merely quitting and moving on.


Coming Next Week: A special edition about how to leave your job.

Did you get fired? About to get downsized? Ready to quit? We’ll discuss how to protect yourself so you can move on — on your own terms! Don’t miss it!


Third, develop options.

Now that you’ve assessed — and let HR know — where you stand, the third part of politics is to get some insurance.

Gather a few written references from managers and co-workers, if you can do it discreetly. If you have a good enough collection, you may not need to include your current manager as a reference when you go job hunting. Other managers will suffice. One negative reference that you can explain as a bad egg may not matter much, as long as you have the support of others who know you well. (For more about this thorny problem, see How can you fight bad references?) You might be surprised at how much support you have when you make your move — even if these same people can’t help you protect your job.

(See Take Care Of Your References.)

Then take this a step farther. Have a friend who is a manager at another company call your current manager, his boss and the HR office, and ask them for references. (Caution: Do not fake this. You need a real manager asking for real references. Never lie. But there’s nothing wrong with playing more politics.) You’ll quickly learn whether they’re torpedoing you. If they are, you may need to talk with an attorney who can put a stop to it.

Just remember that you can’t lead with your references. To be a truly potent job applicant, you must lead with your ability to show an employer how you’re going to contribute to its success. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

Of course, your most important insurance is to line up interviews with other good employers. Even if you take legal action, your best option is a great new job, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing another employer values you and treats you with respect.

I don’t know whether your boss really hates you, but if he’s threatened to fire you, that triggers HR processes, and that’s company politics. If you don’t believe me, you will when you realize that HR’s first job is to protect the employer, not you. So CYA. That means playing politics to protect yourself. Be prepared to fight fire with fire.


HR: Friend Or Foe?

While HR might be very sympathetic and helpful, it can also be your opponent — whether you’re leaving your job or trying to get hired. For more about dealing with HR, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4, Overcome Human Resources Obstacles.


Now for my disclaimer: My suggestions can be risky. I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. So use your own judgment and do the best you can.

Have you faced a boss who hates you in spite of your good performance? What did you do to protect yourself? How did it turn out? How would you advise this reader?

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After 2 big salary jumps, I landed hard

In the December 16, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker gets two 25% salary boosts and lands hard:

Question

I left a management job at Company A 16 months ago after ten years. It was becoming uncomfortably similar to the company you refer to in Death by Lethal Reputation. A friend recruited me to Company B for a 25% pay raise. Company B turned out to be a good place to work, but after six months there another friend requested I talk with his director as a favor, and to cut to the chase, Company C offered another 25% raise on top of what I was making and I took it.

is it-about-moneySince then, at Company C I have had six different bosses, management has re-structured three times, and my co-workers have been very difficult to work with since they all seem focused on the politics of positioning for the next shake-up. (It’s scheduled for next month.) This caught me completely by surprise since this kind of thing really hadn’t been happening there before.

I am growing impatient with the chaos and losing confidence in my managers, but I am reluctant to have another change so soon on my resume. I’m very good at what I do, which is highly specialized technical work. I’m fortunate to be in such demand, and I admit the money was a big part of jumping to Company C, though it’s clear that I blew it.

How many changes are too many on a resume? How much patience do I owe this employer? How would I present myself to a prospective employer without appearing like I am hopping jobs for money?

Thanks and best regards.

Nick’s Reply

Time to pay the piper, eh? Don’t feel too bad. While you should have looked under the rug more carefully before you took this latest job, I know it’s hard to turn down such salary increases from companies that are hungry to hire specialized workers.

When you pursue that next job, interview the company in more detail. (See “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers.) The only way to get the real story before you take the job is to talk to managers that are peripheral to your own department, and to other employees who know how the business really works.

When a company begins to indicate that it’s serious about you, that’s the time to ask to meet more members of the organization.

How to Say It
“It’s important to me to know how Sales (or Operations, or Engineering) functions, because I’ll be affecting their success and they’ll be affecting mine. I’d like to meet with the manager of Sales, and with some of the other technical people in the department I’d be working in. Can you arrange that?”

This is the kind of insight that will help you make a more informed decision, and help you avoid surprises.

kangaBut let’s look at your current situation. What is your responsibility to this company? You’ve been there about ten months. You might stick around long enough to see how the new re-org works out. Then I’d have no qualms about leaving if things don’t get any better. But even if you give that six months, you’re still talking about a short tenure right after a six-month stint at Company B.

No matter how you cut it, you come across as a job-hopper who’s gone for the bucks. I’m not criticizing you for that, but I will suggest that now’s the time to figure out what you really want in your career. Define it clearly — industry, business, company, technology, function, compensation, the work itself, the people. Then pursue it. Ignore the wrong jobs. Go after the companies where you want to work.

Here’s some advice that emphasizes just how deep you must dig to avoid another mistake — from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, p. 12:

Check a company’s references
Talk with people who depend on the company for a living: attorneys, bankers, investors, landlords, and others. This will give you a community-wide perspective and also help keep you out of harm’s way. Explain that you are considering an investment in the company. (Your career is indeed an investment!) Ask for their insight and advice. Is this a good company? Why?

When companies pursue you too aggressively, they can hurt you. You can start to look like damaged goods because you’ve jumped around too much. I wouldn’t say you’re there yet — not with two short jobs on your resume.

My guess is you might have to take a pay cut to get the kind job (and environment) you want. If it comes to that, consider it the cost of getting back on track. In a good company, you’ll have a chance to make it up pretty quickly. (See “Taking A Salary Cut to Change Careers” in How Can I Change Careers?)

The best way to deal with the resume issue is to avoid using one. (See Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door.) The kinds of contacts who helped you win your last two jobs should comprise your strategy. When a buddy introduces you, he or she can also explain your situation, and that you’ve learned a lesson. And don’t avoid that topic in an interview: Be blunt about it.

How to Say It
“I made a serious mistake. Not just going for the money, but not looking carefully at a company before enlisting. Before I take another job, I want to make sure I’m right for the company, and that the company’s right for me. So please feel free to be blunt with me, and I will be with you, too. I want to make sure we can live and work together to get the job done.”

As you decide which companies you want to work for, make it your first goal to develop contacts there. If you lack them, you can create them by polling your friends.

Even if you decide to stick around till after the re-org, start your search now. Work at this patiently, and choose carefully. Put your two lemons in their place, swallow the sour taste, and get ready to move on.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever regretted taking too much money? How many job leaps are too many?

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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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Employers shouldn’t keep secrets from job applicants

In the September 23, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker wants to see the facts:

If I had realized some of the intricate policies of my current company, I may have thought twice before taking this job. For instance, they said you get two weeks’ vacation time. It turns out you get 80 hours of paid time off, but you aren’t eligible to use any of it until after your one-year anniversary. When I do look to move on from this job, I don’t want to be misled again. Is it acceptable to ask for a copy of the employee handbook before accepting a job offer? How likely is it that a company would allow that?

Nick’s Reply

Last week we discussed why it’s so important that all the details of your job offer are in writing. (Gotcha! Get job offer concessions in writing!) It’s just as important that you examine all the details of a company’s work policies before you accept any job offer.

Protected FilesWhether or not it’s acceptable to ask for a copy of the employee handbook isn’t the question. The question is, what’s smart?

I think it’s smart to ask for the employee handbook before accepting an offer. In fact, not requesting it is asking for trouble, as you’ve already learned. (See “3 Ways to Be A Smarter Job Candidate.”)

Some companies don’t like to hand it over. They will tell you it’s “company confidential.” They’ll say the same about the written employee benefits — you can’t see them until you take the job. That’s complete bunk. How can you agree to live under rules if you don’t know what they are?

My response would be very simple. Here’s How to Say It:

“I’m excited to get your offer, and I’m very enthused about working for you, but I’ll be living under your guidelines and I’d like to see your employee policy manual before I sign up. I’m sure it’s all routine, but I like to make sure I understand everything in advance so there are no misunderstandings later. I want our relationship to be solid. I can assure you that I will not copy or disclose the material to anyone for any reason — just as you will keep all my personal information confidential.”

If they won’t show it to you, your other options are (1) to walk away, (2) to accept the job. In the latter case, there’s something you could do that’s a bit risky. Don’t resign your current job just yet. Attend the new company’s orientation, get the handbook, read it — and then decide if you’re staying, while knowing your old job is safe.

Of course, you’d be putting your old employer in a bad spot, because then you’d have to leave without providing any meaningful notice. That’s not good. But I’m trying to help you understand just how onerous a practice it is for an employer to withhold documents you need before you can make an informed decision about accepting one job — and quitting another. (See “Why do companies hide the benefits?”)

Either of these options might seem extreme, but taking a job without knowing all the terms is risky. I wrote a short PDF book (30 pages) about other matters job seekers fail to take control of — until too late: Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers. Among the gotcha topics you’ll learn to handle:

  • Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer
  • How can I push the hiring decision?
  • Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it
  • Judge the manager
  • Get an answer at the end of the interview
  • …and more

I hope your next job works out better for you than this one did.

Did you ever accept a job only to learn that the rules of employment were not to your liking? What was the outcome? If you’re an employer, do you hide your employee handbook from job applicants? Why?

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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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The employer is hiding the salary!

In the July 15, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains about wasting vacation time interviewing for the wrong jobs:

I applied for a position in another state and got a call right away to set up an interview. I scheduled vacation time for this meeting and it went very well. I liked what I was hearing and my would-be future boss obviously liked what he was hearing so much that he scheduled another interview with the “powers that be” right away. So again I scheduled more vacation time for this interview. This also went very well.

At the end, when it came down to talking salary, all involved were very disappointed. My low end of expected salary was much higher than the high end of what they could offer. It was a good enough fit that the hiring manager e-mailed me a couple of weeks later wondering if there was any way I could come down in my salary expectations. After I turned him down again, he e-mailed me a few days later telling me how much he was disappointed that we couldn’t work things out. I asked him to keep me in mind for other opportunities.

It would save me countless hours of wasted vacation time and interviews if employers were not so secretive about their salary ranges. If I had known the salary range ahead of time, or at least at the end of the first interview, we could have saved each other so much time and disappointment. How do you suggest handling this?

Nick’s Reply

hidden-moneyIf I didn’t know better, I’d think that, as the economy improves, employers are trying to take advantage of job seekers by hiding the money. Perish the thought!

The other explanation is that it’s become a cultural problem. “Oh, we never talk about money… it’s so declasse…” Yah, and it’s also ridiculous.

Would you visit a Tesla salesroom for a $75,000 car if all you can afford is $25,000? Of course not (unless you’re just out for entertainment). Imagine if there were no way to find out the ballpark price of cars in advance. Would you visit a dealership twice, hoping the price might turn out to be right on the third visit? Of course not.

In one of the Fearless Job Hunting books I discuss how to respond to your boss when he offers you a promotion but fails to mention a raise in salary. Is there one? How much? The same method works perfectly before you agree to interview for a new job.


This excerpt is from the section titled, “The Pool-Man Strategy: How to ask for more money,” pp. 13-15, in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7, Win The Salary Games:

“You should have asked about money first. Some might consider that presumptuous, but I don’t. It’s business. Setting expectations early is usually the best way to accomplish your goals. The psychology of this situation can be more complex than you might realize. If you embark on this meeting… without setting an expectation about money up front, you will wind up like a puppy waiting for a treat after you’ve jumped the stick 20 times.

“How to Say It: Keep it short and sweet: ‘What’s the pay like?’

“Those are the only words I’d respond with. It’s not a demand, or even an expectation. It’s a top-of-the-head, disarmingly honest, enthusiastic question that must be answered before any further discussion. Note that you’re not even asking for a specific number… I think the best way to ensure that compensation will be a part of negotiations is to put it on the table from the start.”


This is business. Get an answer before the interview, or move on to the next employer. The only reason employers don’t like to disclose a salary range — like the manager who kept challenging you to lower your salary expectation — is that they want to hook you early in the hopes that you’ll compromise. And, once you’ve gone to multiple interviews, you’ll be more likely to compromise your negotiating position to justify all the time you’ve already invested. It’s an old sales trick.

The manager you interviewed with is just astonishing. He asked you to lower your salary requirement — twice! Why don’t you send him an e-mail now, and explain that you’ve thought about it and you’d love to work on his team. Is there any way he could come up to your required salary?

See what I mean? It sounds kind of awkward and presumptuous for you to do that — right? Yet he did it with no problem. Maybe it’s worth trying. Maybe he’ll realize he can’t find who he needs for the money he wants to spend. (You might want to be ready to explain, How do I prove I deserve a higher job offer?)

This is the salary double-standard. The manager wasted your vacation time twice and keeps asking you to to give up even more… for what?

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. Employers like this need to do a reality check, because they’re a bit nuts and more than a bit unreasonable.

Next time, when an employer hides the salary for a job, ask. Save yourself some grief. (There’s another side to this double standard: Why do companies hide the benefits?)

Have you interviewed for jobs where you didn’t know the salary? Were you surprised later? What do you think would happen if you insisted on knowing the salary range in advance?

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