Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It

In the last post, Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?, we discussed how a reader who is applying for a job (and who is qualified) might overcome obstacles that come up when the employer does a background check. Problems like bankruptcy triggered by long-term unemployment — and a year-old DUI (driving while intoxicated) violation.

Knowing what to do is one thing. Facing the employer and knowing what to say — and being able to say it — is something else. In this edition, let’s discuss How to Say It.

There are two keys to convincing an employer to take a chance on you:

  1. Personal recommendations from credible people who know your character and your work ethic.
  2. A clear commitment — which the employer will never ask for, but which you must offer in order to get a job offer. To find out what that commitment should be, please watch the video.

What would you say to a hiring manager to get past such obstacles? And if you’re a manager, what would a candidate need to say and do to convince you to give him or her a chance?
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You blew the interview? Fess up and fix it.

In the August 16, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a rejected job hunter fesses up that he got cocky and didn’t prepare for his interview.


I have five years experience in a technical job and I want to move into a related management role. I’m the go-to guy in the department and I am considered a “vital” part of the team by both my peers and senior management. When I presented a case for the creation of a management role and development of a team, it was largely ignored and placed on the “long finger.” The whole experience made me realize I need to focus on moving my career forward.

I recently interviewed for a management job with a company that I have long admired. The job itself is a carbon copy of my current position, but it would include two or three people working under me. I was called back for a second interview, but I was unsuccessful in moving forward to the next phase.

On reflection, there were several reasons I probably didn’t move forward including being too cocky leading up to the interview, and thus not being 100% prepared. I don’t think my desire to change jobs was shining through in the interview.

The logical next step for me is management. How can I make this transition? Many thanks in advance.

Nick’s Reply

You probably nailed the reason why you failed the interview. You weren’t prepared for the meeting, and maybe a bit cocky. You blew it. While you seem to have admitted your mistake, you said nothing about what you plan to do about this. It’s not even clear to me that you care — you just want to move on to the next opportunity.

A manager doesn’t just tackle a project. A manager gets it done. And if the manager makes a mistake, he doesn’t just walk away. The key here is that you recognize what you did wrong. A good manager figures out what he did wrong, tunes up his approach, and goes back at it. Is it possible that the employer who interviewed you thinks you’re not interested in correcting your mistake? I don’t know, but my concern is that you don’t seem to care.

Before you move on to the next management opportunity, fix what you did wrong this time. There’s probably nothing to lose in taking another shot, and what you’ll gain is self-respect and perhaps a second chance. My advice is not to give up so quickly. Go back to the employer who already invested in two meetings with you.

I’d either call the manager, or send a short note. Fess up and fix it. The note is for fessing up, and the plan that you attach is for fixing it.

How To Say It

“I apologize for being a bit cocky in my interview. The truth is, I was distracted by some issues at my current job, and I didn’t carefully analyze your needs to formulate a useful response. While it may be too late, I need to do this for the sake of my own integrity. Attached please find an outline of my understanding of the job you need done, and what seem to be the key problems and challenges. Along with that, I include a brief plan for how I would do the job for you, describing how I’d achieve the three main objectives, and my estimate of how my work would contribute to your bottom line. This is how I try to approach any job, including the one I’m doing now. I didn’t accomplish this in my interview with you. I’m sorry if I wasted your time when we met. I want you to know I take every job seriously, whether I win it or not. Thanks for your time. I hope you find something useful in what I wrote for you. If you find my comments worthy of further discussion, you won’t regret meeting with me again.”

The details of this approach are covered in detail in How Can I Change Careers?, a PDF book that I should probably re-title, because it’s not just for career changers, but for anyone who’s changing jobs and wants to stand out in the interview. It teaches how to show an employer that hiring you will be a profitable decision. If an employer can’t figure out whether it’s worth giving you a shot at a management job, you must prove that it’s a wise choice. The interviewer won’t figure it out for herself. That’s why you must submit a plan showing how you’ll do the work.

If you want to be the “go-to guy” in a management job, I think you need to get back in touch with that employer. Show that you know how to handle rejection by changing your approach and by acting like a versatile manager. If you hear nothing back, chalk it up to learning. Either way, you will have developed the plan you need to approach any promotion to a management job.

(Here on the blog, I usually print only a part of the advice I offer in the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter — and we discuss the topic here. This week, I ran it all. Next week, it’ll be a partial reprint once again. But don’t miss another issue! Be on top of the discussion! It’s free!Sign up for the weekly newsletter!)

Can you go back after the employer says No?

It happens to everyone at some point. You blow it in the job interview. You know why, and you feel like a dope. You could have performed much better. Can you go back for another bite at the apple? Have you done it? Did it work?

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How to Say It: Why are you leaving your old job?

In the June 7, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to say when an interviewer inquires why you’re leaving your old employer:

I work in a business where there is a constant flow of people in and out of our office, and a high volume of customers calling on the phone. We get a lot of complaints from customers, and quite a bit of verbal abuse. My co-workers and I don’t feel safe. Extreme as it sounds, we worry about someone walking in the door and going bonkers.

I began a job search this week, and I’ve read online comments about what to say when asked the reasons for leaving my old job. I’ve been advised never to say anything bad about the company, including that it’s not safe. So, I am not sure how to answer this question any more. I have an interview coming up. Can you please give me some advice about what to say when I’m asked the reasons I am leaving my current job? Thanks very much.

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 could be leaving your job because you don’t see growth opportunities, or because you have just grown tired of the work. Or, you might not get along with other employees, or with management. While any of these reasons are legitimate, how you express them could cost you a job opportunity. While some employers are interested in your motivations, I believe this question is almost always “loaded.” The employer wants to know whether you’re trouble.

As you can see, the real problem with this question is that you have no way of knowing the interviewer’s intent. And it’s not worth guessing and being wrong.

If you believe that explaining your reasons for leaving your last job will reflect well on you, then by all means explain. If you’re worried it will hurt you, then keep mum.

How to Say It
“I love my work, and I want to work in a better company where I am free to do my job effectively.”

If they ask you what the problem is with your current employer, be honest:

“I’m looking for a good job with a good company, but I never disparage anyone I’ve ever worked with… I came to you because your company seems to be one of the shining lights in this industry, and I’d like to talk about how I can help you be more profitable…” (…This is the missing part… 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!)

That’s the best way I know to approach any employer, and to get past that question. Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. And be candid about your policy of not bad-mouthing anyone, including your last employer.

I’m sorry you’ve been through so much. Look ahead, find a really good company, and explain how you’re going to help them be more successful. That’s what any good employer looks for.

It’s one of those tricky interview questions: Why are you leaving your old job? If you’re leaving because you’re unhappy, that opens up a can of worms in the interview. So, what do you say, and how do you say it? My suggestion in this week’s newsletter is one way to handle it. How have you handled this? Did it work? Or did it backfire?


Readers’ Forum: How to Turn Down a Job Offer

In the April 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to turn down a job offer while maintaining a good long-term relationship with the employer. Is that so hard to imagine?

I have been pretty lucky and currently have a few job offers on the table. All the offers sound like good opportunities, and while I’d like to work for all of them, I’d probably violate labor laws and my own sanity if I actually did! Is there a right way to turn down offers? That is, so I can maintain my relationships with those I turn down, should I want to reconsider working for that boss or employer in the future?

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!)

The best way to turn down an offer is to call the hiring manager directly (not the human resources department). Don’t just send an e-mail. Say thank you, but then demonstrate your respect to earn respect back. This is where valuable long-term relationships start. (Why don’t HR departments get this?)

How to Say It
When you talk with the manager, try this: “It means a lot to me that you’ve asked me to come work with you. I’ve been fortunate to receive several offers, and I’m taking the one where the work is the closest match to my objectives. Unfortunately, that’s not your company. This was a difficult decision, because you’re someone I’d like to work with, if not now, sometime in the future. With your permission, I’d like to stay in touch. In fact, if it’s not presumptuous, I’d like to recommend someone to you who I think would be a good candidate for this job… and I’d be glad to put you in touch….”

If you’re really impressed with the manager (Why else would you want to stay in touch, right?), recommending someone else is a nice consolation prize, and it shows how much you think of the manager. Just make sure the referral is a good one.

What if you haven’t got a referral to offer? There’s an alternative How to Say It suggestion in the newsletter that could nurture a new professional friendship. Sign up for your own free subscription, and get more tips in upcoming newsletters!

Here’s another: If the job is related to sales or marketing, offer a lead on a possible new customer, if you can. Introduce the manager to another manager that he or she might do business with. Give something back to demonstrate your respect. That’s where relationships start. Then follow up — it’s up to you to stay in touch. If you can do something for the manager in the near future, do it.

That’s how to stay close. That’s how you cultivate future opportunities.

When an employer rejects you, it’s usually with a little note that says, “Thanks for interviewing with us. Go suck rocks.” After investing money and time getting to know you, fools waste their investment and insult you. Building a network of good contacts means saying “No” with class, and with the intent to build new relationships anyway.

How do you turn down job offers? Does your method pay off?


Readers’ Comments: The Deadly Resume: 10 jobs in 12 years

In the February 8, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to persuade a company to focus on skills, rather than on 12 years of jumping from job to job:

I have had 10 jobs in 12 years. All have been increasing in experience from a lowly copier technician, to parts runner, to computer technician, to part-owner of a company, to service manager with multi-million dollar accounts with 5-10 techs under me, and finally to high-end computer network technology for some big companies.

Now I’m looking for a network technology position in a smaller to medium-sized company. I’ve obtained some software certifications and taken some admin courses. All of my experience is baptism by fire and road-warrior stuff. The first question out of prospective employers is, “How come you’ve had 10 jobs in 12 years?” I want to shift the focus to what I can do for the company instead of defending my resume but I am not sure how to go about it.  

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!)

To most employers, that’s a deadly resume. They are concerned you’re going to “bounce” after a year. They’ll lose what they’ve invested in you, and they’ll have to find a replacement—and that’s no simple feat. This would be true about any job hunter, whether it’s a network technologist like you, or a manager or an executive.

You need to provide an honest explanation that’s going to satisfy an employer. The best way to start is by pointing out that your references are excellent (I hope they are) and that your record of success on the job is stellar. Then, ask the employer, “What is it that concerns you?” Yes, ask point blank, even though you know what the answer is. Let the employer say it aloud. If you want to have a meaningful discussion, the subject needs to be addressed candidly.

Then, depending on the response you get, you must think fast on your feet and figure out how you’re going to help the employer avoid losing you in a year. Start by explaining what happened:

How to Say It
“The first five jobs were quick changes because I wanted to work with sophisticated technology, and each new job offered me dramatic new opportunities to learn and grow. The next five were with large companies, where it was hard to move from one function to the next higher one. The lack of good hires forced technical people like me to stay in one job too long.”

Let the employer ask you questions about this. Unless the employer can exhaust her concerns, you’re not going to get anywhere near an offer. Help her talk about what’s bothering her, or you’ll get no chance at persuasion.

I’m sure you realize that your first real problem is your judgment. If career stability has been your objective, you blew it. You chose companies that could not keep you challenged. Your second big problem is patience: You didn’t invest the time and effort to help one of those companies develop a career plan for you. (We can blame the companies, but it’s your career, and in the end, you’ve got to manage your employers if you want to achieve your own objectives.)

But lets get on with how you might handle this. Before the employer is going to get interested in what you can do for her, she needs to see a commitment…

In the newsletter, the next part is how to make the commitment: How to Say It. (If you want in on the additional advice next week, sign up for the newsletter now!) But my challenge to everyone here on the blog is, How would you say it?

How could you make the kind of commitment that would make a skeptical employer consider what you can do for her company? Is it even possible?


Readers’ Forum: Do I have to say it?

In the November 2, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager makes a complaint and a request. Listen up:

I am speaking both as a frustrated hiring manager and as a job hunter. When I was job hunting, I always made it clear that I wanted the job. I expressed this verbally during the interview and in my thank-you letter. Now, as a (beginner) hiring manager, I want to ensure that positions are filled by qualified candidates who I know, undisputedly, want the job.

Can you discuss the importance of this basic and obvious technique in interviewing that is often overlooked? That is, the applicant must always say to the potential employer, “I want this job.” Of course, this must be based on a sincere desire for the position. What are your views on the importance of this statement?

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

There’s a footnote in one of my books about a sales vice president who interviewed for a job and failed to get the offer. He argued to me that making such an explicit statement is awkward and that it shows the candidate “has no class.”

My response to him: Failure to say you want the job indicates you aren’t worth hiring because you don’t have enough interest in working for the employer.

“Of course I want the job,” he exclaimed. ” That’s why I’m interviewing! The manager knows that!”

No, the manager doesn’t know that. Most jobs people interview for are jobs that come along, not jobs they really want. Most candidates don’t know they want a job until after they’ve met and talked with the manager at length. When the candidate makes a decision, the manager needs to hear it.

When you interview for a job and decide you want it, do you say it? “I want this job.” No, I don’t mean do you hem and haw and mince your words. I mean, do you say, “I want this job?”

I think if you don’t, you don’t deserve to be hired. (Would you expect someone to accept your marriage proposal if you don’t say, “I love you?”) If you’re a manager, I suggest you watch your next candidate, and listen carefully. Does she tell you she wants to work on your team? No? Hit the EJECT button. On to the next candidate!


How to Say It: How’d I do?

Discussion: May 18, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks How to Say It:

At the end of a job interview, I don’t like to leave without finding out what the manager thinks of me and what’s going to happen next. That sounds obvious. But how do I say this: How did I do during the interview? What are my prospects for moving forward?

You just said it. It’s up to you to ask it!

Many people feel awkward about these questions, but the questions are not only advisable, they are necessary. You just invested all this time talking to an employer. (She’s getting paid to do it; you’re not.) So get something back for your investment…

Try this: “Thanks for taking time to meet and talk about the work you need to have done. Based on our brief meeting, please give me a grade. If this had been an employee performance review rather than a job interview, would you keep me or fire me? Give me a promotion and a raise or transfer me out?”

If this seems assertive, I think it’s far more risky to go home and sit by the phone waiting for a “call back.” Find out now how the manager views you.

What do other readers think? Do you have a better way to ask these questions? Or is it best to stay mum when the interview is over so as not to upset the applecart?


How to Say It: Here’s how I’ll do the work

Discussion: May 18, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks How to Say It:

Your book has been very helpful in preparing for my interviews. But I seem to lock up during the part where I am telling the hiring manager how I will do the job. I’m reading that section for the third time. What’s the best way to explain it? I mean, to say it?

Well, you just pick up the tools… and do the work. Does that sound a little bit odd? Maybe some other readers can explain it better…

A call-out to ATH regulars! What’s your rule of thumb for talking to a manager about how you will do the job? How can this reader wrap up the interview with a compelling explanation or presentation?


How to Say It: Reviewing the boss

Discussion: May 11, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks How to Say It:

I’m in a new position and coming up on my 90-day review. I like what I’m doing but my new boss is inconsistent (moody) and micro-manages (control freak who insists she wants me “to be the expert”). Do I have any options for broaching these topics in a diplomatic way?

Hmmm… Who’s reviewing whom? I like your perspective. You want to candidly review your boss. It seems your boss has two strikes against her already. And if she isn’t willing to talk about changing her style, the third strike may hit you in the butt on your way out the door…!

Okay, folks. How do you say it? How do you tell your boss her style is affecting your work without getting yourself fired?


How to Say It: Mo’ money is the problem!

Discussion: May 4, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks How to Say It:

Recently my job description was changed without notice. But there was no discussion of a change in salary. My responsibility level has increased and so has the time commitment. I like the work, but I cannot justify doing so much more for the same low salary. My boss commends me again and again on how well the transition is going and what a great job I’m doing. How should I tell him I want to discuss the salary?

Here’s How to Say It: “I love the new job — it’s a huge change from what I was doing before. I fact, it’s a promotion with added work, new responsibilities and more time required. Does this new job include a new salary range and performance metrics?”

By raising two issues — salary and metrics — you emphasize just how big this change has been, and you avoid seeming like money is your only concern. (Frankly, I have no problem with just talking about money — it’s a huge concern by itself. But I’m trying to be diplomatic…)

What you need to consider is whether you’d leave the new job if they didn’t pay you adequately for the work. Unless the answer is yes, you don’t have much leverage if they refuse to pay more for the added work.

Don’t just sit and stew. You need to have a discussion with your boss soon. The longer you wait, the more it seems you have tacitly agreed to the new deal at the old comp level.

But that’s not the only useful advice about this. The best is yet to come… I expect the ATH audience will have more to add!