A Special Message from Nick

A Special Message from Nick

Nick is broken and getting fixed!

After long avoiding it, I’m finally getting surgery for a torn rotator cuff in my shoulder. (If you’ve ever had this, you know it hurts like the Dickens!)

rotator-cuffThis means my writing arm will be in a sling for about 6 weeks. Writing will be extremely difficult — more likely impossible, according to my surgeon — for part or all of that time.

There are no little elves producing the Ask The Headhunter website and weekly newsletter. I write and produce all the content, and participate in the online discussions — always have, because I like to mix it up with my readers.

While Ask The Headhunter goes on hiatus a few times a year for holidays and vacation, it’s never been for more than a couple of weeks. The April 25, 2023 column will likely be the last you — dear reader — will see until my arm can pitch fastballs again.

I’ll be back…

So you likely will not see a new Q&A column until the end of May or beginning of June. Your subscription to the newsletter will of course remain active, and as soon as my shoulder is fixed, it will appear again like magic in your e-mail!

In the meantime…

Please explore these popular Ask The Headhunter Resources:

The Basics

Ask The Headhunter In A Nutshell

Should I keep interviewing after I accepted a job offer?

What’s Better: Quit or get fired?

Protect Your Job: Don’t give notice when accepting a new job

Say NO to tests prior to an interview

Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired

The Bogus-ness of Indeed.com

Ask The Headhunter Bookstore (and long-forgotten photo of Nick with a soul patch – urgh!)

The Q&A Archive

See ya soon!

I will have a little elf pulling up my e-mails for me periodically, so feel free to drop me a short note if you like — but please be aware that I probably won’t be able to reply. I still love ya!

Thank you for being part of the Ask The Headhunter community, and for your patience!

Nick Corcodilos
Ask The Headhunter

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Compensation: Negotiate beyond money

Compensation: Negotiate beyond money


I recently decided to leave a Fortune 100 company after nearly seven years. I accepted a generous severance package and have just been offered a good job at a small but growing company. I don’t think this company can match my salary demands so I would like your advice on compensation — how to negotiate professionally with them. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

compensation negotiateJob candidates can flub negotiations if they fail to recognize that there are two components to compensation. There’s money, and there’s everything else. If you ignore that dichotomy and focus primarily on the money, you miss the point of compensation and you might forego a job you really want. Of course, if salary is the key for you, then much of this advice won’t be helpful. But if you’re open to alternatives to salary alone, read on.

What is compensation?

Compensation is not necessarily just money. An employer compensates, or “counterbalances or makes amends for” actions you have taken (that is, work you have done) for the employer’s benefit. Viewed this way, compensation might have little or nothing to do with paying you money.

You might think I’m batty, but if you’re forced to negotiate with an employer who can’t meet your salary requirements, suddenly the idea of negotiating beyond money gets interesting. Let’s consider what compensation really means.

What is compensation for?

You devote time, effort, brain power, and perhaps muscle to do a job. These resources are all limited. You deplete them from your life as you deliver them to your employer.

For example, you take time away from your family so you can do the job. Who takes care of your kids? Who grows the potatoes for your dinner? Where do you find time to build a shack to shelter your family from the cold?

If you’re going to tend the job your employer needs done, who will take care of your needs? Simple: your employer. A company must compensate, or counterbalance, for what it takes away from your life — or you will not be available to do the job you’re hired for.

What kinds of compensation are there?

An employer could provide you with housing. (Coal mines used to build entire towns to house their workers. We won’t get into how this system was often abused.) Or, it could give you food. (Restaurants often feed their workers.) In recent times, companies have provided on-site day care for children, or have allowed employees to bring pets to work. If your mortgage, meals, and child care were covered, salary might not be the only salient component of your compensation. You might instead focus on negotiating for a house rather than a shack; for education in addition to child care; and for steak rather than potatoes for your kids.

Did you negotiate for any of those things the last time you entertained a job offer? Maybe you should have, especially when the employer couldn’t cough up the cash you wanted. (See How I negotiate compensation.)

Of course, the list of potential forms of compensation is virtually endless and depends on the company and on you. The challenge is to explore the best, most reasonable alternatives together.

Compensation: Negotiate beyond money

Now, some of these examples are admittedly extreme. But when a company is strapped for cash, should you hang your head and walk away? For better compensation, negotiate beyond money. The smart job hunter knows to shift the negotiation to non-cash, non-salary forms of compensation. You can suggest acceptable alternatives and help the company identify ways to “make amends for” its inability to compensate you in cash. To do this, you must be able to express your needs in terms that can get them satisfied.

Cash futures. If a company can’t match your salary requirements, but you still want the job, don’t fight it. Instead, put other compensation options on the table.

These might include “cash futures”: company stock, an early review with a guaranteed raise, an incentive plan based on agreed-upon performance criteria, guaranteed severance upon termination, elimination of a non-compete clause, or a retention bonus payable once you’ve been on the job for one year.

Salary alternatives. Then there are indirect benefits, on which a company gets a discount (think tax write-off, too), but which deliver value to the employee: computer equipment and other technology to use at home, extended paid vacation, a transportation reimbursement, an expense allowance, child care benefits, a paid cell phone, education benefits, and tax advice services or even payment of taxes (not uncommon for executives).

Priceless time. There’s also quality-of-life compensation: flex time, sabbatical leave, unpaid time off and, nowadays, the freedom to work from home. Most people crave more control over their schedules. You won’t get paid for those summer Fridays off, but if a company can’t afford a full week’s work anyway, you still have a job to go back to on Monday.

Money is great because it’s fungible. It’s an almost universal medium of exchange. It gives us the freedom to buy what we need. But when cash is tight, there’s also freedom in knowing how to negotiate beyond money to get compensated for our work in other ways. You must be able to discuss alternatives, because creative compensation terms might yield a job where there was none.

I’d never suggest taking a job that doesn’t pay well enough, unless maybe if you’re desperate. To be a really effective negotiator, you must be prepared to walk away from any deal that’s not good enough. But before you walk away from a good job with a good employer that “can’t afford you,” try to boost the compensation — negotiate beyond money.

Have you ever foregone higher salary for something else important to you? Have you successfully negotiated beyond money? What are the top three forms of compensation for you? What’s the most unusual form of compensation you’ve received for your work?

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Just Say It: I want the job

Just Say It: I want the job


I had a coffee with a potential manager in his company café and we discussed my past and current experience but it wasn’t referred to as an interview. It lasted 1.5 hours. The final 30 minutes were with his manager, who dropped by.

I never applied for a job and never shared my resume. We connected on LinkedIn and arranged the coffee through LinkedIn messages. I know he has a job opening (and one more coming up) and he confirmed that in our coffee chat, but he didn’t explicitly say the chat was an interview for the job opening, so I am wondering how I can follow up without sounding like I am bluntly following up on a formal interview. I’d like to get feedback and want to know what next steps are. Should I send him my resume and ask whether he would consider me as a candidate?

Nick’s Reply

I want the jobDon’t ask whether you’re a candidate. Tell him that he’s a candidate to be your boss.

This is the best kind of interview. It sounds promising, but we just don’t know whether it’s for one of the two jobs you mentioned or for something in the future.

Give the manager a signal

While you’re worried this “non-interview” may lead nowhere, the manager may be waiting for you to tell him what’s next. Many managers look for something few candidates ever display: motivation and desire for the job.

Having the right skills and experience is important, but I find that the best managers won’t make a hire unless they see clear indications a person really wants to work for them. Motivation is at least as important as skills, which can be taught. The amount of time the manager spent with you is a strong positive signal — so signal back to him.

I want the job

Use your own best judgment, of course, but I think a simple e-mail is best, confirming your enthusiasm and motivation. For example:

How to Say It

“Thanks for the good conversation last week and for all you shared about your department (and for the coffee!). I’m impressed, and I want you to know that based on what I learned, I’d be very interested in joining your team if an appropriate position is open. You’re the kind of manager I want to work for. Thank you for spending so much time with me.”

Very few candidates ever come out and tell a manager “I want to be on your team!” yet that’s what any good manager wants to hear – a commitment! What I’m suggesting is a very clear expression of interest without being pushy. I would not send a resume. If he wants it, he’ll ask for it.

Show even more enthusiasm

If you want to go a bit further in showing your enthusiasm, find a really good article that addresses an issue that was discussed during your meeting. Attach it to your e-mail along with a couple of comments about why the manager may find it helpful. Show that you’re already thinking like an employee.

When you make yourself this clear, you need not do anything else. The next move is the manager’s. Don’t keep pestering for a response. While you wait, the best next step for you is to move on to your next opportunity and pursue it the same way.

Nice work getting a meeting that’s better than an interview! You had a conversation driven by your interests and the manager’s — not by an “HR script.” Whatever you decide, please let me know how this turns out. I hope something I’ve said is helpful.

(For more on the topic, check this article.)

Why do you think the manager invited the reader for coffee? Was this a job interview or something else? How should this reader follow up? Is “I want the job” the right message?

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New Recruiting: Let’s just hire ChatGPT

New Recruiting: Let’s just hire ChatGPT


First we had to learn to cough up the key words some Applicant Tracking System (ATS) wants to see when we submit a job application. Now we have to use ChatGPT to write our resumes and applications because employers are using ChatGPT to write job descriptions and postings. Where does it end? Why don’t they just hire the ChatGPT?

Nick’s Reply

recruiting-chatgpt(In this column, I will use ChatGPT as a catch-all term for all generations and competing products of the underlying technology, because this is not an analysis of the technology itself.)

An L.A. Times story tells how to write a cover letter and resume using the artificial intelligence of ChatGPT. The technology is credited by users with the skills of a professional coach or editor:

“The aspects of using AI to assist — it’s a tool,” job seeker Jesse said. “Imagine you had an expert next to you telling you how to get better… It wrote [a cover letter and resume] better than I ever could.”

Seriously? An expert?

Is ChatGPT an expert?

Human experts like Noam Chomsky describe these A.I. systems in The New York Times like this (emphasis added):

“Roughly speaking, they take huge amounts of data, search for patterns in it and become increasingly proficient at generating statistically probable outputs — such as seemingly humanlike language and thought….ChatGPT and its ilk [are] a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question.”

“…machine learning systems can learn both that the earth is flat and that the earth is round. They trade merely in probabilities that change over time.

What game are we playing?

Employers and the Employment Industry at large are creating an increasingly complex game of recruitment advertising and hiring. Of course, now job seekers are learning to play the game by deploying ChatGPT against ChatGPT. (We warned you 7 years ago: Send a robo-dog to interviews.)

But how does this approach of gaming a system that is itself a game play out? Who gets hurt? Who benefits? Will Jesse get the right job? Will you?

What’s the outcome?

The proliferation of job boards and ATSes doesn’t seem to have fixed the talent shortage for employers, and it hasn’t fixed unemployment for workers. But we still use them, perhaps because we keep avoiding an outcomes analysis. Maybe it’s because automating it makes job hunting less painful, even if that doesn’t really work.

So let’s automate some more! But let’s check the outcomes, eh?

Does reliance on ChatGPT improve:

  • the quality of applicants or candidates,
  • the quality of hires,
  • the quality of a job match for the job seeker?

Or are we just getting better and quicker at pushing a square peg into a round hole before anyone realizes the damage that may be caused?

ChatGPT: Everybody can do it

Then there’s the problem of needing to use a cheat-checker to avoid getting caught cheating. Though Jesse lauded ChatGPT for cranking out good cover letters, saving him work, “there was one additional step involved: running the letter through online A.I. scanners that have popped up to detect A.I.-generated writing to make sure it passed the test in case companies checked.”

The L.A. Times story cites other job seekers who report that “tapping ChatGPT to write their cover letters was a no-brainer…. ‘A bot reads them,’ they said, referring to cover letter and resume-scanning software that many employers use to filter out candidates. ‘I’ll get a bot to write them.’”

Everybody’s doing it.

Interview the glove!

Kind of sounds like a nuclear proliferation treaty will be needed before real information about workers and jobs disappears in a mind-numbing hall of machine-learning mirrors.

Players on all sides of the Employment System have adopted a virtual process that creates avatars or surrogates to conduct the business of matching workers and jobs. Maybe another analogy is more apt: the old complaint about “washing your hands with rubber gloves on.”

Just hire the ChatGPT

Of course, what’s wrong with hiring someone who used ChatGPT to produce their cover letter, if this new employee will use ChatGPT to do their job, too?

Play this out, though: Who needs this new employee? The hiring technology could also be used to do the job.

Well, at least a lot of people other than Noam Chomsky seem to think so.

(Does anyone see what I see? ChatGPT is just the next level of keyword matching that drives sincere job seekers mad as they lard their resumes and job applications with strings of letters they know the algorithm is searching for. While the new tool is certainly more powerful — it will lard your resume for you — is it actually any different?)

What does the use of ChatGPT tell us about how the employment system works? If employers are going to hire based on auto-written cover letters and resumes, what does that tell us about how they assess job applicants? And of course, what does it tell us about job seekers who use ChatGPT?

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How do I decline the other job offer?

How do I decline the other job offer?


Your interviewing techniques worked too well and now I have two exciting job offers! Based on your suggestions about how to choose an employer, I have evaluated the people, the product and the companies’ reputations and I have accepted one of the offers. Your advice on how to resign properly was great, too – it went without a hitch.

Now, what is the best way to decline the other offer? I would like to avoid a lot of “why” questions, because my reasons are mostly due to the reputation of the company I want to join, and I “clicked” better with the manager who would be my boss. Thanks for your advice.

Nick’s Reply

decline job offerI’m glad to hear my suggestions helped you win a new job and resign an old one – I love to hear success stories. You’re welcome, and thanks for your very kind words. Congratulations on getting two offers! Nowadays that’s quite an accomplishment.

Your wish to avoid a discussion about “why” you’re turning down a job offer is understandable. Let’s talk about a prudent and safe way to do it.

Decline a job offer via phone

The right way to turn down one of the offers is on the phone, not via e-mail. Despite the cold, impersonal ways most HR departments behave when they reject you, you should cultivate a higher standard.

Make the call to the manager who offered the job, not to the HR department. Awkward though it might seem to you, it’s important to take responsibility for your decision and to tell the manager yourself. This is a manager who wants to hire you and who could serve as a reference for you one day when you need one, or who might hire you in the future. This is the kind of relationship you want to cultivate and protect. So make the conversation personal and as positive as you can.

Decline a job offer concisely, politely and firmly

How to Say It

“I’ve thought about the offers I received very carefully. The opportunity to work with you means a lot to me. However, after careful consideration I’ve decided that another job with a different company is more suitable to my goals at this point in my career. So, I must respectfully decline your offer. But I want to thank you very much for your faith in my abilities. I hope at some time in the future we get a chance to work together.”

That’s it. If they press you, you can decline to discuss details just as politely and respectfully.

How to Say It

“It’s a better fit for me. There’s really not anything else I can tell you. Thanks again for the offer.”

Never disclose where you’re going

The less you say, the better. What if they ask who the other company is? Never disclose that, simply because it’s not their business. It’s rare, but I’ve seen companies try to torpedo job offers from their competitors.

How to Say It

“I’d prefer not to divulge the name of the other company because I don’t think it’s appropriate to do so until I am actually working there. Once I’m settled in, I’d be glad to get in touch.”

If you’re both local, you might even suggest meeting for breakfast or coffee. I’m not kidding — handled deftly, the manager becomes a friend, a reference or even a future boss. I’d never waste an opportunity to form a new business relationship. But let some time pass — get in touch after you’ve been at your new job at least a month.

Be brief and professional

In my opinion, you are required to be polite and professional. It ends there. You are not obligated to explain “why” if you don’t want to. If they get pushy, just thank them again and gently hang up the phone.

If my suggestions sound a bit unexpected, consider what happens when a company rejects a job candidate. The rejection is usually cold and impersonal. The candidate is left hanging and upset because the company does nothing to show respect or to maintain a relationship. That’s why it’s important to rise above the impersonal so you will be remembered positively. I wish more companies would do the same!

There’s one special thing you can do if you’d really like to leave the door open for future contact. If you like the company and manager well enough, even if they’re not right for you, suggest another good candidate. That’s a professional courtesy that goes a long way with some managers.

Enjoy your new job! My compliments to you.

How do you decline a job offer when you’ve got a better one?

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The rules of interviewing don’t work

The rules of interviewing don’t work


This is not a news flash to anyone that reads your website: The flood of resumes and job postings makes job seekers feel like cattle while they’re applying for jobs. We know the hiring process is even more impersonal and bureaucratic the farther we get into it. We can’t control this out-of-control cattle drive, but once we’re actually in a job interview (ring the bell!) how can we exert some control so we can stand out among even more competition? It’s clear the rules of interviewing don’t work! Companies have so many applicants to choose from that they hesitate to hire anyone at all!

Nick’s Reply

rules of interviewingWhen the rules of interviewing don’t work, agile job applicants change the rules. I’ll tell you the story of a job seeker I met during an intense 1-hour Talk To Nick consultation I did recently to help her break through an employer’s hesitation.

When the rules of interviewing don’t work

Jing came to the U.S. from China on a work visa only to lose her job during the recent downsizings. She has rare technical skills but suddenly found herself adrift in a very weird job market. (“We can’t find the specialized candidates we need! But we’re flooded with job applications!”)

For several months she applied the rules of interviewing she’d learned from her American friends. It was the same-old advice we all know — put the right keywords in your resume, recite your strengths and weaknesses, study up on the common behavioral interview questions, tell them you’re flexible on salary, let the interviewer lead, try not to be nervous, and so on.

Because of her job skills, Jing had plenty of interviews. But, she told me, it always ended after one or two rounds. She really felt she was following all the rules. She always got compliments after her interviews. So why was she getting no offers?

Control the interview: Make it a conversation

Jing is smart, insightful and grasps things quickly. But she couldn’t get past the barrage of rote interview questions — her language barrier put her at a disadvantage. So I showed her how to turn away from the rote Q&A script managers usually follow, and to have a slower, more casual conversation with the hiring manager instead.

Later, she told me that was the secret sauce for her. She felt she was coming off as very stiff and overly formal because she was doing her best to follow the prescribed script.

“In all my interviews I could not make myself relax and do my best because I was trying to follow all the rules my friends taught me about interviews. By changing my tone to conversational, the manager relaxed, it was friendly and we were able to really talk! That made me able to show my best!”

Two days after our session, Jing went on her next interview. At first the manager was uncomfortable with Jing’s accent, but Jing compensated by speaking more slowly. Then she then expressed her interest by asking the manager about his team. While he talked, she relaxed.

She asked the manager what he needed a new hire to accomplish. He told her that in spite of her weak English language skills, he was impressed with her communication skills and by her focus on the job tasks. The rest of the interview was about the work, and she had a good offer in just hours.

“I didn’t know I could control a job interview like that just by asking the manager to talk about himself!” Jing said to me later

There are many ways to control a job interview by breaking the script that makes interviews so awkward. Two of the most important are (a) change the subject, and (b) focus on deliverables.

Change the subject

Job candidates are naturally self-conscious in interviews because they’re on stage. They are the focus. They must perform by answering questions. This interview script, which the manager and candidate buy into, can create immense stress and actually weaken the candidate’s presentation.

A candidate can take control of the initial part of the interview and break the script by encouraging the manager to talk about themselves. In fact, research reveals that “letting someone share a story or two about their life instead of blabbing about yours could give them more positive memories of your interaction.”

(There’s science behind this tactic! Studies in social psychology suggest that when we express interest in another person they are more apt to like us. That may seem obvious, but few people know how to apply this fun fact of psychology to a job interview.)

With a big, friendly, curious grin, ask the manager, “So, what brought you to this company?” Or, “Have you found the challenges of your job have changed since you started working here?”

Be polite, be gentle and friendly, be curious, and — like Jing — be conversational!

By changing the subject temporarily, you can nudge a stress-inducing interview toward an engaging conversation that reveals to the manager how different you are from other applicants. That is, it makes you stand out positively. As long as you’re also ready to talk about how you’ll do the job, this brief respite can change your meeting dramatically for the better.

Deliver deliverables

A job candidate can also break the interview script — and control the meeting — by helping the manager think in terms of deliverables. (We discussed this at length in Stupid Interview Questions: #11.) Ask the manager, “What do you expect your new hire to deliver in the first month, 3 months, 6, 12 and then at 18 and 24 months?”

This is another way to make the manager talk and to put the focus on the job rather than on you.

Managers are hampered by the standard, rote questions they’ve been taught to ask. Helping them see that your focus is on deliverables changes the way they view you. You suddenly stand out because you’re showing you’re all about the work.

Change the rules of interviewing

The rules of interviewing don’t work because they rely on a artificial script. Like Jing, you can take control of your interviews by having a real conversation with a hiring manager. Just change the rules!

What are the rules of interviewing? Which ones work, and which don’t? Do you control your interviews so that you’ll stand out from your competition? What’s the best way to do that?

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You’re happy at work. Should you interview anyway?

You’re happy at work. Should you interview anyway?


I’ve worked for my company for five years. I get assigned to different jobs often enough that I never get bored, and I keep learning new skills. So I’m not in danger of getting rusty or falling behind on training. I’m really pretty happy and I’m treated well. I envision staying in my industry a few more years, then I would look around for something else, maybe even in another city where housing prices are reasonable. So, should I apply to the occasional job posting online and interview anyway, even if I’m happy? My vacation time is precious, and I’d hate to waste my time or other people’s time on job interviews when I’m not really looking.

Nick’s Reply

should you interviewWhen you walk into a restaurant because you want maple-glazed salmon, do you think the chef runs out to go fish for your salmon while the sous chef taps a couple of maple trees? My guess is the restaurant developed ready sources of ingredients long before it needed them, because planning ahead is good.

So you, too, should line up now what you will need later: new friends and contacts, opportunities, employers and options. In fact, you should have started two years ago because that’s how long it can take to land a good job. In other words, you should always be doing that.

Should you interview even if you don’t need to seek a job? It doesn’t have to involve applying for jobs or interviewing. Exploring future job opportunities doesn’t have to culminate in discussions about a job today. But here’s the key: It’s enough to pinpoint companies and people where you might go when the time comes. Knowing where you want to go and who can help get you there, before it’s time to move, will give you an incredible edge in your job search.

Should you interview now?

Sure. But it’s more than that — and it’s even less. There are things you must do before you can get good interviews.

  • Start meeting people who work in companies where you think you might like to work. If these companies are out of town, meet them via e-mail, on the phone, via Zoom – or when you’re traveling. These connections will grow in value, often slowly, but there are no returns in isolation.
  • Did you read a good article about a certain company or business line? Drop a note to the author (or to the people mentioned in the article) or call them. Explore the subject of the article further. Ask about their company, about their career, about the place they live. Make a new friend.
  • Stay in touch. Trade useful information as an ongoing habit. I find people are more inclined to respond when you’re not fishing for a job.
  • Attend some trade shows or training programs where you can easily meet people in your industry. Have a beer with someone you don’t know. The more people you meet, the more likely you are to become “the person that’s wired for the job.”
  • Take advantage of virtual meeting tools, but make no mistake. You are not likely to compete effectively against someone who makes first-degree contact — that is, in person — with people you need to meet.
  • At these events, participate in discussions about jobs and employers. Add your two bits. Offer to give someone who’s interested in your company a “cook’s tour,” or to make an introduction. (I’m sure your company would love such referrals!)
  • What goes around comes around. It’s good to do career favors for others. These need not be big favors. Don’t expect something in return each time, but trust that contributing to the pool of good deeds produces more good deeds, and that will make your life better. It may even help you find your next job.

But, should you interview now?

It’s not really about interviewing, but going on an interview now and then, if a company really sparks your interest, can be a good thing. (See Which companies should I apply to?) There’s no guarantee they’re going to hire you, so don’t feel you have to be ready to accept a job. As long as you’re genuinely interested in the people, the business and the work, don’t worry about misrepresenting your intentions. The purpose of interviews is for employers and workers to meet one another and explore.

You might have noticed a common thread in all these suggestions: They all involve taking the initiative to meet new people and doing it all the time, even if you’re not interviewing. That’s where future job opportunities come from. That’s how you can keep your supply chain of opportunities stocked without wasting anyone’s time. Do your fishing before you need to eat.

It’s good to hear from someone who likes their work and their employer. Thanks for a new spin on an old question.

For real? A last word

I know many people will read my suggestions and scratch their heads. “For real, Nick? Who has the time or inclination to do all or any of that? It all sounds great but it’s not realistic in any job market!”

If you don’t do some of the things I suggest, you’re left with the status quo. You will get rejected again and again for jobs you applied for just because they came along — not because you really want them or can do them, or because they’re good for your career. The Employment System is an overly automated database-numbers game. Cynics play along and hope for the best, which usually means they get hired for a job they will likely soon quit or get fired from because it was wrong for them to begin with.

There is no easy, automated way to let the Employment System lead you to a job. This System leaves personal and business catastrophes in its wake every day. Pretending it might work when you need it is, I believe, a big mistake.

Do you wait until you need a job to find a job? How much time do you invest in cultivating relationships and connections in advance of a job search? Should you interview regularly to stay ahead of the game? What’s the best way to do it?

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Burned out, quit without notice. What now?

Burned out, quit without notice. What now?


I’ve been working for a very dynamic manager who gives me lots of opportunities for advancement. I’ve learned a lot, but I think I blew it. The last three months have been very stressful and two days ago I quit. I left my boss in the lurch — I quit without notice. I was just burned out and didn’t know where to turn. He’s a great guy, but he just kept piling on the work and I got to the point where I couldn’t keep my head above water. Some tasks really required someone higher-level than me, but I managed to get them done, working till after midnight at home and on weekends. My husband and kids just learned to live without me for a while.

How do I explain my sudden departure to future employers? I do not just leave jobs, but I just didn’t feel capable any more. I know it was poor judgment to not give notice. Please help.

Nick’s Reply

quit without noticeSometimes stress pushes us to our limits. Sometimes it pushes us beyond. You’re right, you shouldn’t have quit without notice — or without first discussing your problems candidly with your boss. You will never know whether he might have adjusted your work load.

There are two things you should do.

Quit without notice: Fess up

First, you should go back to your employer, apologize, and offer to cover the job while he finds a replacement. That would be hard, I know. He may not even want to talk to you. Fessing up is the only way I know to try and salvage the relationship and your self-respect.

Second, face up to what happened when you interview with another employer. Whether or not your boss was being reasonable in piling on all that work, the bottom line is that the job and the company were not for you. You have to be able to explain, very briefly, why that’s so. Even if not speaking up was your error, your employer is at least as much to blame. Try something like this:

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 was with your recent 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 show you how I will be a profitable hire…”

Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. Be ready talk about what you can do for the new employer. That’s what matters. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

Lack of skills or too much work?

I’ve seen this burn-out syndrome before and it concerns me. You say you didn’t feel capable in the position you were in. I take that to mean you either weren’t skilled to do the job, or it was just too much work for you even if you could do it. Don’t let that get to your ego. There are jobs we can do, and others we can’t. Problems arise when we don’t know the difference, and when we can’t say stop before a disaster occurs.

I’ve known a number of talented people who have dug themselves into a hole they could not escape, except the way you did. It’s a vicious cycle.

Snapped and quit without notice

Sara was a very smart and dedicated worker who enjoyed great success at her company for three years. But she failed to recognize that the work became more than she could handle. The harder she worked, the more responsibility the boss gave her. Bosses are guilty of making this situation worse, because they often take advantage of this kind of worker.

Sara got deeper into the hole. She became physically ill. But she was afraid to turn any work away. Finally, she snapped. Late on a Friday she slipped a one-line resignation letter under her boss’s door and disappeared. She couldn’t face him, her co-workers, or herself. Her self-confidence was shattered.

Is this job for you?

This is what happens when someone takes on more than they can honestly handle. The truth is, the job is not for them, and burning themselves out trying to do it hurts everyone.

This message is not just for workers. It’s for bosses, too. If a job is too much for someone, stop and face the problem. Don’t create more problems by ignoring it till it’s too late.

My advice to you: find a job you want to do and that you can do well. Be honest with the interviewer, and focus on what you can do for the business. Interview your future boss thoroughly. Ask to meet other team members and inquire about the boss’s management style when there’s a crunch. Don’t ignore warning signs.

If you take the job, grow your career slowly and carefully, and base your success on the new skills you build – not on how much work you’re willing to take on to prove something. Let your boss know when the work gets to be too much. There’s a difference between “not doing your job” and “having too much job to do”.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever burned out and quit your job without notice to your boss? What precipitated it? What was the outcome? Do you believe it was your own fault, or your employer’s? What should this reader tell other employers?

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More employment hoops to jump through

More employment hoops to jump through


employment hoopsI recently applied for a Senior Sales position for a medical device supplier, having 15 years of national experience in health industry sales across Australia and New Zealand. The employment hoops they expect me to jump through are bizarre. The employer requires all applicants to pass an outsourced online “assessment test.” This is completed in the local office or remotely with a junior HR person monitoring to ensure the applicant is not cheating.

I found this approach rather bizarre for 3 reasons.

  • 50 questions in 15 minutes means 20 seconds per question. Some can be answered in seconds, others not. The candidate is told to guess rather than waste time on solving the question – not real-world since in business guesses ultimately don’t pay.
  • Mathematical reasoning questions (no calculators allowed) take quite some time to gather the facts and determine an answer – maybe easy for a Master of Mathematics.
  • The expectation to have a vocabulary way outside the normal range is unreasonable. I do not know how the junior HR lady passed the test as her native language is Mandarin. When we chatted some of her sentence structures were not correct. She too admitted having difficulty with the US phraseology used in the questions.

I don’t understand how a U.S. company recruiting for a sales job in Australia is using an assessment test where examples are U.S.-centric and not international (e.g., Outside the U.S. all measurements are metric, not miles, yards and inches). And how does the company expect applicants where English is not their first language to score a passing result?

I would be interested to read your comments on this recruitment approach.

Nick’s Reply

This isn’t recruiting. It’s trolling for meek job seekers. They’re not assessing how good a match you are to do this job. They want to see how submissive you are.

More employment hoops

This falls under the category “jumping through hoops for a job,” a troubling topic we’ve discussed before.

The details you provided suggest these issues:

  • By definition, these tests are “canned” — one size fits all. While the employer may use testing judiciously, the reality is that HR is often seduced into letting someone else do the hard work of judging a job candidate; in this case, the test vendor. Tests conveniently become the determining factor in candidate selection. That can be a big mistake, especially in an economy where jobs go begging.
  • The instruction to not guess suggests the test is scored on a curve. It is designed to make takers fail on many items. So, it’s not really about what you know or what skills you possess. It’s about how you compare statistically to other test takers. That’s not an assessment. It’s a comparison. In other words, they’re looking for the candidate with the smallest number of “incorrect” answers, more than they’re looking for skills and knowledge.
  • Using U.S. standards to assess candidates who live — and who will work — in a different country and culture is, well, the wrong answer. In testing, we talk about validity and reliability. A test is valid if it actually measures what it is supposed to measure. How can an Australian be judged on their communication skills when the test items are written using U.S. vernacular? (A test is reliable if you take the test again and again and score the same each time.)

Subjecting yourself to any canned assessment tool is to put yourself at a disadvantage, unless, perhaps, the employer can show you verification of the test’s validity and reliability, and unless the employer is willing to discuss your results with you. The American Psychological Association publishes a good selection of articles about the Rights and responsibilities of test takers: Guidelines and expectations.

What employment hoops do you encounter today?

Your reservations about such testing are valid. You should worry about how you are being judged, and whether you’re being judged appropriately and fairly.

When an employer uses testing as just one part of a thorough assessment and interview process, it may have a place in hiring. When the assessment you’re asked to do raises the kinds of questions you have, the time to ask those questions is before you consent to it.

As I said at the outset, we’ve discussed tips about how to deal with testing requirements, so I won’t repeat them here. But it’s been a while since we’ve enumerated the kinds of employment hoops — perhaps more accurately, obstacles — employers want you to face before they will even interview you.

  1. Are you willing to walk away from employers whose “hoops” seem unfair or unreasonable to you?
  2. Have changes in the economy and job market changed the kinds of hoops you’ve encountered in recent job searches?
  3. Are employers more or less likely today to forego testing until after interviews?
  4. How do you handle employers who make such demands?

Let’s get up to date on what employers expect of job candidates nowadays. You’re much closer to this than I am, so please share your experiences. This is one of those Q&A columns where I expect the Comments section to be more chock full of good advice than anything I’ve written.

What employment hoops do you face, and what do you do about them?

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Ditch college degrees for the Columbo Method?

Ditch college degrees for the Columbo Method?


Some states are removing the requirement for college degrees when posting most of their government positions. Do you have any thoughts on this and how it will affect recruiting, and how it might affect the commercial world if it adopted the same rule? For instance, if a recruiter can’t rely on a degree, what can they look at?

Nick’s Reply

college degreesI know you’re referring to the controversy in the labor market about whether job descriptions that specify a college degree actually require one to do the job. Is the degree really necessary? But let’s get underneath that: What can an employer — whether government or commercial — rely on to make a sound hiring judgment?

What do college degrees mean to recruiters?

What good does a candidate’s college degree do a recruiter if they don’t verify it? We’ve seen enough of this in the news — and by the time phony claims of degrees and fake resumes are exposed it’s always too late! The damage has been done to the individual’s reputation (and career and income), but also to the employer’s credibility. (Who wants to invest in, buy from, or work for a company that embarrasses itself like that?)

Removing a degree requirement will make little difference to a good recruiter who relies on more meaningful and reliable assessments of job candidates. On the other hand, it will drive inept recruiters nuts because now they actually have to do the hard work of qualifying applicants. Likewise, college-educated job seekers may find themselves having to demonstrate actual ability to do a job, rather than rest on their academic credentials.

Don’t get me wrong. I think college degrees are useful to a recruiter, but they are not sufficient for making judgments about candidates. The real message in the elimination of degree requirements is that employers need to do a much better job of assessing candidates directly, rather than relying on proxies like sheepskins, certifications, third-party reference checks, and indirect algorithm-driven evaluations. This goes for all kinds of jobs, not just government or “professional” ones.

So let’s answer your question.

If not college degrees, then what should recruiters look at?

Next to a demonstration of how they’d do the job, I think the single best indicator of a good candidate is their references. The best recruiters do their own reference checks. The lazy ones don’t do it all or outsource it — and I think this is a critical mistake. (See References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.) A third-party reference checker who’s just asking canned questions is not going to “read between the lines.” Even written references aren’t sufficient. You need that phone call and you’ve got to hear the voice.

I have always done reference checks myself on all my candidates – before I send them to a client employer. I want to know whether their resume and other claims they make are confirmed by people they’ve worked with. If the references conflict with any conclusions I might draw from the resume or the degree, it’s “no dice.” I’ve placed people with no degree who are stars – more expert than degreed people. And I’ve tossed out candidates with degrees when their references fail to support what their college degree implies.

What’s most interesting to me are candidates with no degrees and weak resumes. These poor people just don’t know how to portray themselves. But if their references SING! — that makes me take another look, and that’s made me lots of dough. Nothing makes me look better than finding a star everybody else has missed! But what about the recruiter who just skims the surface and misses a great candidate?

The Columbo Method

There’s something I ask at the end of every reference check that helps me test whatever I’ve already concluded. It’s an interrogation technique made famous in an old TV show, Columbo, starring Peter Falk as a disarmingly casual police detective. As I’m saying thanks and goodbye to the reference, I stop and ask, “Uh, just one more thing. If you could hire this person again today, would you?”

Like Columbo, I want to catch the reference off-guard. What I’m looking for is any hesitation before a YES. That is to say, even good references might not be enough! No automated reference check is going to give you that data point – nor will a degree.

Unfortunately, the elimination of degree requirements will likely make a bigger mess of inadequate recruiting practices. Maybe direct assessment of ability to do the job and talking with people who have first-hand experience working with the candidate will suddenly appear to be a really good idea. Which recruiters can do it?

Uh, just one more thing… College degrees, or…

Here’s an idea for a test I’d love to see. Line up 20 job candidates who have no college degree and 20 with degrees. Let employers interview all of them — for job postings that do and don’t specify a degree — without disclosing who does and does not have a degree. Who gets hired? How do the employers decide?

Have you ever gotten a good job that “required” a degree you didn’t have? If you have a degree, think you could win a job without relying on it? Ever hire someone without a degree for a “degreed” position? If you’re a recruiter, how much stock do you put in college degrees? What else do you rely on to assess a candidate?

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