We don’t need any stinking cover letters

We don’t need any stinking cover letters

A reader dreads having to write a cover letter for an employer, and asks what to do in the October 20, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

cover lettersI hate cover letters. I don’t know how to write a decent one, all the online help I’ve seen is banal garbage, and frankly I’d rather chew on broken glass than go through the agony of trying to think up a bunch of “toot-your-own-horn” baloney to spit out in a cover letter. But in the process of applying for jobs, oftentimes a cover letter is required. Any suggestions?

Nick’s Reply

A sales manager I know forbids his sales team from responding to requests for quotation (RFPs). “If all you’re doing is sending out prices for our products, you have no idea what the customer’s problem is, where it hurts. You can’t win by sending out RFPs and playing How-Low-Can-You-Go?”

Likewise, when applying for a job, you can’t win by sending out resumes and cover letters, then expect the employer to figure out whether to interview you or some of the other 2,000 applicants.

What’s better than a cover letter?

Once you hand over your resume or cover letter, you are out of the picture. You cannot defend your cover letter while HR and the hiring manager read it. You cannot assess what the manager really wants and needs — the job description is not enough. When you submit your cover letter, what you’re saying to that employer is, “Here. Read this. Then figure out what to do with me.” Employers stink at that!

Avoid confusing the employer with your entire kitchen sink of credentials and experiences even if they ask for it! To get in the door, you must offer just the two or three skills (from your huge arsenal) that will address the manager’s specific problems — “where it hurts.”

It’s an offer that no other job candidate will make.

Make this offer

Don’t spend hours “crafting” a cover letter based on guesses about what might impress the employer. Instead, offer 10 minutes of your time. Ask the manager to tell you “where it hurts.” Then deliver — yes, on the fly — three ways you can make it better.

“As a rule, I do not submit cover letters because they are a one-way recitation about me. To help you, I need to know a bit more than what’s in the job description — about the problems and challenges you need your new hire to tackle. I’d be happy to invest in a 10-minute call to discuss this. Based on a preliminary study of your business, and on what you tell me during our call, I believe there may be at least three things I can bring to the job that would materially affect the success of your operation. If I can’t demonstrate that during our brief talk, then you should of course not hire me, or even do a full interview. Would you like to schedule 10 minutes to roll up our sleeves and talk shop?”

Is this risky? I think it’s riskier to pretend a cover letter will get you in the door. Think about the best way to communicate this offer. Put it into words you are comfortable with.

You can deliver the above offer in an e-mail but it’s better via a phone call. You can also do this via a third party. Someone the employer trusts can suggest that the manager have this brief discussion with you — one of its employees, consultants, customers, vendors or other friend of the company.

Weed out tire-kickers

By the way, those “three things” you could do? Describe very briefly, but provide no details. If they press you, invoke the 10 minute limit you both agreed to. “I have another commitment so I have to run, but I’d be happy to flesh out the details with you in a proper job interview. When is good for you?”

This is a great way to weed out tire-kickers who want applicants to invest time and effort that they won’t invest themselves. Of course, you will have to do a bit of work in advance to pull this off. Suggesting specific ways you can do the job profitably will not be easy. But if this opportunity isn’t worth your time to do that, then this employer and job are not worth the time and guesswork to write a cover letter.

Remember: While they are judging your compliance with their hiring process, you must judge them, too, on how they pick their candidates. Are they ready to roll up their sleeves and talk shop for a few minutes, or are they too busy eating cover-letter and baloney sandwiches?

Do you need a cover letter to apply for a job? Do you know something better? If you don’t use cover letters, how do you get an employer’s attention?

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Ghosting: Hard lessons about recruiters & employers

Ghosting: Hard lessons about recruiters & employers

Two readers frustrated about ghosting by recruiters and employers learn how to apply two tests, in the October 13, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question #1

ghostingTwice in the last month or so I’ve gotten LinkedIn mail from recruiters who were really excited about my background and wanted to talk to me about a position that would be right up my alley. I’d reply offering a date and time to talk. Both times I was ghosted. LinkedIn’s utility for job search continues to take a nosedive. “There oughta be a law!” How can I judge what’s real and what’s spam?

Nick’s Reply

We all know recruiters will waste your time. The hard lesson is that you can do something about it.

Job seekers get too excited when a recruiter comes knocking. They so want an “opportunity” that they fail to judge the recruiter and the solicitation. You can save loads of time and heartbreak with a quick, simple test.

To test a recruiter’s credibility, force their hand early.

The phone-call test

When a “recruiter” solicits you effusively, gauge their enthusiasm with a phone-call test. Invite them to talk on the phone. Ask for their number. (Don’t give yours.) 95% will ghost you simply because they’re part of a boiler-room operation and they have no idea whether you’re a match for the job. If they fail this phone-call test, forget them. On to the next!

For anyone that thinks this could cost you an opportunity, let me show you why it won’t.

To a real recruiter or headhunter, you’re worth a fee of 15-25% of your starting salary if they can place you. So, if you’re hired for $60,000, the recruiter stands to make up to $15,000 in fees. That’s a lot of money. If the headhunter is “really excited” because you’re really a good candidate for the job they’re working on, they’d never risk losing $15,000 by not talking to you!

Hard ghosting lesson #1

95% of “recruiters” and the “opportunities” they hawk aren’t worth spit. Learn the hard lesson: It behooves you to use the phone-call test on each one that comes along.

Question #2

Two weeks ago, I did five interviews in two days. One of the interviews was dropped on my calendar at the last minute (same day), but I cooperated. I felt the interviews went well. I sent thank you notes to everyone. I did not hear anything back that week. I followed up the following week, heard nothing. Followed up last week, still nothing. They’ve gone completely ghost. Is there any good way to deal with this?

Nick’s Reply

We all know employers and HR insist that job seekers jump through hoops. After you’ve performed for them, they ghost you. The hard lesson is that you can push back early in the hiring process.

While you complain you’re getting no updates or replies, the conventional wisdom is that you must “chill and wait” because “these things take time.”

Sure they do! And the managers and HR are all very busy. Professional courtesy is not optional. They have an obligation to respond to you while you’re waiting because you’ve already extended the courtesy of your time to them.

What can you do about a corporate habit of disregard? You must set standards, let employers know what they are, then expect them to perform just as they expect you to.

The protocol test

Whenever you think it’s appropriate during an interview, test their hiring protocols. Ask what their feedback practices are, and who is responsible for keeping you apprised. Expect specific answers.

  • “When will you follow up with me?” (Date, time)
  • “If I inquire after a week or two, who will respond to me?” (Name, title)

There is nothing unreasonable about these questions. You have invested time at their request. Let them know you expect the same. If they don’t answer candidly, expect ghosting is the policy and be brutally honest with yourself — don’t expect much from this company. On to the next!

(Imagine you get the job and, after you’re assigned a project, you ghost your boss and ignore requests for project updates. Is there really any difference? It’s all about responsibility and integrity.)

Test recruiters, test employers. Then adjust your willingness to engage based on how they perform. Recruiters and employers who do what they say they’re going to do demonstrate integrity and responsibility. They will be few. They are worth your time.

Hard ghosting lesson #2

The hard lesson about ghosting is that you’ll have time to engage with the best only if you know how to test and avoid the rest.

Let’s make a list. What hard lessons have you learned? What standards do you actually apply when dealing with recruiters and employers? What are your inviolable rules?

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What education does the employer want?

What education does the employer want?

A reader isn’t sure a new college degree or other education is going to guarantee a career or a job, in the October 6, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

educationI’m thinking of making a significant shift that would lead to better pay and an overall more satisfying career in a different kind of job. To make the change I might be able to get away with some certification programs and continuing education. However, I’m also considering getting a master’s degree because that seems to be an important credential for “getting in.” Any approach I take will cost money and time, in some cases a lot of both! How do I decide which way to go?

Nick’s Reply

I’m going to tell you something that should be very obvious, but I don’t expect you’ve already considered it because our employment and education systems have brainwashed you. First, let’s get some basics out of the way.

Selling education by the pound

The education industry (make no mistake, it is an industry) goes to great lengths to market its product. The marketing strongly implies that the degree leads to the job. Students have learned to shop for degrees by the pound: a certification, a bachelor’s, a master’s. How much “great job and salary” do you want? People with specific jobs and careers in mind easily swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker.

A new college degree can be a very risky bet unless you’re aspiring to one of the “professions” which require rigorous training and credentials. I’m referring to the law, medicine, accounting, engineering and the like – although you could theoretically pass a Professional Engineer exam or pass the bar exam without going to school. (I didn’t say it would be easy!)

But you probably know new law school or engineering grads that can’t find work. Did they not buy enough education?

Who’s really paying for the education?

When you have a specific career goal in mind, the product you’re buying is not education or a degree. The real product is the job you want. This means one thing matters more than any other: What education does the employer want?

In other words, you should remember that who’s really paying for that degree (or certification) is the employer that hires and pays you for it.

Although in general a college degree means higher income, degrees may not be required for good incomes in every career — or even in the job you want. A good education is valuable for many reasons, and it can enhance a career (and your income) dramatically. But, don’t expect that getting a degree is going to guarantee you a better income or a better career.

Don’t expect an employer to buy the career promises a school sold you.

What to do

How a degree-less job seeker gets the job:
No College Degree, No Problem
Before you assume, for example, that you need an MBA in finance to get a job in investment banking, or a computer science degree to design software, consider who’s “paying” for that degree. Pick the industry, company and job you want. Then go talk to the relevant employers and people who do the work you want to do.

Ask them what sort of education is necessary, sufficient and useful. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars could hang on the answers.

I don’t mean you should read the academic “requirements” on the job description. Go talk with the hiring managers and people who already do the work you want to do. Discover the nuances. Get insight. Get insider advice.

You might even ask what kind of education pays off best when you apply for the job you want. Then pursue that education.

There’s still no guarantee of a job, but at least you’re partnering with the “other customer” that’s indirectly paying for your education.

Get past the marketing of education

Popular business magazines regularly run rankings that list the college degree programs (e.g., MBA) and schools that deliver the most bang for the buck. They list salaries and job titles obtained by graduates. Big deal. What they fail to discuss is all the other ways talented people can be successful. Many schools don’t prove that they really know what employers want.

If degrees were directly tied to jobs, schools would guarantee you job opportunities. Instead, they market the often nebulous relationship between a degree and a job.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t knock education. I believe a college education for its own sake can make most people smarter and better overall, if only for the broad exposure to knowledge, ideas, critical thinking and problem-solving tools it provides. We’ve all seen the surveys which show that, generally speaking, people with college degrees earn more than those without them. But, I really get bugged when schools and the media market “the relationship” between degrees, jobs and income.

Necessary and sufficient qualifications

Depending on the person and the situation, it’s not always clear that a degree (or yet another degree) is necessary. I’ve known many people, including law and medical school grads and freshly minted MBAs, who are disappointed that the degree they worked so hard to earn hasn’t gotten them a job or higher incomes. (See MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course in Bloomberg Businessweek.)

While a degree may be necessary, it may not be sufficient. That is, you need something more. That may be experience, apprenticeship or just an employer willing to take a chance on you.

Or, a degree may not be necessary if you have other qualifications that are sufficient.

Only the employer really knows.

Ask the employer

So, before you invest loads of time and money to get a degree, talk to people who do the work you want to do, and to their managers. We’re probably talking about several companies. Ask which credentials really matter to them and why. Which credentials would most likely pay off if you applied there for a job?

If you’re going to school because you want to learn for learning’s sake, that’s wonderful. But, if you’re investing in a degree to get ahead in your job, the ultimate customer of the education industry isn’t you — it’s the employer you go to work for.

I promised to tell you something very obvious. Before you invest in education or a degree, find out what education the employer wants.

What’s your experience with education, degrees and jobs? Have you been let down after investing in a degree (or an extra degree) that seemed to promise a job? What jobs really require a degree? Do you know any schools that do an exceptional job of preparing their students to actually get jobs?

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How can I negotiate for this job?

How can I negotiate for this job?

A reader doesn’t know how much is too much to negotiate for, in the September 29, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

negotiateI’m on the cusp of getting a job offer for a position in another city, doing accounting for a large law firm. It’s not a high-level professional job by any means, but it is something that could lead to it.

The supervisor of the department said to me “tell us what we need to do to get you here” or something to that effect. My question is, what do I ask for? I’ve never really negotiated anything except salary before, so I don’t know what is “too much” to ask for, as far as moving costs, or an advance for an apartment deposit. I know companies pull out all the stops for higher-up folks (management, lawyers, etc.), but I’m not sure what is common for the level I’m at now (mid $50K, I hope).

Would I be out of line to negotiate for help on a deposit for an apartment? This opportunity is very sudden and unfortunately I don’t have the funds saved up for getting a new apartment right away. However, I don’t want them laughing at me if I ask for too much. However, they do seem like they want me pretty badly. Any thoughts are appreciated!

Nick’s Reply

Congrats on impressing this firm. It seems what you’re trying to negotiate is salary, of course, but also your relocation, in a way that keeps you whole in a new city.

First, check moving.com, a useful site about relocation. Second, sit down and figure out the answer to the question you were asked: What do they need to do to get you? It seems clear you’re not looking for the moon, so I’m worried less that you’ll ask for too much and more that you won’t negotiate for what you really would like.

Before you negotiate

Break this into a short list for yourself. What are the realistic costs of:

  • Moving your stuff: moving company, truck rental, gas, storage, etc.
  • Travel including two round trips later if necessary
  • Getting a new apartment, including the deposit
  • Cost of living difference
  • Leaving your current job (lost bonus, vacation time, etc.)

I would not share this in detail with the employer unless they ask for a break-out (I don’t think they will). The point is to understand what you need and want. If your total number is reasonable, that may be all that’s required.

Make it easy for the employer

Here’s a little accounting secret about how to negotiate everything other than salary: Employers hate to grant recurring payments, like a higher salary, but they’re often willing to incur a one-time cost, like a signing bonus or a relocation expense. Many companies see that as reasonable. Be flexible and make it easy for the employer to satisfy your needs.

For example, consider whether you need a loan or a “signing bonus.” A loan payable via payroll deduction may be sufficient to get you moved. But I’m not saying you should not ask for an outright payment.

Be careful about any relocation agreement: Is there a claw-back, where if you quit in less than, say, a year, you’d have to give the money back? There are all kinds of ways to structure this.

Negotiate for more by asking for less

Smart negotiating keeps things simple and brief. You can actually ask for more by enumerating fewer line items. Most employers don’t care about the specifics. They just want to know “how much?”

For example, you need not break out the apartment deposit as a line item; just bundle it into the “moving cost” figure. You can also include the costs of a trip or two back home to wrap up personal matters that your sudden move might require. Do the travel on weekends to avoid eating into work time, or don’t do it at all — but it may be reasonable to request the price of those trips.

The key is to not get overly detailed unless they ask for details, and to provide just a few line items that make sense along with figures that aren’t off the wall.

Negotiate by making a commitment and discussing the terms

My suggestion is to negotiate through discussion, not by begging or demanding. It helps to make it clear that you’re ready to accept the job and start work if they can provide for your reasonable needs. So, start with a commitment and a thank-you for their flexibility.

“I want to accept this job with you, and I appreciate that you’re trying to make it attractive to me. Why don’t we discuss what would work for both of us?”

This tells them they’ve won you over and that it’s worth their while now to work out the details with you.

How to Say It

Here’s how you might discuss salary and the cost to “get you there” in one fell swoop. Please use this only as a guideline. Use only what you’re comfortable with and put it in your own words. Raise only as many details as you think you must.

“I appreciate your offer to do what’s necessary to help make this happen quickly and painlessly, and I’m open to discussing any of these items. The cost of living difference between your city and mine [check this on moving.com] is +10%, so I’d like to discuss a salary of between $55K and $60K. Since you asked, my actual move will cost $2,500. If you need me to start as soon as possible, I will need to make two weekend trips back in the first month to wrap up some personal matters, and economy airfares would total about $400. If I leave my job before they pay my bonus, which is due in two months, I’ll be leaving between $1,000-$1,500 of bonus behind. If you can do anything to compensate for even half of that I’d be very happy. To answer your question, to bring me on board quickly, in addition to salary I’d ask that you consider helping me cover these transition costs that come to a total of $3,500. I’m ready to start!”

Include only items that you think are justified. The items I’ve enumerated are just examples. Just make sure that, overall, you’re covering your costs, no matter which items you’re actually listing. For example, I’d bury the cost of the apartment deposit. I wouldn’t list it explicitly because it might sound odd that you’re an accountant but can’t swing the deposit on your own.

This firm has already indicated a commitment to hiring you, so treat them like family, and have a friendly, candid discussion about what they have to do to get you.

I hope this helps and I wish you the best.

What would you try to negotiate in this situation? How should this reader tally up and discuss requirements to make this move attractive? Have you ever tried to negotiate for too much… or not enough… and then regretted it?

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You mean the recruiter isn’t the hiring manager?

You mean the recruiter isn’t the hiring manager?

A reader wants to hear from the hiring manager, not from a recruiter, in the September 22, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

hiring managerI need to change employers after almost two years of stagnant pay and “nothing new learned.” But I’m fed up with what passes for recruiting. Recruiters almost never know what they’re talking about, and I don’t get to talk with an actual hiring manager until I’ve already wasted a lot of time doing the HR dance. Then the manager tells me I’m not a good candidate! Why don’t companies recruit more accurately from the start? Why aren’t they making better matches before we even get to the interview?

Nick’s Reply

You just identified a profound problem. Most employers start the hiring process all wrong. That’s why they can’t make good matches efficiently. I believe the problem arises before the job interview.

How the hiring manager gets the wrong candidates

I find that most employers and managers demonstrate poor recruiting habits. For example, why do they interview a candidate at all – on the phone, via video or in person — if they don’t already know the person’s level of expertise?

But most managers would object: “That’s why we have interviews!”

I say bunk. A job interview is not the place to vet a candidate on the most basic qualification criteria. That should be done before anyone even contacts the candidate. Leaving this crucial question for the candidate to answer in an interview is a waste of everyone’s time.

You’ve become frustrated because you should not have been recruited to begin with. The rate of hires made to job candidates considered is so poor because employers and their HR departments haphazardly recruit and encourage anyone to apply. These wrong candidates flood employers with so many resumes and applications that HR must turn to software and algorithms to “analyze and sort” the wheat from the chaff. But when an employer turns on a fire hose of job applicants like this, it is creating its own problem!

How many candidates do you need?

Hiring-software maker Workable reports that before filling a job, the average company considers 19 “qualified” candidates. Qualified means the candidate has moved to “promising” or “call” stage of the process.

That’s actually one of the low estimates. Lever, a recruiting software firm, reports that it takes 189 candidates to fill data-related jobs like data scientist, analyst or security specialist. Sales jobs require the fewest candidates: 43.

Lever also finds that hiring involves nine or 10 “runaway processes” from initial candidate contact to job offer. Google, for example, has required 15-25 separate interviews to judge one job candidate.

Multiply that kind of hiring overhead by the cost of HR, management and interviewer time and employers are more frustrated than you are, even if they act like they don’t know it.

How many candidates does an employer really need?

Hiring managers are the best recruiters

What I’m about to say will not help you unless you can find companies that recruit and hire smart by turning this important process over to people that can do it right.

I believe recruiting can be more efficient — and hiring more accurate — if managers did their own recruiting. Who else is better qualified to recognize and identify the talent necessary to do a job? (Anyone in HR that scoffs and says managers are terrible at recruiting isn’t managing its management resources properly!)

There is evidence that when managers recruit via their trusted professional contacts, and verify candidates’ skills and reputations by polling their professional communities, hiring is not just more efficient – the quality of hires is better and new-employee turnover is lower.

The “HR dance” hurts employers and job seekers

Recruiting and hiring are a big job that HR should stop trying to do. Everyone loses when hiring managers don’t do this job themselves. That “HR dance” has lots of bad ramifications.

SHRM reports that, under the prevalent recruiting and hiring processes, up to 38% of hires quit before their first year is up. The employer must again incur the overhead cost of “nine or 10 runaway processes” and “15-25 separate interviews” to refill the same jobs!

This hurts you, the job hunter, because you have to change jobs again.

Why hiring managers can do it better

Jobvite reports that the “most effective” source of hires – that is, the source that drives the most actual hires – is hiring managers. When they actually do it, hiring managers recruit and hire almost three times more candidates than a company’s own HR department does (19.35% vs 6.61%).

I’ll stick my neck out and suggest why hiring managers are more successful at bringing the right people on board. My own experience tells me it’s because they turn to their networks of trusted contacts when recruiting. (Surprise! This is also how good headhunters recruit!)

While HR posts a job and pushes over a hundred applicants through nine or 10 processing steps (“the dance”), a hiring manager finds and talks with perhaps three highly qualified candidates.

But, without a job posting, where does the manager find them? In the manager’s professional community, after asking a few respected contacts, for example, “Who are the best PHP programmers you know?”

Those contacts make only good referrals because their professional relationships and reputations hinge on it. They want to keep the respect of their dance partners. There is no fire hose.

Managers talk shop

What do hiring managers do differently than HR recruiters? Jobvite says that 43% of new hires leave a job “because it wasn’t what they were expecting.” But why is that surprising, when the candidate’s first contact with a company is with a personnel clerk or recruiter that doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of the job? Hiring managers are naturally better at discussing the job and the work with candidates. Candidates like you expect a recruiter or interviewer to actually be able to talk shop  on your own level!

If an employer wants to avoid losing almost half its new hires in their first year, it needs to make sure all candidates get the job they were expecting. The best way to ensure that: let a hiring manager (or a credible member of the manager’s staff) be the first person a candidate hears from.

But you’ve already seen that this is not how it works. SHRM reveals a dirty little secret that surely all its HR management members are aware of. Hiring managers recruit new hires only 16%-18% of the time. Given the implications of letting someone else do this critical job, why does any employer permit someone in HR to do the recruiting 51%-73% of the time – when this results in lower hit rates and massive turnover of new employees?

Start recruiting and interviewing the right candidates

Screening candidates who come in over the transom is a fool’s errand. It takes a lot of time, costs a lot, and imposes ridiculous failure rates. This reductionist approach yields too many – if not all – wrong candidates.

HR posts jobs and solicits applicants in bulk. For the most part HR selects “who comes along.” HR does not go out and find its candidates via trusted sources in the company’s professional community.

Hiring managers pursuing highly recommended candidates through personal recruiting not only gives a company a higher hit rate; it ensures good hires that stick around.

If a manager doesn’t already know a software development candidate is competent in jQuery, for example, then why have the interview at all? Maybe the keyword “jQuery” isn’t even a critical criterion for pursuing the candidate. What if the hiring manager’s trusted source says, “This candidate hasn’t used jQuery, but I recommend them highly anyway because they’re quick learners who have used related tools.”

Who recruited you?

When hiring managers are left out of the initial recruiting effort, recruiting is by definition dumbed down. When HR, which usually lacks subject matter expertise and insight, makes the first cut of candidates, then the likelihood of meeting the wrong candidates increases. That’s also how employers miss out on the very best candidates – and then waste precious time sorting through more candidates.

If you want to avoid wasting your time, look at who is recruiting you.

There is a reason why most jobs are found and filled through personal referrals. It works best. And there is a reason why better matches aren’t made: The recruiter isn’t the hiring manager!

Who recruited you the last time you got hired into your favorite job? If you’re a manager, do you agree you’re the best recruiter for your team? If you work in HR, or you’re a recruiter, do you buy what I’m saying? What other methods of recruiting might make better matches?

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2 magic questions to ask every interviewer

2 magic questions to ask every interviewer

A reader asks for help dealing with an interviewer’s questions over video, in the September 15, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

questionsAfter I passed a phone screen with an HR interviewer for a software developer position, I was given a technical test/challenge of seven questions which I aced. Now I’m scheduled for a technical interview with one of their developers and a manager for 90 minutes over Zoom. The HR rep said they will ask me questions, give me a coding challenge, talk about their processes and answer my questions. They’d like me to have my camera on “to make it a more personal experience.”

I know your feelings about video interviews and I’m generally not too crazy about code challenges over Zoom calls. I think this is dumb, as everyone works differently. Some people might need more time, for example, to research something. This is not high school that we need to test each other. I think the most important thing for me is that I feel confident, and that my life doesn’t depend on getting this job, so I’m not stressed about it. Do you have any advice for me for this interview? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

Zoom interviews are common nowadays because of the pandemic, but I dislike video interviews at any time. (At least the interviewer will be human and not a HireVue-type A.I. algorithm!) Job interviews are already stressful and a smart (rare!) interviewer must account for a candidate’s added nervousness and awkwardness while using video.

Then there is the problem of how the interviewer comes across on video and how that affects the applicant’s performance and how he or she is evaluated.

Your advantage is that you don’t need this job. This by itself will make you more confident and powerful. So I would just take it as it comes. But I think the key to success is not what you’re asked during your video interview; it’s what questions you ask.

Take some control of interview questions

I never advocate confronting an interviewer. But I do advise avoiding an unfair or unreasonable interview setting.

If you believe the video interview format might hurt you and the employer’s ability to choose the right hire, you might consider bringing it up diplomatically. For example, if you feel awkward about coding while they’re literally watching over your shoulder, let them know. This gives you a measure of control while still demonstrating respect.

If you need to look something up, you might quote what Albert Einstein reportedly said when he was asked what is the speed of light. “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” Smile and gauge the interviewer’s reaction. You may be taking a risk, but the risk of saying nothing may be bigger.

Now I’ll suggest two things you can do when they ask if you have any questions. You’ll see how one sets up the next, almost magically.

Magic question #1

First, ask them what the deliverables are for this job. What do they expect their new hire to do (tasks) and accomplish (specific objectives) in the first month, three months, six and 12? You’re asking for a sort of a project plan for the job. What’s “magic” is that this makes most interviewers realize you’re really thinking about their business and not just about getting a job offer. It also tells you whether they really know what they need.

If the interviewer provides a cogent answer, you’re ready to really engage them. Since any coding challenge they give you will probably be hypothetical and not directly related to the job, up the ante. Segue into an offer that no good employer can refuse.

Magic question #2

Based on their answers to #1, ask the second question, which is magical because it turns an interview into a demonstration.

“I’ve been happy to discuss hypothetical examples. Now could you outline a real problem or challenge you’d want me to tackle if you hired me? I’d like to show you how I would approach it or do it. Of course, I don’t expect you to disclose anything proprietary or confidential! And of course, I’m not going to complete a project here in the interview, but I would like to show you how I’d do this job.”

That’s a very powerful request and a worthy risk to take. I doubt any other candidate will make such an offer to the interviewer. It demonstrates that you are fearless and confident – and prepared. I think it will set you apart. Of course, don’t do so much that you’re delivering free work or actually solving a problem without getting hired!

There’s not a job interview where you can’t ask the interviewer these two critical questions. If the employer cannot answer them to your satisfaction, or isn’t interested in a demonstration of your abilities, reconsider whether this job is a good opportunity — or a mistake waiting to happen.

Finally, if they turn your Zoom meeting into an awkward, uncomfortable inquisition, then you probably don’t want to work with them anyway because that’s what the job is going to be like!

What are the best questions to ask an interviewer? How can you get a measure of control in a video interview?

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Career advice for high school kids

Career advice for high school kids

A reader asks for help giving career advice to a high school kid who is about to enter the real world, in the September 1, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

career adviceI know Ask The Headhunter is for adults, but can you help me help a good kid? My nephew will graduate from high school next year and I’m trying to give him some career advice and vocational guidance. (I’m the only adult family he’s got.) He’s not good with academics, but he loves computers, and I think he might do well with a two-year junior college Computer Science program.

I would like to be thorough in exploring possibilities with him, including those outside technology. I looked at the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook forecasting “tomorrow’s jobs,” and I found a web site that purports to help determine aptitude and occupational interests. There appear to be a number of such services online, but I’m sure they vary in quality.

Are there better ways to do this? Thanks very much for your suggestions.

Nick’s Reply

Good for you for trying to help. Your influence and interest alone will make a huge difference in this young man’s life. But the thing that will affect your nephew’s success more than anything is his motivation. Help him with that first.

Career advice for kids

Do not get too stuck on how he has performed in school to this point or on whether he should pursue a vocational education or a four-year academic program. Lots of kids just can’t handle the traditional classroom, but they can do well in a more applied setting where they are motivated to learn things that have a clear connection to their own goals.

Maybe he should be a computer technician, a computer scientist or a database administrator. Maybe he should be an engineer or an auto mechanic. The objective will guide the choice of education. His motivation is key. You can help him find that motivation by pointing him toward the right resources and being there to discuss his interests, questions and concerns. Direction is the best career help you can give him.

Basic career tools

Some basic aptitude and interest surveys are a good idea, and you can get these career tools very inexpensively at a local community college. (Contact the career services department.) You don’t need a commercial company for this. Just be aware that these surveys are limited in their ability to guide anyone. These tools can stimulate new ideas, but don’t let them limit your nephew one way or the other. Let him explore and choose what he wants to pursue.

Don’t worry. If he makes a mistake, he can change his mind later. Motivation, however, is necessary now or you’ll lose him.

Mentors

You are this young man’s most important mentor. Know what will motivate him more? More mentors!

Here’s the smartest thing you can do. If your nephew has some specific interests, try to find local companies that match up to them. Then start asking around. Do you know someone who knows someone who could introduce him to a person who does the work he’s interested in? Maybe he could shadow this person for a day at work, or get advice on what it takes to get that kind of job.

I would start with contacts you already have — people who know all kinds of workers from trades people to professionals. I’m talking about your priest, rabbi or other cleric. Your banker, doctor, lawyer or accountant. These are mentors who can introduce your nephew to more specific mentors. All these people know the local work landscape and can make suitable personal introductions.

The one-on-one exposure to folks who do the work your nephew wants to do is key. This is a great reality check and it will help him decide, “This is not for me,” or it will motivate him to work all the harder. When a kid can experience “the real thing” and get advice from an insider about what it takes to be successful, well, get out of the way. His motivation will go into high gear.

Career advice to excel

If your nephew has no clue what he’s interested in, try The Library Vacation, but go with him — at least the first day — to help get him on track.

As for the DOL Handbook, it’s a wealth of job information. But don’t get wrapped up in “what’s hot.” The hottest jobs cool off pretty quickly. What gets people through the down cycles in their careers is their motivation and their expertise. Even in the most depressed fields there are true experts still commanding good salaries. That’s the goal. Not to survive, but to become one of the best.

Plumber. Programmer. Landscaper. Doctor. Electrician. Carpenter. Engineer. Mechanic. Whatever the work is, there must be motivation to excel behind it. Help this kid feed his excitement about whatever it is he thinks he wants to go toward. Guide him and help him. But don’t try to stop him from making a mistake or two. Be there to help him get back on track. But above all, feed his motivation. The direction he ultimately takes will depend a lot on your guidance.

Again, I compliment you for helping him out. Even kids whose parents have college degrees and professional jobs don’t always get this kind of adult help. Best wishes to you both.

Where can kids get good education and career advice today? Where did you find guidance when you were young? What can this uncle do to help his nephew?

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Am I underpaid?

Am I underpaid?

A reader may be underpaid but doesn’t really know. Let’s explore how to find out in the August 25, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

underpaidI want to change jobs because I suspect I’m underpaid. I’ve been looking at Glassdoor and other salary surveys. Are they accurate? How can I find out what salary I should expect from a new job, so that I can figure out if I am currently underpaid, as I contend, or if I should stop my whining?

Nick’s Reply

We live and work in a quasi-capitalist environment. For the most part, the market determines value. So put yourself on the block and see what kinds of bids you get. Seriously.

Do surveys say you’re underpaid?

Salary surveys are usually either out of date, or they are naturally biased toward the mean. That is, they survey people who want to be surveyed and they emphasize the value of the average worker. They’re not good at explaining why people on the leading edge of the curve are paid what they are paid. (See Glassdoor Salary Data: Worse than useless.)

Trying to look up a job title that fits you in a salary survey is like trying to find a job ad that matches you exactly. You’re not likely to learn much about your individual worth from either.

Surveys don’t predict individual value

You don’t say what work you do or what industry you’re in, but you seem to suggest salaries in your field are increasing while yours is not. Does it matter? Does it mean you will get a bigger raise or a bump in salary to change jobs? Asking me what you’re worth is as good as consulting the salary oracles — not very! While a survey may be useful in understanding trends, it does not predict salary for any individual. That means you.

Short of putting yourself on the block, I think the next best way to get an idea of your value in the market is to talk to real, live people in your field.

Ask your peers

Get the information you seek straight from the horse’s mouth. Meet these people through professional associations, at industry meetings, through industry publications and at training courses outside your company — and, of course, in relevant online professional communities. In other words, discuss compensation issues directly with people who are not under your company’s control so you can form a better picture of what your compensation could look like.

(I am not suggesting blasting messages to 50 people with your job title on LinkedIn and asking how much they earn. I prefer venues where you’ll have to earn your reputation and credentials before you’ll get any really useful information.)

Of course, some people won’t discuss their own salaries, but I find in general that people will talk about compensation in their field and share what they know about it. You’re far better off talking with others who do the kind of work you do simply because such dialogue is far richer than reviewing cold numbers from a survey.

If you’re not participating in your professional community this way, you’re making a big mistake. These are the folks who can help you figure out the value question, and perhaps help you find your next job. Don’t whine. Go mix it up with your peers!

This is a good exercise for all of us. We can’t ask questions of a data point on a salary survey. But we can ask one another.

How does anyone figure out what they’re worth? How do you figure it out? Does it change the way you handle your career? What advice would you give this reader about whether they’re underpaid?

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Can they find out I was fired from my last job?

Can they find out I was fired from my last job?

A reader worries that getting fired means not being able to get a new job, in the August 18, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

firedIf a person has been fired from their job, does a prospective new employer have the right to contact the old employer and ask the reason for the end of employment? I’ve heard previous employers can only state the dates of employment, compensation, and nothing else, but wasn’t sure if that was really true. This is assuming the firing is for general performance reasons and nothing egregious or illegal (something like embezzlement, drugs, or violence). Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

You should assume the new potential employer is going to find out, whether it has the right or not. Before I explain why, let’s check in with Mark Carey, an employment attorney and Guest Voices contributor on Ask The Headhunter.

Were you fired?

Mark’s advice would depend on the specifics of your case, which we don’t know. But these are his general comments:

The new employer may ask about the reasons for termination, but the old employer is only obligated to provide name, title, years of service and maybe salary. Employers do not offer the reason for termination, as they are in fear of two possible claims.

First, if they say something knowingly untruthful about the employee they may get sued for defamation.

Second, if the new company hires based on the representations made by older employer, the new employer may sue for negligent hire against old employer based on what those representations were.

There is also the confidentiality of personnel matters pursuant to state law, so the employer will want to avoid divulging such information.

Plan for the worst if you got fired

Even if such a question about why you were fired is not right or legal, the new employer might ask anyway and your old employer may tell too much. Your only recourse might be legal action, and few people are willing to go that far.

That’s why my advice is to assume the worst and prepare to deal with it. Take it for a given that the new employer can find out why you were fired. I know HR managers who have wide circles of contact in the HR community. They can use back channels — ethical or not — to call one or another HR buddy who might easily find out about you on the q.t. The same goes for recruiters. You’ll never know why you were rejected.

What will they say?

Since you’re asking whether the new employer can and will find out from your old employer whether you were fired, I’ll offer some suggestions about how to ascertain what the new employer knows.

Take a direct approach. Call your old company and ask HR and your boss what they intend to say on a reference call. They might not tell you, but why not ask anyway? At the very least, you will have put the company on notice that you’re concerned and watching them.

Along these lines, attorney Carey offers this caution:

An old employer may state to the new employer that they do not recommend you for re-hire, as code for “this was a bad employee and be warned.”

Check indirectly. Do you know a friendly manager at a company you’re applying to anyway? If they’re going to check with your last employer, would they be willing to share with you what they learn, as a friend? Be careful – don’t use a ruse to get this information.

This article might be helpful: How can you fight bad references?

Keep in mind that the manager who interviews you may have been fired and have some bad references of their own. Full disclosure that your old boss had an issue with you about X may land on sympathetic ears. In other words, take the wind out of that sail yourself.

What to do

Control the game. Whatever happens, you must be ready well in advance to counter any negative comments with positive recommendations. More here: The Preemptive Reference.

So my advice is not to concern yourself so much with what a new employer can legally ask or not ask your old employer, unless you’re willing to pay for a legal action. My advice is to change the game entirely.

Change the game. I believe the most compelling way to deal with a black mark on your record (whether it is deserved or not) is to help the new employer focus on something more important: evidence about how you would do the job profitably. Show the new employer that what you can do matters more than any reference does. More about that in this video from an interview I did on Bloomberg TV: Profit-based job hunting & hiring.

I wish you the best.

How do you deal with getting fired when you apply for a new job? Do you try to hide it? Do you come clean? Ever been busted for not disclosing it?

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Another exploding job offer

Another exploding job offer

A reader’s entire family gets seriously hurt by the fallout from an exploding job offer in the August 11, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

exploding job offerA few weeks ago my husband applied for a new job. It took weeks just to go through the process. They ran a background check, had him take a drug test, gave him a start date, and told him when he would be flying out of state for training.

He passed the drug test and he was cleared on the background check. Now, my husband is a felon, but his conviction was 15 years ago and he has had no other problems since then. The company only went back seven years on the background check, so he saw no reason to discuss a problem 15 years old. Technically he did not lie. When they asked him about his past, he was honest and told them everything. Everything was going great. He had his dream job. I moved all of our belongings into storage and we were going to move in with family until we got the relocation fee from his new company to get a house.

The night before we were leaving my husband got a call saying he might not get hired because of the old conviction. Still, HR told him not to worry because he should be fine. So I drove my children to the new town. Then my husband gets an e-mail saying, “Upon further review of your background we have to deny you the position due to the severity of your crime.”

Are you kidding me? They gave him a start date, a date and time of his flight, how long he would be gone for training, etc. The hiring process took weeks and he passed everything. Then they tell him last minute — after I already started moving out our belongings that they changed their mind? Can they do that?

I’ve been doing all the moving by myself. I’ve gotten so sick from the stress. I can hardly eat, I’m breaking out in hives, my husband is depressed, my girls are crying because we were told he had the job, when he was going to start, and when he was going to catch a flight to go to California for training. And now — nothing. Now, I have to worry about getting evicted from my home and worry about having to go through this all over again. Is there anything we can do?

Nick’s Reply

I’m very sorry to hear about this, but it’s not the first sad story I’ve heard about an exploding job offer. A 15-year-old conviction is a lifetime ago — but your husband’s good performance and reputation are current, and in my opinion that should have held sway with this company. But I don’t run the company.

In a column about a related problem — a reader’s DUI history — I discussed some ways to deal with adverse background-check results: Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?

How an exploding job offer happens

I see two problems. The employer is responsible for one; your husband, for the other. First, it appears the company did not actually give your husband a written offer, but encouraged him to believe there would be a written offer so that he’d get started on his transition immediately. That’s unethical. They should have cautioned him that he should take no actions on the new job until they delivered a written offer. (This is another reason why I believe HR should get out of the hiring business.)

Second — and this is a mistake lots of people make in their excitement about a new job — your husband should not have taken any action, including moving the family, until he had a real offer in hand in writing. I know that’s hard to swallow. But it’s just not smart to risk it all without a written offer. If he had waited until all the contingencies were resolved, he’d still lose the new job but your entire family would have been spared such trauma.

What really troubles me is the number of stories readers are submitting to me about job offers being extended — then the employer pulls the plug with no consideration for what this means to the applicant. It really stinks.

What can you do?

If this job is in a state where employment is “at will,” there’s probably little you can do. An employer can fire you at any time, for any reason or no reason — even on day one of the job.

However, you still might want to consult an attorney about this. It depends on the laws in the state where the job is and on the details. A lawyer might be able to make the case that even an oral offer is bona fide. I think it’s important that the employer told your husband “not to worry,” implying it understood his reliance on the offer. It would probably not cost a lot to consult with a good employment lawyer. No matter what you learn, you may at least feel better knowing what your options are.

The one other thing I’d suggest is that your husband reach out directly to the hiring manager that wanted to hire him. It seems only HR is handling this matter. If your husband has any respect left for this company, it’s possible that a rational appeal to the manager could turn this around. That job vacancy is costing the company money. Some assurances and a direct discussion may lead the manager to make a new judgment call. See Hiring Manager: HR is the problem, you are the solution.

I wish I could be more helpful other than telling you to be more careful next time. Since this is affecting your health and your children, please try to find some counseling. Your trauma is clearly very real. Do not let a lousy employer ruin your health and your family’s peace of mind. It’s important to be able to talk it through and deal with it.

Bad stuff happens, and sometimes dishonest employers cause it. The people at the company did not behave with integrity. The best thing your husband can do is immediately move on to the next opportunity, with a better employer. I wish you the best — I really do.

Do you have a story about an exploding job offer? How did you handle it? What advice would you offer the reader in this week’s Q&A?

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