Help this college kid get a job

Help this college kid get a job

In the January 14, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a college student worries that not doing enough homework might hurt chances of getting a job.

Question

collegeI have a year to go until I graduate from college. I’m not the best student, but I do pretty well. I’m here to learn, but there is a lot more to college and I take advantage of it. But now I’m a little worried. My grades could be better. I could spend a little less time at the pub, and more on academics. However, homework seems like a redundancy to me. I learn in lectures, in section classes and in assigned readings. Don’t misunderstand, I crank out the papers and I get ready for tests. But doing homework? It has nothing to do with preparing you for the real world. Even people who work long hours leave the office behind at the end of the day.

I know my school has a good career center, and companies recruit there all the time. The purpose of the center is to attract good companies and jobs. My “job” is to interview well and get hired. I don’t think I’m that different from most students. I just want a good job when I get out of here. But something is nagging at me, and I’m worried as graduation gets nearer. I’m afraid I’ll get lost in the system or the system won’t work for me. I’m afraid I won’t get a good job. There, I said it. So what should I do?

Nick’s Reply

People with jobs do homework all the time — at work, if not at home. Homework means studying extra material and practicing new skills, often on your own time. You may be able to avoid this, but not if you want your grades to be better. While I don’t advocate regularly taking work home from a job, or working 60-hour weeks, I also know that the more I invest in my skills and knowledge, the better I’ll perform at my job and the more successful I will be in my career.

College, jobs & homework

I agree that college is not just about academics — you should enjoy everything it has to offer. But those boring friends of yours who are cracking the books while you’re at the pub are probably several steps ahead of you. They aren’t waiting for someone to lecture to them, or to assign readings — they take the initiative to study more on their own. (I didn’t miss that you do read, and you write papers. That’s homework, but it seems you may be realizing you’re not doing enough of it.)

Life and work require lots of homework. The same is true about getting a good job. The purpose of your school’s career center may be “to attract good companies and jobs,” just like your professor’s job is to teach you through lectures. But you’re not going to be a successful student by consuming just what your professor delivers. Nor will you find a good job by waiting for your career center to deliver it. “The system” isn’t going to “work for you.”

Please hand-write this on a piece of paper 10 times:

“Finding and winning a good job is my own challenge. No one will do it for me. I will do the extra homework myself without excuses or I will fail.”

Sign it. Tack it to the wall in front of your desk. Every time you rely on the job listings at your career center, read what you wrote. Then do the homework of looking for a job yourself.

Job-hunting homework?

There’s lots of study and preparation that goes into getting a good job. Every step of job hunting and being successful at work requires doing homework.

  1. Finding a good job requires homework. (Pursue companies, not jobs)
  2. Getting a good manager’s attention requires homework. (Some tips.)
  3. Learning what a manager’s or company’s problems are requires homework.
  4. Preparing something useful to say to the manager requires homework.
  5. Figuring out whether a job is for you requires homework.
  6. Deciding whether to accept a job offer requires homework. (Protect yourself from exploding job offers.)
  7. Showing up Day #1 ready to impress your new employer requires homework.
  8. Doing the job well requires homework.
  9. Getting better at it requires homework.
  10. Keeping your job requires homework.
  11. Being successful requires becoming a master at your work. That requires constant homework.

In fact, your ability to do homework well — to study, learn, and practice — is what a company is paying for when it hires you after graduation. In the list above, I’ve provided a few tips to help you, but I’m going to leave it to other Ask The Headhunter readers to suggest examples of what kinds of homework will help you achieve each objective. Please check the comments below.

Don’t get lost in the system

Please read this article to learn how good managers hire people: Manager goes around HR to recruit and hire. It suggests that the “system” you’ve been told will get you a job isn’t sufficient. The manager in that article isn’t waiting for resumes to appear in e-mail. He’s doing his own homework to meet people who’ve done the necessary extra work to get his attention.

If you wait for a career center or a company recruiter to do the homework for you, you’re right — you’ll get lost in the system. So spend this year honing your homework skills. Start applying them to the job search that you ought to start today, a year before you graduate. Yes, it will take that long if you do it right. This doesn’t mean you can’t go to pubs.

How much fun you make it is up to you. I wish you the best!

Okay, folks! Help me help this college kid get a job. Please review the 11 objectives above that I think require considerable homework. (Feel free to add more.) Then, for each objective, please list one good example of “homework” our young friend needs to do to achieve it. We could be creating a new college course! Thanks for your help!

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Caregiver faces resume gap & reference risk

Caregiver faces resume gap & reference risk

In the January 7, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader takes time to be Mom’s caregiver and worries about a resume gap and references.

Question

caregiverI left my job of 16 years with two weeks’ notice and a cordial thank you to my boss. My boss was bitter that I decided to move on and it was very apparent my last day. I worry that if an employer calls and asks to speak with him he would not give me a good recommendation even after 16 years of service. I had assumed that most companies are just allowed to verify employment. What if they contact my former boss directly?

The next problem is why I left that job: My mother had a stroke and I became her full-time caregiver. This was much harder than any job I’ve ever had. I am adding a simple bullet point on my resume listing this time as “Primary caregiver for ill immediate family member.” Is this how I should account for this time gap?

Nick’s Reply

The very best job applicant can be sunk when employers rely on information that the applicant has no opportunity to explain. If your old boss gives a negative reference and you have no chance to refute it, you’re done. If an employer is troubled by a gap on your resume because you were a caregiver and you’re not there to explain it, you lose. You’ll never know what happened in either case.

The problem here isn’t your old boss or your resume — or that you took time off to be Mom’s caregiver. The problem is that you’re allowing someone (an unexpected reference) or something (your resume) to represent you. Why not be represented to your advantage by someone the employer trusts?

Caregiver resume gap

Explaining work gaps is always iffy – so much depends on the attitude of the employer reading that resume. This is why I advocate not using a resume to introduce yourself to a company. A resume cannot defend you.

A resume that raises questions you are not present to answer can easily hurt you. A gap on your resume might trigger a quick, thoughtless rejection. Situations like yours make it risky to rely on a resume as the way to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know who does not know you.

Reference risk

You need to head off concerns by helping the hiring manager learn about you from a source more reliable than a resume. You need someone to paint you as a desirable job candidate before any questions are raised.

Try to wrangle a personal introduction to the hiring manager through a mutual contact — someone who does know you and who can speak up for you to answer an employer’s concerns about the caregiver gap, and who can parry a negative reference that’s not under your control. Check these ideas from other readers about how to network your way to a great introduction.

Send an advance party

You may have to work hard to find and cultivate that mutual contact – but it’s really the only way to get a hiring manager’s serious attention and to counteract worries about your gap. Send an advance party. In other words, you need someone to tell the hiring manager you’re worth hiring before they find a (silly) reason to reject you. (See How to get to the hiring manager.)

If you must use a resume, I agree that you should probably include a short note about the caregiving. But managers and HR get so many resumes that they look first for a reason to reject an applicant. Don’t give them that reason. A preemptive personal referral or introduction from someone the employer trusts can make all the difference.

The truth about references

It’s improper for an employer to contact your old boss without your permission for a reference. I think most companies honor this. An HR department that’s called for a reference should provide nothing more than verification of past employment. But managers and HR have their own back channels – their own trusted network that will talk to them off the record. So you can never tell what they will learn about you.

For all these reasons, a trusted personal recommendation is the best way to offset any concerns an employer might have about a resume gap or about one poor reference. Don’t wait for problems to arise. Cultivate personal contacts to get you in the door and to preempt objections a resume might trigger. For more about this, please see Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke. I admire you for stepping in to help your mom. I wish you both the best.

Have you ever been hurt by a work gap on your resume? Or by a bitter old boss? How did you explain it? How would you advise this reader?

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Job Hunting With The Headhunter: Go around the system!

Job Hunting With The Headhunter: Go around the system!

In the December 17, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, The Headhunter calls a year-end time-out and recaps the fundamental rules of job hunting that will help you outsmart America’s broken Employment System.

job huntingSpecial Edition!

Judging from the many questions I receive each week from subscribers, I worry that job seekers are falling into the most obvious traps while trying to navigate America’s antiquated Employment System. Let me show you how to go around!

In place of the normal weekly Q&A, at the end of each year I publish a summary of Ask The Headhunter methods to help you land the job you want. Last year’s Ask The Headhunter Secrets in A Nutshell were based on key concepts in my PDF books.

This year, I’d like to review seven Ask The Headhunter rules that address some of the most fundamental misconceptions that lead job seekers astray. Relying on job postings, resumes, cover letters and traditional interviews is the worst way to approach your job search!

Don’t miss the limited-time HOLIDAY SPECIAL! Scroll to end of this column!

Job hunting with The Headhunter

The best way to win the right job is to use the approach we discuss here every week. Let’s step back to rediscover the basics about how to handle your job-hunting challenges. These tips should help you overcome the many obstacles the Employment System throws at you.

1. Avoid traditional, unproductive methods of job hunting.

Don’t leave control of your job search to external forces like job postings, personnel jockeys, employment agencies, resume screeners and software algorithms. Don’t rely on the passive approach of chasing jobs that come along, then filling out impersonal online job applications. Don’t rely on sending resumes (or your LinkedIn profile) to people who don’t know you. Don’t wait for boiler-plate rejections or silly instructions from inept recruiters who ask you for your information all over again.

Take control of your job search.

2. Select 4-5 companies you really want to work for.

You cannot reasonably and ably chase 50 jobs or companies, no matter what Indeed and ZipRecruiter tell you. Carefully select three, four or five companies — not because they’ve posted jobs, but because they’re the shining-light organizations you really want to work for! Research these carefully selected companies online using relevant news outlets, business journals and industry-specific publications.

Better yet, identify and contact your target company’s employees, customers and vendors. Go hang out where they hang out — get insight and advice from insiders!

The goal is to learn what specific problems and challenges an employer faces. These will reveal a company’s motivation to hire you. Understand these problems and challenges before approaching any company.

How Can I Change Careers? “Put a Free Sample in Your Resume,” pp. 23-26 (It’s not just for career changers!)

3. Define what you have to offer that’s relevant.

Be able to describe your specific skills and abilities but only as they relate to a company’s specific problems and challenges. A hiring manager doesn’t need to know everything about you. In fact, sharing too much makes evaluating you more confusing, and it makes the manager’s job harder. The goal is to make the manager’s job of assessing your value easier — by communicating exactly how you will be a truly useful hire.

If you don’t understand an employer’s exact needs, your presentation will not be relevant or useful to the manager and you will not be hired.

4. Prove your value.

Managers are terrible at figuring out what to do with a job applicant. It’s up to you to help a manager focus on the objective of a job interview: How will your abilities profit the manager and the company? This is perhaps the easiest idea for job seekers to grasp, but the most difficult to apply.

You should be ready to frame your candidacy like this: “If you hire me, I will do A, B and C, which should add $X to your bottom line.” Sound daunting? The best job candidates can do it, and you must learn how. Be ready to explain and defend your proposal and your rough calculations.

5. Identify the specific manager who will benefit from hiring you.

Get an introduction to the hiring manager through a mutual contact that you developed through your research. Those people you spoke with about the company’s problems and challenges? Some of them will be your perfect introduction to the right manager! Don’t waste your time with personnel jockeys in the HR department. That’s what your competition is doing.

The goal is to “tell it” directly to the manager who will hire you — not anyone else.

6. Go to the interview ready to do the job.

Be ready to clearly and convincingly show the manager how you will help solve his or her specific problems. Make your interview a hands-on, working meeting with the hiring manager.

7. Control your interview and win an offer.

If the manager interviewing you seems to be asking canned questions, bring the discussion around to how you would do the actual work. Ask what the specific job tasks and objectives are. Then take control of the interview by offering to demonstrate to the manager that you:

  1. Understand the work that needs to be done
  2. Can do the work
  3. Can do the work the way the employer wants it done, and
  4. Can do it profitably.

In other words, show up with a mini business plan about how you will do the job — to win the job!

That’s how to be the job candidate who stands out and gets hired. Avoid the silly conventions of the Employment System that daily conspires to keep apart managers and the people they need to hire. The links above will help you on your way around the system. As you develop questions, ask them here — I’ll offer my advice and so will the rest of our community!

Okay, I listed seven rules for job hunting. What did I miss? What smart rules do you recommend that you follow on your job search? How do we beat the broken Employment System?

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For additional help, don’t miss this limited-time offer on the Ask The Headhunter PDF books!


HOLIDAY SPECIAL: 40% OFF Everything!

Every Ask The Headhunter PDF Book

40% OFF for the holidays!

(What books are we talking about? Click here to see all Nick’s PDF books!)

TAKE 40% OFF any book or bundle! ORDER NOW!

Use DISCOUNT CODE=MERRY40

This is a limited-time offer! Order now!


This is the last Ask The Headhunter column for 2019. I’m taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays! See you next on January 7, 2020! Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year — and all my best wishes for whatever holidays you observe this time of year!

If you’re new to Ask The Headhunter, or just want a refresher on the main ideas we discuss here every week, please check The Basics — and take advantage of the search box at top right, as well as the Q&A Archive under Sections in the menu bar!

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What do these interview questions mean?

What do these interview questions mean?

In the December 10, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants to know why employers ask  irrelevant, roundabout interview questions.

Don’t miss the limited-time HOLIDAY SPECIAL! Scroll to end of Q&A!

Question

When an interviewer asks roundabout questions like, “What is your greatest weakness?” and “What is your greatest strength?”, what do they hope to learn about you as a prospective hire?

Nick’s Reply

interview questions

Those questions hint at why job seekers agonize for weeks or months “waiting to hear back” from employers that never should have interviewed them to begin with. Such questions are irrelevant to assessing a candidate for a job, so they don’t help the employer make a hiring decision.

Gratuitous interview questions

“What is your greatest weakness?” and “What is your greatest strength?” are two of the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. They tell you more about the interviewer than your answers would tell about you. Such gratuitous queries reveal that the interviewer knows too little about the job to intelligently assess whether you can do it.

Managers and some career experts suggest that those two open-ended questions tell the employer a lot about you. I don’t agree. Such questions distract both the employer and the applicant from the critical-path question in any job interview.

Can you do the work?

“Can you do the work?” is the very first thing any savvy interviewer needs to know about you. If you cannot show that you can do the work, the meeting should end right there. Your weaknesses and strengths are irrelevant. So is what animal you’d be if you could be any animal, and how many golf balls you estimate would fit in the Empire State Building. None of that “open-ended” palaver matters if you can’t do the work.

So the message is, beware this interviewer.

What should you do when you’re asked such lame questions? Take control of the interview. Do it politely but firmly.

How to Say It

“I’d like to show you how I’d do this job, if you will permit me. If I can’t do that, then you shouldn’t hire me. So that I’m not wasting your time, will you please outline three key deliverables you’d like to see from a new hire? That is, if you hired me, what would you want me to do, fix, change, create, improve after three months on the job, then after six and 12 months? I’ll do my best to show and explain how I would do the work, so that you may accurately assess me.”

If you’re not ready to make that offer, then you’re not prepared to discuss the job and you have no business in the interview. Pull it off, and any good manager will fall at your feet. (See Good Interview Questions: You need just one.)

Don’t waste your time

If the manager cannot define the deliverables he or she wants, or doesn’t “get” what you’re offering, then you’re wasting your time. It’s better to be spared early, rather than to invest hours of time and energy, not to mention the agony you’ll be spared “waiting to hear back.”

When managers ask canned, indirect interview questions rather than directly assess your ability to do the job, they are going to waste their time and yours. If that’s what you encounter, raise the standard and offer to show the manager how you’d do the job.

Can you judge an employer by the interview questions they ask? What’s the best question you’ve been asked? I’m sure you’ll share the worst! Have you ever taken control of a job interview that was going nowhere fast?


HOLIDAY SPECIAL: 40% OFF Everything!

Every Ask The Headhunter PDF Book

40% OFF for the holidays!

(What books are we talking about? Click here to see all Nick’s PDF books!)

TAKE 40% OFF any book or bundle! ORDER NOW!

Use DISCOUNT CODE=MERRY40

This is a limited-time offer! Order now!


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3 reasons to say NO to a job offer

3 reasons to say NO to a job offer

In the December 3, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader gets a job offer that may deserve a NO.

Question

job offerAfter months of looking for a job, I finally got an offer using your methods. (Thanks! The interviewer said I was the best candidate she’s talked to in a long time.) But there’s a small matter that concerns me, and it’s not the money. The salary is good. But neither the interviewer nor the HR person would tell me who my boss will be. HR just said I’d be assigned to the manager who needed my skills the most. Then she said they need my answer by end of day tomorrow. Is this a trap? Should I take the job?

Nick’s Reply

It may not be a trap, but it’s a risk in many ways — and not knowing who your boss will be is certainly not a small matter. Your story raises a bigger question. When should you say NO to a job offer?

There are many signals that might turn you away. I won’t tell anyone who needs to pay the rent or put food on the table to turn down a job offer. Take it if you really must, but consider the risks.

Here are three reasons to say NO to a job offer.

1. You don’t meet the manager you’ll be reporting to

You have no idea what you’re getting into if you don’t meet the manager. If the HR department (or a committee) does the hiring, you won’t be able to assess whether you and your new boss are compatible.

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention, I show how to conduct due diligence before and during the interview, and before accepting a job offer. These are just a few tips to help keep you out of trouble.

In the interview, don’t miss these points:

  • What must the company do to meet its goals? Is your job important in meeting these objectives? How?
  • Check out the tools that will be at your disposal. If they’re not part of the deal today, don’t expect you’ll get what you need later.
  • Who, in other departments, will affect your ability to do your job successfully? Meet them. Look for facilitators and debilitators—people that will help and hinder your performance.

From “Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?”, pp. 13-15

This cuts both ways. If the boss doesn’t meet you, it may turn out you’re not as qualified for the position as HR suggested. Your new job might be short-lived.

If the company won’t arrange a one-on-one meeting with the boss, it could mean the boss will shortly be gone. Where does that leave you? Ask to meet your future boss. Reconsider the position if the employer declines the meeting.

2. The job offer is low but you’re promised a raise “soon”

This is how companies seduce reluctant job applicants: with a promise of a raise “soon.” Will the company put the date of the future raise in writing along with the amount? Will it guarantee in writing a performance review in so many months? You have every reason to doubt the good intentions of the employer if it will do neither.

Compensation is what the written job offer says it is. Do not count promises as part of the job offer. Get it in writing.

(There’s another promise to watch out for: stock options. See What are stock options worth in a job offer?)

3. The details of the job are not made clear

It’s an old story: A person takes the job based on the description in the job posting, only to find that’s not the job. The actual work is something else. If all you get are vague answers when you ask about details, you may be accepting a broken job. The company may want you only for a short-term project or — even worse — “to fill head count.”

Ask the employer to list the main tasks you will be doing, and ask for a written definition of what exactly is expected of you after three, six and 12 months on the job. Or consider walking away.

Is the job offer really right for you?

These are just three of many reasons to say NO to a job offer. (See 13 lies employers tell about job offers.)

It’s important to pause when you receive an offer. Don’t get lost in the thrill of success. Take time to consider all the terms of the offer, the company that made it, the manager you’d be working for, the work you’d be doing, and — of course — the compensation. Like the proverbial car shopper, you must be ready to walk away from a deal that’s not really right for you.

Have you ever turned down a job offer? Why? What other reasons can you think of for saying NO? Have you ever accepted a job only to realize that the signs were clear that you should have said NO?

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Will a bad credit report cost you a job?

Will a bad credit report cost you a job?

In the November 26, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader questions the value of a credit report when judging a job applicant.

Question

credit reportIs a credit report from the big three credit reporting agencies (e.g., Experian) a good proxy for determining if a job candidate would be a security risk? Should a candidate be given the opportunity to explain and provide background about any items on a credit report that may appear as a negative to a potential employer? Or, should the credit check stand as a pass/fail test that a potential employer uses to determine if a candidate might be a security risk?

Nick’s Reply

You’re not asking how to avoid getting rejected for a job because of your credit report, but whether I think this would be justified or wise on the part of employers. We’ll stick to the topic here. If there’s enough interest, we can tackle the “how to” another time.

While we might make a case for employers doing credit checks on job applicants, it makes no sense to me why employers rely on such information to judge whether an applicant might be a security risk — especially not on a pass/fail basis. I haven’t seen any statistics on the actual correlation, much less any suggestion that credit records predict security worthiness. (If someone’s got statistics, please share in the comments section below.) The real risk to the employer is that it loses an otherwise excellent candidate to an assumption that credit behavior correlates with job performance and security worthiness.

Does a bad credit report make you a bad hire?

It might seem silly to make the comparison, but do we reject applicants who’ve been divorced because they are more likely to be bad business partners? Do we reject software developers because they don’t do proper maintenance on their cars? What about people with disabilities? Are they risky hires? Oops. The law protects them. Do you see where I’m going? I think employers should stick first to judgments about whether a candidate can do the job effectively, and second whether they fit the social norms of the organization.

In the U.S. there are laws that govern the use of credit checks on job applicants. Of course, these vary by state. I like Alison Doyle’s rundown on job applicant credit checks.
The challenge is how to assess those characteristics. While I’m not opposed to psychological testing and correlational evidence to make judgments like these, I think HR departments screwed the pooch long ago when they deftly transferred liability for hiring judgments to tests and indirect metrics of character. I believe this is a huge cause of HR’s “talent shortage” problem. These indirect assessment methods cost employers good hires. (See Big Data, Big Problems for Job Seekers?)

Employers need to teach hiring managers how to make better assessments and judgments of candidates directly and personally. It’s an interview skill. But how many companies teach interview skills?

Is your credit report a valid and reliable metric?

I agree that, if a credit check is to be done, the applicant should be allowed to explain the report – but that opens another legal can of worms. The applicant could potentially sue the employer for rejection based on misinterpreting the information. This, of course, is why the employer might use a credit report as a pass/fail metric without disclosing it to you. (For more about this, read my good buddy Suzanne Lucas’s warning to employers, If You Run Credit Checks on Your Job Candidates, Now Would Be A Good Time To Panic.)

Is there any defensible reason for basing a hiring decision on such a data point? It’s hard to make the case that it’s valid except as an indication of credit worthiness (and even that can be questionable). It’s worth looking up “validity” and “reliability” in the context of making assessments. Does a credit check really measure what you need to measure?

Employers have explaining to do

Here’s how I think I prove my point. I’ve never heard of an employee being terminated because the employer checked their credit report. If credit checks are such valid and reliable indicators of security worthiness (or any other job-related requirement), why don’t employers run reports on all employees annually to decide whom to terminate? I think HR has a lot of explaining to do.

Employers try too hard to offload candidate assessment to indirect metrics, and they do a lousy job of justifying themselves. In most companies, it seems HR’s first objective is to offload liability. I think the better practice is for employers to make their interviewing and reference checking more rigorous. To avoid unreasonable risk, make managers very good at interviewing and judging job applicants.

My snarky suggestion to job seekers is to ask a snarky but justified question if an employer brings up a credit check. “Can you show me empirical evidence that my credit report is a valid and reliable metric for judging me as a worthy hire?”

You’d be surprised how many successful people I’ve placed who had questionable “background checks.” It takes a lot more to really judge someone – or you miss some great candidates!

Have you missed out on a good job (or a good job applicant) over a credit check? Have you outwitted a negative credit report when applying for a job? Do you believe credit checks tell employers anything useful about a person? Is someone’s credit report a worthy pass/fail test for hiring?

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What’s the magic in a letter of recommendation?

What’s the magic in a letter of recommendation?

In the November 19, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants help writing a recommendation letter.

Question

recommendationI am writing a letter of recommendation for a co-worker who is interviewing for a new job. It’s sort of a quid pro quo situation. Both he and I are somewhat unsure of how to write one, especially when doing it for a co-worker.

I have looked online, but most of the advice is for a supervisor, not a peer. I don’t supervise him; I just collaborate with him occasionally. I think he’s an excellent worker, but I’m not sure how to write about it in a letter. I want to make sure I’m doing it correctly. I’ve never had the opportunity to write — or even to see — a real letter of recommendation before. Can you help me? Do you have a template? What’s the magic in a letter of recommendation?

Nick’s Reply

Recommendations are a powerful part of hiring and job hunting, but few people know how to use them effectively. The worst type of recommendation is the insincere, canned one.

A recommendation must be honest

I’m glad you think highly of your co-worker, because if you didn’t, I’d advise you not to write a recommendation. The power of recommendations lies in honesty. No one should feel obligated to recommend anyone else.

There is nothing wrong with saying to someone, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I could write you the recommendation you’d need to get the job you want.” If that seems rude, consider that a proper recommendation puts your neck on the line. It affects your reputation. If the person you recommend blows it, you will look bad and your reputation may be damaged in your professional community. And that’s as it should be, or the practice of making recommendations becomes worthless.

Recommendations create reputations

On the other hand, a carefully considered recommendation that results in a superlative hire reflects very well on the person doing the recommending. Credible, repeat recommendations that result in great hires can elevate your reputation to star status in your field, making you a go-to person for hiring referrals. That’s the best place to be when you go job hunting yourself.

But let’s get on to your situation.

Your personal guarantee

Producing a written recommendation for a co-worker is no different from doing one for someone you supervise. In both cases, remember that your main purpose is to provide a personal endorsement. A recommendation (or a reference) is a personal guarantee that the person you recommend is good at what they do: they are reliable, honest, and worthy of the job in question.

Yes, that’s serious stuff. That’s why we don’t write recommendations for just anyone, or just to be polite and friendly.

(For a special approach, see Referrals: How to gift someone a job and why.)

Get an interview

Your objective in writing a recommendation is to get the employer to interview your subject. That means your comments must be relevant and compelling, which in turn means your recommendation must fit the specific job. If the candidate can’t explain what the job is all about, then you can’t and shouldn’t write the letter.

Canned comments or a stiff, formal letter will not get anyone a job interview. My advice is to write simply, naturally, and casually. Avoid two-dollar words and phrases. Be friendly, blunt and brief.

What to write

Don’t follow a format. Just write naturally, covering a few key topics:

  • Who are you? What do you know or do that makes your comments relevant and compelling? You might be an expert in the work in question. Provide a very brief summary of yourself in order to establish your credibility.
  • How do you know the person? Do you know his work? Did he work for you, or with you?
  • What’s his work ethic? Is he self-motivated, or does he require close supervision?
  • What are his relevant skills and knowledge? Be specific.
  • How does the person stand out? Why should the employer drop everything and interview him?
  • What benefit do you think the person would bring to the employer? Can you offer any proof?

Don’t worry about templates. Don’t regurgitate someone else’s words. If you need a format, pretend you’re having lunch with the employer. Write what you would say. Be honest, or don’t provide the recommendation.

Endorse

As you wrap up your letter, make the one statement the reader is looking for: a clear endorsement. Use words that you are comfortable with. For example:

“I wholeheartedly recommend John as a smart, reliable worker who delivers what he promises.”

Finally, make the statement that says more than any other:

“If I were a manager, I’d hire Karen in a minute. As a co-worker, I hope I can work with her again.”

That’s the best endorsement in the world.

What’s better than a recommendation?

There’s something much more powerful you can do. Wait a day or two after sending the recommendation, then call the employer to make sure they received it. Reiterate your main message: “I’d hire John/Karen myself if I could.” This call is so unusual that it will always get the employer’s attention. Be careful, of course, not to seem like you’re trying to exercise undue influence. (See also The Preemptive Reference — it’s better than a recommendation.)

Recommendations are an important way of meeting other people in your industry and establishing a good reputation. (Networking, anyone?) That’s why it’s important to be selective about whom you give a recommendation. Recommendations and references are the glue that makes an industry stick together.

Do you recommendations even matter any more? What makes them work? What’s the best recommendation you’ve ever gotten (or given)? How do you advise this reader?

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Resumectomy: Surgery for job seekers

Resumectomy: Surgery for job seekers

In the November 12, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader proposes resumectomy to save the patient.

resumectomy

Question

Does it occur to anyone that there is something wrong when a very good (flawless) resume or LinkedIn profile returns nothing, no interviews, no jobs — not even a thank you for applying? Why do we use them? I’m looking for an alternative to a resume. Is there an alternative?

Nick’s Reply

People have been asking me about resumes a long time! Let’s try something. This is one of the oldest articles on Ask The Headhunter: Resume Blasphemy. It’s an exercise. It suggests an alternative to resumes. I’d like to ask everyone to please read it — it’s pretty brief. Then come back and continue here.

Have a resume, put it away

Everyone should have a good resume, and it should be clear, concise and easy to read. It should list places you’ve worked, job titles, education and time periods. Brief descriptions of what you did at each job are best.

That’s it. No fluff. No branding. Your resume is not a “marketing piece.” It’s a document that fills in the blanks about you for a hiring manager you have already had substantive contact with. Otherwise it’s just a dumb piece of paper or bucket of bits. Put it away until you talk with the manager.

Don’t use your resume “to get in the door.” Ten million other resumes are ahead of yours. And almost nobody reads them.

The purpose of the Resume Blasphemy article is to nudge people away from resumes as a job-getting tool. There is no such thing. You are the job-getting tool.

Resumectomy

Of course, I get loads of arguments, opinions and  “yes, buts” about my position on resumes. (My favorite is, “I know an algorithm is going to process it, but you can’t win if you don’t play.”) That’s why I’d like to ask you all to strap on a rubber apron and some gloves.

Let’s cut the resume open. Let’s do surgery. Maybe we should just remove most of it, do ya think? A resumectomy. Don’t mind the splatter. It’s all good.

3 Questions

Three questions for everyone:

  1. Do you even use a resume to get a job? If not, then what?
  2. If you do use a resume, what do you put on it that gets you in the door and gets you hired?
  3. What do people put on their resumes that sinks their efforts to get a job?

(If you’re a hiring manager, we’d all love to know how you’d answer those questions from your side of the desk.)

Okay, scalpel.

What’s that in there, in the resume? Is it alive? Is it beating? Or is it just mush? Should we take it out? Is a transplant in order?

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Does your job match its original job description?

Does your job match its original job description?

In the October 29, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter an executive is concerned about the role of the job description in employee attrition.

Question

job description

I’m president of a $20 million company, privately owned. Due to unusual turnover, I met with my head of HR and the affected managers. They said the “talent pool” isn’t good any more. HR’s exit notes indicated poor performance and lack of skills as the reasons for termination. So why did you hire them, I asked. They were the best candidates, they said. Then I read the job descriptions they used. Lists as long as a 3 iron. Nine or 10 “tasks,” even more “qualifications required,” and then a stack of “we prefer that you haves.” I asked them, is there something wrong with our process? Are we asking for too much and not training new hires enough? What are your thoughts about a problem like this? It’s serious.

Nick’s Reply

Job descriptions? Here’s what I think of job descriptions and people that write them (with apologies to Monty Python):

      Commentary on job descriptions
I feel your pain. But the idea that the “talent pool” has deteriorated is balderdash. Your suspicion that there’s something wrong with the process is correct. The conventional interview and assessment process assumes that in six months a new hire will be doing what was defined in the original job description.

That’s almost never the case. I believe that’s a big reason why new hires fail. So, how can you hire for the changing nature of the work?

The job description

When a manager needs work done, HR uses a process that starts with the manager describing the requirements of the job. This conventionally includes the tasks, a list of necessary qualifications, and some flowery promises about the company environment.

HR adds whatever it believes will attract the best and most applicants. Too often, HR’s largesse exceeds the limits of reality. For example, a job for a programmer will require “at least 5 years’ experience” with a scripting language that was invented only two years ago. HR always figures more is better — but doesn’t bother to check with the manager. Or, a go-fer job in the marketing department is characterized as “Senior Marketing Staff,” because it should attract really talented go-fers.

What happens after the job description

Even if the job description is truthful and accurate, almost every job runs head-long into a wall. Six months into it, the new hire is not doing what they were hired to do, but different work and usually more work. That’s because most jobs evolve to fill the ever-changing needs of a business.

The problem is, employers don’t hire for changing needs. HR takes a blurry (and wishful) snapshot of “a job,” fixed in time and in someone’s imagination, larding it with enough “requirements” to make a purple squirrel gag. (There are other ways HR goes off the rails with its hiring methods. See Why does HR waste time, money and the best job candidates?)

Deliverables

Can a “job description” ever be a useful tool in recruiting and hiring? As a headhunter, I’ve always read job descriptions once, then tossed them aside. I call the manager and find out what kind of evolving work the manager really needs done over the next year or two.

Here’s what I ask about:

What’s the problem? What do you want your new hire to make, fix or improve?

What’s the deliverable? What should the new hire deliver to the person working downstream from them? For example, a design engineer needs to deliver a certain part of a subsystem design to the system designer or project manager. What does that part of the subsystem look like and what must it do?

What’s the schedule? What do you need the new hire to deliver or accomplish in the first week, month, three months, six and 12 months on the job? Be specific. The deliverables must be defined in objective terms everyone agrees on. They must be measurable in amount, degree and quality — what are the metrics?

How does the work fit? Finally, and perhaps most important, how will the new hire fit into the larger work flow and objectives of the team, the department and the entire company? This is key, because it suggests what else the new hire must be able to do or learn to do.

Please note that your HR people are in no position to ask these questions and to discuss the details that underpin them. Your managers must do it. While a good headhunter can help them, you don’t need a headhunter if you get on top of this yourself.

Are you doing what you were hired for?

There’s a thing I do when I speak to seasoned managers in executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, Northwestern and other business schools. I ask for a show of hands:

“Who has a job where what you were doing six months into it matched the job description you interviewed for?”

Of course, I get a lot of hoots and LMAOs. No one has ever asserted they were doing what they were hired for to start with.

What to ask job applicants

I suggest you direct your managers to answer the questions above about every job they think they need to fill. My guess is they will find that some jobs have no justification or value. I think they will find that the work that needs to be done is best defined in terms of deliverables that continue to change.

Three good questions for job applicants might be:

  1. Can you please show us how you would deliver X, Y and Z in three months, six months and 12 months?
  2. How would you help these 3 other teams deliver their objectives?
  3. How would you help the company achieve goals A, B and C?

I won’t even get into discussing your company’s plans for new projects, products or services — but your managers need to assess whether job candidates can shift gears quickly to meet the company’s changing needs. One good way to do this is to have applicants spend time with your teams before you hire them, so everyone can see how everyone else thinks and works. (But don’t go here: I think they expect me to work for free.) Of course, it’s your responsibility (and your managers’) to show applicants how you teach employees to do new kinds of work.

Please forget about filling jobs. Think about hiring people who can do changing work and deliver specific outcomes, and who can intelligently discuss how they might contribute to your company’s specific objectives.

There’s not a job description in this mix.

Does the work you do today match the job description you were hired for? How should employers assess job applicants to maximize success for everyone? What’s the most effective way you’ve assessed or been assessed for a job?

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What are you afraid of when job hunting?

What are you afraid of when job hunting?

In the October 22, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter the headhunter turns the table on readers who encounter hobgoblins when job hunting.

Nick’s Question

This week, I’m going to change up the Q&A. Rather than take a question from one reader and answer it, I’m going to ask all of you readers a question that seems to be at the root of many problems.

job huntingWhat are you afraid of when job hunting?

I’m prompted to ask you this question by the many Talk to Nick troubleshooting sessions I’ve done with people from all walks of work. Every one of them seems to be afraid of some aspect of the job search experience.

It literally scares them.

Successful, talented, competent people go job hunting only now and then — it’s not an experience they’ve mastered. So they tend to look for a safe, simple model of behavior to follow.

And the models they find are wrong. You can’t write a resume or profile, look for “matching” jobs, apply and get interviews and then job offers.

It doesn’t work.

Faced with this unfamiliar challenge — to pick a job and then get hired — where the usual rules of business fail, otherwise competent people become incredibly frustrated and confused. When they’re at their jobs, they know exactly what to say and do. But suddenly, they’re treading water, waiting for someone else to determine their future.

They try to control their panic as they realize it doesn’t matter how good they are at the work they do. The “employment system” demands something else.

But — What??

What frightens you when you’re job hunting? What do you dread?

Your reply

Post your responses in the comments section below, and let’s help one another out!

Please don’t be afraid to share your fears. We’re here to put an end to them and give you the confidence and control you need over your job search! So bare your soul and we’ll all do our best to find answers and solace among friends.

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