References: How employers bungle a competitive edge

In the December 8, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets down on reference checking.

Question

I’ve come to the conclusion that asking for references is about the dumbest thing a company can do in the hiring process. First, I believe that any prior employer is only obligated to give the dates you worked and at what salary. They don’t like to give any qualitative assessment because there are potential liability issues involved. Second, who is going to give a personal reference that would not describe you in laudatory terms? I think references are just another personnel department make-work project! What do you think?

referencesNick’s Reply

One of the very best ways to size up a job candidate is to consider the opinions of her professional community. Employers who ignore peer review take unnecessary risks when hiring. But that’s where today’s reference-checking practices have led us.

Incompetent reference checking

Asking for references seems dumb because it has been made trivial; so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.) They’re going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a bunch of people on a list. How ludicrous is that?

Employers have bought into the idea that a reference check is like a credit check, but it’s not. A credit check digs up objective information: numbers, loan payment dates, defaults.

A reference check is largely subjective. The source of information isn’t a bricks-and-mortar bank that’s required to divulge facts about your accounts. A reference source is a mushy human being who may be in a good mood or a bad mood; who may know you well, or not. The reference checker must know the context — the industry, the profession, the work, the community — or he can’t possibly understand what to ask or what the comments really mean. This is why most reference checks are simply incompetent, if not dangerous.

reference-checkerThe “reference and investigations” industry may be able to turn up criminal records and such, but you can’t tell me that a researcher is going to elicit a subtle judgment of a job candidate by calling a name on a list. Worse, if the information that’s collected is erroneous, why would such a reference checker care? He’s not accountable to anyone. The employer that buys it doesn’t care and isn’t going to ask you to explain. To borrow a phrase, outsourcing reference checks is like washing your hands with rubber gloves on. If you’re going to feel anything, you must get your hands dirty!

Real reference checking

There is no finesse in reference checking any more — not for most employers. A real reference check is done quietly and responsibly, by talking to sources that a manager tracks down on her own by using her network of professional contacts. These are candid references; comments made off the record within a trusted professional relationship. That’s where you’ll find the true measure of a candidate.

Did I just break five laws? That’s only because the skeevy industry that has grown around reference investigations requires regulation. It’s because employers are no longer good at teasing apart credible references from spiteful or sugar-coated ones. They want to put the legal liability for making judgments of character and reputation on someone else.

There’s a better way to do it, and it’s time-honored among honorable businesspeople. The person doing the reference checking must be savvy and responsible. She must know what she’s doing. A greenhorn human resources clerk is out. In fact, the only person who should be doing such a check is the hiring manager. The most candid discussions will take place between managers who know their industry, their professional community, and the issues in their business. Where a manager might not open up to an “investigator,” she’s likely to share information with a peer. Credible, useful information comes from credible, trustworthy sources. You can’t buy it.

If it’s true that hiring the best people matters, then real reference checks give an employer a very powerful competitive edge. Outsource reference checks, or do them ineptly, and you’ve bungled your company’s future.

Reference checking is a community event

The reason — other than legal — that companies don’t do effective checks is that human resources (HR) departments simply don’t have the kinds of contacts in the professional community that could yield legitimate, credible references. And that brings into question HR’s entire role in the recruitment, selection and hiring process. If you don’t have good enough connections in the professional community to do that kind of reference check, how could you possibly recruit from that community? Both tasks require the exact same kind of contacts and relationships. It’s all about the employer’s network.

accountableJob hunters correctly worry that bad references might cost them a job. That’s a real problem. The question is, is the bad reference justified? If it is, then perhaps it should cost you a job. Don’t shoot the messenger. Take a good look at yourself, and recognize that the truth has consequences in your social and professional community. (But all is not lost. See How can you fight bad references?)

It should not be illegal to rely on credible opinions about you. By the same token, managers must be attuned to vengeful references, and take appropriate measures to verify them. But regulating candor is no solution. When we count on the law to protect us from all information, we must expect to get hurt by a lack of good information.

If I were to check your references, I’d get good, solid information about you. And I might not ever call anyone on the list you gave me. I’ll use my contacts to triangulate on your reputation. (You might be surprised at who I talk to. See The Ministry of Reference Checks.) Will someone try to torpedo you? Possibly, but it’s quite rare. More likely, I’ll turn something up that makes me want to get to know you better; to assess you more carefully.

The trouble is, good reference checks are rarely done. Hence, most reference information is pure garbage, as you suggest. And this hurts good workers just as it hurts good employers. In the end, all we have to go on is the opinion of our professional community. Stifle it, and the community suffers the consequences.


References are your competitive edge

References are such an important tool to help you land a job that I can’t emphasize enough that you must plan, prepare and use references to give you an edge. In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) I discuss just how strategic references are.

First, learn how to launch a reference:

“The best… reference is when a reputable person in your field refers you to an employer. In other words, the referrer ‘sends you’… to his peer and suggests she hire you.” (pp. 23-24)

Second, use preemptive references:

A “preemptive reference is one who, when the employer is ready to talk to references, calls the employer before being called. Such a call packs a powerful punch. It tells the employer that the reference isn’t just positive, it’s enthusiastic.” (p. 24)


The truth matters. Legislating against the opinions of others about us is, well, stupid. Far better to manage those opinions and to be responsible about them. If you’re a manager, it’s also far better to take responsibility and check applicants’ references yourself. Don’t let HR do it. What do references really mean?

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You’re The Headhunter!

In the December 1, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, you are in control!

Step right up…

Every week, I answer your questions in the Ask The Headhunter e-mail newsletter, and then we adjourn here, where we discuss and hash out the issues and options behind the Q&A. I like to tell people that the advice, comments and insights you share on the blog are just as much a part of Ask The Headhunter as anything I write.

got-adviceThis week I want to try something different. Rather than me answering questions, I’d like to invite you to be The Headhunter — I’d like you to deliver the advice!

Please read the three short questions below, submitted by other readers, and put yourself in my shoes. What advice would you give these folks? What issues and options would you suggest these troubled readers focus on to solve their problems?

Then I’ll put myself in your shoes and add my comments, and we can all chew on it together. Maybe this will turn into a new feature — and we’ll be able to cover many more Q&As each week! (You should see the backlog in my e-mail folder!)

I’ve seeded each Q&A with some relevant resources to help you get started, but I’m counting on you to provide the real advice!

When you post your advice below, please indicate which question you’re responding to — A, B or C. Feel free to answer more than one! Please include links to any favorite Ask The Headhunter resources you think are relevant!


Question A

I sent my resume and cover letter in response to a job ad. The company says they’re interested, yet of course I have to fill out an online application. Does anyone really think I know the day I graduated school or left a job 20 years ago? Or my starting and ending salary? Worse yet — they want my GPA and my SAT score?

I put one trillion for the SAT score since it had to have a number. Of course, they also wanted a specific salary — not even a range. I left out my Social Security Number and I don’t care if it loses me the job — I am not throwing that information all over the Internet to every company that’s hiring for a job!

Is there any way around this when you can’t proceed without providing all this insane amount of detail?

What’s your reply?

You’re The Headhunter this week. Please post your advice to Question A!

Some References: Those pesky job application forms, Wanted: HR exec with the guts to not ask for your SSN.

 


Question B

My daughter was offered a job. Had to be drug tested. On the weekend she received an e-mail instructing her to report to orientation. She gave notice at her old job. Then she called with a question about where to report, and was told they didn’t mean to send her the notice of orientation because she flunked the drug test. Now she is going to be out of her old job without a new one. What can she do? She quit, thinking everything was okay.

What’s your reply?

Be The Headhunter this week. Please post your advice to Question B!

Reference: Pop Quiz: Can an employer take back a job offer?

 


Question C

I passed a phone interview and now I’m invited to “meet the team” at an upcoming technical conference. They haven’t offered to pay the registration fee and I, being unemployed, can’t afford it. I believe they are well-meaning but insensitive. I don’t want to embarrass myself by telling them my problem. How best to finesse this?

What’s your reply?

You’re The Headhunter this week. Please add your reply to Question C!

Reference: Why employers should pay to interview you.

 


This week, you’re The Headhunter! I hope you’ll take over and respond to the three questions above. (This is not a test! You’re hired to come back next week whether you participate or not! No SSN or salary history required!)

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The Training Gap: How employers lose their competitive edge

In the November 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions the lunacy of the training gap.

Question

I am responding to your question asking whether or not we, your readers, agree with employers that there is a “skills gap.” I am not sure I can really answer your question, though I will tell you that I have my doubts that there is a skills gap.

I think what there may be is a training gap.

What I can tell you is this. Back in 1986 I was hired by an insurance company as a computer programmer after having completed four years of college (linguistics major), followed by a six-month program in data processing. While I did have training going into the job, the company provided me and my co-workers with a lot of on-the-job training. They had an education department, and we all went through hours, and hours, and hours of paid on-the-job training in computer programming.

My understanding about the reason the company did this was because they wanted to train us to do things the way loser2they wanted them done.

My question to you is, do you find that kind of thing to be true anymore? Are companies willing to invest in training their employees after they have been hired? Or are companies no longer willing to do that?

Nick’s Reply

You’re hitting on one of the key issues behind the so-called “talent and skills shortage.” Who is actually responsible for brewing talent and skills? Job seekers? Schools? Employers themselves?

It seems clear in today’s economy that most employers believe they should be able to acquire skills ready-made. Despite the fact that the nature of a job depends a lot on a particular company’s business — jobs are not one-size-fits-all-companies, after all — businesses expect that the exact constellation of skills they need is going to walk in the door just because they advertised for it.

The training gap is real

Consider the embarrassing contradiction: Any company will tell you that it is the most competitive one in its industry, that its products are uniquely the best, that what they deliver isn’t available anywhere else.

So, why is it they expect the unique talent they want to hire already exists, as if it comes in a can to be purchased on a job board — or that it already exists at a competing company? They might as well admit that their products are the same as everyone else’s.

If you admit you can get your new hires wholly-made from another employer — your competitor — then you might as well tell your customers to buy what they need there, too. If a company wants the skills and talents it needs to be unique and competitive, it had better take responsibility for creating them.

I don’t believe there’s any talent or skills gap. At least in the United States, talent abounds. There’s arguably more talent on the street, looking for work, than ever in history. But to make a worker an element of its unique, competitive edge, the company must make that worker in its own image. It must cast the worker as unique as its products or services. It takes the same kind of investment to brew talent as to brew a competitive product.

We know for a fact that employers have indeed cut back enormously on training. It’s been confirmed by Wharton researcher Peter Cappelli. He’s shown that, adjusting for time, technology, and other factors, American workers are no less skilled or educated than they’ve ever been. However, employers have all but stopped training employees. Employers own the problem – they created it. (See Employment in America: WTF is going on? and Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need.)

Cappelli writes in the Wall Street Journal:

“Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore. Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Bye-bye, competitive edge!

Your 1986 story confirms Cappelli’s finding that, not very long ago, employers considered training important. Today, it’s pathetic. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. HR departments think they can buy off-the-self workers who don’t need or deserve training or skills development, while their marketing departments claim the company’s products are unique, state-of-the-art and without equal. This training gap is the pinnacle of corporate hypocrisy.

Then there’s the industry that aids and abets it. LinkedIn and other job boards successfully market the fraudulent notion that “we have the perfect candidate in our database – just keep looking!” (See Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired — Or, Why LinkedIn gets paid even when jobs don’t get filled.) Employers buy that bunk sandwich in bulk, and stuff it into their recruiting strategies and hiring policies. They behave as if they can hire “just in time” the “perfect candidate” who has been doing the same job for five years already — at a lower salary.

What job seeker wants either of those two “qualities” in a new job?

loserWhen companies fail to educate, train and develop their new hires and existing employees, I think they say goodbye to any competitive edge. Their customers get cookie-cutter products and services. What this state of affairs tells us is that there’s a talent shortage in corporate leadership. (See Talent Shortage, Or Poor Management?)

As long as employers treat people — that “human resource,” that “human asset” — as a fungible commodity or interchangeable parts to be bought and sold as-is, their products and services will be no better than interchangeable parts sold at the lowest possible price.

Take a look at another article by Peter Cappelli, where he slaps management hard upside the head with this apt analogy:

“Imagine a car manufacturer that decided to buy a key engine component for its cars rather than make them. The requirements for that component change every year, and if you can’t get one that fits, the car won’t run. What would we say about that manufacturer if it just assumed the market would deliver the new component with the specifications it needed when it needed it and at the price it needed? It would certainly flunk risk management. Yet that’s what these…companies are doing.”

I think Cappelli answers your question, and I don’t think there’s any debate: Most companies no longer invest in shaping and developing their employees. Their talent-challenged finance executives preach that cost reduction is a better path to profitability than investment. This exacts an enormous price on our economy because it’s relegating those companies to the scrap heap of “me-too enterprises,” and it’s failing our workforce as a whole.

I also think you highlight the solution: “…the reason the company [provided extensive education and development]… was because they wanted to train us to do things the way they wanted them done.” That’s what gave your employer an edge. No investment in training means no edge.

Drive by and keep your edge

My advice: Keep on truckin’ right past employers that provide no education, training or development to new hires and employees. These are companies that don’t invest in their future success — or yours.

Go find their able competitors. There are some good ones out there. They’re not easy to find, just like talent isn’t easy to develop. (That’s why you should pursue the best companies — not jobs.) The mark of a truly competitive product is the unique skills and talents a company developed to produce it.

The next time you interview a company, ask to see their employee training and development plan. If they don’t have a good one, tell them your career plan is to avoid working in a stagnant environment. Flip them a quarter and tell them to call their next candidate, because they probably still have a pay phone in the lunch room.

thanksgivingDoes your employer provide training and development to give you (and itself) a competitive advantage? When you’re job hunting, do you ask about employee education? If you’re an employer, what kind of training to you do?

All the best to you and yours for a Happy Thanksgiving!

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Get the manager’s resume before you interview for the job

In the November 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants a resume from the employer.

Question

Don’t you think jobs should have “resumes?” Assuming an interview has been scheduled, should an applicant ask for a formal, printed description of the job to retain and review before a job offer is made, or only after an offer is presented?

submit-resumeHere’s what I’ve never understood. Employers insist on having my resume before an interview. But all the applicant has is a scant job posting, or sometimes only a general verbal description of the job. It seems having a formal, written job description would help the applicant, just like a resume helps an employer. The applicant could look closely at whether there’s a good match.

Should the prospective employer be expected to provide this type of document to the applicant? If it’s not provided, should I just roll the dice?

Nick’s Reply

You’re raising an excellent question. (But I’ve got a bigger question. Read on.) If HR needs to know all about you before an interview, doesn’t it owe you all the information about the job? (See Now THIS is a job description!)

Recently a reader told me that after an employer decided to hire him, it learned he had an advanced degree that he did not report on the resume. (He’d heard it might actually hurt his chances, so he left the degree off the resume. So it was an omission, not a falsehood.) The employer rescinded the offer because the applicant “lied”!

What happens when an employer fails to disclose all the information about a job until after an offer is made? If it’s never happened to you, I’m sure you know someone who accepted a job, only to learn it wasn’t what they interviewed for.

Many employers don’t seem very concerned that the job you interview for is not the job in the ad. This is even more important when a recruiter solicits you for a job — they usually tell you very little, except that the job is “perfect” for you. Who has ever gone on a job interview suggested by a recruiter and found that the job was “exactly” as the recruiter described it? (Gimme a break! I’m still laughing! Check out Roasting the job description.)

Where’s the job’s resume?

I think it’s prudent to ask for the formal, written job description prior to the interview, “for your records,” especially when you’re dealing with a recruiter. They want your resume, right? What’s the difference?

I’ll bet many HR people would decline to provide it because it’s “proprietary” or “not set in stone.” But, again — they want your resume, which is just as proprietary, and they want it to include everything.

How are you supposed to consider the job without the formal, written job description? What risks are you taking when you don’t have the complete story? In many cases, the big risk is that the hiring manager hasn’t a complete idea of what the job really is — and you’ll be judged on whatever performance criteria the manager invents after the fact.

Now, I’m not saying every job should be exhaustively defined. In fact, I like jobs that will evolve — but the manager and employer should make that clear from the start. Pretending doesn’t cut it, a manager who doesn’t really know what she needs doesn’t cut it, and obscuring the holes in a job definition isn’t fair. (See Don’t suck canal water if you’re confused.)

Where’s the manager’s resume?

But now let’s get really serious and question authority. Let’s make the leap to the bigger question this all begs: Why don’t employers give you the hiring manager’s resume — and resumes of people you’ll be working with? After all, you’re going to be throwing in with them. Don’t you have an obligation to your career to know who they are before you sign up?

Imagine. Because your success and your career will hinge enormously on who those people really are. Don’t you want to see their credentials?

There are several questions you must ask an employer — particularly after it’s made you a job offer. That’s when negotiating power shifts to you, because now they’ve established that they want you. What comes next is working out the terms, and one of the terms is information about your new co-workers. Politely ask to see their creds. (For more about this critical point in the interview process, see Deal-breaker questions to ask employers. Don’t be one of those job candidates who miss their chance to protect their future.)

I’d love to know how employers respond to this, because they make the hiring process so irrational and one-sided that it’s actually absurd. (For more about my take on how employers recruit, see Respecting The Candidate.) A job is a partnership, so let’s see more due diligence from job applicants, and more transparency from employers before a hire is made.

Don’t you think fewer interviews would wind up being a waste of time if you had the spec sheet for the job in hand first? Does it make sense to get the team’s resumes, too, before you meet with them to interview?

Do employers and recruiters give you clear, detailed job descriptions — as detailed as the resume they want from you? Do you ask for them? Are the jobs you interview for exactly as they were represented to begin with? What happens when they’re not? Finally: What do you really know about the manager and members of the team you’re joining?

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600 Editions: The Best of Ask The Headhunter!

In the November 10, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we look at the best of 600 editions!

Question

I’ve been reading your Ask The Headhunter newsletter for a long time. Before that, I remember your forum on The Motley Fool going back into the 1990s! I have no idea how many questions you’ve answered in all those years, but I wanted to ask you — is there any topic you have not covered? What’s your favorite topic or Q&A? Thanks for sharing so much good advice all these years and for doing it for free!

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for following Ask The Headhunter for so long! I stopped counting the questions I’ve answered after 40,000. (Yes, I typed all the replies myself! Ouch!) I’ve been saving your note for a good occasion, and this is it.

Nick5bI published the first Ask The Headhunter Newsletter on September 20, 2002. Ask The Headhunter first went online on January 17, 1995 — on Prodigy, if any of you remember that partnership between IBM and Sears Roebuck! But the newsletter actually debuted in November 1999, when TechRepublic licensed a Q&A feature from me for several years. That version of the newsletter was daily!

I had such a good time producing it that I decided to continue it on my own — and over 10,000 subscribers immediately followed from TechRepublic. Today that list is huge, and this marks the 600th weekly edition. I couldn’t do any of this without the great questions from subscribers!

I don’t really have any favorite editions of my own, but there are several Ask The Headhunter articles and newsletters that I think are fundamental to what ATH is all about — so I thought it might be worth re-capping some of the “best of Ask The Headhunter.” I hope you enjoy this as much I’ve enjoyed putting it together! (And I hope you get a kick out of the series of mugshots I’ve used in the newsletter through the years!)

The Basics

If you’re new to Ask The Headhunter, this is a great place to start: The Headhunter’s Basics: Job hunting with the headhunter. This core set of articles explains:

  • What’s wrong with the employment system
  • How to use the strategy headhunters use — yourself!
  • What employers really want — and it’s not your interview skills!
  • The mistakes that will sink your job search
  • How to be the profitable hire that all good employers want

Resume Blasphemy

Nick1cI think my best article might be one I avoided writing for years. People kept asking, How can I write a really great resume that will get me a job?

I’m not a fan of resumes. In fact, I think a resume is the worst crutch you can use when job hunting. But I realized that if I can’t answer this very popular question in some useful way, I have no right to publish Ask The Headhunter. Resume Blasphemy challenges you in a way that — if you do this exercise thoughtfully — will make you throw your resume away and forever change how you search for a job.

Free?

I’d like to set one thing straight. Yes, Ask The Headhunter is and continues to be free — the website, the blog, the newsletter. Literally thousands of pages of advice, tips and insights about job hunting, hiring and success at work.

But some stuff you do have to pay for: my PDF books, which organize my advice around specific topics in depth and detail. These books help offset the cost of producing all the free content you find on Ask The Headhunter — but so do the many clients who have licensed Ask The Headhunter features over the years. I’m grateful to every client and customer who has ever spent a buck on what I write!

Which brings us to perhaps the most powerful Ask The Headhunter advice of all.

Eliminate job search obstacles

nick2When I compiled the 251-page PDF book Fearless Job Hunting, my goal was to help job seekers realize that job hunting is not about “following the steps.” If following steps worked, everybody could get a job easily and quickly. What I’ve learned over the years is that your success depends on knowing what to do when you encounter one of a small number of daunting obstacles that get in your way. Don’t let these stop you from landing the job you want!

Most of the time, the biggest obstacle you face in your job search is Human Resources departments, which seem to go out of their way to block, stop, and abuse you. The best newsletter I wrote about this is Why HR should get out of the hiring business. I think some of my best advice about how to go around HR is from this edition of the newsletter: Should I accept HR’s rejection letter?

Getting in the door

Speaking of throwing out your resume and busting past HR, this is one of the simplest, most powerful methods for landing a job that you’ll find on Ask The Headhunter: Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door. It’ll take you out of the silly “job hunting” mode HR wants you in — and it’ll get you talking to the people who will actually bring you into a company as a new hire!

One of the Fearless Job Hunting books, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition) goes into lots more detail about this.

Oh, those job interviews!

nickhat1cSo much has been written about what to say and do in job interviews that today it’s all one big rehash. Virtually every career pundit regurgitates the same old ideas that have been around for decades — ideas that reek of personnel jockeys who want to “process” you rather than hire you.

This article is so obvious that you’ll “get it” instantly: The Single Best Interview Question… And The Best Answer. But beware: Doing this kind of preparation to win a job offer is a lot of work. And if you’re not willing to do the work to win the job, you don’t deserve the job!

No one has said it better than long-time Ask The Headhunter subscriber Ray Stoddard:

“The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”

Arrghhh! I took the wrong job!

My goal all these years has been to help you land and keep the right job. But what no one else tells you is how to avoid the wrong jobs!

Before you accept a new job, check It’s the people, Stupid and — yuck — Don’t suck canal water. I keep telling you that the #1 reason people go job hunting is because they took the wrong job to begin with. Don’t fall into that trap!

nicknew4Everybody wants more money!

Of course, no matter what anybody says about the importance of job satisfaction, nobody’s happy without the money. Everybody would like more money — but few people know how to ask for it so the answer will be YES.

The ONLY way to ask for a higher job offer is not for the meek. It’s as big a challenge as proving you’re worth hiring. But, hey — I never said Ask The Headhunter is the easy way to the job you want. It’s just the best way I know.

The bottom line

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which once led me to the realization that, as humans, our biggest problem is our hesitation. Life is short. I try to remind myself of this every day: You’ll be dead soon. It’s how I get on with life and enjoy the choices I get to make!

I hope Ask The Headhunter helps you belly up to the bar to make the choices you face — to enjoy the results of the best and to learn from the rest.

The Best of Ask The Headhunter

Thanks for subscribing and for being a part of Ask The Headhunter, whether you’ve been around from the start or you just dropped in!

The best of Ask The Headhunter isn’t in any of the newsletters or in any of my articles. The best of Ask The Headhunter is the wonderful community of people who continue to gather here to share their stories, advice, wisdom and more questions from their own experience. That’s you!

Thanks to you all!


And to prove it, I’d like to offer you a Special 600th Edition Thank You. If you’d like to purchase any of the Ask The Headhunter PDF books, when you check out, use discount code=BIG600 to save 25% off your purchase! (This limited offer is good only through this week!)


If I may ask you a 600th edition favor:

Please tell your friends about Ask The Headhunter — encourage them to subscribe and join us every week!

As for questions we’ve never covered, this is where to post them! I invite you to ask the questions you want answers to about job hunting, hiring, and success at work!

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Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money

In the October 27, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is living in la-la land.

Question

I recently had three great interviews with an organization that I would be proud to work for. Afterwards they asked me for samples of my work and references, but they never brought up salary. I asked them if they had a salary range in mind for the role, and I learned it was $20k lower than what I am currently earning. ? I politely said that I had a higher number in mind, based on my background and experience. I said I hoped there might be some flexibility if I ended up being their finalist. I left them samples of my work and left the interview with no further discussion of remuneration.

la-laWhen I got home there was an e-mail asking me for references, so I took the opportunity to mention my salary expectations prior to moving forward. The CEO responded that they could not match my request, but explained she would go to the board to see if she could increase the pay since the position played an important role in their growth strategy.

A couple of weeks later, the CEO got back to me and said she could not get any more money from the board and thanked me for my interest.

Since then they have re-posted twice for the job under a more junior title. I suspect that other applicants for the original posting of Chief Strategy Officer were also expecting a higher salary. They have now changed the posting to Senior Development Officer.

I realize now that I should have waited for a job offer, and then negotiated. But, live and learn, right? I am still very interested in the position but would need them to come up at least $10k.

Do you think I can still approach them or has that ship sailed? Being experienced in recruiting, I would never have taken a candidate that far without knowing where I stood on salary. Do I stand a chance?

Nick’s Reply

No, I don’t think you stand a chance at all. What surprises me is your wishful thinking and rationalizing, since you said you’re experienced in recruiting. The CEO told you it’s over. What I see is you putting your hands over your ears: “La-la-la I can’t hear you!”

But this is incredibly common. Employers will make it clear how much they’re willing to pay, and it just goes in a job applicant’s one ear and out the other. It’s one of the most puzzling phenomena — otherwise smart, savvy job seekers just refuse to believe what they’re told about salary.

Or, is it that some job seekers really, really want to believe an employer will pay more, even when it said it won’t? Then — when no more money is forthcoming — the applicant either (1) gets angry and blames the employer for wasting their time, or (2) blames themselves for not wishing hard enough.

Stop wishing

Consider: The CEO knows what you want. She went to her board, which refused more money. The CEO told you. Yet you still harbor a belief that the CEO will come up with another ten grand.

la-la-2But your rationalizing doesn’t end there.

You’ve seen that the title was downgraded from Chief Strategy Officer to Senior Development Officer — and you even seem to understand why. Applicants like you were expecting higher salaries that the company can’t pay. So the company adjusted the title to reflect the lower salary.

Nonetheless, you’re telling me you should have gone through the rest of the hiring process, gotten an offer, and then negotiated — after the CEO already told you there’s no room to negotiate!

And it still doesn’t end there. You seem to think that because you’re “still very interested in the position,” they’re going to come up with another ten grand! Stop pretending! It doesn’t matter how interested you are!

Having said all that, I can understand why you’re bothered. The CEO never should have taken you through three rounds of interviews without knowing where you stood on salary. You’re right about that. She never asked you about salary, and never told you about the salary range — making her just as guilty as you of wasting everyone’s time!

Are we all on the same planet??

I don’t think so.

  • Wishful thinking about salary is a stupid, dangerous waste of time.
  • Hiding a job’s salary range is a stupid, dangerous waste of time.
  • Hiding your desired salary range is a stupid, dangerous waste of time. (See How to decide how much you want.)

The conventional wisdom — which is proclaimed by “negotiation experts” — is that whoever mentions money first loses! And it’s pure nonsense!

Who wins?

Who wins is the person or employer who knows what they want, expresses it candidly, and establishes common ground before investing time in a hiring process. Only a naive wuss starts talking about doing business without first talking money.

I say naive because most people have no idea how to negotiate, so they pretend instead. Do you pretend? Are you afraid? Try this:

How to Say It

“Look, I have no idea whether we can come to agreement on money, but I’d like us to establish a framework about the money before we start talking turkey — so that we won’t both feel like a couple of turkeys after we invest hours talking, only to realize we’re not even in the same ballpark about money. So, what kind of money are we talking about?” (See “How can I avoid a salary cut?” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games (long before you negotiate an offer), pp. 7-10.)

I say wuss because most people are afraid or embarrassed to talk about money until the other person does — hence the silly excuse, “It’s best not to be the first to bring up money!” Whew.

People who know what they’re worth, and what they want, are the ones who are best prepared — both to do the job, and to justify how much they want. They’re the people who are ready to demonstrate their value and to engage in a candid dialogue about it. (See The New Interview and The New Interview Instruction Book.)

When you’re going to do a deal — any deal — negotiating about money starts immediately. Whoever controls this discussion sets the anchor on the outcome. That’s who wins.

The anchor effect

There’s a phenomenon in the science of pricing called the anchor effect. The idea is simple: Whoever brings up money first influences which direction the negotiation will take. If you start talking high numbers, the final negotiation will probably end on a higher number. If someone starts by putting smaller numbers on the table, the final number will likely be lower. That is, the first number that hits the table is said to anchor the negotiation — pulling the rest of the discussion toward that point, higher or lower. (For more on this, see William Poundstone’s excellent and very readable book, Priceless: The myth of fair value and how to take advantage of it.)

Of course, if your number and their number are way off, either try to make your case, or shake hands respectfully and move on. Don’t pretend!

Grow up

Everyone needs to get over their hesitation to talk about salary before interviews proceed. Employers need to disclose — even advertise — a job’s salary range. Job seekers need to disclose how much money they’re looking for. At the very least, both parties should establish an honest ballpark for salary — or stop screwing around with interviews, rationalizations, sneaky tactics, and hemming and hawing.

I know what you’re thinking: “If I say what I want, what if the other guy is actually willing to pay me twice that? I’ll lose out!”

Unless you just fell off a hay wagon, you can’t possibly believe that what the employer was planning to spend is double what you want. Grow up. You’re not going to hit the lottery in a salary negotiation. More likely, playing coy is going to lead you right into a brick wall — when honest mutual disclosure is more likely to result in a healthy discussion.

Where did you go wrong?

When you agreed to the first interview, you failed to ask what the salary was for the job — so you could decide whether it was a match.

Worse, you avoided this because you thought you might be able to play the CEO along, and “convince” her to spend more than her board permitted. This is the old foot-in-the-door tactic of the inept salesman: “If I can get the sucker to invite me in, I’ll just brute-force my way to a deal!”

That’s naive. It’s also — pardon me, because I sense you’re actually smart and capable — stupid. I’ll bet you think it’s professional to not bring up money, and unprofessional to expect the employer to bring it up.

You’re wrong on both counts. What’s unprofessional is two people leading one another on. There’s nothing professional about being afraid or embarrassed to talk money. The CEO is just as guilty. She should have asked you how much you wanted — a range — at the same time she expressed the salary range for the job.

Please: Consider these basic guidelines when applying for jobs:

  • Know what salary range you want, and be ready to express it. (Don’t confuse this with disclosing your salary history. See Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.)
  • Don’t agree to an interview if the employer won’t disclose the salary range for a job.
  • Be prepared to justify the money you ask for, in terms of how you’ll produce more value for the employer than the next candidate will.
  • Pay more attention to what the employer is saying, than to what you’re wishing.

The key to negotiating

Do you know what is the biggest mistake you made, even after you invested time in three interviews without knowing the salary? You let the CEO ask the board for more money without arming her with the justification.

The CEO was willing to go to bat for you — but you sent her to negotiate without a bat!

If you’d given the CEO evidence of why you’re worth $20,000 more than she was planning to spend, she might have gotten more money from the board. Your mistake is that you asked for more money just because you want it. The key is to show what the board gets in return for $20,000. The key to successful negotiating is being able to deliver more value than the other guy expects.

The CEO has struck out. She told you to go home. Sorry — get over it. There is no job for more money. Please don’t make a fool of yourself.

I don’t care what negotiating experts say. Don’t be naive, or afraid, or a wuss about bringing up money first. Winners are prepared to justify what they want, and to show how it will pay off for the other guy. (See “What’s your business plan for doing this job?”, Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: Be The Profitable Hire, pp. 30-32.) If there’s no match on the money, they move on early and quickly.

Do you talk money? Or are you terrified to bring it up? Do you wait until you’ve invested hours of time before you find out what the salary is? What’s the best way to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding salary?

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Want a job? Threaten to start a business!

In the October 13, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders whether rejection in the jobs marketplace suggests it’s time to start a business instead.

Question

My husband and I have been in the software business for ten years. Paul was a crucial part of two successful start-ups. The products he developed won awards and were best-sellers, and as a result he was hired by an established company. (They hired me, too.) There, Paul started, designed and finished a small project for a client that was worth about 50,000 euro. Then he showed how his work could be turned into two products — the company’s first. The company was thrilled and so were the customers. The company netted 500,000 euro from his work. The rest has been history for us. Paul became the leader of our team and we have created many more successful products.

business-plan2Now Paul feels he has no room to grow and it is time to move on. The companies to which he has sent his C.V. [what Europeans call their resumes: Curriculum Vitae] are very impressed, but they say he has not managed huge enough projects or teams. He even got a call from a headhunter (his first!), but four weeks after the interview there has been no feedback.

Paul has proved again and again that he knows how to make a product that will sell, but he can’t sell himself. These companies have lost a chance to get a great software developer and businessman! Is there any hope? Should we keep trying to get the jobs we want, or start our own company?

Nick’s Reply

The answer is do both. Trying to start a company can lead to getting a job. I will explain how momentarily.

Paul is clearly talented, and I’m sure you are, too. I believe the problem that big companies have with his lack of experience with “big projects” and “big teams” is nonsense. Narrow-minded headhunters, personnel jockeys and managers miss out on great new hires when they confuse experience with talent. (See Pssst! Here’s where you should be recruiting top talent!)

Lots of people can conceive new products. Some can actually design them. But the rarest worker is one who can conceive and get a finished product out the door profitably and make customers happy. That’s talent. Interviewers often do not know what to do with unusual people like Paul. Investors, however, do.

You are both at a crucial point in your careers. You have proved what you can do. Now you need the infrastructure that will enable you to do bigger projects. If you compromise on that, you will hurt your careers and make yourselves miserable.

Here is my advice. Forget about pursuing jobs. If you want a great job, create your own business. I’m not suggesting this is easy, but it’s a path worth pursuing.

To start your own company, you will need to examine the market and the industry you want to specialize in. You will need to talk with many people, including prospective customers and distributors. You will need to talk to companies whose products will interact with yours, and with companies that produce related or competing products. (See the chapter titled “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.) All these contacts will guide your product development ideas and introduce you to the partners you will need. They will help you get funding, whether in the form of purchase orders or direct investment. (See Trading your job for venture funding.)

As part of your effort, you will produce a business plan. The plan is actually a substitute for a resume. It shows what you can do. However, unlike a resume, a business plan also shows how you will do it. That’s what gets a company’s attention and its investment. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.) In the course of talking with these companies, your meetings will be a substitute for traditional interviews. Companies will get to know you far better than they ever would in a job interview. Your business plan and these meetings will help you overcome objections to your lack of “big time experience.”

Some of your new contacts may help you start your business. Others will prefer to avoid competing with you — and they will recognize the opportunity to hire you and Paul. Stimulated by your business plan, they may offer you jobs.

The key is to introduce yourselves with a business plan instead of a resume, and with a business presentation instead of a job interview. That is how you will get past the “employers” so you can meet with the people in a company who worry about profit.

The traditional, small-minded hiring process of big companies doesn’t hurt just the job hunter. It also hurts the employer. Thus, your challenge is to avoid the hiring process. Your challenge is to get to the corporate-level executive (preferably a board member) whose job is to find new ways to make money, to find new products, to create new markets, and to develop new partnerships through investment. You cannot do that with a resume and a job interview.

Paul is a point on the productivity curve, but he is on the very narrow, leading edge of that curve. He is unusual. Few companies will know how to interpret his resume, how to interview him, or how to calculate his future value. He has great abilities. Don’t use those abilities to get a job. Threaten to start a company instead. He will get more attention — the right kind of attention. And he will either get funding, or win a great job.

job-offerWhich will be the outcome? I think it depends on too many factors to predict. The point is, you and Paul need to do the same things to achieve either goal.

For everyone else reading this, the message should be clear. Even if what you want is a job (and you don’t want to start a business), a smart way to do it is to develop a plan for a business and pitch it to the appropriate people — including competitors. (See Put a Free Sample in Your Resume.) I think it’s a sure way to a job offer, because a smart competitor will “buy you out” to avoid competition — by hiring you.

What’s the difference between job hunting and pitching a business idea? Is there really any?

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Is it time to quit my job?

In the October 6, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader seems to have landed in the wrong place — and wants out.

Question

I accepted what seemed to be a great job. Nine weeks later, the smoke and mirrors are gone and I see that I’m working for a possessive CEO who won’t trust people enough to let them do their jobs. My direct boss has such dramatic mood swings that I don’t know if the day will be a good or bad one. I now understand why the company’s turnover rate is 80%. Almost everyone has been here less than a year.

I want to leave, but I don’t know how to handle it. I can’t leave this job off my resume, but I don’t know how it might hurt me to be looking again so soon. What’s your advice?

Nick’s Reply

During your interviews, did you meet with any of the people you would be working with, as opposed to just the bosses? That’s one way to avoid surprises from a new job.

mickey-mouse-operationIt’s very important to get to know other members of the team, and to use your meetings to find out the truth about what it’s like to work in a place. But that’s advice for next time. (See “Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?”, pp. 13-15, in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.)

I’d give this at least six months, and during that time I’d start a low-level job search. Kick it into higher gear if things continue to deteriorate.

Sometimes it takes a while to establish one’s credibility with management, and to develop a position that projects a bit of power. As this situation develops, and as you are also creating back-up job opportunities, you may find yourself ready to push back at the CEO and your boss, to see whether they take you seriously. If you can gain concessions, you may find reasons to stay. If you can’t, well, then you’ll be well positioned to make a move out the door. (See Parting Company: How to leave your job.)

Don’t worry about explaining this short stay. Just tell the truth. Keep it brief and to the point. Don’t complain, don’t explain. (See How should I quit this job?) In today’s rough-and-tumble business world people know that some companies aren’t great to work for. Not everyone will be surprised you left this company so soon, if that’s what happens.

It’s not unusual to get disillusioned about a new job. Give this a chance, because your position may improve with a little time. But don’t tolerate an ongoing miserable situation, either — accept the challenge of finding a job that’s right for you. Just step carefully next time! (See How can I find the truth about a company?)

Is it your fault that a job isn’t working out? Or did you make a mistake? It’s up to you to fix it, either way. How would you advise this reader?

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How to engineer your personal network

We’ve been talking about networking. (See Please! Stop Networking! and Network, but don’t be a jerk!) I know the idea of talking to strangers puts many of you off. Some of my readers on PBS NewsHour (see the comments section on that linked page) have even suggested networking is unethical, a form of nepotism, and insulting. In this week’s edition, reader Kevin Rose explains how he engineers his personal network. There are a lot of words in this column, but just three short “how-to” tips.

In the September 29, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an engineer tells how he changes job hunting into friend-making.

Question

I am in the midst of reading Fearless Job Hunting and re-inventing my job search strategy. It has happened a number of times where I would go to a job interview — in a couple of cases out of town — and I heard nothing afterwards. I engineermight write once to check in, but then move on. Now, I can understand no response to a random resume, but lack of courtesy after one or even four interviews is inexcusable. One of my friends says they are afraid of liability, and I say that is pure bunk. Others tell me, “What can you do? That’s just the way it is.”

I am an engineer, so I change things. I don’t just sit idly by and accept things the way they are.

Now I can see that in following your advice that this will be less likely to happen. A company would not dare go radio silent if I interviewed via a personal contact. I will say that being introduced to a potential employer via personal contact has always led to the most satisfying and long-lasting jobs I have had. I will definitely follow your advice.

Nick’s Reply

Disrespect is now built into the HR culture because you and other job hunters are fungible. You’re a commodity. You are “free” because all people are “accessible” to employers. And, because there’s always someone out there better than you, who cares about being polite to you?

But the joke’s on HR, because with four to seven times more job seekers out there than open jobs, HR is still crying there’s a talent shortage. America is awash in unemployed or under-employed talent — people who can ride a fast learning curve. But HR technology can’t suss that out. It’s too buried in job-board databases. Job boards deliver no more than about 10% of hires in aggregate. But it’s easier for employers to spend billions each year on Monster.com, LinkedIn and other job boards, than to go meet people in the professional community that they’d really like to hire. Hell, they could stand outside their door with a sign that entices you to get off your bike and stop in for an interview.

Kevin’s follow-up

talkingI just wanted to let you know that I attended a Rotary Club this evening for the first time. I loved it! Not only were people open about themselves including what they do for a living, but I got a chance to do some networking following your suggestions!

The woman sitting next to me is a paralegal at a company that does forensic engineering — I walk past them on my lunchtime walks just about every day. I said to her, “I would like to hear more about what you do sometime.” That’s all I said and she said, “You will have to come by sometime when we are taking a car apart.”

They analyze cars that crash, and testify in liability cases against manufacturers.

Now I don’t think that company would ever have a job for me, but knowing them will give me some perspective in my own engineering work. Also, I get to know the business community in my town. I wanted to thank you for this inspiration, and it is a lot more fun than Facebook of Linkedin. I also got a free meal, too!

So again, thank you for the nudge. Like I said, my best jobs have come through networking — one time from a friend at church, and my current job is one I found through an old girlfriend (with my wife’s approval). I am hoping to become acquainted with people such that the next time I need to find a job, I will know some people who might point me to an opening, or who may be instrumental in helping me start a business.

This doesn’t stop with Rotary. I recently rejoined my professional organization, ieee.org. But aside from clubs and organizations, I realize there are many, many ways of meeting people and making connections.

Thanks again!

Kevin Rose
Santa Barbara, CA

Nick’s Reply

I promised you three how-to tips about how to engineer your own network. Don’t blink: Go where professionals gather. Ask them about their work. Make friends. Anybody can do this.

How can you use Kevin Rose’s experiences to make networking work for you? Is it really so easy? (Many thanks to Kevin for sharing!)

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Network, but don’t be a jerk!

In the September 22, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we try to eliminate the jerk factor from networking.

Question

Everyone talks about networking as the best way to find the right job. There must be a key to this approach beyond just going to networking meetings and signing up with one of the online social networks. What advice can you give me about how to do it right?

Nick’s Reply

Last week (Please! Stop Networking!) I offered some How to Say It tips about starting legiitimate conversations with people you’d like to get to know.

jerkNow let’s talk about how not to be a jerk. What passes as “networking” today can make anyone a jerk. And, if you feel awkward about networking, it’s because you really don’t want to behave like a jerk!

Let’s look at some really stupid ways networking is sold to the public. And make no mistake — it’s sold because someone makes money at this.

Networking meetings

You have no doubt been to networking events where people spend a minute apiece with you, and then expect that you will introduce them to your closest business buddies. Such gatherings have gotten a bad reputation because they can be mercenary and impersonal.

What’s the point of meeting someone if you have no real common ground, and there’s no value in your connection because there are no shared experiences between you?

Online networks

The online social networks are even more problematic. (See LinkedIn: Just another job board.) You sign up, add the names of your co-workers, former employers and friends, and the network links you to other members with similar backgrounds.

But while networks like LinkedIn create lots of connections, there is little emphasis on the quality of those links.

And that’s the key: The quality of relationships. Social networks suggest that having lots of contacts is more important than having good contacts, and they help you highlight your number of links. Why? Because the networks themselves profit mainly from their size. The more members they have clicking on one another, the more ads and digital “services” they can sell. It’s an inherent contradiction and even a conflict.

But the people who benefit from online social networks are the same people who know how to turn a first meeting into a healthy, long term relationship. They know it requires a considerable investment. There’s nothing automated about it.

Phony networking has just one tenet: Behave like a selfish jerk. I think there are three tenets to real networking:

Common ground

First, it requires common ground. People must have something to share that is useful to others. The best place to start is with your work. Identify people who do the work you do (or want to do), then e-mail them, call them, meet them and talk with them about their work and your work. (Not about jobs.)

Value

Second, good networking is sustained by value. Five minutes sharing your elevator speech and business card is worthless.

What can you do to either help or genuinely engage another person? How about a tip that will enable her to be more productive? Or you can ask honest, sincere questions about the work she does. That identifies more common ground. You’ll either find it and build a relationship on it, or you won’t. Don’t fake it.

Time

Third, good networking takes time.This is what networkers have the most difficulty with. Trust grows between people through repeated good experiences. Once I trust you, I’ll draw you into my circle of friends — and that’s where valuable job referrals come from.

The best way to become well-connected is to meet and stay in touch with people who do the work you’re interested and who are good at what they do. Don’t go to them when you’re job hunting. Establish the kinds of relationships — and reputation — that make them want to come to you when they learn about a great job.

How can you put these three tenets of networking to good use to get the job you want?


In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), I discuss “How to make great personal contacts” (pp. 15-17):

“Personal contacts are the foundation of every business. Rather than wait for ‘opportunities’ to come along, learn to participate in your community — go meet people. Learn about their business, get their opinions and advice, and ask for introductions that will help you become a useful member of that community. Personal contacts begin with you reaching out. Start now.”


In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, I tackle the objection many people have: Networking is icky! Only if you behave like a jerk! This is from “Do I have to ‘kiss ass’ to get a job?” (pp. 2-:5):

“When you send a company your resume, you’re not demonstrating anything. All you’re saying is, ‘Here are my credentials, all typed up nicely. Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!’ (What’s ickier than that?) A personal contact is a filter that helps a manager find what he’s looking for. A personal contact quickly gives you an opportunity to actually show what you can do — it’s like a voucher that expresses your value and suggests how you will help the company.”


Is your networking based on creating common ground, adding value and investing a lot of time? How does networking work for you?

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