Why employers should pay to interview you

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In the April 30, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant invests more than eight hours in interviews and asks why the employer acts like her time is free:

The rudeness of employers seems to be pervasive out there. I had interviews with a company recently. The second round involved four finalists meeting 12 employees over eight grueling hours. They said in mid-March that they would make a choice by April 1. I called the HR person on April 7 and got her voice mail. I said I wanted to know their decision based on the timetable she provided and asked her to call me. On April 17, I e-mailed the hiring manager to reinforce my interest and asked if they had made a decision.

The next day the HR manager responded that they hired a candidate who started work the last week of March. She said that a formal notice would be sent to other applicants within the week.

April is over. There’s been no notice. One of the other three finalists told me she heard nothing at all. Are manners and simple courtesy totally dead?

Nick’s Reply

Job applicants appear on time for interviews, devote hours of unpaid professional time to an employer, and then wait patiently for a hiring decision by the promised date. Inevitably, a company ignores its own timeline without any update or comment to the candidates. Why? Because candidates are free.

You could be bold instead of free. Send the HR manager certified mail with a copy to the hiring manager and the CEO of the company: an invoice for your time.

Am I crazy to suggest this? Would you be crazy to actually do it? Imagine the note:

pay-to-playDear [name]:

My time for our first interview was free, as it was an exploratory meeting. You requested more time for the second round of meetings, which I provided at no cost, contingent on your company fulfilling its commitment to respond with a decision by the date you chose, April 1. You ignored my calls, e-mails, and your own deadline, without the courtesy of a notice.

I am thus billing you for the eight hours of my professional time spent in the second round of meetings with your team. As a professional, I would never dream of being irresponsible with the time of my clients, my vendors, or my employer. Time is money. I live by the deadlines I commit to, and I expect others to do the same. Anything less would be irresponsible to our industry and to our profession. None of us could operate with integrity if we ignored our commitments. This is not a joke. I expect payment within 10 days.

Yours truly,

If this seems extreme, why should it? Is there a more polite way to notify a company that it has erred? Sure — but you’ve already done that, several times.

Every day, companies ignore these time commitments with impunity. Why is a deadline for a hiring decision any less important than a deadline to deliver a product to a customer? The company’s ability to meet either deadline establishes its reputation. (See Death By Lethal Reputation.) Yet, while companies worry plenty about dissatisfied customers, they don’t give a thought to what other professionals in their industry will say about them.

A job applicant treated with disrespect can do as much — if not more — damage to a company’s business as a dissatisfied customer. Do employers really think word doesn’t get around?

Maybe hiring managers just assume that their HR departments handle all the necessary niceties with applicants. But, just how accountable are HR departments? Does this company’s public relations department realize that while it’s spending millions on good press, the HR department is scuttling it? If you’re a hiring manager, and you’re not sure how job candidates are treated after they leave your office, please read Respecting The Candidate.

Your HR department might explain that processing applicants, job offers, hires, and rejection letters is cumbersome. Tell that to your customer who cancels the order that’s a month late, or to the prospect who’s waiting for a sales rep to return her call.

The technology to keep candidates informed is here. The will isn’t. Why? Because job candidates don’t cost anything. Companies can get all your professional time they want, for free, without any obligation to you whatsoever.

That’s wrong. Don’t you think it’s time for employers to put some skin in the game, if only because it would make them think twice about the costs they impose on applicants?

What if employers had to pay for job interviews? Should you really send an invoice if an employer ignores its obligation to you?

Good questions. Would it make any difference if you actually sent in that invoice? It might, if you copy the company’s public relations department and three leading industry publications. (Don’t forget to add me to your list.) To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” imagine if 50 people a day sent interview invoices to employers. Employers might learn to behave.

You don’t want to ask an employer to pay you for an interview? Then consider Conrado Hinojosa’s provocative The No-Nonsense Interview Agreement instead.

Bad behavior is un-businesslike. I challenge any HR manager to explain why it’s okay to ignore even an implied commitment to a job candidate. If your company shines in this regard, I’d like to hear from you, too. In fact, I’ll gladly highlight your company in an upcoming column.

In the meantime, I think employers should start paying to interview applicants — perhaps then they’d behave the way they expect applicants to behave.

If you could carefully select job candidates for a job at your company, would you pay them to interview with you? What is a candidate’s time worth, anyway? Even if the person is unemployed, if they’re worth interviewing then they’re worth money.

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Is it ethical to go on this job interview?

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In the April 23, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a loyal employee wonders whether it’s honest to go to a job interview:

I’m working for a great tech company on the west coast in a job I enjoy, but I was approached by a recruiter from a large company in the midwest for an interesting job. It would be a significant move up in management in a bigger and more well-known company. My concerns are these:

  • I like my colleagues and current employer, so I’d feel bad about leaving this role after being here only a year.
  • There are budget cutbacks and delays in bonuses that worry me a bit.
  • I’m not sure whether there will be layoffs or more austerity in the future.
  • I’m not sure that I want to leave this job and move, or that the new job is any better than the one I have now.

My question is whether it is unethical for me let them fly me in to interview if I don’t feel 100% sure I’d take the job. They approached me and seem to think I’m a good candidate, so they’re moving a bit faster than I’d like.

Nick’s Reply

I admire your integrity, but exploring the unknown doesn’t subject you to a higher ethical standard.

This company is recruiting you. As long as you have a sincere curiosity and interest in exploring what they want you to do, I’d go. When we meet someone and ask them out, we don’t explain, “Well, I’d like to go out with you, but I’m not sure we’d ever get married.” Of course you’re not! The only question is, are you attracted enough that you’d like to get to know one another better?

ethical-choices-signThat’s where pleasant surprises come from.

Keep this big fact in mind: No one has asked you to marry them yet. I mean, no one has made you an offer.

Some companies (and people) move faster than others. Frankly, among employers that’s rare and it’s a good sign. If the new company seems to have good people, a good reputation, and exciting new products in its pipeline, then I think it’s a solid potential employer. But you’ll never know what might stimulate you to take it very seriously unless you show up.

In the end, if they make you an offer, it’s still all up to you. You’ll never figure out what weight to assign to each of your concerns until you have a real choice to make. It’s better to have a new choice than not to. Even if you say no, you can still be friends. And if you say yes, you can still be friends with your old company. Remember: People leave companies, and companies lay off people — it’s called business. How the personal and social sides of it play out is really up to you. And I get the sense you’d make it okay either way.

You might not be sure why you’re interviewing with this company, but I am. Your list of concerns tells me you don’t feel safe. That’s reason enough to explore other gigs, and there’s nothing unethical about it. The Wall Says It’s Time to Go may be a helpful map through your concerns.

What triggers you to consider another job? What stops you? Can you have an honest interview if you’re not sure you want the job?

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New Grads: How to get in the door without experience

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In the April 16, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a parent asks how her son, a new college graduate, can get a job when he’s got no experience.  How can he get experience when he can’t get hired? He’s done internships and earned good credentials in school, but keeps losing out to other applicants. How can he get in the door for an interview without experience?

Nick’s Advice

It’s difficult to guess at the problem, partly because I don’t know what your son’s degree is in and what jobs he’s been applying for. But in general, he’s encountering the age discrimination problem: He’s too young!

hire-new-gradIronic, isn’t it? Either older workers are “too experienced” and “over-qualified,” or younger workers lack skills and experience. Here’s what has become very clear to me, and we’ve discussed this in other columns: Employers demand job applicants who have done the exact job before, and who will take less money to do it.

It makes me wonder what Human Resources departments mean by, “Our company offers exciting new opportunities!” — when they offer no new opportunities at all. Why would anyone aspire to a new job doing the exact same thing they’ve been doing for years already? Why would they take a salary cut to do the same old job? (Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School of Management has documented this in his short book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.)

When you hear the CEO of a corporation proclaim, “People are our most important asset!” it seems what that really means is, “People are a depreciating commodity at our company — and you’re next in line, so take a salary cut to do the same work you did last year!”

Sorry to rant, but I get fed up with companies that pretend they’re offering careers when all they offer is the same old grind. But back to your son: What can he do?

Substitute personal recommendations for experience

New college grads do get jobs, so your son needs to reconsider “How to Start A Job Search.” (Few schools teach effective job hunting to their students.) He should also consider what is an acceptable substitute for experience and skills. I think the most compelling substitute is a personal referral for a job — from someone the employer trusts. This doesn’t mean your son will get hired because he knows someone. It means he may get hired because someone will vouch for his intelligence, for his work ethic, and for his ability to learn a new job quickly. Even a cold-blooded employer realizes it can hire talent at a lower cost if it starts with a new grad who shows promise.

“Promise” is the key, and the lynchpin is the personal referral.

Work backwards

Your son should carefully select the companies he’d like to work for, and then proceed “backwards.” Before applying for any job, figure out who he knows that knows someone at the company. This may require multiple steps — but it’s a time-honored way to get in the door for a first job. He will have to spend time talking with each person along the path, to make them comfortable that he’s worth their recommendation. After all, they’re putting their names on the line for an unknown entity. (Sorry, but a new grad is usually an unknown in the job market.)

Your son should:

  • Contact the alumni office of his school, and identify people who work at his target companies — and then contact them.
  • Talk with parents of former schoolmates — ask for their advice.
  • Ask former professors for introductions to people they know in business and industry.

Then keep talking. Trust is the coin of the realm, and your son must build it if he wants a referral.

Learn to talk shop to get help

In How Can I Change Careers? I offer some tips about “getting in the door” that are perfect for new grads. (After all, shifting from college to the work world is a career change, right?)

Don’t worry if you’re not good at introducing yourself or making cold calls. Write a little script and use it until the words start to come naturally. After a few calls, they will. For example,

“I’ve been considering a move into the widget industry and I want to learn more about it. What books or articles have you found helpful in your work?”

This phone call should have nothing to do with asking for a job. Make it a casual but intelligent discussion with an expert who can educate you. This is a great way to make insider contacts. I know it’s not easy to make such calls, but if you’re asking for advice and insight rather than a job, you’ll find that some people will talk to you for a few minutes. Some may take you under their wing. Why? Because people love to talk about their work with others who are interested. When you demonstrate your willingness to invest time and effort to learn about their business, you’re not likely to be shrugged off as another desperate job hunter.

In short, learn to talk shop!

One problem many new grads have is taking advice from people who might help them. Please see “How to Get Coached.” Don’t waste those new contacts!

We can all cry that this is unfair and that employers should hire more rationally. But there are 27 million people actively looking for work in the U.S. Employers seem to think the perfect worker will come along, so why take a chance? Employers do hire new grads. But with so many new grads looking for work, the personal referral makes a crucial difference.

Are you a new grad looking for a job? What’s standing in your way? What are you doing to overcome the obstacles? Got advice for new grads? Join us in the comments section below!

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Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door

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In the April 9, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a transitioning military officer asks how to break through:

I have spent the morning drilling through Ask the Headhunter. Thank you for the time and effort you put into that forum. I especially appreciate the reasoned, personal responses you give to select comments on your posts.

I would like to ask you for some advice if you have the time. I am retiring from the U.S. Army after 24 years as a senior commissioned officer and rated aviator, but I want to work outside the defense industry. My skill set is very broad and leadership-focused. I’ve been looking for jobs at the executive level, and over the last three months I’ve selectively submitted resumes for jobs (7 total) that I think would rock my world. My evaluation of these job postings put them right in my round-house. I’m not getting any responses to my resumes, though, and I don’t know how to break through. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter — glad you’re finding it helpful. And more important to me, thanks for your service to our country and to all of us. I’m particularly troubled by how difficult it can be for military folks to transition into the commercial world.

I’ll try to offer a few suggestions.

First, please keep in mind that the average manager spends an average of 30 seconds reading a resume. That means you need to tell managers quickly how you’re going to address their specific problems and challenges. Here are a couple of short articles that might drive this home:

Tear Your Resume In Half

Resume Blasphemy

triangulateI recently gave a presentation to Cornell’s Executive MBA Program — these are managers who’ve been running companies for 7-15 years who invest about $145,000 for a two-year business degree. I’ll tell you what I told them:

When you hand your resume to an employer, what you’re really saying is this: Here’s everything you need to know about me. My education, my credentials, my work history, my accomplishments, my skills — Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!

Managers suck at figuring this out. Just consider that they’re looking at hundreds of resumes — not just yours.

In How Can I Change Careers?, I talk about how show a manager that you’re the profitable hire for his or her specific organization. This process can be used to produce a “blasphemous” resume — but the work involved essentially eliminates the need to use a resume to get in the door. It’s all about doing your homework on the problems and challenges the manager faces, by talking shop with people connected to the company. They will educate you and tip you off on what to say to the manager. The objective is to let these contacts lead you directly to the manager, while your competition is sending in resumes.

This set of articles may also help you get started: The Basics.

You have already selected your target companies, so you’re already ahead of the game. Most people can’t do this. They insist on applying for jobs they find.

Please also check this article: Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Having specific targets is more than half the challenge. Honing in on them is the rest. If you do it this way, it almost doesn’t matter if they have open jobs. Believe me, managers open up jobs when they meet someone who can drop profit to their bottom line. It’s what a consultant does when pitching services to a prospective client. She shows up with very specific solutions.

One caution: Don’t deliver so much up front that you’re doing free work they can poach from you. Offer a plan for solutions, but leave them hanging a bit, until they make a commitment to you.

The best way to “break through” is to triangulate. Find and talk to people near the manager: customers, vendors, other employees, consultants — anyone who touches the operation. Never ask for job leads or to “take my resume in.” Instead, ask for advice and insight about the manager and his operation. Then close by asking if there’s someone in the operation you might talk to, to get more insight and advice: “I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get ready for a job in this operation.”

Finally, avoid HR at all costs. See last week’s column: Why HR should get out of the hiring business, and this audio segment from KKSF talk radio: What’s HR got to do with it?

I hope you land the job that rocks your world!

How would you advise this military officer in transition? Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

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Why HR should get out of the hiring business

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In the April 2, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter complains about HR:

Throughout my career I have gotten new jobs by meeting and talking to managers who would be my bosses. Now I keep running into the Human Resources roadblock in companies where I’d like to talk to a manager about a job. Honestly, I just don’t see the reason for silly online application forms or for “screeners” who don’t understand the work I do, when companies complain they cannot find the right talent. I really don’t get it. Why do companies even have HR departments involved in hiring?

Nick’s Reply

Good question. Better question: Should Human Resources (HR) be in the recruiting and hiring business? My answer is an emphatic NO for three main reasons, though there are many others.

this_way_outFirst, HR is qualified to recruit and hire only other HR workers. HR is not expert in marketing, engineering, manufacturing, accounting, or any other function. HR is thus not the best manager of recruiting, candidate selection, interviewing, or hiring for any of those corporate departments.

Second, HR takes recruiting and hiring out of the hands of managers who should be handling these critical tasks. Finding and hiring good people are two of the most crucial jobs managers have. In The Recruiting Paradox I offer employers three simple suggestions for improving recruiting:

  • Don’t send a Human Resources clerk to do a manager’s job,
  • Put your managers in the game from the start, and
  • Deliver value to the candidate throughout the job application process.

I think companies suffer when they subject applicants to the impersonal and bureaucratic experience of dealing with HR.

Which brings me to the third reason HR should be taken out of the recruiting and hiring business: HR has no skin in the game. It virtually doesn’t matter who is recruited, processed, or hired because HR isn’t held accountable. It’s hardly HR’s fault, but it’s a rare company that rewards or blames HR for the quality of hiring. HR is typically insulated as a “necessary overhead function.”

Don’t get me wrong: There are some very good people working in HR, and there may be a legitimate role for HR in many companies. But HR’s domination of recruiting and hiring has led to a disaster of staggering magnitude in our economy. In the middle of one of the biggest talent gluts in American history, employers complain they can’t fill jobs.


Don’t miss Harvard Webinar Audio: Can I stand out in the talent glut?


 

talent_shortageAccording to PBS NewsHour estimates, there are over 27 million Americans looking for work, either because they are unemployed or under-employed. (The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are 12 million unemployed.) I prefer the NewsHour figure because it tells us just how big the pool of available talent is. Concurrently, BLS also reports there are 3.7 million jobs vacant.

HR has a special term for this 7:1 ratio of available talent to vacant jobs. HR departments and employers call this 7:1 job-market advantage “The Great Talent Shortage!”

While the economy has put massive numbers of talented workers on the street, HR nonetheless complains it can’t find the workers it needs. That’s no surprise when HR’s idea of finding talent is to resort to database searches and keyword filtering, which are disastrously inadequate methods for finding and attracting the best hires.

The typical HR process of recruiting and hiring is most generously described as hiring who comes along via job boards and advertisements. It’s a rare (and precious) HR worker who gets up from behind the computer display to actually go find, meet, and bring home good candidates.

“The typical explanation for why HR recruiters have no time to recruit actively is that they have too many resumes to sort. This very real problem is solved easily: Stop soliciting and accepting resumes.”

Go recruit! (That’s just one of 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.)

I could write pages about corporate maladies that arise from employers’ over-reliance on HR to recruit and hire. Instead, I’m just going to list some of the ways HR can kill any company’s competitive edge by interfering with these management functions:

Wasting money
Last year, almost a billion dollars was sucked up by just one online “job board,” Monster.com, which was reported as the “source of hires” only 1.3% of the time by employers surveyed. HR could be advocating for the personal touch in recruiting, but blows massive recruiting budgets on job boards with little to show in return.

Hiring who comes along
Job boards and similar advertisements — the high-volume, passive recruiting tools HR relies on — yield only applicants who come along, not those a company should be pursuing.

Wasting good hires
Good candidates are lost because database algorithms and keyword filters miss indicators of quality that are not captured by software. And highly qualified technical applicants are rejected because they are screened not by other technical experts, but by HR, which is too far removed from business units that need to select the best candidates.

Mistaking quantity for quality
HR has turned recruiting into a volume operation — the more applicants, the better. This results in impersonal, superficial reviews of candidates and quick, high-volume yes/no decisions that are prone to error.

Excusing unprofessional behavior
Soliciting far more applicants than HR can process properly results in unprofessional HR behavior, angry applicants and damage to corporate reputations. HR routinely suggests that the high volume of applicants it must process explains its rude no-time-for-thank-yous-or-follow-ups behavior — while it expects job applicants to adhere to strict rules of professional conduct.

Failing to be accountable
Because HR does not report to the departments it recruits for, it tends to behave inefficiently and unaccountably with impunity. The bureaucracy grows without checks and balances, and the hiring process becomes dull, rather than honed to a true competitive edge.

Marginalizing professional networks
HR tends to isolate managers from the initial recruiting and screening process, further deteriorating the already weak links between managers and the professional communities they need to recruit from.

Bureaucratizing a strategic function
The complexity of corporate HR infrastructure encourages isolation and siloing. Evidence of this is HR’s over-emphasis of legal risks in recruiting and its administrative domination of this top-level business function.

Wasting time
With recruiting and hiring relegated to an often cumbersome HR process, managers cannot hire in a timely way. Good candidates are frequently lost to the competition. (HR doesn’t have to deal with the consequences, but when a good sales candidate is lost to a competitor, the sales department loses twice.)

Killing a company’s competitive edge
HR owns two competing interests, further dulling a company’s competitive edge: the hiring process and legal/compliance functions. Because hiring is a strategic, competitive function, it deserves its own advocate. If business units and managers took full responsibility for recruiting and hiring (while HR handled compliance) the daily abrasion of these competing interests would strengthen a company’s edge.

take_a_hikeThis catastrophe didn’t occur overnight. It crept up on business in the form of a smothering shroud of red tape. Today this HR bureaucracy is propped up by an industry of “consultants,” “professionals,” and “experts” who advise corporate HR departments about how to maintain their administrative stranglehold over the key differentiator that defines any company — its people. And in turn, HR funds the database-induced job-board stupor and online-application-form addiction that’s killing employers and job hunters alike.

It’s time for HR to get out of the recruiting and hiring business, and to give this strategic function back to business units and managers who design, build, manufacture, market and sell a company’s products. Who better to decide who’s worth hiring? Who better to aggressively go find the people who will give the company an edge?

In the meantime, job hunters have no choice but to Outsmart The Employment System.

Should HR relinquish its recruiting and hiring functions? Have you experienced related problems with HR, either as a hiring manager or as a job applicant? What do you think should be done about it? (And if you think I’m wrong, please tell me why.)

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Headhunters Are Harassing Me!

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In the March 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains about troublesome headhunters:

What’s your advice to someone who is dealing with unwanted cold calls from headhunters?

Somehow my name has been shared around as someone who is looking for a change. (I’m not. If I were, I would be the one making the calls.) I seem to get cold calls at work every other day. E-mails come about once a week, and I get cold calls at home about once every other week. I don’t respond to the e-mails, and my standard answer to the phone calls is, “Sorry, but I’m not currently interested.” Most people accept that at face value so the phone call is all of 30 seconds, but some have become downright rude, saying things like, “Well, if you don’t want to double your salary, that’s not my problem.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

Other than keeping notes about who is acting in an unprofessional manner, do you have any other suggestions? Thanks in advance.

Nick’s Reply

What you’re experiencing is partly a reflection of the economy and partly an display of poor headhunting practices.

harassingphonecallsReal headhunters — those who actually work on specific assignments from clients — really are looking for good candidates. If you’re good at what you do and people in your industry know it, these headhunters are getting your name from people they know and trust. It’s possible that several headhunters who are working on a handful of the same positions have all heard about you. That may be one reason you’re getting a lot of calls.

However, my guess is that only a few of those calls are from good headhunters. A good headhunter’s job is to entice, cajole and steal a good worker for his client. But, a good headhunter won’t be rude or pushy about it — and he won’t bother you. If you politely say, “No thanks,” he’ll respect you and leave you alone. He will also ask your permission to stay in touch periodically. My advice is to keep such connections open, and judge the headhunter on how he behaves.

The other class of headhunters — the ones who play “dialing for dollars” — don’t have legitimate search assignments. Their approach is to get someone like you interested in the idea of a new job. All they want is the resume of a good professional. Once they’ve got it, they call companies that may or may not be hiring, and use you as bait to get an assignment. Yours won’t be the only resume they will submit. Their hope is that they might get a hit here and there.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Call it supply-side headhunting, or call it desperation. Some people love it. But, when these guys become a nuisance, it’s time to cut them off.

I like that you keep a list and make notes about who’s good and who’s not. Once you judge someone to be rude, you should have no qualms about just hanging up. This works as well with nasty headhunters as with telemarketers. (If you argue with them, they’ll just keep calling.)

Make a list of questions that you want any headhunter to answer before you’ll even jot down his name. Here’s an important one from How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. Put it at the top of your list:

“Can you give me two clients and two candidates as references I can check before we talk further?”

Headhunters who are looking for a warm body will decline, then you hang up. (Some are not even really headhunters.) The ones who provide references are worth putting on your A list. Don’t worry: You won’t get enough legitimate calls that you’ll have to devote much time to this. The hang-ups will be quick and much more frequent. Your A list will be correspondingly short.

You can of course just hang up on everyone soliciting you. But that’s not a great idea — especially in today’s economy.

Do headhunters harass you? How do you decide which ones to talk to, and which to hang up on?

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Commit Resume Blasphemy

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In the March 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job changer wonders if his resume is any good:

I was terminated along with dozens of other people when my company got into trouble. I’ve had to look for jobs in totally different industries because I want to stay in this city. Attached is my resume. I paid good money to have it professionally written, but it has not led to even one job interview. Do you think it’s any good?

Nick’s Reply

Talented people get downsized out of their industry, but they don’t realize that jargon prevents other employers from understanding their experience. Let’s look at some of the wording in your resume:

  • blasphemer“Utilize strong facilitation skills to significantly improve PVA results.”
  • “Provide research expertise to the BU/Ds and the STS/NRSO Delivery Teams for initial facility availability studies.”
  • “Use a systematic process to develop globally focused training interventions and performance support tools.”

Say what?

How can you expect to be hired by an employer who can’t understand what you’re talking about because the terminology is so arcane? Fancy explanations and acronyms don’t impress anyone. Employers are impressed by simple English that explains who you are, what you’ve done, and how you might add profit to a business.

No matter how specialized your field, try to explain your work so your grandmother (or a 12-year-old child) would understand it. I mean no offense to erudite grandmothers or children, but I use this test on my own writing. If you can’t express it simply, you’re not helping the person you’re addressing, and you’re not helping yourself.

Just because you paid to have your resume written doesn’t mean it’s better than one you could write. (See The Truth About Resumes.) In fact, I strongly recommend that people write their own resumes. I know it’s not an easy task, but it’s worth the effort. It will help you crystallize your story about why employers should hire you. Unless you work with a rare resume writer who interviews you in depth, this “story development” won’t happen when you let someone else do it. Your local library has lots of books on resume writing. Study them and use only the best tips that make sense to you.

Re-write your resume and explain your experience and skills as simply as possible, so managers in other businesses and industries will be able to see how your credentials might be relevant to them.

If you would like to try something really different, consider committing Resume Blasphemy. This is one of the most popular articles on asktheheadhunter.com, in which I suggest that a really good resume actually violates every rule of resume writing. It “doesn’t show any of your past experience and it doesn’t list any jobs you ever did. No accomplishments, no achievements or awards.” Instead, “it requires you to do the job, not just apply for it.” I call this a Working Resume™.

So, what do you put in it? The article outlines four components that your Working Resume should include:

  • An outline of the business of the employer you want to work for
  • Proof you understand what work needs to be done
  • Your brief plan for doing the work
  • Your estimate of how much profit you can add to the job

That’s right: This resume is not about you. It’s about the employer and job. (That’s what’s so blasphemous.)

Can anyone tell me what makes this kind of resume such a challenge to use when you’re looking for a job? And, what makes it a huge challenge to any employer you give it to?

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Bet you can’t answer this one interview question: A challenge to Lou Adler

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In the February 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager wants to know what one question I love to ask job candidates:

When I interview people, I use questions my personnel department gives me, as well as a few of my personal favorites. What’s your favorite interview question to ask job applicants and why?

Nick’s Reply

question-marks-2Lou Adler, another headhunter who also teaches recruiting and job hunting techniques, has an answer to that question that you should consider. But much as I respect Lou, I totally disagree with him. I’ll explain why and then I’ll tell you what is the only question that really matters in a job interview.

In a recent LinkedIn posting, Lou says “The Most Important Interview Question of All Time” is this:

“What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career, so far?”

Lou’s suggestion is useful because the sub-questions it spawns stimulate wonderful discussion between a job applicant and the employer. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that asking a job candidate about his or her most significant accomplishment is so important.

In fact, I think it’s a distraction. It makes it harder for you (the manager) to really assess what an applicant will do for your business. Don’t worry what the job candidate has done. You can ask about that later. Like every investment prospectus says, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. What matters is what a person will do next, if hired, to make your business more profitable.

The future matters more

In a friendly spirit of “I don’t think so…” I’m going to challenge Lou Adler’s advice and offer a better interview question to ask every applicant, before you talk about anything else:

“What’s your business plan for doing this job profitably?”

Any job applicant can walk into an interview and rehash past accomplishments on a moment’s notice. A dog with a note in its mouth cdogwithnotean do that. The person in Lou’s scenario could be visiting any company, talking with any manager, about any job. In other words, Lou’s applicant can be totally unprepared and you’d never know it.

But the truly prepared job candidate has researched your company’s business in detail and is ready to deliver a “mini business plan” about how to do the job you need done, showing why he or she would be your most profitable hire. There is no way to fake it. This is the only interview question that really matters because if the applicant’s answer isn’t a good one, then there’s no reason to waste time business-plantalking about anything else.

I think this approach is more important today than it’s ever been, because while many employers enjoy hefty profits, they nonetheless hesitate to hire. But, why should you fill a position and increase your overhead, when you have no idea about whether the new hire can deliver profitable work?

Coach your job applicants!

Of course, if you’re going to expect a job applicant to deliver plans, you need to give all applicants a heads up:

  • Call each one at least a week before the interview.
  • Tell them you expect a brief, defensible plan for how they will do the job.
  • Tell them what to study and give them useful material to read.

If you’ve selected your candidates carefully, it very smart to…

  • Yep: Let them talk to members of your team prior to the interview. (Heck, encourage them to call!)

That’s right — coach them to win the job! Help them prepare a thoughtful, custom presentation, so you can see their best performance. (Isn’t that what you do for your own employees, to help them succeed?)

The added benefit of this approach is that most applicants you talk to will never show up for the interview — and you’ll save a lot of valuable time. Most job hunters can’t be bothered. They don’t want to invest the time and energy to get to know your business. They’re too busy applying for a job — any job.

The very few who come to meet you are truly motivated and really want to work for you. They’re ready to prove it. They will accept your challenge and show up ready to demonstrate how they will do the job. So, Open the door — welcome your most motivated candidates.

Why ask dopey questions?

Several years ago, Fast Company magazine produced a special edition of advice “for the perplexed exec.” It was a collection of questions and answers designed to help managers succeed. They asked me to answer the question you’ve raised, the question Lou Adler tackles in his own column. My full answer and advice are here: “What is the single best interview question — and the best answer?

As an employer, you can ask a job applicant for virtually anything you want. So, why ask for a dopey resume about their history? Why assess them indirectly by asking about their “most significant accomplishment” when you can directly assess how they’d do this job now? Your most profitable hire will jump at the chance to produce a plan to do the work. The rest aren’t worth talking to.

Two final notes: First, the purpose of this approach is to gauge a job candidate’s ability to do the work — not to use an interview to get free work or project plans out of interviewees! Be reasonable, and be respectful. Second, I think a lot of Lou Adler’s advice about recruiting and job hunting. Just not this piece of it.

Which “best” question more directly assesses the job candidate? If you’re a manager, what do you ask in interviews? If you’re a job hunter, how would you answer my “best interview question?”

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Beat The Salary Surveys: Get a higher job offer

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In the February 19, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant resists lower job offers “justified” with salary surveys:

I don’t like telling employers my salary history when they ask, and I know you advise to keep the information private. But I’m happy to tell an employer what salary range I expect. That way we’re all on the same page, or why bother having interviews? The problem is that employers sometimes gasp when you tell them you want more than an average salary. When they trot out a salary survey and tell me what I’m asking is too far on the high end, how do I say, “You should offer me more money?”

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the advice I offer in my PDF book Keep Your Salary Under Wraps:


If an employer cites a salary survey, ask to see the curve. Point to the leading edge of the curve, where the most unusual individuals are earning the highest salaries.

salary-curveHow to Say It
“I believe I’m on the leading edge of the curve. If I can’t prove that to you during our interviews, then you shouldn’t hire me. But please understand that I’m not looking for a job on the middle of the graph, this part of the curve.” [Point to the fat middle of the graph, where average workers earn average salaries.]

Your challenge is to demonstrate that your performance would indeed be at the leading edge of the curve.


I realize this borders on sounding cocky, but remember that if you don’t make your case in this meeting, you probably won’t get another chance. Be polite and respectful, but be firm. Your future compensation is on the line. Obviously, you must be prepared to justify what you can do that makes you worth a higher salary. There is no way around this. Employers don’t increase job offers just because people ask for more money. You have to give them good reasons based on what you will bring to the job. (You also must decide what is the minimum you will accept. This article will help you flesh that out: How to decide how much you want.)

This is where I call employers and human resources departments to task. While the job offers they make are often only mediocre at best, they claim they reward “thinking out of the box,” and that they are in the forefront of their industry. This is where they need to prove it. I suggest you politely (and perhaps quizzically) address the person you’re negotiating with.

How to Say It
“I’ve studied your company carefully, and I’m impressed at your philosophy. Your company prides itself on thinking and acting out of the box. That’s why I’d like to work here. Of course, out of the box is another way of saying on the edge of the curve. I’d like to show you how I can bring edge of the curve performance to the job — but of course that means edge of the curve compensation. If you will outline what you consider to be exceptional performance, I’ll try to show you how I will deliver.”

There is nothing easy about this. You must do your homework in advance. (For more details on this assertive approach, please see The Basics.) It’s important to open a serious discussion on salary. Companies, and HR departments especially, love to talk about how people are their most important asset. We all know that assets are cultivated so they’ll grow. We want to maximize their value. So we hire the best people, pay them the most, and cultivate them well so they’ll pay off, right?

Well, that’s not what happens when an employer insists on knowing your past salary so it can base a job offer on it. It’s hypocritical — and risky business. It’s how companies lose great candidates who won’t stand for average job offers.

But you can make an employer’s pretensions work for you, if you can be firm but diplomatic, emphatic but gentle, challenging but cooperative. My suggestion above is one way to do it.

Putting Ask The Headhunter to work usually requires saying something to someone to make it pay off. My suggestions about How to Say It are not the only way. There are many good ways to tell an employer that you want more money when you’re negotiating a better deal.

What do you do when you want more money? How would you say it — and what’s worked for you?

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Surprise! Guess who owns your personnel file?

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In the February 12, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a frustrated reader loses her job, then asks for her personnel file. And the results might shock you:

I was asked to leave my job (not a good fit for the position) last fall. I requested a copy of my personnel file from my employer. I finally heard back and they are telling me that I need to travel to the company’s headquarters in another state to view it. It’s almost a 1,000-mile trip! They will not make copies. Do I have any recourse? Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

My view on personnel files is that, if it’s information compiled about you by your employer, you should have a right to see it. But my view isn’t the law. In fact, I never pretend to give legal advice since I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t want my ire to lead anyone into legal jeopardy.

personnel-fileBut this is such a good question that I turned to my friend Lawrence Barty for his comments. Get ready for some shocks.

Larry is a retired attorney who specializes in employment and labor law, and particularly in employment contracts. Please note: Nothing in this column is legal advice for a particular situation, and laws vary depending on your jurisdiction. If you need legal help on a specific matter, consult with an attorney who knows the law in your state. Take it away, Larry…


Larry Barty: To start with, most employees suffer from a misconception: That is, they assume that their employee file somehow belongs to them. If fact, it does not. It is the employer’s file concerning the employee. To better understand that, assume a company maintains a file of correspondence and records concerning one of its customers. Why should the customer have the right to see what is in that file? So, with respect to employment files, the key fact is that the file is the employer’s, not the employee’s. So, the question properly phrased is, under what circumstances, if any, may an employee view that particular employer-owned file?

The answer to the question is that the employee may see that file without the employer’s permission only if a State law so provides. Without a State law giving the employee a right to see the file, the employee is at the mercy of the employer. Only about a third of the States have any laws concerning the right to view or copy employment files. (Employee medical files, as opposed to employment files, are often made available by State law). In the remaining two-thirds of States, the employee’s only “right” is whatever may be set forth in the employer’s rules or handbook.

In those States that do have laws permitting employees to see their files, the conditions vary widely. For example, California law provides that an employee may view any personnel record relating to performance at reasonable intervals, but only on the employee’s own time. The employee may copy records, but only those records that bear the employee’s signature. In Illinois, by contrast, an employee may view the entire file and copy anything in it.

In California, Pennsylvania and most other States that authorize employee viewing, if the records are kept off-site the employee must go on his or her own to that off-site location. Only a few States, such as Michigan, require the employer to provide a copy for viewing at the employee’s work site.

As for getting a copy of the file, a few States, such as Maine, require the employer to give the employee a copy of the file at the employer’s cost. However, most States that authorize viewing require the employee to pay reasonable copying costs.


Former employees are almost out of luck

Now for the punch line to these laws. What Larry has discussed so far pertains to access of personnel files by current employees. Once you’ve left the company, things change. Larry explains:

“Former employees’ rights to see employee files are even more limited. Less than a dozen States permit former employees to view personnel files at all and, in most of those States, the right to view is limited to sometimes as little as only within 60 days after employment ends. If a former employee wants a copy of his or her file after that, a lawsuit would be required.”

So the news is not good for ex-employees. As you might expect, the law makes access to your former personnel records complicated — mainly because they’re not your personnel records, but also because the law varies depending on where you live and work.

How to protect yourself

my-documentsBut this wouldn’t be Ask The Headhunter if we didn’t close with some useful advice that you’re probably not going to find anywhere else. Larry hands you a wonderful tip about how to get and keep the information you need:

“The bottom line for all employees is that you should keep your own file. Keep copies of annual evaluations, notification of wage increases, letters or e-mail complimenting or praising your work and, perhaps most importantly, disciplinary notices. If you know that a document concerning you has been generated that might be important someday, ask for a a copy. I think that most managers will give you one.”

Thanks to Larry Barty for sharing his knowledge about personnel files. Please don’t construe anything he says as advice for your personal situation; it’s not. Consult an attorney if you need specific legal guidance.

Was this a surprising education? Have you ever run into problems accessing your personnel file? Or, have you turned up surprises that caused trouble? Think you’ll need your personnel file after you leave your employer? Please chime in on how employers keep you on file… and how you can keep your files!

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