Say NO to job leads

In the July 10, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter complains that job leads don’t pan out any better than job postings:

To build up my networking, I’ve started going to two different job clubs. One is related to my line of work, information technology (IT), and the other is more general, with people from lots of professions attending. Both groups start with a job lead portion of the meeting and some good information is given out. But I wonder what you have to say about this, since you advocate networking so much. None of these leads have panned out any better than job postings I respond to. I submit my resume and I try to call, too, but nothing develops. Job leads from real people should be more productive than answering job postings, you would think. Is networking a fallacy or am I doing something wrong?

My Advice

Networking is not a fallacy, but the term is so over-used that I think it’s confusing you. Getting job leads at job clubs is not networking. What you’re doing wrong is wasting face time, and I’ll try to explain why. But first, I think you’re right that “job leads” are no better than job postings.

Most job leads are like job postings

Have I gone totally nuts? Am I telling you to say NO to a job lead?

Not all job leads are the same. While getting a lead at a meeting might seem more personal, it’s very different from a personal referral from some who knows, respects, and trusts you — and who has true insider connections. The leads you’re talking about could originate anywhere. They are more like job listings than leads.

Now I’ll try to explain why you should say no to most job leads. Matt Bud is a friend of mine who runs The FENG — The Financial Executives Networking Group. In a recent newsletter to over 40,000 members, Matt discussed one of The FENG’s services: in-person meetings where financial folks network and share job leads. Matt makes the same point I do — and I think very few people get this, so please think about it carefully:

“Sharing old job leads, which is what happens at face to face meetings, doesn’t really benefit anyone. It just takes up time that could be better spent networking.”

I do pro bono presentations for a local job club. Here’s what I say to them:

“So, here you are — a bunch of unemployed people, coming to meetings where you expect other unemployed people to give you job leads…”

Most job leads are old news

As Matt points out in his newsletter, any job lead is old news by the time it gets to you. It’s almost no better than a job posting on Monster.com. But, you might say, this is information fresh from the lips of real people who often get job leads from personal contacts.

Here’s Matt’s take on the value of such leads:

“Were they filled yet? Probably not, but the candidate slates aren’t likely to be expanded if the job is over a few weeks old. They sound good, but you are receiving totally useless information.”

Invest in opportunities, don’t chase what comes along

The age of job leads isn’t the only issue to consider before you quickly tap out a resume submission on your smartphone. That lead — even if it’s sound — is for a job that came along, not one you developed yourself. This is an important point.

While you’re likely to chase what comes along, by quickly e-mailing an application on a lead, you’re probably far more motivated to invest in a more effective approach if the job (or employer) is one you carefully researched and decided was a top-quality target for you.

For example, you might triangulate around the job to get inside information that confirms the fit and bolsters your presentation. You’re also more likely to cultivate a strong personal referral who actually recommends you to the boss. Both actions help you vet the opportunity and boost your chances of success dramatically.

But you’ll shake your head and ask, What’s the point, since any lead, no matter where it comes from, could turn into a good opportunity? My point is that opportunities that “come along” often turn into mistakes, precisely because you didn’t choose them yourself. I think most people go job hunting because they took the wrong job to begin with, most often because “it came along.”

Network with a plan

Job leads that come along are not what’s best for the job hunter. True opportunities that are really good for you are carefully selected and developed, not picked up at a meeting. Showing up and listening to a broadcast of leads is not networking, even if it’s done in person.

Most of the time, networking is a lifestyle. It’s about meeting new people and blue-sky exploring. In this context — active job hunting — networking is a tool in the service of a clear objective. “A job” is not a clear objective. A particular employer or job is. The approaches are radically different.

Carefully select a target employer or job, and network to gather information that lets you develop a plan you can present to the employer. Be ready to demonstrate why you are the profitable hire. Network to convince insiders to recommend you. The most effective form of networking involves finding people who introduce us to employers, and who teach us how we can help the employer — so we can stand out as the person the employer wants to hire.

A job lead picked up at a meeting gives you no such edge because you didn’t work for it.

Say NO to job leads — Say YES to networking

I agree with Matt Bud. Getting together with other job hunters to hear about job leads is a waste of time. Learn to say no to job leads, and instead use the time more profitably. Use face time to network — but have a very specific, clear objective.

My PDF book, How Can I Chang Careers?, includes a pivotal chapter titled “A Good Network is a Circle of Friends.” One section, “Seek advice, not help,” emphasizes the importance of having a specific objective you need advice about — whether you’re changing careers, or just jobs:

“No one wants the ‘Can you help me find a job?’ monkey on their back because the monkey requires feeding and lots of attention. That’s why most people you ask for help will quickly refer you to the personnel office. On the other hand, if you approach me for advice rather than help, that’s something I can provide…”

The person you’re networking with will be happy to share advice and engage in discussion that reveals whether you’re worthy of friendship. And friendship is what leads to personal referrals, which is where jobs really come from.

Am I splitting hairs, or is a job lead about as useless as a job posting? How do you network to get truly useful referrals? Do you give out job leads? What’s the best way to get in the door for the job you really want?

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My employer withheld my pay

In the July 3, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a 20% bonus disappears:

When I was hired, my offer letter included the promise of an annual 20% bonus. Recently I was transferred internally, but there was no notice of a change in my compensation deal. Bonus time came around but neither my old or new department budgeted for my bonus. I’ve been making monthly appeals to my boss, who keeps getting the runaround from Accounting. It turns out that no one else at my level gets bonuses. To make matters worse, the company was acquired and all our jobs are up in the air.

Is there any way I can get the bonus I’m due? The amount is substantial. This sounded too good to be true when I got the offer letter, but there it is in black and white: 20%.

My Advice

I don’t ordinarily tackle questions that require legal advice, but there’s also a matter of principle here. It seems the company is breaking a simple agreement and it’s worth discussing how to deal with that. However, my advice is not legal; for that you’ll need an attorney.

Since your offer letter promised an annual 20% bonus in writing, and since you got no other written notice to the contrary, then I think the company has an obligation to pony up the money. While a company may have the right to reassign you to a different job or department, I don’t believe it’s got the right to withhold compensation.

If your boss is “getting the runaround from Accounting,” that’s not your problem. Accounting doesn’t decide whether you’ll be paid; your employer does. This passing of the buck suggests that who’s getting the runaround is you.

Given the circumstances, I’d pursue this quickly and create a document trail. If you get laid off before you put the issue on the table, it’s going to be harder to resolve it.

Take this to the highest level HR manager you can. Put a copy of your offer letter on the desk and politely ask what the problem is. (Keep the original under lock and key.) The difficulty is that you’ve waited a long time since the bonus was due, but that doesn’t excuse your employer. I’d also ask HR for a written statement about the company’s position on the matter — build that document trail.

Listen to what the HR manager has to say. If there’s no resolution within a week, send a certified letter (with proof of receipt) to HR outlining the situation, and copy the letter to your attorney. Do not say anything accusatory in the letter: Be purely factual and request your bonus.

It’s unfortunate that you need help to get paid what you were promised. But my expectation is that this is going to require the help of an attorney. When your boss blames Accounting for not paying you, you can blame your attorney for any awkwardness, too.

By the way: Don’t let the idea of turning to lawyer make you uncomfortable. A good lawyer will work with you to control legal costs, and to develop a strategy for collection that avoids spending more than the recovery would be worth. Start with a consultation to help you decide what your best options are, and to estimate the costs.

Ever get paid less than you were promised? Was it in writing? What did you do to recover the money?

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What if there’s no time to prepare for the job interview?

In the June 19, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter is frustrated by last-minute interviews:

Here’s the harsh reality of job interviewing. You apply for a job, you are called in for the interview, and there is no time to do all the research and preparation that you recommend we do. I have been in this spot, as I know most people have. How many times has a headhunter called at 4:00pm and said, “I have a great job possibility for you. Are you available tomorrow at 9:00am?” How can you prepare yourself in the manner that you recommend? Should one just say no to the interview? I think not, especially when one has been out of work for a while. Your input/answer is?

My Advice

Why on earth would you want to go into an interview when you are unprepared, and likely to embarrass yourself?

I have three comments on this.

1. Don’t apply if you didn’t choose the job based on research.
If you selected this company as one you want to work for, I expect you selected it for several good reasons, all based on your research. Even if you were introduced by a headhunter, due diligence is necessary. Thus, you must know quite a bit about the company, or why interview?

2. Good headhunters always prep their candidates.
Any headhunter worth his salt has lots of information about his client company. If he isn’t willing to share some of it with you, you’re interviewing blindly. Why would you want to do that? If the headhunter doesn’t know enough about the company to be able to prep you thoroughly, then the company is not his client. (See “Is your resume spaghetti?“) You’re wasting your time. (Need help figuring out whether the headhunter knows what he’s doing? Learn How to Work With Headhunters.)

3. Preparation is more important than showing up on demand.
A request for an interview is not a command. It’s an invitation. You are allowed to say to the headhunter, “I need two days to prepare properly for this interview, to optimize my chances of success as well as your chances of earning a placement fee.” What idiot of a headhunter would want to send an unprepared candidate to an interview? (Hint: One whose placement strategy is scheduling as many interviews as possible.)

Please remember: Both you and the headhunter have an immense responsibility to make a job interview productive and profitable. Both your reputations are on the line. If you’re dealing with lousy headhunters, stop. If you’re desperate to interview as often as possible under any circumstances, stop.

My advice: Decline the interview until you are prepared. This isn’t a race. It’s business, and unprepared business people lose.

What happened the last time you went on an interview unprepared? Is there a way to fake it that actually works? How do you deal with situations like this?

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Is Your Resume Spaghetti?

In the June 12, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a headhunter asks a candidate to remove contact information from a resume before submitting it. Is that normal?

I was contacted by a headhunter about an opportunity. I was asked to provide a resume in Word format. I said I could not, and instead I provided a PDF version so that I could ensure the visual appearance is what I want it to be. Then the headhunter asked me to remove my contact information, but said a PDF version would be okay. I was assured that this was normal, but I wonder about this.

I spoke with the recruiter once after this happened, and we had contact just once more by e-mail. It has been three weeks since our last contact. The recruiter has not returned three voice mails or responded to three e-mails.

What do you think is going on? Do you think my qualifications threw the client or the agency off?

My Advice

This is a classic example of how most headhunters operate. What people don’t know is, these headhunters don’t create resumes for their candidates. They take what the candidate gives them and merely pass it along to their client. This doesn’t add any value to the recruiting process. There’s an insider technical term for this practice: “throwing spaghetti against the wall.”

Headhunters who work this way are wasting your time and their clients’ time. This isn’t recruiting. This is dialing for dollars, also known by yet another technical term: “dumpster diving.”

The worst of these headhunters will bundle any and all resumes they can get their hands on, and send them along to an employer who might pay them a fee. This means the personnel department must sort the incoming drek, just like they sort resumes they buy from job boards. The headhunter adds no value to the process, and any HR department that accepts such resumes should be closed down.

Adding value

A good headhunter doesn’t just find candidates for a client company. A good headhunter interprets how a particular candidate can help the client get a job done. The headhunter carefully interviews the candidate and maps the candidate’s abilities and skills against the requirements of the position. As I explain in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you, when I’m done interviewing a candidate for my client, I’ve got all I need to produce a simple, clear, and very compelling resume. It’s exactly what my client needs prior to interviewing the candidate. If the candidate doesn’t match the client’s requirements, why would I even refer the person to my client?

Do you see the problem? The headhunter you’re dealing with is merely pumping resumes into an employer’s sorting process. The headhunter is not carefully assessing and judging you, to ensure he’s sending only qualified candidates to his client. What I’m really saying is, if that headhunter had truly interviewed you, he wouldn’t need your resume. He could and should write a custom resume for you and then present it — with your permission — to his client.

Did the headhunter really interview you?

That’s not to say that the resume you wrote isn’t useful. The headhunter can use it to fill in the blanks surrounding key facts he’s learned by talking with you in depth. But if the headhunter just forwards your resume to the employer, he’s not contributing anything to the recruiting task. He’s not highlighting the specific skills and abilities that prove you’re a good candidate for the job. A smart client demands this from a headhunter — the client wants to know why you would be a good fit. And the fact is, there’s just too much stuff on a resume that a hiring manager doesn’t need to know about you. The headhunter’s job is to demonstrate the match, not to dish the spaghetti.

So this is how you can tell a really good headhunter from a dumpster diver: Did the headhunter conduct a thorough interview with you?

What (most) headhunters do with resumes

The headhunter you’ve described wants your resume in Word format so that he can delete your name and contact information. (A PDF version from which you’ve omitted that information is just as good to him — it’ll save him time.) He doesn’t want his client to know who you are until the client promises a fee before interviewing you. If the headhunter had a solid, healthy relationship with his client, the headhunter wouldn’t be worried about the employer going around his back. That’s why the headhunter wants to control your contact information.

Whether it’s a modified version of the resume you provide, or a new one the headhunter has written, you should always ask to see the document the headhunter will send to his client. You don’t want to defend resume errors in an interview. If you trust the headhunter, a Word version might be best to facilitate his editing it. But if you don’t trust the headhunter, or don’t know his practices, your PDF policy is a good one.

Splat!

This is how the game is played by many headhunters. Learn to judge headhunters by whether they actually interview you in depth. If they don’t, then they’re not going to present you properly to their client, are they? What I think is going on in this case is that the headhunter is throwing spaghetti against the wall — and yours didn’t stick.

Do you give your resume to people you don’t know — headhunters and/or employers? If you do, I think you’re nuts. You’d have better odds playing the lottery. Have you ever met a headhunter who thoroughly interviewed you even before requesting your resume? If you’re a manager, do headhunters splatter resumes on your wall — stuff that’s not even recognizable as a “right” candidate?

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

In the June 5, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a guy gets honorably discharged from the military, carries a secret clearance, but has a misdemeanor conviction from 2003 for which he’s done probation. He gets a job offer. Then the nightmare begins:

Today I received a job offer from a large, well-known and respected company. I have a misdemeanor criminal conviction from 2003. I told the headhunter about the conviction. I put it in the application before my interview. I put it in the e-application for the background check. I even discussed it with the HR person that was giving me the offer.

After discussing the conviction, she extended me a verbal offer. At the end of the call, I accepted the offer. She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears. After the phone call, I turned down a competing job offer from another company and told my headhunters that I am no longer on the job market.

Less than an hour later, the HR person called me back and said she has to withdraw the offer because my three-year probation was cleared in 2006. Since that’s less than the company’s policy permits — seven years — I am ineligible for the job. The company’s security regulations would prevent me from gaining access to their campus.

The job posting required that the applicant must qualify for a government secret clearance. I was just honorably discharged from the military, where I held a secret clearance that I was able to renew after my misdemenor conviction.

It seems quite unethical to extend an offer prior to assuring that the information that I provided multiple times wasn’t an issue. This should have been caught well before I got the interview. Is this legal?

My Advice

This sounds like you got the shaft, but it’s a bit more complicated, based on the information you’ve provided.

I published your story in this week’s Ask The Headhunter e-mail newsletter, but I did not publish my advice and comments because I wanted to challenge our community to figure this one out. I asked subscribers to think about your story, and then come to the blog ready to post their take on it.

  • Did HR give this job applicant the shaft?
  • What went wrong?
  • How could this situation have been handled better?

Here’s how I see it.

HR blew it.

While it was nice of the enthusiastic HR lady to give you the offer on the phone, she jumped the gun when she “welcomed you to the team.” You weren’t on the team yet, and she had no business implying you were. Someone needs to call her on the carpet.

The HR lady tipped you off.

The key to this entire unfortunate episode lies in this sentence: “She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears.” That meant she made you a contingent offer. It was not bona fide. That is, it was dependent on the background check. In other words, you had no offer to act on.

You jumped the gun.

I always tell job applicants who “get an offer,” to never, ever, ever resign their old job, or turn off other opportunities, until they’ve been on the new job for two weeks. Sounds kind of extreme, eh? Yah, well, so’s what happened to you. While odds are pretty good that a job offer will turn out fine, the enormity of the consequences if anything goes wrong is why no one should do what you did. [Correction: My bad on a poor turn of phrase that confuses two issues — when to turn off other job opportunities and when to resign your old job. Please see my comment about this below.]

Before even orally accepting the offer, you should have waited for a bona fide offer in writing, signed by an official of the company.

Before setting aside other opportunities (because there is no sure thing), you should have completed the company orientation, met your new boss, started the job, and ensured nothing goofy was going on at your new job. I’ve seen many people quit new jobs within the first two weeks. It takes that long to… well… make sure nothing’s goofy. You don’t want to be out on the street with nowhere to go if the new job goes south. (Likewise, an employer should not stop recruiting and interviewing just because a candidate accepts its offer.)

You did the right thing, again and again.

You disclosed, from the start and throughout the interview process, that you had a misdemeanor conviction. That takes guts, and it was the smart thing to do. The company had an obligation to be as candid with you, and to disclose its policy about hiring people convicted of crimes. It had no excuse for not detailing its policies once you made your disclosures.


Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer's Full AttentionDo all employers behave like this? Absolutely not. It’s up to you to find the right employers and to know how to get their attention — because lousy employers aren’t worth your time or aggravation! Learn how to:

  • Stop walking blind on the job hunt!
  • Pick worthy companies.
  • Test the company. Is it a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Recognize and beat age discrimination. (Or is it your own anxiety?)
  • Deal with a bad reference. Don’t get torpedoed!
  • Investigate privately-held companies — Here’s the secret!
  • And more!

Don’t waste your time with the wrong employers! These methods are all in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention


But somebody didn’t do their job.

As soon as this employer learned about your conviction, HR should have pulled out its policy book and mapped it to your situation before making you an offer. The HR lady explained the policy clearly to you — too late!

What bunch of numbnuts knows it’s got a policy issue from the start, but ignores the implications of its policy? Especially because you were so candid and forthright about your problem, HR should have had the background check completed far sooner, and should have inquired about the dates of your conviction, sentence, and the resolution.

(I’m waiting for someone to suggest that, for legal reasons, the background check could not be done until you accepted the offer. That would be a good trick — accepting an offer for a job that company policy prohibits you from accepting.)

Who’s on the hook now?

I think the HR lady is on the hook. She should have made it crystal clear to you that the job offer was not yet bona fide, and that it was contingent on the background check. I think she should have even gone so far as to advise you not to take any other action until the check was confirmed. She blew it. She should be on the hook, but you’re the one who got hurt.

You’re on the hook because you rejected another (more bona fide?) job offer, and notified the headhunters that you’re no longer a candidate for a job.

Most important, this company’s HR practices are on the hook, and they need to be gutted and cleaned.


Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources ObstaclesThere’s no way to beat HR, is there? Sure there is! Learn how to recognize and overcome these HR obstacles:

  • HR demands too much private information, like your salary history. But two can play this game!
  • HR throws a “behavioral interview” at you.
  • Online job application forms — learn to get past them.
  • HR gets between you and the decision maker. Learn how to go straight to the hiring manager!
  • The HR rejection letter: Why you should reject it!
  • And more!

HR isn’t as tough as you think! You’ll find myth-busting answers in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources Obstacles


Doubling HR Costs: Time to change company practices.

Poor HR practices are what make HR executives scream that, “There’s a talent shortage!” Well, here’s the talent, fresh out of the military, worthy of a job offer, but… Aren’t an honorable discharge and a fresh secret clearance enough to merit more careful treatment when the company is looking at an applicant who qualifies for a secret clearance?

Now where’s the talent shortage? In HR.

HR spent a lot of company money to process this hire — only to stumble at the last minute. Now HR will spend the money again on another candidate. HR costs just doubled in this case. I wonder what the board of directors would have to say? Because HR will sweep the mistake under the rug, along with all the other good candidates HR lost because:

  • An otherwise excellent applicant’s keywords “didn’t match;”
  • A wise applicant didn’t want to disclose her salary history;
  • A highly motivated applicant dared to contact the hiring manager directly;
  • HR interviewed the engineering applicant but doesn’t understand engineering;
  • The applicant seems a bit old;
  • The applicant refused to meet with HR until he first interviewed with the hiring manager;
  • And on and on… through the myriad wasteful practices we discuss on this forum that cost companies good hires every day…

It’s time for this company — and many companies — to take a good, hard look at HR practices because good talent is not easy to come by.

Whose bad?

That offer was no offer, so give it back! Has an employer ever given you a job offer, then rescinded it? Why? What was the reason? What did you do? What’s your take on this reader’s experience?

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HR Wags The Dog

In the May 21, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an executive who’s about to be interviewed by another executive wants to know why HR is sticking its nose into the process:

You are going to love this. (NOT!)

I was contacted by an ex-colleague to ask if I’d be interested in the position of Regional Sales Manager at his company, which is actively recruiting. I said yes. The VP of Sales called me and we had a very positive discussion which progressed to setting a meeting in their corporate office. He was going to fly in from his office, and I was going to travel hundreds of miles from my home. But, the meeting has stalled because the HR person who was to attend was busy.

Two questions. What has HR got to do with an initial interview whose purpose is to (a) determine my suitability to do the job, and (b) the company’s ability to satisfy my needs? What sort of company insists on having HR present at an initial interview?

If ever there is a case of a “tail wagging the dog” — this is it. How can a VP of Sales operate like this? I now patiently await the availability of His Royal Highness — the HR Manager.

My Advice

HR can provide valuable input on executive-level positions. However, recruiting people like you is a sales task. It’s no surprise that you view such interference as a serious management error.

If sales people know one thing, it is the importance of striking when the iron is hot. Success in closing sales often depends on the sales person having the authority and the power to act quickly.

Get HR out of recruiting.

You have highlighted the main reason I advocate against HR being involved in recruiting. (See 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.) HR is largely a bureaucratic function that is at least once-removed from the action. Depending on how you, the candidate, view this delay, you may decline further discussions because you could reasonably surmise that the company is not nimble. The Sales VP could lose an excellent candidate thanks to the bureaucracy. That’s not good. That’s very bad.

Take heed: Running a sales operation within this company could prove frustrating to an assertive sales manager. If HR can delay the Sales VP’s meeting when recruiting, who might hinder your sales team from closing a deal?

You are right to be concerned. This is bureaucratic meddling of the worst sort, and it leads me to repeat this caution to companies: It matters what image you project to the professional community from which you recruit, as much as what image you project to your customers. An HR manager who contributes only to overhead is controlling the agenda of an exec who produces revenue? Get HR out of your recruiting.

Now let’s discuss what to do. You could have some fun with this, but this approach can be risky. Decide how assertive a sales manager you are. I’d call the VP of Sales and politely tell him you’d be glad to meet the HR manager at some point, but your schedule is very tight for the entire month.

How to Say It

“I’ll be frank with you. I am available this day and that day only. When an opportunity arises to make a deal, I like to strike while the iron is hot. I have some ideas for your business that I’d like to discuss with you, and I’d like to suggest that you and I get together to talk shop as soon as possible.”

If you can support it, suggest a specific sales objective. For example:

Hot to Say It

“I think I can show you how to increase your regional sales by 20-30% without increasing your costs more than about 5%. But, I really do not want to let this wait. Opportunities come along every day — but great ones like this disappear over night. If I can’t convince you, then you shouldn’t hire me. But I think you will like what I have to share with you…”

Let him assume you may not be around to talk a month later.

Remember: You’re a salesman. This is a sale. Be respectful, but show the VP of Sales that you home in quickly and accurately and will not be deterred by underlings. See what he says. If he cowers at the idea of bypassing HR so he can talk business with you, well, why would you want to work with him? Imagine what it would be like trying to hire a top sales rep if you take this job. Get past the guard. Your mission is to meet with the VP now. Sell.

Patiently awaiting HR to find time to join the meeting is not a sign of a good sales ethic. This is how companies lose prospective customers to the nimble competition. It’s also how they miss the best hires.

HR can be part of the process. But HR should not lead or limit a recruiting effort.

Is this another stupid HR trick? Are great candidates slipping through the HR cracks? Has HR ever intruded into your interviews with a manager? Do you know how to parry the move? If you’re a manager, do you let HR control your interviews?

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Another Top-10 Stupid Interview Question: “Tell us all about yourself!”

In the May 15, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter comes up with a good way to deal with one of the Top-10 Stupid Interview Questions:

I’m looking at positions as an intermediate- or senior-level software developer, and I’m trying to think of new ways to tackle the famous open-ended interview question. Here’s one approach I am considering.

Them: “Let’s start off our interview with you telling us about yourself.”

Me: “Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to give you a little whiteboard presentation of some of the projects I’ve worked on during the past 3-4 years. May I?”

Basically, instead of giving them the typical, brief executive summary about myself, I’d like to show what I’ve done and discuss it, so I can use it as a reference throughout the interview. What do you think of this approach?

My Advice

Another of the Top-10 Stupid Interview Questions rears its head! “Tell us about yourself!” Sometimes I think employers are just lazy. The question reveals the interviewer has no idea whom she’s talking to. But let’s put criticism of employers aside…

I like your approach a lot, because it focuses on the work. When a person talks about the work they’ve done, they invariably reveal a lot about themselves in the proper context. In other words, the employer can see how the candidate’s personality and character fit the job. Talking shop is a good way to reveal a lot about yourself.

Loaded questions yield canned answers.

In most interviews, this highly-loaded question usually evokes a well-rehearsed narrative akin to a political speech. All it tells the manager is that you’ve rehearsed a pitch. But if you embed information about yourself in a discussion of work and projects you’ve done, the information is not just more palatable; it’s more relevant. Pause during your presentation to ask the employer how her team handles similar projects, and your presentation becomes a dialogue. Now you’re talking shop, and you will also find yourself relaxing because a discussion is more natural than a presentation. That’ll make you perform better.

Steer discussion to the work.

This approach is even more effective if you discuss not just the work you’ve done, but your understanding of the problems and challenges the manager’s department is facing. In other words, steer the discussion away from your last employer’s objectives, to what this employer needs. Map your expertise and abilities onto the manager’s projects as you understand them. (Ask the manager to confirm you’ve got the story right.) This is a polite and deft way to turn the discussion around to the employer. If you can get the employer to outline one or two things she needs a new hire to take care of, then you can show the manager what you can do in terms that matter to her.

All of a sudden, you’re the candidate that’s solving problems, right there in the interview. That makes you stand out. (For more detailed tips about how to stand out, please see How Can I Change Careers?, which is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to stand out in a job interview by showing what they can actually do for the employer.)

If you do your homework carefully before your interview, you’ll be able to conclude with “the bottom line” when you describe each project. That is, how did your work benefit your employer? If you can describe this in dollars, all the better.

Now for the capper.

Discussing how your work paid off for your old employer is a perfect launch pad for a dialogue about how you might help the bottom line of the projects the manager needs done. Suddenly, you’re revealing an unusual focus (for a software developer, or for any employee): You’re talking about the impact of your work on the company’s success and profits.

Now you really stand out.

If the manager presses you for “what your career goals are” (This is just another angle on “Tell us about yourself”), turn the discussion back to the employer again.

How to Say It

“I love developing software, but I could do that on my own. The satisfaction I get out of my work comes when I see how it actually produces a profit for the company. My goal is not only to be a great developer, but a profitable one. I really believe that my career success depends on that more than anything else.”

I get the feeling you’ll be able to provide some examples from your background. It seems to me you’re already taking this in the right direction! My compliments.

(Do you like to talk about yourself? Does it get you anywhere? What do you think an employer is really looking for with that question?)

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Can an employer charge you for quitting?

In the May 1, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an employer is out $6,000 when a new hire found through an agency jumps ship after 15 days. Can the employer charge the next employee for quitting?

We recently hired an employee using an agency through which he was temping for us. We paid the temp agency a fee of $6,000 (20%) of the person’s salary. After 45 days, the new employee resigned to move out of state. The temp agency says that he was here for more than 15 days, so they are not going to do anything about their fee.

We have a policy for encouraging continuing education. If an employee in good standing wants to take a course or go back to school at night or weekends, we will pay 70% of the costs, providing successful completion of the courses. If the employee leaves before two years, the employee must reimburse our company for the education expenses.

Because of this disagreeable experience with the agency, we are contemplating a similar policy: “If you leave before your second anniversary, you will need to reimburse some portion of the headhunter fee.”

What are your thoughts on this approach? It would make us feel more confident about using a placement service. Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

My Advice

Suppose you hired that employee without an agency’s involvement, and he quit after 45 days. Would you require him to refund part of the salary you paid him?

Of course not. Yet that’s what you’d be asking someone to do if you hired him through an agency: To pay you back out of their salary. Did you pay a fee to the employee so he’d come work for you? Of course not. So there’s nothing for the employee to refund.

(I’m not a lawyer, but my guess is it would be illegal for you to take back salary because someone quit a job.)

The agency, on the other hand, earned a fee for finding an employee for you. It’s up to you to work out a reasonable contract and financial arrangement with the agency, for the work it does for you (recruiting). The underlying problem is that you as the employer make the hiring decision — not the agency. The agency’s job is to deliver viable candidates. It’s duty ends there, or after some agreed-upon guarantee period. I don’t think any agency would guarantee a placement for two years, one year, or even six months.

I don’t like your idea at all because you’re making the employee responsible for your contract with the agency.

So what are your options as an employer? Let’s start with typical placement agreements, though of course they vary greatly. Commonly, a headhunter’s (or recruiter’s, or agency’s) fee is about 20% of the employee’s starting salary. Please note: The fee is not deducted from the employee’s pay. It’s merely calculated based on that salary. So it’s an additional cost to the employer. Employers that routinely use external recruiters usually budget for such fees. Negotiate the best fee you can.

It’s common for temporary placement agency agreements to permit you to change from “temp to hire” — that is, to hire the temp permanently. The fees and any guarantee period should be spelled out in the contract. To control your costs, you might negotiate a permanent placement fee that is progressively lower based on how long you’ve already been paying temp fees to the agency for that particular employee.

Whether it’s a temp agency or a headhunter you’re working with, the contract usually includes a guarantee period. Many recruiting firms offer guarantees for between 30-90 days. (Some offer no guarantee at all.) If the new hire “falls off” in that time, the agency will either replace the hire, or refund a prorated portion of the fee, or the fee is refunded completely. I’ve never heard of a 15-day guarantee period. It seems too short to be meaningful. But if that’s what you agreed to, it was your choice.

You might be able to negotiate a more aggressive refund guarantee with recruiters. Please keep in mind that it’s pretty unusual for a new hire to leave so quickly. (If it happens to you often, then you’ve got another problem!) Check a recruiter’s (or agency’s) references: Do they have a reputation for placements quitting early?

I want to caution you about charging placement fees back to your employees. If it’s not illegal, I think it’s unethical. It comes out of the employee’s salary, but (unlike education) the employee gets nothing in the bargain. I suggest you work this out with your agency or headhunter instead.

Has an employer ever charged you to quit your job? If you’re an employer, have you ever recovered a placement fee from a departing employee? Headhunters: How do you handle “fall offs?” How long is the typical “guarantee” on a placement?

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Open Mic: What’s your problem?

Every week in the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter I answer one question from a reader in the traditional Q&A format. From time to time, we have an “open mic,” where you pose the questions on the fly here on the blog.

This week, I will do my best to answer any and all questions you post. As always, I welcome everyone to contribute their best advice to the questions, and to add their comments to the discussion. The more input, the better!

  • Lost your job and don’t know how to start hunting for a new one?
  • The employer wants you to do a stress interview?
  • Wondering how to deal with a headhunter who just called you?
  • They want your salary history, but you don’t want to share it?
  • Your company posted a job and you got 5,000 applicants. What now?
  • The manager made you a good offer, but HR just called to rescind it?
  • What’s your problem? Please post it and we’ll tackle it.

(You don’t have to include any identifying information.)

I’ve answered over 30,000 questions from Ask The Headhunter readers since 1995. This week I’ll answer as many as you post — and I’m sure you’ll get lots more great advice and commentary from the rest of our community. So… please ask away!

(This column was published before the comment threading feature was added to Ask The Headhunter, so my replies to questions do not appear immediately below each comment. Please scroll down in the comments and look for my reply “@commenter-name” to each question. Sorry for the inconvenience!)

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My boss is a liar

In the April 17, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader laments that the boss — uh — doesn’t tell the truth:

My boss lies about the availability of projects, about giving bonuses, and about promised help. I suppose the high road is the best and I should keep quiet, but I hate giving into this behavior. What can I do?

My Advice

Bosses sometimes make commitments, then conveniently forget about them. What matters is the frequency and the intent of their forgetfulness. It seems your boss forgets a lot, and it’s clear you don’t like the intent.

A long time ago, I learned the value of the internal memo. When your boss commits to something, go back to your desk, write a thank-you e-mail, and send it to the boss along with a clear “cc” to yourself. (I would not copy the note to anyone else. That would be a clear threat, and I don’t think you want to do that as a first step.) It’s like money in the bank. You don’t just make a deposit; you keep a copy of the deposit slip. That cc is evidence of how much money you have in the bank. Meanwhile, your boss should get the message.

This approach to making people pay off on promises works pretty well. When you’re ready to make a withdrawal, present that “deposit slip” you kept in your file. Be very polite and matter-of-fact.

How to Say It

“Hey, Boss: I’m ready for that bonus (or promotion) you promised six months ago. Here’s the memo I sent you re-capping our discussion. Thanks very much for making that very valuable commitment to me way back then. You’re quite a boss, and that’s why I like working for you. I’ll take that bonus in tens and twenties, please.”

(No, don’t use those exact words. I sprinkled some sarcasm to amuse you, not to get you into trouble. Pick your own words carefully!)

One of three things is likely to happen.

  • Your boss may never forget again (success!).
  • Your boss may never make another promise (another problem altogether).
  • Or, your boss might just ignore you. Then it’s time to take your deposit slip to the “bank president” (your boss’s boss or the personnel manager) and explain that you want to close your account — unless the “bank” settles up with you.

While one person’s lying is another person’s forgetfulness, I don’t cut any slack to liars, and I accept “I forgot” as an explanation only once or twice. If people don’t do what they say they’re going to do — again and again — then they’re jerks and not worth working with.

How do you deal with this kind of problem? Do we need to hang the culprits out to dry? Or can we discuss good ways to make people more accountable without having to hang them at all?

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