Beat The Salary Surveys: Get a higher job offer

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?

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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Does the headhunter own my job interviews?

In the February 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know who comes first: The employer, or the headhunter?

I have a thorny problem. A recruiter just called me with a great job opportunity. I said, of course, submit me! Then, minutes later, I got an e-mail directly from the same company saying they’d seen my resume on a job board, and would like to talk to me about an open position.

Do I let the hiring company know that they should talk to the recruiter, or should I call the recruiter and say, don’t submit me, they contacted me directly? Which way is better overall? Does the headhunter own my interviews just because he found my resume online?

Nick’s Reply

resume-for-saleAh, your online resume bit you unexpectedly. And now you’re in a bad spot. For all you know, the recruiter found your resume the same place the company did.

First, you can’t tell the company to contact the recruiter, because it already found you itself. It’s not going to want to pay a recruiter.

(Of course, it’s possible the employer is trying to stiff the recruiter. You’ll never know.)

Second, you can’t tell the recruiter to forget it. You already told him to go ahead. When he calls the company, they’re going to tell him they’ve already talked to you. If he argues that he’s “representing” you, then the company may drop you like a hot potato. You lose. This is the sort of thing that can kill a candidate’s credibility.

The way that’s “better overall” is to stop posting your resume on the Net. The situation you’re in is why. For all you know, 20 recruiters have already plucked your resume and have forwarded it to hundreds of companies on their own letterhead. That’s one of the many risks you take when you publish your resume online — whether it’s on a job board or on LinkedIn. It can result in what’s referred to as a “fee fight.” If you’re hired without a recruiter’s direct involvement, the recruiter can still claim he’s owed a fee because he submitted your resume (even if it’s without your permission). The company might argue. The recruiter might sue.

But companies don’t like being put in this spot. More likely, they just decline to talk to (or hire) the candidate to avoid litigation. Like I said, you lose.

The generally accepted rule in such situations is this: Whoever introduced the candidate to the company first gets credit for the placement, and earns a fee. But that doesn’t preclude a fee fight.

What if some headhunter submits your resume to a company without your approval, and claims a fee when you don’t want him involved? Lotsa luck. How can you prove you didn’t approve the referral through the headhunter? Is the company really going to spend time gathering evidence to battle over you?

Heads up: This is how lots of “headhunters” operate. (I discuss how to distinguish the slime balls from the legit headhunters in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. The book includes an entire section titled How to find a good headhunter.) Not understanding how the good headhunters and the lousy headhunters operate can cost you a new job — and a whole lot of money.

So, what’s your best bet in this situation? Since the company controls the job and the fee — and also decides whether to interview you — I’d accept the interview from the employer promptly, and notify the headhunter that the employer has contacted you directly as a result of its own efforts. He cannot guarantee you a job interview. It’s not his to offer.

Unless the headhunter has a written contract with the employer, and can show he has prior claim to an interview that he scheduled between you and the company, he’s out of luck. This is how many “headhunters” (I hesitate to even call them that) get themselves into trouble: They don’t cultivate relationships with candidates and their clients. They find resumes online and they play the match game too fast and loose. In the end, this controversy is between the employer and the headhunter, because you’ve got no contract with the headhunter. Heck, he’ll be lucky if he has a contract with the employer. The only claim he can make is on the company — he can make no claim on you.

Nonetheless, I wish you the best. You’re going to need it. Posting your resume online might seem a great way to increase your odds of success, but it also increases the chances that your resume becomes a commodity out of your control. The headhunter doesn’t own or control your interviews — the employer does. The only thing the headhunter controls is the copy of your resume she plucked off the Net. Good luck getting control back.

Have your job hunting efforts ever run head-first into a headhunter’s? What happened? Has your online resume caused you problems like this? Help us sort out this mess.

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Will a consulting firm pay me what I’m worth?

In the January 29, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an underpaid consultant keeps trying to get more raises:

I am a computer consultant working at a company that assigns me to work at other companies. My salary is less than average in the region for people with comparable skills. I went to my boss and got an increase that’s still less than I’m worth. I think they just tossed me a bone to quiet me.

I like this company even though they’re underpaying me. What else can I do, apart from getting another offer and proving to them that the market values me more than they do?

Nick’s Reply

pay-me-moreFirst, if you’re relying on salay surveys, know when to fold them. Generalized surveys are okay to give you an idea of salaries in a particular field, but they are not a good place to start negotiating your own salary.

I would not dangle another company’s offer in front of your boss unless you’re absolutely ready to take that offer. I’ve seen many companies usher people straight out the door for doing that. (It’s not clear whether you did that anyway, or whether you just asked for a raise on your merits. I hope it was the latter.)

Your employer has already agreed to pay you what it thinks you’re worth, and that doesn’t seem to match what you (and the market) think you’re worth. I don’t think it would be wise to approach management again. My guess is that they don’t really care. Without knocking consulting companies in general, it’s my belief that many of these “meta employers” aren’t as motivated as regular employers to treat employees equitably. Unless they’re one of the exceptional firms out there, they may view employees as a commodity.

Perhaps more important than figuring out how to get more money out of this employer is deciding how you’ll handle the next one. Consider How to decide how much you want, and be ready to ask for it before you accept your next job.

Consulting firms are accustomed to pretty high levels of employee turnover, and they’ve got mechanisms for dealing with that. They may pay decently to bring you aboard, then keep your raises low while your market value goes up until you leave. In the interim, they enjoy higher billing rates and increased profits while you decide whether to get up and go. Then the cycle repeats with the next hire. Of course, some consulting firms demonstrate more integrity. I know this sounds cynical, but remember that the consulting business is incredibly competitive. You are the product, and you can be replaced easily because the firm’s projects and clients come and go in fast cycles. (Read Scott Henty’s excellent Consulting Jobs Primer in the Industry Insider section of my website.)

If you don’t know a better consulting firm to work for, my advice is to seek out a regular employer where the future might be a little more predictable and where the compensation program is more oriented toward holding on to good employees. You might find the culture more to your liking, too. The best companies are grappling with the issue of retention, or how to keep good people.

Needless to say, lots of regular employers don’t demonstrate much integrity, either — and don’t guarantee any more job security than consulting firms do.

If you can’t get satisfaction, move on.

Have you ever worked for a consulting firm that farms you out to other companies on assignment? What are the ins and outs you’ve experienced in that business? What should this reader do next?

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Systemic Recruitment Fraud: How employers fund America’s jobs crisis

In the January 22, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, reader John Franklin (who appeared with me on a PBS NewsHour segment last September) says recruitment advertising is often deceptive and asks how widespread I think the problem is:

Hi, Nick — Happy New Year. I was one of the other folks featured in the PBS story Is Applying for Jobs Online Not an Effective Way to Find Work? I’m writing to follow up on one point that I made but which didn’t get addressed due to the time constraint: companies running advertisements to update their talent pools and databases vs. actually doing any recruitment.

From my experience, this is an extremely common and rather deceptive practice that contributes to a great deal of the frustration experienced by so many job seekers. They see an ad that fits them perfectly, but it turns out to be nothing more than an invitation to submit so you can become a file listing as opposed to a candidate. In your opinion, how widespread is this practice?

(Thanks in advance for your input — great job on the piece!)

Nick’s Reply

Happy New Year to you, too! Thanks for writing to follow up on an important point you made to PBS NewsHour that didn’t make it into the program.

The practice you describe is as old as job ads. It probably seems innocuous to most people, but it’s an insidious practice that I believe contributes heavily to America’s jobs crisis.

When employers published jobs primarily in newspapers, they’d create what we used to call “composite ads.” To save money, they’d run one ad rather than five, and that one ad would include requirements for perhaps five different positions. It was the proverbial kitchen sink of recruitment advertising. The hope was that they’d get enough resumes with enough of a mix of skill sets that they’d fill at least one job, hopefully more.

recruiting-whopperFraudulent job ads

At the same time, employers were doing exactly what you’ve noticed: filling their filing cabinets with resumes. I’m sure employers bristle at the suggestion that this is deceptive. “We’re soliciting resumes for jobs! So what if that includes jobs that are not open yet?”

It’s worse than deceptive. I think it’s fraud. A job ad is a solicitation that implies there is a current, specific, open job to be filled. This creates anticipation in the job hunter, and the reasonable expectation that the job will be filled in short order — not that the resume will be filed, to be used later and who knows when. Job hunters reasonably expect a timely answer when they submit their resumes. But we all know what really happens: usually, nothing at all.

If employers want to gather resumes to stock their databases, that’s fine, but they should disclose what they’re doing. I’m sure they’d nonetheless rake in lots of resumes, but at least people would know the difference between applying for a job and applying to have their resume stored for later use.

Fresher stale jobs and resumes

How “fresh” can stale jobs be? The games employers and job boards play with resumes don’t end there. You’ll find that employers “update” their job postings with a few minor changes to keep them high in the “search results” — even though there’s no material stale-breadchange in the position. And the job boards encourage this practice. They remind employers to “refresh” their postings as a way to make the jobs databases appear “up to date” with “fresh jobs daily.” It’s a racket and a conspiracy. It allows a job board to claim it’s got X millions of “fresh, up-to-date job listings!” when all it’s got is stale bread with a new expiration date stamped on it.

The job boards tell job hunters to do the same thing with their resumes. “Keep your resume high in the results! Update it regularly!” Translation: Keep visiting our site so we can report high traffic to employers, who are so stupid that they not only “refresh” their own old listings, they pay us even more money for “refreshed” stale resumes!

HR funds the jobs crisis

Corporate HR departments are funding and propping up the job boards in an epic scam that has turned real recruiting into a bullshit enterprise that has nothing to do with filling jobs. The con is enormous. I believe it’s the source of “the talent shortage.”

After creating this fat pipe of resume sewage, employers complain they can’t possibly handle all the crud it delivers to them every day. “We received a million resumes yesterday! We can’t find good hires! And there’s no time to respond personally to everyone who applied!” Of course not. If you had to dive into a dumpster of garbage to find a fresh carton of milk, you’d complain, too. The trouble is, it’s HR departments themselves that are paying job boards to gather, store, and sell that drek back to HR. It’s incredibly stupid, but when’s the last time you saw the HR profession do anything smart in recruiting?

A billion dollars worth of nothing

Where does the jobs crisis come from? Why can’t good people get jobs? Consider Monster.com, the world’s biggest job board. In the last four quarters, the world spent dumpster-empty$1.05 billion to fill and then dive for resumes and jobs in this dumpster. Yet year after year since 2002 employers have reported that Monster was their “source of hires” no more than about 4% of the time. Is there anything to call this but a conspiracy between HR departments and the job boards? Is it anything but a racket? Is it fraud?

When a company publishes a job solicitation that’s intended only to stock a database, that’s deceptive. When employers publish jobs on a website that they know doesn’t fill many jobs, I call that systemic recruitment fraud.

The most stunning outcome is that recruitment advertising is choking the very employers that pay to prop it up. You’ve nailed the problem: Job ads — no matter what their form — are often deceptive. They’re not used to fill jobs. They’re used to build deep databases of old resumes. That’s what the jobs crisis floats on.

Billion of dollars spent on databases to find and fill jobs — while employers cry “talent shortage” and record numbers of talented people can’t get hired.

Yet another rant about job boards and HR practices? Yep. Is there a board of directors out there that realizes it’s funding the jobs crisis with its investors’ money? Contribute your stories and comments below. Nothing will change until the purveyors of this sludge get their noses rubbed in it.

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When should I tell my boss I’m resigning?

In the January 15, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks when to give the boss notice of resignation:

I have an opportunity to move from a large corporation to a established startup. I have put in seven happy years at the corporation, but the new position will be a nice change. I’m still going through the interview process, and it’s going well. When do I break the news to my current boss? I don’t want to burn any bridges, and I don’t think I would accept any counter-offer. I just want to give respectable notice so that he can replace me.

Nick’s Reply

zip-itCongratulations on the new opportunity, but please — don’t jump the gun. Never, ever give notice or resign until:

  • You have a written offer in hand
  • You have formally accepted the offer
  • The new employer has confirmed your acceptance, and
  • The on-boarding process has begun.

It doesn’t happen often, but job offers get rescinded, especially between the informal oral offer and the bona fide written version. Don’t be left on the street without a job. When the above milestones have passed, I’d tell your employer nothing except that you’re leaving. Give your boss a one sentence resignation letter that says nothing more than:

“I hereby resign my position effective on [date].”

The details of your “notice” don’t need to be spelled out in the letter. In person, I’d commit to helping with a proper transition not to last more than two weeks, unless you really want to be helpful — that’s up to you.

There’s a small chance that, no matter how well you and your boss get along, you will be ushered out the door immediately. Some companies have very strict security policies, so make sure all other loose ends are tied up before you resign. They may not even let you go back to your desk. This is unusual, but it does happen. Even friendly employers can turn officious when a person resigns. Just be ready for it.

I would not disclose where you’re going. I’ve seen bitter former employers try to nuke a person’s new job. Politely explain you’ll be in touch right after you start the new job, if your boss really cares. I’m sorry to focus on the worst case, but you don’t want to get torpedoed before you start your new job. The odds of something bad happening are probably small, but the consequences can be enormous. My advice is, don’t chance it.

Again, congratulations. Take it one step at a time until the new deal is solid and safe. I wish you the best.

Have you ever resigned, only to have your new job offer rescinded? Has a resignation ever gone awry? What’s your policy about the nuts and bolts of transition when leaving a job?

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The shortcut to success in job interviews

In the January 8, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks whether I really mean it:

I agree with your non-traditional approach as the means to take control of one’s destiny in terms of choosing the work as well as the firm you want to work for, versus just scanning websites and settling for what’s available. However, you say, “demonstrate you can do the job.” Every company is so different about how they go about even routine requirements! The only way I can think of for someone to be able to do this is, you have to get connected to folks in the organization you want to work in and get them to tell you what is lacking and how they do things. That’s the only way for you to be able to demonstrate that capacity to the hiring manager.

Am I missing something? Are there alternative approaches to prep for the “demonstration?”

Nick’s Reply

(Note: Today’s question comes from a sales executive in a top U.S. company, and he asks if I really mean it when I say you have to talk to company insiders before you even apply for a job. Absolutely! What a great way to start the New Year! Let’s be perfectly clear about what effective job hunting really means!)

Get the factsNope — you’re not missing anything. You’re correct: “you have to get connected to folks in the organization you want to work in and get them to tell you what is lacking and how they do things.”

There is no shortcut

A shortcut to success in job interviews doesn’t exist. This is why effective job hunting is a challenge. You can’t approach 50 companies that have jobs posted. You have to focus and do the work to get connected so you can get the information required to make a potent presentation. Get inside the organization and get the facts!

This truth is incredibly difficult for people to accept, no matter how experienced or savvy they are. You’re a sales executive. You already know the truth, but “the employment system” has brainwashed even you to believe otherwise. Imagine meeting with a prospect to sell your services. Do you do a cookie-cutter presentation, a one-size-fits-all sales pitch to close a deal? Of course not! You’d never waste such an opportunity. You research the prospect’s business, talk to as many insiders as you can, and you figure out exactly where they’re having problems so that you can show exactly why doing business with you is the solution.

Too much hard work?

It’s no different when approaching a company about a job. The single biggest mistake job hunters make is to shotgun the market, using the same pitch everywhere. It just doesn’t work. But people resist what I suggest because it’s a lot of hard work. Of course it is. So’s that great job they say they want!

LinkedIn can promise you all the “connections” in the world, and SimplyHired can promise you all the job postings you can possibly respond to. It’s all bunk if you don’t do the hard work for each and every job you pursue. Each and every job, and each and every manager.

So let’s start off the New Year with an unambiguous statement about what Ask The Headhunter is all about:

You must talk to people connected to a company to learn exactly what problems and challenges the company is facing — so you can be ready to walk in and demonstrate how you’re going to help tackle those problems and challenges specifically.

Not ready to do that? Then you have no business in the interview, and I can’t help you. There is no easy way out of this requirement. The alternative is to be one of the millions who apply for jobs that come along, and to sit around waiting for some personnel jockey to figure out whether you’re “a fit” from a list of keywords. The sad truth is, personnel jockeys — and most hiring managers — stink at figuring this out. You must explain it to them. And there’s nothing to explain if you haven’t first figured out exactly “what is lacking and how they do things.” (I discuss this in The Basics: The New Interview, and I flesh it out in “how to” detail in How Can I Change Careers?, which is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to prove they’d be a profitable hire.)

Nice work!

My compliments for finding the fundamental message in Ask The Headhunter. I’m not making fun of you for asking whether you understand it correctly. I know you won’t read or hear this message anywhere else, so it seems odd. But you’ve got it exactly right. Understanding the other guy’s specific problems is a fundamental basis for proposing a business relationship.

The good news is, now you know exactly what you must do to succeed — and I’ll bet once you get past the horror of it all, you’ll realize this puts total control over your job search in your own hands. Employers are dying to meet someone who understands exactly what they need — someone who can deliver.

Is there any other way to land a job that’s not a crap shoot? Am I nuts? Is there really a shortcut to success in job interviews? Post your comments below so we can discuss the truth, no matter how much it hurts.

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Can I earn a degree from the School of Hard Knocks?

In the December 18, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter considers an online, or “distance learning” degree:

I have over 24 years experience in industry, but I never got a college degree. Now I want to get a bachelors. A “distance learning” college has approved my application for a B.S. in Business Administration. This is one of those schools that delivers its courses online and also awards credits for “life experience.” Please give me your opinion on degrees of this nature. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

These “life experience” credits can be legit. They are based on knowledge you’ve acquired on the job rather than through college courses. The school administers a test on the material and if you pass, they give you the same credits you’d get if you actually took the course. You just need to be sure the school itself is legit — or those School of Hard Knocks credits could be worthless. Several times each week I get solicitations for questionable degree programs.

My advice: Whatever state you are in, contact the state department of education. Find out whether this school is accredited. If it is not, forget it. Find one that is.

To test the value of this school’s programs, contact a few well-known colleges or universities and talk to the admissions office. Ask whether they would accept “transfer credits” from the school in question. A good distance school’s credits will be accepted toward a degree at other good schools. If credits are not transferable, find another school.

If the online school you choose is legit, you may be able to leverage your investment by finishing your degree program at a bricks-and-mortar school — and you’d get your diploma from a more recognized school. Just beware: Some online degree programs cost more than traditional schools charge! The good news: Many good traditional schools offer online courses and combination programs. Don’t assume you need to start with an online-only school.

Want more certainty? Ask the company you work for (or want to work for) how it regards degrees from the distance school. This will tell you a lot about the value of the degree.

I’d start your research by checking the Sloan Consortium to see whether the school you’re considering is a member.

(For every problem, there’s a flip side. And the flip side of this problem is academics with degrees who can’t overcome their own obstacles to win a job. For more on this, see Breaking Ranks & Rules: How academics can avoid 5 fatal mistakes in the job hunt.)

Do you have an online degree? Has it paid off? Does your company look favorably on distance learning schools? On credits from the School of Hard Knocks? What are the alternatives to traditional education, and what do they mean to employers?


The Ask The Headhunter Newsletter and this blog will be on hiatus for two weeks while I take a vacation, spend time with my family, and finish up a new project that I can’t wait to tell you about in January! I wish you a Merry Christmas or a Merry Whatever You Celebrate, and a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year. I’ll participate in the comments through this week — then I’ll see you in January!


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No College Degree, No Problem

In the December 11, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know how to get past the college degree requirement when he’s sure he can do the job anyway.

I just discovered your blog and have purchased How Can I Change Careers? and Keep Your Salary Under Wraps. I have some questions regarding the job hunting process that keeps biting back at me.

How do you get past the stigma of not having a college degree? I am reading my way through your website and have taken in some of the information, such as networking to meet the people in charge of making the decision. However, I want to know how can I compete for jobs that require degrees when I am fully capable of meeting the job requirements as listed?

Many employers set this as a requirement and don’t even want to talk to you unless you have a degree, regardless of whether you can do the job. I appreciate your help.

Nick’s Reply

Success requires turning the job hunting process on its head. The way it normally works, you provide your credentials and they decide whether to talk to you. If your keywords (that is, college degrees) don’t match, they tell you to go pound salt.

But there is another way to approach this that can get you past the college requirement. Learn to talk shop before “credentials” dominate the transaction. ATH reader Thomas Lafferty explains it in the comments section of this blog posting: You can’t get a job because employers hire the wrong way. Tom basically wrote this column for me.

Take a look at his approach and, more important, his attitude. First, he dismisses his resume and avoids triggering the college credentials problem:

I’d also like to ring in on the discussion about the effectiveness of demonstrating your abilities in an interview: It works. If I had relied on my resume for the last 3 jobs I had, I would not have gotten them. I had neither the experience nor the education, so my resume definitely hid my ability.

Lafferty says he’s got no degree, but that didn’t stop him:

This [demonstrating his ability to win the job] worked so well that in the first job I’m talking about I was the only person on staff without a degree or experience.

Employers require degrees because the degree is considered a proxy for skills, knowledge, or ability. Managers don’t have time to vet every candidate thoroughly, so they depend on this institutional stand-in for a value judgment. It borders on irresponsible, but they do it. Some of the time, it works. But, understanding why they rely on degrees in the selection process should help you address what they really want: Proof you can do the work and proof that you have the sophistication to grow in the job.

Sometimes, as Lafferty points out, you have to take a lower level job so you have the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do over time:

The second job was created for me after I had already been hired at a lower level.

Most people would balk at a lesser job. Not Thomas. He capitalized on it and got more than most job hunters do in the end: a custom job. Not bad, eh?

In another case, he earned the job on the fly by doing the job in the interview:

The third company I’m talking about hired me without going through the traditional four-tier interview, and again I did not have the background or the education. In any case, what I did have was the skill to do the job and to prove it in an interview as well as a good dose of passion.

Resumes and degrees are not always valid indicators of ability to do a job. So, help employers by giving them other ways to judge you. No one says this is easy — sometimes you have to be clever. I know one guy who followed a manager to a professional conference, chatted him up, talked shop, and got an interview and an offer. This shared personal experience tops any formal credentials — but it’s a lot of work. It should be. Managers are sometimes foolish to hire based on a piece of paper, or on a sheepskin — because candidates who deliver credentials can’t always do the job.

Since you have a copy of How Can I Change Careers?, check the sidebar on page 9, “Create your next job.” Pretend you’re creating that job from scratch. Prepare a brief plan for how you will contribute to the business through your work — and through that job. Be as specific as possible. Once you’ve got your notes together, try to write a resume with a “Free Sample” in it — page 23.

Finally, and most important, check page 27. You must enter the “Circle of Friends” that the manager is part of. I know this seems daunting if you’re a bit shy or lack confidence, but it’s critical. (If you need more help, try a few Toastmasters meetings — learn to be more comfortable breaking the ice with others.) Make one phone call to an insider — and ask just one question. Get the info you need, politely say thanks and end it. Don’t push yourself. Try two and three questions on the next calls. It gets easier. The contacts you make turn into advice and referrals and gaIn you the credibility you need with the manager. And that renders the college degree (and other indirect judgments about you) less important.

You can compete for jobs that cite criteria you don’t meet, if you take an alternate approach that addresses what the employer really needs: proof that you can do the job.

(Special thanks to Thomas Lafferty for his candid and inspiring comments on the blog that served as the guts of this Q&A column!)

If you’re without a college degree, have you nonetheless won jobs that required a degree? How? Have you overcome other “requirements” to win a job? Tell us your story — give us some inspiration and alternate ways to prove you can “do the job.”

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LinkedIn: Just another job board

In the December 4, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a writer wonders about “social job hunting” on LinkedIn and Facebook. Is this a good new thing?

LinkedIn has recently expanded its job search functionalities. Facebook is also planning a job portal. What do you think about them? Do you see any value in linking job postings with personal social networks?

Filtering job openings using connections to people instead of keywords might give fresh ideas about where to work. An example of a simple filter: “Find openings where at least one of my contacts is working for that company.” If the search returns something interesting, there’s already an existing personal connection to someone who can help in the next step, which is finding out what the company is doing and whether it is the right one to apply for.

Do you think this topic would be worth an article in your newsletter or in your blog?

Nick’s Reply

First let’s be clear: LinkedIn is now a job board, not a social network. Just read its own home page:

LinkedIn Talent Solutions: Cut your cost per hire in half. Build a great employer brand.

Compare to CareerBuilder:

Job Postings: Gain exposure to the most candidates, enjoy powerful screening tools, and access the best training resources with CareerBuilder’s Job Postings.

Compare to Monster.com:

Power Resume Search: Stop Searching. Start Matching. Find the candidate you’ve been looking for.

It’s the three stooges of job boards. They’re all dopes. Compare the pitches. You’d never tell one from the other except for its name. LinkedIn sold out “relationships” for “jobs” when it launched its button.

These are database companies

I’ve been watching the moves by social sites into the jobs business. While at first glance it seems a natural thing for them to do, I think it’s more expedient than smart. They’re trying to find ways to generate revenue from their databases, and job boards are easy to add to any database model.

What LinkedIn and other social networks are avoiding is what’s far more challenging: adding more and better “social” to their models.

I think it would be more compelling for LinkedIn to use its social network to promote social behaviors that lead to job connections — without turning into yet another keyword-matching business. But it’s not.

I really haven’t seen anything smart come out of LinkedIn’s move. If anything, LinkedIn is now regarded as “the job board companies use.” Stealing Monster’s customers is an accomplishment, but hardly an innovation.

Sidetracked: LinkedIn turns to telemarketing job ads

LinkedIn had so much potential to be so much more — it’s the company went off on a side track that leads nowhere. I know some of the world-class relationship builders LinkedIn hired to create a robust social networking approach to jobs. Then LinkedIn suddenly instituted a quota system and told them to dial for dollars. A new management team hired telemarketers straight out of a sales boiler room (a job board) and booted the people who might have done something revolutionary. The new crew could be working at TheLadders, selling job postings.

Don’t limit yourself to links

That said, I think there’s tremendous potential here. Your idea of exploiting “links” to pursue jobs is a good one. But what concerns me is the premise: Asking the database for job openings where you know someone.

While it’s one logical avenue to follow, isn’t it incredibly limiting? This use of LinkedIn focuses on the low-hanging fruit — people you already know. In his book, Six Degrees, applied mathematician Duncan Watts shows that the most productive nodes in a network are the ones on the outer edge — in this case, people you haven’t met yet. On LinkedIn, there’s a great tendency to chase down nodes (database results) — and no compelling tools that actually foster new relationships on the edges of networks. (LinkedIn Groups are nice, but big deal. Yahoo! has those, too.)

The Zen of job hunting: Meet the people who do the work

My advice to job hunters is to “go hang out with people who do the work you want to do.” The object is not to link. (That’s too easy.) The object is to have shared experiences, so others can teach and judge you — and lead you to opportunities with others in their circles. You don’t need LinkedIn to do this, but it would have been a brilliant direction for the company.

So, maybe a smarter way to use LinkedIn is a Zen kind of approach. Don’t go searching for jobs through people you already know (your contacts). Go to the groups that are talking about the work you want to do. Go to the work. And meet totally new people. Make sense? Why limit yourself to where your friends work? Go to where you want to work and make new friends — who will get you in the door. This takes a lot more effort and probably more time, but I think you need to be clear about your goal — the work you want. Just don’t expect LinkedIn to help you with this Zen approach; LinkedIn is too busy counting job postings.

LinkedIn: Just another job board

I’d love to see LinkedIn get past “the database” and start thinking about how to foster experiences between its members. But LinkedIn’s myopia is seen clearly on its home page: It defines itself as a job board. Just read this claptrap from the leading “business network”:

Reach top talent with premium access: Find and engage passive candidates with premium search, full profile visibility, and best-in-class pipeline tools.

Gimme a break. LinkedIn is a job board and the world’s biggest resume repository. It can do far better.

As for Facebook’s foray into the job board business, can you spell ZYNGA?

How do you use LinkedIn? Is it just a fancy phonebook or rolodex? (I contend that’s all it is.) If you could take over LinkedIn, how would you change it, to make it a more productive tool for working with others? Join us on the blog with your ideas — or just to slap me around if you disagree.

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