Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?

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In the September 13, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks:

I have a challenge that I’m not sure I can overcome very easily in this job environment. I was forced to file bankruptcy due to long-term unemployment. I also received a DUI (“driving under the influence”) about a year ago. I’m afraid that, despite my qualifications, prospective employers may reject me after they do a background check. Any suggestions on how I can overcome this challenge?

My reply:

Here’s the video version of my advice, and below it is the printed version. (I don’t do videos from a script, so this is not a literal transcript.)

1. Avoid job hunting tools that can’t defend you.

Your resume cannot defend you when a manager sees a problem and wonders how it would affect his business. Nor can an online application form. Only someone who knows you can defend you and override objections by emphasizing how you’ll deliver benefits to an employer.

So the answer is clear: Invest most of your time getting someone who is credible and who respects you to contact the employer and recommend you. It’s not easy. But it’s the best tactic. A reference doesn’t have to be your former boss. It might be another manager from your old company who knows your work ethic, or even a customer or consultant. But it must be someone who will make the call and stick their neck out for you. (I know it might be painful to make such a request. But you’re in a painful situation, and like I said, you have to have the stomach for this.)

2. Help the employer focus on what matters most.

The employer is right to be worried. Any red flags pose a risk to his business. So it’s up to you to help the employer stop worrying. Be honest and candid about your bankruptcy and your DUI. But don’t dwell on them. Quickly focus the employer on your clear commitment to help him make his operation more successful. In other words, distract him from your problems in a way that engages him in what matters: his success. Show him that you’re worth taking a chance on.

(This is where some of my advice is omitted. To get the whole story next week, subscribe to the newsletter. It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)… 

Just remember: The manager who hires you deserves this kind of effort from you, because he needs convincing. He won’t ask you to do it. You must volunteer.

The economy sucks, and losing a job opportunity because you’ve got problems in your personal or work history sucks even more. What if you’re qualified and have a solid work ethic? Should an employer reject you because you were forced to file bankruptcy due to unemployment? How about a DUI violation? Should it hamper getting hired? How would you handle this?

UPDATE: In part 2 of this pair of posts, learn How to Say It — and about the almost-magic commitment you can make that can move a manager from “No way!” to “I’m willing to take a chance on you!” Please check Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It.

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You blew the interview? Fess up and fix it.

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In the August 16, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a rejected job hunter fesses up that he got cocky and didn’t prepare for his interview.

Question

I have five years experience in a technical job and I want to move into a related management role. I’m the go-to guy in the department and I am considered a “vital” part of the team by both my peers and senior management. When I presented a case for the creation of a management role and development of a team, it was largely ignored and placed on the “long finger.” The whole experience made me realize I need to focus on moving my career forward.

I recently interviewed for a management job with a company that I have long admired. The job itself is a carbon copy of my current position, but it would include two or three people working under me. I was called back for a second interview, but I was unsuccessful in moving forward to the next phase.

On reflection, there were several reasons I probably didn’t move forward including being too cocky leading up to the interview, and thus not being 100% prepared. I don’t think my desire to change jobs was shining through in the interview.

The logical next step for me is management. How can I make this transition? Many thanks in advance.

Nick’s Reply

You probably nailed the reason why you failed the interview. You weren’t prepared for the meeting, and maybe a bit cocky. You blew it. While you seem to have admitted your mistake, you said nothing about what you plan to do about this. It’s not even clear to me that you care — you just want to move on to the next opportunity.

A manager doesn’t just tackle a project. A manager gets it done. And if the manager makes a mistake, he doesn’t just walk away. The key here is that you recognize what you did wrong. A good manager figures out what he did wrong, tunes up his approach, and goes back at it. Is it possible that the employer who interviewed you thinks you’re not interested in correcting your mistake? I don’t know, but my concern is that you don’t seem to care.

Before you move on to the next management opportunity, fix what you did wrong this time. There’s probably nothing to lose in taking another shot, and what you’ll gain is self-respect and perhaps a second chance. My advice is not to give up so quickly. Go back to the employer who already invested in two meetings with you.

I’d either call the manager, or send a short note. Fess up and fix it. The note is for fessing up, and the plan that you attach is for fixing it.

How To Say It

“I apologize for being a bit cocky in my interview. The truth is, I was distracted by some issues at my current job, and I didn’t carefully analyze your needs to formulate a useful response. While it may be too late, I need to do this for the sake of my own integrity. Attached please find an outline of my understanding of the job you need done, and what seem to be the key problems and challenges. Along with that, I include a brief plan for how I would do the job for you, describing how I’d achieve the three main objectives, and my estimate of how my work would contribute to your bottom line. This is how I try to approach any job, including the one I’m doing now. I didn’t accomplish this in my interview with you. I’m sorry if I wasted your time when we met. I want you to know I take every job seriously, whether I win it or not. Thanks for your time. I hope you find something useful in what I wrote for you. If you find my comments worthy of further discussion, you won’t regret meeting with me again.”

The details of this approach are covered in detail in How Can I Change Careers?, a PDF book that I should probably re-title, because it’s not just for career changers, but for anyone who’s changing jobs and wants to stand out in the interview. It teaches how to show an employer that hiring you will be a profitable decision. If an employer can’t figure out whether it’s worth giving you a shot at a management job, you must prove that it’s a wise choice. The interviewer won’t figure it out for herself. That’s why you must submit a plan showing how you’ll do the work.

If you want to be the “go-to guy” in a management job, I think you need to get back in touch with that employer. Show that you know how to handle rejection by changing your approach and by acting like a versatile manager. If you hear nothing back, chalk it up to learning. Either way, you will have developed the plan you need to approach any promotion to a management job.

(Here on the blog, I usually print only a part of the advice I offer in the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter — and we discuss the topic here. This week, I ran it all. Next week, it’ll be a partial reprint once again. But don’t miss another issue! Be on top of the discussion! It’s free!Sign up for the weekly newsletter!)

Can you go back after the employer says No?

It happens to everyone at some point. You blow it in the job interview. You know why, and you feel like a dope. You could have performed much better. Can you go back for another bite at the apple? Have you done it? Did it work?

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I really, really want this job!

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In the July 19, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter interviews for a job and gets no call back, but really, really wants the job and is… uh… freaking out.

Question

I interviewed for job A and job B at the same company. After two interviews for job B, I was told I would be contacted within a week either about a third round or to let me know what was going on. I got no call. I really hate that.

Looking through a jobs site, I freaked out when I saw job A posted again. (I was runner-up on that one.) So yesterday I made a courtesy call to the manager I interviewed with for job B to let him know I am still interested. Still no call.

Now I am truly freaking out. I don’t want to be screwed out of a job with this organization. Friends have advised me not to keep calling. But isn’t there some way to find out what’s going on? The key is I really want to work for this organization—period. Suggestions?

Nick’s Reply

Please, read this carefully: You cannot control what a company does after you have interviewed, if there’s no communication.

Now look at what you’re saying:

“The key is I really want to work for this organization—period.”

“I don’t want to be screwed out of a job with this organization.”

“Now I am truly freaking out.”

That attitude is good groundwork for failure. Desire is a good thing when it motivates you to succeed. But if your desire dominates your good sense, you’re hurting yourself.

An employer is not obligated to hire you, or even to respond to you. Now, I think it’s rude and irresponsible for a company not to follow up, especially if they promised to. But if that’s what’s happening, the appropriate response is not to doggedly pursue the company. It’s to move on. If they’re ignoring you, then you’re wasting your time. You have no control over the company’s inaction. Stop freaking out. And stop thinking someone is screwing you.

As companies kick up their hiring a bit, they’re going to kick up their interviewing even more. They are going to meet lots of candidates, and they’re going to reject most of them. It’s understandable that you strongly believe this job is perfect for you. But it’s not understandable to freak out because the company doesn’t see it the same way.

No matter what you want to believe, there might be, in fact, zero correlation between the level of your desire for a job and your suitability for it. I’m haranguing here because many people get completely stuck on their perception of a deal. Any deal requires two parties to have the same perception. Vladimir Nabokov punctured our wishful thinking when he wrote, “You are not I; therein lies the irreparable calamity” (Invitation to A Beheading, Vintage, 1989).

We all want to think we know what a company wants and needs. But we don’t, because often the company doesn’t know, either — not until it stops interviewing and makes a hiring decision. So, don’t let a rejection affect your self confidence. That rejection is not necessarily a judgment about you, as much as it is a choice about what the company needs.

It’s important to carefully choose the companies you want to work for, and to Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. But if you want control over your job search, never put all your energy and desire into just one objective. When you schedule an interview, you should also take care of another important chore: Line up your next target. Don’t go to an interview unless you have an alternative already in your sights. If you pursue just one opportunity at a time, you will have nowhere to go if it doesn’t pan out. That leads to desperation and depression. And even if you do get an offer, having no other options can result in misguided negotiations for the job you “really want.”

Sometimes a job interview seems like an invitation to a beheading. You show up, hoping you’re not the victim. The employer makes a decision and brings the blade down, and you never even realize it’s over. The calamity is when you continue your wishful thinking, at the expense of other options.

The key is not that you “really want to work for this organization.” The key is that you’ve lost control. Move on to the next opportunity. That’s the only way to stay sane and to control your job search.

Only one job candidate survives the interrogations. Only one gets the job. The rest get cut. Yah, it’s painful, and yah, you might really, really want that job…

What you can do? And when should your wishful thinking end?

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Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?

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In the July 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter questions whether it’s prudent — or even possible, when forced to use an online form — to say NO to an employer that demands your salary history.

Question

I read your article “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.” While I found it to be an excellent article overall, I couldn’t help but wonder when it was written. Within the last several years, many employers have moved their application process to the web. Current salary (along with desired salary) is a required field in the online application, and there is no option to quote a salary range.

In this economic downturn, with so many people still without employment, the competition is beyond fierce. It’s definitely an employer’s market these days. Unless you are a highly sought-after executive or the best of the best in your field, the company has plenty of other applicants to move onto if you don’t provide the information they are seeking. 

As an HR professional, I don’t mind giving them my desired salary range, because I keep up with the market and I have done my homework. However, I despise the question, “What are you making currently?”, or, in my case, “What were you making in your last position?” As you state in your article, I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business, and it definitely has no bearing on what the job is worth. Yet, can I (or anyone else who is unemployed due to the recession) afford to be “contrary?”

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

I wrote that article several years ago. But it’s still valid. I know the pressure is on, and employers don’t make it any easier with their cattle-call job applications. It’s up to you to protect your integrity.

salary history

Say NO to demands for salary history

I think good candidates must be contrary. They must stand out. Withholding salary history is not indicative of an uncooperative candidate. Demanding it reveals a company that’s not going to negotiate based on the candidate’s value. This is fundamentally wrong. I think you’re letting an employer’s poor management practices seduce you into complicity.

Don’t let application forms intimidate you

If an online application requires salary history, ignore the application. Find a better way in the door. As you point out, if you don’t cooperate, the company has plenty of other applicants who will do what they’re told, and destroy their ability to negotiate. Let the company have them. It wants cows, not people who think and act outside the box. Join a company like that, by playing along, and soon you’ll be looking for yet another job. The herd mentality hurts employers that rely on it, too—especially in difficult economic times.

Read what a successful job hunter has to say about this. He attended a presentation that I gave at Cornell University recently, then he interviewed for a top job.

“The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now. Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: Never divulge my current salary, and Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done. They oughta make you a Cornell professor! I can already see that the one hour you spent with us will have as much impact on my MBA ROI as any class that I have taken in the program, if not more so.” — Rich Mok

That presentation was based on How to Work With Headhunters. The audience was a group of corporate executives in Cornell’s Johnson School of Management Executive MBA program. You don’t have to be an executive to stand your ground, but you do have to be the right candidate. (Otherwise, you have no business applying for the job!) Rich Mok reveals how to redirect an employer’s attention: Show what you’ll do to make the company more successful. Your salary history (and your resume) won’t matter so much. I’ve seen this work at every level of compensation.

Don’t compromise yourself to appease an employer

You clearly agree that salary history is no one’s business. Then why capitulate and compromise yourself? You need not forego an opportunity if the application requires salary history. You just have to demonstrate your mettle and find a better way in the door. Being contrary when the world behaves foolishly doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected. It makes you stand out. It’s what makes you worth hiring — and worth interviewing.

Do employers force you to disclose your salary history? It’s a perennial argument. You feel you can’t afford to say NO when an employer demands your salary history. I say you can’t afford to disclose private information.

So, what do you do? Can you protect your integrity and still apply for the job?

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Readers’ Forum: The ethics of juggling job offers

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In the September 21, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to deal with two job offers, when you accept one then a better one arrives a few days later.

Question

I am in this dilemma and read your article about Juggling Job Offers. Yours is the only one that says to accept the first job offer, and when the second job (which would be a better offer and more suitable) presents itself, then retract acceptance of the first job offer.

However, the other articles and guidance suggests not doing this at all as it is unethical and can damage one’s reputation in a given industry. I have gone back to the first company and gotten a decision window of one week to decide. The timing is off as I need one more week for the second job’s response and possible offer.

Do I ask for yet another extension? Any thoughts?

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Sorry, but I don’t buy the ethics angle on this. As I point out in the article, if a company lays you off six months after hiring you, is it behaving unethically? No. It’s a business decision. What if it lays you off a week after you start, due to unexpected financial setbacks? What’s the real difference?

How many job offers do you really have?

The fact is, in a situation like this, you are not making a choice between two job offers. You are making a binary choice: Yes or No to one job. While I hope the other offer comes through, I can tell you that in many years of headhunting I’ve seen most “sure thing” offers go south. Either they are delayed indefinitely, or they never come through.

Is this about ethics or business?

I agree that accepting then rescinding your acceptance can have an effect on your reputation. But likewise, a layoff has an effect on an employer’s reputation. Still, sometimes it happens out of necessity. It doesn’t make the company (or you) unethical. It’s a business decision.

I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of rescinding an acceptance. But to behave as though the second offer is a sure thing is to put the first offer at risk. Is it unethical to continue to ask the first company — which has stuck out its neck and and made a commitment to you — to keep extending the decision deadline?

How many times will the second company need “one more week” to produce the offer, if it produces one at all?

Sorry, but a bird in the hand is the only bird you’ve got! Decide about that, and then deal with the future later.

For more about this thorny topic — and how to deal with job offer challenges — see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master Of Job Offers.

Am I being unethical? Is it wrong to accept an offer then change your mind because a new offer is better?

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Job-board Scams: WNYC Public Radio

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On Tuesday, March 16, 2010 I talked with New York Public Radio (WNYC 93.9FM) host Brian Lehrer about bogus and misleading job advertisements. Brian has been following a group of his listeners as they try to land new jobs — and in this segment we discuss some of the scams they have encountered.

jobscams1This audio clip (12:41 minutes) is from a longer segment in which listener “Jim” described a service that wanted to charge him $5,000 for “exclusive job listings.” We discuss that scam and we also talk about:

  • The success rates of the job boards
  • TheLadders’ misleading “Only $100k+ jobs” advertising
  • Whether you should ever pay a recruiter or “consultant” who says he’ll find you a job
  • The value of using personal contacts
  • “Education” scams that cost thousands of dollars but deliver nothing
  • Common sense: the importance of checking references before spending money on “help”
  • Identity theft
  • The CareerXroads “source of hires” surveys

Listen in and add your comments!

The entire radio segment can be found at WNYC: Help Wanted.

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Q&A: Climbing out of the hole

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You think you have problems?

We’re the parents of a 30-year-old college-grad-gone-wrong man. Our son now has two incidents and a criminal record as a result of his ten-year obsession with eastern culture (martial arts/intense spiritual yoga indoctrination). He got fired from his daytime jobs and still has a few hearings scheduled in court.

While we provide support for him, there must be some honest labor or odd jobs that he can do. Not only for $, but we feel that a sense of providing for himself can restore his self-esteem, which could be just the thing to tear him away from that spiritual breakdown and return him to society.

Do you know any job source that can tolerate his criminal record? I asked his public defender. He had no clue! We will appreciate any leads for him. Thanks a million.

The problem is that he’s getting fired presumably because of his behavior. I don’t know of any job where that would be tolerated. He has to want to build his self-esteem, or his behavior will not change.
 
This might sound strange to you, but a program like Toastmasters or a Dale Carnegie course might help him — if he wants the help. These groups teach self-reliance and the ability to get up in front of people to talk with poise. I find that problems with work and self-esteem often stem from a lack of self-confidence. Learning to talk to others publicly is a great path to building confidence. By changing his behavior around other people, he may be able to change his underlying attitudes. (This is a simple tenet of behavioral and cognitive psychology — behavior change can stimulate a change in attitude.)

Toastmasters is free. Carnegie charges.
 
The nice thing about both? Many of the people you meet in those programs have jobs in good companies. They can be the first step toward a new job.
 
He has to want to do it.
 
I wish you the best.

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Q&A: Where should recruiters look for candidates?

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A recruiter from a consulting firm asks whether I really shun job boards, and where to find good candidates really fast…

Question
I caught you on NPR last week and thought you were a breath of fresh air! I am in the process of letting our CareerBuilder job posting account loose. First, because it costs a lot and secondly, because you are absolutely right, most of the jobs we post are bogus after the first 24 hours. Okay, I promise I’m getting to my question…

Are you saying don’t use any job boards? And if so, what’s the best way to find talent FAST if you don’t have someone in your database or pipeline when a requirement comes in? Especially when in some cases you have a little as fifteen minutes to get to that great candidate before a flurry of other firms do. I’m avidly learning LinkedIn but that seems to be better for making client connections than ones with candidates.

Nick’s Reply
Thanks for the kind words.

I don’t think your clients pay you to race your competition. They pay you to find the best people. What you’re doing is competing with other recruiters for a limited pool of people whose resumes are on job boards.

Anyone whose resume is on a job board is already “used up” and picked over. Your odds of closing a deal are way diminshed even before you contact them… so that 15 minutes doesn’t matter much. It’s already too late.

Where are the people who are not on the boards? They’re among your network. I just don’t see the point of pulling some resume off a board and sending it to a client who probably already has it from some other firm or agency… It’s a waste of time. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather poll my contacts and scratch my head… and go look where the competition doesn’t.

Why the focus on finding people in data bases? Try investing half that time in meeting new people in the industry you recruit from. When you call those people later on about an assignment you’re working on, they won’t be on the other line with your competitors…

I know it’s a hard business. But step back and ask yourself, what are you doing? And, what should you be doing? Do you have a line in the data base pool, waiting for a nibble? Or do you have good relationships with great people in the community you recruit from — who can reliably refer you to the people your clients need?

My compliments on cutting CareerBuilder loose. Invest the money instead in taking a shining light in your industry to lunch!

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Q&A: No connections, no opportunities

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Question
As someone who’s rather “out of the loop,” living out in the country, I don’t have social or business connections with the folks at the in-city companies for which I should be working. Is there any best method for finding and approaching the decision-makers who have the problems that I certainly can solve?

Until now I’ve depended on the whims of personnel jockeys, but now that doesn’t work, the listed jobs being so few. Personally, I have no lack of work, but it’s all farm work on my farm, and leads to gaposis of the
resume. I’m sure that in spite of the absence of job listings, the problems are still out there, hidden from me. How do I best find them and the folks who need them solved?

Nick’s Reply
Gaposis… That’s a good one!

But there’s no excuse for gaposis in relationships… You can meet those people online. Through LinkedIn, through business/professional web sites that have discussion forums, and by e-mailing them after you’ve read an article in which they are mentioned.

Make a contact or two that way, and it’s worth leaving the farm for a visit to the big city ;-).

I have a similar problem. My office is out in the boonies. And I love it here. But I make time to go to the city (and to big towns!) and to hang out among the people who do the work I do (and want to do). Face time is more precious than online time… You just have to do it.

Did you go to college? Does your alumni association have a branch in a nearby city? Join, go, mingle. Don’t worry about meeting people at the companies where you want to work. A few “links” and soon you’ll be finding them.

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Q&A from WNYC Radio

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Yesterday I did 20 minutes with Brian Lehrer on WNYC, New York Public Radio. (I archived the audio on the blog post prior to this one if you’d like to listen.) We’ll be doing an Ask The Headhunter segment every week through July. Hope you’ll join us!

20 minutes is not a lot of time to take questions from listeners, or to provide much in the way of advice. But Brian’s blog is full of good follow-up questions from listeners, and I’ve tried to answer many of them in the comments section.

One listener was bugged about what I suggested about becoming a consultant in today’s economy:

This was a terrible segment. Almost chilling. The conversation seemed utterly detached from reality; the idea that someone at their kitchen table, six months into being fired, is going to be able to tell some company (and whom exactly at that company?) how to run itself, (or use information technology or green technology or whatever), is bizarre. There seemed to be a huge disconnect between the reality of the callers’ situations, and the generic bromides and cliches that the guest suggested. Brian should have worked harder to bridge this gap.

It seems that the real issue is the social and knowledge-networking isolation of the recently unemployed, and the need for supportive communities, not a dated piece on how to turn yourself into a consultant from home…

Here’s my reply:

You’re right: Unemployed people become quickly isolated. But the problem is magnified when they join “support groups.” Unemployed people gathering to share job leads and advice. Think about that. It’s patently absurd. The best thing you can do to stay motivated and to actually get something done is to hang around people who do the work you want to do. Starting your own business is not bizarre at all. Waiting for some company to come along and hire you is what’s absurd. Waiting for some personnel jockey to pluck your resume from the millions on a job board — that’s absurd. As for telling a company how to run itself better, why do you think companies hire people? Not to fill head count. They hire you to help them make more profit. If you can’t explain that to a company that you work for, you will eventually get fired or laid off. If you can’t tell it to a company you want to work for, then you have no business in the interview. Job hunting is not a step by step process. If it were, every ad would yield an interview which would yield an offer. Far from it.

That listener is pretty demoralized. Maybe I’m misreading the comments, but what I read is a plea for magic dust and for a place to commiserate with others. And my point — which I discussed with Brian at the very beginning of the segment — is that job hunters and consultants must focus first not on getting a gig. They must focus on showing a company the money. Why should anyone hire you — or even sit through an interview with you — if you aren’t prepared to show how you’re going to improve the business?

Listeners from WNYC are welcome to post more follow-up questions here — I’ll try to get to them all. Unfortunately, Brian’s blog does not handle longer URL’s so I can’t refer to relevant articles there.

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