Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It

In the last post, Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?, we discussed how a reader who is applying for a job (and who is qualified) might overcome obstacles that come up when the employer does a background check. Problems like bankruptcy triggered by long-term unemployment — and a year-old DUI (driving while intoxicated) violation.

Knowing what to do is one thing. Facing the employer and knowing what to say — and being able to say it — is something else. In this edition, let’s discuss How to Say It.

There are two keys to convincing an employer to take a chance on you:

  1. Personal recommendations from credible people who know your character and your work ethic.
  2. A clear commitment — which the employer will never ask for, but which you must offer in order to get a job offer. To find out what that commitment should be, please watch the video.

What would you say to a hiring manager to get past such obstacles? And if you’re a manager, what would a candidate need to say and do to convince you to give him or her a chance?
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Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?

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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How can I find out whether a job board is the real deal?

In the August 30, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks:

Have you ever heard of JobSearchSite Inc., dba NOW? It sounds good, but how do you check on them to see if they’re the real deal?

My reply:

In this edition, let’s try an experiment: Video. Hope you enjoy it.

There are so many job boards coming and going that it’s impossible to keep up — but I don’t even want to. While your competition is getting interviews and offers, you’d be spending your entire life trying to check these places out. Or you could pick four companies you’d love to work for and go research them instead, to make personal contacts who will give you the real low-down and help you get in the door.

Remember: There aren’t 400 jobs out there for you. Choose carefully and approach doggedly.

I already know how the Ask The Headhunter community feels about job boards… but tell me, what’s your favorite alternative that produces results? (Are there any job boards you like?)

So… how’d this video experment come off? (Other than my novice production values!) Is video Q&A to your liking? Should we do more of these? Hit me with your critique — too long, too short, get a new shirt, stop the rapid eye movements (sorry, I had to use a few notes…), add a CNN backdrop… use hand puppets…?

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Am I chasing the salary surveys?

In the August 23, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a frustrated reader who’s been on the job for just a couple of months checks the salary surveys and wonders whether it’s already time to ask for a raise…

I love my new job. However, I checked some recent salary surveys and it seems I am underpaid as much as $5k/year. Since I’ve only been here for two months, how long should I wait to discuss this with my boss? Or do you think I’m chasing the salary surveys? This has really been bothering me and I want some peace of mind.

I think salary surveys are fine as general indicators, but do they tell you anything about yourself? I think using them to establish your salary requirements is like checking the cover of Vogue to plan what your face should look like…

What’s this reader to do? Are salary surveys good tools for career development? What do you think of how they present the data?

My detailed advice to this reader is published in the free weekly Ask The Headhunter newsletter, which is delivered only by e-mail. Subcribers and I discuss the question and my advice here on the blog. Please join us! But to read my advice — including frequent How to Say It tips and links to other valuable resources — Sign up for your own FREE subscription! Don’t miss another edition!



Are you over-qualified for a grunt job?

In the August 9, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter gets rejected for demonstrating initiative, and asks for a work-around:

You have urged us to convince the hiring manager we can bring value to a job. Believe it or not, this doesn’t seem to be appropriate in some circumstances, unfortunately.

I have had experiences with accounting and IT (information technology) hiring managers. Each had a detailed requirement of the role to be filled. When I focused on what I could bring to the table, the post-mortem in each case was, “She is overqualified.” They just wanted someone to tick off the boxes on the requirement and show proof of competence in those areas. Going beyond was automatic rejection.

Maybe certain roles demand a pedantic mind to succeed, and it’s not possible to present a good business case to such people when they are the hiring managers. What do you think?

Nick, do you have a work-around for this circumstance?

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!)

This is an excellent question. But I don’t think this is really about the job. I think it’s about the employer. I’ll take the liberty of re-phrasing it:

Do I want to work for someone who wants me to be a grunt, and not add anything to the job?

If you do, then don’t offer anything more in the interview than the interviewer asks for. That is, check off the boxes and go along for the ride. The trick, of course, is figuring out whether the employer wants more or not. I’m not sure that’s possible without betraying higher intelligence and motivation.

But if you want a job where you’re contributing to the business, and if you want an employer that cares, then keep doing what you’ve been doing. Show what you can bring to the table. Employers that want to hire robots will fail the interview, just as this one did.

No offense intended — honest — but I think what you’re getting at is, How do we dumb ourselves down so we can get a job that doesn’t require our full participation?

Maybe you just answer the questions you’re asked, and say little more than that… (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!)…

Note to human resources managers: If your company wants grunts, please stop talking about “hiring talent.” You know who you are.

I know there are managers who don’t give a rat’s batootie how capable a job candidate is, beyond meeting the minimum requirements. There are also people who close their eyes and gobble down anything in the fridge, because they consider cooking a waste of time. Anything they can stuff in their face will do.

I don’t disparage anyone who just needs a job to pay the bills, and who will take anything they can get. But that’s not the audience I write for. I write for people who love to cook tasty meals and enjoy seeing big, gratified smiles on the people sitting around their table — like their boss and their co-workers. Because life’s too short for just plain “competent.”

Managers who reject job candidates capable of doing more than the job description aren’t managers. They’re grunts, too. When grunts run a business, talented workers eventually all leave. The customers and investors usually depart after that. I think getting rejected by grunt managers is a good thing. But if you want to work around such rejection, just sit quietly and chow down on the mush grunts serve you.

I’m sure people have strong opinions about this. I’d love to hear them! Even routine jobs benefit from smart, motivated workers who want to help a business be more successful. But I could be wrong. Are employers smart to hire grunts?

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Butterflies in your interviews?

In the July 26, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter says butterflies interfere with interviews. What can be done?

I consider myself a fairly intelligent and eloquent person with strong skills in my field. Yet, when I go into an interview I turn into Elmer Fudd! I tend to make such comments as, “I think I could be real good at this job!” I’m sure I’m like most people: I get the proverbial butterflies in my stomach.

Only after the interview do the things I should have said start flooding into my mind. (I’ve tried role-plays, but they do not seem to help.) I’m sure this has cost me opportunities. What can I do? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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!)

Butterflies are very common, even among some of the most talented people I know (including executives). I’ll offer two suggestions to help you control butterflies.

1. Read Don’t Compete With Yourself. This article will teach you some simple ways to avoid pre-interview tension, and how to stay calm during your meeting.

2. Try The New Interview. Prepare a 20-minute presentation for the employer, and show how you’re going to contribute to the company’s profitability. This might sound daunting, especially to someone who gets nervous, but once you learn to do it for one employer, the next ones will be a lot easier.

The power of this approach lies in the fact that once you’re this prepared, you’ll never again get butterflies in your stomach.

You see, people get butterflies when they’re not completely prepared. They consequently (and naturally) feel unsure of themselves. I know what you’re thinking: “But I am prepared!” I doubt you are prepared to the extent I’m talking about.

Prepared means being able to outline two or three specific problems and challenges the employer faces, and then presenting a plan to handle them. (Don’t provide too much detail, because then you’d be working for free and giving away your assets.)

When you truly understand the business… (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!)…

If you think this level of preparation is a huge investment, you’re right. The employer thinks hiring you is a pretty huge investment, too. If you’re not prepared to do the job in the interview, then your competition — the candidate I coached to do what I suggest above — will blow you out of the water like a dead fish.

Consider this carefully: You can’t do this level of preparation for the 400 companies you’ve sent your resume to, because there aren’t 400 jobs for you. Thus, you must pick your targets very carefully.

When you achieve this level of business interaction, you are not interviewing. You are in a meeting where you’re doing the job. That’s such a liberating experience that nervousness almost completely disappears. It works. Try it.

Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you interview? Why do you think? Or do you have nerves of steel and demonstrate confidence? How do you do it?

Where does a good job candidate’s power come from? And how can you develop yours?

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Degree Inflation: Will it blow up in your face?

In the June 28, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager who has no college degree wonders how crucial a degree is, and asks whether it’s worth stretching the truth on the resume:

In the case of a successful manager, how important is a college degree to a headhunter? I don’t have a degree. With so much emphasis on education nowadays, should I fabricate the truth on my resume or completely eliminate the education section entirely? If I were to stretch the truth and include a degree on my resume, how often at my level of achievement does a search firm investigate?

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!)

Hmmm. I’m really worried about you. Just what kind of achievement is it to lie about your credentials? Can a successful manager believe it’s smart to even consider fabricating a degree?

Don’t lie and don’t stretch the truth. There’s an entire background-checking industry ready to expose you. Search firms investigate, but you don’t know how far, and they’re not going to tell you. If you lie about a degree, you will probably get caught. It could cost you an offer. Worse, because some of these background checks take time, the truth might not turn up until after you’ve been hired—then you’ll lose your new job.

If you think it’s bad to get caught by your employer, realize that once the headhunter finds out you lied, your name will be mud all over your industry.

Even white lies on your resume can blow up in your face. People might say, “Aw, everybody does it. Companies expect some inflation in a resume.” What do you want to bet? Your career? Your reputation? Let me remind you: Your integrity is everything. Protect it.

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

You will of course encounter headhunters who stick to the party line. If the client says it wants a degree, the headhunter will skip candidates that lack one. This is where the truly good headhunters will surface. They will guide and advise their client, and if it’s possible, they will help the client get past the lack of a degree to get to a good candidate that can do the job well. If you’re dealing with a headhunter who refuses to take you to the next step, it will buy you nothing to argue. Unless you have an inside track to the hiring manager, let it go. Move on to the next opportunity.

I discuss ways to effectively portray your value to a headhunter in How to Work With Headhunters. If you’re changing careers, How Can I Change Careers? teaches how to overcome obstacles—like, “You’ve never done this sort of work before!”

In the end, it’s up to you to have a compelling story to tell about how the employer will benefit from hiring you. The headhunter won’t figure it out for herself. You have to explain it.

If in the final analysis the lack of a degree continues to pose a problem, then get one. With all the good distance-learning schools out there nowadays, you will likely be able to skip some courses by testing out of them. Your experience will count for a lot toward the degree. Check with your state’s department of education for a list of accredited distance schools.

Everyone fudges a bit on their resume. It’s like stealing hotel towels. It’s expected.


Tell me where you think the line is, and whether inflating your college degree information is a step too far. (If you’re a manager, would it bother you?) Everyone does it, right?


How do I tell my boss I’m overworked?

In the June 21, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about burnout because the boss has piled on too much work:

I’ve had more and more work piled on me until I’m a bundle of nerves and stress. I like my job a lot, and the pay is good. But, I have now inherited more work than I can handle. I’ve absorbed the workloads of two people who left. I’m only one person and can only do so much in a 16-hour day! (Isn’t it supposed to be 8 hours?) Help!

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!)

Even people with a good work ethic must sometimes tell management, “This is too much!” This goes for top executives, for professional staffers and even for blue collar workers.

Part of your job is to tell your boss the truth: The work you do requires more manpower. As long as you accept more work, the company will continue to heap it on. It’s their fault for expecting so much, but it’s your fault for letting them think you can handle it.

Prepare a plan. Outline:

  • The work that needs to be done,
  • The rough cost of manpower and tools required to do it,
  • An estimate of the profit produced by the work,
  • The relationship between headcount and “output” (16 hours days are not allowed),
  • The work you want to cherry-pick for yourself.

Don’t tell your boss you’re having a problem.
Explain that you have “the work” organized now, and show your plan, including the requirements for additional staff. No complaints; just the facts. Don’t be afraid to do the job your way. It is your responsibility to explain what needs to be done to handle the work effectively, but not to work 16-hour days.

If you don’t deal with this now, you will probably face overwork at your next job. The sign of a good worker is dealing with the demands of the job, not taking on the functions of other workers yourself.

A caution: Some companies prefer to kill an employee with work rather than invest in doing the job right. If this describes your company, be prepared to start looking for a new one. I hope your employer is ethical. You owe it to yourself to have a job that’s reasonable.

(Note: When you get to heaven, St. Peter doesn’t give you extra points for having worked yourself to death.)

First it feels like an opportunity: Your boss seems to be offering you more authority. But it turns out to be merely more responsibility and work. What started out as a chance to prove what you could do, has turned into your boss expecting you to do more than you can possibly do. Is there a way out? Let’s talk about getting over-worked, and burning out. Can this be turned into success?


How should headhunters fit into your job search?

In the June 14, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what percentage of job-hunting time should be devoted to working with headhunters:

I’ve heard that headhunters fill less than 10% of open jobs, so one should spend no more than 10% of one’s job hunting time working with headhunters. Do you agree? Also, could you please explain the difference between contingency and retained headhunters? Thanks.

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!)

You should not rely on a headhunter to put you into a job any percentage of the time, because a headhunter is paid by a client to fill a particular position, not to find you a job. To put it another way, you couldn’t devote 10% of your job hunting time to “working with headhunters” even if you wanted to, because it’s not your choice to work with headhunters. They choose to work with you — so it makes no sense to plan to make headhunters part of your job search.

(For what it’s worth, surveys conducted over the past ten years suggest that headhunters and other “third party” recruiters fill only about 3% of jobs, not 10%.)

If a headhunter calls with a position that is suited to you, for a job he believes you can do exceptionally well, then there’s a chance you’ll get a job offer from the headhunter’s client. But a real headhunter is not going to “market” you to his or her clients. You may be confusing headhunters (who focus on finding a specific candidate for a specific assignment) with employment agencies (which focus on spreading your resume around to lots of employers).

(On another note, don’t confuse headhunting with what other career practitioners do: They’re not headhunters.)

When a headhunter identifies the right candidate for a client, that’s when the headhunter coaches (and helps) that candidate. Having identified the right candidate, the headhunter’s mission is to win a job offer and to complete the assignment. Otherwise, headhunters don’t spend time helping job hunters.

Retained Headhunters
When a headhunter works on retainer, the client pays a percentage (usually one third) of the fee up front, to retain the headhunter’s services. The headhunter becomes the exclusive channel to fill the job, and gets paid whether he fills the job, or whether the company hires someone who walks in the front door without the headhunter’s involvement. The next two thirds of the retainer are paid upon certain milestones. The retainer ensures the headhunter’s attention to the project, and usually buys other services for the employer (which I won’t get into here). Employers typically use retained headhunters only for the highest-level positions.

Contingency Headhunters
In a contingency arrangement, the headhunter earns a fee only if he actually fills the assigned position. The position may be assigned exclusively to one headhunter, or to more than one.

Is it better to be recruited by a headhunter who is on retainer, than one working on contingency? Nope. The chances of success depend more on the quality of the headhunter than on how he gets paid.

How to Work with Headhunters
Of course, if a good headhunter calls you with a good job opportunity, that’s a good thing. That’s when it’s important to know how to work with headhunters effectively, and how to optimize the outcome. Likewise, it’s good to make yourself “findable” to the best headhunters in your field. Here are a few tips, excerpted from How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you:

1. Judge headhunters before you work with them. Most people who try to “recruit” you are not headhunters. They collect thousands of resumes which they submit to hundreds of employers — unsolicited. Having your resume plastered all over kingdom come does you no good. It can hurt your reputation. So, judge every “headhunter” that calls you. Ask for references. Talk to people they’ve placed, and with companies that use their services. Otherwise, you’ll get frustrated and waste your time.

2. Meet good headhunters before lousy ones find you. Fast-buck artists posing as headhunters scrape the Net to find your name or resume. Legitimate headhunters find good candidates through trusted contacts. Meet those trusted contacts and establish your credibility with them. Who are they? They’re the respected workers in your field. They’re not necessarily famous, but they’re the experts others turn to for advice, guidance and introductions. You’ll find them on industry discussion forums, at professional events, and on the best blogs. Get to know them, and make sure they know you.

3. Be helpful. Most calls from headhunters will not yield job opportunities. The headhunter is usually looking for a referral to the right candidate. Be helpful. Introduce the headhunter to good workers in your field. But, do it only after you follow the two instructions above. Never introduce a headhunter you don’t know to associates you respect. If you think you’re the right candidate, don’t pitch yourself. Instead, ask smart questions about the headhunter’s assignment. Map your skills to the details of the job only after you find out what all of these are. Remember: The headhunter is trying to do his job. Help him, and even if this job isn’t for you, he’ll call you again next time.

If you’re going to work with a headhunter, know who you’re dealing with, and know what you’re doing. Make the experience pay off.

Headhunters work on some of the tastiest jobs. So, how do they figure into your job search strategy? Have you ever been placed by a headhunter who had a positive effect on your career? Ever waste your time with a sleaze ball who called himself a headhunter, but wasn’t?

Let’s talk about headhunters. No holds barred. Useful tips especially welcome!


How to Say It: Why are you leaving your old job?

In the June 7, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to say when an interviewer inquires why you’re leaving your old employer:

I work in a business where there is a constant flow of people in and out of our office, and a high volume of customers calling on the phone. We get a lot of complaints from customers, and quite a bit of verbal abuse. My co-workers and I don’t feel safe. Extreme as it sounds, we worry about someone walking in the door and going bonkers.

I began a job search this week, and I’ve read online comments about what to say when asked the reasons for leaving my old job. I’ve been advised never to say anything bad about the company, including that it’s not safe. So, I am not sure how to answer this question any more. I have an interview coming up. Can you please give me some advice about what to say when I’m asked the reasons I am leaving my current job? Thanks very much.

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

You could be leaving your job because you don’t see growth opportunities, or because you have just grown tired of the work. Or, you might not get along with other employees, or with management. While any of these reasons are legitimate, how you express them could cost you a job opportunity. While some employers are interested in your motivations, I believe this question is almost always “loaded.” The employer wants to know whether you’re trouble.

As you can see, the real problem with this question is that you have no way of knowing the interviewer’s intent. And it’s not worth guessing and being wrong.

If you believe that explaining your reasons for leaving your last job will reflect well on you, then by all means explain. If you’re worried it will hurt you, then keep mum.

How to Say It
“I love my work, and I want to work in a better company where I am free to do my job effectively.”

If they ask you what the problem is with your current employer, be honest:

“I’m looking for a good job with a good company, but I never disparage anyone I’ve ever worked with… I came to you because your company seems to be one of the shining lights in this industry, and I’d like to talk about how I can help you be more profitable…” (…This is the missing part… Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire Answer and Commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

That’s the best way I know to approach any employer, and to get past that question. Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. And be candid about your policy of not bad-mouthing anyone, including your last employer.

I’m sorry you’ve been through so much. Look ahead, find a really good company, and explain how you’re going to help them be more successful. That’s what any good employer looks for.

It’s one of those tricky interview questions: Why are you leaving your old job? If you’re leaving because you’re unhappy, that opens up a can of worms in the interview. So, what do you say, and how do you say it? My suggestion in this week’s newsletter is one way to handle it. How have you handled this? Did it work? Or did it backfire?