Over-thinking the job interview: Is it worth a Porsche?

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Rules for job hunting and interviewing have become so institutionalized and complex that employers and managers make themselves look downright silly. My guess is that this is costing their companies dearly.

It’s bad enough when job hunters over-think how they are going about it — but it’s sometimes scary when employers reveal how they judge people they interview.

The New York Times offers an article titled Subtle Cues Can Tell an Interviewer “Pick Me” in which employers talk about the subtle cues they look for when reviewing job applicants. While such insights into the mind of the employer are interesting and potentially useful, some of this stuff reveals how kooky candidate selection sometimes is.

One employer takes a dim view of applicants who don’t wear a suit to an interview. So what happens when a guy shows up in a sport coat and tie, but is otherwise an outstanding candidate? Is it so hard to tell him, “Hey, we really like you. But if we hire you, we’d expect you to wear a suit to work. Is that okay with you?” Clothing can be shed and changed more easily than our skills and attitude. How many good candidates are lost to employers because managers are stuck on a rule about clothing?

Just how important is that suit, really? (Is it worth a Porsche? I’ll tell you in a minute.)

Another manager quoted in the article seems to sacrifice good candidates because they use paper. David Santos, executive director of human resources for Interbrand, a brand management firm, has exacting standards when it comes to paper and e-mail. Which should a candidate use when sending him a follow-up thank you note? “Mr. Santos’s preference shows how tricky this can be.”

Tricky?

“He says that for a company like his, which is more digitally focused, it would show a lack of awareness to send a traditional thank you note through the mail.”

If that’s not over-thinking and over-analyzing someone’s behavior, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. Does Santos really think that a thank you that arrives in snail-mail reveals a digital dunce? A weak candidate? An unaware candidate?

I pity job hunters who walk away from this article believing they understand the rules better.

Look, I think it’s helpful to see how managers think. There are some good reminders in the article. But the biggest reminder is this: Managers sometimes over-think the hiring process because they don’t have clear criteria about who they want to hire. This leads them to focus on easier, goofier, factors.

The manager who wants a suit, Susan L. Hodas, director of talent management at NERA Economic Consulting, “is also looking for people who can enunciate their words (mumblers beware) and who can communicate their thoughts and ideas clearly.”

That’s just fine — but that suit is gonna cost her because now she’s begging job applicants to give her a good look up and down. Hodas talks about “the airport test” that she and her staff use to judge job applicants: “Would I want to be stuck in the airport for 12 hours with this person if my flight was delayed?”

Stuck in an aiport with me, she’d blow it because I’m a stickler for proper grammar. She insists on good communication skills but fails to use the correct subjunctive mood of the verb to be. She should have said, “…if my flight were delayed.” Is she illiterate? I dunno… but where’s her suit?

Over-thinking the job interview — or any interaction we have with others — is risky. It’s pretty foolhardy — and sometimes costly — to judge so narrowly. The “tips” circulated in articles like this one from The New York Times start to get silly and managers who portray nitpicking as judgment do everyone a disservice.

Let me tell you about a Porsche saleswoman who lost a nice sale because she was thinking too hard about people who walked into her dealership: The Horse’s Ass in the Rear-view Mirror.

I fired her on the spot.

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LinkedIn for Job Seekers: A personal tutor

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I don’t write about many products or services because it’s rare that I find one worth writing about. Let’s face it, the Net is rife with hyped-up garbag-io. But sometimes something comes along that’s worth talking about. Even then, I can’t get interested in a product until I know who is behind it.

I met Jason Alba a couple of years ago at a conference where I gave the keynote. We spoke afterwards, I took his card, and I checked out his JibberJobber.com, which is such a simple idea implemented elegantly in software that I saved the link so I could look at it in more detail later. We discussed partnering on something at some point since he’s a fan of Ask The Headhunter and we’re both fans of keeping things simple. Then I ran into Alba again, indirectly while talking to a friend at Microsoft who sang his praises. That was the tipping point and I started paying attention to what Jason was doing.

So I spent some time on JibberJobber, an online job hunting tool that helps you organize your job search. Kinda like an Act! for job hunters but tuned specifically for the task. I liked what I saw so much that I got back in touch with Jason and we started talking. But this is not about JibberJobber. (I’ll talk more about that in another post.)

albadvdThis is about LinkedIn. Jason told me he’d produced a DVD training program for job hunters, aptly (and simply) titled LinkedIn for Job Seekers. (It’s based on his book, I’m On LinkedIn: Now What?) Still trying to figure out LinkedIn for my own purposes, I welcomed a chance to learn by watching.

I expected a slick video of Jason in a suit lecturing me. (I dunno about you, but I can’t stand scripted videos and droning talking heads.) What makes this video so effective is that it focuses entirely on the LinkedIn screen while Jason stands over your shoulder and walks you through every important page, screen, feature and tool LinkedIn has to offer. There’s no droning…

My plan to skip around and get a feel for the DVD was dashed. I wound up taking my time and taking notes! I’m not job hunting, but I learned much of what I need to know to use LinkedIn for my business. (Job hunters will walk away knowing how to leverage LinkedIn for job hunting.) All I can say is, thank you, Jason, for not reading a script — thanks for standing over my shoulder and walking me through it like a private tutor!

This list is by no means complete because there are 18 chapters on the DVD, but here are some of my notes about what Jason will teach you in LinkedIn for Job Seekers:

  • How to structure, format and present your resume so it’ll work for you
  • How to engage employers through deft selection of what to put in your LinkedIn profile
  • How to use LinkedIn to leverage your references, and how to manage quality vs. quantity
  • How to use third-party applications to add value to your image and presentation without going overboard

(When I signed up on LinkedIn, I studied how to use it, but nothing showed me how LinkedIn actually works as an integrated collection of tools… to absorb that, you have to see it all in front of you.)

  • How to protect yourself and your privacy
  • How to use LinkedIn’s “ask questions, get answers” tools to build your credibility and reputation
  • How to give and get recommendations (Seeing how to turn these into professional references is worth the price of the DVD by itself.)

I think this product works so well because Jason Alba is immersed in JibberJobber and he spends all day long thinking about what helps job hunters. LinkedIn for Job Seekers costs $49 (if you catch the current promo price). An hour with a tutor will cost you more than that. Yah, this is a sales pitch: I recommend Jason’s LinkedIn tutorial. No, I don’t get paid a dime. It’s tough enough finding someone else online who produces really good products — and I want to help Jason keep producing good products that I can use myself.

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Readers’ Forum: How do we identify the good guys?

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From the September 22, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter (sign up, get your own!):

A manager’s question: How difficult is it to gauge character and personality in the typical job interview? No doubt this accounts for many of the pointless questions that are asked. Of course, the more manipulative a person is, the more likely they are to score the best answers to trick questions that reveal honesty and character. How do managers and job candidates deal with accurately assessing character?

Forum: Managers, how do you check a candidate’s personality? Her honesty? Candidates, what methods have you been exposed to? What do you do in the interview to demonstrate what a fine person you are?

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How to Say It: I’m gonna prove it to you

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In the September 22, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader has the right idea to impress a manager but needs a nudge:

I agree with your advice to do a demonstration in the job interview to show what you can do. But I seem to lock up during the part where I am telling the hiring manager how I will do the job. How do I explain to the manager what I’m about to do so he won’t be thrown for a loop?

How to Say It: For many people it’s easier to answer a question than to launch a presentation. So get the manager to cue up your answer! At some point during the meeting, say this:

“I’d like to make our meeting as profitable as possible for you. I don’t expect you to hire me unless you have evidence that I can do the job. In that spirit, would you lay out a live task or problem you’d want me to handle if you hired me? I’d like to show you how I’d tackle it as best I can right here in the interview, by explaining the plan I would use.”

That gets some very interesting discussions going, and if the manager is really focused on getting a job done, he will welcome a motivated candidate who wants to get specific. Is this risky? Yah, of course. But so is sitting there waiting for the next interview question…

How would you cue up your effort to impress the manager?

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Readers’ Forum: How third-world farmers beat corporate HR

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Third-world farmer: 1

Modern American manager: 0

If American companies want to start hiring like it matters again, it’s time to behave like the third-world country we were in the 18th century. In with common sense. Out with Human Resources bureaucracy.

I’ve been teaching how to do the job to win the job on Ask The Headhunter for 15 years. Reader Chris Hogg is an employment counselor in Columbus, Ohio who works with an interesting clientele. Chris validates the Ask The Headhunter approach in ways I couldn’t dream of. Better yet, he demonstrates that these methods were invented out in the field by managers who have been getting the job done for centuries.

Want to hire more effectively? Here’s how to do assess and hire people, third-world style:

Hi, Nick,

I assist refugees and immigrants new to the U.S. with finding employment.

 One gentleman from a war-torn part of Africa had a large farm and employed workers at various times of the year. No tractors, no machines, just hard physical work and oxen when available.

I asked him how he hired employees throughout the year. He said he’d bring folks in for a day or two and watch them work. Were they honest, did they treat the animals well, did they show up on time, do the work when he wasn’t there, do good work and so on? The ones that did the job to his satisfaction got hired for the month or three that they were needed.

I don’t think he ever read your book, but his approach sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I hear similar stories from the Middle East and various other places.

Many new arrivals to the U.S. are bewildered by our interview process. They are used to showing up, doing the work and being hired long-term if they perform well—and we’re talking a wide range of professions, from farming to IT to engineering to tailoring and more.

I just thought you’d like to know.

Chris Hogg
Columbus, Ohio

In the September 15, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter I discussed the massive disconnect between contemporary corporate hiring and the way people with brains do it. The problem isn’t just in America — it’s around the world. It seems the more sophisticated the operation is, the more cumbersome and idiotic the hiring process is.

UPDATE | I’ve put the 9/15/09 edition online:
Try people out before hiring them: How third-world farmers beat corporate HR

No, I’m not suggesting that computer programmers should stand on a corner and wait to be picked up to do some coding. (Though that might not be a totally kooky idea…) But I am suggesting that employers oughta try people out — and pay them for the time they’re being tested on the job.

A manager can ask a job candidate anything in the world… so why ask the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions, when the manager could ask the candidate to show how she would do the job?

Or, we can keep asking job applicants where they see themselves in five years, what their greatest weakness is, what animal they’d be if they could be any animal, and to describe a problem they dealt with in some other job while a third-world manager puts the best candidates on the job to test them out and puts your company out of business.

HR consultants and corporate lawyers will come up with plenty of obstacles to this approach, but managers need to remind these folks that their job is to enable managers to hire effectively. Have a policy problem? Change the policy. Managers do not exist to support HR policy; HR policy should support managers. And hiring like it matters should be the new policy.

Would you go to work for a manager like Chris Hogg’s farmer? Would you hire like that farmer does if you could?

(Special thanks to Chris Hogg.)

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How to Say It: Break the ice with a new contact

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Personal contacts account for between 40% and 70% of new hires. But how do you make a personal contact?

That’s the subject of the September 15, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter. Here’s a reader’s dilemma… and opportunity:

I just attended a professional seminar and I met people from several companies—two are places where I’d really like to work. Your suggestion to “hang out with people I’d like to work with” really works! Now I need to call these people up. I don’t want to sound like I’m begging for job leads because I’m not ready to make a move right now. I want to learn more about their companies and get myself in the door. How do I make friends with them? What should I say?

My advice is in the newsletter. What’s your advice to this reader?

(Missed the newsletter? Sorry, it’s not archived online, but it’s free via e-mail. You’ve gotta subscribe… do it now and you won’t miss next week’s topic and advice.)

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What’s integrity?

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Reader Edward said something provocative on Attitude in a “crappy job market”:

It’s actually fairly easy to check for integrity, if you first know what it is.

Well, what is it?

I think I’ve got the start of a useful definition and I’ve used it pretty successfully, though I think it needs to be fleshed out more: A thing (or person) has integrity when its form and behavior are consistent with the way it represents itself, and when it performs as promised.

Okay, it’s not a definition of integrity. It’s more of a sign of integrity. I have intentionally not checked a dictionary because I think it’s important to figure out what we think it means. So please leave your dictionaries closed for now — we can open them later.

What is integrity to you?

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Readers’ Forum: Give me a lower-level job

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Sometimes it’s worth Taking a Salary Cut to Change Careers. At least, this reader thinks it is… and wants to know how to do it.

How do I let a potential employer know that I will take a lower-level job than my experience would otherwise indicate in order to learn a new subject area in my profession? (In my case, a new area of law). I don’t want to sound desperate, but I would be perfectly willing to come in at the level of a 1-to-3-year associate position and pay my dues, despite my 10 years of experience, to move from a dying area of law to a more vital, long-term one. Please help!

Is a law firm gonna hire a seasoned lawyer to the junior ranks? Is this a no-brainer? How should this reader approach her next employer?

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How to Say It: Pest, or manager’s dream?

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In the September 8, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter we’re discussing follow-up phone calls to managers. You know — that call you’re supposed to make after you submit a resume and application form.

In the newsletter, a reader worries that such calls can turn the job hunter into a pest. What manager wants to be bothered with that?

I explain that you should make the call, but make it without sending a resume and without filling out any applications. Make the call first. Then I challenge you to figure out what you’re going to say on that call. (Want to know more? You would, if you subscribed to the newsletter. Sign up now (it’s free), and you’ll be ahead of the game next week.)

To plan what you should say to a manager, put yourself in the manager’s shoes. If you were a manager, what would you want to hear from a caller who wants to work for you? As the job hunter, What does it mean to talk shop to that manager? Think. Are you gonna be a pest, or the manager’s dream?

Upon introducing yourself (on the phone) to a manager who knows nothing about you and who has never seen your resume, what could you say to make the manager want to hire you?

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Attitude in a “crappy job market”

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I don’t believe in the idea of a job market (that’s another discussion), but the very idea that we deal with a “market” when we search for a job leads some to get depressed and dispirited. If it really is a market, then it can be crappy and if it’s crappy we have no control which leads to a sense of helplessness. And for some, the world ends.

Reader Karen Seekins shared this with me the other day. I think it’s a potent antidote to the pain a lot of people feel about their job prospects. Read it, copy it, take it home, put it on the wall, live with it and let it remind you that you are the captain of your life.

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.

Charles R. Swindoll

Life doesn’t suck. But sometimes our perspective does, and it’s up to each of us to turn around and look at things the way we need to.

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