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Monthly archive for February 2018

When to decline an employee referral for a job

In the February 27, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions how meaningful an employee referral is when it’s impersonal.


employee referralA friend at a company I’m interested in working for referred me for a job. I have a phone interview scheduled with a “technical recruiter” later today. I asked if there was any special preparation I could do for the interview. I was told no, that we would be covering my previous experience and projects during the call.

You always recommend using a job interview to demonstrate how the applicant would actually do the job. Since the interview is with a recruiter, not the hiring manager who runs the technical team, I somehow doubt there will be an opportunity to demonstrate I can do the job.

I’m surprised at the way they’re handling this. I already have a strong recommendation from an employee. Why should I talk to a recruiter first? Nobody needs to recruit me — I’ve already been recruited and referred!

[A reader posted a shorter version of this story as a comment on another column. I edited it so it would stand on its own.]

Nick’s Reply

This is a good example of a truly stupid move by an employer. You’re absolutely correct: There is no need for a recruiter to screen you because you’ve already been screened and recruited!

Why do companies even have employee referral programs if they’re going to treat referred job candidates like some unknown applicant?

Employee referral or bureaucratic process?

In fact, the intervention of the recruiter should give people like you pause. This tells you the company’s hiring process is broken. The company can’t tell the difference between random applicants and desirable job candidates — or doesn’t care.

We see another form of such foolishness when a recruiter interviews a random applicant (who was not referred personally), then tells them to go to the company website to fill out a lengthy form about their qualifications. But, what was the point of the interview if not to judge the candidate’s qualifications?

The problem in both cases is that the selection process is thoughtlessly bureaucratic and unduly stretched out after a candidate has already been scrutinized. This redundancy turns off the best candidates and often results in the employer losing them.

The purpose of any recruiting and selection process must be to get good candidates to the hiring manager as quickly and enthusiastically as possible!

(When it doesn’t work that way, it may be prudent to politely decline an employee referral for a job.)

Personal referrals deserve personal attention

I think you’re right to harbor doubts and to question how you’re being treated — and to be concerned that the upcoming interview with the recruiter is not worthy of your time. You won’t be able to show what you can do. Only the hiring manager is qualified to have that kind of exchange with you. Why waste your time?

When an employee makes a personal referral (it should have been made to the actual manager, by the way), the manager should personally jump on it and make the call immediately. The employee, after all, has done the manager a favor, and so have you. The manager should treat this trusted personal referral as a gift. Otherwise, it’s a huge dis to the employee — because why else would they ever make a personal referral again, if it isn’t handled personally by the manager?

Why bother?

We won’t even get into why you’d ever accept a referral from your friend again, if this is how you’re going to be received. The friend has an obligation to make sure the hiring manager welcomes you enthusiastically and gratefully. Unfortunately, employees of companies that have referral programs know they’re usually a bureaucratic nightmare. (For a better way to make a referral, please see Referrals: How to gift someone a job (and why).)

Of course, any job candidate should be thoroughly interviewed and assessed. A personal referral is no guarantee of a job. But it should be a guarantee of the best treatment a company and a manager can offer.

Sheesh, employers are stupid. Then they complain they can’t find good candidates. (See Referrals: How employers waste proven talent.)

My advice is to call your friend the employee and explain you’d be glad to meet with the hiring manager on the friend’s recommendation — “which I really appreciate.” But add that you didn’t apply for the job from off the street, and you’re not going to spend your valuable time getting grilled by a recruiter.

How to Say It:

“Look, I appreciate the personal referral. It was kind of you, and I hope I can return the favor some day. But if the manager isn’t ready to talk with me on your recommendation, then it’s not worth my time, either. I’m glad to invest time to show a manager how I’ll do the technical work properly and profitably. But I don’t have time to chat with a recruiter about my resume. If the manager would like to meet with me, I’m ready for that discussion any time. Thanks again for your faith in me.”

If I were the employee who made the referral, I’d go talk to the manager and suggest the manager make the call promptly. “I’m trying to help you fill a job, but I need you to help preserve the respect this candidate has for me and for our company. I made a personal referral expecting this individual would be treated personally and with care. Is there anything I can do to help move this along?”

Should a personal employee referral be treated personally? What’s your experience been when you’ve been referred for a job? Does your company have an employee referral program? How does it work — and do you participate?


The worst job hunting advice ever

In the February 20, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an HR pro warns unsuspecting readers to avoid getting hurt by bad advice on Ask The Headhunter.


adviceI’ve been in Human Resources 12 years and I have to say your article Resume Blasphemy is probably the worst advice I have ever heard anyone give to a job seeker. The best evidence of future performance is past achievement. I need to know where you worked, where you went to school and what you have accomplished. If that is not on the resume, I don’t read it.

I highly recommend you remove that article before you hurt any more unsuspecting job seekers.

Nick’s Reply

I’m hurting job hunters, when you’re the one tossing their resumes, unread, in the trash?

I help unsuspecting job hunters avoid getting hurt by teaching them how to get past personnel jockeys like you altogether.

The best HR people I’ve known don’t rely on resumes any more than I do. But they’re few.

A job hunter is lucky to encounter an HR person who knows how to read between the lines, both literally and figuratively. The best HR folks manage to avoid blinders when recruiting. They don’t approach candidates (or resumes) with preconceived notions. Like I said, these HR people are few, but they know who they are.

You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m glad you’ve shared it. I’m publishing it because job hunters need to see firsthand how some HR representatives deal with resumes. (I stand by the Blasphemous Resume.) You make two statements that prove just how dangerous it can be to blindly send resumes to HR departments.

HR Advice: “The best evidence of future performance is past achievement.”

I’m always astonished at how horribly recruiters are hobbled by such claptrap. Here we have an employer who can ask job applicants for any information he wants. So, what does he ask for? A lame, one-size-fits-all recitation of “past achievements.”

First, what constitutes an achievement is subjective. I’ve met job candidates with achievement awards up the yin-yang from companies where showing up in clean clothes every day earns them a regular promotion and a raise. I’ve also met candidates whose resumes are nothing more than lists of tedious job functions, but who underneath all that are outstanding workers.

Second, a clever resume-writing service can apply “action verbs” to turn the most mundane worker into a seeming powerhouse of a job candidate.

Finally, I’ve known people whose resumes showed they were good performers again and again in their past. Unfortunately, they could not translate their abilities to handle the next job.

It took me only three months to land my dream job. It was advertised absolutely everywhere, so I’m sure they received a boatload of qualified candidates.

In thinking back as to how I grabbed this job, I’m 100% positive it was because I followed your Ask The Headhunter advice and did the job in the interview. That simple maneuver set me apart from all the others vying for the job.

Thank you, Nick. Being a member of this community has literally changed my life.

— Elizabeth Weintraub

But, can you do this job?

The outcomes in all these scenarios are problematic. Good candidates are lost and lousy ones are hired because the best evidence of future performance is not past achievements. (I’d go further and argue that past performance is not sufficiently predictive of future performance, no matter where it is described.)

When an employer can ask for any information he wants, he should ask for a demonstration of a candidate’s ability to do the work at hand. That means the candidate should show, right there in the interview, that she can do the work profitably, or learn to do it in short order. (I offer reader Elizabeth Weintraub’s quote as just one example.)

But it’s impossible for a job candidate to do the job in the interview with an HR representative, because no one in HR is expert in the specific work of any department of a company (other than HR). A job hunter wastes her time when she gets caught in the “HR filter” before she establishes with the hiring manager that there are good reasons to meet and talk.

HR Advice: “If that is not on the resume, I don’t read it.”

“I need to know where you worked, where you went to school and what you have accomplished. If that is not on the resume, I don’t read it.”

This statement is a good tip-off to job hunters: HR doesn’t read all resumes.

Any resume that’s missing what titillates the keyword algorithm gets nixed. And, who’s to say what might or might not stimulate your (that is, a personnel jockey’s) rejection reaction? Pity the poor slob who went to a school that pummeled your alma mater’s football team. Who wants to take that chance?

It’s also important for job hunters to remember that an HR representative is not the hiring manager. I’ve never met a hiring manager who would reject a candidate who provided a detailed plan of how she would do the job profitably. However, many are the managers who’ve said to me, “Just because she did a job at another company doesn’t mean she can do this job here. Our needs are unique.” (Mind you, I’m not arguing that history is irrelevant; only that it’s not the best way to introduce yourself to an employer, and that it’s not an adequate basis for screening candidates. See Tell HR you don’t talk to the hand.)

The rejection question

It seems you refuse to read resumes that you don’t immediately understand, in spite of the fact that you can’t possibly be an expert in all the disciplines that are important to your company. The smart job hunter will thus wonder, What’s on my resume that might get me rejected? and conclude that it might be anything.

The better risk for a job hunter is to deal directly with the hiring manager, who is likely more interested in the value of the candidate than in words on a resume or in the HR department’s (or some algorithm’s) binary judgement. (See HR Technology: Terrorizing the candidates.)

I advise job hunters to skip, avoid, have nothing to do with the HR department until they have talked with the hiring manager.

Resumes: Too much noise?

There is not a single good reason for a filter at the HR level when a company is hiring. A good manager (these are few and far between, too) recruits, interviews and hires on his own. HR’s job is to provide support, not to decide which applicants the manager gets to see.

(The manager who argues that HR is needed to filter the thousands of incoming resumes should consider that he might be better off not relying on ads that generate tons of resumes that need sorting to begin with.)

noiseMy suggestion to most businesses is that they can relieve their HR departments of recruiting, candidate selection and hiring functions without any significant loss. The HR function is Human Resources, not Human Recruiting. (See How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants.) Recruiting is best left to people who have skin in the game: managers and headhunters who specialize in specialized talent markets. (Yah, I know, maybe we should exclude headhunters, too. That’s another debate.)

Blasphemous advice

Your warning confirms that my advice is indeed blasphemous. (Whew. Thanks.)

I contend that resumes include too much noise. Too many good candidates are lost because HR clerks rely on words in resumes to filter them out. Too many inappropriate candidates wind up getting interviewed just because they have the right buzzwords on their resumes. And it’s all just so much noise that hides the signals that truly matter.

I suggest you read Resume Blasphemy again, more carefully. Perhaps your resume-sorting habits have made you so accustomed to blocking things out that you missed something that matters. The point of the article is explicitly stated:

“In fact, once you have produced a Working Resume, you will likely have done the kind of research and made the kinds of contacts that will probably make a resume entirely unnecessary — you will already be ‘in the door’. (That’s the point.)”

No need to rag on HR, but let’s discuss the two assumptions this personnel jockey made. (1) Is past achievement really the best evidence of future performance? (2) What information on your resume does HR really need in order to judge you?

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Job candidate fires interviewers – all of them

In the February 13, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant takes the paddle to her interviewers.


You must get a lot of horror stories about job interviews. I’ve got some of my own, of course, but I’d love to know, what’s the worst you’ve heard?

Nick’s Reply


Ah, don’t bait me or I’ll start and won’t be able to stop! You’re right, I’ve heard some doozies — some of them from candidates I’ve sent to my own clients over the years. (On more than one of those occasions, I had to fire the client. That is, the employer!)

At the end of last year, as I was getting ready to put Ask The Headhunter down for a long winter’s nap so I could bake cookies (anybody know what Greek koulouria are?), put up Christmas lights and enjoy visions of sugar plums, I found a great little gift from Remy Porter that I’ve been meaning to share with you. This story also ended with someone getting fired! Needless to say, I’m putting it out there as bait, too — I’m hoping it’ll attract some of your interview war stories.

Crazed interviewers on the loose

Porter produces The Daily WTF (wish I’d thought of that!), a “how-not-to guide for developing software.” He’s a veteran developer himself, so he’s got the kind of edge I like.

The Interview Gauntlet is required reading for all employers and job hunters, not just those in the world of software. It’s about how a technical job applicant handled a series of ridiculous interview questions and the crazed interviewers behind them. This could happen to anyone interviewing for a job — and it probably has. So please listen up, because it teaches an important lesson most are loathe to learn.

Never tolerate a job interview that’s a gauntlet wherein interviewers beat you with paddles.

Irving’s wrong interview questions

If you’re an employer, you might have done something equally stupid as what Irving, a software director, did to Natasha, an earnest candidate who showed up to interview for a User Interface Developer job. (UI developers program the “look and feel” of a software application to ensure the user has a good experience.) One wonders how employers come up with so many wrong questions to ask job applicants. (Need examples? See Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions: #1-#5 and A stupid interview question to ask a woman.)

I’ll let Porter tell set this up. He does it so well.

After [Natasha survived a] gauntlet of seemingly pointless questions, it was Irving’s turn. His mood hadn’t improved, and he had no intention of asking her anything relevant. His first question was: “Tell me, Natasha, how would you estimate the weight of the Earth?”

“Um… don’t you mean mass?”

Irving grunted and shrugged. He didn’t say, “I don’t like smart-asses” out loud, but it was pretty clear that’s what he thought about her question.

Off balance, she stumbled through a reply about estimating the relative components that make up the Earth, their densities, and the size of the Earth. Irving pressed her on that answer, and she eventually sputtered something about a spring scale with a known mass, and Newton’s law of gravitation.

He still didn’t seem satisfied, but Irving had other questions to ask. “How many people are in the world?” “Why is the sky blue?” “How many turkeys would it take to fill this space?”

After patiently fielding one confrontational question after another from a line of technical interviewers, and after Software Director Irving rudely snapped at her, Natasha finally bit back and fired them all.

She walked out of the job interview.

Interviewers are not your boss

Job applicants often forget — in the pressure-cooker of the job interview — that the interviewer is not yet their boss. The immediate job of a manager like Irving is to fill the job you’re interviewing for, or they’ve failed. When a job candidate ends the interview, the interviewer has failed.

Irving failed when he told Natasha that her attitude and behavior revealed she wasn’t a fit for the team.

“So I’ve heard,” Natasha said. “And I don’t think this team’s a good fit for me. None of the questions I’ve fielded today really have anything to do with the job I applied for.”

That was the best answer to the entire interview, because Software Director Irving failed to demonstrate he was qualified to be Natasha’s boss. He didn’t earn it.

Errant interviewers get fired

Natasha’s story is distressing because it happens every day, with the result that good, sincere job applicants realize they’re wasting their time. Such silly, unprofessional employer behavior is why important jobs go unfilled. (This entire embarrassing episode could have been avoided if Irving and his team had asked Natasha The one, single best interview question ever.)

When a patient but forthright job applicant finally snapped, we see that the employers in this story revealed themselves to be little more than schoolyard bullies pretending to be interviewers.

Natasha displayed amazing presence of mind and candor. I wound up laughing because six self-righteous techies and their boss probably still don’t realize Natasha was interviewing them — not the other way around.

They got fired.

Many thanks to Remy Porter for telling this wonderfully snarky story, and compliments to Natasha for thrashing the director. I intentionally left out the best part, at the end of his column. But I’ll offer you this caution: If you go read itdeja vu may strike you down!

If you’d been in Natasha’s place, what would you have done? Was Natasha wrong? Could the interview have been salvaged? Did you go read what they finally told Natasha about the job she thought she was interviewing for? Or, can you top this? (I can’t help it. Pile on!)

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Why cattle-call recruiting doesn’t work

In the February 6, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager who complains about irresponsible job applicants gets a lesson on the recruiting problem employers create.


I am a manager looking for reasons why candidates that apply for my jobs either:

  1. Don’t respond when I reach out to schedule an interview, or
  2. Don’t show up for an interview.

You often write about how irresponsibly employers, HR and recruiters behave toward job applicants. [See
How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants.] I don’t disagree, but it appears that there’s some fishiness happening on both sides of this. Why do you think candidates don’t respond and don’t show up? Aren’t they just hurting themselves?

Nick’s Reply

I agree with you. Candidates hurt themselves when they apply to jobs or when you reach out to them, but then fail to follow up or show up. But often they’re not hurting themselves for the reasons you think.

Their real mistake is applying for jobs they don’t really want or care about. The people who are ignoring you have responded to cattle-call recruiting, and I’m afraid that’s on you — and on all employers that rely on it.

The problem with recruiting via job boards

The way the employment system works encourages people to apply for virtually any job that pops up in front of them. That’s the behavior you’re encouraging when you — as an employer — post your jobs on huge job boards where anyone and everyone can easily click and gamble. The system encourages people to apply to all the jobs they can. That’s how job boards like CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, Indeed and others make money.

Then recruiters and employers waste job seekers’ time with demands for resumes, more application forms, online video interviews by robots, silly phone and e-mail screenings, and instructions to “wait until we get back to you.” (See this oldie-but-goodie NewsHour article: Is Applying for Jobs Online Not an Effective Way to Find Work?)

Is it any wonder the job applicants you’re puzzled about get fed up? The system dulls their motivation because it conditions them to a 99.9% failure rate. And if the job you’re contacting them about is a marginal one anyway — one they just clicked on for the heck of it — then if they’ve got a really interesting opportunity cooking, you’re just a bother.

How the system fails employers and job seekers

If you’re using job boards to solicit applicants, most of them are probably applying blindly, just because they saw the posting, not because it’s a job they really want. They apply to so many jobs this way that they just can’t keep up — or, by the time you get in touch, they’ve moved on. That’s why many are ignoring you. This is how the employment system fails you.

The problem is that when employers solicit so broadly from the pool of “everyone out there,” the rate of failure is virtually guaranteed to be huge.

Recruiting right requires work

My suggestion is, don’t solicit widely by using job boards. Figure out where the best potential candidates hang out. Carefully identify the people you’d really like to interview — and go look for them in those narrow hangouts. I think your hit rate will go up dramatically. Do the work to recruit right. (See Recruiting: How to get your hands dirty and hire.)

For example, if you’re recruiting programmers, go to a conference or training program where the kinds of specialized programmers you want congregate. This takes work, but of course it does. The automated method you’re using takes almost no work — and that’s why it doesn’t work.

I know that posting on job boards is what employers do. LinkedIn, Indeed, Zip make it seem so easy and they promise they will take care of everything. That’s nonsense. Please consider this: Job boards make money only when job seekers keep job hunting and when employers do not fill jobs. Everyone keeps spinning the roulette wheel. Only “the house” wins.

People who respond to cattle calls are not likely to be the people you want to hire. So please, employers — stop issuing cattle calls!

Do you ever ignore employers or blow off job interviews? Does the system dull your motivation? What can employers do better to hire the right people?

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