Ditch college degrees for the Columbo Method?

Ditch college degrees for the Columbo Method?


Some states are removing the requirement for college degrees when posting most of their government positions. Do you have any thoughts on this and how it will affect recruiting, and how it might affect the commercial world if it adopted the same rule? For instance, if a recruiter can’t rely on a degree, what can they look at?

Nick’s Reply

college degreesI know you’re referring to the controversy in the labor market about whether job descriptions that specify a college degree actually require one to do the job. Is the degree really necessary? But let’s get underneath that: What can an employer — whether government or commercial — rely on to make a sound hiring judgment?

What do college degrees mean to recruiters?

What good does a candidate’s college degree do a recruiter if they don’t verify it? We’ve seen enough of this in the news — and by the time phony claims of degrees and fake resumes are exposed it’s always too late! The damage has been done to the individual’s reputation (and career and income), but also to the employer’s credibility. (Who wants to invest in, buy from, or work for a company that embarrasses itself like that?)

Removing a degree requirement will make little difference to a good recruiter who relies on more meaningful and reliable assessments of job candidates. On the other hand, it will drive inept recruiters nuts because now they actually have to do the hard work of qualifying applicants. Likewise, college-educated job seekers may find themselves having to demonstrate actual ability to do a job, rather than rest on their academic credentials.

Don’t get me wrong. I think college degrees are useful to a recruiter, but they are not sufficient for making judgments about candidates. The real message in the elimination of degree requirements is that employers need to do a much better job of assessing candidates directly, rather than relying on proxies like sheepskins, certifications, third-party reference checks, and indirect algorithm-driven evaluations. This goes for all kinds of jobs, not just government or “professional” ones.

So let’s answer your question.

If not college degrees, then what should recruiters look at?

Next to a demonstration of how they’d do the job, I think the single best indicator of a good candidate is their references. The best recruiters do their own reference checks. The lazy ones don’t do it all or outsource it — and I think this is a critical mistake. (See References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.) A third-party reference checker who’s just asking canned questions is not going to “read between the lines.” Even written references aren’t sufficient. You need that phone call and you’ve got to hear the voice.

I have always done reference checks myself on all my candidates – before I send them to a client employer. I want to know whether their resume and other claims they make are confirmed by people they’ve worked with. If the references conflict with any conclusions I might draw from the resume or the degree, it’s “no dice.” I’ve placed people with no degree who are stars – more expert than degreed people. And I’ve tossed out candidates with degrees when their references fail to support what their college degree implies.

What’s most interesting to me are candidates with no degrees and weak resumes. These poor people just don’t know how to portray themselves. But if their references SING! — that makes me take another look, and that’s made me lots of dough. Nothing makes me look better than finding a star everybody else has missed! But what about the recruiter who just skims the surface and misses a great candidate?

The Columbo Method

There’s something I ask at the end of every reference check that helps me test whatever I’ve already concluded. It’s an interrogation technique made famous in an old TV show, Columbo, starring Peter Falk as a disarmingly casual police detective. As I’m saying thanks and goodbye to the reference, I stop and ask, “Uh, just one more thing. If you could hire this person again today, would you?”

Like Columbo, I want to catch the reference off-guard. What I’m looking for is any hesitation before a YES. That is to say, even good references might not be enough! No automated reference check is going to give you that data point – nor will a degree.

Unfortunately, the elimination of degree requirements will likely make a bigger mess of inadequate recruiting practices. Maybe direct assessment of ability to do the job and talking with people who have first-hand experience working with the candidate will suddenly appear to be a really good idea. Which recruiters can do it?

Uh, just one more thing… College degrees, or…

Here’s an idea for a test I’d love to see. Line up 20 job candidates who have no college degree and 20 with degrees. Let employers interview all of them — for job postings that do and don’t specify a degree — without disclosing who does and does not have a degree. Who gets hired? How do the employers decide?

Have you ever gotten a good job that “required” a degree you didn’t have? If you have a degree, think you could win a job without relying on it? Ever hire someone without a degree for a “degreed” position? If you’re a recruiter, how much stock do you put in college degrees? What else do you rely on to assess a candidate?

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Asking workers to return to the office

Asking workers to return to the office


How do you feel about companies asking workers to return to the office after three years of working from home?

I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have child- or elder-care issues and my company is only requiring workers to return to the office two days a week. Yet, I find this very disruptive. My team and I have long commutes (2+ hours each way) and we have been applying that time to our work. In addition, our larger team is global and we have always met via Microsoft Teams. Our workstations have been eliminated in order to create a “collaboration space.” This means we will have to reserve space each week in order to come into the office and bring our laptops and whatever else we need for our work that day,

What disturbs me the most is the tone of the message from our CEO. It was a unilateral announcement that “this is what we’re going to do” without any consideration for colleagues’ concerns, and there are many. (There is a process to apply for an exception, but I have little faith in the outcome.)

As always, thank you thank you for your guidance to those looking for a job and for those already employed.

Nick’s Reply

return to the officeYou’re not alone.

Return to the office? Really?

The consulting firm McKinsey reports that 87% of Americans want to work in a flexible environment — in an office setting and remotely. Adzuna, an employment website company, reports that from November 2020 to 2022, job postings increased by over 6.2 million — but less than 2% were in-office jobs, while job postings for remote jobs increased by 10%.

Just last month (January 2023) Forbes reported, “Over the past two years, hybrid and remote positions have dominated advertised vacancies, reshaping workplace norms and giving employees power when it comes to flexibility and where they work.”

Yet, as you’re experiencing, many employers are blundering through this sea change, alienating employees and job seekers alike. Your CEO may be untutored in how to manage and communicate with the company’s employees.

Wrestling with a plan

You asked what I think. This problem will vex many companies and workers for time to come. Some are wrestling with new plans but, as you suggest, management cannot do this alone. A CEO laying down the law is, frankly, silly when the issue impacts everyone in the company. The harder the CEO comes down, the harder it’s going to be to re-fill jobs when you and others quit.

I believe this is a huge opportunity for employers to save money on traditional office infrastructure – money they can then invest in their employees (rent subsidies for those who work from home?) and in collaboration tools (which might include new software and better but lest costly collaboration spaces). But a workable plan that’s intended to avoid business disruptions requires input from all stakeholders.

In your case:

  • Four hours of commuting that can be spent working (and living!) is a no-brainer. They could let you work from home unless something makes it impossible to do your work.
  • If your company’s global teams can work virtually, why can’t local ones?
  • The very fact that there is an “exceptions process” suggests the company recognizes remote work is an option. (So, I would fully exploit it and see what concessions you can get!)

Why a return to the office may not be best for business

One thing is clear at all these very confused companies: They don’t know how to manage work and workers remotely. So get ahead of this. I suggest explaining to your management how you’ll get your work done at home, how four hours not commuting translates into more time working and higher productivity (be ready to prove it), and how this will save them (and you) money.

This is where an organized effort of colleagues is key. As a team, you must make a clear commitment that you will deliver as promised, and suggest some (creative new?) metrics so your managers will feel confident about what you’re doing not matter where you are.

I can’t emphasize this enough: You may have to explain it to them. That means you and your co-workers may have to take the initiative. (There’s also power in numbers.) Your bosses and their crack HR team probably have not figured it all out on their own. In such times of upset, there are usually opportunities, too. With things in flux, everybody loves a good “solution.” You and your peers could be the ones to suggest solutions!

The costs of ordering a return to the office

According to CNBC, while about 50% of corporate leaders — including Apple, Citigroup, Disney, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce — are demanding their employees come back full time, many employers could pay a stiff price. Your employer needs to think twice!

In Forbes, Doug Dennerline, CEO of Betterworks, says forcing a return to the office will cause a spike in turnover: “Organizations are guaranteed to lose great people, not only for lack of flexibility, but because many of the best employees moved out of expensive cities during the pandemic and won’t be moving back.”

I agree. I think employers that post all-remote jobs will snag more of the best workers.

The other part of a strategic answer to “Where will we work?” is to start quietly developing some options should this go south. Many companies now explicitly advertise jobs that are all remote. So your employer is facing competition. Hedge your bets. Start interviewing. (If this is the path you take, be aware of the 6 ways to avoid trouble when you resign.)

While you may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, you’re not alone, and the job market may be on your side. The question to be asked may not be whether we should return to the office, but whether we should return to the same employer.

Have you returned to the office (if that’s the kind of work you do)? What’s your employer’s policy? Did a desire to work remotely lead you to change employers? If you’re an employer, how are you handling this? Do you believe work will increasingly be done remotely?

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Only 1 reason to sign Non-Compete Agreement

Only 1 reason to sign Non-Compete Agreement


There’s been a lot in the news about Non-Compete Agreements being outlawed. I got stuck with one when I took a job about 10 years ago. When I quit and got another job, they claimed I joined a competitor and threatened to sue me. (I didn’t consider it a competitor.) Things got nasty but they finally backed off after my lawyer sent them a nasty-gram. I’m interviewing again, and the matter of an NCA has come up again. Is there a way to escape these things until the law changes?

Nick’s Reply

non-competeMany years ago I worked for a time at a small, nimble, regional technology company. We were successful because our managers and employees were very smart, hardworking and highly competitive. There were no NCAs. Until a bigger, national company bought us out.

Soon, all managers received an e-mail and an NCA. We were instructed to sign and return it to HR. Every manager signed it. Except me. I ignored it completely. HR called me again and again to remind me. All they got was, “Okay, thanks for your call.” They finally gave up.

Sitting around shooting the breeze with other managers, it came out that I didn’t sign. They were all stunned: “You’re gonna get fired!”

“They won’t fire me. They want me to sign an NCA to stop me from joining a competitor and taking business with me. Since I have not signed, they’d be foolish to fire me because then I’d join a competitor and compete with them —and they won’t be able to do a thing to stop me because I never signed.”

Nobody fired me. And not long after, I joined a competitor.

You have the power right now to just say no, and I don’t think it’ll hurt your chances of getting hired.

What is a Non-Compete Agreement?

A Non-Compete Agreement is a contract that in essence interferes with a person’s right to work where they want and for whomever they want. Employers used to require NCAs primarily for new executive hires, but today even fast-food workers are sometimes required to sign them.

Except in one case, which we’ll discuss because it’s the only reason to sign an NCA, these agreements on one-sided, protecting only the interests of the employer. NCAs have been controversial for decades. A few states have outlawed them. While NCAs have proved difficult to enforce, few departing employees can afford the legal costs of fighting to protect their rights.

NCAs can’t hurt you if you don’t sign

Now, the Federal Trade Commission has proposed a rule that would forever ban NCAs in employment for an estimated 160 million working Americans. But it’s not law yet.

Whether the law is on their side or not, many employers will try their luck getting you to forfeit your right to work for a competitor — simply because it costs them nothing to try. And they know most job applicants are likely to give in and sign an NCA. They rely on the ages-old fear job hunters have of being rejected. Many job hunters quickly rationalize that “I can’t worry about this — I need the job” or “they’d never come after me.” In either case, intimidation works wonders.

Certainly, even if they have an NCA, some employers will not come after you if you go to work for a competitor. And some will fold their cards if you firmly but politely decline to sign an NCA. They will hire you anyway.

But employers that are serious about NCAs will throw their legal might at you and you probably can’t afford to fight that battle, whether you can win it or not. Few people are willing, or able, to spend money on lawyers.

So why risk it? If you don’t sign an NCA, they can’t sue you for violating it.


Of course, if you decline to sign, you might not get hired. Still, my advice is to decline, because you’ve got a lot in your favor, especially right now.

  • Unemployment is way down (which means it’s harder to fill jobs).
  • The number of new jobs being created is way up (which means it’s harder to fill jobs and job seekers are likely to have more options).
  • Employers are paying higher salaries because… it’s harder to find workers and to fill jobs.

You’re in a good negotiating position because an employer likely needs to hire you today more than it can afford to worry about losing you to a competitor tomorrow. So negotiate. (See also: Salary Negotiation: How much to ask for.)

There’s only one reason to sign an NCA

If you feel you really must comply and sign the thing, there are two ways to protect yourself. First, consult an employment attorney that works only for executives and employees. Spend the money to get help negotiating.

Second, consider what an NCA really does. It protects the financial interests of the employer. Not yours.

The only reason to sign a Non-Compete Agreement is if the company pays you to sign it.

Two can play at this game. If a job offer is made contingent on you signing an NCA, ask for a severance agreement. Consider this approach.

How to Say It
“I understand that you need to protect your company’s financial interests. And I need to protect mine. If you’re concerned that you’ll lose money if I compete with you, then we’ve established this NCA is worth money. Now the question is, how much? If you want to restrict my ability to make money so you can avoid competition, you need to compensate me. A one-year NCA that prohibits me from working for your competitors is worth at least my salary for a year, plus whatever raise I’m likely to get in today’s market. So I’ll sign if you give me a severance package to compensate for locking me out of the industry.”

By the way — employers routinely give this severance deal in conjunction with an NCA to executives they hire. If they’re going to apply this to managers and other employees, employers need to pay for that which is worth money — your NCA.

If they won’t?

How to Say It
The next time you’re faced with a job offer that requires an NCA, just say, ”No thanks, but I’ll take the job without it.” If they balk: “In that case I’ll take an offer elsewhere and be your competitor.”

If you’re good enough to hire, you’ll also be a formidable competitor.

Still nervous about refusing to sign an NCA? Please consider again the three truths I listed above about the job market today. I believe the job seeker has the distinct negotiating advantage. But as always, don’t just do it because I said to. Consider what I’ve said and use your best judgment to do what’s right for you.

Did you sign a Non-Compete Agreement as a condition of getting a job? Why? Has an employer ever come after you for violating an NCA? Do you believe job seekers today have the negotiating edge?

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