Big Brother & The Employment Industry: “All your employment are belong to us!”

Suppose that every time you applied for a job, some guy in a little room checked an Excel spreadsheet and notified the employer: “No interview for this guy. He’s a bum.”

It’s already happening.

Several years ago I published a series of articles about identity theft via job boards, including a report about Monster.com’s troubling practices by Pam Dixon from the World Privacy Forum (Click, You’re Hired. Or Tracked). Later, I published a newsletter titled Does HR go too far when screening candidates? in which HR consultant Earl Rice warned that:

“…in their zeal to protect themselves and their companies, HR departments may be covering up illegitimate and possibly illegal practices. When HR outsources background checks and investigations of candidates, is HR doing its job, or is it ensuring plausible deniability while letting loose an investigative demon that systematically violates people’s privacy and feeds the specter of identify theft?”

Trading privacy for Big Brother’s social initiative

It’s a world where Facebook routinely collects and profits from massive amounts of personal information. It’s a world where people enjoy the benefits of “social networking” and just want to keep up with their friends minute-by-minute. It’s a world where Big Brother has taught people to shrug and say, “Privacy? There’s no privacy any more. My information is in lots of databases and it’s not worth worrying about it!”

It’s a world where corporate employers are covering their legal asses while you get rejected for jobs that have long been vacant because “there’s a talent shortage.”

It’s also a world where opening a financial account in your name doesn’t take much more than your name, address, social security number (SSN), and a signature — any signature. But in today’s economy, the permissions you grant to employers when you apply for a job can continue to cost you lots of jobs — and you’ll never know it.

Let’s go back to what HR consultant Rice said back in 2003:

“If you have signed one disclosure for one employer, the investigations company that did the checks will keep the information about you in their database and then just re-sell the results to their next client.”

How does this happen? HR outsources the investigations, and the third party investigations company owns the information it gathers about you. The next employer rejects you for the same reasons the last one did. Were those reasons legit?

“This total invasion of privacy beyond your wildest dreams (actually, nightmares) is outsourced. The worst part is that much of the data and information these outsourced security agents collect is erroneous.”

You sacrifice privacy; employers buy legal protection

But while you’re giving up your privacy for certain “social” benefits (like the ability to apply for a job), employers are capitalizing on the holes you just punched in your life. Then, those same employers are buying legal protection in case you sue them for peeking through the holes. Rice reiterated that the quality of information about you in those databases isn’t the issue; insulation of employers from legal liability is the issue. Rice warned warned that an employer’s intentions could be far more complex:

“This is an industry that is almost totally unregulated. The multiple levels of outsourcing and subcontracting yield enough plausible deniability to the companies themselves,  and their clients, that abuses run rampant.”

Are employers using third parties to distance themselves from legal liability when checking you out? Who’s responsible for auditing and tracking the use and security of personal information an employer gathers about you?

Like many people, I put all this aside and chalked it up to Big Brother’s ubiquitous presence in our lives… the Internet, after all, is the Big Brother we’ve invited into our lives, choosing to accept the quirks of his behavior in exchange for all the social gifts he bears.

The little man who controls your career

That’s how I compartmentalized it all, until a reader sent me the story of his recent experience with a major American corporation with operations around the world. The reader is a 20-year veteran of the information technology field, and has more than a passing knowledge about security. Read it and decide how worthy a trade we’re making — some of our privacy, in exchange for the wonderful social gifts Big Brother delivers into our lives.

During Q4/2010, I was being considered for a position with [Company X]. Before I could be submitted for consideration to the hiring manager, the recruiting agency required my name and full SSN so that it could be checked against a database of Company X’s former employees. I decided to dig into their process.

Each agency was collecting names and SSNs within their offices in a spreadsheet, then submitting them periodically to a third-party agency via unencrypted e-mail attachment (Excel file). I went as far as to contact the individual at the third-party agency who was receiving and processing the queries.

He told me that he logged into a Company X mainframe application to enter the names and SSNs, then returned the spreadsheets to the agencies with a Yes or No indication for whether the candidates were acceptable to Company X on the basis of when and how they may have might have been terminated, or if his check could verify that they had never worked for Company X. He then combined each of the spreadsheets into one of his own so that he could independently track and verify the names and numbers he had already processed.

Me: “Where do you keep that spreadsheet?”

Him: “In my in-box in Outlook.”

Me: “Do you see any security risk in that?”

Him: “No, it’s just on my desktop.”

I was shocked.  That was when I decided to pass on the opportunity. I also informed the agency rep who had contacted me about the job that this was how it was being done, and while he agreed that it wasn’t very good, he had no way to change the process put in place by Company X.

All your career are belong to us

You worry that you’re too old, or that you lack the proper college degree or skills. But employers are rejecting you before they check any of your work credentials. Your career is subject to “judgments” far more stupid and unsophisticated than you could imagine — judgments that could well be incorrect, and over which you have no right of appeal.

In 1991, a poorly-translated warning appeared in a popular video game: “All your base are belong to us.” Today, the game ends for many job applicants before it even starts.  Your career belongs to the little man with the spreadsheet, who operates at legal arm’s length from the employer that rejected you. He works for an agency that is contracted by lots of employers to handle candidate investigations, and to notify employers whether you should be interviewed.

But, the business is not about hiring; it’s about selling and re-selling data about you whose accuracy you cannot confirm.

“The larger outsourced security/investigative companies have started keeping databases of their own. One advertises they have a database of over 1.5 million people for employers to run their candidates against.”

At the time Earl Rice contributed his commments to Ask The Headhunter, he was working for a major employer that outsourced background investigations to third parties that weren’t even in the United States. They were based in what we used to affectionately refer to as Iron Curtain Countries.

“They start with a name and phone number and e-mail address from a resume or application. Then, they cross-reference information until they get a date of birth or social security  number and go from there. When an applicant walks into HR for that first  meeting, they already may have been investigated. Never mind that much of the  data gathered may be erroneous. The ‘data’ was gathered at arm’s length, but the  employer will treat it as absolute fact.”

Advantage Employment Industry

Employers are ultimately responsible for the way job applicants are treated, no matter how carefully they’ve instituted legal protections by outsourcing candidate rejection. But the problem job hunters face is a systemic one. There’s an entire employment industry that now relies on Big Brother and the holes you permit in your personal privacy. Privacy expert Pam Dixon boils it down:

“The business of searching for jobs online has grown from a market niche to a multi-billion-dollar, rapidly consolidating industry that relies on the eager search activities — and employment dreams — of millions of job seekers.”

Every time a job hunter submits an application through the rote channels established by corporate HR departments, the employment industry gets paid — whether a match is made or not. The job hunter loses, and the hiring manager cries about the talent shortage. Employers give the advantage to the employment industry — a mafia of consultants and contractors who bear no responsibility, because they just manage that spreadsheet.

Every time a job hunter agrees to apply for a job via Big Brother methods, rather than through a personal contact with a hiring manager, the job hunter sets in motion the wheels of an entire data industry designed to make money — not to match people with jobs. Most of the time, the job hunter gets taken down in a drive-by data attack. The little man with the spreadsheet wears a hood, and even the employer has no idea who’s driving the data base. Or where the keys are.

The IT manager who shared the story above decided to skip the little middle man — and Big Brother. His next contact with an employer was direct, and he hasn’t submitted to a strip search of his personal information. His job search isn’t easy, but he still owns his career.

: :

How to manage gang-up interviews

In the October 18, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager indicts “panel” interviews and says he’d never consent to one — or conduct one. Are panel interviews a bad idea?

I was taken aback recently when my HR department scheduled me as a part of a panel interview. When I queried our hiring team, they claimed this was the “latest thing” and it provided a “challenging atmosphere for the candidate while minimizing expenditure of company resources.”

I was on my way to register my discontent with the HR VP when my Blackberry indicated the interview had been cancelled because the candidate had accepted another offer. That didn’t shock me—I wouldn’t accept a panel interview, either. Shortly thereafter, the HR VP “innovator” left to “pursue other career opportunities.” Good riddance!

This doesn’t mean some other “idea person” in our company won’t try to resurrect this sort of thing, but not on my watch. I believe in giving each candidate a chance, as much as possible, to “do the job.” It’s much more productive.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for candidates meeting the teams they will work with, just not in a formal interview environment. Is this panel interview approach really creeping into our already dysfunctional job interviewing system?

Kudos for the continuing wisdom emanating from your Ask the Headhunter empire! Your straightforward approach is a win-win for employers and candidates and removes the HR-injected “smoke and mirrors” from the hiring process. It certainly has helped me in many ways. Good luck and keep ‘em coming!

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!)

My Advice

Thanks for the laugh, and for your kind words. No, I don’t see ganging up on a job candidate as a new trend — although in some organizations this has long been routine. Innovative HR VPs… unfortunately, they’re not a trend, either.

It’s refreshing to hear from a manager who doesn’t support contrived methods of assessment. It seems that many HR execs think the more over-defined the interview process is, the better. They’ll accuse me of being a yokel, but whatever happened to just talking with someone and working together, to figure out if there’s a match?

I believe that a simple, engaging, no-tricks, personal interview experience is what gets people’s attention and interest. The more direct and one-on-one the assessment, the better. As you point out, there are good ways for candidates to meet the entire team. Candidates are sick to death of “the process.” They want to work with managers and people who truly want to get to know them. The happiest candidate is one who’s hearing about the work that needs to be done, and who’s being asked how he or she would help do it. I encourage you to go that route at your company.

A thorough assessment can include other activities, but any interview should start with a respectful, “working” meeting — not a confrontation by a gang.

So, what should a job applicant do when the employer schedules a panel interview? Like the candidate who took the other offer and declined the panel interview, the manager who asked this question has the answer: “I wouldn’t accept a panel interview.” What you do, of course, is up to you. (Maybe you like panel interviews!)

While an employer may be taken aback, there’s nothing wrong with saying you’d prefer to meet the hiring manager one on one, and that you’d be glad to meet the rest of the team if that first meeting goes well. Remember — the candidate gets to judge the employer in an interview, too, and doesn’t have to proceed with more discussions unless the experience is satisfactory. Alternately, if you find yourself stuck in a panel interview, try this: How to Beat The Stress Interview.

You can get relief from situations you don’t like by politely and firmly saying no. It’s the sign of a credible job candidate.

Are panel (gang-up) interviews legit? If you’re a manager, do you do panel interviews? What’s your experience been?

: :

 

The truth about headhunters

In the October 11, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter who’s tired of high-pressure headhunters asks how to recognize the good ones:

The sales pitches I get from cold-calling headhunters are intense. They’re in a hurry, they avoid sharing details I need and they are high-pressure. How do I know when I’m talking to a good headhunter?

My Advice

This week’s Q&A is an excerpt from my PDF book, How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make them work for you. The book is 130 pages, packed with 62 myth-busting answers for fearless job hunters. I hope you enjoy this sample!

If the caller is a fast-talking salesman, hang up. It’s that simple.

Judging a headhunter and qualifying a headhunter are two different things. You can judge a headhunter’s character whether you decide to work with him or not. This kind of judgment is largely based on observation. If you’re going to actually work with a headhunter, first you must qualify him — and that means you’ve got to test him before you put yourself in his hands. Let’s discuss judging headhunters. (For a thorough discussion of how to qualify a headhunter, please check pages 28-33 of the book.)

  1. If the caller sounds like an earnest business person politely asking for your help with an assignment, you should keep talking.
  2. The best headhunters reveal high standards of conduct and reveal the same qualities they look for in candidates.
  3. They are easy to work with because they are straightforward. They speak clearly and directly. They are not secretive or cagey.
  4. They don’t waste time playing games or putting on airs. They make you feel special, rather than imply they are.
  5. They are not in a hurry. They take time to talk. They pay attention. They answer your questions.
  6. They are knowledgeable about their business, their client, the job they’re trying to fill and about you.
  7. A good headhunter doesn’t call anyone blindly. He already knows quite a bit about your background, or he wouldn’t call you.
  8. A good headhunter reveals integrity by being honest and trustworthy. He will do what he says — including returning your calls.
  9. He is conscientious. You’ll see this in the questions he asks. Rather than rely on your resume, the headhunter will learn about you by talking with you extensively.

If you’re a possible candidate for the headhunter’s client, you’ll get an interview in short order. If you’re not a fit, he won’t lead you on. He will move on. You may feel you’ve been dropped, but a busy headhunter won’t spend more time with you than his assignment warrants. He’s not being rude; he’s doing his job.

Try this test.

When you’re done talking to a headhunter who sought you out, ask yourself, Could this headhunter write an adequate resume about me based strictly on our phone call?

I sometimes write a candidate’s resume just like that, after a phone call, and I provide it as a summary to my client. It’s a good test of my own grasp of a candidate’s credentials and value. If a recruiter’s call is so cursory that you don’t think he could write your resume from it, that reveals an unskilled headhunter or an inadequate recruiting call. A headhunter who calls to merely request your resume is no better than a job posting on the Internet.

When you meet a good headhunter, you’ll know it from the characteristics listed above, and you’ll recognize him as someone with whom you want to cultivate a long-term relationship. (Needless to say, the headhunter could be female.)


(For more answers about headhunters, check the Table of Contents. 30 sub-sections of the book include 62 Q&As that teach you how to conduct your job search with and without headhunters… plus How to Say It examples and Insider’s Edge tips.)


How do you judge headhunters? What tips you off to a good one, and how do you avoid the lousy ones? Have questions about how headhunters behave? Post them and we’ll discuss.

: :

3 Ways to Be a Smarter Job Candidate

In the September 20, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wonders how to get smarter, negotiate better, and avoid getting taken advantage of:

I had what may be a “Eureka moment.” I’ve been accused of lacking the “cojones” to handle interviewing and the job market, and I think it’s true. I started my career when companies treated people with respect. Today, employers deliberately set things up so that the job candidate is at a huge disadvantage. The rules have changed so that employers can really take advantage of the diligent, loyal folks who have the 1950’s work ethic.

They make an offer and demand you respond within 24 hours, or it is rescinded. They make statements in interviews that they back out of as soon as you take the job. Don’t assume that they will send you a health insurance card, or that the work week is 40 hours, or that there’s even time to eat lunch. One place I worked made everyone buy their own pens and office supplies. You almost need a bulldog lawyer to negotiate everything for you.

People have told me I have a “golden retriever” personality—too eager to please and to be a good employee. I need to be more skeptical, and I need to be a much tougher negotiator. It is hard when you really need a job, but I’ve learned the hard way not to be so trusting. It may be better to risk ticking off an employer, or losing out on a job, than to take the job and find that someone took advantage of your good nature. How can I get smarter? How can I be a better negotiator? Can you help me out?

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!)

The best way to avoid being taken advantage of is to set your standards and expectations high. Then judge others accordingly.

One way to approach this is to politely make the employer jump a few hoops, too. The lousy ones will refuse, and that saves you time. I doubt it will cost you any good opportunities. My advice: Quickly find out what kind of people you’re dealing with. If there’s a problem, move on. Here are some suggestions.

First

Make a list of what you think is reasonable behavior from an employer, so you’ll be more aware of what to look for. If an employer doesn’t measure up, call them on it. Give them a chance to try again. Their reaction will tell a lot by itself. Here’s an example.

How to Say It
“Thanks for the offer. I’m very pleased about it, but I cannot make a decision in 24 hours. I’ll tell you why. I want to stay with the company I join for the long haul, so I want to make sure it’s the right match. Before I accept, I’d like to spend a little time with people I’d be working with, and with people in related departments. Can we schedule some brief meetings with managers and employees in [manufacturing, finance, whatever] asap? Then I can assure you of a quick answer to your offer. I appreciate your consideration. It will help us both to make a wise decision.”

Massage the wording to suit your style. It’s a reasonable request, and I think it will quickly reveal which companies are good and which are lousy.

Second

Another way to be more assertive (and to protect yourself): Ask for the full employee manual and benefits package at your first interview, or before it. Hey, they have all your info in your resume and application, right? You want their info. If they won’t give you copies after your first interview, thank them and walk away. Don’t waste your time.

Third

(This part of my advice is omitted. It’s for newsletter subscribers only. Subscribe to the newsletter to read all of next week’s Q&A! It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)

There are good companies out there. You have to weed out the rest, and these are some ways to do it. Of course, you must be polite, reasonable and very professional. Never be pushy, demanding, or rude or presumptuous. Wear a big smile, grow some cojones, and be firm. Sure, this will cost you what people loosely refer to as “opportunities”—but they are really nothing at all.

Know what your standards are. Go in with a positive attitude. Stand firm the first time they push you where you don’t want to go.

Some employers demonstrate high standards. Others smile a lot and bite you where it hurts. Learn to tell one from the other by testing them. Today’s Q&A offers 3 suggestions. How do you test a company before you accept a job offer? Have you been bitten?

How can job candidates be smarter and negotiate better? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


The Ask The Headhunter Newsletter is 9 years old today! That’s worth a special deal!

To celebrate, I’m offering an extra $5 off the 2-Book Bundle! Discount code: 9YEARS. This discount code is good only until Friday, September 23, and only on the 2-Book Bundle! Click here to order, and type 9YEARS in the discount code box when ordering!

: :

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?
: :

Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?

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

Question

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

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

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

Nick’s Reply

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

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

salary history

Say NO to demands for salary history

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

Don’t let application forms intimidate you

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

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

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

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

Don’t compromise yourself to appease an employer

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

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

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

: :

Readers’ Forum: The ethics of juggling job offers

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

Question

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

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

Do I ask for yet another extension? Any thoughts?

Nick’s Reply

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

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

How many job offers do you really have?

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

Is this about ethics or business?

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

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

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

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

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

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

: :

Military transition & discipline

My office is nice and cozy. I have a big cherry-wood desk and a great chair. Views of woods and grass through lots of big windows. It’s a peaceful habitat.  No one bothers me. I know I’m safe, and in a few hours I’m gonna see my wife and kids. So now I’m going to try and show my gratitude to one guy who foregoes everything I just described, every day and every hour, to ensure that I can enjoy what I have all day long, every day. That, and my thanks, won’t make him one bit safer where he is, but I hope maybe it’ll help him through his military transition into a good job when he returns home.

military transitionQuestion

Nick,

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog in my free time over the past week. I’m a Captain in the US Army, currently stationed in Iraq and making the transition to civilian life in the next 6 months. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone in this unique situation that could smooth the transition from a mid-level military officer to a managerial or leadership position in the business world?

I’m currently serving in the Logistics branch, so I believe my skill set will translate well, but I need some pointers on how to sell it. As officers, we are bombarded with spam from headhunting firms and database job mills (often to our professional email addresses). The majority of my peers have used these services with mixed results. Perhaps you could give some guidance in one of your upcoming posts?

Thanks for your time,

Kevin W. Ryan
CPT, LG
ISF Logistician

Nick’s Reply

Hi, Captain Ryan,

Thanks for what you and all our military do for us — I’m glad to offer any advice I can, hoping it might be useful.

Here’s the best initial suggestion I can make to you:

  • Don’t go looking for open jobs.
  • Avoid the job postings and ads.

If it’s open and posted, the competition is already so huge that your odds of success have dropped like a rock. The quality of your credentials and skills is almost irrelevant because the systems (human and otherwise) used to sort through applicants is not good at separating signal from noise.

Your best bet is to figure out what you’d like to do, and who you’d like to work for. Start with industry — which one? It helps to start with good targets. Don’t waste time with second-tier companies. Start with the best, the shining lights, whether they’re big or small. Research their operations, figure out what job functions might match your skills and interests. (Don’t get too specific. Like the guy said, most of what we know we learned in Kindergarten. The rest is about riding a fast learning curve without falling off.) The key is that it’s up to you to map your skills onto the work, as best you can.

That’s how you pick the job(s) in the company — not from ads.

Once you’ve selected a handful of companies, and identified some functions and jobs, you need to make new friends. Something like 40-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. So don’t waste time with other channels. The next task is to work backwards from contacts you already have, and ones you can develop quickly, to meet and talk with insiders — people connected to each target company. They need not be employees. They might be vendors, customers, attorneys, accountants, landlords, bankers, etc. Find them any way you can — one good way is business articles about the company. Look for names of such folks. Google them, email them, call them. Be brief and respectful. Explain you’re considering working for company X, and you know they do business with X, and you’d like their insight and advice. Have a few good, friendly questions to ask about the company.

You score when the person personally refers you to someone in the company for more information. That’s when the real fun starts.

Use these introductions (you need only a handful, and you may have to talk to lots of folks to get them) to more closely map yourself to the work and function in the company. The best way to tackle this is to ask:

“What problems and challenges is your company facing in [logistics, purchasing, marketing, whatever]? Can you give me a little insight? I’m interested in working for your company, but I haven’t yet identified where I can contribute the most to the bottom line.”

It takes only one savvy manager to hear the words bottom line, and you’re in.

This is actually a lot of fun, because you’re meeting new people, learning new things, and getting into the circle you want to be part of. If you’ve got six months, I encourage you to start now. It takes time. But it’s the only reliable way to get in the door and find the job right for you.

Employers are lousy at figuring out what to do with job applicants. Most of the time, they realize people are just looking for a job, any job. If you start by picking an industry, a handful of companies, and then focus on mapping yourself onto a company’s challenges — that’s how you use your brain to create your own job opening. More likely, you’ll identify something that’s about to come open, and you’ll be the first candidate to interview. No competition. And due to the research you’ve already done, your motivation will translate into very effective dialogue in interviews. While your competition is answering questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?”, you’ll be busy explaining how you think you could add 10% to the department’s bottom line. Big difference!

Do me a favor and stay in touch. I’m glad to help. You’re ahead of the pack already because you took time to make contact in the business world. Keep doing that. Reach out to insiders in your target industry and companies. Forget the job applications and resumes. Do this right, and you won’t need a resume. The conversations you have will evolve straight into interviews.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention military transition once except in the title of this post. That’s because the same methods that work for everyone else will work for you, because this is all about delivering profitable work, no matter where you’re coming from.

The edge you have is discipline. The military has given you that in spades. It’s something every job hunter in the civilian world needs, because roaming the job boards isn’t a task. Identifying your objective, focusing on it, pursuing it, and not stopping until you attain it requires… well, you get it. You don’t need to transition. Just apply your discipline to the task at hand and don’t abandon what you learned in the Army about getting the job done. Not to be rude, but civilians won’t be much competition.

Start with The Basics: Pick your targets. You know the old saying, you can’t get there if you don’t know where there is.

Be safe. I’ll be thinking about you.

: :