Caregiver faces resume gap & reference risk

Caregiver faces resume gap & reference risk

In the January 7, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader takes time to be Mom’s caregiver and worries about a resume gap and references.

Question

caregiverI left my job of 16 years with two weeks’ notice and a cordial thank you to my boss. My boss was bitter that I decided to move on and it was very apparent my last day. I worry that if an employer calls and asks to speak with him he would not give me a good recommendation even after 16 years of service. I had assumed that most companies are just allowed to verify employment. What if they contact my former boss directly?

The next problem is why I left that job: My mother had a stroke and I became her full-time caregiver. This was much harder than any job I’ve ever had. I am adding a simple bullet point on my resume listing this time as “Primary caregiver for ill immediate family member.” Is this how I should account for this time gap?

Nick’s Reply

The very best job applicant can be sunk when employers rely on information that the applicant has no opportunity to explain. If your old boss gives a negative reference and you have no chance to refute it, you’re done. If an employer is troubled by a gap on your resume because you were a caregiver and you’re not there to explain it, you lose. You’ll never know what happened in either case.

The problem here isn’t your old boss or your resume — or that you took time off to be Mom’s caregiver. The problem is that you’re allowing someone (an unexpected reference) or something (your resume) to represent you. Why not be represented to your advantage by someone the employer trusts?

Caregiver resume gap

Explaining work gaps is always iffy – so much depends on the attitude of the employer reading that resume. This is why I advocate not using a resume to introduce yourself to a company. A resume cannot defend you.

A resume that raises questions you are not present to answer can easily hurt you. A gap on your resume might trigger a quick, thoughtless rejection. Situations like yours make it risky to rely on a resume as the way to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know who does not know you.

Reference risk

You need to head off concerns by helping the hiring manager learn about you from a source more reliable than a resume. You need someone to paint you as a desirable job candidate before any questions are raised.

Try to wrangle a personal introduction to the hiring manager through a mutual contact — someone who does know you and who can speak up for you to answer an employer’s concerns about the caregiver gap, and who can parry a negative reference that’s not under your control. Check these ideas from other readers about how to network your way to a great introduction.

Send an advance party

You may have to work hard to find and cultivate that mutual contact – but it’s really the only way to get a hiring manager’s serious attention and to counteract worries about your gap. Send an advance party. In other words, you need someone to tell the hiring manager you’re worth hiring before they find a (silly) reason to reject you. (See How to get to the hiring manager.)

If you must use a resume, I agree that you should probably include a short note about the caregiving. But managers and HR get so many resumes that they look first for a reason to reject an applicant. Don’t give them that reason. A preemptive personal referral or introduction from someone the employer trusts can make all the difference.

The truth about references

It’s improper for an employer to contact your old boss without your permission for a reference. I think most companies honor this. An HR department that’s called for a reference should provide nothing more than verification of past employment. But managers and HR have their own back channels – their own trusted network that will talk to them off the record. So you can never tell what they will learn about you.

For all these reasons, a trusted personal recommendation is the best way to offset any concerns an employer might have about a resume gap or about one poor reference. Don’t wait for problems to arise. Cultivate personal contacts to get you in the door and to preempt objections a resume might trigger. For more about this, please see Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke. I admire you for stepping in to help your mom. I wish you both the best.

Have you ever been hurt by a work gap on your resume? Or by a bitter old boss? How did you explain it? How would you advise this reader?

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CEO to job applicant: “Hiring is not my job!”

In the May 9, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader discovers that a company’s high turnover problems start with the CEO.

Question

In a recent column (Consulting Firms: Strike back and stir the pot) you said we should contact a company’s CEO if the HR department’s hiring process is nutty. So I did. The CEO actually called me back!

ceoFirst, a little background.

Let us bother your references

I talked with a hiring manager who, despite having my resume, told me that I was required to fill out the online application in order to go further in the hiring process. When I got to the section for references, there was no way for me to proceed until I had typed in names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and where my references work.

I called the hiring manager and politely explained that I cherish my references and don’t want them bothered until a job offer looks like a real possibility. He fobbed me off onto HR, saying it was “government regulations” that required them to ask for references. I know better. There are no government regulations that require applicants to list references.

I also remembered one of your previous newsletters which discussed how some employers are outsourcing reference checking to third parties, sending references e-mail forms to fill out instead of having the hiring manager telephone the references and talk to them about the candidate. But the manager wanted me to discuss it with HR, so I did. HR refused to budge, and the hiring manager caved to HR.

I even asked HR how they handle reference checks, and I was told that wasn’t any of my business, so that clinched it for me. I walked away since there was no offer on the table.

Come back!

A few weeks later the hiring manager called me back, asking if I was still interested! I said, “Yes, but…”, reiterating my concern about disclosing my references. He started sucking air, complained that there’s no good help out there, and that everyone has to provide their references up front because of “government regulations.” Once again, I walked away.

That’s when I e-mailed the CEO. I was shocked when he called me, but we had a very pleasant chat. You were right, Nick — he was unaware of HR’s requirements in order to proceed to an interview. But I also learned that he was perfectly content to leave all aspects of the hiring up to HR.

CEO: Out to lunch

He seemed puzzled that there are no government regulations requiring applicants to list their references and their contact information before an offer is on the table, much less accepted. He breezily informed me that he doesn’t worry about hiring because that is HR’s job, that he doesn’t believe in interfering in the hiring process, and that HR knows best because that is what they do!

That tells me a great deal about the company — much more than I could have gleaned from an interview. No wonder the hiring manager seemed so rattled! The company is small, there is a lot of turnover, and little to no guidance from the CEO. He’s out to lunch! It isn’t a start-up, but they’re flying by the seat of their pants, putting out fires as they break out — and they are breaking out with greater frequency as people get disgusted and leave.

So I thanked the CEO for calling me, told him that I was no longer interested, and wished him and the company luck in their future endeavors. (You might recognize that as standard fare in kiss-off letters HR sends to rejected job candidates.) I already have a wishy-washy boss who can’t make even simple decisions such as hiring extra help. We are constantly short-staffed and the underlings are putting out the fires.

I decided not to go from the frying pan into the fire (assuming that I’d be hired at the other place).

A stinky company

The other concern I had about the laissez faire CEO is that, when you’re that disengaged from the day to day goings-on of your business, that’s a recipe for a company to go belly-up, because the person who is in charge isn’t involved.

Although I made the decision to walk away when HR refused to let me proceed without providing my references, my conversation with the CEO confirmed my decision.  I have no regrets and don’t give it any thought. You’re right: On to the next!

I have learned so much from your comments and advice, and from the other readers’ comments.  I feel that I’m a better educated job hunter now than I was before I signed up for your newsletter.

I think you could have a whole new job educating CEOs about the importance of sane hiring practices.  Or maybe teach this subject as a graduate course in business school — then you’d get them before they become CEOs and abdicate their authority to HR.

I concluded that HR in this company does what it does because the CEO doesn’t care. Fish stink from the head down.

Nick’s Reply

Wow — what a story! We touched on the problem of top managers avoiding recruiting and hiring tasks in Small Business Owner: I’m too busy to hire help!

I’m not sure the employer in your story wins a prize for citing “government regulations” as the reason for demanding references so early. That goes to employers that demand salary history before they’ll interview anyone. But this CEO wins the prize for taking a career-long lunch!

It sounds to me like you did the right thing. The company gave you some clear signs that it’s not worth working for.

  • Management is indecisive and powerless. (The manager had your resume but insisted that you regurgitate your work history in an online form.)
  • Management doesn’t woo good candidates. (The employer wanted you to deliver references before it bothered to invest in meeting you first.)
  • HR doesn’t know the law.
  • HR sacrificed a candidate the hiring manager was eager to interview (twice!) because there’s no good help out there.
  • Turnover is high.
  • The CEO thinks hiring is not his job!

While the hiring manager defers to HR, the high turnover suggests the problem is higher up than HR. You found the problem in the C-suite. The CEO might find another way in Smart Hiring: A manager who respects applicants.

Your experience highlights two key rules about picking an employer that we discuss here again and again.

  • First, judge a company by its hiring practices.
  • Second, talk to top management before taking a job.

What you see at the interview stage is what you’ll get on the job. When the CEO doesn’t care about hiring, middle managers leave it up to HR, and HR takes its cue from the CEO.

Oh, yeah: The lesson

Thanks for sharing your experience, and my compliments for drawing the right conclusions. You showed us what it means when a company pushes a job candidate unreasonably, and how important it is to talk to a company’s top management. But there’s actually a more subtle lesson in your story.

When they’re job hunting, people rationalize. They’re afraid they won’t get picked, so they tolerate all kinds of niggling abuse. Making someone jump through hoops — online forms, silly rules about when references are due, eating dust when HR serves it — is not right, smart, or good business. But job seekers will probably jump through hoops because they want a shot at a job. Or that’s what they tell themselves. It’s for a shot at the job. So they tolerate demeaning and meaningless demands.

That hiring manager who wanted to hire you so badly that he called you after you rejected the company wanted you to rationalize the company’s behavior because he rationalizes it.

The lesson is, don’t. Being asked to address a challenge about how you’d the job, or about your work ethic — that’s legit. But when an employer demands something demeaning from you, it tells you it’s a demeaning employer. The lesson is, as Marcus Aurelius once said, “to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Have you ever rationalized a company’s nutty hiring practices to get a shot at a job? Yah — I’m needling you. I’ve caved to such treatment, and I’m not proud of it. Maybe by sharing our blunders we can help one another avoid them!

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References: 5 reasons to withhold them

In the April 11, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader rejects recruiters who demand references before an interview.

Question

referencesWhat do you think of recruiters demanding the identity of my references  — and demanding to check them — often before there’s even any expression of interest from the hiring manager? Some recruiters get seriously butt-hurt when I won’t instantly hand over references, and claim they won’t submit me otherwise.

I would be nuts to have my references called every time some recruiter decides it would be convenient to check them. I never give references except directly to hiring managers after a successful interview with said hiring managers. Am I wrong?

Nick’s Reply

Your policy is a good one.

Most people view requests for their references as a good sign. They readily turn over a list of names because they assume the request means an employer is seriously interested in interviewing or hiring them. That used to be a reasonable assumption, but not any more.

Many reference requests are unreasonable, unwarranted, and sometimes even fraudulent — and you should know when to politely but firmly decline them. But before you try to decide whether a recruiter’s (or employer’s) request is legitimate, first consider whether whether you’re even being recruited! (See How to screen headhunters.)

Are you being recruited?

Not everyone that solicits you for a job is recruiting you. Learn to distinguish a solicitation from a real recruiting call. In today’s highly automated job market, this is a difficult distinction for most people. (See How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants.) Let me try to explain with an analogy — a solicitation I actually received.

I got a call from a company that wanted to sell me an extended warranty on my car.

“Wow!” I said. “That’s great! This is just what I need! Tell me more.”

For five minutes the caller explained all the benefits. A one-time fee would get me no-cost repair work and parts for virtually anything that might go wrong with my car for the next three years. She even patiently explained the exceptions. I told her I was ready to sign up. “What’s the make, model and year of your car?” she asked, as she started filling out the form for me over the phone.

“It’s a 1959 Chevy Bel Air 4-door,” I said.

She burst out laughing. “Sorry, I can’t sell you an extended warranty for a car that old!” she said.

“Then why did you call me?” I asked.

“I didn’t know what kind of car you have!” she replied, and hung up.

Her call was a blind solicitation. Like most recruiters, that telemarketer had no idea whether I was a potential customer. Nor do most people soliciting you for jobs have any idea whether you’re a realistic candidate. “But that’s why they’re contacting me! To find out!” you might respond.

No, that’s why they’re wasting your time. When a real recruiter contacts you, it’s because she has already spoken to people that know you and recommend you. (And that car warranty telemarketer would know what kind of car I own.) That’s likely how she got your name! She wouldn’t contact you otherwise. She doesn’t need your references until after she has interviewed you in detail, or after her client has interviewed you for a job.

When a “recruiter” asks for your references prior to an interview, politely but firmly decline and end the call, because you’re not being recruited. You’re being solicited by someone who has not done any work to justify contacting you. The “recruiter” wants you and your references to do all the work of proving you’re qualified for the job. In short, that’s not a recruiter calling. It’s a telemarketer. It’s why — two weeks after you’ve submitted all your information and gotten yourself all worked up about “an opportunity” — they never call you back. You’re a 1959 Bel Air. (See Why HR should get out of the hiring business.)

Reference theft

If that extended car warranty telemarketer calls you, would you give her the names of three of your friends, along with their phone numbers and makes and models of their cars?

Of course not. You know she’s going to call them with the same sales pitch she gave you. So, why would you give an unknown “recruiter” the names and contact information of three people who know and respect you?

In today’s dialing-for-dollars recruiting world, three credible referrals are worth a lot of money. Odds are good that the “recruiter” wants nothing from you but three new names. The caller is stealing your references under false pretenses — and even creating competition for the job being pitched to you.

That’s reference theft. It makes you a sucker because you’re doing the recruiter’s job for him. And it earns you the ire of three busy people who used to respect you.

Rules for references

Consider using these rules when anyone asks for your references.

  • Before you disclose anything about yourself, ask what the recruiter already knows about you. A good recruiter will not contact you unless she knows more than is on your online resume or profile. She’s already talked to people who recommend you — or she would not bother recruiting you. A real recruiter does not need to ask you for references. That would be like asking you on a date, but only after requesting a list of your friends and family.
  • Get the recruiter’s own references first: Names and contact information of three managers who have hired through the recruiter. Contact those managers to confirm the recruiter. I’d also ask for three people the recruiter has placed, and I’d talk with them. Does this seem like an awful lot of work to you? Don’t worry — you will rarely have to make those calls, because you will rarely encounter a recruiter who actually has references. But a good recruiter will be happy to comply, because the recruiter already knows you’re a worthy candidate and he’ll do anything reasonable to impress you with his excellent credentials.
  • Don’t invest until an employer invests in you. Remember: An employer or its recruiter contacted you, not the other way around. They want you to do something — to consider a job. They should invest in a face-to-face job interview to demonstrate their sincerity — and to show they’re worth your further consideration. If you’re satisfied the employer is worthy and that you really want the job, then it’s time to provide your references.
  • Find out who is going to contact your references and how. Do you really want a third-party “background checker” to call your references? How about an HR clerk who doesn’t understand the work you do? If it’s a legit reference check, will it be done via phone or e-mail? Or will it be an online form? Which of these reference-checking methods do you think will portray you best? Hand over references only to the hiring manager, and then ask the manager to make those calls personally. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.)
  • Find out who will have access to your reference report. Nowadays many reference investigations are done by third-party services. That means once your references are checked and filed, the reference-checking firm can sell them again and again to other employers — perhaps without your knowledge. A bad reference or a poorly handled reference can dog you for years, and you’ll never know why you’re being rejected again and again.

Inappropriate reference requests are a tip-off

Most good employers recruit you because someone that knows you recommended you. Real recruiting is not blind solicitation.

Inappropriate requests for your references are actually a good tip-off that you’re not dealing with a real recruiter. Hang up, or delete the e-mail. Real recruiters contact you only after they have checked you out. Respectful employers won’t ask for your references until after there’s mutual interest in taking discussions further. They will treat you deferentially because they’ve already invested a lot of time in you — before they got in touch.

You’ll know a good recruiter and employer from what they say when they contact you. But don’t kid yourself — they’re rare. Your next job will likely come from your own personal contacts, not from a recruiter. Don’t expect those odds to change just because you’d like them to. (Don’t know how to develop personal contacts? Start with this simple suggestion: Meet the right people.)

Protect your references

We haven’t even discussed the problem of letting many recruiters bother the people who volunteered to serve as your references. That’s because we don’t have to. You know better than to permit it. You know not to abuse your references.

Now let’s close on this complaint you made: “Some recruiters get seriously butt-hurt when I won’t instantly hand over references, and claim they won’t submit me otherwise.”

As you’ve already surmised, they have no idea who you are or whether you’re a reasonable candidate. If they’ve got you on the hook, but you won’t sell out your best professional references for a long-shot “opportunity” that you know nothing about — then they’ll drop you. Good.

If you’re having difficulty telling the difference between being solicited and being recruited, try the rules of references above. The first rule alone should usually be sufficient to save your valuable time, and to protect your valuable references.

When do you turn over your references? Have your references ever been abused or misused? Do you respond to recruiters who don’t know the first thing about you?

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My references died: how do I get more?

Quick Question

How should a person deal with the fact that his best references for a job have died?

Nick’s Quick Advice

references

Sorry to hear it — but it’s actually a problem we headhunters encounter from time to time. It’s a very real problem, and a challenge, but you must address it. People who can endorse us are actually all around. You just have to stop and see them. That’s how you’ll develop the new references you need.

References are everywhere

Consider people who worked in your department or in related departments. Your best advocates don’t need to be your ex-boss or even someone you worked with directly. For example, if you’re an engineer, there are probably people in your old employer’s manufacturing, quality, and sales departments who can probably speak about you.

Who else saw the work you were doing? Not just other employees — but perhaps customers, vendors, and consultants who worked with your company. Anyone you did work with can speak up for you. But you have to ask them.

Call, don’t e-mail

Call them. Don’t send an e-mail request. References are a personal favor, so demonstrate that you’re willing to make your request personally.

Don’t start by asking them to be references. Just reminisce — try to get them to talk about their memories of when you worked together.

How to Say It

“Hey, remember the X project we both worked on… What did you think of how it turned out?”

Then lead them into a discussion about stuff you worked on. Get them to talk about it. If they can discuss it a bit, you’ve got a reference.

Here’s the magic

Helping people talk about your work and past performance helps them formulate what they’d say later as references. It’s your job to help them talk about it. Then, when you ask them to be a reference, they feel like they’ve got something to say. (See Don’t provide references, LAUNCH them.)

Does this sound like manipulation? It’s not. It’s like priming a pump. By helping people remember, you help them find the phrases they need to talk about you to an employer. Just do it honestly.

(If you’re an employer, see References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.)

Ever provide a surprising reference that helped you land a job? How would you advise this reader?

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When headhunters on LinkedIn are scammers

In the August 30, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader cautions you to think twice before sending your information to “headhunters” you don’t know. They’re likely scammers.

Question

scammersI recently had an experience with a headhunter(?) I do not know who sent me an unsolicited pitch to look at a job listing in my field in my city. The pitch was sent via LinkedIn with an attachment. I do not open attachments from people I do not know. This brings up the issue of cyber security in dealing with any kind of pitch about a job.

To confirm who I was dealing with, I called the main office of the headhunter’s firm. I got an answering service. Then I called the number the headhunter posted on LinkedIn, but got a vanilla message which did not identify the headhunter or the firm.

A reputable headhunter:

  • will have a voicemail message that clearly identifies the office and the person.
  • will not send an unsolicited attachment via LinkedIn.


Social media has been used successfully by hackers and scammers to mimic real identities to get unsuspecting people to open attachments that contain malware. For high-tech firms, like the one I work at, these kinds of threats are well understood.

However, with the rise of ransom-ware and other forms of hacking for profit (e.g., stealing bank and credit card account information) the use of social media for social engineering is a real threat.

I suggest you post some advice for your readers about cyber security and how to avoid being taken in by scammers.

By the way: LinkedIn is a good vector for this type of social engineering attack because many people access it from work. If they open a malware-infested attachment, it could compromise a work computer along with its intellectual property secrets. So far, there has been no response to my voice mail replies to the headhunter, and I never touched the file attachment on LinkedIn.

Some headhunters who send unsolicited attachments might just be clueless. On the other hand, my experience is most recruiters send the job description after they’ve qualified the prospect as being interested, available, and a possible match for the job, not before. Do you agree?

Nick’s Reply

I agree, and you just wrote the warning you’ve asked me to give about e-mails soliciting you for anything. It’s all the more important when a scammer is connecting via LinkedIn to imply credibility.

Most likely, that’s not a headhunter at all, but a phishing expedition. It’s how scammers obtain personal information they can use to steal your identity. We can’t blame headhunters for something like this, because such scams routinely mimic anything that might lead a sucker to open an e-mail and an attachment.

(Let’s not leave the HR bogeyman out of this nightmare. See Big Brother & The Employment Industry: “All your employment are belong to us!”)

However, because the cost of entry to the headhunting business is virtually zero, we’re faced with loads of stupid, inept, and sometimes unsavory “headhunters.” I’d say 95% of those purporting to be headhunters are not. The most common among these are idiots dialing for dollars. (See Why do recruiters suck so bad?) They will solicit thousands of people they know nothing about via mailing lists. As you’ve noted, any good headhunter will know quite a bit about you prior to making first contact, or why would they bother spending their precious time?

2 rules of thumb

I think there are two cautionary notes here — call them rules of thumb to keep you out of trouble. First, assume any e-mail or attachment is a phishing tool. I think that’s a reasonable rule because most e-mail is junk of one sort or other. Very few mails constitute “signal.” Most are noise. So, be skeptical all the time and be very careful.

Second, if it’s a real headhunter, apply basic common sense and business standards. If the mail is from a headhunter you don’t know who clearly doesn’t know you, it’s probably a waste of time. Just because you really, really want a headhunter to find you a job doesn’t make it so. It just ups the odds that you’ll get suckered.

Drop this bomb on the headhunter

To test the sender, simply ask one of the many qualifying questions I list in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. For example, drop this bomb:

“Please give me the names and contact information of 3 people you’ve placed and 3 managers who have hired through you.”

A good headhunter knows how to instantly defuse it by gaining your respect. He’ll ping you back to make sure you’re not going to waste his clients’ time — then he’ll give you his references. The rest aren’t worth dealing with — your question is like a bomb going off on their party. They know it’s all over.

If you’re considering doing something silly just because someone told you to — like clicking on an unknown attachment — ask yourself whether you’d do it in any other business context. If not, then don’t do it. (Would you hire a contractor to remodel your kitchen without checking some references first?)

Beware of fools

Of course, there’s another category of scoundrel — the naïve headhunter who doesn’t consider the risks she asks prospective candidates to take when she sends them solicitations. She’s not worth dealing with, either, because she’s the fool who will accidentally contact your current employer and present your resume for an open position — and possibly get you fired.

How to test for scammers

What you did to test for a scam is what I suggest in HTWWH:

  • Google the name of the person who solicited you. Is there evidence the person is affiliated with the firm?
  • Google the firm. Is the headhunter that contacted you listed on its roster?
  • On the firm’s website, look for names of the owners and for a bricks and mortar address.
  • Look up the individuals named, and find the address on Google Maps.

Then ask, does it all add up?

  • If there’s no connection between the headhunter and the firm evidenced online, don’t respond.
  • If the firm’s website does not list any names, or a street address, or any contact information that you can verify through an independent source, run. (If you do find an address on Google, there should be multiple references to it, or it’s probably phony.)
  • While some good headhunters work out of their homes and prefer not to list an address for privacy reasons, they should at least have a verifiable post office box.
  • Any real headhunter will have a verifiable phone number and friendly voicemail. Only a scammer doesn’t want to take your call!

referencesDid I say check references?

As you found, in most cases there’s no “there” there. If the headhunter fails these tests, checking those references is absolutely critical.

These tests are not sufficient, but they are necessary and they’re a good start when performing due diligence. It’s not hard to determine whether someone is legit, but it’s very easy to be gullible and to get suckered. In this case, a fraud has contacted you — but people should expect that most e-mail solicitations are frauds. The trouble is, most people rationalize: “Hey, I don’t want to miss an opportunity! Besides, this was through LinkedIn.”

Wishful thinking and the pain of job hunting turn people into suckers. (LinkedIn does not confer legitimacy.) “Headhunter” is just another mask scammers wear because they know you’d love a new job. And random job solicitations are just another sign of lousy headhunters that aren’t worth your time or consideration.

(For more on this topic, see How to work with headhunters.)

Did you ever get scammed by a headhunter? Was it even a real headhunter? How do you vet job solicitations?

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4 You’re-Kidding-Me Questions & Snappy Answers


msft-technetToday (March 1) we’re joined by some special guests! A big welcome to IT professionals from Microsoft’s TechNet Virtual Conference 2016, where I’m doing a presentation titled “Top Tips From A Headhunter” to help IT folks deal with career crises.

For those new to Ask The Headhunter, I invite you to check out Ask The Headhunter In A Nutshell: The short course. For more in-depth methods to handle your own career challenges, please also see 600 Editions: The Best of Ask The Headhunter! Related to what I discussed in the video you just watched on TechNet: Please! Stop Networking! Advance your career by learning to “talk shop” with people!

The ATH portion of the conference is March 1, 11:30am PT with Q&A to follow. If you’re reaching this in time, please join us: enter the event here.

Microsoft Week! Save 25% on any Ask The Headhunter PDF books this week only! Use discount code=MSFT when checking out! This offer is limited-time only! Save now!


In the March 1, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, readers seek wisdom on all manner of things, including how to make big bucks! File under Gimme a break… but we try to cover it all! Is this week’s Q&A tongue-in-cheek? You decide…

Question

I love speaking in public, giving presentations, leading group discussions, and teaching classes. If I were given the challenge of speaking in front of 500 people with 60 minutes notice, I would rub my hands together with glee. Please help me understand how to turn my talents into $100,000 a year.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

snappy-answers

Ask The Headhunter: Where your dreams come true! Ask yourself, What company or organization could make a lot of money and profit by having you do those things you love? That’s who to go to about a job. You need to come up with a mini-business plan for each company you target.

  • What problem or challenge do they face?
  • How can you tackle it to produce profit?
  • What’s the best way to explain it to the company?
  • Who’s the best person to explain it to?
  • How can you track down people that “best person” knows or works with — people who can introduce you?

You’re not going to get hired to do what you love. You’ll get hired to do what you love if you can show how that will pay off to an employer. That’s your real challenge. You must figure it out and communicate it, because no company is going to figure it out for you. For more about this, see The Basics, then rub your hands with glee!

Question 2

I worked in San Francisco and Silicon Valley for 25 years recruiting. I have references from great companies. No one seems to be interested in my valuable experience. In fact, I was told no one would hire me in Silicon Valley. I need someone to check my experience out. I would very much appreciate a referral that could help me track these rumors down.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

Ah, let me get out my little black book… You’d need to hire a private detective. I don’t know any. Just because someone told you that you’d never get hired in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean anyone else feels that way. If you’re concerned about your references, you might ask a hiring manager at any company (someone you’re friendly with) to contact them and ask them what they think of you. You might identify the problem that way, assuming you have one. In the future, Take Care Of Your References.

As for the value of your experience, please see my reply to Question 1.

Question 3

I came across your article, Wanted: HR exec with the guts not to ask for your social security number, after a local recruiter asked me for information I’m not comfortable sharing.

RECRUITER: “I need the last four of your SSN and middle initial to submit you to Company X.”

ME: “Is this absolutely needed at this stage? What is it being used for? Understandably, I’m hesitant to give out that information.”

RECRUITER: “It’s the only way you can be submitted to our client for a job. It’s part of their ATS (Applicant Tracking System) to ensure that candidates are not being double submitted.”

I guess I’m really hoping that you might offer a bit of advice — whether I’m right in thinking this is a red flag, and how I might further respond to her request and comments.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

How to Say It: Up your xiggy with a blowtorch!

Recruiters love applicants who speak the local jargon, so that should go over well. But employers have no legitimate reason to demand your SSN just so you can apply for a job. The recruiter gives away the problem when she admits the employer’s ATS needs your SSN to avoid duplicate submissions of your credentials. They use it as a hash — a unique database key to identify you. That’s how the employer avoids fee battles between recruiters who both claim they submitted you.

Lazy ATS system designers misuse a federal ID number for their own purposes. In the process, the recruiter, the employer and the ATS vendor are intimidating job seekers and putting them at risk of not getting a job over the ATS vendor’s silly database trick. Hence the need for a blowtorch.

Should you play along? That’s up to you. (A related employer trick is demanding your salary history. See Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?) It’s also up to you to hand over any 4 digits you choose, for the time being, to beat the system, and explain later to the employer if the 4 digits don’t match your actual SSN — which will matter only if you’re hired. “Someone obviously made a mistake.”

I don’t like lying. But I also don’t tolerate stupid bureaucratic tricks by employers and ATS vendors — at the expense of job seekers.

What you do is up to you, of course. What I’m suggesting could cause you problems. But what the recruiter and ATS vendor are demanding could cause you problems, too. I’m just telling you what I’d do. Always follow the instructions that come with a blowtorch.

Question 4

Should I disclose in a job interview that I applied to grad school a few weeks ago, and that if I get in I won’t be taking the job? The job interview is in about two weeks.

Nick’s Snappy Reply

First thing I’d do is buy a lottery ticket and put it in your pocket. Would you tell an employer you have that ticket in your pocket, and that if you win, you won’t need the job?

I see no reason to disclose your graduate school application, unless and until you’re faced with a choice about going to grad school. Make sense?

How would you deal with these four situations? Geez, I am on a roll! Post your comments before I slow down!

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The ATH Field Guide: Overcome resume gaps to land a job

In the February 23, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is ready to chuck it all to save his sanity. Should he?

Question

I’ve been a project manager running million dollar software projects for 15 years. However, I’m sick of the stress, never-ending deadlines, and frantic pace of technology. I’m 41 and I can’t keep this up for another 10 years.

field-guide

I’m trained to recognize classic burn-out syndrome but dealing with it in myself isn’t easy. I find myself wanting to go pound nails for a builder or mow lawns or just to do something mindless. I think I could step out of corporate life for a while and come back later, but I will have lost my contacts. What’s the answer? “Would you like some fries with that, Sir?”

Nick’s Reply

No, no fries… but welcome to burn-out. It happens to many talented people. It’s nature telling you to flip the burger because one side is done. It’s time for the other side.

The conventional obstacles

Before I offer you suggestions about how to overcome the resume gaps you’re about to create, so you can land a new job later, let’s consider the obstacles you’re going to face. I’m sure you’ve read or heard the conventional wisdom about what you’re suggesting. Let’s play it:

  • It’s harder to get a job if you don’t have a job.
  • Employers discriminate against the unemployed.
  • If you stop working, your skills will go stale.
  • When you leave the work world, your network dries up.
  • Gaps in your resume are the kiss of death.
  • And so on…

To one degree or another, all those statements are true, of course. But it’s also true that we’re all gonna die… so what’s the point of living? (Consider the killer quote from Ring Lardner.)

What’s the point of being burned out and miserable?

The conventional wisdom doesn’t matter when you’ve got good reasons to do what you’re talking about: You’re free to get out of the kitchen and go kick the can for a while. Give yourself a break, or you will indeed burn up.

Jobs can be replaced, but you get only one body, one mind. There’s no reason to lose your contacts — it’s not hard to maintain the best ones when you take time off. Your skills need not dry up. You can learn new skills.

Afraid to get off the burner?

I was about 40 when I chucked it all to write a book, start a website, and follow my gut. Yes, it was a risk. But getting off the burner is necessary when you feel burnt. With the relief will come new experiences and new choices you forgot you had.

burn out

If you’re good at what you do now, I can almost assure you that you’ll be good at whatever you decide to do after some time off. And if you stay in touch with your best contacts, you’ll always have the support system you need to succeed again. More important, if you don’t get lazy, during the time you take off you’ll make loads of new contacts that can help you get back to work when the time comes.

Here’s the thing: Conventional wisdom is for the conventional person. It’s for whoever wants to nail themselves to a job the rest of their lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that (even if I apply a derogatory metaphor to it). If you’re going to be unconventional — and take time off — then you can’t let the rules apply to you. You must forge your own rules and methods for getting back to work later.

And that’s what Ask The Headhunter is all about. My test of the value of any method for landing a job is this: Does it make enough fundamental business sense that it can work under any circumstances — including taking a break?

Screw convention

I don’t like tricky job-search methods intended to mollify HR managers and personnel jockeys who scan credentials for excuses to reject someone without meeting them. For example, clever resumes that hide your gaps in employment, “functional resumes” that hide your age, and “consulting gigs” that cover up your unemployment.

There’s only one way to get a job under any circumstances without relying on luck, or faking it:

Get someone that knows the person in charge to introduce you and vouch for you, then don’t waste the employer’s time. Show why hiring you will pay off, so the manager won’t be able to do anything but hire you.

Who cares if you’re not employed?

Because what’s far, far worse is staying in the job that’s burning you out, and then showing up at job interviews shell-shocked and demoralized. Then no one’s going to hire you.

My vote — assuming you’ve got your finances in order — is to go away and come back later. Screw convention.

Here’s the secret: If you’re good at your work, then trust your ability to earn a living and to do useful work again. When you’re done kicking the can, you’ll be able to dust yourself off and figure out again what to do next, after flipping burgers and offering fries with that…

Life is short. Do what comes next now, and I think you’ll be better able to do what comes after that.

The Field Guide

Need help getting back to work after you’ve been away for a while — whatever the reason? Maybe you’ve just got gaps in your resume that raise red flags.

Here’s an Ask The Headhunter Field Guide that I’ve compiled from some of the best ATH resources. It’s more than you probably need, but I hope some of these tips will help you get introduced to the right employer and show why hiring you will pay off — even if you’ve been out of the market a long time. All are free online except where indicated:

Career coaches and pundits tend to avoid the “in-your-face” questions job seekers really need answers to. To explore the daunting obstacles that can stop you dead in your tracks — and to choose the help you need — check out the topic titles in the 9 PDF books that make up Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection ($49.95).

Would you dare to chuck it all to survive burn-out on the job? Is this a risk worth taking? If you’ve done it, how did you get back to work — or did you choose another path?

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References: How employers bungle a competitive edge

In the December 8, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets down on reference checking.

Question

I’ve come to the conclusion that asking for references is about the dumbest thing a company can do in the hiring process. First, I believe that any prior employer is only obligated to give the dates you worked and at what salary. They don’t like to give any qualitative assessment because there are potential liability issues involved. Second, who is going to give a personal reference that would not describe you in laudatory terms? I think references are just another personnel department make-work project! What do you think?

referencesNick’s Reply

One of the very best ways to size up a job candidate is to consider the opinions of her professional community. Employers who ignore peer review take unnecessary risks when hiring. But that’s where today’s reference-checking practices have led us.

Incompetent reference checking

Asking for references seems dumb because it has been made trivial; so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.) They’re going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a bunch of people on a list. How ludicrous is that?

Employers have bought into the idea that a reference check is like a credit check, but it’s not. A credit check digs up objective information: numbers, loan payment dates, defaults.

A reference check is largely subjective. The source of information isn’t a bricks-and-mortar bank that’s required to divulge facts about your accounts. A reference source is a mushy human being who may be in a good mood or a bad mood; who may know you well, or not. The reference checker must know the context — the industry, the profession, the work, the community — or he can’t possibly understand what to ask or what the comments really mean. This is why most reference checks are simply incompetent, if not dangerous.

reference-checkerThe “reference and investigations” industry may be able to turn up criminal records and such, but you can’t tell me that a researcher is going to elicit a subtle judgment of a job candidate by calling a name on a list. Worse, if the information that’s collected is erroneous, why would such a reference checker care? He’s not accountable to anyone. The employer that buys it doesn’t care and isn’t going to ask you to explain. To borrow a phrase, outsourcing reference checks is like washing your hands with rubber gloves on. If you’re going to feel anything, you must get your hands dirty!

Real reference checking

There is no finesse in reference checking any more — not for most employers. A real reference check is done quietly and responsibly, by talking to sources that a manager tracks down on her own by using her network of professional contacts. These are candid references; comments made off the record within a trusted professional relationship. That’s where you’ll find the true measure of a candidate.

Did I just break five laws? That’s only because the skeevy industry that has grown around reference investigations requires regulation. It’s because employers are no longer good at teasing apart credible references from spiteful or sugar-coated ones. They want to put the legal liability for making judgments of character and reputation on someone else.

There’s a better way to do it, and it’s time-honored among honorable businesspeople. The person doing the reference checking must be savvy and responsible. She must know what she’s doing. A greenhorn human resources clerk is out. In fact, the only person who should be doing such a check is the hiring manager. The most candid discussions will take place between managers who know their industry, their professional community, and the issues in their business. Where a manager might not open up to an “investigator,” she’s likely to share information with a peer. Credible, useful information comes from credible, trustworthy sources. You can’t buy it.

If it’s true that hiring the best people matters, then real reference checks give an employer a very powerful competitive edge. Outsource reference checks, or do them ineptly, and you’ve bungled your company’s future.

Reference checking is a community event

The reason — other than legal — that companies don’t do effective checks is that human resources (HR) departments simply don’t have the kinds of contacts in the professional community that could yield legitimate, credible references. And that brings into question HR’s entire role in the recruitment, selection and hiring process. If you don’t have good enough connections in the professional community to do that kind of reference check, how could you possibly recruit from that community? Both tasks require the exact same kind of contacts and relationships. It’s all about the employer’s network.

accountableJob hunters correctly worry that bad references might cost them a job. That’s a real problem. The question is, is the bad reference justified? If it is, then perhaps it should cost you a job. Don’t shoot the messenger. Take a good look at yourself, and recognize that the truth has consequences in your social and professional community. (But all is not lost. See How can you fight bad references?)

It should not be illegal to rely on credible opinions about you. By the same token, managers must be attuned to vengeful references, and take appropriate measures to verify them. But regulating candor is no solution. When we count on the law to protect us from all information, we must expect to get hurt by a lack of good information.

If I were to check your references, I’d get good, solid information about you. And I might not ever call anyone on the list you gave me. I’ll use my contacts to triangulate on your reputation. (You might be surprised at who I talk to. See The Ministry of Reference Checks.) Will someone try to torpedo you? Possibly, but it’s quite rare. More likely, I’ll turn something up that makes me want to get to know you better; to assess you more carefully.

The trouble is, good reference checks are rarely done. Hence, most reference information is pure garbage, as you suggest. And this hurts good workers just as it hurts good employers. In the end, all we have to go on is the opinion of our professional community. Stifle it, and the community suffers the consequences.


References are your competitive edge

References are such an important tool to help you land a job that I can’t emphasize enough that you must plan, prepare and use references to give you an edge. In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) I discuss just how strategic references are.

First, learn how to launch a reference:

“The best… reference is when a reputable person in your field refers you to an employer. In other words, the referrer ‘sends you’… to his peer and suggests she hire you.” (pp. 23-24)

Second, use preemptive references:

A “preemptive reference is one who, when the employer is ready to talk to references, calls the employer before being called. Such a call packs a powerful punch. It tells the employer that the reference isn’t just positive, it’s enthusiastic.” (p. 24)


The truth matters. Legislating against the opinions of others about us is, well, stupid. Far better to manage those opinions and to be responsible about them. If you’re a manager, it’s also far better to take responsibility and check applicants’ references yourself. Don’t let HR do it. What do references really mean?

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How to fix a bad reference the hard way

In the March 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader needs to deal with an old boss who’s probably also a bad reference.

Question

bad-referenceI just had an interview where I followed your advice in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6. I took control, offered to show how I’d do the job, and demonstrated to the manager how I’d take care of one of her most perplexing problems. She loved it, and I think I’m going to get an offer. Sounds great, right?

It is, except for one problem. This manager — let’s call her Ann — knows one of my past employers quite well (let’s call her Brenda). Brenda probably will not give me a glowing reference. I suspect Ann will contact Brenda. How do I handle this delicate situation?

Nick’s Reply

I’m glad to hear Book 6 got you so far! References are a very valuable asset — learn to manage them all the time, not just when they turn into trouble. (See Take Care Of Your References.) Now let’s deal with your problem.

Even if the reference is unfavorable, a smart employer will rely first on her own judgment — and ask you to explain your old boss’s comments. So, anticipate the question and be prepared with a good answer that is honest and not defensive.

Then there’s the tactical approach. Tell the new manager (Ann) what your old boss (Brenda) is likely to say before they talk. Since you cannot block that conversation, own up to the facts and impress Ann with your candor.

The Hard Way
When confronted with a problem like this, I like to take it head-on. Talk to your old boss! It’s the hardest way, and it will force you to develop the best solution. I think it’s the best way. If you leave this to chance, you will have no idea what the outcome might be.

Call your old boss before Ann does. Surprise Brenda and ask her permission to list her as a reference. You might have to swallow your pride, but nothing of value comes easily.

If she agrees, fess up that you believe that, when you worked together, Brenda may not have seen you in the most positive light.

How to Say It
“I know I could have been a better employee, and I could have done better at XYZ. Since then, I’ve beefed up my skills considerably. [Explain how, but keep it brief.]”

This may allow Brenda to blow off any steam about you before she speaks with Ann, and give you a chance to change her mind a bit. If Brenda responds candidly, pose this magic question:

“May I ask you for some advice? I really want continue to get better at what I do. What advice would you give me about improving my performance or anything else about how I do my work?”

Profit from The Outcome
Then be quiet and listen. If your old boss blasts you, or explains that you’re better off not listing her as a reference, then you know what’s coming when the new boss contacts her. Now you’ll have to use the tactical approach I mentioned above: Prepare Ann for what Brenda will say, and explain yourself. You will have profited from the call.

On the other hand, your candid phone call to Brenda might help her see you in a new, more positive light. Discussing how you’ve changed and improved might give her the words she needs to soften the reference when she talks to Ann. Now you’ve really profited from the hard way.

This might work. It might not. I just believe in facing problems like this head-on, and in trying to make the best of them.

Do you see what we’re doing here? We’re trying to influence Brenda to help the new, improved you. In the process, you’re also learning how this may play out so you can better manage your discussion with Ann.

Whatever happens when you talk with Brenda, you’ll learn something, and you’ll be better off for knowing. Be polite. Be respectful. Do not argue. Don’t be defensive. Listen carefully and try to get some good advice. Say thanks and move on.

Congratulations on impressing the new manager. Now get your old boss on board — or mitigate the damage she might cause.

There are other very powerful ways to use references and to parry bad ones. I discuss these in lots of how-to detail in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” and “The preemptive reference,” pp. 23-25.

Can this reader avert disaster? Have you ever turned around a bad reference? Are my tactics risky?

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LinkedIn Users Sucker-Punched by Wrong References

In the November 11, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we examine yet another questionable LinkedIn “feature” that could cost you a job.

Question

The New York Times just did a story about a group of people suing LinkedIn for selling possibly invalid references to employers. Now LinkedIn has gone too far. This is causing employers to reject job applicants, and the applicants didn’t even provide the references! What do you think of this career sucker-punch?

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the bottom line: There is zero integrity in LinkedIn’s “Trusted References” sales pitch. While LinkedIn sells employers a reference checking service, it defends against the lawsuit by saying it’s not really selling a reference checking service — it’s just selling a list of names.

And LinkedIn thereby throws its own integrity into the toilet. I don’t see how any employer could even contemplate using such a “service.” in-your-faceIt really is a sucker-punch — LinkedIn connects an employer with wrong “references” and you can’t even defend yourself.

I’ve got over 500 LinkedIn connections — most of whom I’ve never met. Some may have crossed my path at a company with thousands of employees. How irresponsible is it of LinkedIn to sell those overlaps as my
“trusted references?”

What are references?

What if I’m a food critic and I write a newspaper column that tells you a restaurant is no good? You buy the paper and avoid the restaurant. Can the restaurant sue me for loss of business? Even though money changed hands for “data,” do you really think a restaurant critic could go to jail?

I think the New York Times did a poor job covering this story, because it confuses several issues and fails to clearly point to the real problem.

Before we get into that, let’s remember that references make commerce possible. They are an important part of business. People’s opinions and judgments about us — and about products, services, brands and companies — are the coin of the realm in any economy. When smart employers hire and when good headhunters recruit, we check relevant opinions and judgments first, to make sure we know who (and what) we’re dealing with. That’s why your reputation — and any company’s reputation — is so important.

It makes no sense to suggest that checking references before hiring someone is inappropriate, or that rejecting someone for a job because of poor references is wrong. It’s due diligence. The Times seems to confuse seeking and sharing opinions with privacy. I think the lawsuit does, too.

But that’s where the controversies start. The Times doesn’t address certain questions, and I’m not going to, either, because this isn’t an analysis of references. Nonetheless, I’ll bait your confusion by posting some of the questions I think need to be answered:

  • What is a reference?
  • Who owns references?
  • How far can an employer go when checking references?
  • Can you buy a reference?
  • What does an employer pay for when using LinkedIn to check references?
  • For that matter, what do you pay for when using LinkedIn to make contacts or to get a job?
  • Are people free to ask about you and talk about you if they want?
  • What if someone decides not to do business with you based on what they learn from others?

America’s employment system has become such a jumble of promises, marketing, expectations, data and databases that everyone seems incredibly confused about what’s right, wrong, possible or legal.

Disclaimer

I’m not a lawyer, so this is not a legal opinion or legal advice. I’m a headhunter and my comments are based on (I hope) my business sense. What others say about your professional reputation matters a lot, and it does — and should — influence whether someone wants to hire you. But, what if a fencepost is checking your references?

Reference checking requires integrity

Headhunters — like homeowners looking to hire plumbers — check opinions and judgments all the time. We’ll make discreet inquiries to find out who you are, how good you are at your work, and what you’re like to work with. If we hear something out of the ordinary — positive or negative — we must have the good sense to double- and triple-check the information before we risk our own reputations by referring you to our clients. Like good restaurant critics, we realize that opinions we gather will have consequences.

Trureferences-glassst and integrity are the hallmarks of our business — which is why I say about 95% of headhunters aren’t worth spit. Too many are in the business for a quick buck, and their own judgment stinks (to say nothing of their skills). It’s up to you — the consumer — to use your head before you rely on a headhunter, whether you’re a job seeker or an employer.

Likewise, it’s up to employers to judge what LinkedIn is selling them when it delivers lists of references. And it’s up to employers to ensure that their own in-house recruiters know how to select, check and evaluate references properly. In my opinion, 95% of in-house recruiters can’t be trusted with the task, and no one is the wiser. Worse, many employers outsource reference checking and have no idea whether the results are valid or reliable.

(See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.)

My point is, you have no idea where your references will come from or who is checking them — any more than a restaurant does. So be careful.

What did LinkedIn do?

According to the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California:

“LinkedIn has created a marketplace in consumer employment information, where it sells employment information, that may or may not be accurate, and that it has obtained in part from unwitting members, and without complying with the FCRA [Fair Credit Reporting Act].”

The problem, plaintiffs say, is that:

“any potential employer can anonymously dig into the employment history of any LinkedIn member, and make hiring and firing decisions based upon the information they gather, without the knowledge of the member, and without any safeguards in place as to the accuracy of the information that the potential employer has obtained.”

In other words, plaintiffs claim LinkedIn is selling information that leads employers to inappropriately rejecting people for jobs. They also suggest that there may be some violation of privacy. I asked employment lawyer Mark P. Carey about the privacy issue. He says:

“Everyone who maintains a LinkedIn account should expect that their information is public.That’s why we have these personal/professional marketing pieces. There is no privacy issue as far as I can see, especially if you signed the user agreement before gaining access to host your own page.”

But I do think LinkedIn has a problem. First, LinkedIn takes money for what it advertises as “Trusted References for Job Candidates.” In so many words, LinkedIn suggests the references an employer pays to access about you are accurate — “Trusted.” That’s where I think LinkedIn crosses the line, whether legally or with regard to its own integrity. LinkedIn cannot possibly know whether those references are trustworthy. So how can it pitch them with impunity to employers — or defend them to job seekers?

When people are rejected for jobs because of questionable references, we’ve all got a problem. LinkedIn especially.

Elsewhere in its Help section, LinkedIn says:

“A reference search locates people in your network who can provide reliable feedback about a job candidate or business prospect.”

That is, LinkedIn represents that an employer can rely on the references to justify hiring you or rejecting you. In fact, it uses those words to lure employers into buying those lists.

However, LinkedIn spokesman Joseph Roualdes tries to alter LinkedIn’s own representations when he tells the Times, “A [paid] reference search… simply lets a searcher locate people in their network who have worked at the same company during the same time period as a member they would like to learn more about.”

Suddenly, LinkedIn isn’t selling anymore. It’s covering its ass. The truth is on the web site: LinkedIn promises that the references employers are buying are “Trusted” and “reliable.”

References or just a list of names?

Here’s where I think the going gets dicey for the plaintiffs. Regardless of what LinkedIn sells and promotes — references — LinkedIn does not seem to really deliver references. It apparently delivers only a list of names. It’s up to the employer to talk to those people and ask them for references.

It seems to me that if the plaintiffs were rejected by employers due to bad references, the plaintiffs should be suing the references themselves for defamation — or the employers.

defamationLawyer Carey fleshes out the defamation issue for us:

“The real underlying issue here is whether and to what extent an act of defamation occurred… There is no legal claim there for anything, not even defamation. The article and the lawsuit dance across the fringe of privacy and defamation, without any substance. Only when a search adds content that provides a qualification uniquely driven at the particular candidate, then someone crosses the legal line of what is neutral and what is defamatory.”

But it doesn’t seem LinkedIn is “adding content.” That is, it doesn’t deliver the text of a reference, so there’s no defamatory statement.

Perhaps the employers who paid for those names have an action they can bring if the names yield inaccurate references when LinkedIn promises otherwise — but I don’t see how a job seeker could sue LinkedIn successfully because it sold names. That seems to be covered in the company’s terms and conditions.

The Times compares this suit to one against Spokeo, an online data broker which “agreed to pay $800,000 to settle accusations” that it marketed reports to recruiters and background screeners without providing consumers with protections afforded by the law.”

But LinkedIn doesn’t seem to sell reference reports about anyone. Again, I don’t see how LinkedIn can be liable for a bad reference. The data that employers rely on to make decisions did not come from LinkedIn; only names came from LinkedIn.

LinkedIn’s Customer: Fencepost, Inc.

The larger problem is that mindless employers believe ridiculous advertisements by LinkedIn that claim a list of names are “Trusted References… who can provide reliable feedback about a job candidate.”

(Remember, we’re talking about the same “professional networking” company that charges employers for lists of the best job candidates — while it sells high rankings on those lists to job applicants! We’re talking about the same employers that know this yet still pay LinkedIn to find job candidates! See LinkedIn Payola: Selling out employers and job hunters.)

fencepostSays the Times: “Sophisticated recruiters would not waste their time contacting people who clearly had no connection of significance to a job candidate.”

But they do, and if the New York Times is going to skate over this key fact, then it’s drawing the wrong conclusions, because most HR recruiters are fenceposts. Just ask any job seeker that deals with them. (See Why do recruiters suck so bad?)

Those same recruiters stupidly waste their time interviewing candidates simply because LinkedIn represents that the “profiles” it sells are “accurate.” Is it any surprise that recruiters are suckered into making hiring decisions based on “references” that may not be accurate?

A law professor cited in the article concludes, “A company can now decide which people associated with you can be curators of your reputation in situations that matter.”

But companies have always done that. The trouble is, now there’s no need to verify that a reference is legit — that is, valid or reliable. Because LinkedIn ensures us that it is.

What’s the real problem?

LinkedIn does not sell reference reports or reference information, so I don’t think anyone can hold it liable when employers reject applicants based on comments made by a list of people LinkedIn sells.

I think the wrong plaintiffs are suing. Employers should be suing LinkedIn for its failure to take reasonable measures to ensure that the lists of references it sells are in fact “Trusted References” and that they “can provide reliable feedback about a job candidate.”

Just how stupid are recruiters who “trust” LinkedIn references? The Times reporter says the plaintiff’s lawyer showed her that recruiters have no idea what they’re buying — or whether they’re calling real references at all. The lawyer ran a “LinkedIn reference search” on the reporter:

“The search produced a list of 43 people in his network who currently work or have done work for this newspaper — including a former I.T. consultant, a freelance contributor and two former interns. I had met only four people on that reference list, and none of them had direct experience working with me.”

Just imagine: A recruiter uses LinkedIn to search his network for people who are your “Trusted References” — but the recruiter has no idea whether any of them had any direct experience working with you.

You get rejected, because someone who never worked with you provided a questionable reference. (As I pointed out, I don’t know most of my connections, thanks to LinkedIn’s marketing mission to link everyone. What if a personnel jockey gets hold of an overlapping contact and trusts it as a reference about me — and I get screwed?)

The underlying question — and concern — is, how skilled is the reference checker, and is the check done properly and with integrity?

The recruiter’s purchase of a list from LinkedIn becomes the faux justification for one potentially bad decision after another — and one unemployed LinkedIn user after another.

Have you been sucker-punched by wrong references?

LinkedIn’s “Trusted References” service is a cheap sucker-punch straight to your career and reputation. Now any personnel jockey can “check a reference” on LinkedIn without having the faintest idea what she’s doing — and you get screwed out of a job. For that reason alone, I hope LinkedIn gets its ass sued sixteen ways from Sunday. I’m not sure this suit will succeed, because I think it focuses on the wrong issues. But the legal issues are for the lawyers and the courts.

The business issue is, LinkedIn is talking out of two sides of its mouth. It markets a references service to employers, while telling the judge it’s really no such thing. And employers buy both stories.

Perhaps more to the point, since it’s consumers suing LinkedIn, those consumers need to admit that they bought into a marketing machine that uses their personal information to make money at their expense — and they agreed to the terms. When someone walks straight into a sucker-punch, it’s hard to sympathize with them.

Lots of questions remain. Whatever happens with this suit — or others that I hope it spawns — the thing that’s clear is LinkedIn’s marketing strategy: There’s a sucker born every minute, and we’re going to sell them all anything they’re willing to swallow.

Has LinkedIn’s reference service interfered with your job search, or cost you a job? How does LinkedIn’s credibility rate with you?

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