Can I earn a degree from the School of Hard Knocks?

In the December 18, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter considers an online, or “distance learning” degree:

I have over 24 years experience in industry, but I never got a college degree. Now I want to get a bachelors. A “distance learning” college has approved my application for a B.S. in Business Administration. This is one of those schools that delivers its courses online and also awards credits for “life experience.” Please give me your opinion on degrees of this nature. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

These “life experience” credits can be legit. They are based on knowledge you’ve acquired on the job rather than through college courses. The school administers a test on the material and if you pass, they give you the same credits you’d get if you actually took the course. You just need to be sure the school itself is legit — or those School of Hard Knocks credits could be worthless. Several times each week I get solicitations for questionable degree programs.

My advice: Whatever state you are in, contact the state department of education. Find out whether this school is accredited. If it is not, forget it. Find one that is.

To test the value of this school’s programs, contact a few well-known colleges or universities and talk to the admissions office. Ask whether they would accept “transfer credits” from the school in question. A good distance school’s credits will be accepted toward a degree at other good schools. If credits are not transferable, find another school.

If the online school you choose is legit, you may be able to leverage your investment by finishing your degree program at a bricks-and-mortar school — and you’d get your diploma from a more recognized school. Just beware: Some online degree programs cost more than traditional schools charge! The good news: Many good traditional schools offer online courses and combination programs. Don’t assume you need to start with an online-only school.

Want more certainty? Ask the company you work for (or want to work for) how it regards degrees from the distance school. This will tell you a lot about the value of the degree.

I’d start your research by checking the Sloan Consortium to see whether the school you’re considering is a member.

(For every problem, there’s a flip side. And the flip side of this problem is academics with degrees who can’t overcome their own obstacles to win a job. For more on this, see Breaking Ranks & Rules: How academics can avoid 5 fatal mistakes in the job hunt.)

Do you have an online degree? Has it paid off? Does your company look favorably on distance learning schools? On credits from the School of Hard Knocks? What are the alternatives to traditional education, and what do they mean to employers?


The Ask The Headhunter Newsletter and this blog will be on hiatus for two weeks while I take a vacation, spend time with my family, and finish up a new project that I can’t wait to tell you about in January! I wish you a Merry Christmas or a Merry Whatever You Celebrate, and a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year. I’ll participate in the comments through this week — then I’ll see you in January!


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No College Degree, No Problem

In the December 11, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know how to get past the college degree requirement when he’s sure he can do the job anyway.

I just discovered your blog and have purchased How Can I Change Careers? and Keep Your Salary Under Wraps. I have some questions regarding the job hunting process that keeps biting back at me.

How do you get past the stigma of not having a college degree? I am reading my way through your website and have taken in some of the information, such as networking to meet the people in charge of making the decision. However, I want to know how can I compete for jobs that require degrees when I am fully capable of meeting the job requirements as listed?

Many employers set this as a requirement and don’t even want to talk to you unless you have a degree, regardless of whether you can do the job. I appreciate your help.

Nick’s Reply

Success requires turning the job hunting process on its head. The way it normally works, you provide your credentials and they decide whether to talk to you. If your keywords (that is, college degrees) don’t match, they tell you to go pound salt.

But there is another way to approach this that can get you past the college requirement. Learn to talk shop before “credentials” dominate the transaction. ATH reader Thomas Lafferty explains it in the comments section of this blog posting: You can’t get a job because employers hire the wrong way. Tom basically wrote this column for me.

Take a look at his approach and, more important, his attitude. First, he dismisses his resume and avoids triggering the college credentials problem:

I’d also like to ring in on the discussion about the effectiveness of demonstrating your abilities in an interview: It works. If I had relied on my resume for the last 3 jobs I had, I would not have gotten them. I had neither the experience nor the education, so my resume definitely hid my ability.

Lafferty says he’s got no degree, but that didn’t stop him:

This [demonstrating his ability to win the job] worked so well that in the first job I’m talking about I was the only person on staff without a degree or experience.

Employers require degrees because the degree is considered a proxy for skills, knowledge, or ability. Managers don’t have time to vet every candidate thoroughly, so they depend on this institutional stand-in for a value judgment. It borders on irresponsible, but they do it. Some of the time, it works. But, understanding why they rely on degrees in the selection process should help you address what they really want: Proof you can do the work and proof that you have the sophistication to grow in the job.

Sometimes, as Lafferty points out, you have to take a lower level job so you have the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do over time:

The second job was created for me after I had already been hired at a lower level.

Most people would balk at a lesser job. Not Thomas. He capitalized on it and got more than most job hunters do in the end: a custom job. Not bad, eh?

In another case, he earned the job on the fly by doing the job in the interview:

The third company I’m talking about hired me without going through the traditional four-tier interview, and again I did not have the background or the education. In any case, what I did have was the skill to do the job and to prove it in an interview as well as a good dose of passion.

Resumes and degrees are not always valid indicators of ability to do a job. So, help employers by giving them other ways to judge you. No one says this is easy — sometimes you have to be clever. I know one guy who followed a manager to a professional conference, chatted him up, talked shop, and got an interview and an offer. This shared personal experience tops any formal credentials — but it’s a lot of work. It should be. Managers are sometimes foolish to hire based on a piece of paper, or on a sheepskin — because candidates who deliver credentials can’t always do the job.

Since you have a copy of How Can I Change Careers?, check the sidebar on page 9, “Create your next job.” Pretend you’re creating that job from scratch. Prepare a brief plan for how you will contribute to the business through your work — and through that job. Be as specific as possible. Once you’ve got your notes together, try to write a resume with a “Free Sample” in it — page 23.

Finally, and most important, check page 27. You must enter the “Circle of Friends” that the manager is part of. I know this seems daunting if you’re a bit shy or lack confidence, but it’s critical. (If you need more help, try a few Toastmasters meetings — learn to be more comfortable breaking the ice with others.) Make one phone call to an insider — and ask just one question. Get the info you need, politely say thanks and end it. Don’t push yourself. Try two and three questions on the next calls. It gets easier. The contacts you make turn into advice and referrals and gaIn you the credibility you need with the manager. And that renders the college degree (and other indirect judgments about you) less important.

You can compete for jobs that cite criteria you don’t meet, if you take an alternate approach that addresses what the employer really needs: proof that you can do the job.

(Special thanks to Thomas Lafferty for his candid and inspiring comments on the blog that served as the guts of this Q&A column!)

If you’re without a college degree, have you nonetheless won jobs that required a degree? How? Have you overcome other “requirements” to win a job? Tell us your story — give us some inspiration and alternate ways to prove you can “do the job.”

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Dissecting the elevator pitch

In the November 27, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a writer asks for a job at Ask The Headhunter:

Hi Nick,

[1] I’m going to cut to the chase: I want to write for “Ask The Headhunter”! [2] My name is Melanie and I’m a former educator turned researcher/blogger. [3] I stumbled upon your blog researching for another article weeks ago. [4] My expertise/niche is education so most of my articles deal with learning — whether they’re directed at instructors, students, parents, or business leaders. [5] But of course my edu-centric pieces are always tailored to each blog’s audience. Check out some of my clips to see more of what I mean:

[6] [six URLs to her articles]

[7] Hope to discuss ideas soon,

Melanie

My Rant

Resumes make me cringe. Elevator pitches make me cringe more. Elevator pitches delivered in e-mail make me wanna barf. Nothing is more banal, misdirected, or useless to someone that doesn’t know you.

Consider how often an elevator pitch, or a cover letter, or a job inquiry reads like the note above. Maybe you’ve written one yourself.

I want to tell you what’s wrong with these pitches. Then I want to know what you think — because most people seem to believe they must “craft” a chunk of b.s. like this to get an employer’s attention.

I’ve tagged each part of the pitch I received with a number. This is gonna get ugly, but let’s tear it apart. (I offer no apologies to Melanie. She offered none to me. But I thank her for helping me write this edition of the newsletter.)

[1] Melanie isn’t cutting to the chase.

The chase is my need to produce profit for my business. What Melanie wants to do (“to write for Ask The Headhunter”) is relevant only if it fits in with my business objectives. What does she know about them?

Oops. If Melanie had spent five minutes on the ATH website, she’d know that — except for one small section, which she never mentions — all the articles are written by me.

And that’s the first problem with elevator pitches: They are by design generic and thus presumptuous. You can’t create an elevator pitch for someone you don’t know and haven’t met yet. If you think I’m full of baloney, try this elevator pitch on the next person you meet that you’re attracted to:

“My ability to make [men, women] happy by exciting them results in fun relationships and could lead to marriage.”

Trust me. When you’re on the receiving end, that’s what an elevator pitch — about anything — sounds like.

[2] I don’t care what Melanie’s former career was.

When you have just a moment or two to engage someone in a business discussion, why would your speech be “crafted” about yourself? The answer is easy: You don’t know anything about the business of the person you’re talking to — the pitch is designed to be memorized and regurgitated in elevators to any captive.

Want my attention? Tell me you know what my business is about and how you can make it better. Tell me about yourself later, after I behave as if I want to know.

[3] Melanie “stumbled” upon my blog.

The analog in our social lives is this phone call:

“Hi. I had nothing to do tonight so I thought I’d call you.”

Gimme a break.

[4] Four sentences into it, Melanie is still talking about herself.

It’s pretty clear she has no idea what Ask The Headhunter is about. She worked in education, so she will write educational articles. About whatever.

Elevator pitches are painful to create because they must account for the orator’s ignorance yet pretend to be insightful. Save yourself the trouble. If you need to break the ice with someone you don’t know, don’t talk about yourself or express what you think. Instead, ask them a question. People love it when we express interest in them. They are turned off when we recite stuff about ourselves.

[5] Melanie suggests she’s qualified.

What is Melanie qualified to do  for me? She hasn’t indicated she has any idea what I need. She’ll write anything for any audience, never mind who the audience is. And that’s the fatal flaw with any elevator pitch. By design it demonstrates one thing above all else: The speaker knows so little about the listener that she promises anything and everything.

Here’s the insult: After the recitation, an elevator pitcher wants me to go figure out what to do with her and her ideas. No thanks. I’d rather she do that work.

[6 & 7] This part of the pitch is the punch line.

Usually, an elevator pitch ends with the orator handing over a resume or suggesting the listener invest a couple of hours in breakfast or lunch to listen to more. After delivering this elevator pitch about herself, Melanie wants me to spend the next hour reading six of her articles.

She’s showing me examples of her work — and she’s telling me to go figure out whether her work is relevant to my business. I didn’t approach her — she approached me. So the burden is on the elevator pitcher to make her case. Suggesting I go figure it out is not making a case.

Consider what an elevator pitch is really about: You and your assumptions.

If you want to do business with someone, why would you open the conversation by talking about yourself and about what’s important to you? If you want to do business with me, spend the precious minute you have with me proving you know about my business and what I need. Prove you thought enough about my business in advance to offer something useful to me.

Ouch — you’d have to invest an awful lot of time and effort in me first, eh? Why would you? Why, indeed? And why should I devote two seconds to listening to you recite?

Do you have an elevator pitch? What is it? What reactions do you get when you recite it? What’s your reaction to elevator pitches? Am I just a rude S.O.B. who needs to be more tolerant and pretend to listen to anyone who wants my time? I want to know what you think.

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Webinar: Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Today I did a webinar for about 300 alumni of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University:

Do Online Job Applications Keep Americans Unemployed?

(Or, How can you beat this goofy system?)

As usual, following some brief ranting by me (about automated recruiting), it was an Ask The Headhunter Q&A event — and we discussed some provocative questions from the audience. This blog page continues the discussion. I welcome participants to post additional questions, comments and suggestions about the topics we discussed — or anything related.

The webinar will be available to Kellogg faculty, staff, students, and alumni online on the Kellogg website. Many thanks to the team at Kellogg for their kind hospitality today!

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Yada, Yada, Yada: Desperate hiring

In the November 13, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager asks how to distinguish acting from honest interviewing:

Hiring great people is a noble goal but it raises two challenges: how to attract candidates with those rare, valuable qualities into your pipeline, and how to identify them in the interviewing process when everyone is telling you how talented, motivated, curious, and ethical they are (yada, yada, yada). How do we get past all that so we really know who we’re hiring? How do we avoid hiring in desperation?

Nick’s Reply

Let’s talk about two fatal flaws in the entire recruiting/hiring process. First, we try to attract people when we need them. That limits us to cold, calculated, rushed recruiting methods that don’t work well.

Worse, these methods stimulate rote responses from candidates to trigger our interest in them. We’ve all seen it — candidates with the “I’m your (wo)man” smile on their faces. As you note, that’s the “Yada, yada, yada” interview. You can spend the entire time trying to figure out what’s real and what’s an act. Here’s the problem:

You can’t assess someone in a job interview.

You need to see them in action. That takes time, which employers don’t have in a job interview.

To recruit effectively, we need to attract good people long before we need them, so our relationships will be based on common interests, not common desperation.

Second, we can try to “attract people into our pipeline” all day long. But the ones we want aren’t out looking for pipelines.

We must find and enter their pipelines.

We must meet them on their career tracks, and be present at the critical points in their work lives. People make career changes only at certain points. We can be there waiting for the best when they are ready, or we can be out chasing people who are chasing jobs.

My suggestion: The people we want are all around us on discussion threads on work-related forums all over the Internet, talking shop. Talk shop with them, get to know them, establish your own cred and you’ll always have someone to turn to when you need help.

The Zen of it is this: You can’t really identify the people you want in the interview process. At that point, it’s too late, and it’s all too scripted.

You identify the people you want to hire on the street, on the job, and in the throes of dialogue with their peers. Then you follow them and get to know them. You enter their circle of friends. You should talk to them about a job only when you know them well enough. Not when the pipeline needs to be filled. That’s how you avoid mistakes. But show me one human resources department that recruits that way — they don’t. Last year, the world spent $1.3 billion for “just in time hiring” through one job board alone: Monster.com. How stupid.

Yada, yada, yada, the pipeline needs to be filled. Indeed, but you need to fill the pipeline long before you need to hire anyone, with relationships. If your pipeline is full of just applicants and resumes, you’re hiring in deperation.

Desperation hiring: That’s when you need to fill a job right now and you flap your lips Yada, yada, yada through 20 interviews pretending you’re getting to know someone. You can’t assess someone in a job interview. It can’t be done. If you want to hire the right way, you start last year.

How does your company hire? Do you “Yada, yada, yada” through your interviews? Or do you cultivate relationships? Tell me why it takes too long to do it my way…

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You can’t get a job because employers hire the wrong way

In the November 6, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager bemoans how people spam him with applications:

I’m a manager for whom hiring does not come easily. I’m selective. If you’re just “looking for a job” and spamming your resumes to all job postings, then it’s no wonder that employers don’t spend any energy following up on your “interest,” since it can be pretty obvious you didn’t spend much energy asking to be considered. I know people want and need jobs, but why do they expect to get hired just because they submitted “their information?”

Sometimes I’m also a job hunter. I want to work at the companies I apply to, and I tell them why in a customized cover letter. I detail how my strengths match their needs, and I’m honest about what I still need to learn. That’s what it takes to get hired.

Why do people have such a hard time understanding these simple points?

Nick’s Reply

There are two big misconceptions that lead people astray very quickly when job hunting. The first is that because they want a job, they’re worthy of being hired for any job they apply for.

The second is that applying for jobs gives them an honest chance those jobs. But reality tells us neither idea is true. What you say is absolutely crucial for every job hunter to think about.

  • I want to work at the companies I apply to, and I tell them why in a customized cover letter. I detail how my strengths match their needs, and I’m honest about what I still need to learn.

I’ll ask anyone reading this: Can you say this about the way you approach an employer? As a headhunter, I’ll tell you that it’s a rare person who takes this approach. And the failure to approach only companies you really want work for is fatal. There aren’t 400 jobs out there for you, so why do you apply for them all?

  • If you’re just “looking for a job” and spamming your resumes to all job postings, then it’s no wonder that employers don’t spend any energy following up on your “interest,” since it can be pretty obvious you didn’t spend much energy asking to be considered.

I love it when I get a letter or e-mail from someone who tells me they “want to express their interest” in this or that job, or in “working with me.” It’s nonsense, because there is no further indication or proof that they know anything about me or my business. When they apply for a job, all they know is that they saw an ad. Period. And they sent in “their information.” That is why most applications die on the vine.

What’s the necessary approach? You gave it to us. Go after companies you really want to work for. Demonstrate your interest. Prove you have abilities that are relevant to the employer and job. Anything else is sloppy and obviously gratuitous (or desperate). Yet the employment system encourages gratuitous and desperate applications, so we can say that employers get what they ask for.

But they don’t hire that way. It’s up to the job hunter to do it right, even when the employer tells you to do it the wrong way.

Do you just zing out your resumes and applications to every job you find that looks “of interest?” Or do you carefully target and demonstrate your worth to each employer? I think most people succumb to the quick-and-easy spam-a-lot approach to applying for jobs — because it’s what employers ask for. What do you do to educate the employer — and prove you’re worth hiring?


This blog posting is brought to you in spite of Hurricane Sandy. Ask The Headhunter HQ is still without power, 7 days and counting, with no thanks to the inept disaster management planning of Jersey Central Power & Light. Many thanks to American Power Conversion for keeping the joint running.

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They promised a raise but won’t deliver

In the October 30, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful manager complains a promise about higher pay hasn’t been kept:

When I was hired almost two years ago as a manager, it was with the promise that if I achieved certain milestones and met the company’s expectations my compensation would increase dramatically. I’ve met all the requirements and more, and no one disputes that. But when I approached top management about this recently, they said there’s no way they could pay me that much money.

These are basically honest people, and I like working with them. They created the expectation, and I have worked exceptionally hard to earn exceptional money. I’m willing to stick it out, but I’m wondering if I was too trusting. I did not get all these promises in writing as you recommend. I decided to take a chance. (I just bought Keep Your Salary Under Wraps. I figured I owed it to you. Your first book basically got me my current job!) I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Nick’s Reply

There’s no law against employers promising things they later decide they just “can’t” deliver — unless they put it in writing. I learned this the hard way, too. Many years ago I took over a sales group, and the VP offered me one of two deals: A decent salary and a pretty good commission plan, or no salary and a phenomenal commission plan. I quickly decided that if I couldn’t blow the quotas away, I just shouldn’t take the job. But I did, and the VP used to crow that he and I were the only ones that put their money where their mouths are and worked on 100% commission.

I made a lot of money. And, as I anticipated, I blew away the plan. Again and again. Until they brought me in and said, “We can’t keep paying you this much money.”

It took a while for me to leave. But I’ve seen this happen many times to others, and the caution I offer is, get it in writing when you accept the offer.

The criteria for more money must be:

  • Written
  • Objective
  • Achievable, and
  • Measurable.

The agreement must also guarantee the plan throughout your employment, or they’ll reduce it. Few employers will put it in writing because the deal they offer isn’t real to them. That is, they really don’t know what to do with exceptional performers, except promise that they’ll take good care of them… until time comes to pay off. And here’s the serious problem: They can’t accept the idea that paying you a big chunk of a lot of money is better than paying a small percentage of a lot less money. So they lose managers like you.

For some of the very best advice about how to protect yourself when accepting a job offer, see Bernie Dietz’s excellent article, Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection.

None of this helps you now, but it might help you next time. If your boss doesn’t understand that the best way to lose the best employees is to welsh on compensation, then either you adjust your expectations, or you find an employer that is willing to pay for exceptional performance. They’re out there. But you won’t find them by applying for jobs. You pick the sweetest companies, then research the management team — and when you find such a company, you go after it. But once you’ve got the deal you want, get it in writing. It’s not real (as you’ve learned) if they won’t sign it.

But you can still try to fix this now. Try to “renew your wedding vows.” Is the company willing to sign a friendly letter of intent that re-states your original agreement with a firm timeline based on your performance? It’s not too late to amend the employment deal you took.

In Keep Your Salary Under Wraps I recommend William Poundstone’s excellent book, Priceless: The myth of fair value. This book explains how a salary is “anchored” to a low point. Don’t let it happen to you. The book also explains how to pull a negotiation upwards by understanding the parameters of the anchoring effect. Contrary to the conventional wisdom (“Whoever states a number first, loses.”) it turns out that you can control negotiations about money if you know what number to state and how to state it.

Thanks for your kind words. I wish you the best.

Did you get paid what you were promised? Or, did you get suckered into delivering exceptional performance without exceptional compensation? Is it reasonable for employers to avoid big payouts? Let’s talk about how to protect yourself.

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Pssst! Here’s where you should be recruiting top talent!

Here’s an excerpt from a comment posted by Mason on another column, Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke:

The problem is this. Employers actually LOVE this current job market. They can control costs by paying exactly what they want for a given job/position…and they have an ENORMOUS pool of willing applicants from which to choose. Some of them, I would say most of the Fortune 1000, are doing well and extremely profitable. There is little reason or incentive for them to hire more people.

I just got rejected after 9 AM in the morning after I applied for a job at midnight. Something tells me a human didn’t actually read my application.

Companies who treat the employees like crap will be emptied out of their good employees once the economy gets better. Of this I am convinced. If a company craps on people in the bad times, they certainly cannot be trusted in the good times….

I think Mason is right. I saw his prediction come true in Silicon Valley more than once, after a bust cycle turned into a boom. Here’s how it works — and you tell me if you agree.

During a bust, revenues and profits crash. Business tanks, and companies lay off workers because they can’t afford them. As the cycle turns and we start toward a boom (or think we are, anyway), sales take off, revenues spike, and profits surge.

Junk profitability

The dirty little secret, though, is that a big part of the soaring profits stem from higher productivity that results from lower staffing levels. Fewer workers are doing more work, which yields higher profits for employers. This is nice. But it’s unsustainable. It’s junk profitability.

While some of the higher productivity can be attributed to increased efficiencies created by technology, much of it is still due to artificially low staffing levels. Companies today are teetering on the bleeding edge of high profits, and they really don’t want to start hiring again if they can avoid it.

Where the talent is ripe for the picking

The question is, how long can they sustain these levels of productivity and profits? Over-worked employees will leave the minute someone makes them a better offer.

And that’s an enormous opportunity for companies that get it. Riding the wave requires deft skills, and greed just causes more crashes. Some top-notch workers are already looking for better deals — because the economy is at a tipping point.

If you want to recruit top talent — dedicated workers who are ready to move — you need look no farther than the most profitable companies that haven’t been hiring. They may be advertising jobs, but as Mason suggests, they’re just pretending. They’re not hiring at levels significant enough to sacrifice their artificial profits. Their best employees are ripe for the picking.

Note to those employees whose eyes are wandering — these signals point to renewed freedom to negotiate really good compensation and benefits deals. I believe it’s always good to leave a few bucks on the table when negotiating, as a sign of good faith, but don’t leave too much. As Mason suggests, you still can’t really trust them, so take some profit of your own on the front end.

What’s your take?

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Bait & Switch: Games staffing firms play

In the October 23, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks about bait-and-switch contracts used by “staffing” firms.

A recruiter at an IT staffing firm did something that I think is very unethical. I signed a contract with the firm to perform IT duties at a company where I successfully interviewed just days before. It specified the hourly pay and overtime.

I verbally negotiated the rate prior to signing the contract. Unfortunately, I did not ask for a copy of the contract. Yesterday, the recruiter asked me to sign more forms. There was a new contract, and a significant reduction in pay! The overtime was deleted and the pay was stated weekly instead of hourly.

When I pointed this out, the recruiter e-mailed that, “We lost the original contract.” I called the next morning, and the recruiter insisted I sign the new forms and said she would take care of my concerns. When I balked and declined to sign, she said they would redo the forms but it might be a day or two. Meanwhile, I’m supposed to start work tomorrow!

I find this utterly distasteful and unethical. I’m going to wait and see if the recruiter comes up with the correct terms before I contact the staffing account manager or the company I’m supposed to work for.

My question is, why are they stalling with the new contract? Why couldn’t it be immediately corrected? Maybe they are waiting to find something in my background check so they can report to the company that I am “unsuitable” for hire. Then, they can go out and find someone cheaper. What do you suggest?

Nick’s Reply

What you’re describing is, unfortunately, not uncommon in the IT “staffing” or “consulting” biz. (It’s not just the IT field that uses staffing firms.) These companies recruit and hire people, then “rent” them to their client companies at a profit. Things like this happen because overly-eager recruiters get excited when they find a candidate like you. They want to sign you up and assign you to a client, so they promise you a contract that’s to your liking. Later, the sales rep handling the account you’d be assigned to can’t get the rate the recruiter promised you — so the deal changes. It’s a classic bait-and-switch game.

It is crucial that you read everything before you sign, and make sure everything you negotiated is in the written contract.

No matter what you negotiated and they agreed to orally, what matters is what’s in the written contract. Make sure you get the counterpart of the contract — the copy they signed — and tell them you will not report to work until you receive it. Often, a firm will demand that you sign the contract, then they will “forget” to give you the copy they signed.

The games some of these companies play are unethical — but they do it anyway. Your protection is to insist it’s in writing, and to politely but firmly decline to show up for work until the written contract is to your satisfaction.

But be careful. If you sign something without reading it carefully, and then you decide you want different terms, too late — you’re already committed. Be very, very careful. Good contracts make good working relationships.

One tactic they may use is to ignore your requests right up until the last minute, maybe the day you’re supposed to show up for work. This puts you on edge and makes you very nervous. You want the job, but you don’t want the terms. They figure you will cave to get the work, so they will push the envelope hard and far. Unless you have a history of good experiences with them, don’t believe anything until it’s in writing in your hands.

You may really need the job, but you must decide in advance whether you will accept lesser terms or such behavior. Then stay calm, don’t complain, don’t get angry. Just state your terms. Your overriding strategy must be to make yourself highly desirable or indispensable to the consulting firm. Make them need you. Then make your reasonable demands calmly and firmly. Then let them decide, and let them reveal whether they are honest and have integrity.

You’re doing the right thing. This can be risky, but you must decide your tolerance for such risk: If they want to play the last-minute game, you can play, too. Just know what you’re doing in advance, and let this play itself out. If they don’t give you the contract you agreed to, then stop working with them. They’re not honest.

Be careful if you go to the actual employer to discuss this. Do not say nasty things about the firm. Be businesslike. It can be as simple as this:

How to Say It

“I enjoyed meeting with you, and I’d like to work on your team. However, I’m not happy with the way the consulting firm has handled the facts of the project. Is there another consulting firm you use that you respect? Can you recommend someone there that I can talk to?”

Not all companies will answer you — they get nervous. They may even have a contract with the staffing firm that prohibits them from discussing this with you. But you must decide whether integrity is important enough to kill a deal. In the end, you may need to meet a new staffing firm, and a good way to do that is to talk with a company where you’d like to work, and inquire which staffing firm they use. There are some very good staffing firms out there: Get a personal introduction to them, and learn to igore the rest. Get a personal introduction.

As more companies try to avoid the fixed overhead of staff, they’re going to look to hire “on contract.” Do you see this trend in your own business? Have your experiences with staffing firms been good or bad? What would you do in a situation like this? What methods do you use to avoid problems and to get a good deal from staffing firms?

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PBS NewsHour: The new Ask The Headhunter feature

When PBS NewsHour broadcast a TV segment I that I appeared in on September 25, viewers flooded us with questions about online job application forms — and about all kinds of daunting obstacles they face in the job search.

I answered many of their questions in a special column on the NewsHour website. And the questions kept coming.

The host of NewsHour’s Making Sen$e program, Paul Solman, asked me to do a regular Ask The Heahdunter Q&A column — and the feature keeps growing!

It’s Open Mic!

We’ve done Open Mic here on the blog before — and that’s the theme of my new feature on NewsHour.

What’s your problem? What challenges are you facing in your job search — or if you’re a manager and you’re hiring?

Join me for the latest round of Q&A! My hope is that you’ll post your own advice, thoughts, biting commentary, suggestions, and ideas about what makes the employment system stop and go.

Ask The Headhunter Archive

Here’s the archive of Ask The Headhunter columns on NewsHour so far:

Six Secrets To Beat the Job Market

More Job Search Secrets: Show Potential Employers the Money

‘Talk Shop, Not Jobs’: The Right Way to Network and More

How Can Starting Your Own Business Help You Find Employment?

Ask the Headhunter: Insider Secrets to Landing the Job

As long as you keep asking questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. As long as you keep posting your comments, I’ll keep chiming in — and I expect the input and discussion you generate will change some lives, just as it does here on this blog.

The feature has been so popular that each new column has been trending on GoogleNews Spotlight. Join us and keep the discussion lively — and keep us trending!

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