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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Can I play one employer against another to get a better job offer?

In the February 9, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks whether it’s okay to threaten one employer with a job offer from another employer.

Question

I’m a recruiter and I want to address what happens when people are interviewing with multiple employers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting an employer manipulateknow you’re interviewing at other companies. After all, employers acknowledge they’re interviewing more than one candidate. But I think it’s bad form to use one job offer to leverage another one.

If an offer is not what you want, just reject it after trying to negotiate a better one. But don’t threaten an employer with an offer from another employer. I had two employers pull job offers from candidates when the candidates played hardball during negotiations. They said they had other, better offers, hoping to get the employer to raise their bids. In both cases, of course, the candidates were stunned and disappointed the offers were pulled off the table. Lesson learned for them.

Do you agree?

Nick’s Reply

So, there are rules of engagement in interviews? (I know, I’m baiting you, but it’s friendly.) If there are any rules, it seems they’re all designed to benefit employers.

The double standard

I can’t think of one thing employers are expected to do out of respect for candidates.

  • They waste applicants’ time with silly screening interviews by personnel jockeys. (How is it an HR person with no engineering expertise can judge whether a computer design engineer is worth interviewing?)
  • They arrive late for interviews with impunity. (“We are very busy.”)
  • They want urine samples.
  • They leave applicants hanging for months after promising feedback “in a couple of weeks.”
  • They demand private information — social security numbers and salary history — before even meeting the candidate!

A double standard has long been in place. It’s time to remove it. Job applicants are constantly and sternly warned by HR and “career experts” about what to wear, say, not say, how to act, and so on.

  • “Don’t ask what the job pays.”
  • “Don’t tell us you’ve got other opportunities.”
  • “Don’t try to leverage a better salary.”

Think about it. Would you give your SSN to someone who asked you out on a date? Would you give them your home address, before the date? Would you agree to take a personality test before going to dinner? Of course not. Employers’ expectations are bizarre and self-serving. But there’s an intimidation factor at work: If you want to be considered for a job, learn to heel, learn to beg.

I don’t agree with you

If a job candidate believes using one employer to force another employer’s hand might work, by all means do it. You point out that employers interview lots of candidates. They often say, “We found some other very good candidates, so we’re not making a decision about you yet.”

How’s that statement any more legit than, “I’m talking to another excellent employer who is interested in hiring me, and we’re talking about a higher salary than you’ve suggested”?

On the other hand, if you don’t want to disclose that you’re talking to other employers (or who they are), then it’s also legit to decline to disclose even if you’re asked.

A job interview is a negotiation on all levels. Be honest, be polite and professional, and demonstrate integrity — but you’re not required to pull punches. (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball After The Interview.)

If you think you can get more money by pointing out that another company has made you a better offer, then use that as leverage. Of course, be aware that you might not get a higher offer. (And please don’t confuse my advice about using one offer to leverage another with using a job offer to extort a higher salary from your current employer. See “Don’t use an offer to get a raise” in Naive young grad blows it.)

If the employer plays at being offended or appalled, move on to someone who is an adult and ready to negotiate. (See Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money.)

Be realistic about negotiating

There is, of course, a difference between trying to leverage a better deal and threatening or offending someone. Negotiating requires tact and integrity, and it requires that you behave reasonably and realistically. Perhaps most important, you must demonstrate that what you’re suggesting will benefit both you and the employer. Never ask for more money just because you want it; show why you’re worth it. (See The Basics: The New Interview and The New Interview Instruction Book.)

As for those employers who pull offers because the candidates played hardball during negotiations, that’s the employers’ prerogative. It’s also up to candidates to decide whether those employers are worth working for. (Please note: I think pulling an offer during negotiations is very different from rescinding an offer that the applicant has agreed to accept. See Protect yourself from exploding job offers.)

Employers have a lot to lose by disrespecting job applicants. Pretending that salary doesn’t matter is just plain goofy — yet many employers act like it’s bad form to talk money before agreeing to a job interview. But, why would anyone agree to lengthy discussions if they don’t know whether the salary for the job is high enough to justify all the talking? It’s just not realistic, and employers don’t get a pass when they’re goofy.

Leverage if you want to

Telling an employer you’ve got a better deal elsewhere may not be inappropriate. Use your best judgment. There’s nothing inherently wrong in playing one option against another — employers do it every day when they interview candidates! It doesn’t make you bad or rude unless you behave badly or rudely. Money is a serious factor in doing business. Just ask the company’s CFO. It matters all the time. So, don’t let employers intimidate you into a corner. Think about your situation, and decide whether to use one employer to leverage a deal from another.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve seen employers end interviews when candidates admit they’re interviewing with other companies. That’s akin to dumping a date who says they’ve been on other dates. We’re dealing with naivete.)

For more about negotiating higher job offers successfully, see these sections of the PDF book Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers:

  • Am I unwise to accept their first offer? (pp. 8-9)
  • How to Say It: I accept, but I’d like more money (p. 9)
  • The bird-in-the-hand rule of job offers (pp. 12-14)
  • Juggling job offers (15-17)

How do you negotiate? Do you let employers impose a double standard? Are you intimidated by “employers’ rules” — or do you insist on candor in the negotiating process?

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What’s the secret to the thank-you note?

In the February 2, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks about adding value after a job interview.

Question

Your newsletter has been an education for me. First as an employer, now as an applicant seeking to move on. But, there’s one topic you haven’t mentioned: the thank-you, or follow-up letter. When should it be sent? After the first interview, after the interview with the top dog, or both? And, what should it say?

value-addedI just sent one, after talking to the top dog. I repeated that I am interested in the position and told him of my immediate schedule. More importantly, and motivated by your columns, I told him about some activity of a standards committee that might have a strategic impact on his operations. I said I would be joining the committee, ex officio, by contributing some research I was doing, and I also told him what my input would be if I were working for him.

Back to my question: I think the best way to show I can solve his problems (and that I am more “dialed in” than his present staff, who are unaware of the standards committee) is in the follow-up letter. What do you think?

Nick’s Reply

Ah, you’re living proof that the employment system brainwashes us all and that smart people dumb down when they go job hunting! (See Employment In America: WTF is going on?)

You have answered your own question, but I think you’re worried you’re violating some interviewing protocol. Your idea is good — you did the right thing.

When to send a follow-up letter or e-mail is up to you. Trust your judgment. The main purpose of such a note is to add value for the benefit of the employer. My advice would be to send it to the manager you’d work for if you were hired, right after you’ve met with him. That’s the person you need to impress with your value. (See The most important question in an interview.)

I like what you did in your follow-up letter. You provided value. You offered information and a suggestion that could — if used properly — contribute to the employer’s bottom line. That’s a very powerful follow-up to an interview, because it demonstrates your commitment to help the business. Now that I’ve set you loose, here are a few tips that might help you avoid going a little too far next time.

  • Be judicious when communicating your value. Remember that some managers might feel threatened by too much “value” in your presentation. Be careful you don’t come across as a know-it-all.
  • Balance your ability to do the work with your ability to work with others. If this top dog’s team doesn’t know about the standards committee, you might suggest how they could use what you know, rather than emphasize that they don’t know it.
  • Be diplomatic. Avoid expressions like, “I can solve your problems” or “the best way to do this is…” It may seem obvious, but while you’re trying to follow The Headhunter’s approach, it’s easy to fall into the self-aggrandizement trap. You may be the best solution, but the manager needs to feel that’s his conclusion, not yours.

So, how do you go about communicating your value without risking going too far? Pretend you’re sitting around a conference table with the manager’s entire team. All eyes are on you. Your presentation will determine whether these people decide to hire you.

Batter up!

How would you present yourself? How would you articulate your ideas in that setting? Do you want to whack one out of the park, or hit a ground-roll double to knock in a few guys who are already on base? The choice is yours, but consider what the employer is looking for: a team player, or a solo star? Then craft your note to suit the situation. (See The New Interview.)

I think that’s how you want to come across in your follow-up letter. That’s the secret to a powerful thank-you note. (For more tips about thank-you notes, see Thanks is not enough.)

Do you send thank-you notes? Are they even necessary? If you use them, what do you include? To whom do you send them? Please share the outcomes of your best and worst efforts.

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Protect yourself from exploding job offers

I don’t know where they’re all coming from: bogus job offers extended by employers, then withdrawn after the job applicant has relied on the offer and quit their old job. In the January 19, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is smart enough to ask how to avoid being left without a job at all.

Question

I’m on contract at a job through a staffing firm. I have found a better position somewhere else. The new company offered the job and I accepted. I’m trying to do this right and to protect myself, so I have two questions:

First, to whom should I direct my resignation letter? To my recruiter at the staffing firm, or to the manager of the department where I’m actually working (at my recruiter’s client)?

bombSecond, I’m scared of telling whoever I’m supposed to tell, and later receiving a letter from my future employer saying that they decided to close the position for internal reasons or something like that. I don’t want to be left without any job at all.

Help ASAP please.

Nick’s Reply

How you quit your job matters as much as what new job you take. Let’s take your questions one at a time.

How to quit

If you’re working on contract through a staffing firm, your employer is the staffing firm. You need to tell them. Of course, the right thing to do is to also tell your manager — but I think it’s best to notify your actual employer first. They should have a chance to limit their exposure by offering a replacement worker to your manager, and your manager should hear it from them.

Here’s a tip from Parting Company: How to leave your job about what to say in a resignation letter, from the section, “Resign Yourself To Resigning Right,” p. 46:

The letter should be just one sentence because — sorry to be the cynic, but careers and lives might hinge on this — it can come back and bite you legally if it says anything more.

“I, John Jones, hereby resign my position with Acme Corporation.”

I won’t get into all the things that might go wrong if you say more, but I detail the risks in the book.

Submitting your resignation is the easy part. The recruiter at your staffing firm isn’t going to be happy that you’re quitting. What will you do when the recruiter, your boss, or your co-workers press you for details? Here’s another tip from the book (p. 47):

Keep your future to yourself. It’s nice to share your new address with your buddies. But if someone thinks your new employer is a competitor, suddenly that comfortable two-week notice can turn into an immediate departure. Or worse.

How to Say It
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to disclose my new employer until I’m actually working there.”

That’s right: Disclosing where you’re going is very risky. Don’t do it.

How to avoid job offers that blow up in your face

As for being scared that the future employer may rescind — or never finalize — the offer, that can always happen. It’s a risk you take when you accept any job, because — especially in a jurisdiction where employment is “at will” — an employer can fire you at any time for any reason or no reason. But you can minimize the risk when you accept a job:

1. Make sure you have the new offer in writing. An oral offer is not good enough to risk your old job.

2. Beware of staffing firms. Is the offer from another staffing firm or an actual company where you’d be working? If it’s a staffing firm, I think your risk is bigger because recruiters will sometimes drop you if they turn up a better applicant for the client — right in the middle of the hiring process, and even after commitments are made. Likewise, the client can suddenly change its mind, and you wind up on the street. Because hiring through a staffing firm is at arm’s length, employers seem to think they have no obligation to consider the consequences for the new hire.

3. Meet the new HR manager before quitting your old job, but after they’ve promised an offer. This is a technique of personal politics. They’re not likely to meet with you if they’re not certain they’re hiring you. Insist on a face-to-face meeting with HR before you resign your old job. It’s a simple fact of social psychology: People are less likely to hurt you once they’ve met you face to face.

4. Meet your new boss. Before you quit your old job, insist on a meeting with your new boss to discuss your job responsibilities, on-boarding process, what tools you’ll be using, and so on. This forces the manager to put some skin in the game and makes it emotionally harder for them to back out — but even this is no guarantee.

5. Here’s my secret weapon. This is something I want an employer to do after it has given my candidate a job offer, but before the candidate accepts the job (or quits the old job, of course). Ask to meet some of the team members you’ll be working with. The sooner the better. This will reveal how serious they are about really filling this job and having you there. If the company balks at this, I’d never quit my old job until I’ve got some other hard evidence that the new job is for real. (For more about this, see How can I find the truth about a company?)

Limiting your risk when quitting one job and accepting another is more about personal politics than anything else. An employer (or staffing firm) can rescind an offer any time. You’d need a lawyer to fight back. I think the better strategy is to get close to the new boss and team — and to take measures to force the staffing firm to show you that the offer and the job are real. Then there’s less chance that this will go south.

Be tough

Many employers — especially staffing firms — will balk at what I’m suggesting. They want to hire as effortlessly as possible. Their attitude is, “We’ve got other applicants like you waiting — we’re not going to waste our time making you feel all warm and fuzzy about taking this job.”

Well, that’s tough. Would you accept an offer of marriage from someone who won’t spend enough time with you to really make you feel loved? Don’t be in such a hurry to tie the knot before you can judge whether your suitor is for real. If an employer isn’t willing to invest time to assure you that a job offer is real, then it’s probably not worth risking your old job.

In the end, you must use your best judgment and decide whether to make the leap. If your gut tells you something is wrong, listen to your gut.

While my objective here is to help you land a great new job, my first concern is that you should not get hurt in the process. You must learn how to recognize a risky job offer before it blows up in your face.

Lately I’m getting a surprising number of questions from readers about job offers that explode — after the candidate relies on them to make career and financial decisions. I think employers, HR departments, and staffing firms have crossed a critical line that’s telling us they’re either stupid and inept, or that they’re callous and lack integrity. When the employer “takes back” a job offer for any reason, the applicant usually cannot “take back” a resignation. In one case, a reader cancelled her lease, moved her family, and wound up homeless because a personnel jockey instructed her husband to quit his job and move to a new city — then the jockey reneged on the promise of the new job.

I’m collecting stories about exploding job offers because I’m worried this is a dangerous new trend. I think we should chronicle and discuss it, to help you avoid having job offers blow up in your face.

Got a story about exploding job offers — or do you know someone who does? Please post it. Has an employer ever instructed you to quit your old job before giving you a written offer, or has an offer ever been rescinded? What did you do? How would you advise the reader in this week’s Q&A?

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How to work with headhunters

In the December 22, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we talk about how to work with headhunters.

Is it good to work with many headhunters? That’s a question I am asked a lot. You might be surprised at my answer — and at the risks you face if you don’t know what you’re doing. These two Q&As are from “Section 2: Working With Headhunters to Get Ahead” of the best-selling How To Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you, pp. 52-53.

christmas-treeQuestion

How many headhunters should I work with at a time? And how do you gauge when it’s time to increase your exposure to more of them?

Nick’s Reply

Don’t confuse real headhunters with people who solicit your resume blindly. These might include employment agencies, job shops and HR recruiters who work within corporations. (See They’re not headhunters.)

Many of these not-headhunters may approach you. Giving them your resume indiscriminately is like giving your credit card number to every telemarketer who calls. You won’t like having lots of recruiters working with you, especially if two or more of them give your resume to the same company.

Don’t let a headhunter’s conflict of interest cost you a job

If, somehow, multiple headhunters approach you at the same time, then you need to know just one thing: Do they each represent a different company?

If yes, then you’d be looking at different job opportunities and it’s fine to work with all of them at once. There should be no overlap in their assignments and no conflict for you.

If there is an overlap, then one company is unwisely using multiple contingency headhunters to fill the same position. (To learn more about contingency headhunters, see How should headhunters fit into your job search?) The company is putting its headhunters into competition with one another. That’s like assigning two sales reps to sell to the same prospect — the company reveals poor judgment and sloppy hiring practices.

Even so, you can still entertain an opportunity, but you would be wise to let just one headhunter present you to the company. Otherwise, you will likely be rejected out of hand because the company could wind up in the middle of a fee fight.

Who would be due the fee if you were hired? If the company interviews you via two headhunters — even if it’s for two completely different jobs — and then hires you, it could owe the fee twice. Don’t get in the middle of it. Work with only one headhunter at a time with respect to a particular employer.

Know what you’re doing

So the answer to your question has two parts. First, understand that if a lot of “headhunters” are soliciting you, it’s probably not wise to work with them because they have not carefully selected you. They are merely interested in blasting your resume around, hoping for a hit. Second, if two or more headhunters contact you about different jobs at different companies, it’s fine to work with all of them — as long as you are sure they are not going to run into one another. This is why it’s so important to control your resume. You must insist that each headhunter take no action on opportunities other than those you discuss specifically.

Question

Is there a way to get multiple headhunters to call on me about legitimate job opportunities?

Nick’s Reply

There are indeed ways to get on the radar to attract multiple good headhunters who want to talk with you about multiple unrelated jobs at different companies. If you want to be visible to good headhunters and lure their calls, then you must use bait. This isn’t easy and it’s not for everyone. (Headhunters don’t want everyone.)

Good bait includes:

  • Writing industry articles in respected publications. Headhunters read these to identify the opinion-makers in an industry.
  • Getting noticed in the professional industry press. The only thing better than writing articles is articles written about you. Headhunters notice.
  • Speaking at a conference or industry event. Headhunters sometimes start searches by turning to prominent sources, and that includes prominent events.
  • Being the subject of respectful discussion among notable members of your profession. Headhunters tap into such dialogues in person, online and via e-mail. Professionals tend to talk about the people they respect. That’s who headhunters want.

The quality of the venue matters a lot. For example, just because you blog or someone blogged about you doesn’t mean headhunters will find you. The venue might be big or niche, but its reputation must be solid.

Get the idea? You need to get yourself out there. That’s how headhunters find you. (See Good Headhunters: They search for living resumes.) And that’s the crux of the Ask The Headhunter approach to job hunting.

Don’t appear desperate

Most people who want headhunters’ attention take the heavily advertised path, which usually leads nowhere. They promote themselves brazenly. They send their resumes to lots of headhunters using one of the many “headhunter directories” published in paper format or online. I think you’d be wasting your time.

The odds that a headhunter is going to place you are small. If it makes you feel good to flood the headhunting industry with your resume, that’s up to you. My concern is that you will lull yourself into thinking you are conducting a job search when all you’re doing is throwing darts at a wall. And you will make yourself seem desperate for attention. Good headhunters don’t pursue desperate people.


I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from How To Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you!

Want more?

Don’t miss these 62 in-your-face questions answered in a 130-page guide that reads like a series of conversations over a cup of coffee with the headhunter who put the profit equation back into job hunting and hiring. Includes:

  • Why don’t headhunters return my calls?
  • What’s the secret to getting on a headhunter’s list?
  • How can I become the headhunter’s #1 candidate?
  • How can I find a good headhunter?
  • And much, much more!

caneWhat are your rules for working with headhunters? Have you been burned?

A very Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah to you and yours — and anything else you celebrate!

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Ask this question before you agree to an interview

In the December 15, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains that employers hide the money.

Question

On an almost weekly basis, headhunters ping me about technical jobs they want to fill, but they won’t tell me what a job will pay. Then we get down to the brass tacks, and rarely do any of these corporations want to pay what I know I’m worth for what I bring to the table.

lips-sealedMy skill set wasn’t developed by being average, and I will not accept anything average. I make my employer lots of money. I impact the bottom line and that will cost you.

It’s interesting to watch companies lose money because they employed campers instead of climbers. I’m willing to do the job for those employers, but when I tell them they need to pay me $25k more than they’re paying the campers, they squeal. Meanwhile, millions are being lost right in front of their eyes. Yet they expect me to interview without disclosing what a job will pay. Their lips are sealed until after the interviewing is done. What’s up with that?

Nick’s Reply

It’s pretty astonishing how many consumers and employers are tire-kickers. They won’t spend what’s necessary on the product, service, or hire that they want. But they will keep looking, usually until they find a less costly solution — and by that time, they convince themselves it’s sufficient.

Employers view new hires as an expense, not an investment. An expense costs you. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.) A good investment generates a good return. It seems few employers look for returns — they’re just trying to fill jobs with bodies (that don’t cost much). Then they wonder why their business is mediocre if not failing.

I think the prudent approach is to have a simple protocol for limiting the time you spend with headhunters. In my opinion, it has to involve an up-front discussion about salary range. (See Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money.) Many people think it’s too forward or inappropriate to ask what the salary is — and employers love that.

It’s the old foot-in-the-door sales approach. The more time and effort employers can get you to spend talking to them, the more chance you’ll compromise on the money later on, to justify all the time you spent.

I say bunk to that. We all know money is the first bridge, so cross it immediately. Don’t let it seem complicated. When an employer or headhunter solicits you for a job, here’s how to proceed. Always ask this question before you agree to do an interview:

How to Say It
“So, what’s the pay like?”

Yes, that’s all it takes: an off-handed, casual, natural, obvious question. (That tip is part of “The Pool-Man Strategy: How to ask for more money,” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games, pp. 13-15.)


BIG-FJH-PKGGot a job-hunting friend who’s terrified of job hunting? Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection makes a great gift! Order now and save 30%! Use discount code XMAS and save 30% at checkout! (This limited offer applies only to Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection.)


Would you take a nice-looking bottle of wine to the checkout counter at a liquor store if it doesn’t have a price tag on it? Of course not. So, why would you agree to spend hours talking about a job whose salary range you don’t know? You might have to put that job back on the shelf, after you’ve wasted precious time and energy.

When an employer declines to disclose the salary range for a job, it’s time to end the discussion. Don’t be afraid to ask the salary before you agree to interview. (Of course, you should keep your own salary under wraps!)

You have no idea what the job pays? Then why are you interviewing for it? What’s the big secret?? How do you handle situations where an employer refuses to tell you what the salary is for a job?

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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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You’re The Headhunter!

In the December 1, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, you are in control!

Step right up…

Every week, I answer your questions in the Ask The Headhunter e-mail newsletter, and then we adjourn here, where we discuss and hash out the issues and options behind the Q&A. I like to tell people that the advice, comments and insights you share on the blog are just as much a part of Ask The Headhunter as anything I write.

got-adviceThis week I want to try something different. Rather than me answering questions, I’d like to invite you to be The Headhunter — I’d like you to deliver the advice!

Please read the three short questions below, submitted by other readers, and put yourself in my shoes. What advice would you give these folks? What issues and options would you suggest these troubled readers focus on to solve their problems?

Then I’ll put myself in your shoes and add my comments, and we can all chew on it together. Maybe this will turn into a new feature — and we’ll be able to cover many more Q&As each week! (You should see the backlog in my e-mail folder!)

I’ve seeded each Q&A with some relevant resources to help you get started, but I’m counting on you to provide the real advice!

When you post your advice below, please indicate which question you’re responding to — A, B or C. Feel free to answer more than one! Please include links to any favorite Ask The Headhunter resources you think are relevant!


Question A

I sent my resume and cover letter in response to a job ad. The company says they’re interested, yet of course I have to fill out an online application. Does anyone really think I know the day I graduated school or left a job 20 years ago? Or my starting and ending salary? Worse yet — they want my GPA and my SAT score?

I put one trillion for the SAT score since it had to have a number. Of course, they also wanted a specific salary — not even a range. I left out my Social Security Number and I don’t care if it loses me the job — I am not throwing that information all over the Internet to every company that’s hiring for a job!

Is there any way around this when you can’t proceed without providing all this insane amount of detail?

What’s your reply?

You’re The Headhunter this week. Please post your advice to Question A!

Some References: Those pesky job application forms, Wanted: HR exec with the guts to not ask for your SSN.

 


Question B

My daughter was offered a job. Had to be drug tested. On the weekend she received an e-mail instructing her to report to orientation. She gave notice at her old job. Then she called with a question about where to report, and was told they didn’t mean to send her the notice of orientation because she flunked the drug test. Now she is going to be out of her old job without a new one. What can she do? She quit, thinking everything was okay.

What’s your reply?

Be The Headhunter this week. Please post your advice to Question B!

Reference: Pop Quiz: Can an employer take back a job offer?

 


Question C

I passed a phone interview and now I’m invited to “meet the team” at an upcoming technical conference. They haven’t offered to pay the registration fee and I, being unemployed, can’t afford it. I believe they are well-meaning but insensitive. I don’t want to embarrass myself by telling them my problem. How best to finesse this?

What’s your reply?

You’re The Headhunter this week. Please add your reply to Question C!

Reference: Why employers should pay to interview you.

 


This week, you’re The Headhunter! I hope you’ll take over and respond to the three questions above. (This is not a test! You’re hired to come back next week whether you participate or not! No SSN or salary history required!)

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The Training Gap: How employers lose their competitive edge

In the November 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions the lunacy of the training gap.

Question

I am responding to your question asking whether or not we, your readers, agree with employers that there is a “skills gap.” I am not sure I can really answer your question, though I will tell you that I have my doubts that there is a skills gap.

I think what there may be is a training gap.

What I can tell you is this. Back in 1986 I was hired by an insurance company as a computer programmer after having completed four years of college (linguistics major), followed by a six-month program in data processing. While I did have training going into the job, the company provided me and my co-workers with a lot of on-the-job training. They had an education department, and we all went through hours, and hours, and hours of paid on-the-job training in computer programming.

My understanding about the reason the company did this was because they wanted to train us to do things the way loser2they wanted them done.

My question to you is, do you find that kind of thing to be true anymore? Are companies willing to invest in training their employees after they have been hired? Or are companies no longer willing to do that?

Nick’s Reply

You’re hitting on one of the key issues behind the so-called “talent and skills shortage.” Who is actually responsible for brewing talent and skills? Job seekers? Schools? Employers themselves?

It seems clear in today’s economy that most employers believe they should be able to acquire skills ready-made. Despite the fact that the nature of a job depends a lot on a particular company’s business — jobs are not one-size-fits-all-companies, after all — businesses expect that the exact constellation of skills they need is going to walk in the door just because they advertised for it.

The training gap is real

Consider the embarrassing contradiction: Any company will tell you that it is the most competitive one in its industry, that its products are uniquely the best, that what they deliver isn’t available anywhere else.

So, why is it they expect the unique talent they want to hire already exists, as if it comes in a can to be purchased on a job board — or that it already exists at a competing company? They might as well admit that their products are the same as everyone else’s.

If you admit you can get your new hires wholly-made from another employer — your competitor — then you might as well tell your customers to buy what they need there, too. If a company wants the skills and talents it needs to be unique and competitive, it had better take responsibility for creating them.

I don’t believe there’s any talent or skills gap. At least in the United States, talent abounds. There’s arguably more talent on the street, looking for work, than ever in history. But to make a worker an element of its unique, competitive edge, the company must make that worker in its own image. It must cast the worker as unique as its products or services. It takes the same kind of investment to brew talent as to brew a competitive product.

We know for a fact that employers have indeed cut back enormously on training. It’s been confirmed by Wharton researcher Peter Cappelli. He’s shown that, adjusting for time, technology, and other factors, American workers are no less skilled or educated than they’ve ever been. However, employers have all but stopped training employees. Employers own the problem – they created it. (See Employment in America: WTF is going on? and Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need.)

Cappelli writes in the Wall Street Journal:

“Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore. Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Bye-bye, competitive edge!

Your 1986 story confirms Cappelli’s finding that, not very long ago, employers considered training important. Today, it’s pathetic. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. HR departments think they can buy off-the-self workers who don’t need or deserve training or skills development, while their marketing departments claim the company’s products are unique, state-of-the-art and without equal. This training gap is the pinnacle of corporate hypocrisy.

Then there’s the industry that aids and abets it. LinkedIn and other job boards successfully market the fraudulent notion that “we have the perfect candidate in our database – just keep looking!” (See Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired — Or, Why LinkedIn gets paid even when jobs don’t get filled.) Employers buy that bunk sandwich in bulk, and stuff it into their recruiting strategies and hiring policies. They behave as if they can hire “just in time” the “perfect candidate” who has been doing the same job for five years already — at a lower salary.

What job seeker wants either of those two “qualities” in a new job?

loserWhen companies fail to educate, train and develop their new hires and existing employees, I think they say goodbye to any competitive edge. Their customers get cookie-cutter products and services. What this state of affairs tells us is that there’s a talent shortage in corporate leadership. (See Talent Shortage, Or Poor Management?)

As long as employers treat people — that “human resource,” that “human asset” — as a fungible commodity or interchangeable parts to be bought and sold as-is, their products and services will be no better than interchangeable parts sold at the lowest possible price.

Take a look at another article by Peter Cappelli, where he slaps management hard upside the head with this apt analogy:

“Imagine a car manufacturer that decided to buy a key engine component for its cars rather than make them. The requirements for that component change every year, and if you can’t get one that fits, the car won’t run. What would we say about that manufacturer if it just assumed the market would deliver the new component with the specifications it needed when it needed it and at the price it needed? It would certainly flunk risk management. Yet that’s what these…companies are doing.”

I think Cappelli answers your question, and I don’t think there’s any debate: Most companies no longer invest in shaping and developing their employees. Their talent-challenged finance executives preach that cost reduction is a better path to profitability than investment. This exacts an enormous price on our economy because it’s relegating those companies to the scrap heap of “me-too enterprises,” and it’s failing our workforce as a whole.

I also think you highlight the solution: “…the reason the company [provided extensive education and development]… was because they wanted to train us to do things the way they wanted them done.” That’s what gave your employer an edge. No investment in training means no edge.

Drive by and keep your edge

My advice: Keep on truckin’ right past employers that provide no education, training or development to new hires and employees. These are companies that don’t invest in their future success — or yours.

Go find their able competitors. There are some good ones out there. They’re not easy to find, just like talent isn’t easy to develop. (That’s why you should pursue the best companies — not jobs.) The mark of a truly competitive product is the unique skills and talents a company developed to produce it.

The next time you interview a company, ask to see their employee training and development plan. If they don’t have a good one, tell them your career plan is to avoid working in a stagnant environment. Flip them a quarter and tell them to call their next candidate, because they probably still have a pay phone in the lunch room.

thanksgivingDoes your employer provide training and development to give you (and itself) a competitive advantage? When you’re job hunting, do you ask about employee education? If you’re an employer, what kind of training to you do?

All the best to you and yours for a Happy Thanksgiving!

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Get the manager’s resume before you interview for the job

In the November 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants a resume from the employer.

Question

Don’t you think jobs should have “resumes?” Assuming an interview has been scheduled, should an applicant ask for a formal, printed description of the job to retain and review before a job offer is made, or only after an offer is presented?

submit-resumeHere’s what I’ve never understood. Employers insist on having my resume before an interview. But all the applicant has is a scant job posting, or sometimes only a general verbal description of the job. It seems having a formal, written job description would help the applicant, just like a resume helps an employer. The applicant could look closely at whether there’s a good match.

Should the prospective employer be expected to provide this type of document to the applicant? If it’s not provided, should I just roll the dice?

Nick’s Reply

You’re raising an excellent question. (But I’ve got a bigger question. Read on.) If HR needs to know all about you before an interview, doesn’t it owe you all the information about the job? (See Now THIS is a job description!)

Recently a reader told me that after an employer decided to hire him, it learned he had an advanced degree that he did not report on the resume. (He’d heard it might actually hurt his chances, so he left the degree off the resume. So it was an omission, not a falsehood.) The employer rescinded the offer because the applicant “lied”!

What happens when an employer fails to disclose all the information about a job until after an offer is made? If it’s never happened to you, I’m sure you know someone who accepted a job, only to learn it wasn’t what they interviewed for.

Many employers don’t seem very concerned that the job you interview for is not the job in the ad. This is even more important when a recruiter solicits you for a job — they usually tell you very little, except that the job is “perfect” for you. Who has ever gone on a job interview suggested by a recruiter and found that the job was “exactly” as the recruiter described it? (Gimme a break! I’m still laughing! Check out Roasting the job description.)

Where’s the job’s resume?

I think it’s prudent to ask for the formal, written job description prior to the interview, “for your records,” especially when you’re dealing with a recruiter. They want your resume, right? What’s the difference?

I’ll bet many HR people would decline to provide it because it’s “proprietary” or “not set in stone.” But, again — they want your resume, which is just as proprietary, and they want it to include everything.

How are you supposed to consider the job without the formal, written job description? What risks are you taking when you don’t have the complete story? In many cases, the big risk is that the hiring manager hasn’t a complete idea of what the job really is — and you’ll be judged on whatever performance criteria the manager invents after the fact.

Now, I’m not saying every job should be exhaustively defined. In fact, I like jobs that will evolve — but the manager and employer should make that clear from the start. Pretending doesn’t cut it, a manager who doesn’t really know what she needs doesn’t cut it, and obscuring the holes in a job definition isn’t fair. (See Don’t suck canal water if you’re confused.)

Where’s the manager’s resume?

But now let’s get really serious and question authority. Let’s make the leap to the bigger question this all begs: Why don’t employers give you the hiring manager’s resume — and resumes of people you’ll be working with? After all, you’re going to be throwing in with them. Don’t you have an obligation to your career to know who they are before you sign up?

Imagine. Because your success and your career will hinge enormously on who those people really are. Don’t you want to see their credentials?

There are several questions you must ask an employer — particularly after it’s made you a job offer. That’s when negotiating power shifts to you, because now they’ve established that they want you. What comes next is working out the terms, and one of the terms is information about your new co-workers. Politely ask to see their creds. (For more about this critical point in the interview process, see Deal-breaker questions to ask employers. Don’t be one of those job candidates who miss their chance to protect their future.)

I’d love to know how employers respond to this, because they make the hiring process so irrational and one-sided that it’s actually absurd. (For more about my take on how employers recruit, see Respecting The Candidate.) A job is a partnership, so let’s see more due diligence from job applicants, and more transparency from employers before a hire is made.

Don’t you think fewer interviews would wind up being a waste of time if you had the spec sheet for the job in hand first? Does it make sense to get the team’s resumes, too, before you meet with them to interview?

Do employers and recruiters give you clear, detailed job descriptions — as detailed as the resume they want from you? Do you ask for them? Are the jobs you interview for exactly as they were represented to begin with? What happens when they’re not? Finally: What do you really know about the manager and members of the team you’re joining?

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