Monday, April 14, 2014

When is it Appropriate to Ask for a Reference?

Periodically updating and having a resume ready or nearly ready to use at any given circumstance is a good idea in the current economic climate. My own thinking is that people should always be at least passively looking for a job regardless of their situation; and by passive, I mean simply keeping your ears open, being receptive to consider opportunities – that’s all, no big deal. I’ve written other blog entries that discuss it more fully but, even then, it’s simply a short blog entry, my book provides more detail. The same goes for references, don’t wait to be asked for them before you start scrambling one step behind where you should be; that’s what the zombies do, reacting with no forethought – and as is their nature, zombies don’t take my advice because it means having to think one move or more ahead in the chess game of life – they’re having a tough enough time just playing checkers.
As for when to ask for references, you do it as opportunity affords rather than after a hiring manager alerts you to the request. For example, if you are leaving a company or if someone who is a potential reference is going elsewhere – ask them if they are willing and would be a reference and get their private contact details. If you wait you may not be able to locate them, might waste time trying to find them and the longer span of time the less enthusiastic they may be, and how confident, as a result, will you feel about presenting such a reference.
Being a bit of an opportunist should be a factor in your thinking as well. After you’ve gotten a pat on the back for a job well done, a project concluded or any other event that puts you in a good light, ask if they would provide you with a reference for your file. This simple act does not mean you are looking for a job and you can reasonably suggest you maintain a file of such items. And what if a boss suspects you may possibly be looking for a job, or at a minimum keeping your options open – good, all the better. It is possible whomever you ask may put you off and suggest that if / when the time comes they are happy to be a reference; that is also a plus, add their name to your go-to list.
I am also a strong believer in the use of written reference letters because it doesn’t matter if they might be on vacation or you have to track them down, you’ll have a written reference in the meantime that may bridge the gap.  The best thing about a written reference is two-fold, it shows someone thought enough about you to produce a written statement on your behalf and the second reason –you know what they will say about you. But this subject also, regarding the value and use of written references, is also the topic of another past blog in the archives listed on the blog site.
My biggest task, generally speaking, is to break the bad habit of people thinking they can sit back, do nothing and when they need a job succumb to the false premise that all you need to do is send a few resumes and voila, you have a great new job. It doesn’t work that way. Not planning ahead is the biggest reason people find themselves freaked out because they have said to themselves “I’ll do it later”. I suppose that from a business perspective I am urging people to acquire and develop some professional survival skills. If the word survival is a little strident for you, use the term adaptable.
Surely you’ve heard of Preppers, or at least the term; those who accumulate and prepare things in order to be ready in the case of a hurricane, a prolonged power outage or any number of contingencies. Well, the global economy and subsequent jobs market is more erratic than ever and I am suggesting you adopt just such a mindset regarding your career readiness and, if need be, your career survival. I don’t have much pity for those who know they should do something in order to better provide for themselves; the means and info to take advantage is there for them and they do nothing, lazily awaiting something or someone else to do it for them.
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Monday, April 7, 2014

“Sign Here”

For many years I have advised people that, until they have a signed offer letter in their hand with an agreed-upon start date, they don’t have a job offer. Anything less is just a piece of paper or an email with little real value to you. That doesn’t mean it is of no value, it may be communicating an intention thereby making it a letter of intent, something hypothetical around which to base further substantive conversation by placing words into context. If it is sincere, it is a step in the right direction – but let’s get one thing straight, it is not a job offer. If it sounds as if I am splitting hairs I’m sorry, but when you are contemplating a decision that impacts you and your family – in this current job market and sluggish economy, all parties should be taking discussions of this type very seriously-- I hope you are paying attention and not leaving it to others to do the right thing. But what happens when you receive something described as a job offer, which isn’t, especially if it is something upon which they want your signature? Trusting in someone else and abrogating what is in your best interests to others is just plain careless. If you receive something described as a job offer, a real job offer should include some of the following:
  • A specific job title and brief description of the role in which you will conduct your function
  • Indication of either the person or department you will report to in the reporting structure or organizational hierarchy
  • State your compensation level (details are usually contained in another document)
  • Clearly show your start date
To be fair, a job offer may not list all of these and the details might be on a separate work contract. However, any document that lacks most or all of these things cannot be described as a job offer.
Furthermore, if you are being pressured to hurry up and sign and you are not provided with sufficient time or information with which to make an informed decision, they might not be intentionally trying to mislead you, but you can be sure that at a minimum they are more interested in their own wellbeing than yours; this is why you have to pay close attention. This is especially true if you, by coincidence, receive something to sign within a day or less of a deadline. For example, in retail and other positions you may not receive anything to sign until the day you start – or even later. No one can make you sign anything if you don’t want to. Of course I am providing general advice and you should familiarize yourself with the labor laws in the state or nation where you will be employed.
Conditions are increasingly trending less advantageous to employees; companies are more lawyered up than ever, so you’ve got to pay close attention and when you get a job offer and subsequent contract READ IT (all of it)! If something doesn’t pass the smell test, ask. And if you fear their reaction to a few questions for more clarification, then why are you considering working for people with whom you’re nervous to speak? On the other side, don’t succumb to appeals to your vanity or ego and consider the offer objectively.  Keep your eye on the ball and if you have questions or doubts, seek clarification; especially if the words on paper do not reflect what has been verbally agreed.
Shared risk and mutual respect should be the benchmark of any business relationship. Anything less puts one or the other side in a vulnerable position. Getting the best deal you can before you sign, or don’t sign, depends on the substance of the job offer – a real job offer, which is all you have to go by when you make your decision.
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Monday, March 31, 2014

Exercise Caution When Enlisting Third Party Assistance

As more people are slowly discovering the internet and online tools are not the be-all, universal solution as some would have you believe when it comes to looking for a job, increasingly they are turning to third parties to expand their chances for success. It is a good idea to add more dimension to your efforts rather than relying upon only one primary method, reminding me of the saying that I’ll paraphrase, which suggests if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Anyone who finds oneself looking for a new job should be utilizing a combination of methods to help themselves, which may include third-party help, but be aware it does not mean you hand off your responsibility to someone else. You are seeking help, which does not include playing Hot Potato, tossing your problems to others.
When I refer to third parties I am speaking of employment agencies, temp-to-perm services, recruiters, headhunters, etc. I am not speaking of your own personal contacts or referrals as a result of your networking activities -- yet another activity you should be engaged in, by the way. However, anytime you will entrust another to act and speak on your behalf they become an extension of you, and so you need to set some parameters because, if you don’t, you could be putting yourself in a worse situation than you may already find yourself. Let me explain.
When you work through a proxy, someone helping to represent your interests, in reality you may need them more than they might need you, but it does not mean you should not make clear the parameters of cooperation. I apply a lot of extra caution when I meet with people I may or may not represent. You might find it a little odd when I say I neither enter nor do I exit a meeting place at the same time with whomever I meet. I live in a market where I am known, and word travels fast if someone is spotted meeting with a headhunter. In 20 years no one’s job has been put in jeopardy as a result of interaction with me nor any recruiter who has worked for me. But to be sure, here are some examples of what can happen if you don’t set the parameters of your working relationship:
  • A company will tell me they already have the resume of someone I am representing and the candidate / applicant is not aware of it. This means an employment agency representative or recruiter sent their resume without permission. How many other resumes are floating around of which you are not aware of?
  • A third party or a company sends an email to someone’s work email address with a job opportunity. If your employer becomes aware of this email now or later in your archives, might it cause an awkward situation at your workplace?
  • An agency sends your resume to potential employers without your permission. What if it goes by accident to a direct competitor and subsequently comes to the attention of your boss?
  • A third party promises confidentiality and sends your resume as a blind resume, which means they merely removed your name, address and names of the companies listed on your resume but left all other info intact. Clearly any half-wit with knowledge in your market sector can connect the dots and easily figure out who the altered resume represents.
  • Perhaps your resume has references listed and a third party representative who claims to want to help you starts calling your references without getting permission or notifying you? This can also potentially make things uncomfortable for you.
  • Perhaps you receive calls at all hours about jobs and possibilities you would not normally respond to or pursue on your own. Perhaps you were vague about what kind of opportunity you seek or gave no guidance to those who now have your resume and represent your interests.
  • Perhaps you hear nothing and cannot get a reply from an agency where you submitted your resume in their database. If you randomly sent your resume no one has any reason to call you and, furthermore, you have no idea who has your resume in case any of the aforementioned scenarios take place.
Look, there are very many good, dedicated and sincere people working on behalf of people like you. But there are also dirtbag low-lifes who see you only as a commodity with a fee attached; a piece of meat and not much more. The best way to separate the two is to:
  • Try to determine and engage with whomever might represent your interests in more than a 5-minute conversation. After all they are acting as your ambassador, your agent and your face in the marketplace so, if they are oily and slick, well, how do you think you’ll be represented. 
  • Make it clear that no version of your resume will be sent anywhere without your prior approval for each opportunity for which they want to consider you.
  • Provide parameters for the kinds of job opportunities for which you have an interest; go so far as to name lists of companies for which you’d be interested, as well as any for which you would not have an interest in working.
  • Be strict about how you will be contacted and when, use a personal email address only (never a company address) and provide windows for when to call and at what number(s).
By attaching these conditions you will prevent unwanted surprises and if you find someone isn’t willing to respect these basic parameters, thinks you are too demanding and won’t work with you – keep looking until you find someone who will. You’re better off representing yourself than you are by someone who can cause more harm than good.
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Monday, March 24, 2014

If Disaster Looms

I don’t mean to be melodramatic but, if disaster looms, what would you do; what will you do? Too many otherwise smart people choose to do nothing at all except sit and suffer through whatever comes. They refuse to recognize the dangers and risks, instead hoping for the best or waiting for someone else to help them, pretending everything will be okay, that what they face isn’t really happening. Often it is just plain fear of the unknown that prevents them from finding a solution to whatever affects them. So they stay right where they are, in denial until it is too late.

While I could be talking about natural disasters I am not; although what I’ve described is a legitimate description of the reactions of many when faced with uncertainty. Indeed, I am describing man-made disaster but not the kind you think and not the random stuff that happens in other places to other people. I’m talking about something much closer to home; affecting many people we all know and, perhaps, even you.

As a headhunter, a direct-search recruiter for more than twenty years, I’ve seen it many times and in recent years there are more people than ever facing uncertain futures, their careers on the edge. It’s not their fault; they have been good employees who have contributed much to organizations that now hang in the balance, be it economic and market uncertainty or machinations behind closed doors, where employees are mere commodities and secondary concerns to profit and loss accounting figures.

I know people right now with whom I’ve met or spoken, who know something’s coming and they tell me there is better than a fifty-fifty chance their job will downgrade or disappear. They say to me, “If something happens I would like to look for a new opportunity, but I am hoping things will stay the same because I’d rather stay where I am. So until then I don’t want to look elsewhere, not yet.” That sounds like a lot of us, doesn’t it? And I often think to myself, “okay, I guess you’d prefer to stand there waiting for the tsunami to arrive to see if it’s taller than you are before you decide to run the other way.” My advice was, and is, this person should already be actively interviewing - now. 

In the current jobs market and considering economic fluctuations, everyone should have an updated resume ready to go and always be at the very least passively looking, adjusting your effort according to the level of urgency you perceive. Even during better economic times, I’ve always suggested that the best time to be looking for a job is not to wait until you need one.

Some people are prepared for anything; they may even have extra cans of tuna fish and a stock of bottled water at home. But when it comes to their careers far too many people act as if they are powerless and just stand there, like a deer in the headlights, when faced with a pending career crisis. If you sense trouble, if the signs are obvious, you know and anticipate a change for the worse, what are you waiting for? The depressed jobs market and economy hasn’t changed overnight; have you adapted your thinking? Do you have an action plan ready to go? Should you already be implementing it? Times they are a changin’ and you’ve got to adapt with them. I have a hard time feeling sorry for those who saw the signs and failed to act. As they say in the south, you been knowin’. So what are you going to do about it?

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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Exit Interview

As a result of my previous blog entry about how to manage your resignation, I received a reader’s comment / question asking about the exit interview, and whether they should avoid it altogether.

There is no need to avoid it but I suggest an exit interview be handled as you would conduct your resignation -- by exercising some restraint, regardless of your feelings as you’re heading out of the door, both mentally and physically. Let me explain: an exit interview is conducted with the intention of learning from the outgoing employee their thoughts and insights about how the company might gain from your constructive feedback. It is a great concept in theory and, in a perfect world, we’d all part ways as pals and forever get together for holidays and summer cookouts, playing badminton with all of our former bosses and co-workers. But that’s not the way it is, is it? If there were such events I dare say that in the minds of many the games would instead involve sharpened lawn darts or throwing horseshoes; wearing a well-meaning smile whilst presenting a bowl of potato salad left out in the sun just a little too long; yeah right, “kumbaya” indeed! I am an optimist about most things but I reserve a measure of realism / pessimism as it regards basic human nature. This concept of a group hug of an exit interview, I find a bit funny. I know of very few organizations that really value, much less, would implement the suggestions of an outgoing employee. Likewise, the exit interview is often the one time at which a departing employee might take advantage to settle scores and only occasionally do both sides enter into such a meeting with mutual good intentions toward one another.

So, I suggest that, if you must attend an exit interview, be sure to separate the personal from business and bite your tongue if it was anything but the best working experience of your lifetime (thus far). Be generic, thank them for the experience and opportunity to work with them, agree that you’ll stay in touch, conclude, shake hands and move on. Do not use the occasion to get even with anyone, as no good can come from it. There are two primary reasons to play nice even if you are inclined to deliver a verbal equivalent of a knuckle sandwich to the jaw. First, you want to have the option, if you need it, to extract a good reference(s) and second, this business world is shrinking, one never knows when you might end up working for or with some of these same people at a later date due to a merger or for various reasons.

If you do have that warm, fuzzy feeling and you’ll be parting best of pals, then you should especially keep your comments to a minimum. Above all, don’t fall into the trap of thinking your opinion is so valued that you can just open up about any perceived woes; if you make one suggestion they don’t agree with, all that goodwill can evaporate. If you want to make some technical or process suggestions, go ahead, but perhaps they should have asked for your suggestions while you were in their employ; why is it your responsibility to give free advice, let them hire a consultant who is more objective. And if you are coaxed into a line of conversation regarding team structure, hierarchal or policy changes, avoid it, you don’t need someone hiding behind words attributed to you, dropping your name in order to better their own status.

Above all, do not allow an exit interview to become a last opportunity for them to make you feel any sense of regret about your decision to leave. Don’t get me wrong, exit interviews are fine and often necessary to hand over company materials, keys and what not. Shake hands and say “it’s been great”. If your mind is made up to leave and move ahead in your career, the exit interview is just another procedural step in the resignation process, nothing more. Once again, my advice about exit interviews is to smile, refrain from settling scores, say “Thanks, let’s do lunch sometime” -- part ways amicably if possible, but always professionally.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Imagine, if you will, you’ve been interviewing and looking for a job and, among many others, you’ve been successful, received and accepted a job offer. Now it is a simply a matter of resigning and looking ahead to your new job. After all, how hard can it be if you’ve been a good employee and you get along with management, perhaps you are even friends; surely they’ll be happy for you and wish you well, right?
Until this day arrives most people give their resignation little thought. I can relate to you lots of anecdotal evidence of resignations that don’t go smoothly, situations where after the fact people wish they had handled it differently. Think about it, most of us spend more waking hours in the workplace than with family or friends. I cannot discuss all of the what-if’s in a blog entry, if you want more detailed info on this subject and many others, my book is a good resource to have, but today we can cover the most basic points.
If you are a good employee there’s a good chance your employer will attempt to change your mind to convince you to stay. What will you do if faced with this scenario? Or what about the opposite, what if the people you thought were your friendly co-workers suddenly get nasty about your choice to leave, for a variety of reasons? In either case their initial reaction might be asking you to delay your decision and the discussion. This can happen when they are caught off-guard and it is meant to buy them time to talk to other managers to figure out how to address this un-anticipated surprise. If you are nice and reasonable it might be okay with you, but let me ask you this; if it was reversed and they were going to cut you loose, could you ask them to delay the conversation until you can be better prepared -- of course not. Or perhaps they might present you with a counter-offer to get you to stay; meanwhile getting lost in all of this was your original intent, of thanking them and announcing your departure. Suddenly, this has morphed into something you weren’t prepared for.
One of the questions you are likely to be asked, and should avoid like the plague is, “So, where are you going?” with reference to your new job. I advise you not to go there, as it is a volatile path. First, it provides info for them to pick apart and discredit your plans; remember you’re not asking permission nor seeking approval, you are there to announce your intention to leave -- after all, whose career is it, yours, or theirs? By comparison, if you are ending a personal or romantic relationship, in the midst of breaking it off with the other person they ask for whom you are leaving them, should you share with them how much better the other person is? Is that really a conversation you want to have? It will only lead to hurt feelings or animosity and, furthermore, you have no obligation to explain yourself and in the case of work – it’s not personal, it’s business. Granted, if you are leaving to work for a direct competitor you’ll have to handle it more carefully and, if this be the case, consult with a lawyer about any non-compete agreement you might have signed with your current employer.
So here’s the drill;
  • Plan ahead and make an appointment with your manager. Don’t just walk in and say “Oh, by the way…”
  • Have your (less than one page) resignation letter prepared, thanking them and stating your intention, with the last line declaring your decision is final and irrevocable.
  • Communicate that you‘ve accepted another position and you are submitting your resignation and (physically) give them your resignation letter.
  • Keep the chat-chat to a minimum and thank them, it’s been great, blah, blah…
  • Shake hands and exit.
  • After the meeting, email a copy of your resignation letter in PDF format to whomever you’ve met with and perhaps cc other relevant persons.
Your goal is to get in and get out, with them recognizing and accepting your decision. The rest is admin stuff and can be worked out later. Try to keep it a cordial and professional exchange – with no speeches; you’re not there to vent but to resign. You can share more with them later if you wish, after the dust settles. If they attempt to dissuade or delay you, and you find yourself under pressure you can point to your resignation letter (to stand behind as a virtual shield), pointing to the last sentence stating your clear intent. There is always a chance of something you cannot anticipate to occur but preparing for it ahead of time minimizes the chance of your plans being derailed or made more difficult than need be.
In my work, this is part of the overall interview process and I advise those I represent not to celebrate when they get their signed offer letter and start date; not yet, but to wait until they have successfully resigned without obstacles or difficulty.
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Monday, March 3, 2014

Wants and Needs

When you interview for a new job or are simply considering the possibility, the inevitable question of money will be a part of the conversation. Have you considered this? Most people will reply, “of course” -- but have you, really? How did you calculate that magic number, the figure in your head that you seek? How flexible or inflexible are you; is your expectation realistic? How badly you need a job is one factor and we can talk about variables all day long. The circumstances of the job is another factor, and those you won’t learn until after the first interview. I am strident in advising people to avoid as best they can being pinned down to a number in the first interview, but that is a whole other subject.

The purpose of this blog entry is not concerned with your chosen magic number, per se, but rather how you formulated the number you seek. For some folks it is more straight-forward and simple; if it is, for example, union scale or GS (General Schedule) you don’t have the flexibility of negotiating what you will earn as a part of the interview process; it is what it is. Likewise, entry-level people usually have little choice and have to take what they can get. However, for the majority, at some point during your career you can have some influence, so how can you determine the number you will seek?

Most of us use the number we have already been earning as a benchmark and seek to get the same or better amount when we change jobs. But the markets have changed, affecting some sectors more than others. And just as someone’s house may now be worth less than one may think, some people will find themselves in a similar situation regarding their earnings. Actually, it is not a new phenomenon; since the 1990s companies have been thinning middle-management ranks, right-sizing, down-sizing and so on. Newly-credentialed lawyers make less than those who’ve come before them; the financial crisis of a few years ago resulted in banks cutting loose a lot of people, consolidating functions and now one person might do what was previously done by three. While some may snicker about their misfortune, falling into the class envy trap, the middle and working class have not been spared either. So simply pulling a number out of the air, just because, might not help you when many are vying for one job.

Just as people sometimes focus too much on money rather than the opportunity itself, companies have a habit of focusing more on what a person earns rather than how much they might positively impact the company they seek to join. Consider this: if, during an interview, you’re asked how much money you want and they think it’s too high, they may not call you back; quote a number too low and you may be cheating yourself. In my book I discuss this quandary and detail what I find to be the best way to manage this topic during the interview process.

When I speak with someone I might represent for the first time, I always ask them if there was a job opportunity you liked everything about and the only question was money, what would A) you want to earn, and B) you need to earn? Taking some time to thoughtfully consider this number, the answer should evoke two different numbers. Put another way, there is a number that represents what you would like and want to earn to maintain a standard of living you seek. Then there is the number you cannot go below; the number you need to meet your expenses. What are those two numbers? Now you have something to work with and your goal should be to aim for something between that range.

Traditionally, the guidelines have been to ask for and assume a 20% pay increase with any new job, if you are currently working. However, that 20% mindset has been around for many years and is from a time when there were more jobs than qualified people to fill them. If you are not working, you have little leverage for more than you were already earning. And if you are taking your career in another direction, that is a whole other subject. I am not suggesting people shouldn’t pursue what they think they are worthy of getting paid in exchange for their abilities and experience, but referring to archaic guidelines, pulling numbers arbitrarily from thin air without thinking it through, might be counterproductive.

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