Monday, April 28, 2014

Truth in Advertising

Although I am a headhunter, a direct-search recruiter for many years, I am at heart a sales guy. As such I try to demonstrate to job seekers that when you are interviewing you are selling; you are selling the concept that you, as an individual, are a solution to the needs of a company that is considering you for a job. Your resume is your product marketing brochure and you are the product and for the company seeking to hire, just like a purchaser of goods and services, their goal is to find the best deal possible. This is part of what human resources, on behalf of the hiring managers, seeks to accomplish; to hire the best solution (person) at the best lowest price (salary). Demonstrating to them why you, as a job seeker, are the solution to their need while securing the highest price possible for yourself, is the concept you are trying to establish. You are negotiating a business deal (for yourself) but in doing so you need all the available information in order to formulate what to seek for yourself. They are certainly doing it and therefore so should you. It’s pretty straight forward and not at all complex, they are evaluating you; meanwhile you are (should be) evaluating them. Are you with me so far? And before we go on, for those who think I am cheapening people by inferring they are a commodity, just a piece of meat or worker bee to be bought and sold, well no, I am not – but increasingly the world around us thinks of us this way so (I think) you need to apply a cold, clear-eyed view of the process as a business negotiation. It’s not personal, it’s business. But if I am offending anyone’s sensibilities, well, this is a blog for grown-ups, grow a thicker skin – the job market is getting tougher and so too should you.
Everything is SPIN, it’s everywhere, and the truth is very subjective in the modern world. There is a fog obscuring the truth about almost everything and you never know just how dense until you step into the mist to investigate. As a headhunter, I am suggesting you never take anything at face value and, in fact, a small measure of paranoia is a prudent thing. When you are looking for and interviewing for a job, ask questions that go beyond the bare-bones basics of job title, job duties and salary. If you fail to do so out of fear or ignorance it is malpractice on your part and that’s your fault, you can’t blame anyone else. Very often I hear people describe stories of how they were screwed over by a company that misled them during the hiring process. However, when I probe and ask them for more details about their claim I often conclude they, the applicant, failed to dig any deeper than the few things too many people focus on (titles / duties / money) hearing only what they wanted to hear and not asking the tougher questions. My blog archives are full of advice for the interview process and there are many ridiculously simple questions you can ask, such as, “…for how long has the position been open?” and “…what happened to the last person in the same position?”…and so on.
Many people just don’t use their heads, for example: if a company provides a service and they claim to have the lowest price and best service, doesn’t that raise a question mark (I know many are scratching their heads and not getting it). But the statement simply does not compute; it is not possible to provide the best service for the lowest price. Instead, you’ll get the best service that such a low price can provide - but it ain’t gonna be the best because you get what you pay for. You’ve got to look beyond the words thrown at you. Another example: a salesperson interviewing for a position who asks the hiring manager how much a successful salesperson can earn. The hiring manager proceeds to happily tell them about their number one sales rep earns X dollars, but if you are in Omaha and they describe a person whose territory is Boston, how much is that info really worth? Or is it just more SPIN. In the same scenario, if they discuss a commission / bonus plan and it is very enticing and the numbers look great, you may not bother to ask any other questions because it sounds terrific! But later you may learn that if you fail by even a few dollars to reach the bonus threshold to qualify, there is no bonus – zero, zilch, nada. This little detail was in the small print you failed to read because you were busy counting dollar signs in your head. Folks, these are simple things if you are paying attention and fully engaged in the interview process.
Here’s the problem as I see it: in the digital age our attention spans are not much different than a 3-year old. Furthermore, people want instant info and answers and have little patience. Everyone wants a good job and it’s as easy as using your notebook or iPad while sitting in your jammies at the kitchen table – isn’t it? Sadly that’s BS and the reality is things don’t work that way -- and never did. Looking for a job is hard work that requires real effort, sweat equity, if you will. You get what you put into the effort.
When you interview, squeeze every drop of information you can, ask questions and peel the onion back even more, make the manager sweat – not the other way around, even question the answers to your questions, if you feel the need. Mediocre managers may look at you oddly because you’re not a compliant drone like so many others. Good managers will notice and value such thoroughness. It takes two to tango - nobody should ever accept a job as long as they have lingering questions; but you must utilize your brain to be fully engaged in the process of which you are a part.
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Monday, April 21, 2014

When You Don’t Have the Answer

As a part of any interview, you’ll be asked to answer questions about the details of your experience, accomplishments and suitability for whatever position you are seeking consideration, along with evidence with which to validate claims as stated on your resume or CV. Although, no matter how well you might prepare, inevitably there will be a circumstance during which you won’t have an answer or at that moment lack the proper information to back up your claim. How you handle this kind of situation is very instructive to the interviewer, who might later become your boss. Incidentally, this same situation when turned around can also be useful to you as an applicant, when considering the suitability of a person interviewing you, as your future employer or boss; they too have an obligation to be forthcoming and provide you with the information you need to make a decision.
Obviously the worst things you can do, at any time you are caught off-guard without a good answer, is to conjure up or fabricate something to bridge an awkward moment; in other words, don’t cage yourself with a fib or a lie you may utter during a moment of discomfort and momentary stress. Once shackled to an untruth, it becomes hard to break free from something you’ve yourself stated or misstated. No one says all the right things all of the time. Regardless of how clever you may or may not be, you can never be expected to have all the answers. If you misspoke or made a mistake, if after the interview you find your fingers and toes curled regretting or wishing you’d said something different, or thought of something additional you wish you’d said instead, don’t beat yourself up. It’s okay, your interview follow-up Thank You note / letter is the perfect vehicle for this. I’ve written about the wisdom and alternate purpose of what a Thank You letter can mean to you and it can be found in the archives of this blog.
But returning to our subject, what do you do if you don’t have an answer to an interview question asked of you, what can you do or say? For the answer to this predicament, I harken back to when I earned my stripes (pun intended) in the U.S. military when I was a young paratrooper in the early 1980’s. As part of the Army’s leadership training for developing NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) we were taught that when you have the occasion of being unable to answer a direct question and lack an informed and legitimate answer, you can address the questioner directly. Without equivocation, appropriately declare, “I am sorry but I don’t have the answer…” or, “…information with me, but I will get the information to you within 24 hours.” Make a note of it and move on – and then, follow through and do it. This is an honest and decisive way to answer something with which you may otherwise stumble or appear as being indecisive. Grace under pressure is a hallmark of a leader or a potential leader as well as someone seeking to be viewed as dependable, especially when you are under the spotlight and critical eyes are upon you. And what could be more demonstrative of just such a situation as an interview, when your performance is under scrutiny and is a part of the hiring process. In this tight employment market, don’t be foolish to think integrity and character have no place in the equation, especially in a close contest between applicants. If you don’t have an answer when questioned, you can at least be earnest by not avoiding what others might do if they find themselves in the same predicament. Remember that one key factor in rising above the herd of others seeking the same job is to be different, in a positive way. And you don’t have to make grand gestures to stand apart. What I am suggesting is most effective when used sparingly and only when you must; it does not remove your obligation to be prepared and at your best when it is your moment to make an impact in your own self-interest.
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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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