September 24, 2012

10th Anniversary Special: 4 Top Answers from The Archive

Filed under: Q&A, Readers' Forum

The September 25, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter is a SPECIAL EDITION celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the newsletter! I’ve culled four of the top Q&As readers have cited among their favorites from past editions. I had fun summarizing them, and whether you’re a charter subscriber from 2002, or relatively new to Ask The Headhunter, I hope you learn something new and useful!


UPDATE: Coincidental with this edition, PBS NewsHour — Making Sen$e with Paul Solman — aired a segment yesterday that I taped with them at Wharton School of Management. The video is now posted here: PBS NewsHour: Online job applications keep America unemployed. The lead-up article I wrote for this is also on NewsHour online: Six Secrets to Beat the Job Market.

Want to be on PBS NewsHour? (You can use a screen name, of course!) As part of this PBS project, I’m taking questions from viewers! Submit questions on Paul Solman’s PBS NewsHour Q&A. I intend to answer every question submitted on the PBS website! Please post questions on the comments section of the blog. The more questions you post, the more Q&A ATH columns will appear on NewsHour! Keep ‘em coming!


(I started the newsletter on September 20, 2002 — 10 years ago! You’re reading issue #449! Many of you have been reading since issue #1, and today there are tens of thousands of subscribers — and not just job hunters.)

Top Question 1: “Why are you leaving your old job?”

I began a job search this week. I’ve read so many suggestions about how to answer this question that I am not sure about it any more. I have an interview coming up. Can you please give me some advice about what to say when I’m asked the reasons I am leaving my current job?

Nick’s Reply

The real problem with this question is that you have no way of knowing the interviewer’s intent. And it’s not worth guessing and being wrong. If you believe that explaining your reasons for leaving your last job will reflect well on you, then by all means explain. If you’re worried the details could hurt you, then try this:

How to Say It
“I love my work, and I want to work in a better company where I am free to do my job effectively.”

If they ask you what the problem is with your current employer, be honest but turn the discussion to what really matters:

How to Say It
“I’m looking for a good job with a good company, but I never disparage anyone I’ve ever worked with. I came to you because your company is one of the shining lights in this industry, and I’d like to talk about how I can help you be more profitable. Can you give me an idea of what problems or challenges you’d want the person that you hire to tackle? I’d like to show you how I’d do that.”

That’s the best way I know to approach any employer, and to get past that question. Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. Explain how you’re going to help them be more successful. That’s what any good employer is really looking for. (Learn more in The Basics.)

Top Question 2: How can I get the truth about a job?

When I interviewed for my job, I was told that the person who hired me would be my boss. It turns out that I actually report day-to-day to someone else. If I had interviewed with this person, I would have kept looking for another job! I am working on a team that is abusive and for a boss who is unsupportive and disrespectful. I saw none of this in my interviews. You can’t fix that for me, but what I’d like to know is how to avoid this in the future. How can you really find out about the work environment and culture? A Google search (done too late) revealed some of the problems I discovered later. This company displayed a wonderful “we-are-so-caring-and-ethical” face, but the reality is quite different. Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

It’s called due diligence. Never take a job without investigating the company and its people. After you receive an offer, turn around and interview the company. Politely insist on meeting your future boss and the team, as well as others that you will interface with on the job. This includes people who will work directly with you; people who work uphill and downhill from your job function; and people in other departments who will influence your ability to succeed at your job.

For example, if you work in information technology, meet folks in manufacturing and accounting. Your work will affect both departments, and your fate will be influenced by how they operate. Your meetings will tell you about the viability of the company, and you will learn about the personalities of the players. Add up the personalities, and you will get the company culture. Company culture is hiding in cubicles and in meetings.

Ask to sit in on a department or team meeting before you accept the offer. Spend half a day shadowing a couple of your future co-workers. Make sure this includes lunch time, where people loosen up and talk. That’s the only way to really get at a company’s culture firsthand. Never take a job without knowing “the rest of the story.” Savvy companies set up these meetings for you. They recognize savvy candidates who are willing to invest time to get to know the people and the operation.

Top Question 3: Do I have to say it?

When I was job hunting, I always made it clear that I wanted the job. As a hiring manager, I want to ensure that positions are filled by qualified candidates who I know, undisputedly, want the job. Can you discuss the importance of this basic and obvious technique in interviewing that is often overlooked? That is, the applicant must always say to the potential employer, “I want this job.”

Nick’s Reply

A sales VP who interviewed for a job and failed to get an offer told me that making such an explicit statement is awkward and that it shows the candidate “has no class.” My response: Failure to say you want the job indicates you don’t have enough interest in working for the employer.

“The manager knows I want the job!” he exclaimed. “That’s why I’m interviewing!”

Interesting, isn’t it, how socially unacceptable some people believe it is to make an explicit commitment when that’s exactly what an employer needs to hear. When I first started headhunting, a manager turned down an excellent candidate I sent him — and I couldn’t figure it out. So I asked, and the manager was crystal clear: “He’s a talented guy, but I’m just not convinced he really wants to work for me.” This prompted me to coach every candidate to say it.

Consider this very appropriate analogy. You fall in love and want to marry the object of your desire. If you don’t explicitly say, “I love you,” do you think the person will marry you? The commitment must come first. You have to say it.

Top Question 4: How can I demonstrate my value?

I think you’re right: To get a company interested in me, I need to demonstrate and somehow quantify what my value is to them. But if I’m not a salesperson or entertainment star, how do I quantify my value to an employer’s bottom line?

Nick’s Reply

Here’s my general approach: Estimate as best you can how your work produces revenue or reduces costs. If you work in sales or product design, you help produce revenue in your job by selling or by creating products. That’s good for the company. The more you enhance the revenue-producing process, the more value you add to the business. If you work in finance or in manufacturing, you have a daily impact on the company’s costs. High costs are not good. Your job contributes to the success of the business by helping minimize costs.

The difference between revenue and cost is profit. No matter which part of the company you work in, you can help boost profits by doing your part to raise revenue or lower costs. Regardless of what your job is, ask yourself how you do it to enhance profits. Do you sell more stuff at higher margins, or do you do some other job smarter, faster, and cheaper? That’s your edge.

Estimate your impact to the bottom line. Can you shave two minutes off each customer service call you handle? Can you figure out a way to get a project done 20% faster? Multiply it out by the rate you get paid. That’s just one part of the profit you’ve contributed to the business. Get the idea? Yes, I’m simplifying, but any calculation like this that you do is more than any other candidate will even attempt. It gives you a good, honest story to tell the employer. It gives you an edge.

(Want to learn more about how to reveal your value? Check out my PDF book, How Can I Change Careers? It’s not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to stand out in a job interview. Learn how to prove to an employer that you would be a profitable hire. Plus: Learn how to pick the handful of companies you should really pursue, and how to become the candidate on the inside track for the job you want.)

Have something to say about these top questions — and my advice? Have a question of your own to ask? Bring it on and we’ll tackle it! Please post away in the Comments section below!

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15 Comments on “10th Anniversary Special: 4 Top Answers from The Archive”
By Don Harkness
September 25, 2012 at 9:07 am

#3 is an example of “never assume” When I was an agency recruiter, we were trained to coach/instruct/tell the candidate that if they liked what they heard to make sure the last thing they said on parting was that they wanted the job.
As in in-house recruiter, I don’t coach candidates. I can get they 75% of the way, but the last 25% is up to them. They have to sell themselves to the Hiring Manager. (The Hiring Managers are too used to a buyers market and it doesn’t occur to them to sell themselves and the company to the candidate).
In over 4 years and hundreds of candidates, I can’t recall any candidates who out & out said to me, or the hiring managers that they wanted the job. Body English yes, follow up showing interest yes, but simply saying I want this job.
And unbeknownst to them, that’s exactly the way the President of the company thinks…including internally. He wants people to step up, & flat out tell him they want a job..rather than him issue a command.
It is not a demeaning statement.

By Nick Corcodilos
September 25, 2012 at 9:40 am

Don: For some reason, job candidates do indeed feel it’s demeaning to say, “I want this job,” as if it’s some sort of beggging. I think part of that attitude is tied to decades of brainwashing — many employers routinely treat applicants like beggars, so the behavior starts there. In the end, it’s always about a job candidate who truly stands out, isn’t brainwashed, isn’t afraid, and says what he or she thinks will benefit both parties. A rarity. That’s why most people fail in interviews.

Your other point is worth discussing, too — managers are just as guilty as applicants. They don’t want to sell themselves to the candidate. They seem to think that, as “owners” of the job, they are above having to make a good impression. “We have plenty of beggars. Why should I encourage any of them?”

The answer is simple. The best candidates will walk away if they sense the manager doesn’t “love” them and doesn’t want to “marry” them! So we wind up with marginal managers hiring marginal applicants, resulting is mediocre companies.

Cue up Kurt Vonnegut: “And so it goes.”

By Don Harkness
September 25, 2012 at 10:26 am

Nick: yes as to the other comment the person made, along the lines that why would one need to say you want the job, that’s what the interview is for. Given the benefit of the doubt on both parties the candidate really is a great fit, the hiring manager is great etc. No, you can’t assume that the interview demonstrates job interest. As hiring manager I don’t know if you’re tire kicking, have talked to 3 other companies, are or aren’t interested. Telling me is very useful information.
I could ask you..but 1st of all I think that ball is in your court and 2nd, if I do then you really will think I’m condescending…
It’s not only not demeaning, it’s an opportunity. Because Don’t just tell me you want the job. Tell me why. It’s back to sales, or perhaps akin to the summation in court. You’ve got the floor and when you tell me why, you’re going to tell me a win/win story. Win for you because it rings your chimes, hits your sweet spots on win on my side because of the value you’re going to add.
What hiring manager isn’t going to want to know that you want to work for him/her?

By Bob Lewis
September 25, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Very nice piece this week. I would like to suggest a minor embellishment on the value side of things. You recommended this: “Estimate as best you can how your work produces revenue or reduces costs.” There’s a third leg of the value stool, which is risk. It’s perfectly valid for some applicants to explain, “What I’ll be doing is mostly risk prevention, which means the better I do what you need me to do, the less you’ll know I’ve been successful.”

Followed by an explanation of why it is that successful prevention is indistinguishable from absence of risk. (If you need help, this might do it: http://www.weblog.keepthejointrunning.com/?p=3498 ).

By Bad Decision
September 25, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I have a disclosure dilemma I’d like you to address: I am a career changer and due to my home town not having many job opportunities, accepted “the perfect” full-time position in a town over an hour away and didn’t fully take into account the poor driving conditions. After the first day, I knew I would not stay at the position very long and did not feel it was fair to the employer to quit after investing in training me ( the previous employee stayed 6 months). So, I quit and told them my reason and how I felt it wasn’t fair to them and they were very understanding, although dissapointed. Now, my dilemma is whether or not I have to disclose that I accepted and quit in a day to future employers or can I disregard this bad decision? If I must reveal it, how do I present it?

By Jane Atkinson
September 25, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Can having to fulfil unemployment requirements spoil your chances?

If you’re in a major population centre, it may not matter. But imagine that you live in an area where there is a limited number of suitable employers.

You are investigating these companies, figuring out what you can offer and making contacts. It’s not something that can be done overnight, so it might take a little while to figure out which companies are worth pursuing.

But you are on unemployment and you’re required to send out resumes and apply for advertised jobs. In a small market, I figure there’s a likelihood of having to send a resume and apply for a listed job at a company that you want to cultivate.

What effect does that have on the real job search? Does it mess up the good work that you’ve done, or may want to do later?

Have any readers of this blog been in this situation, as employers or job-seekers? What has your experience been? What advice would you have for the job-hunter in this situation?

By Bob
September 25, 2012 at 6:46 pm

@Bad Decision, I’d just leave that job off.
@Jane. The filing requirements in my state say that all I have to do is log 3 job search things – send out resume, go to networking group, attend training, look at monster, etc. So it seems you might comfortably do all except send the resume (except when you are ready) and still meet the requirements.

By Dave
September 26, 2012 at 7:22 am

@Bad Decision

I would not disclose this to a future employer, unless of course the employer runs a full background check (and this would come up).

By Don Harkness
September 26, 2012 at 10:11 am

@Bad Decision.
This situation isn’t as rare as you may think, particularly in the broad view of someone realizing for one reason or another that accepting a job wasn’t right for them. the time to do something about it differs. In your case immediately. and I’ve run across that before too. I wouldn’t put it on a resume as it doesn’t count for experience or accomplishment and it begs for explanation which becomes a distraction. But I’ve met candidates who did exactly that, & I, nor my hiring managers would think it’s a bad thing. It’s the act of a responsible person. The people I met who took the same route as you were project managers, and they knew if they got deep into the project their departure would have a negative impact on the project. So they opted not to start. If you have a gap in your resume, it invites the question as to what you’ve been doing. You can leave it as job hunting or disclose. You’ll also likely get asked why you departed from your previous company..Honesty always works best in job hunting and taking ownership of the decision rather than low ball it works better in my view. As I said it’s a responsible decision, and the right hiring manager will see that as an attribute that will strengthen their team. I can depend on you doing the right thing.

By Nick Corcodilos
September 26, 2012 at 11:44 am

@Bad Decision: I see nothing unethical about leaving this off your resume. I think you did the right thing. There’s nothing to discuss. It’s not like there’s going to be a “reference” from the “job.” Keep in mind that your resume is a summary of your relevant experience — relevant to doing the job for a new employer. One day at a job doesn’t qualify in any way as “expience” and it’s not relevant to any other job. Heck, did you get paycheck? Of course not. It wasn’t a job. It was a mistake. Chalk it up to experience. This was part of your job search, nothing more. That’s my opinion. I wouldn’t beat myself up about it. I wish you the best on the job you do take. Just be more careful next time — no wishful thinking!

By Bad Decision
September 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Thanks Nick, and everyone else, for the good advice given and the moral support. I guess the one hitch I have is when they ask you to list all of the work positions you have had on an application and indicate that you can be fired at any time for nondisclosure. Does this show up on a background check? By the way, I was paid for that one day. After all you do to get a job, it would really stink to be fired and labeled a liar thereafter. So, I don’t have a problem not including it on my resume, but a problem with the work application & maybe the background check (since I don’t know what it includes). Any further help is greatly appreciated.

By Don Harkness
September 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm

@BD
you’re concerned about 3 levels of disclosing info.
* what do you put on the resume. Nothing. not to hide it, but for pragmatic reasons. adds no value, provides no useful info about your value-add.
* what do you say in an interview? In my view, you’ve none nothing wrong, but something right, including relative to the resume, but as I said honesty is best. You’ll have ample opportunity to bring it up, so tell your story. If they don’t like it, then move on.
* what to put on the application. put it on there for reasons you mention, there’s caveats on disclosing info. If you’ve brought it up they’ll be no surprises. If they’re anal someone may ask/advise you to rev your resume so it matches the application.
Background checks: Backgrounders cost money. Not everyone does them. Usually it’s not a stealth operation, that is as a recruiter we tell people what checks we do. There are health/drug checks for the obvious reasons. But “background checks” usually mean criminal background checks. We never worked with anyone that did detective work to see if they could uncover undisclosed employment…you probably could, but that would cost beyond routine background checks which take a microsecond electronically.
Don’t over engineer it. To me since you appear to be concerned about appearing unethical, or you’re hiding something…you’ll have the most peace of mind it you just hang it all out there. The company/manager you’re looking for will respect that as well as seeing a 1 day job left for a good reason is no biggie. If they don’t you don’t want to work there.

By Nick Corcodilos
September 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm

@BD: Don is absolutely correct. An application is something you sign certifying it’s true and complete. I’d read carefully what it is you are certifying. I don’t mean to mince legal language, but it matters. Does it say, “I certify all the info I provide is true?” Or does it also say, “…and complete”? Different stories.

Be honest, because you’re right, it can bite you. If you got paid for a day, then you had a job. Will it turn up in a check? It might. Since you got paid there’s probably a social security tag on that check, and a search will probably turn it up as “employment.”

I’m not trying to teach you how to fib, but how to deliver honest info that is required. If it’s not required, don’t provide it.

By Bad Decision
September 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Nick and Don, thanks again. I needed a knowledgeable answer which you both provided. Yes, I would hate to appear unethical and at the same time do not want to “shoot myself in the foot” and destroy any chance at a position when it is so hard to find one. I will have to be brave and disclose this when it is required and hope for the best. Thanks!

By marybeth
October 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm

@Don Harkness and Nick: I agree with you both that candidates need to let the hiring manager know that they want the job. I also agree that with some candidates (and for some managers too), asking for the job gets interpreted as begging for the job, which doesn’t come across well. Do candidates think that if they ask (beg) for the job, that this demeans them in the eyes of the hiring manager, makes it harder to negotiate salary, etc., because begging equals desperation? I don’t know. I know that some candidates may not really be interested in the job, for any number of reasons (salary, location, lateral move, etc.) but nonetheless still interview for it (that’s a whole ‘nother issue). If they don’t express interest, then how is the hiring manager supposed to know that candidate A is merely practicing his interviewing skills and isn’t really interested in the job? He doesn’t. How does a candidate who is interested in the job communicate that to the hiring manager–without coming across as desperate? It seems to me that there are a lot of assumptions being made, and there would be less of a muddle and a better chance of getting the right candidate if everyone involved were more honest. And that means both candidates and hiring managers.

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