Preventing Unemployment from Affecting your Marketability

February 13th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Is there a point at which employers perceive a person as less valuable or less employable because they’ve been unemployed for a long length of time?

Unfortunately, a negative perception of the unemployed, however slight and never voiced, will always exist. Even today when many are without a job through no fault of their own, we are inclined to look differently upon those who have been laid off. As a terminated job seeker, it can be very easy to accept defeat before even beginning as a result of your situation. It is important to turn that frustration into positive energy and a stronger will to succeed. When channeled properly, this will help you not only help you to stay focused during your search, but will give the appearance of you as a confident, determined candidate during the interview. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Preparation That Will Get You Past the First Interview

February 13th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

The interview process most large companies employ today begins with a first round “character” meeting conducted by a Human Resources representative, followed by in-depth interviews with multiple hiring managers in stages two and beyond. Most corporate HR departments are understaffed and lack an understanding of the technical positions they recruit for – two reasons why the recruitment agencies they partner with are such a key resource for them. Today’s question focuses on getting past the first round with HR:

I’m a C# developer who has a first interview coming up with a traditional manufacturing company. They don’t do a lot of hiring in this area and my first round is with an HR generalist. Any tips for making sure I don’t botch this?

Understanding of some basic core interviewing skills can move you past this first round. It is also helpful to understand that the HR representative, who will be your first impression of the firm, might not be the best individual that the company has to maximize that impression.

» Read the rest of this entry «

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Discussing Desired Salary During the Interview Process

February 11th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Salary should never be the primary reason why we take a particular job but it often is the primary reason why we look to leave. Easily the most sensitive issue surrounding staff acquisition and retention, salary negotiations and re-negotiations need to be handled carefully with arguments that are based in fact. Discussions regarding compensation usually arise in two parts of your relationship with an employer – during the interview process and during the formal or informal performance review. Today let’s discuss how to approach salary negotiations while you’re being courted by a potential new employer.

There is a reason why seasoned recruiters use the term “opportunity” when discussing a particular role as opposed to “job.” The pursuit of money only serves to cloud one’s judgment and is a superficial motivation to discuss when an interviewer asks about the reasons for a move. In the initial stage of an interview process, either the phone screen or the first round in-person interview, it is best to steer away from any discussion regarding desired compensation. Letting your interviewer know what you are currently making is enough to provide the context surrounding your skill set and how well you fit their open position. If pressed about “coming up with a number” that you are looking for, make clear to the interviewer that your reason for seeking other opportunities isn’t tied solely to money:

Mr. Interviewer, I’d prefer to keep today’s discussions focused on my qualifications and the role you have open. I’m happy to talk about what I’m currently earning and as to what I’d be looking for, I simply hope that if I’m the right candidate for this opportunity, I’d be fairly compensated for my work.

By placing a hard salary number out in the open or, even worse, providing a range, you’ve set an expectation too early in a process without any leverage or rapport with the hiring manager. Giving a range to a potential employer can separate your desires with the hiring manager’s expectations even further apart – you’ll be thinking that they can offer the high end of the range and they’ll certainly only hear the low end. When you tell an interviewer that you want to make the best use of their limited time by focusing the conversation on your skills, experience and interest in their firm, you’ll come off as concerned mainly about how the job can help your career and not your wallet. Enthusiasm should be derived from the opportunity and not the paycheck.

The appropriate time to discuss compensation during the hiring process is after a relationship has been established and mutual interest exists from both sides. Knowing the right time to have this discussion isn’t enough to ensure that it goes well – you as a job seeker need to be well-prepared to best represent yourself when discussing wages. There are two main ways one should ready themselves for this negotiation:

  1. Set your expectations appropriately. Nothing puts a hiring manager off more than an individual with a greatly inflated sense of their value on the open market. According to the 2011 edition of the Conference Board’s annual salary survey, salaries will increase by an average of 2.5% this year. Not 20%, 15% or even 10% – an average increase barely outpaces the 1.5% inflation rate from 2009-2010.* Approaching an interview with blazing guns and the expectation that simply by changing jobs you’re entitled to a 20% salary bump is unrealistic and will be off-putting to the interviewer. In order to set your expectations realistically, additional preparation and research is required and that brings us to our next point.
  2. Research and inform yourself of what the market bears. Use fact to guide your negotiations. Understanding where your current compensation falls in context of the market as a whole will allow you obtain, within what’s reasonable, the best offer possible. There are several ways to gather competitive salary information. The most reliable source would be individuals who you work with, have worked with in the past or those you know through networking who perform similar work at competing firms. Since most people prefer to keep their salaries private, we have to look outside for additional sources as well. Agency or third-party recruiters have the breadth and depth of experience to assist with your research. Speak with a recruiter you know or have worked with in the past or ask for a referral from a friend. Recruiters will typically have multiple openings for similar jobs at various firms and can give you a good sense of the salary range at your skill level. Finally, various websites like Glassdoor.com and others exist to provide anonymous salary survey information on positions that run the gamut. Since the data from these sites comes from individuals and lacks an independent method for verification, these sites should serve only to confirm what you’ve gathered from other professionals. Having concrete data will allow you to “price” yourself towards the high end of a known range without asking for too much or selling yourself too low. Assume that HR for the hiring company has access to similar data and they are very aware of what market rate is for your position.

With your expectations reasonable and a good knowledge of what individuals in similar roles make, you can confidently discuss what you’re looking for and have the competitive information you’ve gathered at hand to back up your wishes.

* Source: http://www.conference-board.org/press/pressdetail.cfm?pressid=3957

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Over-Educated and Under-Experienced

February 10th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

Degrees like an MBA or JD can in many instances help to land you a great career opportunity but the real danger of being over-educated exists as more and more people choose to go back to school. Today’s question comes from a job seeker who wonders if he attended too much school for his own good:

How does one discuss their past if their work experience is limited but education is advanced? I always feel like interviewers want me to explain how my previous jobs have primed me for the current position (and I can only answer honestly and in a limited capacity). Am I just flat-out not qualified?

Education is important but experience is what makes an individual successful in the corporate world.  There is a reason why top MBA programs take few (if any) students coming straight out of their undergraduate education. They understand that advanced studies provide the greatest rewards only when there is the context of real-word experience to enhance it. If you speak with MBA graduates a few years out of school they’ll tell you that the classroom, even through case study, can’t prepare you for the gamut of decisions to be made and situations you’ll be placed in when working in a real job.

A 2006 survey of S&P 500 CEOs reveals that at that time, 62% of them had earned at least one advanced degree, more than half of those being MBAs. The same survey also provides some interesting insight into how where you go to school might affect your success. I was surprised to find that while the Ivy League is present as the most commonly attended undergraduate institutions in the top 200 companies of the S&P index, Rutgers and University of Wisconsin are the most common universities attended by CEO’s of the bottom 300 of that same index. A degree can certainly improve your chances for success but even at the very top run of the corporate world there are many self-made men and women.*

Regarding a situation like the one you have described, interviewers are most often put off by a sense of entitlement that can, depending on the individual, accompany the advanced education. If you’re highly educated but lack practical experience, there’s no obfuscating this fact. Your resume shows exactly the balance between years of education and the time you’ve spent in the workforce. Assuming the interviewer has read your resume, why then, would they ask a question that has no good answer? What they’re really looking to see is how you handle this. With experience comes maturity and though you may lack the practical experience they’re looking for, you demonstrate life experience with maturity in an answer that would sound like this:

Mr. Interviewer, the practical experience I can draw on for this role is admittedly limited as I’ve spent the last several years pursuing my [MBA/JD/etc]. First, let me address my internship experience during my schooling that I feel is relevant.

This beginning to a lengthy answer serves to properly set the interviewer’s expectations. With limited truth to speak to, leaving any potential for the expectation that you have significant relatable work experience will only serve to disappoint the interviewer and hurt your chances of moving forward with the hiring process. After speaking to your internship or any other real corporate experience, continue as such:

I also think that there are specific and significant portions of my recent degree program that can relate to this role.

Provide specific examples of your coursework, providing the context surrounding the course itself and, if possible, speaking to deliverables you produced while in that class. This piece of an answer in particular requires good preparation. The parallels you’re drawing here are not from real work to the role but to education which was not what had been asked. Irrelevant fluff here will only serve to hurt your case.

Finally, close the loop on this question/concern by bringing back your interest in this specific role:

I applied for and am interested in this role particularly because my research on ABC Company tells me that this is one of the more junior positions you would hire for within this department. While I believe that I will be able to draw on both my internship and educational experiences, there is still a lot I need to learn. Despite the advanced degree, I’m realistically looking for a more junior position so I can build my practical skills. I also feel that, given the opportunity, I can use my advanced education to outperform expectations of an employee at my level.

Often when a question is asked there is more to be learned from how an interviewee considers the question and frames their answer. Simply saying, “I really don’t have a lot of experience,” is a much shorter way to summarize the above and, at its base, covers the same basic point. How you talk about a lack of experience and, most importantly, the maturity you can exhibit in understanding your own shortcomings can demonstrate to the interviewer that you are well-prepared to take on new challenges.

* Source: SpencerStuart 2006 CEO Survey: http://content.spencerstuart.com/sswebsite/pdf/lib/2005_CEO_Study_JS.pdf

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Tough Interview Questions: Why do you want to work here?

February 9th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Often the most basic interview questions pose the greatest difficulty for interviewees.

Why do you want to work here? Why do you want this job?

Something so simple as one’s motivation to be present for an interview seems like it would be intrinsic knowledge and many job seekers make the false assumption that preparation for a question like this is unnecessary. That is certainly not the case.

As I’ve said before, most non-technical questions are designed to trap you – the interviewer is looking not for a positive response but rather for something they can use as a reason to not hire you into that particular role. Your carefully considered answer needs to address the question properly without being too open, too forward or, simply, saying something incorrect.

All that said, let’s delve into the questions:

Why do you want to work here?

Well, why do you? What is it about the company that attracted you in the first place? The worst answer sounds like “I’m here because I needed a job” or “a friend referred me to you so I figure I would go on the interview.” If that’s your genuine answer, you shouldn’t be there in the first place. There’s a reason that good recruiters refer to their open roles as “opportunities” and not “jobs.” A job is something you punch the clock in to earn a paycheck. An opportunity is the chance to develop yourself and your skills in the workplace. Not being able to articulate your interest in the company immediately shows an interviewer that you’re treating this as a job and you’ll probably find that interview wrapping up quickly.

A proper answer to this question should contain several elements, all of which link back to your experience and career desires. First, address the company itself.

I am highly interested in a role with ABC Corporation as they are a well-regarded and serious competitor to my prior firm of XYZ Corporation. Having worked in the same sector as your business, I have learned and appreciate the strong reputation you have for work in this area.

You can also seize this opportunity to impress the interviewer with your knowledge of the company. In addition to the above answer which is fairly general, adding something along the lines of the quote below will demonstrate that your truly did proper research on the firm and understand why they are well regarded in the sector.

I also appreciate the significant advances that ABC Company has made within this particular sector. I was particularly impressed by the release of your Widget 2.0 product because…

Finally, you want to relate the company directly back to your experience. This is closely tied into the “Why do you want this job?” question.

I think ABC Company offers me the greatest opportunity for professional and personal advancement based on my prior career accomplishments. Because ABC is [larger or smaller] than my current firm, I’ll have the ability to [take on more responsibility or benefit from the diversity of a large organization] that will help me to meet the goals I’ve set for myself.

It’s crucial with questions such as these to show that you’ve done your research on the company you’re interviewing with. Combining knowledge of the company with a pitch that utilizes the information you’ve gathered to draw parallels to your own experiences will produce the most refined and impressive answer to this open-ended question.

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Tough Interview Questions: The Brainteaser

February 9th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

How heavily do riddle exercises factor into today’s interviews? Let’s explore the topic.

Software engineering interviews often feature engineering brainteaser questions. Twice in recent months I’ve been rejected from consideration, being told I didn’t do well enough on one of these questions.

Do you have any advice to give for dealing with this situation?

“Brainteaser” questions serve an important purpose, particularly in technical interviews – they allow an interviewer an insight into your critical thinking skills outside of your comfort zone. Why would an interviewer really care which switch turns on which bulb or how to fit 3 quarts into a 5 quart jug? With questions like these, the answer is less important than the process. Don’t misunderstand me – many of these questions do have one correct answer that it’s important you figure out and convey – but the outcome is far less important than the process.

A skilled interview uses brainteasers because they want to find out how you think and process information. Particularly in a technical field like programming or electrical engineering, the outcome is obviously important but it’s an understanding how small details comprise the entire program or circuit board that make a great technician. Just as in practice, during the interview when asked one of these questions, walk the interviewer through the small details you considered to reach your answer.

I’ll use an example from an interview I had many years back for a technical role:

You pick up the receiver of a telephone and don’t hear a dial tone. What do you do?

There’s no “answer” per se but what the interviewer wants to hear is your thought process and how you’ll break down this problem into stages of issue and resolution. My answer was checking connections working forwards from the handset to the phone and finally to the wall jack and beyond. That demonstrated how I could isolate different stages within the process that could have caused the issue and knew how to escalate from a small problem (phone’s broken) to a potentially larger one (our phone service is out!).

The key takeaway here is that an answer is important but to successfully answer a question such as this you must be sure to clearly articulate the process and, most importantly, think aloud.

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Tough Interview Questions: Misjudging a Colleague

February 8th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

Today’s question comes from an active job seeker who was recently asked a difficult but very clever question while on the hunt:

I was recently asked in an interview to desribe an instance where I had misjudged a colleague. Can you provide any advice on how to answer this question without falling into an “interview trap?”
I think this is a great interview question and kudos to the interviewer who posed it. Some might feel that this is a question that will fail to elicit any useful information but the exact opposite is true in my opinion – a question like this provides insight into how an individual sees flaws in their own charatcer and how they look to rectify that. Questions that provide clarification and validation of technical skills will always be present in any kind of interview but these should only serve to confirm presence of the skills for which the candidate was interviewed in the first place. A question like this can show you whether a person has an ego or possesses enough self-awareness to realize their own faults and bias.
Questions like this are designed to trap the interviewee into saying something that will give a hiring manager reason not to bring this person on board. The trap with this particular question lies in the chance that you’ll reveal stereotyping or bias when dealing with peers, managers and subordinates. You want to be careful not to categorize employees or make general assumptions. Specifics are obviously needed in a situation like this but those specifics should be limited to your interpretation of an individuals work or the skills they may lack in presenting that information in a cohesive manner.
My answer to this question would sound something like this:
While in group meetings/discussions/whiteboard sessions with John Smith I had felt that his contributions were lacking in substance or originality. When I took the time to read the written report he had provided along with his business plan, I was impressed and surprised to discover significantly more detailed thoughts on implementation and execution. I now plan to engage and challenge him more in these discussions to draw out those ideas in front of a group.

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Interviewing and Monitoring Employees Who Telecommute

February 8th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Hiring and managing individuals who work remotely presents unique challenges that underscore the success or failure of a decentralized business. Today’s question comes from a business owner wondering how to hire better despite these potential issues.

I’d like to ask you a question from the other side of the desk – a hiring manager’s prospective. I run a home-based business and hire employees that are all over the US. My interviewing is done virtually by email and telephone. I’ve worked with several individuals for years I’ve never met in person. Can you give me any tips on how to more effectively hire and monitor success of these remote employees?

Technology has made it so that we can work daily with colleagues we never see face to face. It facilitates business activities but can make the process of screening and hiring talented individuals difficult.

My first suggestion is to make provisions so that you can, at the very least, video conference with the individuals you’re looking to hire. Reading an interviewee’s motions and physical reactions to your questions can often give you as much information as the inflection in their voice or the information they provide in their answers. It will also help to develop a rapport with the person you’re interviewing – they see your face and you see theirs. Questions, requests, answers all carry more weight when you maintain the ability to look someone in the eye while speaking with them.

I think your biggest challenge in trying to separate the mediocre candidates from those that are great lies in analyzing one’s ability to effectively manage their own time. Without direct supervision, you have no real way of knowing who is working and who isn’t. Consider making a deliverable a part of your hiring process or, even better, hiring employees initially under a temporary or contract basis for those that are not currently working. Either of these methods (and preferably the latter) can provide you with concrete evidence to base your hiring decision off. You’ll also establish upfront that while you support telecommuting, you are serious about ensuring that telecommuting doesn’t mean a lesser quality or quality of work output. Setting expectations about how these non-local individuals will be performing for you at the onset of the process will help to eliminate surprises down the road.

In terms of continuing to manage a remote staff, setting quantifiable results you expect from each of these employees will help you to keep a handle on their work and also provide you with fact-based reasons for probation and, if necessary, termination, if these individuals are unable to maintain the standard you set forth.

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The Importance of Responsiveness and Flexibility

February 8th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

This morning I was attempting to reschedule and interview with a candidate that was unable to make the first scheduled appointment. The client looked to schedule the first missed appointment with very short notice so it was understandable to me that the candidate was unable to accommodate the interview time. When getting availabilities to reschedule, the candidate told me that literally any other day or time the rest of that week would work.

I received a rescheduled interview time last evening with about 36 hours’ notice for someone who is currently unemployed. I tried to reach the candidate several times on two phones with no response, so I sent an email. Without getting a call back, I receive this email reply:

I am sorry but that time will not work for me. I am currently engaged in my own business venture and will be unable to make any early morning interviews and will need to start only after 10:30am.

When reading an email like this, red flags go up immediately. Why did the candidate originally say that any time of day would work for the, only to pull back a day later? Why is a private, personal business venture more important than a corporate interview with an investment bank that offers real career opportunities? Why wasn’t the candidate able to return the message over the phone as opposed to email? All of these are significant causes for concern.

I spoke with the candidate this morning and could tell immediately that their motivation did not mirror their words. When asking this individual point-blank, “how serious are you about your job search?” the response was “very serious, however I am unable to give you any flexibility for interview times.” If someone is truly motivated to earn themselves a new career opportunity, they’ll be as flexible as possible. This wasn’t an extremely senior candidate, simply a four-year experienced college graduate who was the victim of an economic layoff. Given the unbelievable competition within New York City’s financial services market with the unemployed contingent growing daily, a truly motivated candidate should not just jump on but seize every opportunity that could potentially lead to employment. Missed chances could result in weeks, months, potentially years of additional time without full-time work.

When I put it plainly to the candidate – make the interview or be pulled from the process – the individual had no qualms about pursuing their own entrepreneurial ventures at the expense of an opportunity that they likely could have obtained an offer on.

Perhaps that since this individual was laid off just a few short weeks ago clouded their judgment. “It hasn’t been that long,” they’re thinking, “I know something else will come up.” While this may or may not be true, what is certain is that turning down an immediate opportunity will further delay this individual’s job search and extend the time between their last job and the one they hope to land. The longer an individual is out of work, the more they will be scrutinized during the interview process. As four weeks of unemployment turns to three months, an employer will certainly question an individual’s ability to keep their skills sharp and updated without working. This perception snowballs as time goes on and can have the ultimate outcome of severely reducing an individual’s worth and compensation or pushing the candidate into a never-ending cycle of temporary work.

It’s important to realize who has the position of power during the interview process. Clients and candidates have a one-to-many relationship – one job that many people are looking to land. The need to reschedule, the failure to quickly respond to a potential employer’s requests – these are all factors that are immediately considered when a candidate is in process. With the level of competition being so high for even the most mediocre jobs, any negative indication perceived by the job seeker’s actions can and will cause the passive job-seeker to lose out on an opportunity.

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Tough Interview Questions: “Any questions?”

February 4th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

How you conclude your meeting is a crucial part of the interview process that will, most importantly, leave a lasting impression of who you are in the interviewer’s mind. It is, after all, part of the last few things you say to him or her.

In no instance should you ever, ever, simply fail to ask any questions of the person who just gave them an hour of your time. Even if your interview was a comfortable back and forth where you had the chance to probe the interviewer, there should always be at least one other item you’re curious to hear about.

Questions at the end of an interview serve to show your interest in the firm, that you’ve done your research and that you genuinely care about what they do. Reading recent news or press releases about the company gives the interviewee some great leading questions. For those in the financial world, an interesting transaction is always something I think carries impact. You can demonstrate product knowledge, industry experience and convey that you keep yourself current on happenings in the financial world, all by asking a question.

Let’s say your a tax professional interviewing at a CPA firm:

I recently saw that ABC CPA advised the DEF private equity firm on their acquisition of American Widget. I’ve worked on some similar deals in my current role and am curious to hear your transfer pricing philosophies on such a deal.

It’s also a good idea to ask the interviewer specifically about their experience with the firm during this time.

Where else have you worked? Were you hired into a role similar to this one when you joined the firm? What have you learned about ABC CPA that has helped you achieve success here?

You should also be sure to cover, if it hasn’t been discussed already, the size of the group you’re joining and who you’d be working with and reporting to.

Finally, I feel quite strongly that most interviews should end with a “hard close.”

Mr. Smith, I appreciate your time and feel as though I have a good understanding of your firm, my potential role and how my current skills translate. Is there anything else you’d like to know or can I provide more detail about anything we’ve discussed?

In using the hard close, you give the interviewer a genuine opportunity to follow up. It shows that you’re not just feigning interest in the role but looking to land it and that you want to assuage any concerns they might have. At this point, if all questions are answered, reaffirm your interest and tell the interviewer you’re looking forward to next steps.

A lot of this might sound simple and, honestly, it’s not that complex. It’s just not widely preached and practiced even less. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy conducting hearing someone try to close me during an interview. Interviewing is making a sales pitch and you need to be able to lock it down at the end.

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