Go Back To School

I know what it’s like. You look and look and look and still can’t find that job. After a while you are discouraged, frustrated, and angry. What are you going to? I’ve got an idea – go back to school.

I work for a university so I appreciate the value of an education, but that’s not really where I’m headed. While a degree will definitely improve your marketability, getting a degree takes time and money. If you are unemployed you may have the time, but maybe not the money. There are lots of opportunities for financial aid – but I’m rambling.

What I’m talking about is more of a suggestion to go to your local community college and take a course. Find something you are interested and immerse yourself in some good, old fashioned learning. Take a course on poetry, or early American history, math or maybe computer programming. I’m not really talking about finding a new career, I’m talking about getting some new mojo.
If all you do all day is look for a job you’ll get stale. Mixing a little Robert Frost or Introductory Auto Mechanics into your schedule will cause you to think differently. Stimulating your neurons in a new way can give you different perspective on your job search.

Maybe you’ll decide to go whole-hog and get that degree (or another one). Or maybe you’ll decide to change careers and learn a whole new skill set. Maybe you’ll meet some new networking contacts. Or maybe you’ll just feel better about yourself because you are doing something helpful and productive and that attitude will show through in your search.

It is never a bad time to invest in yourself. When you’ve been on the job hunt for a while, a little education can be a great thing.

Can They Do That?

Sometimes being an applicant is like being a second class citizen.  Companies do things to applicants that they don’t do to employees and I often get the question – can they do that?  I’m not a lawyer and I will not give legal advice.  But I can share with you some common practices and maybe tell you where you can learn more if you need to.

Drug screens, and physical examinations – Yes, employers have every right to ask you to take a pre-employment drug screen (of any format they feel is appropriate) and to pass a physical examination.  But, they can’t do either of these until after they have extended to you a conditional offer of employment (conditional on passing these medical tests).  The tests need to have some relationship to the work you’ll do or their policies – e.g. a drug-free workplace policy or a lifting capacity test for a warehouse worker.  (RE: the American’s with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act)

Criminal Background and Credit Checks – yes, they can conduct these checks. Again, they should be conducted post-offer (but they don’t have to be) and you must sign an acknowledgment/consent before they investigate.  If they decide not to hire you based on what they learn they have to tell you about that and give you a copy of the report. (RE: the Fair Credit Reporting Act)

References and Social Media checks – yes, they can ask anyone they want to tell them about you and those people can tell them anything they want to tell them – as long what they tell them is the truth.  Where reference checks go awry is when the former supervisor is honest, and says that Bob was not a good worker, but nobody told Bob that, and in fact his personnel file is full of positive reviews.  Or, if Bob really was a sociopath and was fired for threatening to shoot his boss (while holding a gun) and the former supervisor says Bob’s a great guy – you should hire him.  Dishonesty will cause problems.  As your mother probably told you – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

And yes, companies can go look at your Facebook profile and see pictures of you holding red cups and acting inappropriately and then decide not to hire you.  So, if you’re serious about your job search a) limit your web presence to your friends and b) don’t post things that might reflect on you poorly – have some common sense.

Withdraw the offer – probably yes.  Let’s say the company makes you an offer, then they conduct the background check and based on that they change their mind.  If a) they told you they were going to check your references, etc. and b) they told you the offer was contingent on the results of those checks, then absolutely, they can pull the plug.  If, however, they give you a written offer with no contingencies, and if you have not lied to them about anything (including enhancing your resume or lying on your application), then regardless of what they learn, it may be a little harder for them to walk away.  But let’s be serious, do you want to work someplace where they don’t want you?  That’s not a great way to start a relationship.

It gets ugly when they extend an offer, you accept, you quit your current job (maybe burn a bridge or two in the process) and then they change their mind.  That can happen. Hopefully everyone can be as open as possible and make sure you’re all on the same page before you put a match to those bridges.

Verbal Contracts – speaking of ugly, verbal contracts are the worst.  Imagine this, you’re interviewing and the manager says “Okay, even though you’re a CPA, we are going to offer you the position of accounting clerk, because that’s what I have open and its all HR will let me do. But after about a month I’ll promote you to Controller and we’ll quadruple your salary.”  You get the clerk offer, accept it, and six months later you’re still a clerk.  Can you sue them?  Maybe.  It depends on who the manager was (did he have any authority to say what he said) and the language he used.  Was that promotion based on the assumption that you perform well or did something else have to  happen first?  Bottom line, don’t take this deal.  If you’re looking to be the Controller then get it in writing, or be willing to be a clerk.

As an applicant you have some rights. You should know what they are, but you should also know what’s best for you.  You really don’t want to work with some jerks who don’t know how to treat an applicant.

Resume Enhancement – Think Twice

Let’s face it; very few of us have truly reached the pinnacle of our careers.  Many have earned good educations, held responsible jobs, and been respected in a communities.  But there still may be (or we think there are) holes in our resumes.  It can be awfully tempting to “enhance” that resume to fill those holes and make ourselves more desirable to recruiters.  Some might call this “putting the right spin on your experience.”  In more extreme cases others might call it “lying.”

Let me be crystal clear, I do not advocate in any way or at any time lying on your resume.  Listing jobs, responsibilities, accomplishments, education, etc. on your resume that are not true and accurate is wrong and should not be tolerated.  If you hire someone who had blatant likes on his/her resume or application they should be terminated immediately for a lack of honesty. Never, never, never lie on your resume (or any other time for that matter).

That being said, there is also no reason to draw a red circle around every hole in your resume and intentionally bring those issues to that attention of every recruiter you talk to. Let’s try a simple example.  Say your job was eliminated from company X on February 4 and you found a new job with Company Y on November 24.  If you use the full dates in the Job History section of your resume it will be obvious to everyone that you were out of work of just over 9 months.  However, if you simply list the year on your resume the only thing that is obvious is that your changed jobs in 2009, but the gap disappears.  You’ll want to be honest about that gap if it comes up in an interview or when you complete an application, but there is no need to volunteer the information.

When constructing your job history, it’s okay not to list jobs that don’t fit your career objective.  If during the gap in previous paragraph you worked at McDonald’s because you needed income, you don’t need to list that on your resume, unless it supports your career objective.  You should include it on a formal application, but let it come up in the interview, rather than when your resume is being screened.  Similarly, if you’ve had lots of jobs (I’ve had 10 professional jobs since I graduated from college) there is no need to list all of them on your resume – unless they show a clear progression that supports your career objective.  Only list the most recent ones that best support the position you are applying for.

What I’m advocating some might consider simple common sense.  Make sure to include factual information that supports who you are and why you are the best candidate for a position.  At the same time, don’t include anything on your resume that does not support that same objective unless leaving it off will create more questions than including it.  Your resume is just that, your resume.  You get to decide the best way to present yourself.  You choose the format, the style, and the contents.  Choose the things that present you in the best possible light.

Honesty is clearly the best, and the only acceptable policy.  But, discretion may be the better part of valor.

Is Anybody Hungry?

I was participating in a panel interview recently and one of the panelists asked what might be one of the greatest interview questions I’ve ever heard.  He said “Tell me how you would make a peanut butter sandwich.”

I can hear you now – “What?!?  That’s the greatest question ever?”  Yes, it just might be.

Clearly there is no right or wrong to this question, but you can learn so much from the answer.  One candidate started with “well, I’m low on groceries so first I’d go to the store.”  Others are very direct, “I’d put peanut butter on two slices of bread and stick them together.”  Some get very detailed, “Take the bread from the cupboard, remove the twist-tie to open the package, remove two slices of bread and place them on a plate, reseal the package, then place the bread back in the cupboard” and on and on.  A surprising number will add jelly, even though it’s not part of the question.  Some talk about the colors and flavors while others stick to the facts like reading a computer manual.

What this question does is to force someone to reveal how they think. Are they a detail oriented person, a big picture person, or a descriptive person?  Do they understand process or only results? Are they creative?

As a job seeker, you need to think ahead about how you would answer this type of question.   The odds are that no one will ask you how to make a sandwich, but they might ask you questions that reveal who you are.  When they do, you need to know the answer to that question.