Whoa! This is not good news for job seekers! The whole situation of references and reference checking has recently started getting a lot more troublesome for you as a job seeker while it’s making life much easier for corporate recruiters and their employers. As you know, I’m inclined to be an optimist, but this development is challenging my inclination because it’s weighted so heavily in favor of employers and against job seekers.
Automated Reference Checking–Too Early
A recent article on Workforce.com talks about Pre-Hire 360, software that enables employers to check your references before they even decide whether to schedule you for a face-to-face interview. The article indicates that more than 50% of companies who use this software do it after the initial phone screen so they can winnow down the number of candidates they need to bring in. That means if your references aren’t stellar from start to finish, you could be forced out of the running early on–much sooner than you might have been before automated reference checking software existed. What’s even worse is that you might never know it had happened.
Bad References Too Easy to Give Now
Companies used to be very careful, as a rule, about how they responded to requests for references, mainly because they were scared about possible lawsuits. Many companies have a policy that basically only allows people to give “name, rank and serial number” on former employees. However, that apparently no longer applies when they’re using automated reference checking software, which allows anonymous responses. Jeffrey Wade, with Anchor Planning Group, an executive recruiting firm, noted that “without the threat of being identified…references tend to be brutally frank about their colleagues, yielding much more useful information.” Useful to whom? The prospective employer, of course–certainly not to you as the would-be employee!
How Many References Do You Need and When?
As if that weren’t enough, you might now be asked/expected to supply more references than in the past. We used to say 3 to 5 (with 5 being preferable if you have them). Now some companies are requiring a minimum of 5 references, which they expect you to provide immediately following the phone screen, and at least 2 of those have to be past or present managers.
Also, we used to recommend not providing your references until after you had a chance to see that the employer was seriously interested (i.e., after you had an in-person interview). That way your references wouldn’t get pestered by a bunch of companies that might have no real intention of hiring you. However, the way the automated reference checking system is described in the Workforce.com article, it enables employers to check all the references you provide and to do it early.
Automated Reference Checking–What are Your Options?
Right now, the only one I see that’s potentially viable is to:
- Make an effort to acquire enough references so you can provide 5 to each employer who asks for them, without necessarily giving your entire list to any employer.
- Warn your references they might be contacted by employers you’re targeting and directed to respond via an automated reference checking system.
- Double-check with your references as to what they’re likely to say about you anonymously. Then try to weed out any that don’t sound as enthusiastic about you as you would like!
[Note: The article mentioned in this post can be found on Workforce.com; however, you have to register (which is free) in order to get access to it.]
Earlier this month, I briefly referenced the topic of applicant tracking systems (ATS) in another post, but I thought it merited further exploration, especially since I keep reading conflicting opinions as to who is using or not using it, how they’re using it, why or whether job seekers should be concerned, and so on. In our technology-driven age, it’s hard to know if there’s any single “right” answer to these kinds of situations, but hiding your head in the sand and hoping it will all go away is probably not the solution.
What is an Applicant Tracking System–What Does It Do?
Basically, as I understand it, an ATS is used by companies to manage all their job openings and screen the resumes that come in, so they only have to really look at a select few compared to the total number received. One way the system helps them do this is by searching for keyword or keyword phrases of particular interest. Okay, you’re probably familiar with the concept of keywords; it’s been around a long time now. In fact, those of us who write resumes for you make an effort to identify and use all the keywords and phrases that seem to be relevant to your experience and that appear to match some or all of the qualifications your target employers are seeking.
However, according to an article by Meridith Levinson, called “5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems” (quoting from an interview with Jon Ciampi, CEO of Preptel), “what matters most to applicant tracking systems is the uniqueness or ‘rarity’ of the keyword or the keyword phrase….That is, the keywords and phrases must be specific to a particular job ad.” Farther on in the same article, Levinson notes that what shows up to recruiters when they see your “resume” isn’t much like the way your original submission looked. That’s because an ATS pulls data from resumes into a database according to pre-set instructions and apparently can make any number of mistakes along the way. Comforting to you as a job seeker? Not much!
Chances of “Gaming” the Applicant Tracking Systems
Can you “game” an ATS? I’m not sure I know the answer to that one, but I suspect two things: (1) it wouldn’t be easy, if possible; (2) someone (maybe a lot of someones) has probably already tried or will try soon. What most of the careers experts I know recommend is that you still aim to incorporate into your resume the keywords and phrases most likely to be of interest to the employers you’re targeting. (If you can access inside information on what those might be, more power to you!) Some say you should avoid using specialized format items such as tables and graphics because applicant tracking systems don’t read them well and will overlook or mess up your carefully formatted information.
Of course, it would almost certainly be best if you can find a way to circumvent all applicant tracking systems by going directly to the hiring manager–or, at the very least, someone who has a direct pipeline to him or her and can move your resume to the desired person without going through a tracking system. Just don’t expect the companies to make it easy for you to do that!
We heard a while back that job boards were far from dead and actually producing some decent results–particularly for some employers. Now we have a fairly new report from an HR technology provider called SilkRoad (discussed in an article, “New Source of Hire Study…” by John Zappe on ERE.net), that suggests they’re doing better than expected. That’s particularly interesting since we’ve also heard that Monster.com is probably for sale and is seeing a decline in its North American revenue.
What Sources of Hire Should You be Looking at?
First, I should point out that if you’re waiting until someone stumbles upon you in a job board database, you’re wasting some valuable time. You need to get to potential jobs before the rest of the world does. However, I’m not going to keep beating that particular drum right now. Instead, I want to focus attention on the sources of hire mentioned in Zappe’s article and what the new information might mean to your overall job search.
In most cases, it won’t hurt and at least might help for you to tap into online job board resources as a part of your job search. Notice I said part, and it isn’t even the #1 part. Senior-level individuals (particularly high-level executives) probably don’t go the job board route anyway, because they tend to focus more on active networking and to target rarely posted positions. The rest of you, though, could try selectively dipping into the job board environment. That said, where might you want to start?
According to SilkRoad’s data, Indeed.com (a well-known job aggregator) “is the leading source of external hires for its 700+ customers, providing 42 percent more new hires than CareerBuilder, the #2 source.” The company also learned that “55 percent of the total hires came from three sources: internal employee candidates, employee referrals, and company career sites.” The rest were mainly from job boards.
Wise Use of Sources-of-Hire Information
It certainly wouldn’t make sense to depend on job boards as your only job search tool. However, since it appears that a number of employers do find employees that way, you might not want to totally discard them as a possible tool. Keep in mind that you can incorporate this method into your job search without having it consume an excessive amount of time and effort. That might mean you start by using Indeed.com to help you identify posted job possibilities that fit your criteria (what you want to be doing, are good at, etc., and what your target employers might be looking for). Then you can decide which to pursue, if any.
At the same time, you can be updating your LinkedIn profile if you haven’t done that recently. Although LinkedIn didn’t come in high on the SilkRoad survey, it does enjoy a reputation among many employers for being a useful resource to identify and research candidates–particularly those classed as passive (theoretically, not actively seeking a new position). Updating your profile doesn’t need to take a lot of time or a huge amount of effort, if you do it periodically. Just remember to turn off your activity notification if you don’t want your current employer to be made aware that you’ve been making changes, in case the company views it as a surreptitious job search action (it might be, but you don’t really want to signal that to them!).
Probably most of you aren’t what would normally be described as an entrepreneur. Wikipedia says that’s “an owner or manager of a business enterprise who makes money through risk and initiative.” However, I believe there’s an element of entrepreneurship in most people, whether they recognize it or not. It’s just that in many cases, the business they’re in and the product they’re selling is themselves and their skills. I think we might call these people “personal entrepreneurs.”
All Entrepreneurs Need Customers
My view of the situation received a boost when I read an article a couple of days ago by Jay Block, titled “Ain’t No Sunshine When There Ain’t No Customers.” The following quote from his article lays out what I consider to be a few key points:
“…what we have come to know as entrepreneurship, has NO VALUE, until it creates something a customer wants….Successful entrepreneurship…and business success is dependent upon identifying and pursuing customers who have ‘the ability to pay’ and ‘the desire to buy’….Most entrepreneurs don’t have working models and strategic plans to identify paying customers and to provide value propositions to entice customers to part with their money.”
I should note that Jay’s article is focused on the subject of innovators versus entrepreneurs and the problem of trying to generate jobs in a difficult economy. However, I can easily see the value of his points for a serious job seeker or any individual focused on effective career management.
So Maybe You Are an Entrepreneur and Don’t Know It
Your entrepreneurial spirit just needs to be directed toward the “business activities” you should be engaging in to achieve a productive job search campaign or career management plan. That includes identifying as precisely as possible several critical factors, including what it is you want to sell, to whom you want to sell it and what value you believe can and should be placed on it (in other words, reasonably expected compensation). For instance, you might think you’re “worth” a certain amount of salary, but unless you can find the right company and convince them of that, it doesn’t matter what you think you’re worth.
Note that identifying customers (employers) who will pay and getting them to part with their money (salary, etc.) might not be an easy task for you to tackle, but it’s essential. As a personal entrepreneur, you aren’t likely to have someone else who’s going to take care of this for you, although I certainly hope you will have a support team who can help you do what you need to do.
One last point on the subject: Your personal entrepreneurship must continue even after you land your next job. Your performance on that job needs to convince your boss (and the rest of the company, in fact) that he/she made a wise choice in hiring you—that you are worth every dollar of your salary and a lot more besides. It should also position you to make an even better “sale” when you’re ready to move again, by giving you impressive ammunition to share with the next prospective employer.
If you’ve never had an interview that focused on your critical-thinking skills (or lack thereof), this might be news to you: Interviewers who zero-in on this skill can ask some really tough questions! That’s one of my take-aways from an article I read recently called “Interviewing for Critical-thinking Ability,” by Greg Fall on ERE.net. I’m not going to even try to note all the aspects he covers in his article, but the following information gives a teaser. Read the full article if you think more info might be useful the next time you have a job interview.
Why Would an Interview focus on Critical Thinking?
As Fall notes in his article, “critical thinking has been rated the #1 desired skill in key contributors and senior level leaders….And, as Socrates understood, although it can be learned, organizations today don’t have the luxury of teaching this skill. They need people already adept at:
* Accurately understanding problems,
* Analyzing evidence, and
* Making good decisions.
With 7-10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, the need for critical thinkers has never been greater.”
So this skill/ability/whatever-you-call-it is probably going to become increasingly in demand by employers. That being the case, you need to prepare for interviews that might focus on whether you have this skill and, if so, to what extent. Oh, and if you don’t already have some good value to offer in the area of critical thinking, yesterday would be a good time to begin developing and strengthening it, because it sounds as if many employers either can’t or won’t wait for you to develop expertise in it!
Sample Critical Thinking Questions You Might be Asked
“Behavioral Questions: Describe a complex situation in which you…had to make a critical choice based on incomplete data or inputs.”
“Behavioral Drill-down/Follow-up Questions: List your basic assumptions when you first considered the situation.”
“Situational Questions: …A strong-willed and influential peer attempts to win you over to their position by using erroneous information as foundational to their argument. Give a detailed description of how you would respond.”
“Situational Drill Down/Follow-up Questions: …Why did you choose to proceed that way?”
And that’s just a small sample! Wow! Obviously, it’s no longer enough–if it ever really was–to bone up on the company/industry, make sure you have all your success stories clearly in mind, and so on. It’s not that you don’t need to or shouldn’t do that. You just need to do more.
How Can You Prepare for Critical-Thinking Interview Questions?
First of all, realize that this is not a game of one-upmanship. You aren’t trying to fool the interviewer and, we hope, the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. However, it’s essential that you understand what constitutes critical thinking, determine where you need to improve your abilities in that area and take the initiative to get yourself moving in the right direction. Start learning and practicing techniques that will help you (1) probe problems, (2) evaluate the information you obtain about them and (3) use your conclusions to execute appropriate, effective action. As the article mentions, some of this can be taught, so one solution could be for you to identify and access resources capable of teaching you to become a better critical thinker.
Then start applying what you’ve learned to real-world situations you have encountered or can envision encountering in the future. The above-mentioned article contains a number of questions to start you thinking along those lines. See if you can come up with some of your own.