Reference Checking & Your Job Search

You might be concerned about your references for a variety of reasons–uncertainty about what former employers will say, how they’ll say it, whether anyone might respond to inquiries with a negative reference, and so on. Especially if you left your last position under less than ideal circumstances–either voluntarily or involuntarily for reasons you weren’t happy about, you might have genuine reasons for concern.

References–What You Can Control & What You Can’t

To start with, you can provide potential employers with a list of references that includes people who know your work and respect what you’ve accomplished–and, of course, have indicated their willingness to act as a reference for you. That much you can control.

What you can’t control is factors such as the prospective employer’s reference checker going beyond the list you’ve provided to contact other people at your former employer whom you haven’t asked as references and who might have undesirable comments to make about you or your work. Because employers know you’re only going to provide references that will speak favorably about you, they can tend to view your list with a dose of skepticism and want to dig deeper and wider.

In today’s litigious society, companies have gotten more cautious about giving references that could open them up to a lawsuit. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that you’re home-free if you had an unsatisfactory departure for some reason. It’s possible, for instance, for someone to respond like this: “Oh, yes, he/she worked here as a [position title] from 2012 to 2015.” It looks innocuous enough in print, but if said in a tone of voice that indicates lack of enthusiasm about you or maybe even hints at actual dissatisfaction with your work, the damage could be done without your ever knowing it.

Can you control that? Not really, at least not much. One obvious course is to line up a few references who can provide information that’s solidly grounded in fact and that clearly demonstrates the stellar record you’ve achieved while working with or for them. Nice-sounding but basically general reference responses won’t cut it in this case.

Reference Checking that “Blows It”

My old “friend,” Nick Corcodillos of Ask The Headhunter (he actually doesn’t know who I am; I just like his style and refer to him frequently), made some typically blunt comments about reference checking in a recent blog post, titled “Incompetent reference checking.” Among other things, he states:
“Asking for references seems dumb because it has been made trivial; so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.) They’re going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a bunch of people on a list. How ludicrous is that?”

If you want a hair-curling read, check out the entire article!

Although I think what he says makes sense in many ways, I’m going to diverge from it to say that I still recommend your having a reputable reference checking service do a test run for you if you have any reason to think people at your former employer might bad-mouth you in some way. The service I’m familiar with (used by many of my colleagues or their clients) is Alison & Taylor. However, there might be others that are worth checking out.

Is there any easy answer to this dilemma? Unfortunately, I don’t know of one. If you find a solution to the reference checking aspect that’s fool-proof for you and your job search, I’d love to hear it and maybe pass it along to my clients!

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What Can You Do for Us?

You’re probably familiar with the old principle of WIIFM–What’s In It For Me? On the other hand, how often do you think about WIIFU–What’s In It For Us? Maybe not often enough.

Employers’ Perspective is Critical

If you haven’t put the needs of potential employers at the top of your list when creating your professional resume or preparing for a full-out job search, you could be wasting your time–and theirs. Most employers, if not all, won’t care that you’re a good person who deserves a good job. If they do care at all, it probably comes a distant second to how much they care about hiring someone who can bring substantial value to their organization in a number of ways, such as the following:

  1. Solve a troublesome problem as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
  2. Spot a situation with potential to become a nasty problem and identify a solution before things get out of hand.
  3. Attract and retain major customers that will significantly increase revenues over an extended period.
  4. Recruit, train and motivate teams that stand out from the rest as super-achievers enthusiastically focused on a common goal.
  5. Elevate (or at least help elevate) the company to an industry-leading market position.

Employers want someone who can hit the ground running and gather the necessary resources to pursue corporate goals with next-to-zero ramp-up time, rather than someone who needs a gentle introduction to the job and plenty of hand-holding to get started. You might think a “zero to 60 in 3 minutes” requirement is unreasonable, and in that case, maybe this isn’t the job for you (but that’s another story).

What’s important to remember is that employers often and not unreasonably tend to put their self-interest ahead of other considerations. Which gets back to “what can you do for us?”

How Can You Determine Your WIIFU Approach?

For starters, you need to know as much as you can about the company you’re pursuing before you submit your resume or make the first contact there. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. You’re responsible for scouting out relevant information through whatever means are realistically available to you. Failure to make a determined effort in that area will cost you time and possibly money as well, if the new-job train leaves the station without you.

Here are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself in order to make your WIIFU approach effective:

  • What sources of potentially useful information can I identify and access reasonably soon? Work up a plan for doing the necessary research, making relevant contacts, etc.
  • What actions am I comfortable taking–or can I motivate myself to take, if they’re somewhere outside my comfort zone–to get things moving? For instance, it’s not bragging to build an online portfolio of your unique experiences and achievements that might interest prospective employers. Then you just need to figure out how to get that information in front of your targeted employers.
  • How much time can I devote to the WIIFU-building approach to my job search, especially if I’m already feeling overloaded? Of course, only you really know what your schedule and demands are. However, it’s surprising how often we find that we can carve out an hour or two here and there, if a larger block of time appears completely out of the question.

You’ll notice that these questions are centered on what you need to do to make the approach work, but they’re still not all about you. What you want is important to you, but you need to wrap it in a package that’s important to the employer. If you can’t or won’t do that, you might as well not bother. Your competitors probably will!


Your Online Brand & Reputation Management

By now, I think most people realize that they have a brand, whether or not they pay much attention it. However, since so much information is available about you online these days, ignoring your online brand and reputation is risky at best.

How Do You Manage Your Personal Brand Online?

William Arruda is widely recognized as the guru of personal branding. A recent post by Tara Kachaturoff in Arruda’s online publication, The Personal Branding Blog, addresses the above question with some practical steps. In a nutshell (read the blog post for details), they are:

  1. Assessment: Create a benchmark from which you can measure progress.
  2. Determine what you want to change.
  3. What’s working for you?
  4. Draft a strategy that works for you!
  5. Rinse and repeat – do what works and more of it!

Think You Don’t Need to Manage Your Brand?

Think again! Whether you’re a job seeker, just managing your ongoing career or a business owner like me, you really can’t afford to ignore the need for personal brand management. The days when you could stick your head in the sand and pretend this issue doesn’t exist are long gone.

Try Googling yourself by first and last name (or your business name if you own a business) and see what comes up. Or what doesn’t, as the case might be.

At times, I’ve found references to myself in as many as 6 or 7 of the top 10 on page one of results and maybe a few more on page two. (There are several Georgia Adamsons, so I’m usually not the only listing.) Most recently, I found just 2 or 3 on the first page and 1 or 2 on the second page. Obviously, I have some work to do! (Of course, if I Google “Georgia Adamson resume writer,” I’m 10 out of 10 on page one!)

By the way, one of the references you might find when you search for yourself is your LinkedIn profile–especially if you’ve updated it recently (even a small tweak now and then will help the profile to come up high on the list). That’s just one of many reasons to make sure your LI profile is current and updated fairly often; LinkedIn does get a lot of exposure. If you want potential employers to find you and to be favorably impressed by what they find, give your LinkedIn presence the attention it deserves.

You don’t need to spend hours every day on managing your online brand and reputation, but consistent attention over time is likely to pay dividends. You’ll be more easily found and better able to make the kind of impression you want to make on the people (i.e., employers) who do find you. That’s well worth some thoughtful effort.


Is Your Resume “Old News”? Think Resume Update

It’s the start of a new year, and you probably have a list of things you need or want to do. Looking at your resume might not be one of them unless you’re on the verge of launching a serious job search. (Some people don’t do it even then, although they should!)

The fact is, any point at which you’re not in or planning a near-term job search is an excellent time to haul out your existing resume and dust off the cobwebs. For one thing, you can do it without the added pressure that a full-blown job search exerts. That means you can give careful thought to the present condition of your resume, consider what might have changed since you last updated it, and take steps to refresh it.

5 Key Points to Consider for a Resume Update

  1. How long ago did you last do a resume update? If it was less than a year, you probably don’t need a complete overhaul. However, anything new that has happened since then, particularly if it has expanded your list of accomplishments, belongs in the resume. Why wait until later to put it there?
  2. If the last update was more than a year ago, has anything significant changed that really should be taken care of? For example, if your job title or scope of responsibility is different, you could be missing a bet by not adjusting your resume accordingly. It might increase your chances of landing the next big job opportunity when the time comes.
  3. Deadwood often needs to be pruned to make a tree healthy and more attractive. The same holds true for your resume. It’s not just that you don’t want to end up with a 6-page resume (you don’t!), but also you don’t want to advertise to potential employers that you’re either stuck in the past or not interested in moving forward in your career.
  4. Even if you had a great resume 5 years ago, times have probably changed since then. The language (wording) you used back then might be considered obsolete, out of date, or otherwise “old hat.” And if you don’t know what that last phrase means, look it up 🙂 .
  5. If you’ve moved in a new direction since your last resume update, the resume needs to reflect that new direction, including any significant changes in the nature or level of your responsibilities, as well as what you might have accomplished in that new area.

Does Your Resume Shout Value to Employers?

Well, no, your resume doesn’t exactly have to shout anything. However, it does need to make your unique value so clear that busy employers can’t possibly miss it in a quick scan–which is about all you can count on with that first look. It has to cause what I call the “eyebrow raising” moment. You know, where the employer goes, “Hey! Maybe we should talk to this person! He/she could be just what we’re looking for.”

If your existing resume doesn’t do that–whether it was last updated 5 years ago or 5 months ago, you have a different challenge: what do you need to do to make that raised-eyebrow reaction happen? For the purposes of this post, though, I suggest that you think in terms of doing a resume update that also (not coincidentally) sharpens your value-added message to employers. That way, your resume won’t be mistaken for “old news” that an employer can afford to skip over. And isn’t that what you want?


Commodity Job Seeker: Make Sure This Isn’t You

One definition of commodity is: “A basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type.” In the world of job search and career management, you do not want to be a commodity! Interchangeability is not your friend.

Avoid the “Me Too” Syndrome

If your resume and other career marketing/job search tools paint you as just another candidate like the scores whose resumes preceded yours across the employer’s desk, you have set yourself up for failure at the start. You don’t want to come across as a copycat or someone without any original ideas, experiences and value.

It’s fatally easy to look for a shortcut that avoids the hard work required for a successful job search, such as convincing yourself you don’t really need to develop a professional resume that clearly and compellingly showcases your value-add message. Or maybe you’ve just looked at a few samples and decided you can kluge together a generic version that will work for you. (By the way, the definition of kluge is: “Use ill-assorted parts to make (something).”)

The “me too” approach means you have zero chance of standing out to potential employers or being memorable enough to them that they will think of you when scheduling interviews.

Present Yourself as a Special-Value Candidate, Not a Commodity

You can take a number of steps to present yourself as a desirable (special-value) candidate and prevent the commodity label from being applied to you. For example, you can:

  • Identify uncommon qualities and qualifications you can offer employers. You might, for instance, have demonstrated the ability to bring together people who don’t much like each other and are ready to fight to defend their turf–and get them to collaborate productively on business-critical projects. Not everyone can do this.
  • Research potential employers and their probable needs or challenges. What can you offer them that hits really close to home? What obstacles have you overcome for other employers that would resonate with their needs or challenges? Also, have you broken new ground in doing so, rather than just following in someone else’s footsteps?
  • Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses; then look for creative ways to accentuate your strengths and distinguish yourself from the herd (that is, your competition). Let the weaknesses just drift out of the picture unless one of them is standing in the way of setting yourself apart as a non-commodity job seeker (in which case, take active steps to eliminate it as a problem).
  • Start now (if you haven’t already) to acquire a unique skill or specialty that will help you gain an edge in a competitive job market. Do your homework first, though, to make sure you have identified something with real promise, not just the next “shiny new thing.”

If your name comes up in a hiring discussion and people say, “George [or Georgina] who?”–you have some work to do to make sure you’re not viewed as a commodity job seeker the next time you pursue a new job.


LinkedIn Endorsements vs. Recommendations

As I might have said before, although I’m generally a supporter of LinkedIn as a strong online resource, I’m not wild about their addition of endorsements, which I suspect was done to benefit them more than their members. On the other hand, I do like their recommendations feature, which allows you to share complimentary remarks about your professional value and achievements without sounding conceited. In a way, comparing the two features is like comparing apples to oranges. Unfortunately, there’s more at stake here than that.

A couple of days ago, I read an editorial in the Netshare member newsletter (by Netshare CEO Katherine Simmons) that reinforced my own thoughts about LinkedIn’s changes over the past several years–and, in particular, the past several months. Simmons makes a few comments I agree with 100%, including one about the endorsements:

“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all of my connections who took the time to endorse me. But frankly, I’ve been getting a lot of endorsements from people I don’t know for things I don’t do! For my part, I know I’ve hit that endorse button a few times when I really didn’t have the slightest idea whether that person knew anything about Change Management. It has become sort of a game – the career version of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button.”

What Can Endorsements Do or Not Do?

I’m not an expert on all the ins and outs, but my understanding is that one thing endorsements do is make it easier for employers to search LinkedIn for people who have particular skills they’re looking for. That doesn’t sound negative on the face of it, but think a moment or two. You might throw in all the relevant terms you can think of to take advantage of the 50 skills-and-expertise items you’re allowed to use; but is that really what you most want employers to know about you?

Endorsements might peg selected things about you, but what they can’t do is give potential employers a really strong sense of the value you can bring to them, by offering a solid, third-party indication of that value. For one thing, as Simmons points out, it’s all too easy to click a skill for people without giving any serious thought to whether they actually have that skill and have used it successfully in their professional life.

I’ve had a similar experience to hers with regard to people I know little or not at all, which makes me wonder what they were thinking when they endorsed me! I try never to endorse anyone for something I’m not sure they do, and I certainly don’t want to endorse someone I don’t know well.

LinkedIn Recommendations Do What Endorsements Can’t

It used to be that you needed at least 3 recommendations in your profile to reach 100%. I’m not sure when that requirement was dropped, but it’s no longer in force. However, I continue to encourage clients to seek recommendations from people who are qualified to rate their performance–former bosses, colleagues/peers, customers, etc.

There are at least 3 reasons for this:

  • You don’t feel as if you’re bragging about yourself if someone else describes your contributions in strongly favorable terms. Correspondingly, people reading your profile don’t get the impression that you’re full of self-importance.
  • Sometimes companies frown on employees’ providing letters of recommendation for a former employee. However, a brief comment in a LinkedIn recommendation might be viewed somewhat differently and be acceptable, especially since it has become so much a fact of life on LinkedIn.
  • Recommendations remain in your profile 24x7x365, without your having to do anything to keep them there. Unless you choose to hide a recommendation for some reason, it stays visible and working for you all the time.

What Makes You a Satisfied Employee?

Job satisfaction can be hard to measure, and it can fluctuate depending on what’s going on in your work and/or personal life at the time. However, if you’re feeling unsatisfied at work over an extended period, that’s not a good sign!

Companies theoretically worry about this kind of thing. Unsatisfied employees tend to be less productive, have a negative attitude more of the time, jump ship as soon as they can find a “better” opportunity, and so on. However, not all employers take employee job satisfaction as seriously as they should–and as you might like them to.

Employee Development and Employee Satisfaction

One gauge of an employer’s commitment to having satisfied employees is the quality and availability of employee development programs. For example, does your employer offer on-the-job training–that is, actual time-scheduled workshops or other resources during the work-day? Does the company provide reimbursement for off-site/after-hours educational programs that could advance your professional capabilities and value?

In today’s tough economic climate and challenging business conditions, these questions aren’t just rhetorical. A lot of companies have pulled away from offering such programs at all, and even some of the better companies have scaled back their offerings. That might be understandable, but it’s also probably short-sighted in terms of employee retention concerns.

According to an article by Ashlie Turley titled “Employee Development is More Important Than Ever,” a survey by CareerBuilder in January indicated that “32% of businesses lost top talent in 2012 and 39% believe they’ll lose top performers in 2013. The survey also found that 25% of workers expect to change jobs in 2013 or 2014.”

This isn’t news to you if you’re one of those in that 25%. You’re probably already looking for greener pastures or are planning to start in the near future if you don’t have much hope that your current employer will come up with better offerings soon.

So What Would Make You a Satisfied Employee?

I suggest it starts with feeling appreciated/valued by your current employer and seeing potential for career growth and advancement within the company. Turley’s article states that employees, “especially the high achievers, don’t just want an employer who will compensate them for what they already know. They want an employer who will help them learn and achieve something new. Employees realize that remaining stagnant in today’s workforce is career suicide, and they are looking for companies that understand this reality and are prepared to help them grow.”

Career suicide. Hm-m-m-m-m-m. Sounds like something I “preach” to clients a lot! If you can’t grow where you are, but you stay there because you feel stuck or you’re in a rut that has become more comfortable than moving on would be, you will almost certainly end up regretting it eventually. Your marketability to potential employers can decline over time if you can’t point to a career-savvy reason for having stayed where you were for so long.

That being said, when was the last time you took a good, hard look at your satisfaction level in your current position? It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just been too busy to pay attention or have been consciously or unconsciously ignoring the situation. Either way, I encourage you to give serious thought to whether or not you are a satisfied employee and, if not, what it would take to make you one–where you are now or somewhere else. Maybe it’s time to dust off your job search skills!