Job Hunting Down the Rabbit Hole

As a consultant, I am privileged to serve clients from all walks of work life, although the majority of my clients are the very corporate professionals that now sit in the seat I once held, on “the inside.” While these clients often express similar frustrations, concerns, and even victories, the past several years have revealed a single theme that is unerring in its consistency: the problem of what it’s like to look for a corporate position amidst a surge of layoffs, cutbacks and raging unemployment levels on the macro level.

There are few things as upsetting, unsettling and unnerving as a job hunt. Uncertainty reigns, outcomes evade, and the “dance” of interviewing for a position seems more like a death march over a threadbare rope strung carelessly over the River Scylla. Hiring managers will ask you to become available for an initial interview almost immediately (“Can you conduct a short interview right now? Just tell the pilot to hold the plane, we are hoping to make a final decision in the next five days…”), but will languish lazily when it comes to getting back to you once you do invest time in an introductory interview. You will be asked to rely on a printed job description for information, but when you request greater clarity on that description, the human resources person (now known as ” a recruiter”) will not be familiar enough with that description to answer your questions. It’s maddening, but if for nothing else, at least consistent; These are a few of the aspects of job-hunting that have pretty much remained static up until about four-to-five years ago. That’s when the whole job-hunting experience, in my opinion, ambled crazily down the rabbit hole.

What’s changed? Aside from the dismal labor market overall, which is far worse than government reports are ready or willing to disclose, there have been a few significant shifts in what it means to look for work if you are a corporate professional.

1. Human Resources to the Forefront — Gone are the days when a hiring manager on the line was able to select, interview and prepare an offer to the most qualified candidate, only to contact “HR” at the back end to ask them to handle the requisite paperwork and seal the deal. Today, the human resources professional, or “internal recruiter,” holds firm at the front line. What happened? First, with scads of applicants vying for each rare opening, HR is now necessary to the corporate entity on the front lines as a mere screener. In short, HR’s first order of business is to find reasons to weed out applicants, not consider their merits or what they might bring to the table. The sheer numbers of unemployeds seeking a shot at the same position has been a driving force in this trend.

Another reason why HR is now holding the keys to the entrance gate is partially remedial. Line managers of all levels–Assistant VPs to Executive VPs, and everywhere in between–have across the board demonstrated that selection and hiring isn’t always neutral, or merit-based. Think of the co-worker who you discovered was the granddaughter of the firm’s top sales person, and you’ll have that “aha” moment. That’s why she was taking up space in a job for which she was ill-suited, making your life and your other co-workers’ lives miserable. She was a bargaining chip in much larger favors, from which you would never benefit. In this respect, corporate leaders had no choice but to at least attempt to neutralize the cronyism that crippled efficiencies and decimated morale.

A third possible cause is the increasingly complex and burdensome regulatory backdrop encircling corporate entities today. Line managers just don’t have the support, time or training to comprehend these ever-changing rules, much less comply with them during the charged process of selecting and hiring candidates. Human resources management has become a multi-faceted labyrinth, and amidst an increasingly litigious culture, you better believe companies have pushed HR to the forefront.

Notwithstanding these reasons, having to clear HR as your first hurdle to getting an interview is no fun. Many of these professionals don’t know as much about the position as they’d like you to think; they are often relying on a printed job description prepared by the line manager him/herself. Second, the HR recruiter today is jumping off a springboard of a very different nature than in years past: he or she is looking for reasons to eliminate each candidate, rather than reasons to give a candidate that green light to move to the next stage. Finally, the presence of HR at the outset of the job-hunting process nearly ensures that qualified candidates may never get a crack at their ideal position. This is because HR begins with set, standardized criteria, raw numbers and even hiring quotas–a set of tools that couldn’t be more impersonal, basically disregarding you as an individual job candidate.

2. Let’s Talk Money — In the past, salary was not even a discussion until an offer was at or near the table. Now, as a candidate, on the first contact with HR, you will be asked about your “salary expectations.” Considering that the HR recruiter’s primary task is to evaluate you based on static, impersonal criteria and to eliminate candidates, consider this question a potential disqualifier.

I’ve had HR-affiliated acquaintances admit this to me, so while it may not apply across the board to all job searches, it does come into play, so be prepared. Frankly, I believe this question is unfair, regardless of the HR recruiter’s motives, because what a candidate “expects” in salary from the position is irrelevant. HR, and you, know full well that what matters most is the salary range that the company pre-designated for the position long ago.

How in the name of Alfonso are you supposed to answer this trick question? A recent conversation I had over dinner with a good friend (who is seeking a position) culminated in the following suggestion. When asked about your salary expectations (and you haven’t yet met a single human being in-person as part of the interview process), try this: “I appreciate your asking about compensation. However, we both know that since the onset of the Great Recession, a virtual reset button has been pressed insofar as salaries in most all industry sectors. This has made my last corporate salary somewhat irrelevant as a benchmark. What matters most is what your firm has allocated for this position. What has your firm set for the salary range for this job? I would appreciate your candor. For me to just suggest a ‘number’ without any sense of what your firm pays for this position might inadvertently disqualify me, and I am very interested in this opportunity.”

If that is met with stony silence or resistance, you could say, “I understand you need to report some feedback from me on this important question. I’ll tell you that I made $Xk annually in my last corporate position, and I do know that today, many firms are paying $Y to $Zk for a similar level of responsibility, in our industry. Now, given that, and in the spirit of openness, what is the salary range for this position? I will be forthcoming and tell you if it’s within a range that I’d be happy with.” Etc.

3. The Instant Interview – This one I love, because as we addressed earlier, it can take weeks for HR — or anyone — to get back to a candidate on the outcome of the hiring decision. However, the new wave of job-hunting protocal calls for you, the candidate, to be ready on a dime to speak to HR to get that first screening-out call completed. I heard of one story wherein an HR person called the applicant, and on the spot, requested that she make herself available to talk within 45 minutes. It’s beyond crazy, but actually, it’s solid evidence leading to the reasonble inference that they are merely looking to weed people out of the running.

If this happens, and you can’t possibly accommodate the request, try this: “I can appreciate your sense of urgency in speaking to me; That indicates that filling this position is a high priority for your firm, and that’s a good thing. However, something this important deserves adequate preparation. In addition, I’m tied up honoring prior commitments that I pledged to complete on time and on budget. I could, however, make myself fully available to you starting on Monday at 9am. Would you have time then?” Etc.

4. The Sounds of Silence – Alas, silence is indeed golden in many circumstances, but when you are anxiously awaiting word from the firm to which you devoted countless in-person interviews and stressful hours of travel, preparation and nervous energy, silence is most decidedly not golden. It’s rusty corrosion, actually. And rude.

However, get used to it: The new wave of hiring practices has brought out the very worst infractions when it comes to basic courtesy, and this is perhaps the harshest among them. You will have to assume if you don’t hear anything within two weeks, there’s no action. I’d recommend strongly that you don’t let any HR or line manager hang up or leave the room until you have a business card in hand, and even just a weak sense of when they expect to make a decision. Mark that date on your calendar, and if you’re still hearing the sound of silence by that date, call or email.

While this next point has little to do with the way companies hire now, it’s worth including, in my opinion. I talk to a lot of clients, former clients, friends, associates, and people in other settings about this topic, and if there’s one thing that the majority of them say, it’s that job hunting can be hazardous to your emotional health, but getting out among people and talking about the process helps. If for nothing else, you will feel less alone, and you might even pick up some helpful suggestions on coping. Hang in there. There will come a day when you won’t have to be “screened” at the outset by an HR recruiter, so until then, stand firm and do your part to bring courtesy and decorum back to this arduous process.

1 thought on “Job Hunting Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Pete Jameson


    We are living in a time of flux…that said, I appreciate your efforts to inform people about the vagaries of corporate life…de-cry the (false) truths…de-form your self by climbing high above that which your contemporaries are willing to ascend…Good tHiNgS, pEdRo In Pa

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