Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Mar 30, 2011

Ask a Manager: Why did you leave your previous job?

The Finishing School welcomes our guest manager,  "Miranda Bailey," to respond to a recent Ask the Manager question.

Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine. 
 Hi there,
Came across your web page and "ask a manager" section particularly interested me.
Here's my query: hope I get some guidance.

An overview to my profile:
I am an MBA graduate.
An HR professional (Based abroad)
I've worked for 5 yrs with mostly start-up organizations. Throughout my career I made sure that I give my best to the organizations (for which I did win loads of accolades as well).
To the best of my knowledge, I've always had positive feedback about my work and personality.

The situation:
I got married in 2008; due to demands at home my work suffered and I was fired (without any prior warning). The markets crashed soon after and unemployment prevailed for most of the year in 2009.  By the time the markets got greener for jobs, I got pregnant and had to continue staying at home.

My child is 6 months old now. I am ready to work now.

I am not clearing any interviews in spite of most interviews having indicated good outcome.
Most difficult questions/situations interviewers present me with are :
•why a junior position if I apply for non senior positions (after being a senior manager) ;
•why did you leave your previous job ?(gets tricky if I tell them the truth and will get messy if they find out that I was fired!).
•Some state I am too qualified to start off again at a junior position.
•Could it be possible that my previous employers are giving a negative feedback. (Is it possible that a company reference checks with my previous employers without my knowledge? )

Kindly help.
Dear Reader,
As we say in the service business, you are only as strong as your last encounter.  It can be difficult  to bounce back from a termination, though you say you are “ready to work.”  Let’s see if we can emphasize this aspect of your candidacy in your next round of interviews.
Let them Ask
In this market, of course, most candidates are more than ready to work, and many are laid off from senior high-paying roles and competing for junior positions.  You have your work cut out for you.  The market also works in your favor in one way: most candidates have a gap between their most recent employment and the present day.  You may have the advantage in some cases of being assumed laid off, rather than terminated, and you are under no obligation to reveal that in an interview.

When the question arises, meet it honestly.  You may even use it as a selling point.

Never Stop Learning
 Like most interview questions, “Why did you leave your last position” is only partly about what you answer.  It is mostly about how you answer.  Your letter reveals some interesting opportunities:  you recognize where you were stumbling professionally, and though your termination came “without prior warning,” you also know that your work suffered.  
Now is your opportunity to do some hard reflecting on how that happened, and how you might have done things differently.  Work on a simple statement that acknowledges the cause, your role in it, and what you learned from it. End your statement with a question that gives the interviewer the chance to say something positive.  
Like this: “A project I was handling missed a key milestone.  I thought I had it under control, so I hadn’t escalated my concerns to management.  Does your company provide the kind of collaboration that would help resolve scheduling conflicts with projects?”  A savvy recruiter or hiring manager may throw it back to you, “So you were terminated?”  And you can say, regretfully, “I learned so much from that experience.  I realize how it important it is to look for obstacles much farther ahead than I had been.  For example….” 
If this is also a situation where you are applying for a role junior to one you held before, or seem more naturally qualified for, you can also add, “I may not have been ready for that level.  In my current job search, I am looking for opportunities to refine my current skills and better prepare myself to return to the senior role.”  Again, a question back keeps the conversation flowing in a feel-good direction.  “Can you tell me about professional training or mentor opportunities in your organization?”
Bad Blood
 You suggest that your previous employer is giving negative feedback, and perhaps they are.  In most industries, a simple verification of employment is all that previous employers will offer, though they may add that you were dismissed.  Chances are,  they are not saying much more than that.  As much as we talk about the “permanent record,” most HR files I have seen, including my own, contain very little information about the employee’s actual work.

I was once surprised to be listed as a reference for an employee I had terminated.  It had been years before, it was for cause, and with warning... and I bore no grudge.  I gave the HR screener who called me all the positive feedback I could about the candidate’s skills and talents.  And I did say, “You should know that I did terminate 'Isabel,' though it was many years ago.  You may want to ask her about time management and meeting performance goals, which had given her difficulty.  I expect she has developed since then and has some strong ideas about how to help others with that challenge.”  

Keep Practicing 
Let’s take a look at those interviews you have had which seemed to be going well, but did not yield a job offer.  Identify 1 or 2 where you felt like you had strong rapport with your interviewer and contact them for feedback.  This takes courage, and humility, and you need to be careful not to put your contact on the defensive, or suggest in any way why they didn’t offer you their job.  You want to network with them as you would any contact.  Learn what they saw as your strengths, and what they suggest as areas for improvement in your credentials and/or your interview.  See our earlier post about networking for guidelines on approaching contacts.  Consider taking a coaching session at your local career office, unemployment center, or networking group.  
Better References
 And continue working, in whatever way you can.  Volunteer work, contract/freelance opportunities, and part-time gigs keep your skills fresh and your energy up.  Most importantly for you, they build new references, who can counter any negative feedback you may still be receiving from your previous employer.

Mar 22, 2011

My Interview Story

Guest Instructor, M. Cipriani

 Whenever things happen that make me think, “This is not how it used to be,”  I realize I am getting old.

I long for the days when job offers were made over the telephone, rather than through email.   When you were courted by a company that wanted to hire you, rather than having to remind them – “Hey, you have a job to fill, remember?”

Perhaps it is the economic downturn that has left the state of human resources and recruitment in such a mess, as those folks along with the sales and marketing teams are usually the first to be escorted to the door.   Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations (that has happened before).

Perhaps you should be the judge.

I would not consider myself to be actively "in the market" for a new position, but I am always open to an opportunity to better my situation.  When a co-worker recently departed my company, she mentioned that there may be an opening for me at her new place of employment, and encouraged me to apply.  She would be happy to refer me, she said.  So I applied.

After a couple of mis-steps, one on my part (sick kids) and one on their part (wrong time zone), I was finally able to speak with the hiring manager by phone.  Apparently, I passed the litmus test, and was invited in for an interview.  A week passed, I did not hear from the recruiter, so I contacted her to find out if there was still interest.  Yes, there was; she’d just been in training all week to learn their new process (a clue).

I  had not been informed that I would be meeting with a host of individuals that day, five to be exact.  This is another part of interviewing I’ve grown to dislike.  Is it really necessary to spend half a day at the company, or longer, meeting everyone from the hiring manager to the cleaning crew?   This isn’t a small, family owned, operation either where you could see fit as an issue, this is a large corporation. Can’t the hiring manager make their own determination about somebody’s character? And, much to my dismay, I hadn’t met everybody I needed to meet, because several key players were unavailable that day.    I would have to come back. 

Now for someone who is in between positions, this may not pose a problem. But for someone who is working full time, I am now using my precious vacation time in order to go to these interviews.  Do I mind?  

Yes, actually, I do.

Since my initial phone screen was actually with the hiring manager, rather than a human resources professional, I had never been appropriately "screened" for this position.  So like any good recruiter, my interviewer attempted to obtain my salary requirements before sending me off to meet the masses.   However, I was already sitting in front of her, and had taken the day off to go to this interview.  The last thing I wanted was for it to be over before it even started.  I did as any prepared candidate would do: I side stepped the issue and we moved on.

The interviews went well.  I learned that a previous candidate had refused the position -- for personal reasons, I was told.   Hmm.
Were there other candidates? No.
Would there be? No.

“We would like you to come back in and meet with a few more people.” Should be music to a candidate’s ears, right?  Since I had not been properly screened for this position, before I spent any more time on it, I wanted to be sure it was worth my while. Having had a long stint of being ‘in between positions” myself, I developed a knack to handicap salaries.   I was somewhat concerned that this position wasn’t as senior as I thought.  I phoned the recruiter and asked her to share the range for the position with me.  I did not ask her to make me an offer, simply to provide some information before I continued.

“We don’t give out that information.”

“How will we get anywhere if you don’t give out that information?” I replied.

“We ask the candidates to tell us what they are making and then go from there.”

Yes, well, I will not be doing that. Perhaps a different tack.

“Well, I think this position may be paying in a range of x to y.  However, I already make more than y, so were you to make me an offer in that range, I would be disappointed, as I’m sure, so would you.   Is this position paying x to y?”

“We could be competitive with that.”

What does that mean? “You must have a budget for the position.”

“Yes, we do.”

“And what would that be?”

A little giggle on the other end of the phone.  Seriously, she laughed at me. She indicated that she would need to speak to the hiring manager before she could provide me with any concrete information.

Since I was sure I had blown it,  I called my reference to let her know what had happened. She didn’t like what she heard and relayed this event to the individual who had recruited her:  the manager of the recruiter I was dealing with.  Imagine my surprise when that afternoon, I received a call from the manager of human resources for this company.

“I just wanted to get some feedback from you on how the process was going.”

I proceeded to have a nice conversation with this woman, who, wonder of wonders, disclosed to me the range for the position.  How refreshing!

I thanked her for the information, as price communicates something about a job.   It tells you about the level of discretion this position will have, the qualifications expected and where it sits in the organization.   Clearly, a job paying $50,000 is not going to have the same level of decision making and autonomy attached to it that a job paying $100,000 will.   She asked me not to disclose to the recruiter that we had this conversation, and to "let the process play out."  I agreed.

The recruiter eventually phoned me back and indicated a range that the hiring manager would be willing to offer. I thanked her as well, and indicated my availability for a second round of interviews.

“My scheduler will be in touch.”
Three business days pass, no word.  The day before the interview was targeted to be scheduled, I prompted her with an email.  “The schedule came out today. Didn’t you receive it?”  Actually, no I didn’t.  I adjusted my schedule so I can attend the second round with members of 2  functional areas that I would be supporting.

Today, I received an email that read as follows:
"both Jim and John enjoyed meeting you. It was also nice to see you again.
I met with Joe Hiring Manager this morning and we are working on putting together an offer for you.
I will be in touch soon."



Related Articles
The Wicked Recruiter: Waiting for the Offer...
Salary Negotiations

Mar 15, 2011

Real and Imagined Business Panic

Bunny Watson, Student at Large

A story comes to us this morning that Spokesduck Gilbert Gottfried has been dismissed by Aflac for a steady stream of tweets making light of conditions in post-earthquake Japan.  We might all agree to cry "Too Soon!" on this play; when you are the voice of an insurance company.... well, that just won't do.

Oh, our Tweets will undo us, won't they?  Tweets are the new Send-All email gaffes we all made 15 years ago.  We all have a story of accidentally sending to an entire distribution list an off-color joke or response to the company meeting.  And that was just an extension of being caught passing the slam-book from row to row.

We at the Finishing School already hold you personally responsible for what you do.  This post is for the management.  Because it can be difficult to know when something requires crisis communication... and when you are just doing more damage.  The public does want to know you are in control, yes.  They want to feel confident that "you people" re not running some "kind of show."  A PR crisis is what company spokesmen train so hard for, like raw recruits who just want the chance to show what they got.   And as we have become accustomed to the pattern of Incident, followed by on-line polls by so-called news agencies asking what we think of Said Incident, and whether Offender should Apologize, then Formal Apology and Eventual Firing...  we may be losing sight of the scale of crisis.

We must praise this story on the American Red Cross -- an organization with its share of public image trouble, since every time America gets inspired enough to give them blood, they seem to have trouble handling it.  (reference one, and reference two).  In this case, a cooler management head prevailed, and a simple "I'm so stupid" acknowledgment and a joke at their own expense put the entire matter in its right place in the news cycle.  Even the other company implicated found the opportunity to come out ahead (and let us know there is a thing called beernews.org).

Whether the Tweeting employee was more strongly disciplined behind closed doors, we don't know, and don't need to.  We are glad to know that not everyone gets fired for every boneheaded error, however public -- that there are still Ones to Grow On , even for our media-savvy Media Specialists.  The Red Cross's official spokeswoman masterfully addressed the public "concern" while reminding us of the brand and the mission: “We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters and this wasn’t one of them,”she said.

Nicely played.


Please remember that blood products have a short shelf life.  The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies needs blood every day. For the catastrophes, cash is better.  Give what you can, whenever you can.

Mar 2, 2011

Ask a Manager: Taking one for the Team

The Finishing School welcomes our guest manager,  "Patty Hewes," to respond to a recent Ask the Manager question.
Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine.

I am so frustrated. 
For 3 years I had been telling the VP that my staff's salaries (and mine) were depressed.  I had been told that we would be benchmarking the exempt positions and at that time would make the adjustments, [so]  I beefed up my job descriptions for my department  [and] the consultants [recommended] my job [go] up 3 pay grades.  But my company will only increase me 2 pays grades.  (They base your increases on the midpoint of the range.)  My manager… has determined that he is only willing to pay me 80% of the midpoint... I am aware that my peers in this same department, different unit, are all getting paid at 90 to 95% of the midpoint in the same pay grade (2 pay grade increase).

If I were doing a mediocre job, this could and would be acceptable.  But I have gotten nothing but praise from people from all over the company.  Several of the VPs are constantly singing my praises.  My own VP is singing my praises.  I have turned the morale of my department around and it has affected the department that works in conjunction with mine and turned them around.  I am master-prepared which is not necessarily needed for my position of administration and management but is what my VP wanted, yet he is allowing my immediate manager to undermine and short change me on this matter.
One other item that I was dealing with at the same time was my manager's unwillingness to promote one of my employees based on her years of experience and education.  I had planned to promote her to a Sr. level position as a way to get her salary up.  Because she had only been with the company for 18 months, he believed it was too soon.  He failed to take into consideration her 25 years of experience elsewhere or the fact that she had her masters. 

Right or wrong, I [canceled a meeting my VP]  to discuss the above issues as well as other matters concerning my staff and lack of support:

Prior to canceling my meeting,  I sent a note to my manager and copied my VP reviewing [my employee's] years of experience, her education, the facts of the changes to our program and the positive outcome, I did a spreadsheet reviewing all that she had accomplished in the past year.  I asked my manager to reconsider her promotion.

After speaking with my VP [the following]  Monday, my manager has agreed to promote her to a Sr. level position.  His remarks to me prior to telling me he had reversed his decision what to ask this question.  "If you had a custodial employee who had their masters, would you pay them the custodial salary or $100,000.00 b/c they had a masters?"  I responded with, "I wouldn't have to worry about that because I would not hire a custodial with a masters.  They would not stay in the job and would always be looking for another, higher paying job."  There is no comparison.  They wanted me to hire a masters prepared employee that could replace me if I should leave, yet they didn't want to compensate her. 



Dear Reader,
I empathize with the obvious pain you are experiencing.  You are very emotional about the conflicts you experienced in pursuing pay increases for your staff.  I applaud your persistence in being an advocate for your team.  Compensation can be a tricky and emotionally laden issue, and unless you're in environments like the public sector (where pay grades are public) or in union environments where collective bargaining establishes compensation by grade, conversations about fair compensation can be somewhat subjective.

Try to exhibit an understanding of the constraints your management may have faced on the issue of pay raises.   You’re pressing for 2 or 3 level pay grade and compensation increases during the worst economic climate in decades.  Many workers, including those in unions, have been asked to sacrifice compensation in recent years.  Salaries have been frozen, workers asked to take unpaid furloughs, layoffs have been widespread and unemployment has hovered at levels not seen since the early 1980's. Possibly, your industry has been less impacted by the recession, but there are few that haven't been.

You took a constructive first step by revisiting your position descriptions and having them benchmarked against market standards.  That the revised position descriptions justified 2-3 level pay grade increases indicates this probably hadn't been done in a while.  When it was revealed that you were all significantly below market compensation, you should have kept the economic constraints mentioned above in mind when seeking resolution with management.  One option you might have explored was a commitment from your management to move the affected employees closer to the midpoint of the target range over the course of multiple review cycles vs. pressing for immediate pay raises. 

Another item that concerns me is your seeking a promotion for an employee "as a way to get her salary up".  Promotions are generally driven both by an employee's demonstrated ability to take on more responsibility and by the needs of the business.  I suspect this is where the manager’s comment about the $100K custodian originated. 

Employees and managers should regularly educate themselves about the market value of their own skills and those of their teams so that they doesn't find themselves in this position in the future.  Follow Steven Covey's advice to "seek to understand before you seek to be understood"; i.e. anticipate the constraints of the other party when entering a negotiation and formulate resolution strategies that can work for both sides.
Expand Your Learning:
salary benchmarking strategies 
From PayScale.com
From karlonia.com 

Have a question for our executives in residence?
Your sticky situations and request for advice are handled by real working professionals at the leadership tier.  Your confidentiality is protected.  Write us at a bwfinishingschool@gmail.com

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