How many times can something like this happen?

One of the country's largest PR/marketing agencies contacted me a few weeks ago regarding a SVP-level position they had open.

Not having agency experience generally seems to be the kiss of death at most agencies, so I approached this opportunity fairly casually. However, I had a long-ago tie to the hiring manager (through an alumni event connection) and when we reconnected, we hit it off.

A couple of weeks later, I had interviewed with about more than a half-dozen agency employees, including both of the SVPs who would be my peers, my entire four-person team, the hiring manager two more times and his boss, taken the agency's psychological/aptitude test, discussed salary expectations with the HR manager and supplied references.

I was left with the distinct impression that the agency was on the brink drafting an offer letter ... and then nothing. I was left to sweat - and wonder - for almost a week. Had a reference bad-mouthed me, jettisoning my chance at big-time agency life? Had some horrible crime turned up in my background check, committed not by me but by some evil-doer who had hijacked my identity? WHAT WAS GOING ON?

In the end, at least the agency had the common decency to close the loop with me. The hiring manager called to tell me that - at the absolute 11th hour - an internal candidate decided that maybe she'd like the position. Two weeks of internal deliberations later, she's in and I'm out.

On on hand, I couldn't be that upset because I very much support the idea of organizations promoting from within. However, how many of these near-misses am I supposed to endure?

When they steal your ideas ... but don't hire you

The Wall Street Journal's Joann Lublin tackled another slight often aimed at prospective job seekers: the would-be employer who asks for sometimes extensive "homework assignments" and then either never acknowledges the job seeker's time and effort, or worse, steals his or her ideas without acknowledgement or compensation.

Click here to read Lublin's column. FYI, I'm the "Chicago PR woman" quoted in the article and the healthcare concern is the Chicago-headquartered Alzheimer's Association. There's been significant change in the association's ranks since my bad experience with them (both the HR manager mentioned in Lublin's article and the hiring manager, who was then VP of Communications, have moved on), so let's hope this kind of thing isn't continuing to happen to the organization's job candidates.

After this experience with the Alzheimer's Association and one that wasn't quite as insulting last year with (which requires at least some of its non-technical job candidates to complete extensive writing exercises), I recently withdrew from a job search that was also requiring candidates to complete an extensive original communications campaign before being interviewed. After submitting that campaign and undergoing several interviews, I would then have been expected to complete another written exercise related to the campaign, and then would have been queried by a panel about my campaign and follow-up exercise.

I sat down the Saturday morning before my Tuesday interview to complete the voluminous exercise, and I just didn't have the stomach or heart to spend my entire weekend working on such an assignment, knowing it was entirely possible there would be little or no constructive feedback about my work. And, I has some other work to do for which I was actually being paid.

Do I think employers have the right to thoroughly assess a candidates' skills? Definitely. Do I think they have a right to ask for original work? Balance is the key there. When I evaluate candidates for open positions I'm seeking to fill, I've drawn the line at expecting the following:
  • That they do some research on the company and have some educated opinions about the communications challenges facing it.
  • That they review the job description and give some thought to past problems they've faced and solutions they've implemented that have relevance or applicability to my position.
  • For certain lower-level jobs, that the candidate would agree to complete a basic writing/editing test (during the interview) that would give me insight into their baseline skills.
So, to ask the question again: should prospective employers ask job candidates to complete extensive and original materials as part of their interview process? They can - and will - ask anything they want. HOWEVER, in determining whether they should fulfill such a request, job seekers should assess how much they want the job and how much they trust the prospective employer.

WSJ takes on "companies behaving badly" in the interview process

Even The Wall Street Journal's Joann Lublin is talking about "companies behaving badly." After a recent column in which she discussed interviewees behaving badly, Lublin received 120 emails from people, including me, letting her know that hiring managers are often more discourteous and rude than the candidates they interview.

Among Lublin's choice observations in today's "Managing Your Career" column:
  • Job hunting is a two-way street. How well you handle candidates may affect your own career.
  • ... Polite behavior might help companies attract top staffers.
  • "Walk in a job seeker's jittery shoes. Hiring managers must realize 'they have people's hopes and dreams in their hands, often at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives,'" Lublin quoted me as saying.
  • "Bad manners have long-term consequences," warns Peter Dowling, a Stamford, Conn., sales manager at a finance and accounting consulting firm. Wooed by a recruiting software concern this past summer, he was stood up three times for a telephone interview with a vice president. Now, whenever someone mentions that company's name, he says, "I speak of the discourtesy."
Also, check out an article I penned in 2001 for the Christian Science Monitor, "Why more job hunters cry foul."
Chicago headhunter Wendy Tarzian details a survey she conducted of job seekers and also explores the link between a company's hiring process and the health of its brand in a 2002 article for Strategic HR Review.

"Standard" vs. "Authentic" interview responses

Another funny YouTube short, showing a variety of interviewees giving the standard (or expected) responses in an interview, followed by the authentic (or answers that will ensure you'll NEVER get another job).

Doing It "My Way"

I continue to build Tipitina Communications, named in homage to the beloved New Orleans music hall where I spent so many happy evenings in my 20s and early 30s. I even hired family friend and Chicago attorney Michael Wasserman to incorporate Tipitina, creating an Illinois S Corp." I've since undertaking teaching myself the basics of Quicken for Small Business, which has been, well honestly, a bit of a nightmare. That freakin' program could drive the happiest, most-patient entrepreneur to distraction ... and definitely has driven one who took the college class nicknamed "Math Without Fear."

The first horror story of this job search

OK, so today ended my first foray back into the job market ... and it ended with almost insane "come here, go away" behavior on the part of the interviewing company!

I got a call in early April from one of the country's most highly regarded headhunters in my line of work. (Yes, it's now late June, and yes, it normally takes months for many companies to hire a candidate. My all-time "wait for an offer or final rejection" record was with my previous employer; it took them seven months to decide to hire me.)

The headhunter is seeking a VP for his Las Vegas-based client company. The job sounds demanding, but rewarding, and maybe even fun, and the $$$ was definitely right, so, "Let's roll 'em!" I tell the headhunter.

Challenge #1, the requisite telephone screen(s) by the chief headhunter's assistant headhunter. If a job candidate sounds competent, has worked for a decent company or two and doesn't confess to embezzling from his or her last employer or cheating on the mandatory drug test, he or she often graduates to challenge #2, the video conference interview.

I always joke about this obligatory step. The person conducting it - in this case, the chief headhunter's assistant headhunter - has generally already spent several hours on the phone with you, exploring every hiccup in your career, and usually a few in your personal life, too. Of course, the video conference's sole purpose is to assure the headhunter/hiring company that you're not 400 pounds with bad skin and green hair. No one, and I mean NO ONE, will ever admit that this is the only purpose for the vide conference, but this is, in fact, what's going on.

So, I trek to the neighborhood FedEx Kinko's (which now offers videoconferencing, but rarely employs anyone who knows the first freakin' thing about said videoconferencing equipment) to make small talk with the chief headhunter's assistant hunter. It was a hot early June day and on the way to FedEx Kinko's, my hair began wilting and I didn't feel that I had that sharp, I'm-in-charge-of-my-destiny executive candidate look. Luckily, the conference room was unoccupied, the A/C was blasting, and being the ever-resourceful interviewee, I pulled my curling iron and make-up bag out of my understated-yet-high-quality Coach briefcase and went to work. All to prove that I didn't weigh 400 pounds, have bad skin and green hair.

Next was challenge #3: the headhunter presented my credentials to the company. The CEO liked what he saw, and assuming I passed challenges 4-6 (still to come), that he looked forward to meeting me.

Challenge #4: work samples. I supply the chief headhunter with what I think are samples of a nice variety of work I've done. But, they're the WRONG kind of work samples. Turns out the client company wants to see press releases I've written. And not just any press releases, but earnings' press releases (those dull-as-dirt tomes companies have to write every quarter, per SEC requirements). Not to diminish the importance of earnings' press releases, I've been a working professional for more years than today's college sophomore has been on this planet, and I've been in charge of far more complicated projects than press releases ... But the hiring company is ALWAYS right, so I dig out a bunch of press releases - including a couple of earnings' releases - and send them along.

A few days later, I hear that they loved, absolutely LOVED 'em. (Maybe that should have been my first red flag, that they LOVED press releases.) Challenge #5 accomplished.

Challenge #6: a teleconference with a former-executive-turned-trusted-company consultant whom the headhunter warned me may ask very strange, perhaps even inappropriate, questions and would pause for uncomfortably long periods, usually after saying "I see" in one of those tones that make you feel the same way you did when your ex-idiot boss of only a few weeks ago told you that the company would no longer be needing your services. And, the headhunter added, I should plan on being on the phone for at least 2, maybe 3, hours.

Well, I made it through the phone call (which actually took 2 1/2 hours) and didn't find any of the questions any more bizarre than those I've fielded in past interviews.

The former-executive-turned-trusted-consultant loved, absolutely LOVED, me. She told me even before hanging up that she was going to recommend to the CEO that he fly me to Vegas as soon as possible. So, more than two months after beginning this process, I am in line to not only talk to - but, hold your breath - actually MEET someone from the company.

A few days later, the phone rings and I see the headhunter's cell number on my Caller ID screen. I was psyching myself up to fly the friendly skies to Vegas for my final challenge ... or so I thought. Turns out the CEO had changed his mind and would not be meeting anyone who had not yet achieved the title of VP in his or her illustrious career. (I had been one step below a VP title at my last position, and had performed many of the tasks usually assigned to a VP.)

Now, I won't name the guilty, even to make the innocent feel better, but let it suffice to say that this was not an MGM, or a Harrah's or any of Las Vegas' other gaming glitterati. This was a company you - and your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers - had likely never heard of. But alas, there was apparently no talking the CEO out of it ... his company wasn't gonna settle for no stinkin' director!

So after investing countless hours in interviews and preparations, and two months, 15 days and four hours waiting and hoping, I learn I won't be flying the friendly skies to Vegas after all ... at least not on this CEO's nickel.

The Art of Demotivation ...

Found a great new Website today: Although the site is blatantly commercial, a little work digging around the site reveals that some of its products and content are priceless. In a satircal style that rivals "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report," "founder" E.L. Kersten exhaustively details why a demotivated employee is the best employee.

Check out the site's video podcasts ... they're hysterical! To view one of the better ones, click here.

Although the site is completely commercialized, some of its products are actually very funny. So funny that, despite having just been told I would lose my job, I bought several mugs and desktop prints, which are take-offs of those annoying inspirational posters advertised in airline magazines:

Also take a look at their management manual that's so satirical you have to read it closely to "get" the jokes: The Art of Motivation; A Visionary's Guide for Transforming Your Company's Least Valuable Asset: Your Employees. My old boss lived and breathed it!

The interview could not be going better, I thought to myself ...

I was sitting in the office of Lisa Halliday, Communications Director for Harpo Productions (yes, that Harpo, fiefdom of the omniscient, omnipotent and morally perfect media darling, Oprah Winfrey).

Halliday was raving about my background, about how refreshing it was to talk to someone who “got it” and about what a great addition I would be to her team. Urging me not to accept another job without first alerting her, she commented that she wanted “to wrap this up by the end of the month” and promised to call the next week to further discuss the position. Excited about the opportunity, I enlisted the help of three former co-workers – including the CEO of my previous employer, Playboy Enterprises – to provide recommendations on my behalf to senior executives they knew at Harpo.

I never again heard from the Harpo executive. Seven months and seven attempts to contact her later, I received my only follow-up from the company, a generic rejection letter from the human resources director.

Does my story sound like deja vu, echoing some of the interview experiences you've also encountered? It happened to me several years ago, during my first corporate downsizing.

Although it's probably not the smartest way to jump-start my job search, I'm creating this blog to share stories from the brutal, humiliating trenches of looking-for-a-new-job-after-being-laid-off.

I plan to post only the choicest anecdotes and war stories from my quest. I'll also share relevant coverage from the media. And, of course, I'd like to hear your horror stories as well ...