Friday, December 05, 2008

What Color Is Your Accessory

The career book, ‘What Color is Your Parachute’, has been a mainstay for job-seekers and career changers for literally decades. Richard Nelson Bolles has enjoyed a certain niche dominance, as even modern gurus of the field consider this book a “bible” for job-hunting. And like the religious Bible, there are many people who seem to react strongly against even a balanced criticism of the book, so that a person would have to be just a bit reckless and curmudgeonly to speak against it.

Enter the curmudgeon.

Now, even I have to admit that the book has some value, especially since Bolles updates references and resources every year. Of course, that also means he can sell a brand new edition every year, so there’s a money side to it, as well. There are many good things about the book, especially for very young people entering the work-world for the first time, or those who are facing major life changes. My problems come from a number of detailed spots in the book, where Bolles simply ignores what seems obvious to me, and in some places suggests what seem to me either impractical ideas or bad advice. That is the reason for today’s article.

I picked up this book for two reasons – first, my wife hates her job and really wants to make a change for the better. She works as a bank teller, and after thinking the matter through we both agree that bank tellers are universally underpaid and mistreated as employees. Working as a teller means few raises for small amounts, no chance at a career position, and little job security despite years of service. Bank tellers are very similar to call centers in their business practices. This is not to pick on her specific bank; we have learned these conditions pervade throughout the banking industry. But changing careers is difficult, the more so when you are beyond 40 years of age, so I am trying to help find resources to aid in that search for her. Also, as I am about to claim my MBA this spring, I will also be looking around to see what is available. In my case, I like the company I work for, so I may well be moving only in position with the same employer, but you do should always know your options. So, all tools serve some good. And after looking through Mr. Bolles’ book again (I think almost every American has read ‘Parachute’ at least three times in their life by the time they are 45 or more), I see many of the same things I have always liked and disliked about the book. The book serves many good purposes and offers useful tools, but there are four points where I am in sharp disagreement with Mr. Bolles:

1. The book does not offer any guidance to people who have to work to pay the bills, but are searching for better employment - This one bothers me because it’s obvious that Mr. Bolles knows such people are out there; early on in the book he mentions that people may have to work at a job they do not like while searching for the one that they really want. But that’s all he says on the matter. And that is a big failure, from my perspective. While there are people who have been laid-off and people just getting out of school, there are millions of folks who realize their job is a lousy one, and they need to make a change. If I am not picky, I can get a job today, so the question is not about whether I can find work, but what I would be doing, and for how much, and with what future prospects. I think this is one of those places where Mr. Bolles shows just how long it has been since he really had to find a job, because he completely ignores the question of how you can search for a career while working at a bad job. This, even though he notes that the job-searcher should plan to spend at least nineteen weeks in that search, a time frame which will exhaust the savings of anyone I know, making it necessary to keep or take on one of those lousy jobs.

2. The book discusses how to negotiate salary, but makes some assumptions which do not fit my experience, and I find them far more likely to frustrate job-seekers than to assist them - This is an area where I would like feedback from the reader. In my experience, despite a number of summer, temporary, full-time and career positions, I have never yet had a job offered to me where the salary was in fact negotiable. In my present company, for example, when we decide we want to hire someone, we make a written offer for a specific amount, and it’s strictly a yes/no decision; if the candidate does not accept the offer as presented, there is no deal. I have a friend who was recently offered a position with a company, but before accepting the position she asked whether the salary mentioned in the offer might be negotiable; the offer was immediately withdrawn. I expect there are some companies which will negotiate a salary range within reason, but I believe that Mr. Bolles is unrealistic in his assumption that this is the normal condition, especially in a time of recession, where the business has far more leverage than the job seeker. I would like to hear from readers, as to how often you have been able to negotiate your salary, especially during an economic downturn.

3. A major premise of the book, is that the job-seeker can collect specific detailed information about companies by asking folks who work there - This is another area where my experience is exactly the opposite from what Mr. Bolles claims. To be expected to provide confidential information from where we work, is an insult for most people, who understand that being part of a company means protecting its confidential information. My direct reports do not discuss how much they make with each other, yet Bolles thinks they would tell a relative stranger? Mr. Bolles is not correct. And that restraint on discussion only becomes stronger when discussing hiring and positions. Frankly, only someone with the authority to hire a person really knows whether an opportunity exists at all, much less what is desired in that role.

4. One of the strongest points emphasized by Mr. Bolles, is the use of contacts, which he describes as pretty much everyone you have ever met or come into contact with in the course of your life. Mr. Bolles makes a brash set of assumptions regarding the way your ‘contacts’ will be able or willing to assist you in finding work - What Bolles is leaving out, is that there are very good reasons why we do not harass our friends and relative strangers about something that is of little concern to them. There is a certain courtesy in respecting the boundaries of a relationship. It’s the reason we get a little annoyed when a friend falls for the hype and tries to sell Amway or some similar garbage; people do not appreciate being treated as a conduit merely to help someone else get what they want. Yes, if you know someone well enough that you can ask them for a favor, and if they happen to be willing and able to fulfill it (something you should consider well ahead of asking), then you may make the request, but only when done courteously. So, you have contacts who can help you in your job search, but they are people to be respected and whose person demands honorable conduct. Mr. Bolles is exactly wrong to imply, let alone state as he does that you should badger people you barely know about information they may not have or if they do, they may not feel is public property. It fails simple tests of common courtesy and propriety, it disrespects moral boundaries, and in a practical sense it will tag you as a social mooch if you start harassing everyone you know for access to job openings. It makes you look desperate and in the long-term is more likely to harm your prospects than help. I would recommend that the job-seeker be far more selective in whom he/she approaches, and far more courteous in doing so. At the very least, it shows respect for people that you know you will want to meet again.

Finally, I respect Mr. Bolle’s skill as a writer and salesman (never forget that he wants you to spend money on his book), and as a teacher of certain skills that may be useful in a job search. But I consider my own experience as a manager and a person who has hired, trained, promoted, counseled, praised, disciplined, fired, recommended, and otherwise had significant direct influence with hundreds of employees in my career, and I find it appropriate here to speak to the needs and desires of the hiring manager – many managers do not like hiring people, and so anything that looks like a problem will mean rejection of the application. Unless you are applying for a sales position, the last thing you want to look like is a salesman – no manager ever believes the applicant is as good as he claims. At best, he finds no reason not to hire you and gives you a chance because you were better than the rest, but don’t get cocky about that. I have seen managers hire people on the definition of ‘best’ that in various times has meant the best dressed, the first person to include a cover letter with their resume, the person who uses up the least time in the interview, the person who went to the same school at the manager, the person who happens to fill an understaffed demographic, the first person who does not exaggerate his resume, the person who asks the best questions, the person who manages not to ask stupid questions, the person who already works at the company and wants to switch departments … you get the idea. Finding a good position is never easy nomatterwhat, and there are many good tools you should find and use, but never forget that just as no job is really perfect, neither is any tool complete in itself.

1 comment:

Hawkins1701 said...

"I would like to hear from readers, as to how often you have been able to negotiate your salary, especially during an economic downturn"

That'd be a big fact zero for me.

But then again, my employment thus far has been at the bottom of the service industry scrap heap.

As a person training to become a paralegal, we were told by one of our teachers, who is an attorney, that (at least as an attorney) haggling on salary is a must. Or, at the very least NOT accepting an offer right away, and doing the whole "Give me a night to talk it over with my spouse" thing.

I've no doubt that that's an effective method for attorneys, who have far more leverage and power in negotiating, than for us average lackeys needing to find work in a bad economy (magnified by the state of CA).

In my case, I intend to, in my upcoming job search, NOT to haggle at all. And above all, I intend to be honest about myself, answer all questions truthfully to the best of my ability, and tell the interviewer as much about my strengths and my flaws as they want to know. (Although the one qualifier to the "answering all questions" deal is if politics or any other deeply personal topic gets into the equation. For politics, the first answer will be "I don't think politics is appropriate in the workplace, and my political views have nothing to do with my qualifications for this job." Should they insist, I will thank them for their time, and politely excuse myself. It was bad enough dealing with my supervisors at my current job blatantly injecting politics into the workplace themselves. I refuse to allow that line to be crossed so directly, and I don't care how well the job pays, or how dire my economic straits.)

That book was suggested to me by my aunt as I finished up my undergrad.

Glad to read your thoughts on it.

It's never been my style to come across as a salesman. I give it to people straight, and I would do so even if I were actually a salesman. I think people respect that a lot more than a bunch of obvious B.S. designed to make them sign on the dotted line. I'm not in the business of siring new suckers, having been made one of those chumps too many times.