Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!

It’s 4:30 PM on a Friday. (Bad news always comes late afternoon on a Friday or holiday eve!) The Chief Technology Officer’s phone rings. It’s Tony. Tony has had a bad week. On Monday he was informed that someone had filed a harassment complaint against him. His supervisor, who informed him of the development, explained that Federal law and HR policy require him to avoid common work areas. He has to stay in his office. He, the supervisor, hopes to be able to provide details by the end of the week, Monday at the latest. The supervisory calls him at Noon, apologizes and says he will have to hold on until Monday. Tony informs the CTO:

“I just got what I thought was an email from the Acme Company (not a real name!) and, since I was expecting to receive a bid from them, I clicked on the attachment. I have been so stressed out about this harassment businesses that I did not realize that the email was from a .co and not a .com address. I am pretty sure it was a phishing email. I turned off my computer, followed the protocols, and am now calling you.”

Now this could be as innocent and understandable as presented. Or it could have been retaliation for the way the harassment charge was being handled. But Tony, in his defense, would say, “If I wanted to retaliate, after clicking on the link, I would have gone to the Men’s Room, waited until I packed my bag, and then shut off of the computer and never would have reported the incident. That would have given the hackers plenty to time to do whatever they wanted to do and this may not have been discovered for months.” Also a perfectly logical response.

Employees leaving under less than optimal conditions are threats to a company. Even an employee who seems to be leaving under optimal conditions could be a threat. You can never tell. So what’s an employer to do?

Before you fire someone, deny them access to your network. When you punish someone, limit their access to your network to only the areas that they need to do their work (which could be a good policy in any event!). It should be the same policy for someone who announces their resignation.

As has been well recorded, small businesses, subject to a cyber attack, can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars and the majority go out of business within six months. It’s not worth the risk to have a disgruntled, angry, or hurt employee having access to your computer network and corporate data. At a minimum, you must monitor everything your employees do on their computers, especially those who may be holding a grudge along with a mouse. It is not an invasion of their privacy; it’s protecting yours! And, it should go without saying, you have to have security protocols, policies and procedures, in place to protect your computers and network from malicious activity.

And it ain’t much better for job seekers.

You apply for a job on a job board such as Indeed, Zip Recruiter, Monster, or even LinkedIn (assuming, of course, that they have the best possible cybersecurity available) where you announce for all the world to see that you are “Open to Work” or “Looking for New Opportunities.” If you include your email address on the resume you upload to the sites, or on your LinkedIn contact information, everyone knows how to reach you…including the bad guys.

So they, the bad guys, see that you are (a) an accountant, (b) looking for work and (c) they know where you live. So they fake an email from a prominent company in your area. Or, they pretend to be with a recruiting firm. In either case, they compliment you, build up your ego, and attach a job description. You click on the job description and now you are the victim of a cyber attack.

Usually, the goal of a cyber attack is to get data and hold it hostage, or to gain access to a richer target through the computer of, let’s say, a smaller fish in the ocean that is the Internet. Yes, they can steal your money or your identity but, no offense intended, you’re not really worth the bother. But now they know that you are, I shall be diplomatic, unsophisticated enough to click on a link without checking the email address from which it came. And you are none the wiser. Eventually, you get a new job and post it on your LinkedIn profile. So the bad guys figure out your new corporate email, send you a message and, once again, you click on their attachment. Oops!

Or, I may be wrong. They make it a ransomware attack and freeze your computer and hijack all your data, and threaten to send embarrassing emails to all your contacts, including all of the employers to whom you have sent your resume. But, being the nice bad guys that they are, they’ll return everything to you for only $250. You pay. It’s worth it. They do it to a few thousands of people, and they have a very nice pay day.

The good news is that you can avoid all of this. First, remove your resume from all the job sites, along with any indication on LinkedIn that you are looking for a new job, once you have the new job. But, in the meantime, start using something called “Multifactor Authentication” or “2-Factor Authentication.” What that means is that you will receive a text message with a code whenever someone tries to send an email from your account. You can also purchase a security system from your email provider that will protect you if you click on that which should not be clicked! It takes very little time to setup, and doesn’t cost enough to think about.

Bottom line, whether an employer or job seeker, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And when it comes to a cyber attack, the worst is really bad.

I don’t believe I have ever recommended a service provider before, but if you need help securing your network or email, I recommend contacting Peter Fidlerfor whom I have provided recruiting services in the past, or Bob Michie, with whom I am a member of a New Jersey professional networking group.

Think of Your Job Search as a Game

There are countless definitions of “game theory.” The one thing they all have in common is that they give the reader a headache. So I am going to be bold and propose my own definition: Game theory is a tool to help describe and forecast the result(s) of interactions between people. In other words, you pretend a real situation is just a game which you play to explain what has happened, or to forecast what may happen, by considering possible human interactions. It’s a brain teaser something akin to an Einstein thought experiment.

In university I studied game theory. Our focus, since I was studying International Relations, was primarily on two games: Zero Sum and Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Zero Sum is simple: You win, I lose. There is no in-between. Whatever is to your benefit is to my detriment. For a job search, that would mean I get the job offer (and accept it) and you don’t. Not exactly a mind-boggling insight.

Then there’s Prisoner’s Dilemma. This one is more complicated:

Two people are arrested for a crime. The Police put them in separate rooms. They cannot communicate with each other. Before they did whatever it was that they did, they agreed not to talk if arrested. But now they have a problem:

Whoever talks first and incriminates the other will go free and the other will be sent up the river for a long time. But, if neither talks, neither will be prosecuted. If they both talk, they will get less time in the “Big House,” then if only one talks. So what should they do? According to game theory, their best move would be for both of them to talk. That way, they can minimize their punishment. (If you look up “Prisoner’s Dilemma” you will find subtle differences in the explanations, but the above is pretty close to the consensus.)

Thinking about this, I could not figure out how it could be relevant for conducting a successful job search. I recently had a long chat with a potential career counseling client, and I happened to say, and this is accurate, that “a job search is a numbers game.” After we hung up, the word “game” stuck with me and I thought about game theory. Was there a way, I asked myself, to use game theory to improve one’s chances of getting a job? I did not know. But just because I could not figure it out did not mean someone else hadn’t.

It was then that I discovered Messrs. Bennett and Miles’s book, Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals, which I highly recommend. (The page numbers refer to the eBook edition.) That said, the focus of their book is on having a successful career, not on conducting a successful job search. But, the two are not totally divorced from each other. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

Using game theory to advance your career is relatively easy as you can identify your competitors (basically, your colleagues). The same is not true for a job search. You don’t know your competition. It may be an internal candidate, a friend of someone at the company, or an external candidate like yourself. And then there are the countless decision makers! You just don’t know. And not knowing is what makes the job search “game” so difficult to play.

Bennett and Miles remind us (p. 3) of two important insights: General Eisenhower believed that plans were useless but planning was essential. And Samuel Goldwyn was of the opinion that the harder he worked the luckier he was.

Both comments are relevant to the job search game. First, you have to be able to think on your feet. (As a matter of fact, the authors put “agility” at the top of their list of necessary qualities to have a successful career.) You never know what is going to happen in a job search, especially in an interview. You can’t plan the entire process. (As Field Marshall Moltke famously said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”) So you have to be ready to make the right move at a moment’s notice. (“Agility.”) Unlike, for example, chess, where you know your opponent and what they can do with each piece on the board just not what they will actually do, in a job search you do not know your opponent or what move they will make. There are no certainties in the job search game so you have to be ready for whatever move your opponent makes. What makes this more difficult, except when the “opponent” in an interviewer, is that you actually do not know everything that is happening. In fact, since you only know what you are doing and what you are being told (which may be honest or deception) you really know very little, if anything, of importance. The only good thing is that things become somewhat clearer when you reach the end of the game. Then, you may be able to plan.

Like Mr. Goldwyn said, if you work hard you can get lucky. Researching the company, and, most importantly the interviewers, may give you some insights into how they may act. Perhaps they have written or responded to posts on LinkedIn. Reading their writings you may be able to learn their thought processes. Reading their LinkedIn profiles can give you an idea of how they prioritize and organize their thoughts. Seeing who has most recently been hired by the company may give you an indication of what type of people they want.

In any event, Bennett and Miles are correct when they write (p. 7) that “one individual’s best move is often dependent on the anticipated moves of other players.” The “other players,” in our case, are the interviewers, decision makers (hiring managers, supervisors, owners) and, other candidates. Because you are dependent on them, you must know as much about them as possible.

One other point the authors make which is very valuable for a successful job search, is that “Making predictable moves in a multiplayer game is rarely a winning game strategy” (p.8). You have to be able to set yourself apart from the competition. The “unpredictable” move that I recommend is asking surprising questions. For example, as I have previously written, perhaps the best question you can ask an interviewer is, “If I get this job, how will I be able to make your life easier?”

To be perfectly honest, the reason I liked that question was because I saw it as the focus of the subsequent thank-you letter that my career counseling clients send to interviewers. But, within the context of game theory, there is a much more important reason for asking the question.

One way to “win” a “multi-player” game, like a job search, is to form partnerships. By asking the question, you imply that if they hire you, you will be working on their behalf, helping them to achieve their goals. (This is an exceptionally good strategy in the case of an older candidate being interviewed by someone who is worried the boss will decide to replace them with the candidate!)

Thinking of a job search as a game will help you focus on the bad and the good. The “bad” comes first because there are more bad aspects to the game than there are good: There are no set rules, you do not know everything about the players (or even who all the players are) and you know nothing about the competition. But the “good” is that you can prepare to differentiate yourself from the competition (even though you really don’t know what they may do) by having great questions to ask and knowing how to answer the questions you will be asked in a unique way.

Bottom line: Thinking about a job search as a multi-player game, and strategizing accordingly, could be the key to getting a job offer. Literally sitting down, closing your eyes, and picturing your job search as a board game, may help you to think in new ways. Simplifying a complex situation may, in the end, be what game theory is all about and the key to your getting that job offer!

When Hiring, Job Searching and Communicating You Need a Soft Landing

The following is based on a presentation I made to the PRO-G Networking Group in Parsippany, New Jersey.

PILOTS ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES WHO NEED A SOFT LANDING!

Hiring, job search, and communications all share one thing in common: If you mess up it could cost you dearly. A bad hire can be destructive to a company. A bad interview can be devastating to a job candidate. And amateurish communications, whether verbal or in writing, can be damaging to the communicator. So how can you increase the odds of success – a soft landing – and decrease the odds of embarrassment – an ugly crash? Let’s consider each separately.

Hiring

If you are using a recruiter, in-house or external, and they tell you they have never made a mistake, they are either new to the business or lying through their teeth. We all make mistakes. It’s called being human. The key is to know how to minimize those errors and increase the odds that the candidate, if hired, will remain on the job for a long time.

The first thing is to conduct a reference check. You want to speak to the reference. They may say the right thing but their tone of voice may send a contradictory message, and that’s the message that’s important! Letters of reference are worthless. They could be forged. Or, they could have been handed to the person simply to get them to vacate the premises. And, for the record, LinkedIn references are meaningless. The candidate has complete control over their profile and can reject any reference they do not like. Moreover, and this has happened to me, many people offer to write positive references in exchange for receiving one. And if that does not convince you, one person told me that he had the most references of anyone on LinkedIn. So I printed out the first page of references, told him to send me the phone numbers of the first ten, that I would choose three, notify him in advance before I called them and…I never heard from him again!

You want to conduct a reference check because the most important thing for a successful hire is to make certain the person will be a good fit with your corporate culture. You can only find that out by talking with people who have worked with them in the past. More on culture in a moment.

The opposite side of the reference check coin is the background check. Some people believe that a background check should be conducted on all hires. I don’t argue the point. Just make sure (and I believe the law requires it) that you inform them of the results so they can dispute anything negative. (I had one candidate whose background check came back stating that there was an outstanding bench warrant against him for a crime he had committed when he was four-years-old! The court officer had made a mistake when recording the Social Security number…!) In any event, a background check should be conducted for any hire who will come into contact with money, financial data, or any confidential information.

The way that I provide my clients with a soft landing, the only way I know, is to offer a six-month guarantee that if for any reason a placement does not work out, I will find a replacement at no charge. If the recruiter does not offer a guarantee, or a short one, weeks not months, that tells you everything you need to know about them.

The reason my guarantee is so long is because I believe in my process. Which brings me back to culture. Culture is not free lunches, being able to take a vacation whenever you want, or showing up for work at your pleasure. Those are all fads. True, they speak to a certain mentality, but not culture. For me, and I am stealing from Tolstoy, culture is how you think. If you will, it is your decision making processes. And the most important part of that process is providing a safe environment where employees can disagree with their supervisors and the boss without fear of retaliation. If a person wants to hire someone who will agree with them all the time, I advise saving money and simply buying a mirror.

The way the employer reaches decisions informs their culture. The same is true for candidates which brings me to my next topic: Career Counseling or, for present purposes, the Hiring Process. (Job seekers should note that the following is from the employer’s perspective which is important as it never hurts to think like an employer when you are looking for employment!)

The Hiring Process

Ask for a cover letter. If all you receive is a form letter, move on to the next candidate. If they could not be bothered writing a unique letter for you, don’t waste your time with them. If they forget to send a cover letter, you know they can’t follow simple instructions. If they can’t follow simple instructions, they won’t be able to follow the complicated instructions involved in the job for which they applied, so, again, move on to the next candidate. And if they do send a cover letter, and they can’t write a proper business letter, you don’t want them.

Obviously, ask for a resume. But before you read the resume, look at it. It will tell you everything you need to know about how the applicant organizes their thoughts and how they prioritize. How they market themselves will be the best indication of how they will market you. Everyone is involved with marketing and selling. If they cannot market and sell themselves to your satisfaction, move on.

Also, check to see if they understand the latest technology, Applicant Tracking Systems. Many companies simply scan resumes into their data base without a human seeing them. The bad systems, and you always have to assume the worse, have difficulty “reading” anything in headers or footers, printing on a colored background (black background/white font), and get confused by hyperlinks (for example, for email addresses and LinkedIn profiles). It should not disqualify a candidate, just raise something to be pursued in the actual interview.

In the interview, although this should have been done by the recruiter, confirm that they are qualified for the job. Then ask what I call personality questions.

The first “question” is not a question but an opportunity: Tell us about yourself. If all they do is summarize their resume, then they do not recognize and do not know how to take advantage of a golden opportunity. So why would you want them?

Next, ask them what is the accomplishment of which they are most proud. Then, ask them why they did what they did. How did they reach the decision to do things one way and not another? What you are really doing is checking to see if they can handle criticism, are open to other options, are willing to learn, and if they can think on their feet. Now you will know if they are a cultural fit. Their decision making process must complement yours. Period.

Since you are hiring a complete person, and not just a salesperson, marketer, controller, CIO, or whatever, ask them about what they are curious. You may learn a lot from their answer. Also, ask them for examples of how they have dealt with adversity. The advantage will be to the older, more experienced, candidates, but it’s an important thing to know even for someone with limited experience.

During the interview, pay attention to their body language. Can they read the room? Do they know when they are doing well? Are they animated? Do they appear to be truly interested in the position? Sadly, because of all the Zoom conversations we have all been having, this is a lost art. But non-verbal communication is still important.

My two favorite questions are: How did you prepare for this interview? and What do you know about us (the interviewers) and the company? The answers will tell you everything you need to know about what they do to prepare for a meeting and how accurate are those preparations. If they can’t do it for a job interview, they can’t do it for a meeting with a client or a prospective client.

It’s all about presentation, which brings me to my third focus: professional communications.

Professional Writing Services

The first thing about communicating, whether in writing or verbally, is to know your audience. Your presentation must be relevant. With a written document, it is best to get right to the point. The fact is, people don’t like to read. And if the document is too long, that may indicate that the author can’t prioritize.

On the other hand, if you are making a speech, it is best to start with a story. Just make certain that at the end you connect your conclusions with the story. In any event, tell the audience what you are going to do and then do it. Don’t turn a speech into a commercial.

I can remember (being conned into) attending a presentation where the presenter said he was going to tell us how to double our sales within 30 days. He spoke in generalities and then, at the end, he told us that if we signed up for his services on the spot, he would only charge us $999.99 and he would provide us with the specifics to reach the goal! To the best of my recollection, everyone walked out disgruntled, to say the least.

That said, you do want to end your speech with a call to action. Tell the audience what they should do to justify the time they spent listening to you. Which reminds me, always keep in mind if you are writing to be read or writing to be heard. There is a huge difference.

If you follow this advice, I am confident that you will have a soft landing with your hiring, job search and communications processes.