Ask The Headhunter: How to Get (and Stay) Hired, Despite a Sordid Past

BY Paul Solman  December 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT


Photo by Jupiterimages via Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos is an expert on how to get a job. We ran into him while doing a story on the relative futility of Internet job boards and asked him to post his own job search secrets. It became a palpable hit, so we asked Nick if he wouldn’t mind taking some questions from our readers. It turns out that in addition to giving interviews to PBS, Nick hosts a website called asktheheadhunter.com, and publishes a free weekly — the Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter.

Wonder how others “get in the door” for interviews while you can’t? How can you make the “inside contacts” you need? Do employers interview you, then never call back? How can you change careers mid-stream? Nick Corcodilos answers your questions here in our weekly feature, Ask the Headhunter. Submit your questions in the comments below.


Saphronia Young: I have a client who has a truly sordid past. She keeps getting fired when employers eventually find out. What do you suggest?

Nick Corcodilos: It seems you are a career counselor or a lawyer or a recruiter. Some might think your question is a joke, but I’ve encountered many people who can’t get or keep jobs due to serious — if not sordid — problems in their history. When they are serious about cleaning up their act, they can help themselves by taking a few common sense steps. If they expect they can keep playing games with their reputations, then neither you nor I can help them.

I’ve given this advice to ex-convicts, alcoholics who took control of their lives, people who’ve been fired for cause and worse. It’s painful, but it can work if a person is diligent and sincere.

  1. Fess up. You must disclose to the employer your past problems, though you need not do it until you have a job offer. But under no circumstances should you accept a job without coming clean. Failure to disclose is what gets your client fired. The law may not require disclosure, but you asked my advice — this is what I would do to prove I have integrity.
  2. Get recommended. Face it: An employer is right to be worried that your problem will become her problem. It takes a powerful personal recommendation to help an employer get over that fear. This means you must cultivate good recommendations — people who will put their names on the line to endorse you. I said this wasn’t easy. But you must find one or two people whose word the employer will trust. Then have them call the employer to recommend you — don’t wait for the employer to do it. If you don’t have such references, then take a low-level job and perform well, until you’ve made your boss and your co-workers believers who will speak up for you.
  3. Ask for guidance. When you disclose your problem to the employer, you must also ask him to tell you what you must do to help him trust you. As long as it’s not illegal, unethical or injurious to you or others, do it. Your mistakes are costing you. Pay the price and move on. Taking such guidance from the employer makes you partners. Be ready to be judged. Don’t let him down.
  4. Make a commitment. Once it’s clear what the job is and what the employer expects of you, look her in the eye and say, “I will make a commitment to you to do X, Y, Z (whatever the job and the employer require), and I will not fail you. If you’re not happy with my performance at any time, I will leave without you needing to fire me. But that will not happen. I will make sure you are happy with me and my work. That’s my promise.” Again, the law may not require such a commitment, but it’s what I’d do.

Since your client will also have to explain why she got fired, I suggest she read this article on my blog: How much should I say about getting fired? The comments from my readers are even better than the article.

There’s nothing magic, fun or easy about any of this. Your client must take her lumps, be honest, cooperate with an employer and then deliver on her promises. I wish her the best. My compliments to you for trying to help her.

Mary: I am a cancer patient and have been out of work for quite some time. I have recently been trying to obtain an administrative position and am not making any headway. I have sent out blind resumes and have gotten a couple of callbacks but have not been successful in gaining employment. What are some of your suggestions?

Nick Corcodilos: I’m sorry to hear about your cancer, but I’m glad to know you are focusing on getting the job you want. You’re asking me for a complete job search strategy, which I simply can’t put into a single Q&A response. You can probably guess that I get questions like yours frequently — and you won’t be surprised that when I first started publishing my Ask The Headhunter website I put together some basic advice to get people started on the right foot. In fact, I call this set of five brief articles The Basics. I hope this gives you a start. If you have more specific questions, please submit them and I’ll do my best to advise you.

You’ll notice that in The Basics I talk a lot about what’s wrong with “the employment system.” I firmly believe that you must learn how it DOESN’T work, before you can learn how to take the steps you need to impress an employer that you’d be a profitable hire. Because in the end, that’s why employers hire people: To help them produce more profit. I’ll bet this is the first time you’ve heard that — but I also suspect it makes sense to you. I wish you better health, and the job you want.

Derrick: I am considering moving to a new country and looking for a job there, but first I want to make sure the country has a strong economy. Can you give me three economic factors to research as evidence of the economy’s strength or weakness?

Nick Corcodilos: I’m not an economist. I’m a headhunter. So I look at this very pragmatically, and I prefer to let the market guide my choices. It’s lucky you ask only about economic factors that would make me choose a country, and not political ones — because I avoid politics in my columns. Here’s what I’d look for. (And I’m sure ten economists will tell me I’m wrong.)

First, which U.S. companies do business in the country — that is, have business operations on the ground? The more McDonald’s and Starbucks on their streets, the better. This is a shortcut to judgment. If healthy American businesses have figured out the country’s economy and feel good enough about it to open shop there, that’s a huge plus to me. Of course, it’s not a sufficient reason to get a job there, but I’d consider it a necessary one. It’s also not a reason to rule out a country whose culture I might really like. But this is where I’d start.

Second, what kind of business do companies in that country do in the U.S.? Do they export to us? Do they have people on the ground in the U.S.? If they successfully trade with us or operate here, then they’ve been vetted by powers higher than me. Score another big point. Needless to say, a country could be very healthy economically and not do business with the U.S. But I’m looking for an easy out on judgment, because this is not my expertise.

Finally, I’d look over the U.S. companies that operate over there. Can I get a job with one of them overseas? I might have aspirations to join a local company there, later. For now, I’ll feel better working with a more familiar company while I learn the lay of the land over there. Call me conservative, but I want to succeed if I take a job. This is sort of like renting an apartment before buying a house in a new city. It’s an easier and less risky way to start.

I hope that helps, and I’ll be interested to see your comments after you read this.

Denise Friedman: Any advice for circumnavigating the requirement to enter your date of birth in order to apply for a position? Thank you.

Nick Corcodilos: I discussed this in another column, but since online job application forms were the topic that got me started doing these columns, I’ll answer it again. Those forms require you to put something in there, or they won’t let you continue. Try entering all 9′s, or 8′s, or your favorite digit. If the form is “smart” and knows that 9999 is not a real year, try 1900, or something that’s so silly it’s clearly not a fabrication. You don’t want to be accused of falsifying the information. As soon as you get to a “free text” field, where you can type a few sentences, include a note saying you entered the numbers you did because you consider your birthdate private, and would be happy to disclose it during your interview.

Will some employers boot you out of the process for that? Probably. But if you’re worried that your age will result in a rejection anyway, what have you got to lose?

I don’t like discrimination, and these forms let companies reject people for the wrong reasons. So I have no problem with all 9′s in a data field — as long as there’s a place where I can explain myself. Of course, the better alternative is to not apply using those forms at all. Find someone in the company to introduce you to the manager. Here’s a brief article from my website that may help you get started: Get past the guard.

Nick Corcodilos: I started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and I’ve answered more than 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade — and I’m glad to share what I know with you. I offer no guarantees — but I’ll do my best to offer you useful advice — so please feel free to post your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. I am the author of three “how to” PDF books, available on my website: How to Work with Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you, How Can I Change Careers? and Keep Your Salary Under Wraps

Questions will be collected from here and we’ll post my advice on a series of Ask The Headhunter columns here on Making Sen$e. You’ll also find my comments sprinkled throughout this discussion forum about various topics. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2012 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask The Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.