Friday, August 26, 2016

Recent Advice for Employment Interviewers and Interviewees: Some Good, Some Bad, All Worth Knowing

As always, there is new information out there on job interviews.  Some is pitched to job-seekers and some to hirers, but both should keep up with all.  Here is what the past seven months have offered.

Liz Ryan of Forbes might be the best current job-seeking-process writer going.  She frames her pieces as advice columns, taking questions about how to interpret and deal with situations her readers face while trying to find work.  She consistently lands between being too rude and too deferent. 

Earlier this week, Ryan fielded a sequence of events from an employment candidate who got negative reactions from questions they asked.  She assured them they had done the right thing, and suggested that the answers could even be posted on an enlightened company’s website.  However, many personnel people convey to jobseekers that it is they who have all the cards, and this was the case here.  When the applicant asked the first one, a reversal of a common interviewer’s query, “Why should I take this job, if you offer it to me, over other opportunities I’m considering?”, the evaluator said she would not discuss that unless they made an offer.  When this jobseeker actually did get one, he or she declined it in favor of one dealing better with that question.

The other three probes were equally incisive and appropriate.  The second, the least controversial, Ryan framed as “What is the story of this job – was there a person in this role before, or is it a new position?  If there was someone in the job, where are they now?  If it’s a new position, why was it created?”  That is only a more comprehensive version of something all career-job applicants should use.  Third, designed to head off problems caused by differences inherent to both employees and employers, was “What is your expectation regarding “a good day’s work?”  When does your workday start and end, and what are your expectations around communications or extra work outside of working hours?”  Fourth, especially valuable if the hired people need to relocate or have other opportunities, is “What is your company’s layoff history, if any?”  All are well worthwhile. 

Another Forbes article by Ryan, May 5th’s “No, I Will Not Show You My Pay Slip,” covered not only the issue of companies wanting current salary documentation but some related issues.  Her views on any “skills shortage” were the same as mine:  “If I go to T.J. Maxx hoping to find a vintage mother-of-pearl bracelet on sale for $29.95 and I don’t find one, there is no affordable-vintage-bracelet shortage.  There is only one deluded shopper who needs to snap out of it.”  She also urged job-seekers to refuse to fill out online applications and to work with hiring managers instead – a good idea when you have their names, which is not always the case.  Not offering income information, as she suggests, is powerful but risky, especially when human resources people manage the hiring process.  Since the main reason they request that to maintain chances of getting previously underpaid people for bargain rates, it may even be better for applicants to look cooperative while stacking the deck in their favor by tendering pay information after adding, maybe, 10% or 20%.     

Moving to other authors and publications, one problem jobseekers face happens when interviewers follow rigid patterns, which can lead to their subjective judgments winning out over any analysis of strengths and experience.  In July 14th’s Harvard Business Review piece “Why You Should Always Go Off-Script in a Job Interview,” Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson discussed how interviewees can not only avoid this issue but prevent themselves from coming off as rehearsed or even robotic by interrupting question sequences with such things as “let me tell you what’s not on my resume.”  Their other valuable suggestions were making a personal connection either through small talk about the likes of in-office photos or by asking interviewers how they felt about their own specific achievements, reversing an unfavorable conversation by discussing what they could do for this person and their company, and to “call out the elephant in the room” by directly addressing probable concerns both unmentioned and potentially detrimental. 

Two pieces from earlier this year, “7 Rules for Job Interview Questions That Result in Great Hires” (John Sullivan, Harvard Business Review, February 10) and “5 Interview Tips to Find the Long-Term Employee” (Tom Gimbel, The Wall Street Journal, May 5) provided opportunity for job-seekers to be forewarned and thus forearmed by learning what their adversaries may be planning.  Sullivan’s seven procedures, all good and fair, were “avoid easy-to-practice questions,” “be wary of historical questions” which may reveal successes irrelevant to current problems, “assess their ability to solve a problem” by asking for feedback on a current one, “evaluate whether they’re forward-looking” either in their jobs or in the industry as a whole, “assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt, and innovate” by examining what methods the interviewee uses for those things, “avoid duplication” of content previously covered in the hiring process, and “allocate time for selling,” by asking the jobseeker how he or she would evaluate an offer and then responding to what they say. 

The five methods Gimbel put forth include, as I see it, four stinkers:  “try the airplane test” by accepting or rejecting someone on how much you enjoy their social company; “ask, “what do your best friends do for a living”” and seem snobbish while taking familiarity of this basic information as a proxy for knowing clients; “arrange random interruptions” to simulate client meetings, as if job interviews were not known by all to be inherently artificial; and “observe their emotional intelligence” by requesting personal insights into others the interviewee met at that company and assume such responses to be honest.  The author’s lone good idea, “ask, “When did you not get what you want?”” is worthwhile, but might be handled it well by a candidate’s simply not admitting to doing the equivalent of throwing a hissy fit. 

In any event, be prepared for all dozen of these if you are trying to be hired, and consider using eight of them if you are across the desk.  The opposite goes for Ryan’s suggestions.  As long as there are job interviews, they will be a game of cat-and-mouse – that means the more tactics you know, the better.              

Friday, August 19, 2016

Last Week’s Clinton and Trump Economic Speeches: On Jobs, Just a Little More Than Precious Little

On Monday, August 8th and Thursday, August 11th, major party presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton gave talks on their proposed financial policies.  Both were given in the Detroit area, which has been about the slowest and worst in the country at recovering from its mid-century manufacturing emphasis.  The speeches were just as rusty.

And remarkably similar.  Trump, as expected, spent most of his stage time criticizing Clinton and Obama, but Clinton went on almost as much about Trump.  Both speeches were short on positive ideas.  Both speakers seemed to advocate protectionism, to the point of asking for tariffs.  Perhaps influenced by their local audiences, both said they expected to increase manufacturing.  Each mentioned bolstering child care, with Hillary proposing making it “available” to everyone and Trump supporting tax deductions for it.  Both talked about cutting regulations for businesses in the same general and nonlogistical way we have heard from all Republican presidential candidates and most of the Democrats since Ronald Reagan’s time.  Both were also internally inconsistent.  Clinton said, after asking for tuition-free university attendance, that “we’ve got to reverse what has become a kind of commonplace view, which is everybody needs to go to college,” and “it doesn’t help anyone to be trained for a job that doesn’t exist.”  Trump said that “the rich will pay their fair share,” but spent several paragraphs asking for income and estate tax reductions benefiting primarily the wealthiest people.  The two each asked for things actually destructive to employment, Clinton for raising the minimum wage and Trump for repealing Obamacare.  And neither, most unfortunately, proposed enough to have a large positive effect on the number of American jobs.    

There were, though, two glimmers of light.  First, both Trump and Clinton said they wanted to comprehensively improve our infrastructure, paid for through a formal program for the latter and from regulation-cutting savings for the former.  Second, both discussed changing the tax code to reward companies with headquarters, and jobs, in this country.  They did not agree on exactly how to do that, but their ideas had great merit.  If Congress can, indeed, rediscover bipartisan legislation, our next president should ask for their agreement in principle on that idea, and then have them work out specific proposals.  To name just one more, if corporate income taxes included deductions for the number of American-based workers each company employed, we could raise the base rates while allowing labor-intensive firms to pay less than they do now. 

That across-the-aisle cooperation is what we need more than anything.  Even though I do not consider tax reform to be a comprehensive solution to our permanent jobs crisis, it would ease it more than anything Washington has produced these past seven-plus years.  Given the state of our current presidential campaign, I would call that a large victory.  

Friday, August 12, 2016

Modafinil, Maybe The Best Work Substance Yet, Is In Use Now – What Should We Do About It?

Ever since the Stone Age when people started consuming caffeine, humans have been taking advantage of performance-enhancing materials and techniques.  They have ranged from those as otherwise beneficial as exercise to those at least as destructive as 1950s “pep pills.” 

Recently, though, the use of a medication prescribed for narcolepsy, or the tendency towards unwanted falling asleep, has found its way into workplaces.  Many have found modafinil, which requires a prescription in the United States but not in Great Britain and elsewhere, to greatly help them with a variety of cognitive tasks, including learning, planning, concentrating, doing more thinking in less time, and even creativity.  It has been described as “the entrepreneur’s drug of choice,” “the big leagues,” “Viagra for the brain,” and, more often than any of these, a “smart drug.”  Unlike others used for these purposes it is not an amphetamine, and, although there have been no long-term studies on its healthy-person use, it was found, in a joint Harvard-Oxford study, to have “vanishingly few side effects.”  Against that, research has not objectively shown that it is as effective as its adherents claim.  That means that for some at least, modafinil may not be much better than the mild amphetamines, or “greenies,” many major league baseball players took around 1970, about which player and author Jim Bouton claimed helped perception of better play more than actual results.

Although modafinil is not considered addictive, some users report perceiving an ongoing need to take it.  Robert Kolker, who wrote a 2013 piece on it in New York magazine, said that when he went without his dose it “was sort of like being thrust into dirty, messy reality… like crashing, and… the anxiety that got dialed down on the way in, when you were coming off it, all of a sudden you went through the reverse.”  Since then, though, it has been favorably compared to the attention deficit disorder drug Ritalin, also used in work settings, and seems to be getting more and more common. 

Beyond its pharmaceutical characteristics, Modafinil presents true ethical predicaments.  One might be risking the “Outland effect,” named after a 1981 science-fiction movie about an outer-space mining camp in which many workers chose to facilitate longer hours by taking a performance-enhancing drug seeming benign but proving deadly.  A second might be called the Bill Fralic Syndrome, after a top college lineman who, after joining the National Football League in 1985, publicly expressed disgust after determining that he would need to use steroids to be competitive.  Should the same thing be allowed to happen with modafinil in workplaces?  A third also invokes an analogy to steroids – since they are now forbidden for NFL players, stemming from Fralic’s speaking out, should we place the same restrictions on certain medications for other workers?  Does it matter whether these employees are surgeons, who could save lives by being more awake, or corporate staffers who generally could not?  Fourth, and most simply, if we accept caffeine in artificial as well as natural forms, drugs prescribed for other conditions, and, of course, measures such as getting plenty of sleep, where do we draw the line and why?  What is fair and what is unfair?  In 2011, Duke University officially said that “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” constituted cheating.  That means that if it became legal to sell modafinil over the counter in this country, Duke’s judgment would no longer apply.  Is that the standard we want to use?

So what should we do?  If we can get through these quandaries, we would best err in the direction of allowing modafinil for workers.  With technology, there is no putting the genie back, pun intended, in the bottle.  Future tools to help work performance, whether chemical or not, may make modafinil seem as effective as licking coffee beans.  As with computer technology, we may not know the best way of dealing with it, but that is not enough reason for a ban.  If modafinil is in fact a mirage, it will fall out of fashion.  If it is dangerous, we will discover that and take appropriate action.  Until then, freedom.       

Friday, August 5, 2016

July Had Peaceful and Positive Jobs Data, but the AJSN Shows America Is Now Up To 18.4 Million Jobs Short

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics July employment report could be called boring, but that might sound too derogatory.  It was encouraging, as we added 255,000 net new nonfarm positions, well over the 180,000 consensus projection and about double what our population increase absorbs, which was not offset by significant worsening elsewhere.  Both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted employment rates stayed the same, at 4.9% and 5.1% respectively, the spreads showing that the number of people working in July is not only typically much the same as in June, but is below the annual average.  The two measures best showing how common is it for Americans to be working, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, both improved 0.1% – their outcomes of 59.7% and 62.8% are now the same as they were in April and are no longer immediately threatening new 40-year lows.  The count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to short-hours employment while seeking and not finding full-time opportunities, was, with a gain of 100,000 to 5.9 million, the only major front-line figure to go downhill, whereas the number of long-term jobless held at 2.0 million.  Average hourly earnings rose a more-than-inflation 8 cents per hour to $25.69.

The worst outcomes were in the counts of people marginally attached to the labor force, or neither employed nor officially unemployed.  While there were almost half a million fewer claiming no interest whatever in working, those reporting they wanted jobs but had not looked for one in the previous year rose 175,000 to 3.713 million, and those in the “discouraged” category increased 89,000 to 591,000.  The people in these two categories could now absorb 3.5 million work opportunities, growing in comparison with the 7.4 million for those technically jobless.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, showing in one figure how many positions could be quickly absorbed if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, increased 255,000, as follows:

The share of latent demand for jobs coming from those officially unemployed, or, as above, 7,440,300 divided by 18,402,179, remained at 40%.  

The year-over-year AJSN comparisons still show improvement but continue to shrink, with a drop of only 531,000 since July 2015, of which over 90% was due to lower official joblessness.  The count of those not wanting work at all continues to rise, but those in most other marginal attachment categories have diminished, slightly, over the past year.  

So how good a month was it really?  I think it was fine, if unspectacular.  We continue to reach new post-recession improvements, with unemployment rates low and indications of likelihood to work at least pausing.  In the context of a permanent jobs crisis, these are good times.  The turtle, again, took a modest but unmistakable step forward.