The transition from not working to working has never been easy, but in recent years it’s gotten trickier. Yes, in this slow-growing recovery there are a lot of people still looking for work; but we’re also seeing a change in employers’ recruitment processes.
At the beginning of the recession, many hiring managers looked for people who had been laid off and offered them jobs well below their former pay level. Now, attitudes have shifted — most now assume that if you haven’t been working, there must be something wrong. There has also been a change in how recruiters recruit. Instead of passively waiting for incoming resumes, recruiters now actively search for currently employed candidates, using social media and other search technologies. An emailed resume from someone who is not working may not even make it to their desks.
These shifts have serious implications for the job search process. For example, it helps to focus on finding hiring managers (not positions), and to beef up your online presence. But there are also lessons here for what you choose to emphasize about yourself when applying for a job. In sales, it’s called overcoming objections, which means understanding what negative thoughts people might have about you and proactively rebutting them. Depending on your situation, you can describe your off-work time to your advantage.
Whether you’re in an interview or rewriting your resume, here are some suggestions for managing your professional image in a job search. They’re organized by the reasons you may not have been working, but the advice can be catered to different situations:
If you were laid off:
Their objections: “There must have been something wrong with you at your previous job.”
Be careful in how you describe your relationship to the layoff. For example, never say, “I was laid off.” Always indicate you were part of a layoff, if that is in fact true. If you can truthfully say, “They kept me on board through the first two layoffs, but as the recession went on…” that also shows your employer valued you. Give the reason for the layoff when you can. For instance, “The whole division associated with this product was laid off.”
Show you’re on good terms with your former employer. If you can do even one day’s consulting, having that on your resume shows they valued you. If you can’t volunteer, ask for endorsements from former bosses and colleagues on LinkedIn and other social media sites.
Make sure there’s something current on your resume that speaks to your skills. The longer you have been out of work, the more important this is. It can be as simple as a consulting assignment, volunteering your professional skills, and further education or training.
Don’t dwell on the past. Speak in a committed way with all your contacts and friends about what you are doing now. Talking about your old employer and what happened then will dampen people’s confidence that you might be ready for a new job.
If you took time off to care for children or a sick relative:
Their objections: “You’ll be quick to desert us for family matters. You’re not serious about working.”
Stress that you’ve arranged your family matters so that you can focus on your career. Keep your plans for settling your affairs short and factual.
Don’t go into the gory details. Avoid framing your absence as something like, “My mom needed me because she was so sick,” or, “I just couldn’t leave my adorable baby.” You can easily get tripped up by your own emotions.
Keep the discussion at a minimum. The more you mention your family, the more you might reinforce your audience’s objections.
If you are a college grad:
Their objections: “You have no real-life skills. We’ll have to waste time training you when we could more easily find an experienced person.”
Present experience on your resume in terms of responsibilities and results, not tasks. That will help you demonstrate as much real, dependable work experience as you can. For example, “Chosen by regional manager to train 15 new servers for a new restaurant location. Opening day went smoothly, and all 15 are still working successfully six months later.” Be as concrete and factual as you can.
Stress your practical skills. Use the words “experienced at” when you can. For example, “Experienced at high stakes public presentations from Debate Club.” Or “Experienced at handing multiple priorities and details as Tour Manager for the Marching Band.” Remember that in most industries “traveling” and other unprofessional hobbies are not practical skills, so try to suppress the urge to share your wanderlust on your resume.
If you are a post-entrepreneur, whether your business succeeded or failed:
Their objections: “You’re only waiting until you’re ready to start your next business.” Or worse, “Once someone has worked for themselves, they can’t take direction from someone else.”
Prove that you can take orders. This is the toughest objection to overcome, particularly if you are a serial entrepreneur. The easiest way is to tap into your network and look for try-before-you-buy opportunities, contract, or consulting positions.
Be concrete about your commitment, which might persuade your new employer to trust you. For example, state directly both when you talk to people and in cover letters, “I am looking for a five to seven year assignment as a [X] in order to make a contribution to the field of [Y]…”
Whichever messages you choose, use them consistently in your resume, cover emails, social profiles, and interviews. All your friends and referrals should know your messages, too. If asked, “Was Pete laid off?” You want to make sure your friend answers, “Yes, Pete was a part of a big layoff, but they liked him so much they kept him a few extra days to migrate their systems.” Maintaining (and living) the image you’ve created can put a positive spin on your situation for prospective employers — and in the long run, you’ll feel more positive about yourself.
By MELISSA KORN
Business-school professors are making a morality play.
Four years after the scandals of the financial crisis prompted deans and faculty to re-examine how they teach ethics, some academics say they still haven’t gotten it right.
Hoping to prevent another Bernard L. Madoff-like scandal or insider-trading debacle, a group of schools, led by University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business in Boulder, is trying to generate support for more ethics teaching in business programs.
“Business schools have been giving students some education in ethics for at least the past 25 or 30 years, and we still have these problems,” such as irresponsibly risky bets or manipulation of the London interbank offered rate, says John Delaney, dean of University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration and Katz Graduate School of Business.
He joined faculty and administrators from Massachusetts’ Babson College, Michigan State University and other schools in Colorado last summer in what he says is an effort to move schools from talk to action. The Colorado consortium is holding conference calls and is exploring another meeting later this year as it exchanges ideas on program design, course content and how to build support among other faculty members.
But some efforts are at risk of stalling at the discussion stage, since teaching business ethics faces roadblocks from faculty and recruiters alike. Some professors see ethics as separate from their own subjects, such as accounting or marketing, and companies have their own training programs for new hires.
A strong ethics education can help counteract a narrowing worldview that often accompanies a student’s progression through business school, supporters in academia say. Surveys conducted by the Aspen Institute, a think tank, show that about 60% of new M.B.A. students view maximizing shareholder value as the primary responsibility of a company; that number rises to 69% by the time they reach the program’s midpoint.
Though maximizing shareholder returns isn’t a bad goal in itself, focusing on that at the expense of customer satisfaction, employee well-being or environmental considerations can be dangerous.
Without tying ethics to a business curriculum, “we are graduating students who are very myopic in their decision-making,” says Diane Swanson, founding chair of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University.
Stand-alone ethics courses are a start, but they “compartmentalize” the issue for students, as if ethical questions aren’t applicable to all business disciplines, says David Ikenberry, dean of University of Colorado’s Leeds School.
Some schools are experimenting with a more integrated approach. This fall, Boston University’s School of Management is introducing a required ethics course for freshman business students, and is also tasking instructors in other business classes to incorporate ethics into their lessons. It may also overhaul a senior seminar to reinforce ethics topics.
“We need to hit the students hard when they first get here, remind them of these principles throughout their core classes, and hit them once again before they leave,” says Kabrina Chang, an assistant professor at Boston University’s business school, who is coordinating the new freshman class.
Students likely know right from wrong, so rather than, say, discussing whether a student would turn in a roommate caught stealing, Ms. Chang says she’ll lead a debate on how or if a student might maintain a relationship with the thief.
Students may find the roommate-thief scenario more relevant than a re-examination of recent Ponzi schemes, but many remain skeptical of how such discussions apply to real life.
As one M.B.A. wrote last year on College Confidential, an online message board, “It’s not like Johnny is going to be at the cusp of committing fraud and then think back to his b-school days and think, “gee, Professor Goody Two Shoes wouldn’t approve.”
What’s more, schools can’t calculate the moral well-being of their graduates the same way they can quantify financial success or technical acumen. One of the few rankings available—the Aspen Institute’s “Beyond Grey Pinstripes” report—was suspended last year, in part because researchers could not determine the net benefit of ethics courses. Without demonstrable returns, there’s little incentive for deans to add classes and instructors.
Employers, who have in the past pushed schools to add more hands-on training and global coursework, could successfully agitate for more ethics instruction. But many companies say completing an ethics course won’t make or break a hiring decision—especially since firms tend to offer their own training for new hires.
“I’m not so sure that an ‘A’ in an ethics class is really a valid way of judging” an individual’s moral compass, says Jill Smart, chief human resources officer at Accenture, ACN -1.28% which hires thousands of students each year.
Even if recruiters do indicate expectations of more ethics curriculum, some say schools still won’t change without clear marching orders from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the industry’s main accrediting group. Schools must demonstrate that they both expose students to ethics and measure learning outcomes, says Joseph DiAngelo, the AACSB’s chairman. But the group doesn’t prescribe which concepts must be addressed, nor does it track the number of classes offered at member schools.
As the financial crisis fades from memory and the economy recovers, instructors worry that the moment has passed.
“That’s the danger of ethics education in business schools. We only think about it when there’s a crisis,” says Katz’s Mr. Delaney. Citing the previous rounds of introspection sparked by Michael Milken’s downfall in the 1980s, Enron and other accounting scandals a decade ago, he says, “If we don’t find a way to instill [ethics] in people, we’re going to repeat it over and over again.”
Write to Melissa Korn at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared February 7, 2013, on page B4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Does an ‘A’ in Ethics Have Any Value?.