Give just the facts when job hunting

February 27, 2008 Job hunting 1 comment ,

When faced with the daunting task of summarizing themselves, whether on paper in a resume or face-to-face in an interview, job hunters often fall into the trap of trying to encapsulate everything into a few simple, pithy phrases. I’ve seen these chestnuts far too often:

  • I’m a hard worker
  • I have a strong work ethic
  • I’m reliable
  • I’m a good listener
  • I work well with others
  • I take pride in my work

The hiring manager’s mental response, assuming his eyes haven’t glazed over, is likely to be “You and everyone else, pal.” Is there anyone out there who would not feel justified in using all of the assessments above to describe themselves? (I certainly hope that you wouldn’t be foolish enough to vocalize it if not.)

The next response to such vague summations is “According to whom?” A “hard worker” at a big faceless corporation or a government 9-5 job may be very different from a “hard worker” at a startup, or at a video game company. (And whatever you do, don’t put down that you “try to work smarter, not harder”, which is as trite as they come.)

What to do instead? Provide facts and stories, not judgments, when telling someone about yourself and your work history.

Back on the old radio and TV show Dragnet, Sergeant Joe Friday would question witnesses about a crime that had been committed. If she strayed into personal opinion about a suspect, he’d steer her back with “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Imagine you’ve got Joe Friday reading your resume.

Instead of “I’m a hard worker,” give details of projects you’ve completed. Include points that make clear you were a hard worker, without you having to say “I worked hard.” For example, you might say:

I recently completed a five month, 50,000-line conversion project. Even though we we lost one of the four team members with only three weeks left, we pulled together to make the deadline.

You’ve described a big project, hard work, and made no self-assessments.

Got a strong work ethic? Explain it: “A few weeks ago, my team rolled out an upgrade to Office in our 300-seat location. We did it over the weekend to minimize work disruption. Sunday night we had to order in some pizzas, but Monday morning everyone was able to come in and get work at 8am sharp.”

Every manager wants reliable employees: “My projects are consistently done on time, never more than 10% over budget. Here are the planned vs. actual charts for the last three projects I worked on.” Then you can show the actual work products from your portfolio. “Plus, I’ve only had unscheduled absences twice in the past four years.”

Good listening is great, too: “I find that I’m able to help my team with listening carefully. The other day, we had a meeting and one of our developers and the guy from accounting were having quite a disagreement. As I listened to their arguing, I saw that they were agreeing, but didn’t even realize it. I gently interjected some restatements of what each of them was saying, and they came to see that their differences were very minor.”

Working well with others is a cliché, but critical in all but a few jobs: “As a web page designer, I usually work with three or four different teams throughout the week. They’re all very different in their makeup, but I work hard at fitting in with each as necessary. Ted in Marketing even sent me this gracious thank-you note for my work, which I was very proud of.” You can then open your portfolio to the printed copy of the email to show the interviewer.

When it comes to the pride you take in your work, you need not explain at all. Your resume and interview should be enough. The pride you take in yourself and your accomplishments must shine through without additional words being necessary.

Note that all these examples use recent examples, and not stories from years past. They emphasize teamwork and other people, which every manager should have high on her list. And they document facts that let the interviewer draw her own conclusion about you and your value to her company.

The examples above are taken from an interview setting, but they apply to any printed work as well. You’ll have less room to stretch out verbally, but you can certainly replace your “Reliable worker” bullet point with “Projects mostly completed on time, never more than 10% over estimates.”

Right now, I challenge you to take a look at your basic resume and scrutinize every sentence. If a claim is vague, replace it with a concrete example, or remove it entirely. If something applies to everyone, then it means nothing.

The worst reason to quit your job

February 19, 2008 People, Work life No comments

When you’re in a job that makes you unhappy, it can be easy to start thinking about making a move elsewhere. Maybe the work’s not as fun any more, or you’re not advancing when you should be. While there are plenty of good reasons to leave, there’s one that shouldn’t enter your mind: Not liking the people you work with, even if it’s your boss.


It doesn’t seem like something you’re likely to be able to get past. You deal with them every day. But don’t think that you can go to a new job that will be jerk-free.


The jerks of the world follow you around. Remember how there were people in school you didn’t like? And then in college there were people just like them? And then your first job, you get a new set of people, most of whom you like, but some are jerks, too? They are everywhere.


What’s more, they move around. You can be in a perfectly swell department, with a great boss and great co-workers, and blammo! In comes some socially stunted goober who screws it all up. Or who can’t code his way out of a paper sack. Or maybe your boss decides to take off and gets replaced by some micromanager who calls you “Pal”.


You might think a bad boss is a bigger deal than a bad co-worker, and it is to a degree. When a boss is bad, it has bigger effects on you than just an incompetent co-worker in the next cube, so that much is the case. When you dig deeper, though, it’s more an issue of the company and company culture than about any individual person.


Imagine working at the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin (on the US version of the TV show “The Office”). It’s not that so much that Michael Scott is a terrible boss, but that he’s allowed to keep his job in the face of his egregrious shortcomings. Michael has problems, but the company doesn’t care, or doesn’t seem to care. You take pride in your work, but why doesn’t the company show the same pride?


The distinction between the bad co-workers and the company that allows them to work is an important one. The bad co-worker or bad boss may go away over time, but the company is a larger problem that may be well entrenched. Before you make for the door, make sure you know what the problem actually is. If it’s just a person or two that rub you wrong, you’re probably better off to live with it for a while until things change.

Twelve items to leave off your resume and cover letter

November 4, 2006 Job hunting No comments , ,

You’re working on your resume, trying to give the recipient an idea of what a determined, hard worker you are, and you drop in this sentence.

After my wife and I arrived from Germany at age 35, I trained my son to play piano at our church.

You’re showing that you’re a committed family man with strong roots in your heritage, that you have the skills to raise a child, and you’re active in your church community, right? Wrong. You’re making the person reading the resume very nervous, and probably excluded yourself from a job. That one little sentence covered five bits of information it’s illegal for an interviewer to ask you.

  • Are you married?
  • What country are you from?
  • How old are you?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Do you go to church? Which one?

Providing information that is not relevant to the job, or would get me, as a hiring manager, in trouble if I asked for it, makes me very nervous.

The rule to follow is: If the employer can’t ask you, then don’t volunteer it.

I once got a cover letter that started “As a proud black woman, I am…” It immediately went into the discard pile. Not only was it foolish for her to put her gender and race on her resume, because I was not legally allowed to ask it, it made me wonder why would she tell me those things. Could I expect someone with a big chip on her shoulder? If I didn’t hire her, would I get accusations of racism and sexism?

The following items should never be mentioned on your resume or cover letter, or discussed in an interview, even indirectly:

  • Age
  • Sex/gender
  • Disability
  • Race/color
  • National origin, birthplace, ethnic background
  • Religion
  • Marital status
  • Children/pregnancy

These are the big eight that are just absolute no-nos, and that most people know are illegal. Nobody reading this article is being cast in a movie that needs a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound Jewish man, so none of those are bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs.

Sometimes unscrupulous employers can ask questions that get at this information. For instance, if you answer the question “when did you graduate high school?” with “1984”, he’s found that you’re roughly 39. By extension, you should leave dates of high school off your resume.

Other items that may not be illegal, but may cause problems, include:

  • Appearance, including photo
  • Sexual preference
  • Political affiliations
  • Clubs or groups you belong to, unless professionally related

There may be exceptions in certain cases. For example, my friend Tom Limoncelli is socially and politically active. In 2003-2004, he worked as a sysadmin for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. In this case, working for Dean is valuable work experience that should be noted on his resume, and it directly relates to the work that he’s known for.

Clubs and groups may not be obvious red flags, but are best left alone. To you, it might be cool that you race motorcycles on the weekend, but someone reading your resume might judge you as having a hobby that’s detrimental to the environment, or overly risky. Your weekend volunteer work at Planned Parenthood could be a black mark in the eyes of someone strongly pro-life.

The type of outside work is relevant, too. Handing out literature for an activist group has no place on a resume, but that might not be the case if you overhauled their web site using PHP. It partly depends on what job you’re applying for. You might exclude your Planned Parenthood website work if applying to a Catholic school, but include it when applying to Ben & Jerry’s. This is another example of why there’s no such thing as having “a resume”, a single static document you send around.

In general, follow the rule that if something does not directly relate to your skills, and how you would perform the job in question, leave it out.

You might think “I wouldn’t want to work for someone who would discriminate against me because I fit into group X,” but that’s not the point. The issue isn’t overt discrimination as much as the perception of the possibility of discrimination. I wouldn’t discriminate against a black woman, but I did immediately exclude someone naive or foolish enough to mention being one.

Finally, even if all this verboten information is available on the web with minimal web searching, it’s not OK to put on your resume. The issue is what you present as yourself, not what people can find.

And don’t think employers won’t search Google about you extensively before interviewing. But that’s a topic for another article…

For more information about hiring discrimination, see the EEOC website.

Your digital dirt can come back to haunt you

October 30, 2006 Job hunting No comments

Articles like this one seem to surprise folks, but they shouldn’t.

As we’re often being reminded, the Internet has irrevocably changed the way that we look for and apply for jobs. But the web works both ways. So you may want to think twice about what you say in your blog or avoid posting photos from your last toga party online just in case a potential employer takes a look and changes their mind about you.

Your second most important relationship

September 3, 2006 Job hunting, People, Work life No comments

As I sit here on this Labor Day weekend, I ponder who it is we labor for. I want you to as well.

Most of us in the computer industries are lucky enough to be doing what we love. Programming, system administration and the like are in our blood. We’ve done it as a hobby, and now we’re getting paid relatively large amounts to do it. Plenty of other people don’t have it nearly as good as we do.

And yet, so many of us are unhappy with where we’re at. We work with jerks, or the companies we work for have Mickey Mouse rules that treat us like children, or even worse, hourly workers. Maybe you’re in a company with motivational posters on the wall where you can’t miss ’em when you have to take a leak. It’s a sort of ongoing battle for your soul, where the day-to-day grinds down at you and makes you miserable over time.

Seems to me, however, that the most common source of bad jobs is having the bad boss.

I had lunch with my friend I’ll call Bob who had just been let go from his job after a short, confusing month. His boss was vague in expectations, yet also a micromanager. He’d demanded on Wednesday that Bob have a project done by Monday morning at 9am, because it was Crucial To The Company. On Friday night, after Bob returned home from a long-planned dinner with his wife and some friends, he found in his inbox on his return a note: “I see you logged off at 6pm, this project is crucial to the company.” The boss badgered him all weekend until Bob finally declared that his work was done on Sunday.

Add to this that even though Bob had the work done, there were other unspoken, unmet expectations. The boss rattled them off to Bob at his summary firing, but Bob didn’t understand them after the fact.

I offered “It doesn’t sound like much of a loss. Your boss was crazy, or stupid, or just a bad boss. He wasn’t like that when he interviewed you, was he?” Bob replied “I’m glad you think he was a bad boss, because I kind of picked that up in the interview.”

Now here’s what astonishes me. Here’s a guy who’s a good programmer, who works hard, and yet he’s willing to take a job with someone who he strongly suspected of being dumb and/or crazy.

Bob’s not the only one, of course, or I wouldn’t be writing this. I’ve got other friends who jump into a job relationship hoping for the best, and coming out miserable. Some people may be desperate and have no choice, but it happens so often, that can’t be the case most of the time.

I suspect that most people miss that word “relationship”, because it is exactly that.

Your job is a relationship.

It’s a relationship with your boss, yes, but it’s also a relationship with the company, with your co-workers, with the commute, with everything that goes into your job.

It’s a relationship that you spend 40+ hours a week on. How many hours a week do you actually spend awake with your spouse? Probably a little bit more than that, but it’s roughly the same in size.

The relationship with your employer is as important to look at as the relationship with your spouse. That means both before and after you commit.

I’ll write more about this in weeks to come, as I work on my upcoming book, Pragmatic Job Hunting.