Employers get free work from job candidates

In this competitive job market, employers can ask just about anything of job candidates.  In the last couple of years, however, we are seeing a new trend, especially for job seekers in the writing and editing field. That trend is the rise of the writing test.

The writing and editing test can be a useful tool for employers to weed out candidates in an entry-level position where candidates have not built up much of a portfolio, but it doesn’t serve much purpose for middle management positions or positions requiring experience.  Some employers, though, are now using specific assignments to procure free work from their extensive pool of job candidates.

Here’s a specific example:  Salem Health, a hospital in Salem, Oregon, recently posted a job for a copywriter/editor with experience in health care marketing.  Rather than ask for writing and editing samples or giving a writing test, the marketing director of the hospital sent out an email to “the most qualified candidates” asking them to complete the following assignment from an 18-page information booklet about the Bariatic Surgery Department:

  • Write a brief section for the hospital website encouraging readers to click through the bariatric web pages and motivate them to sign up for a free community information session.
  • Write a longer article for their quarterly newsletter to encourage readers to go online for more information about Baratric Surgery services.
  • Develop a sample print ad, “approximately 3 columns x 8 inches in size, 50-75 words, to compel readers to call or go online to sign up for a free community information session.
  • Write a lengthy article for a trifold brochure.

After completing all these “assignments,” the top candidates would then be contacted for an on-site interview.

Obviously, the marketing director will be able to pick and choose the best writing assignments from this pool and use the samples for the hospital.  Why pay for an advertising copywriter when you can get the work for free from desperate job seekers?

I charge a minimum of $75 an hour to clients to develop these same materials for their websites and brochures, yet an employer wants these services for free.  I’ve been a writer for more than 30 years, and have managed marketing assignments and coordinated work from advertising agencies at two hospitals, but I refuse to do free work for an employer who will not compensate me for material that will end up on the company’s website.

Rude recruiters the norm as job candidates dissed

Job seekers are accustomed to applying for jobs and never hearing back from employers, even if the candidate is well qualified for the job.  Since the Great Recession, however, recruiters and hiring managers are now not even bothering to let interviewed job candidates know they hired someone else.

After laboring through more than 20 interviews in the past two years, I’m firmly convinced that the job selection process has little to do with finding the most qualified candidate, but more to do with finding the most accessible candidate who has ties to the organization.  Many recruiters are only filling their allotted number of interviewees to say they considered a certain number of candidates, when they never seriously considered the “outside” candidates.  Most recruiters and hiring managers already have an idea of who they want for the position before the interviews begin.

Still, this process does not excuse recruiters from their unscrupulous attitudes toward job candidates they “string along” with time-consuming interviews, “job fit assessments,” reference checks, and online profile tests.  They give the external job candidate the impression they are seriously in the running when they are not; provide barriers that internal candidates are not subjected to; and provide no feedback about how the candidate did in the interviews or the dubious online exams.  Nowadays, a job candidate can expect to spend more than 12 hours in online applications, interviews and testing with one company without ever hearing from them again (and that’s excluding the time spent researching the company).  Often, a candidate can spend several hours taking online assessment tests and personality profiles without even interacting with a real person.

I’ll give one recent example.  In April, the hiring manager of a large healthcare organization in Louisiana contacted me about my resume and told me to apply for a Director of Communications position online. After filling out the extensive application, her assistant called me to set up a 45-minute interview.  The interview went well, and the hiring manager told me it would take about three weeks for Human Resources to finish the rest of the selection process, indicating that I should be called for a personal interview in Louisiana after that time.

The next four weeks involved some time-intensive tests, phone interviews, and an impersonal “virtual interview” with a machine.  Here’s  detailed listing of the convoluted and frequently impersonal hiring process:

  1. The first step involved completing a “career battery assessment” that took one hour to finish.  Although several questions applied to patient care and not to marketing/communications, I thought I did well on the test.
  2. The second step entailed a detailed reference checking process to be completed within 24 hours.  “An important part of the hiring process is reference checking. You will be receiving an email with a link to enter in your references: 5 total of which 2 must be current or past managers/supervisors.”  I contacted my references and let them know what to expect so they would watch for the web link in their email boxes.  One of my references took time out of his busy schedule as CEO of a hospital to complete this reference survey.
  3.  I then received a call from Human Resources to schedule a time to speak with the lead recruiter.  The recruiter told me I needed to complete an online leadership survey. She told me I would receive another email from a company called “Skill Survey” that supposedly measured various leadership competencies. This test asked some hypothetical questions for managers and supervisors and took another hour to complete.  Again, I thought I did well on this test, although no written test can adequately reflect how a supervisor will perform or motivate his or her employees.
  4.  The Leadership Recruiter from HR then sent me several documents to review about the organization’s benefits, incentive plan, and salary bonus plan. She even told me when I would be paid! By the tone of the email, I thought I was not only in the running as one of the finalists, but was on track for that personal interview the hiring manager told me I would receive.
  5.  At this point, I thought I would get a call to interview in person at the facility’s main office in New Orleans.  Instead, I received an invitation to take part in a “virtual interview” via a webcam.  The HR coordinator said they recently purchased this software from a company called Interview Stream to save money in travel costs. Since I was asked to use a webcam, I asked if I could interview with live people via Skype or Windows Live Messenger, but she said the organization was not set up to use either of those popular programs (I found this explanation very strange because if they had a webcam, any individual HR employee could sign up for a Skype account). She even admitted that I was the first –and perhaps only job candidate up to this point — who was asked to perform this “virtual interview.” (You’re our guinea pig,” she said). Not a true interview at all, Interview Stream asked the interviewee a set of predefined questions and gave the subject just five seconds to answer each question. At several times during the automated question, I wanted to stop and clarify the questions, only to realize that I couldn’t do so because I wasn’t talking to a live person.  Despite my training in television news, I felt I could have performed better in this 50-minute video interview.
  6.  The recruiter followed up with another request for a real interview with a live person (via the telephone).  Initially she asked me to interview with this senior leader on a Saturday, but then changed her request to a Friday. The interview was not difficult, but I did find it strange that most of the questions dealt with how I would deal with a “hypothetical” employee who had been sexually harassed by a coworker.  After the third or fourth question about this topic, I wondered if sexual harassment was a big problem at this organization.
  7.  The recruiter then emailed me on May 18 to notify that “all interviews have been completed and the hiring manager along with her team are discussing feedback from your interview. Someone from Human Resources will be in touch with you by early next week regarding feedback and next steps.”  The next day, she changed her mind and asked me to interview with another senior leader tomorrow.  My phone interview with him lasted more than an hour, which went very well.

This was the last personal correspondence I had with anyone at the organization. After 15 days of not hearing anything, I emailed the recruiter a request for the status and received this response on June 2:

“I apologize for the delay in contacting you. The interview process was extended longer than expected. The leadership recruiter has informed that she will reach out to you shortly, via email, with additional feedback.”

It’s been more than six weeks since this email. Needless to say, this recruiter has never contacted me with any “additional feedback.”  I assume I didn’t get the job, and that they hired a local candidate, but will never know for sure.  Why was I never called in for a personal interview on site?  If I didn’t do well on the online tests, why did they email me leadership benefits and continue the phone interviews?  Why did they pretend they were seriously considering my candidacy, only to use me as a “guinea pig” for their new video software?  After sending me numerous emails, telephoning me, and coordinating my interviews, why didn’t they have the courtesy to at least pick up the phone and let me know the result?

Throughout the whole process, I felt the HR gatekeepers were placing additional barriers in my path that gave them justification for not calling me in for a personal interview where I could actually meet and talk personally with leaders at the organization. I didn’t mind spending several hours preparing for interviews and taking online tests if the process led to a face-to-face interview.  What was even more exasperating was that I had to waste the time of my former supervisors who had to fill out detailed reference surveys for naught.

In the end, I am glad I was not offered a job with this organization, whose leaders showed they do not share my values of respect, dignity, and courteousness. If I had one piece of advice for other individuals seeking a professional mangement position, I would suggest avoiding organizations that overly stress written assessments over personal interviews as their barometer of finding the “right candidate.”  If the people in that company are so impersonal, then it’s not the right fit for someone in communications.

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How to save money while unemployed

Top 10 ways to save money on reduced income

This week, 37,000 long-term unemployed in North Carolina will stop getting unemployment checks. Because the state’s unemployment dipped just below 10 percent, it doesn’t qualify for the extended benefits program to help the long-term (more than 79 weeks) of unemployed.  I am one of those individuals.

Many previously middle-class families will be facing tough choices about keeping their homes and even feeding their children because of the end of this program. I received the maximum weekly benefit – about $460 – for almost two years.  There’s no question that the loss of this benefit will hurt my family, but because of decisions we’ve made since I lost my job, it won’t devastate us.  I wanted to share suggestions and advice to those unemployed about how the loss of this income doesn’t mean you have to go into financial ruin.  Here are some tips on how to cut expenses that led us to save money during the last two years.

  1. Cut the cable cord.  When our one-year special deal with Time Warner ended, we cut cable and are saving about $60-80 a month. We bought a digital antenna and watch about 30 channels over the air, and stream Netflix videos, music, news & weather channels, and other movie channels through our previously-purchased Roku box (which cost less than $100).
  2. Cut the cell phone habit.  What irritates me is seeing people at the unemployment office checking their email on their 4Gs, Droids, and Blackberries.  This is one of the biggest expenses we cut after I lost my job. By ditching my smartphone, we saved another $70 a month by purchasing a cheap TracFone where you can buy prepaid minutes. When I want to check email I do it the old-fashioned way: I check my computer. Now that unemployment benefits ran out, I may just get rid of the cell phone entirely.
  3. Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers, magazines and mail-order services.  When I lost my job, I immediately canceled a 90-day supply of vitamins that cost more than $200.  While I kept the weekend newspaper subscription, I read most of the news online now. If you can, cancel all recurring monthly subscriptions for music services as well. You don’t need the iPod.
  4. Get rid of your trash hauler. Seriously.  We saved more than $200 a year by canceling our contract for our curbside removal.  Since we don’t generate a lot of household waste anyway (about a tall kitchen garbage bag’s worth), we dump the bag at our church dumpster or another nearby dumpster.
  5. Stop shopping at the higher-end grocery stores. We get most of our groceries at Wal-Mart, Aldie’s, Sam’s (when we purchase items in bulk), or Bottom Dollar Foods, which all have fresh foods.  Use coupons each time you shop for groceries along with your discount card. You can save about $200 a month by shopping at the discount grocery stores.
  6. Grow your own food.  Even better than the discount groceries: plant your own garden.  Some of the best veggies we’ve ever eaten have come from our own backyard: squash, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli are some of the veggies we’ve grown.  Not only does a home garden cut down on your food bill, it’s better for you.
  7. Don’t fly. The only time I purchased an airline ticket this year was a flight to Texas to see my parents, and since I had a job interview there, the amount was tax deductible.  (I never heard back from the company but I got to see my parents).
  8. Postpone large purchases until you’re out of debt and can afford them.  We would love to buy a lawnmower for our yard, but have found a neighbor that gives us a discount to cut our yard twice a week.
  9. Don’t buy expensive health insurance plans. This is a tough one. I’ve been without health insurance for myself since my COBRA benefits expired eight months ago, but haven’t needed to go the doctor in that time. Our son is covered by a supplemental school health insurance policy and my wife gets her health insurance for free through the VA.  Another option for those who qualify: state high-risk pools or free health insurance programs for children are available for those families whose income is equal to or less than 200% of the federal income limits (still available until the Republicans cut them).

10.  Save money.  I was fortunate that I was able to save more than half of my severance pay in a CD. When it matured we paid off all our credit card debts.  Getting out of debt is the most important thing you can do to get control of your finances and take charge of what you spend. Because our credit scores were excellent, we were able to refinance the mortgage for our house and save another $260 a month in mortgage payments, and at a lower interest rate.

I read that in 2010, nearly one in eight families now include an unemployed person, the highest proportion since the Labor Department began keeping track in 1994. All these families have to deal with rising food and gas prices, sporadic income from part-time jobs, and keeping their children happy.  It can be done through some discipline, persistence, and new-found frugality in the way you spend, and the way you live.

Media’s Egypt coverage shows disconnect on unemployment

Watching MSNBC News during the Egyptian protests, NBC anchor Brian Williams made a comment that Americans may not understand a society where intelligent, college-educated youth can’t find good jobs.  This sentiment was repeated by many other American media pundits. Slate’s Annie Lowery wrote that Egypt’s “youth suffers from crippling unemployment, with tens of thousands of college graduates unable to find good jobs.”  CNN even did a story about  a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate from Tunisia, who began a fruit and vegetable stand to earn a living.

News reports like these show the disconnect the media elite have with the plight of the unemployed in their own country.  In the United States, it’s not just tens of thousands of college-educated people who can’t find full-time work, it’s millions.  Out of 140 million in the labor force, 15 million of them are unemployed, and 4.4 million of them have been out of work for more than  one year.  Many of them, like myself, have college degrees and years of experience, but can’t find full-time work in this market.  (See http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/employment/2011-01-23-longterm-unemployed_N.htm ).

At least one-fourth of the unemployed in this country have college degrees.  I’ve been looking for nearly two years and can’t find any full-time work in my field, despite 20 years of experience.  I’ve applied for more than 700 jobs.  And I’m not unique. A Houston man interviewed by USA Today recently has two graduate degrees, one in sociology and another in human services counseling, plus 14 years on the job as a corporate trainer and experience working abroad, but has gotten only a few telephone interviews from the 2,000 applications he sent out since last September.  (Read more in the Jan. 25, 2011 article in USA Today entitled “Who Are America’s Jobless?)  http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2011-01-25-1Ajobless25_CV_N.htm?csp=34news

Instead of covering Egyptian youth’s troubles in finding employment, American reporters would serve us better if they covered the unemployment crisis in their own country.  They should know the troubles many college-educated Americans have in finding decent work: many of them, after all, are journalists.

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Recruiters and HR directors don’t get you jobs

After spending nearly two years unemployed, I may join the ranks of those long-term unemployed individuals who ‘give up’ on their job search.  After this long struggle, I now understand why qualified professionals reach the end of their ropes.  I may be at that point.

In this blog, I’ve highlighted some of my frustrations with the way employers treat prospective candidates.  I’m lucky. I get calls back. I get interviews.  I’ve networked with colleagues, friends and associates. I’ve filled out hundreds of applicaitons and sent more than 600 tailored resumes. For a long time, I felt it was something I did or said in those interviews that was the reason I did not get an offer.  The reality is that employers already have someone in mind for these jobs, and there’s nothing the candidate can do to overcome that mindset.

Let me give two examples.  Late last year, I had a recruiter call me back about a management job in Colorado. During our conversation, she said I was a “perfect match” for this job and she would be in touch after looking at other candidates for the employer.  She called back and conducted a long interview.  We emailed each other several times and she indicated to me that I was a top candidate.  Finally, she said the employer would select the top four canddiates to fly them in for an interview. 

A few days later, I receive this curt email that job seekers are all too familiar with:

     “Thank you for your interest in the XXXX position at XXXX.  Your resume and accomplishments are impressive, and have made the selection of our initial candidate pool a difficult choice.  At this stage, only a limited number of candidates for the position will be moved forward in our process.   The client is focusing on candidates who are in Colorado or have a connection to the area.  Should that change, I will be in touch to discuss next steps. I have enjoyed our conversations and hope that you have found them productive as well. I look forward to working with you again in the future.”

Of course, I felt like responding: “No, I did not feel our conversations were productive, and why did you waste my time?  Why didn’t you know that your client only wanted local candidates?  Is it because you’re paid to select a certain number of candidates to present to your client?

A few weeks later, I receive a call from an HR director of a local company (in a nearby county). She schedules a phone interview with me and conducts a very detailed, extensive interview.  She calls me back and wants me to interview with the hiring manager.  Excited, I research the company, prepare my portfoilo, and arrive at the facility, where the HR director conducts another interview with me. She tells me the pay scale and gives me the company’s benefit summary for managers and directors. Now, all I have to do is seal the deal with the hiring manager.

When I meet the hiring VP, I discover she hasn’t even bothered to look at my application in depth. Instead, she spends the first few minutes asking me to wait until she looks over “my file.” She takes two phone calls during the interview. She focuses more on why I was let go of my last job  (I was downsized in a corporate restructuring effort that included the CEO, COO, and CFO), so I try to discuss my achievements and successes and what I can bring to the table. I know my chances are lost when she says ‘Well, we were really looking for someone who does not have experience in this field because we want this candidate to think out of the box.”  Uhh?  She wants someone who is NOT qualified?  Clearly, she already has someone in mind for this position.

All job searchers read about “expert” advice from headhunters and recruiters designed to get you in the door; to get noticed by the employer.  But the rules of the job market since the recession have changed. It doesn’t matter if you get your foot in the door, because in this economy the hiring manager has someone else in mind for the position.  I had one recruiter conduct an extensive background check on me; interview my references at length; interview me twice, and pump me up about my candidacy, only to fail to get me “in the door” to interview with the hiring manager.  What’s worse, she wouldn’t even let me see the results of the reference checks so I could use them for future job searches: she said that was “proprietary” and not releasable (I later had a reference fax me the sheet she said was “confidential”). Why do recruiters go through this exhaustive process of background checks and reference interviews if they fail to land you the real job interview?

I understand why people are giving up their job search in this market.  To read what it feels like for older, experienced workers to be ignored by hiring managers, see this poignant letter in the Dallas Morning News:

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/localvoices/stories/DN-stanfield_15edi.ART.State.Edition1.14be30f.html

Unemployed to Congress: Don’t use me as bargaining chip

WHERE IS THE BAILOUT FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS?

 I refuse to be a bargaining chip for Republican congressmen wanting to help the rich.

As everyone knows, some two million Americans face the end of unemployment checks this holiday season. Republican congressmen say the country can’t afford adding an estimated $65 billion to the deficit. Yet these same congressmen want to add an estimated $700 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Now, Washington rumor has it that a deal is in the offing, with Republicans willing to give an unemployment extension to the long-term jobless if they can get their tax cuts for the wealthy.  They’ve made it clear they don’t care about the 97 percent of Americans making below $250,000 a year; their priority is getting the tax cuts for their rich friends (particularly the millionaires and billionaires who helped spark the Great Recession).

This proposal is not only immoral, but it is madness.  To link tax cuts for the rich to the unemployment checks for the jobless shows how insensitive, brazen, and indifferent our political leaders are to the plight of the jobless. One Republican representative from Arizona – John Shadegg – says he thinks unemployed workers hold off spending their checks! (“The truth is,” he said, “the unemployed will spend as little of that money as they possibly can”).  What? The truth is that the unemployed, having no other source of income, will spend that money immediately on food, gas, and other necessities.  Economists have found that $1 in unemployment benefits generates $1.61 in economic activity.  A dollar in tax cuts—not just to the rich, but to everyone—generates about 32 cents.  The rich in this country are getting richer at the expense of the working class, and few seem to care.

I am tired of reading comments from the right-wing labeling the unemployed “lazy” who want to live off the government.   We’re not. We want a job. Unemployment insurance is not an entitlement program or government handout; it is insurance employers and employees pay into to provide minimal assistance to the unemployed who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. We search diligently for jobs every day: we network, write letters, fill out long applications asking for our social security numbers, driver’s licenses, high school addresses, and credit history; send resumes to numerous recruiters in our field; register for countless job sites that send us daily spam;  scan countless job boards and send out emails only to hear nothing back from jobs we are well qualified for. Our job is to look for jobs that are not there, or jobs that go to someone’s nephew or other internal employee.

When I was laid off in early 2009, I thought it would take about four to six months to find a job, even in this economy.  I’m luckier than some of my unemployed friends – I have managed to land several interviews – but each time the position is put on hold, offered to an internal candidate, or to someone with less experience.  I’ve applied for more than 500 jobs in 21 months, with few job interviews locally.  Ninety-nine weeks may seem like a long time to find a job, but, as news reports bear out, jobs that vanished in the Great Recession have not returned. The private sector added about 159,000 jobs in October – half as many as needed to reduce the unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, which is expected to hover around 9 percent for all of next year.

When my unemployment check ends at the end of this year, I may have no choice but to work at a car dealership and apply for food stamps, while trying to hang on to our home.  Meanwhile, the crooks on Wall Street who caused the recession are now making more money than they did before the bailout, and they want more tax breaks. Where is the bailout for the middle class?

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Children of the unemployed

CHILDREN OF THE UNEMPLOYED

Unemployment not only affects the individual who’s lost his or her job, but also that person’s family. Despite being home almost every day, I realized this week that I haven’t spent quality time with my 7-year-old son. Oh, sure, I go to his ball games and drive him to his summer camps, but don’t play with him like a child yearns for. Why? I always feel guilty if I’m not spending my weekdays plowing through the job boards & the social networking sites, or writing letters to potential clients. The pervasive feeling that I am not providing for my family rubs off in my behavior with my son and wife, and that negativity shows. My responses to my son’s questions are often too cryptic or caustic, because I get that nagging feeling that I’m wasting time if I play games with him. It’s as if I forgot how to have fun – forgot to let go of the financial and career pressures that are with me every day.

Yesterday was the first full day I’ve spent alone with my son in a long time. We started the morning with errands at the bank, hair salon and auto shop, but then ended up in the comic book store looking at Star Wars toys and baseball cards. Then we had a rare lunch outing at a Japanese restaurant before heading home. At home, I introduced the “Go Fish” card game to him and he took to it like a – well, like a fish to water. He loved the game. What he enjoyed more, though, was having his daddy’s undivided attention in play. We must have played five games before I convinced him to write some more in his summer diary if he wanted to practice hitting fly balls in the backyard. For the first time, he wanted to pitch to me, so I used our fence as the backstop. When the sun became too hot we returned inside to finish his book about the pitcher named Nelson in “Haunting at Home Plate,” a rare baseball mystery I’ve been reading to him for the past several nights. This time, we finished it.

My son doesn’t realize that daddy’s job is to find a job. In his mind, I write for the Internet, which isn’t far from the truth as I write cover letters, job applications, and business proposals that so far have yielded no income. The stress of job hunting and preparing and performing on job interviews the last year-and-a-half has meant my health and family have suffered. No more. This is the last week before school starts for my son. I will make it a week his dad gives him his undivided attention.

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