Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Your Job Search: Overcoming “Red Flags” in Your Background

Competing for jobs is a major challenge for most of us, but if you have “red flags” in your background your challenge is many times harder.

What’s a red flag?  A red flag is anything that screams to the hiring manager “Don’t hire me: I’m risky!”  Examples include criminal convictions, job hopping, gaps in employment and long-term unemployment.  Although red flags will complicate your job search, there’s good news:  You can minimize their negative impact by completing two essential steps.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of applicants during my career in the staffing and recruiting industry, and I’ve found that only a small percentage of “red flag jobseekers” position themselves as desirable candidates.  The vast majority do not.

What are the fundamental characteristics of jobseekers who escape their pasts and win jobs?  I have identified two:  (1) They have genuinely changed, and (2) They persuade hiring managers that they’ve changed, by delivering a compelling personal narrative.

Step One:  Change
Without authentic, fundamental change, the same patterns of failure that created your red flags will repeat in the future.  Unresolved addictions, uncontrolled temper, chronic tardiness — these will cost you your new job just as surely as they destroyed jobs in the past.  It’s only a matter of time.  When I stand before a classroom of ex-offenders, I often begin by saying “I’m not interested in teaching you to deceive a hiring manager.  Until you fix the underlying problem you’ll just blow it again, and cost everyone a lot of time and money.”

Sound harsh?  The truth will set you free.  My goal is to encourage unreformed red flag jobseekers to face reality, and set about re-launching their lives and careers on a new trajectory.  And they can.  As author Maria Robinson wrote “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

Starting out on a new trajectory may entail a 12-step program.  It may involve counseling, or workforce development training.  It may be accomplished through spiritual transformation.  While it’s rare, some individuals simply resolve “I will not live this way any longer” and apparently mature beyond the behaviors that crippled them in the past.

Of course, some candidates are saddled with red flags through no fault of their own.  Perhaps you were laid off from a highly-specialized job and find yourself among the ranks of the long-term unemployed.  The imperative to Change is not directed at you, but to the thousands who have earned their red flags by blowing it.

Step Two:  Tell Your Story
Congratulations!  You’ve genuinely changed.  You’ve escaped the old patterns of failure, and your life is on a new trajectory.  Now you can land that new job, right?  Predictably, it’s not that easy.
Genuine change is a “necessary, but not sufficient” step on your way to escaping a red flaggy-past and winning a job.  You must still master Step Two: Tell Your Story.  Why?  Because you’ll never win a job unless you can convince a hiring manager that you’re a good risk … despite those pesky red flags in your background.  You’ll do this by telling your story.  In order to develop a compelling personal narrative, it’s important to understand the hiring manager’s view of the world.  So let’s take a quick side trip into …

(a) The Hiring Manager’s Perspective
It’s the duty of hiring managers to reduce risk for their organization.  They accomplish this by hiring individuals who appear to be reliable.  How is reliability measured?  By a solid work history and the absence of red flags.  Whether they know it or not, nearly all hiring managers subscribe to what I call The Hiring Manager’s Axiom: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  If you’re tempted to say this approach is unfair, allow me to point something out:  You subscribe to the same philosophy.

It’s been said “We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.”  When faced with our own shortcomings we’re quick to rationalize (“I meant well”), but we almost never cut this same slack to our friends and neighbors.  We judge them by their actions.

You are what you do.  If you have red flags in your background, you must convince the hiring manager that, for you, the past is no longer a reliable predictor of your future.  This is no small task.  You’ll accomplish it by developing a …

(b) Compelling Personal Narrative
Salespeople sometimes refer to their “elevator pitch” — a short (30-second to 2 minute) summary of their product or service and its value proposition.  The name derives from the notion that one could present such a summary in the space of an elevator ride.

As a jobseeker, your product is you.  You must develop an elevator pitch to sell yourself to a hiring manager.  Here’s a challenge, though:  The elevator pitch won’t write itself.  You must invest time and effort to compose it, refine it, and practice it.  I’m continually astonished by jobseekers with red flags who can’t be bothered to develop a personal narrative, who then marvel that no one will hire them.  Apparently they feel it’s the duty of the hiring manager to read their mind.

Though we don’t have space in this blog to provide detailed instructions for the Compelling Personal Narrative, we’ll focus on one critical point for the red flag jobseeker:

Convince me that your life is on a new trajectory. 

Remember:  If you have red flags in your background, the primary goal of your personal narrative is to convince the hiring manager that your past is no longer a reliable predictor of your future.  To accomplish this, you should include the following three elements in your personal narrative:

a) acknowledge the patterns of failure that formerly prevailed in your life
b) describe the event or series of events that turned it around (your transformation point)
c) lay out your vision for the future, emphasizing your life’s new trajectory

By including these elements in your personal narrative, you’ll demonstrate self awareness.  Jobseekers with questionable backgrounds must demonstrate acute self-awareness to win jobs.  Why is that so important?  Consider this:  If an applicant appears oblivious to his own patterns of failure, then the hiring manager is left to conclude that those patterns will inevitably repeat in the future.  Nothing has changed.

Contrast that with a candidate who delivers a compelling personal narrative.  He acknowledges the mistakes of the past, celebrates an inspiring transformation, and presents an optimistic vision for the future.  That’s a candidate who inspires confidence.  If his story is sufficiently compelling, it may even awaken in the hiring manager a desire to assist in the transformation process by giving him a job.  Mission accomplished!

Example:  A Tale of Two Bobs
Here’s a hypothetical example.  Bobby and Robert are equally qualified candidates with similar occupational experience.  Unfortunately they have something else in common:  Around ten years ago they began racking up a series of criminal convictions that eventually led to drug-related felonies.  Both were released from prison six months ago after serving three years.

Now residing in a halfway house, Bobby and Robert are looking for work.  After applying at Acme Company — a company known to occasionally hire ex-offenders — they’ve been invited to interview.

It’s interview day.  Bobby shows up, shakes hands with the hiring manager (Mr. Smith) and takes a seat. Soon Mr. Smith notes “On your application, I see you have no jobs listed for the past three and a half years. Can you tell me what you were doing during that time?”  Bobby replies “I was in prison for drugs.”  He offers no further elaboration, avoids eye contact, and makes no other reference to his troubled past.  The interview continues, awkwardly, and when finally asked if he has anything else to add Bobby clumsily mutters something about being ready for work.  He leaves Acme feeling dejected.  He knows the interview didn’t go well.

Next up is Robert.  Again the hiring manager notes “On your application, I see you have no jobs listed for the last three and a half years.  Can you tell me what you were doing during that time?”  Robert is ready:

“Yes.  I served three years in prison for a drug-related offense.  As you’ll see when you check my record, my legal problems first began around ten years ago.  At that time I went through a painful divorce and began drinking heavily.  Eventually I got involved with other drugs, and my life was a train wreck.  When I was arrested and sent to prison it was the most painful and humiliating experience of my life.  But ironically enough, it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

In prison I resolved to turn my life around.  I attended every available drug treatment class.  It took time, but eventually I learned new ways of dealing with stress and disappointment and it was absolutely life-changing.

I know it’s your job to hire reliable people and my background makes me look risky.  But I promise you this:  I’m no longer the same person I was when I committed those offenses.  I’ve changed.  If you’ll give me the opportunity to prove myself, you’ll be rewarded with a dedicated and grateful employee.  I’ll work hard to earn your trust, and I’ll be here on time, every day.

Mr. Smith, I’d really appreciate it if you’ll give me that chance.”

In this hypothetical, it’s obvious why Robert stands a better chance of receiving an offer of employment.  First, by sharing a sincere, one-minute story Robert has humanized himself from “irresponsible criminal” to “person who made a series of bad decisions, and now has changed.”  Second, by connecting on a human level he has awakened Mr. Smith’s compassion and empathy.  Most of us love a come-from-behind story, and Mr. Smith has an opportunity to play a leading role in a real-life turnaround:  by helping Robert restart his life on a new trajectory, with a brand new job.

About the Author:

Kyle Horn is Founder & Director of the Iowa Job Honor Awards (www.JobHonor.org) and Business Development Manager for Manpower of Central Iowa.  His passion is to equip disadvantaged jobseekers with the tools required to win a second chance.  He also speaks to groups about the future of the Iowa workforce.

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