Develop The Habits Employers Want

Ever been in a job interview and been asked a question about a gap in your resume? They may have asked, “So what have you been doing since you last worked?”, or “What did you do to prepare for this interview?” All three of these questions give you the opportunity to demonstrate to the employer one key thing and that is what you’ve been doing – or not – when you’ve been in full control of the time you’ve had.

They are interested to see if you’ve taken some initiative, been proactive, made the most of this period, learned anything new, taken some training, upgraded your skills, addressed a weakness, improved your health, expanded your knowledge, etc. They are also checking to see if you’ve been complacent, dormant, passive, let your skills slide, removed yourself from the field you’re saying your interested in now. In short, have you been developing and keeping up your good habits or haven’t you?

Developing and maintaining good habits; the kind of actions and behaviours that employers desire the most, are not only a good idea, they could be the difference between getting a job or not. It’s one thing to say you’re invested in the work that you’ll be doing for a company and quite another to demonstrate that you’re invested.

Now suppose for example you’re out of work altogether and you are applying for an administrative position. You can foresee that some of the people you are going to be competing with are currently employed elsewhere in those positions which gives them a distinct advantage. You may not be employed, but you can still employ the skills that would be used on a daily basis by someone in that position. So for example you can practice your keyboarding skills, make a daily ‘to-do’ list, organize your personal or family paperwork. Buy some file folders and organize all the bills, receipts, various warranties for household items you own under categories like: Insurance, Autos, Mortgage, Vacation, Renovations, Taxes, Identification, Investments, etc.

If the above seems onerous, too challenging, beyond what you want to put energy into, then I’d suggest you might not be ready for the job you are actually saying you want to do. After all, if you can’t be bothered using these same skills for yourself, why should an employer feel you’re the right person to get things in order for them?

One thing you have 100% control over is your personal schedule. With no employer to record your attendance, check on your productivity, evaluate your adherence to a dress code, measure your attitude, do you or don’t you have the self-discipline to monitor yourself? You may disagree as is your prerogative, but getting up, showered and dressed on a set schedule even when you are not working is a key part of maintaining good personal behaviours that are consistent with what employers expect. Many people who go months without work and then get a job do not respond well when suddenly they get hired and have to be sitting at a desk at 8:30 a.m. dressed professionally, wide awake and ready to go at top speed.

Look into free or low-cost training opportunities in your community and then sign up to hone your skills, update your resume afterwards and keep your mind sharp. Small rather simple things like adhering to a 15 minute break in those workshops and training programs is what employers will demand you do when on the job. If you take your 15 minute break and come back only to then go about making your coffee you’re not demonstrating a respect for what the 15 minute break is for.

Another key thing to keep up is your personal communication skills; both written and verbal. You can’t do either if you sequester yourself away behind the curtains of your living room and cut yourself off from all contact. Talk with people, engage in conversations with store clerks, the paper boy, mail carriers, people you meet on walks around the neighbourhood, cashiers; all the people you meet. Your people skills need to stay sharp as does your comfort initiating conversations.

Like so many things in life, what you do with your time while you are between jobs really says a lot about you and your values. You are free to do what you wish with your time and are accountable in the end to only yourself. That’s a double-edged precious gift however. There are consequences – and don’t fool yourself into thinking there aren’t – both good and bad for whether that time is productive or wasted.

Most of the people I counsel who are out of work know they should be making good use of their time. They sound remorseful and want to rediscover that drive and personal motivation they had when they were working. They bank on igniting that energy and ‘turning it on’ when they get a job. However, many also find that when they do get hired, they lose those jobs quickly. They tell me that they couldn’t work as fast as the employer wanted them to, they just didn’t fit in, they were so exhausted after three days on the job they were late on the 4th day and were told not to return. In short, they hadn’t keep up good habits when unemployed and couldn’t work at the high level expected.

Good habits are something you control. Ignore developing good habits and you’ll develop bad ones by default.


Two Women With Differing Priorities

Yesterday I had two significant conversations with two different women; both unemployed, both looking for work, both going about it however with different strategies.

The first woman I spoke with and listened to, is a woman who attended a resume writing workshop a couple of weeks ago which I facilitated and then later worked with 1:1. She’s a single mom with a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager. On top of all the usual anxieties, the child is also dealing with the fallout from an abusive father which has caused some separation anxiety, and that’s translated into several calls to mom a day from school or from home when she’s there without mom for short periods.

The state of affairs has made it difficult for this woman to look for employment. Nonetheless, there she was in the drop-in resource centre yesterday, pulling up job postings she was qualified and interested in, writing cover letters and tweaking her resume for each job posting. She smiled the whole time she and I were together, and while her teeth could use some cleaning, that was the least of her worries at the moment, so I left that discussion for another time and took the smile as gifted to me.

Seems to me that before she can really look seriously at taking a job – any job – she’d have to first get some reliable support systems in place for her daughter in addition to the counselling she’s had. Without these supports, no employer is going to tolerate or allow the high frequency of personal phone calls she currently gets from her daughter to be assured everything is okay. To this she was receptive and agreed, and she took down in writing the few suggestions I gave her for help in her local community. By concentrating first on eliminating the need for constant phone contact from her daughter, she could then concentrate herself on finding employment. To do otherwise would be to take work and then be fired in short order for the interrupting phone calls taking her away from her job.  What struck me most about her were her positive attitude, gratefulness for help received and her words of thanks for the suggestions.

The 2nd woman I had a conversation with was actually over the phone. This individual had previously agreed to attend an intensive job finding group I run but didn’t attend stating she had the flu on day 1 and then on day 2 she said her 5 year relationship had just ended and she couldn’t attend. As I’m putting together another of these groups, I called her offering her a 2nd chance to participate in May. Everybody deserves a 2nd chance. When I called, some of the first words out of her mouth were that if the program I was running was in May, she couldn’t attend. Well that ended the offer, but I was curious to know what was going on in May that made attendance impossible.

This woman told me that she was taking some time in May to spend with some friends who were going to Europe for a year, and she was spending some time with her dad which she doesn’t get a lot of. Later she also mentioned a move sometime in May complicating things. I mentioned to her that I would remove her from the waiting list I keep as job searching wasn’t her top priority at the moment. I went on to tell her that she could possibly be re-referred in the future if and when looking for work became her prime focus; and then she told me she was offended by my comments.

Now I was taken by her words. Clearly she’s made a decision to focus on spending time with both her friends and her father; throw in relocating from one place to another and job searching is moving down on the list of her priorities. I pointed that out to her, and that she wasn’t being judged in any way by me, but the program I ran was for people who were 100% focused on getting work, and to include her at this time would be setting her up for failure. I honestly think she just didn’t like me putting it so clearly; she values friends and family at this time above finding employment.

I contrast these two women and the efforts they are taking to find work. The first woman is looking for a general labour position in a factory, has a grade 12 education but understands the value of work. The second is University educated and looking for a career in the legal profession. Would you have guessed this or would you have switched the education and job goals around?

Look, Life happens to everyone; priorities for some people remain fixed and for others priorities are fluid and change. Some put the emphasis on family and friends above all else, while some prioritize employment and financial independence.  It’s really all about the choices people make; and in both situations I neither judged their actions, nor insisted on a change in their behaviour or priorities.

The behaviour and words of both these women made very different impressions on me. Think on your own choices and the values you hold that guide those choices. The values you hold will determine which of these two you identify with and whether or not you take offence or not.

What’s Your Working Philosophy?

How you approach the relationship you have with the people you serve reveals your broader philosophy.  So how does the philosophy you’ve adopted fit with: the organization you work for, other team members and most importantly your target audience? Some employees never reflect on their own working philosophy, which is problematic when it comes to finding the right organizational fit.

When you can articulate a working philosophy, you’ll find it extremely beneficial. It governs how you view the people you serve in terms of whether you call them clients, customers, end-users, people or recipients and guides your decisions. You’ll also interact with these people from a consistent perspective when it comes to planning and delivering service. Do you for example include people you are designing services for in the planning process or do you plan without them in a silo?

Imagine yourself seated at a table designing some program which you’d like to roll out to your target population. You and those assembled want to design this program to respond to the needs of your target audience; it’s got to be attractive, the benefits real, affordable, easy to access, and be perceived as being of value. It also has to be cost-effective and make use of available resources. Now looking around, who else do you see seated around the table?

Most of us will visualize our teammates, perhaps someone in a Management role (which if you included as part of your team good for you!). Did you stop at this point or did you see one or more chairs occupied by the people who are representative of your target audience? If you didn’t see any of these people seated at the table, then your working philosophy is that you and your collective group know your audience well enough that you can plan for them in their absence. If you included them seated at the table in your visualization, then your working philosophy uses a partnership approach, where their voices are heard first-hand, and in addition to their input, they act as checks and balances right from the start.

So if not at this initial starting point, at what stage if any do you include the target population in the planning before the service or program is rolled out in its final form? Some people who work in organizations don’t actually include the client, customer, end-user – the people – in the process whatsoever. There is no partnership; there are no test groups, no sample audience. The program is rolled out seemingly with a, “we know what’s best for you” attitude. Guess right and the people flock to the service or program. Guess wrong, and the people stay away in droves, or the numbers don’t justify the service or program and you’re left wondering why these people seemingly don’t appreciate the value of what you are offering them.

Now imagine some chairs around the table are indeed occupied by the audience your service or program is going to target. So whether they are job seekers and you’re a team of Employment Counsellors and Workshop Facilitators, or they’re bank customers and you’re a team of Investment professionals, how would your conversations change with your target audience sitting right beside you?

One thing you might notice is that some of the assumptions you use as starting places would be challenged. You might take it as a given that your meeting to discuss this new service or program would start at 9:00 a.m. sharp. After all, that’s half an hour or a full hour after you and your fellow employees start your work day. Your target audience however, say a youth population of 17 – 24 year olds, would better attend the meeting if it were at 10:00 a.m.; their bodies work on different time clocks then older adults. So right off the bat, you just learned something and you haven’t even got to the table yet. Your initial assumption about an agreeable meeting time is flawed, so what other assumptions will you make that don’t respond to your target audience? Maybe your target population could also benefit from a working breakfast of bagels and jam?

The importance of having a personal working philosophy can also make your place on the team a harmonious or trying experience. Have different working philosophies from your peers and you might ponder, “Why don’t my team members invest themselves as much as I do?” vs. “I don’t do anything outside my job description” or “I’m the professional with 5 years’ experience so I know what’s best for them” vs. “I’ve never lived your unique experience so teach me.”

Getting into a team discussion about personal and team philosophy isn’t very sexy. Some will roll their eyes and you can observe them mentally disengage from conversations. They aren’t interested in what they may perceive as frivolous, obvious, or maybe they feel the objective is to force everyone on the team to conform to a single perspective. When you work with people on a daily basis, there can be great value in knowing and sharing your personal philosophies, based on what each person has experienced and learned and holds as valued. These insights can help each member understand others points of views, and how these align or are at odds with the organizations philosophy and delivery of service.

Working philosophies are not static either; they evolve over time as we interact with others.

So what’s your working philosophy?


Reassessing A First Impression

To look at him, he certainly didn’t make a positive first impression. He needed a haircut, needed to trim that attempt at a beard, and the clothes he had on didn’t fit properly, nor were they clean. The resume he asked me to look at and help him improve was even worse. Spelling errors, terrible grammar, irregular spacing – it was just plain awful.

However, I look back on my encounter with this young fellow and find I like him.

He had walked in with his girlfriend a little uncertain, approached me at the staff desk with hesitation, and as I said, asked if he could get some help making his resume better. Didn’t ask me to do it you understand, asked me to help him.  I give a lot of credit to people who recognize their weaknesses and seek out help. And make no mistake; I knew I could help long before he showed me the resume. I had the same feeling as the folks at home improvement stores must have when I approach the counter for help. It’s not that I look completely helpless, but I’m convinced they can tell I’m not a renovation expert just the same.

Now the thing about working in a drop-in Resource Centre is that when it’s your turn to work there, you deal with whatever and whoever walks in the door. Other times I might be conducting a workshop or working 1:1 with a client, but in the drop-in area, you can be run off your feet or continuously busy helping others – both sometimes on the same day too.

I could have told him the same thing a colleague apparently told him previously; that he should show up at our Resume Writing workshop on Fridays. In other words, leave now and come back Friday. Why would I do that though? Sorry if you disagree but I believe it is incumbent on me to help the guy standing right in front of me in the here and now. I had the time, so provide the help the guy was asking for – especially when it’s what I’m paid to do! Isn’t that putting the person’s needs front and center? What ‘lesson’ would I be teaching him otherwise?

So I looked at it and there wasn’t a single thing – not a single thing – that didn’t need changing. Multiple spelling errors, poor grammar, irregular spacing, varying fonts and dates and bullets didn’t line up correctly. The woman at his side complimented him well; they made a nice couple; she very quiet, paid complete attention to the changes and suggestions I made, held his hand and both of them slowly started to grasp some of the basics of putting together a stronger resume.

This is the single thing I liked about them above all else; they listened, they were focused, and they made a genuine effort to comprehend ideas that were new to them. I checked twice giving them the perfect opportunity to have me just do it instead of going through the long but educational process they were sitting through. Each time however, the fellow asked me to keep going, keep explaining the things I was doing, and he showed evidence of comprehending what was new to him and sometimes made comments that proved some new ideas were sticking. The more engaged they were in the process of learning; the more I wanted to give them.

You see the two of them had thought I’d just fix up the spelling and give them a generic resume which he could hand out to any employer. The idea of targeting the resume to meet the specific requirements of a specific job posting had never occurred to either of them. With every key word or job requirement found on the posting which I replicated on his resume, he saw how the overall impact was a stronger resume with a better chance of getting him an interview.

Only once were we interrupted while I provided help to another client. When I returned to the resume after a two minute absence, there they both were, talking about the resume, how I was creating it and how it made sense to them. When I sat down, he said, “Thanks a lot; I really appreciate your help.” He may not have a great education, he may have a learning disability for all I know and literacy issues, but the man has good manners. Turns out the fellow has his grade 12, 2 jobs in the past and 4 years’ as an Army Cadet. That time as an Army Cadet no doubt provided him with some discipline, some structure, some respect for authority and those qualities might just appeal to employers to bolster his chances.

Reserve final judgement when you interact or work with people; sometimes they can surprise you; impress you; if you give them the chance. As in my experience here, check your first impression of others as you interact and confirm or alter your original thoughts.

We should strive to be open, be willing to meet people where they are, speak with them using their words but most importantly listen. Hearing others is essential. One of the biggest frustrations people often express is not being heard, not being acknowledged, not being listened to.

The weaknesses we see in others should not inhibit our abilities to see strengths in the same people.

“Foreigners Are Taking All The Jobs!”

Okay be honest with yourself, especially because as you read that opening title, there isn’t anyone who has to know whether you agree with the statement or not. Just own up to your immediate position before you read on. Do you agree or disagree?

One thing I personally believe is that whenever someone makes such a broad all-encompassing statement, such as this one, they are usually exaggerating and if questioned, will scale down the target group they are speaking about to something more believable. But the problem as I see it, is that the original statement is now out there for everyone who heard it, and those that heard it will add this to what they know of the person who spoke it, as they shape their opinion of the person themselves.

If you heard this comment coming out of the mouth of a friend of yours who got laid off and then later found out that he had in fact been replaced by a migrant worker from another country, you might be inclined to temper your view of the person somewhat. This would be because you have additional information about your friend’s situation. However, someone else hearing the same person make that comment who doesn’t know them at all, might go to another extreme and brand them as a nationalist, a bigot, a racist or prejudiced.

And while such an all-encompassing statement is viewed by most as inappropriate, maybe sticking the person with such a label is in error too; maybe. Sometimes these statements are made out of frustration and bitterness; a one-time poor choice of words that someone regrets immediately and apologizes for. The person’s existing track record of behaviour and actions leads those who know the speaker to immediately forgive the speaker for the comment and everybody moves on. But this isn’t always the case.

Recently I have had the chance to spend some time with a person who has been out of work for an extended period of time. Currently in the practice of job searching intently, they are really focused in on gaining employment in the field they went to school for. In terms of their education and past experience they are well qualified for the job. However, despite numerous interviews, the job offers just haven’t materialized. Together, we’ve been working on determining where the person might improve their chances of gaining an offer.

So we’ve looked at the resume, the cover letter, had structured mock interviews, talked about following up applications and even following up on rejections. It’s been a real head-scratcher. And then, while just chatting together about something altogether different, she made a chance comment. She blamed an entire specific population for taking jobs in their line of work. My instincts kicked in and I said, “You don’t really believe that do you?” and she said, “I sure do!”, and she looked at me as if she felt betrayed because she assumed I would automatically agree – it was a given.

And the red flags I had been looking for suddenly became apparent. With a few more questions and answers, I found out that in a past job, several of the new hires the company had made where the person had worked had been from a single minority group. When laid off herself, she fell into an easy trap of assigning blame to the new hires, as if somehow they were personally responsible for her job loss and stealing her job.

Now continuing our discussion down a new path, it turns out that one of the people interviewing her recently appeared to also be from the same minority group. Turns out, as soon as she walked in the room where the interview was happening, her bitterness welled up and she felt like she had been punched in the face. She’s not really sure now if that resentment came out or she managed to conceal it from the panel, but she did say answering questions from that person was extremely difficult when she knew she should be looking them in the eye and smiling.

The discussion itself was profitable for her though. That chance comment made in an apparent break from the strain of examining the job search, and making a decision on my part to examine it deeper and find out what would be behind it, is one of the benefits of sitting down with someone trained in job searching and coaching. Had she been talking to a good friend for example, that friend may have simply agreed for the sake of the friendship. Getting the help from someone who is objective is often the best advice you can take, especially if that person has specific expertise in the area you are discussing.

In addition to identifying an issue, the second valuable thing that she profited by was coming up with strategies to overcome this apparent barrier. She did admit in the end that not EVERY job in her field was being taking by people from a single minority group. We scaled this white-washing of an entire race down to 3 jobs taken by 3 people who share similar skin colour. Turns out a few other jobs were awarded to people sharing her own.

Do your best to watch what you say, as your comments can brand you in ways you don’t want to be viewed, and you could be mislabeled. But more importantly, be careful what you think as your thoughts can direct your actions.

Are You Prejudiced?

Well are you? The Oxford English Dictionary defines being prejudiced as, “Affected or influenced by prejudice; (unfairly) biased beforehand.” It also defines prejudice itself as, ” Preconceived opinions not based on reason or actual experience; bias, partiality; (now) spec. unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism towards, or discrimination against, a race, sex, or other class of people.” So again I ask you, are you prejudiced?

If you are uncomfortable with this topic, even though you may be reading this in isolation apart from others, you may have already clicked the window closed. It can make people uncomfortable to ask this kind of question of themselves. So if for example, you had information that an applicant was actually a recipient of social services or welfare, would you give them a fair opportunity to compete for a position in your company? Would you grant them an interview if they were qualified on paper before this information came to your attention? If so, good for you. If not, aren’t you basing your decision based on your own preconceived opinions?

The clients that I deal with on a daily basis are recipients of Social Services here in the Oshawa area, which is just east of Toronto in Canada. Briefly, our system collects taxes from residents across our province of Ontario and distributes  some financial assistance to those in need. A single person right now would receive approximately $600.00 per month. Often clients present with a multitude of barriers to employment. For example, they may have any combination of  issues ranging from affordable housing, lower education, financial debt, literacy, poor resumes and interview skills, criminal records, health issues both mental and physical, transportation needs (due to income), addiction issues etc.

However, I also see clients who have MBA’s, secure housing, own vehicles, have strong work histories, good resumes, interview well, have clean criminal records, no addictions, good mental and physical health and no literacy issues. Sometimes a person may for example be in a relationship that they thought was secure only to have the spouse walk out and now they are left to pay the bills, get a job when they’ve been the homemaker for years etc. In other words, situations not of their own making.  However when competing for employment, would you yourself clear your own preconceived notions and make no assumptions about them based on your own experience and heresay in the media?

I hope this isn’t getting to preachy. I’m attempting in this blog today to just give you a thought to pause and reflect for a brief moment about. With all the barriers that clients on social assistance face, they also face the very real prejudice of others when it comes to securing housing, employment and being lumped in with the general populations view of this group of people. If 10 people were lined up against a wall and you had to pick out the three who were on social assistance, do you think you could do it? Guess what? They look pretty much like you and me.

Oh sure there are the stereotypical kind who have grooming and odour problems and stand out on the streets with sleeping bags and tin cups I grant you. However, there are also an extremely large number who dress professionally, have great attitudes, sincerely want to be productive and earn their own living and contribute to society. These people have the personal characteristics you may be looking for in your own organization. They have the skills and experience that meet the requirements in job postings. On top of everything else, their trying to remain positive and not get discouraged. If anything, they don’t want to get ‘used’ to being on social assistance and see this lifestyle as the new normal.

So if they are so invisible, how can you help out if you are in a hiring/interview position? There are a number of things you can do. You could contact a Job Developer or Employment Consultant with your local Social Services Agency and tell them what you are looking for. See if they can send you a couple of people to compete in an interview for a job. If someone discloses during an interview that they are receiving social assistance, be consciously aware of your own feelings and try not to let that sway you to ruling them out. Contact the Social Services Agency in your area and hold a job fair on their premises. Educate your own staff by perhaps sharing this blog or having some sensitivity training. A little empathy goes a long way. Imagine if your company partnered up with a Social Services Agency and loaned some staff to give a presentation on what employers are looking for. Wouldn’t that look good on you? !

So this is more than a bleeding heart trying to convert everyone into being better people. The point here is to recognize our own prejudices, and to remind ourselves that we should know better than to buy the images that the media feeds us. That image of some hobo on the street sleeping on a sewer grate is an extremely small slice of the segment of our population who is in need of a break. These are your neighbours, your extended family, your relatives, maybe even your co-workers. If you want to really kick-start someone’s financial independence, boost their self-worth, give a person hope at a time in their life when hope is all they are holding on to, it’s within your power to do so.

If you aren’t in a position to do the interview selection, the interviewing or the hiring, you can still play a part. When you hear talk from others putting down “those people on welfare”, say something. Let them know that their comments are offensive and show their prejudice. Reminding others that their just people too might give them time to reflect. And who knows, maybe when they go back to their cubicle, they’ll find a nice email from you with this blog as an attachment.

Thanks on behalf of this population for reading to the end; even that’s a start.