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Stuck in job-hunting limbo

Marjo Johne, Globe and Mail Update


Globe and Mail Update

After a brief phone meeting and an in-depth, two-hour job interview with the vice-president of business development, Ken Tanner felt optimistic about his chances of securing a position with a new but growing firm.

The next step, Mr. Tanner was told at the end of the interview, would be a meeting with the company’s president.

But a week went by without word from anyone at the company. Mr. Tanner sent the vice-president a follow-up e-mail, waited another week, then fired off another note.

“Again, no response,” Mr. Tanner recalls. “The situation went from me thinking things were progressing well to feeling frustrated because I didn’t know what was going on with this company.”

In other words, Mr. Tanner found himself in job-seeker’s limbo – that state of uncertainty caused by employers who take a long time to make a hiring decision or simply don’t bother to tell job applicants “thanks, but no thanks.”

It’s not unusual for job hunters to face a wall of silence from prospective employers in their quest for work, human resource experts say. In a survey by Personified, the consulting division of online job site, nearly 60 per cent of 250,000 job applicants said they never received a response from the companies they had recently approached for work.

But it’s one thing for employers to go silent after receiving a résumé from an unsuitable candidate, the experts say; it’s another when they keep candidates in the dark after bringing them in for one or more job interviews.

“As soon as you invite a candidate in for an interview, you’re starting a process which you need to manage responsibly and thoughtfully,” says Gerard Seijts, an associate professor and organizational behaviour expert at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont. “People invest so much of their time, energy and emotions during a job search. The least a company can do is let candidates know, in a timely manner, where they stand.”

Human resource experts say that this situation tends to happen more during tough economic times, when more people are unemployed and companies are tightening their belts.

“The incidence and length of breakdowns in communication go up during a recession because there’s less urgency to hire new people,” says Peter Jeewan, president and chief executive officer of the Lannick Group of Cos., a Toronto-based recruitment firm. “Employers drag their feet and want to explore their options.”

Even at the risk of losing a good job candidate? “Many employers feel that good candidates are likely to stick around during a recession because they’re not receiving multiple job offers,” he says. “Also, I think employers are more prepared to lose a good candidate during a recession because they believe the market is full of other good candidates.”

But companies that drag out the selection process and don’t communicate with job candidates can lose more than a talented worker, says Deepak Chopra, president of Toronto-based Pitney Bowes Canada, a subsidiary of Pitney Bowes Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

“The damage to your company’s brand can be enormous,” Mr. Chopra says. “Today’s job candidates are well informed and picky, and they’re judging prospective employers not just on how they’re performing as a business or how well they compensate their employees, but also on whether or not they treat people like human beings.”

Prof. Seijts agrees, adding that negative talk about companies tends to spread quickly, thanks to social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

“Companies need to think of the recruiting process as another part of their marketing strategy,” he says. “Job candidates who are treated with consideration and respect can become the best marketing champion for an organization, while you can be sure that candidates who are treated poorly will share their bad experience with people in their circle, and those people will spread the word.”

While delays in hiring decisions will happen, there are steps workers can take to steer clear of limbo, pros say.

As a starting point, Mr. Jeewan says, job seekers should find out as much as they can about a company’s hiring process. They can usually do this by asking, during the first interview, who else at the company is involved, how many follow-up interviews are typically required before the company makes a decision, what kind of background checks the company does and at what stage of the process they conduct these checks.

Job hunters working with a recruitment firm should also be able to get this information from their recruiter, Mr. Jeewan says.

As well, at the end of each interview, job seekers should ask the interviewer what the next step will be.

“Then ask for permission to follow up if you have not heard back from them in the anticipated time frame,” he says. “Some company representatives are open to this, others are not and you just have to deal with it as it comes.”

But applicants have to be careful not to sound too pushy or desperate when following up, Mr. Jeewan warns.

Mr. Tanner recommends a three-stage approach. First, he suggests sending a follow-up e-mail containing information about the job candidate not mentioned at the interview. “You might highlight the fact that you were the person in charge of developing this particular project, which you thought might be relevant to the role under discussion,” he says by way of example.

If this fails to coax a response, he advises waiting at least another week before trying again to make contact. For the second try, he suggests a message that shows you’ve been following the company’s progress, such as a congratulatory note about a recent product launch or a did-you-hear-about-this link to a story about one of the company’s customers or competitors. “Then you could close by saying ‘I’d like to discuss this further at our next meeting.’ It’s a good way to trigger a response,” he says.

And if it doesn’t?

Mr. Tanner says a third – and final – attempt at contact should ask pointedly where the job seeker stands in the selection process. If other offers are on the table, these should be mentioned. “Let the employer know that you have another opportunity of interest that is maturing quickly and which you need to make a decision on, but that you would really like to find out where you stand with them before making a commitment to another company,” he says.

While this approach has worked well with other companies, it failed to elicit a response from the firm that Mr. Tanner interviewed with more than five years ago.

Fortunately, he received offers from two other companies and accepted one. But even if the firm had come through with an offer after weeks of silence, Mr. Tanner says he would have had serious doubts about the wisdom of working for such a company.

“One begins to wonder if this is a corporate pattern of procrastination. I mean, is this the culture of the organization and am I going to constantly encounter delays and procrastination once I am aboard?” wonders Mr. Tanner, who now runs his own sales and marketing consulting firm, Vancouver-based Cariken Enterprises Inc., and provides career counselling as one of the founders of the Vancouver chapter of Happen, a national network that helps out-of-work executives.

One word of warning from Mr. Tanner: No matter how frustrated job candidates might feel about being ignored, they should never send an angry message to an unresponsive employer.

While those on the hunt need to assume some responsibility for keeping the lines of communication open, it’s the employer who must bear the greater burden of moving the hiring process forward and getting back to candidates in a timely fashion, experts say.

Pitney Bowes, for one, sends thank-you notes promptly to anyone who comes in for a job interview or attends the company’s career symposiums, Mr. Chopra says. For some positions, the company sets a goal of sending job offers within 48 hours of meeting a candidate, he says.

“We think there’s a war on talent, so you can’t take forever to give job offers,” Mr. Chopra warns. “Some companies may just say that people are a commodity and they’re too busy to follow-up, but treating people fairly and respectfully during the hiring process is a good best practice, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Special to The Globe and Mail


Learn the hiring process

During the first interview, ask questions to learn how the company does its hiring: who else is involved in the process, how many follow-up interviews are typically required, how quickly the company is looking to fill the position, and when and what kind of background checks it will carry out.

What’s next?

At the end of each interview, ask what the next step will be. Get permission to call or write the employer if you don’t hear back after a certain date.

Follow up

Follow up with messages that are likely to elicit a reply – such as providing additional information about yourself or congratulating the company about a new product or initiative (which also shows that you’re on top of it).

Ask point blank

If you continue to encounter silence, send a final message asking where you stand with the company. If you have other job offers, be sure to mention them.

Stay calm

Don’t sound too pushy or too desperate. And, no matter how frustrated you feel, don’t send an angry e-mail or leave a nasty voice mail – it could come back to haunt you.

Marjo Johne

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