Why banning the salary question misses a major point

November 16, 2017

In a remarkably progressive move, not without resistance from the business community, various jurisdictions in the USA are banning interviewers from asking candidates about their salary history.

Few jobseekers will lament this move.  It’s the no win question – either tell the truth and the advantage is with the employer when an offer is made, or risk being found out later for exaggerating when the tax information is passed on, for example.  While there are ways to sidestep the question it’s difficult to do so, and carries the other risk that an unwillingness to share will put the candidate at a disadvantage.

The reason for the ban is right and proper.

Women in the US earn approximately 80% of the salary of men for the equivalent job. By asking for salary history information this discrepancy is perpetuated. Now, it is suggested that by asking instead for salary expectations the problem will persist, and that may be partially true, at least until women gain the confidence to ask for the right amount, nevertheless this ban can only be a good move.

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This is the best image I could find when searching on the term “women’s relative salary”

Certainly, many women and men will be relieved not to have to answer the last / current salary question, although most people don’t know how best to deal with the question about salary expectations.

Why? Because they don’t know what number is most likely to secure them the job, and they therefore shoot low.  The mistake is to think that they are required to answer with a number. While the interviewer is almost certainly looking for a number,  if the candidate does not know what they can legitimately expect they can’t answer the question with a figure.

And here’s the thing.  The question is framed in such a way that it assumes the candidate knows how much they should be paid for a job, when they know very little about the role. They don’t know what demands and responsibilities it holds (the job description and person spec are unlikely to be sufficiently accurate sources of data to allow one make such a judgement) and crucially, they don’t know how much other people (read: men) at that level in the organisation are paid.

It’s an inappropriate question to ask a candidate because the employer knows what the correct pay level should be, and the reason they ask the question is because it might provide an opportunity to offer a lower salary than they need to, and all the better if that lower salary is still greater than the candidate quoted as their expectation.

In an ideal world there would be no discussion of salary at the interview stage.  If a person is deemed to be the best candidate they should be offered the job at a fair salary that takes into account the level of difficulty, targets, scarcity of skills and what other colleagues earn. It doesn’t work like that because there’s a zero-sum game that is played out in recruitment that sets up an antagonistic rather than collaborative relationship between employer and employee from the very start.

Of course it’s completely unacceptable that women are offered less than men for the same position, but what is missed is that employers want to play games that might lead to resentment from any employee when they could, if they were honest and fair, increase loyalty through their salary system.

 

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Actually they don’t care how hard you play

October 16, 2017

One of the (many) problems I have with the modern business world is all the cliches, platitudes and, frankly, meaningless banality that we are bombarded with, usually dreamt up by coaches like me.

One such that I was pondering recently is the label that some individuals and companies give themselves to indicate that they are serious.  They take their professional responsibilities seriously, and when they are not at work they let their hair down in an equally committed way.  They  boast that they are people who “work hard and play hard”. When companies describe themselves in this way they’re really telling us that they expect their employees to work hard, and that they are looking to recruit high energy, outgoing people. I don’t think they are particularly bothered about how hard their employees play.

Where in the work hard, play hard philosophy is the message that rest and relaxation are also important for a healthy, balanced life? Lunch is for wimps, and so, it seems, is sleep.

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Source: US National Archive and Records Administration

Recent research tells us that greater happiness can be achieved if people slept more.  The problem we face at the moment is not that we don’t “play” hard enough, it’s that we don’t sleep hard enough. Happiness is the point here because what people are quickly realising is that happiness is really what they seek above anything.

The research, commissioned by Sainsbury’s, came out a while ago and it received fairly widespread coverage so I won’t go over the details.  For those that are interested in reading more on it you can download their Living Well Index report here.

Another recent study appears to suggest that the risk of Alzheimer’s can be reduced if people slept more owing to a discovery that a lack of sleep increases the presence of a brain protein that is linked to the illness. More on that here.

To mark World Mental Health Day on October 11th the headteacher of a west London secondary school gave out alarm clocks to pupils, with a note to parents inviting them to take away connected devices at night in an effort to encourage the youngsters to go to sleep.  The excuse is often made by youngsters that they need their phone for the alarm function in the morning.  No doubt teenagers are resourceful enough to get around this idea, but the message is important, if symbolic.

Another problem with the work hard culture is that it discriminates in favour of those who have fewer commitments outside work, like family, and we all know what that boils down to; women, in particular, are held back in this way.

Instead of crowing about being a place where people work hard and play hard, I’d like to see more employers encouraging staff to work hard but not long hours, to ensure they eat a healthy diet, exercise, spend time with friends and family and critically, to get a good night’s sleep. They can start by ensuring that their senior managers set the right example by leaving at a reasonable time, encouraging their team members to do the same, and by making it clear that staying late is not impressive.

That way they will end up with a far more productive workforce than they would if they encouraged people to burn themselves out.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 2am and I need to watch a bit of telly.

 

 


The end of retirement

September 14, 2017

I read a book. Not just any book. I read a business book. I buy business books every now and again, and read them less frequently. I have a small pile of unread business books going back several years. The truth is I don’t much enjoy reading business books. I find they rarely have much to say that justifies the time it takes to go through them, for a slow reader like me at least.

However, for a reason that defies any logic given what I’ve just said, I recently joined a reading group for career consultants and the first book we agreed to discuss was The 100-year life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.

I’m pleased about that because I found it full of interesting ideas, some of which I have been considering myself for a while, which meant I felt simultaneously flattered that my thoughts rank alongside those of the authors of a Financial Times business book of the year shortlist maker, and frustrated that I didn’t write the thing first. It would possibly have been the first business book that justified the time it took me to read.

100YearLife

I won’t offer a review because there are many available.  Instead I’ll pick up on the overall theme of the book, because it encapsulates much of my thinking about careers as we look to the future.

The essential premise is that as we live longer people will no longer conform to the Education – Work – Retirement pattern for a number of reasons, primarily economic.  Instead people will transition between periods of different uses of their time.  They will dip in and out of education throughout their life, they will spend chunks of time across their life in a range of different careers, they will spend periods of time travelling, or raising a family, or focusing on charitable activities. These are not mutually exclusive.  More and more people will work part-time while volunteering or engaging in other personal pursuits.

The challenge for society will be how it adapts to this model. Apart from the obvious question about how pensions will be funded – a problem we are already struggling with – we also need to consider when state pensions will be available to a person if they are potentially going to be economically active for blocks of time with an undefined end point?

It seems obvious that people will need to save more when they are working in order to fund the time when they are not working, and the big implication here is that people will be working for many more years, overall, than they do now. We will, perhaps, be working well into our eighties, and this suggests the most profound shift – that society will be forced to re-think its current narrative that people are no longer of value to the economy after a certain age.

Retirement at an early age is, as the authors point out, a fairly modern concept. It turns out that it is probably a historical blip and that most people will work for as long as they have capacity to do so. In the past the amount of time that elapsed between retirement and death was just a few years at best. In the future we will probably have the same number of years between our last stint in employment and death.

 

 


Are Portfolio Careers Now the Safest Form of Employment?

January 3, 2017

I recently facilitated a panel discussion about work in the twenty-first century, with particular focus on portfolio careers.  Something one of panelists said stopped me in my tracks, ever so momentarily.  It stopped me because while I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the world of work and how it is changing, and while a lot of that thinking is about portfolio careers, freelancing and the diverse ways by which people make a living and relate to the “employer” (however that relationship is defined), the point that was made challenged the received wisdom that I have simply accepted throughout my years as a career coach.

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A portfolio career is about spreading the risk, not having all your eggs in one basket

The panellist, a person whose portfolio of activities comprises eight separate income streams, said that in his view a portfolio career is more secure than traditional employment.

And there am I trying to tell people that while it may not be secure, for many people the portfolio career is the best work pattern for reasons of lifestyle choice or pragmatic need.  I never really thought of portfolio careers as a smart move for the risk averse. When I work with people for whom a portfolio career seems sensible, it’s often because permanent (full or part time) employment prospect for people with their capabilities are rare. I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to someone that a portfolio career is the way to go for someone seeking financial security.

The reason is fairly obvious. When faced with starting out on your own or finding a job with a regular, known, salary from day one, the salary appears to be a safer proposition.

In the longer term, however, employment is precarious, and living in a world where redundancy can come with short notice, leaving a person without any income, is a reality of the twenty-first century.

So when my panellist pointed out that he no longer has any worry about finding himself without any income, because out of eight activities, even if some of them declined or went through a bad period, he’d still be earning from the others and would have time to fix or replace the failing ones, it made total sense.  Being self-employed is safer than employment.

Why does this notion turn our received wisdom on its head?  I suspect it’s about how society has viewed self-employment pretty much since the beginning of industrialisation. Working for a well-established, successful company was seen as secure employment.  Why has it been harder to get a mortgage or insurance as a self-employed person than as an employee? Because the actuaries have worked on the basis that a self-generated income is riskier than a pay cheque every month from a corporate entity.

That’s all changed now.  Employment is not a guarantee of security.  It’s just a guarantee of predictability for the duration of the employment. You know how much you’re going to earn, but you don’t know how long you’re going to earn it for.  On the other hand, self-employment means that you know you will always be working (as long as you choose to) you just don’t know exactly how much you will be earning.

Building a portfolio that manages the overall income stream is where the art of the portfolio careerist comes in.  My panellist could quite possibly develop one or more of his current activities into a successful business, taking up all of his time if he wanted it to, but he has decided that to put all his eggs in one basket in this way would diminish the security that his portfolio provides.

In other words, this portfolio career is specifically designed to offer a level of job security that he couldn’t achieve if he were employed by a large company.

 


Portfolio Careers, Portfolio Careers and Serial Careerists

October 5, 2016

The term “portfolio career” is bandied about a fair bit, however, many are confused because it has two different meanings. The terms are fairly new in the employment vocabulary, and their increased use is a consequence of the changes in the workplace and employment relationships that have developed over the forty years or so.

Up until the mid to late 1970s a person would enter the world of work and, if they wanted it, could reasonably expect long-term job security.  There were many employers, commercial and not-for profit, for whom, unless you committed some sackable offence, you could work your entire working life and retire at the end with a handshake and a gold watch.

A strong, stable economy in which non-western competition was not much of a threat, and the slow pace of change meant that reasonably well-run, decently resourced organisations were fairly invulnerable.  Globalisation and technology have changed all that.

Nowadays stable employment is far from guaranteed.  The concept of the job for life no longer exists in any sphere as all organisations are constantly looking to stay relevant and competitive. In an economy where human resources are almost always the most expensive cost on the balance sheet, and the easiest to adjust, the employee – employer relationship has changed from one of almost paternalist responsibility on the part of the employer, to that of a simple business transaction. The employer buys the services of the employee for as long as those services are required.

The most common use of the term “portfolio career” refers to a collection of part-time jobs a person may do at any one time. That might include jobs in which a person is formally employed, jobs for which they work as a contractor, activities for which they operate on a self-employed basis or voluntary positions. Since a person’s skills may be of some use to an employer for part of the time, and since employers no longer see a need to “own” the skills required to deliver its products or services, those skills are hired for just the number of hours a week they are needed. The human resource has been outsourced just like many other components of the business operation have been. Employers can no longer afford to have their staff working at anything other than optimum efficiency, and they carefully monitor their use of that particular asset to ensure they are achieving best value from it.

thinking

All you need for a successful portfolio career is to be able to remember where you’re supposed to be on any given day.

A second, less frequently used application of the term refers to the notion that a career is the process of gathering skills, knowledge and experience over time, and that we go through our working life offering employers this “portfolio” of skills which we are constantly updating and adding to. This concept of a portfolio career acknowledges an important aspect of the world of work today – that we as individuals are responsible for our career development, and to succeed we must always be looking out for opportunities that will keep our skills relevant and marketable. Over the years I have had several clients who have found themselves at a point where their capabilities have become obsolete, and this has made it very difficult for them to find work. Like an artist’s portfolio, it must be up to date and relevant.

Another terms is “serial careerist”.  I came up with this term some years ago to describe myself. I can’t say for sure that I invented the term – there are ample uses of it on the internet and I doubt they all got it from me, but I like to think I got there first.

A serial careerist is someone who changes career, not just their job, their entire career, every few years. There have always been serial careerists but the conditions outlined above have made it an imperative for some, as whole careers disappear in very short periods of time.  Just look at how the music industry has changed in recent years.

A further factor here is societal change. We may not have quite become hedonists, but young people are perhaps more thoughtful about how they use their time.  Working at something they don’t enjoy is less acceptable that it might have been for previous generations. Boredom thresholds are lower than they were, possibly as a result of today’s fast paced, tweet dominated world.  Change and moving on are how we live now.

These are the conditions into which my children are now entering the workplace and I am observing it with a sense of excitement and trepidation.  Their careers look like they might be much more interesting than ours, but it also seems it will be much harder for them to progress vertically in a world where careers are horizontal processes. How this will impact on their ability to maintain the standard of living they grew up with remains to be seen.


Five Lessons from Leicester 

May 3, 2016

Unless you are from another galaxy, or America, it’s unlikely that the David and Goliath story that is this season’s English Premier League has passed you by.

As such, I feel it is my duty to attempt what pretty much every other business commentator will be doing; make profound connections between sporting and business success.  I just hope you read mine before you are fed up with everyone else’s.

footballers

Obligatory picture of Leicester City football players teaching business a spurious lesson about something or other.

1 Take the team for a pizza for the slightest reason

Pundits have snorted at manager Claudio Ranieri’s motivational tool of taking his players out for a pizza when they finished a game without conceding a goal. How could such a pathetic reward motivate high earning sportsmen?

It’s not about the reward, it’s about celebrating small successes together, and importantly, spending time outside of the workplace getting to know each other. Seeing each other in a different way, learning to be around each other, learning to care for each other. That’s team-building.

2 Know your job and keep it simple

Leicester City are not a team made up of high flyers by top professional footballing standards. They are competent individuals at their level, no more. What’s important is that each of them knows his job, believes in his ability to do it well, understands how his role contributes to the whole, and gets on with what he is supposed to do.

At the point of winning the title Leicester City had the fourth best disciplinary record in the division. Maintaining discipline translates to maintaining individual focus in the world of work, not resisting the urge to gouge your competitors’ eyes out. When an employee maintains focus on their task they make fewer mistakes.

3 Minimise mistakes

If you can get your team members to do their job well, mistakes are minimised. A high number of mistakes leads failure, and no matter how talented your team is on the attack – innovating, selling, marketing – if you can’t get the basics of the operation right you’ll lose customers (or let in goals) faster than you can gain (score) them, and as everyone knows, customer acquisition costs about five times as much as customer retention. Leicester have conceded fewer goals than all but two teams in the division.

4 Minimise staff turnover

Leicester City have used fewer players than any other team during the Premiership campaign. Every time someone leaves or joins it causes disruption. Disruption means performance is compromised. Staff retention is absolutely crucial to the success of any team.

5 Don’t work too hard

Actually I have no idea whether Leicester’s training schedule was more or less arduous than that of other teams. I’m just chucking this in here because I want to.

Training too hard increases the chances of injury. In terms of business, working too hard reduces motivation and life balance. Being healthy is critical to performing well at work. Strings of late nights in the office are not good for the individual, the business or the customers. Balancing work with other activities; physical, social and intellectual, is good for business.

 

So, if you adopt some of these ideas for your team, who knows, maybe next year they will win all sorts of awards for their performance?

And then the following year they’ll probably be struggling to avoid relegation again.

 

 

 


Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.