Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Here's A Great Idea: Candidates Getting A Reference On An Employer

I heard a wonderful story recently.  A CEO from a small agency was hiring a department head and potential partner.  He had, of course, obtained references on this candidate. When the job was offered to the person, the candidate did a reverse before accepting – he asked the CEO for five references.  He wanted to check out what he was really like to work with and for.

At first this CEO was taken aback.  Then he thought about it and said, “Why not?”  In fact, he came to love the idea.

So do I.  After all, as they say, "turnabout is fair play."

In all my years of recruiting, I had never thought of this or heard of it.  But the more I think about it, the more I like it.  Why shouldn’t an employee ask for references from a future employer? After all, as an employee, it is your life.

Now, I know that most people check out the company they are going to work for by asking friends and friends of friends. But do they really check out the person they will be working for?  An employee has every right to know what working for or with someone is like before starting work.

Finding out what the people and company are about should be a matter of course.  Potentially, you need to know whether they are fair, whether they are fun to be with, whether they will stand behind you, whether they will mentor you.  And most of all, you need to know if you will like them. 

I wouldn’t expect junior people to ask for references, but I love the idea of senior executives doing it.  And why not?  Not only does it communicate strength, it also communicates self-confidence.  I am sure that some hiring managers might be surprised and even offended if a candidate asks them for references, but they should react exactly as the CEO I mentioned above did.  (And if they react negatively, do you really want to work for them?)

What a great idea.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nobody Likes To Hear Bad News - Even When It Is Expected

I recently found myself on the receiving end of a tirade from a candidate whom I had given bad news.

 Yelling On Phone

He is someone I have known for many years. He was once one of the highest paid superstars in his specialty.  But now he has actually been out of the business for more than ten years and is well over sixty years old.  I told him that it would be difficult to place him.

Telling him the truth was a conscious decision on my part since I know him well.  I wanted to be honest about his chances for a placement.  And as soon as he started his harangue, I knew I had made an error in judgment.  I could have simply said “yes, I will try” and then done nothing.  But I wanted to be candid and tell him  the issues.  And now he is angry with me for telling him what I know darn well he already knew.

Please don’t shoot the messenger.

In his case it is not a matter of age.  I honestly believe that given his stellar track record, I could have ultimately found something for him.  However, the issue was that he had been out of the business for more than a decade.  During the past ten years there have been so many changes in advertising and communications that I know he will have trouble getting back - everyone who is out that long, no matter what their age, has trouble getting an advertising job.  I did tell him to network because the chances are that someone he knows will hire him; possibly even someone from advertising.

Ad agencies (and I presume other companies) like to see senior executives who have shown a consistent commitment to their business. After all, why should they hire someone who left the business when they can find someone for the same money who has remained committed and never left?

But he didn’t want to hear that from me.  He wanted me to tell him that I could easily place him and was furious when I spoke the truth.  I also know that he does not have a "Plan B".

After all these years, I should know better.  But I don’t like to create false expectations.  Being yelled at is sometimes the price of honesty.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What An Offer Letter Is and Is Not

There are many misconceptions about offer letters.  However, before you read this post, please be aware that this is not intended to be legal advice. However, I want my readers and candidates to know what an offer letter is and is not.

Up until about 15 years ago, some of my candidates got offer letters, some did not.  It made no difference.  Today, it is a matter of course.  In fact, most of my candidates will not resign from their existing company until they receive an offer letter.  They are correct to wait for the letter.  However, even if they have one and it has been signed by both parties, it is not a contract of employment.  An offer letter merely spells out a company’s intention to hire, but it is not a guaranty of employment and it is not a contract.  

Offer letters are always for the protection of the hiring company, not the employee.

However, a proper offer letter should contain a number of items.  Among them:
-       Start date
-       Salary
-       Reporting structure
-       Duties and responsibilities
-       Eligibility for and timing of commencement of benefits
-   Other job perks
-       Bonus eligibility and details
-       Anything else discussed upon which the offer acceptance is based

According to Rick Kurnit, partner of the law firm, Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, one of advertising’s foremost legal experts, an offer letter becomes a contract only if it spells out severance.  If one resigns based on reliance on the letter, the hiring company might be responsible for reasonable loses based on that reliance – for instance, if a candidate agrees to move, hires a moving company and pays a non-refundable deposit, it is possible that the hiring company might be responsible for that cost even if the offer is withdrawn. In my experience, when things like this happen, most companies are pretty reasonable.

In my non-legal opinion, if a person resigns based on reliance of the offer letter and the offer is rescinded and the previous employer refuses to re-hire the departing employee, there could be recoverable damages.  

Because most offer letters state that employees are “at will” (meaning that they can be terminated any time and for any reason) and do not contain severance, they really offer the new employee no commitment, even during the period between the time an offer is extended and the time a person starts work.  (If there is a severance agreement as part of the offer letter, during the notice period between, the offer letter might possibly be a valid contract and, I suspect, the offer letter would only protect the new hire to the extent of the severance.  One must consult an attorney to determine if that is so.).  The Catch 22 is that a, few companies give severance except to their most senior employees and sometimes not even then but, you might have to sue to recover the severance.

The bigger issue then becomes that you may have to sue the hiring company and undoubtedly they have bigger resources than you do; especially the holding companies.  And the truth is, they know it. 
I have previously written about contracts. I cannot stress this enough: if, during interviewing and negotiating, there are agreements and understandings (e.g. salary reviews, promised raises, bonuses, promotions, anticipated career paths, etc.) and those agreements are not in the offer letter, they do not exist and are not part of the hiring agreement. I have candidates tell me tales of woe all the time, especially when a hiring manager leaves and no one has been told about agreements made prior to hiring.  

As an aside, I find most offer letters cold and filled with legalese.   Sometimes offer letters are formulaic and look as if written by a patent attorney.  They are unnecessarily harsh documents.  There is no reason why an offer letter cannot be welcoming, warm and exciting while and still containing all the necessary language. (If any of my readers would like to see samples of great offer letters, I would be happy to share them.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Role Of Passion In Success

I have been studying the advertising business for practically my whole life trying to figure out what makes successful agencies and companies.  I have finally come up with an answer.   


Passion is the will to succeed.  The belief in what you do.  And the determination to do it. 

Thumbs Up

If you look at the really successful ad agencies over the past couple of decades, what distinguishes them more than anything else, is their passion for what they do.  Passion pervades their corporate culture.  Take a look at Deutsch,  Crispin, Wieden & Kennedy, BBDO, Kirshenbaum, McGary Bowen, Goodby, Kaplan Thaler and a dozen other highly successful ad agencies.  Passion is an inherent part of their culture.   They are excited about their work, believe in what they do and hire people who exude enthusiasm.

It isn’t about their positioning in the marketplace.  (Agencies spend too much time trying to come up with unique positions, but if you talk to the search consultants as I have, they all say that there is very little uniqueness out there.)  Passionate agencies believe in themselves.  And this belief pervades everything they do.  They are exciting places to work.  And this excitement is evident in their new business presentations and shows among the agency's people in the room while presenting.  Passion communicates more about the work than the agency's positioning or the words that agencies say during presentations.

Passion means that the people working in those agencies genuinely believe in what they are doing and communicate that belief to their clients and prospects. Everyone is marching in the same direction.  Passion cannot be legislated; it cannot be created by free soda or casual Fridays. It comes from the management and is inherent in the culture. It is shared right down to the lowest level employee. Everyone believes.

One comment made to me about one of the agencies I mentioned is that a large number of their former employees end up returning.  They come back not for money (although that is sometimes part of the equation),  but rather, they come back for enjoyment of their jobs. Those people tend to be the biggest advocates of their culture.

I have often written about not hiring a résumé.  Recently, I came across an article in Fast Company about hiring passionate people.  I am sharing the link. It should be mandatory reading for every hiring manager, human resource person and ad agency owner.  Passion outweighs credentials. Passion overrides hiring executives with category experience (the bane of my existence). Passion compensates for weak work.  

There is a story I would like to share about legendary ad man, George Lois I don't know if it is true, but it is illustrative of my point about passion..  George was presenting to a client and when the client expressed doubt about the advertising, he went to the window of his office, opened it, and started climbing out to the ledge.  He told the client he would stand out there until they bought the work.  The client bought the campaign because he believed that if the George Lois was so sure about the work, it must be good.  True? It almost doesn't matter.

The point is that passion sells.
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