Why it’s Easier to Get a Job When You Already Have a Job – And Why It Isn’t

posted by Waffles

Ralph Libsohn, Business Consultant, Senior Career Consultant

You’ve heard it said hundreds of times. “It’s easy to get a job if you already have one.” It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book, right up there with “it’s easy to get a loan when you don’t need one” and “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” And like many clichés, it just might be true. But why is it easier to get a job if you have one? Here are five good reasons:

  • No Pesky Questions to Answer: It’s a lot easier to explain why you want a better job than why you were fired from your last one.
  • Friends Will Talk to You: They say that a friend in need is a friend to avoid. If you are employed, you don’t seem needy. Nobody will avoid you. You may even be sought out by friends who are unemployed, allowing you to avoid them.
  • In the Loop: When you are employed, you speak to suppliers, vendors, customers, clients, perhaps even competitors all the time. Those are the people who are most likely to hire you, or at least to point the way to your next job. Being “plugged in” is clearly an advantage over having your plug pulled.
  • Self-Confidence: You have a paycheck coming in, the mortgage is being paid on time, and you’re not indebted to guys named “Lefty Guns” or “Benny the Blade.” You strut into meetings and interviews with the solemn dignity of a person having a bank account and nothing to prove.
  • Employer Confidence: Somebody thought enough of you to hire you and keep you. This leads potential employers to think enough of you to hire you, too. These are the five operating advantages that the employed have over the unemployed. Fortunately, there are ways for the unemployed to overcome these operating advantages and to level, or even tilt, the playing field. The purpose of this article is to explore some of those ways.

Problem One: Answering the Tough Question “Why Are You Unemployed?” In the course of a lifetime, almost everybody will lose a job, or two, or more. In the modern economic universe, companies come and go. One could compile a lengthy list of companies that once dominated their industries, only to be gobbled up or crushed by their competition. Some recent examples include hundreds of mortgage companies, numerous major retailers and certain former Masters of the Internet Universe. No company or industry is immune.

Even when companies remain, jobs come and go. Entire business units are closed or the work “outsourced” to Asia, Central America or anywhere where costs are lower and workers are satisfied with earning a salary measured in grains of rice. Keeping that in mind, it is more likely than not that the person who is posing the question to you once had to answer it for herself. The perfect answer, then, is one that realigns the interests of the parties.

There is only one constraint that you must recognize when you craft your answer: you must not lie. Unless you are a sociopath, you won’t lie well. And unless the questioner is an idiot and has never heard of checking references, you won’t get away with the lie despite your best sociopathic talents. So, tell the truth, but present the truth in its best light.

The following case is illustrative. The story is completely true, but the names have been changed in the interests of confidentiality.

John was an executive in a major company for fifteen years. A little more than a year after the company merged, John’s employment was terminated. This left John in a peculiar bind. Had he been terminated along with the rest of the senior executives, his story would have been an easy one, namely “my company was acquired in a hostile takeover and all the senior executives were terminated.” Because he stayed on for a year after the merger, the easy answer was not available to him. Moreover, he was now wide open to two other, even more deadly questions, namely “why did you stay when all your friends were sent packing?” and “you had a year to prove yourself; why did they terminate you then?” The first question is directed to determining loyalty, the second, competency. Either question would put John on the defensive, even if he answered them well. We knew that we needed to craft a compelling, entirely truthful rationale for his termination that would crush any follow-up questions by realigning the interests of John and the questioners. This was John’s story:

“My company was acquired in a hostile takeover and all the senior executives were terminated.” This sets the stage by establishing criteria. “I was surprised that I was not immediately fired along with the others, since my loyalty to the management group was well known.” This underscores John’s loyalty to his management group. He wasn’t merely loyal; his loyalty was “well known.” “The acquiring group asked me to stay on for the transition.” His employment with the new team was always intended to be temporary. “I thought about declining, because of my loyalty to the people from the old management group. In the end, however, I decided that my greatest loyalty was to the company and its owners, not to any one particular person or group.” John is a true team player. What a guy! “Naturally, I was disappointed when I wasn’t offer permanent employment with the new group . . . .” Who wouldn’t be? “. . . but I completely understood that they wanted their own person in the position.” Now we are at the crux of the matter. “But I certainly have no hard feelings. I enjoyed working with the new team and wish them nothing but the greatest success in the future.”

John isn’t moping or harboring any grudges. Despite a career setback, John is a winner, not a whiner. He exudes positive energy.

John told his story at an initial interview in front of six executives. Every head at the table nodded in profound agreement. John was never again asked one single question about his separation.

In his case, a hard question gave John the opportunity to score huge points. While there were other interviews with the company’s executives before John’s coronation, in truth the job became John’s to lose from the very first interview. When the interviewers’ heads started to nod in agreement, John had succeeded in realigning the parties’ interests. They were now on his side. Perhaps they or people close to them had been caught up in the same corporate gamesmanship in the past, or they recognized that what happened to John might happen to them or theirs in the future. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that John scored well on every other interview and got the job, at a higher level of compensation than he had previously earned.

Embrace the hard question. Formulate a killer response. Dominate the interview.

Problem Two: How Do You Talk to Your “Friends” Friends, like Baskin-Robbins, come in several flavors. There are personal friends, business friends and business allies who you’ve never socialized with but who know and respect your work. Well, that’s not as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins, but you get the point.

It might seem natural to ask a friend of any stripe “do you have a job for me or do you know someone who does?” However, it is absolutely the worst question to ask. There are two reasons why you cannot, should not, must not ask that question. First, if the answer is “no,” both you and your friends will feel bad. They will feel put-upon, or disappointed. Is that really the way you want your friends to feel? If it is, you probably won’t have many friends left.

Second, you don’t have to ask. Once your friends know that you are “exploring career options,” won’t they volunteer the information you are seeking? If they don’t, then either they don’t know, or you should reassess the friendship. Instead of asking a question that is likely to go nowhere, ask questions that are calculated to gather useful information. Good questions include: “What are the problems facing your industry (never “your company”)? What skills are in demand? Where can I find more information? Who else should I be talking to for good advice? What is your take on the economic situation in your industry? What companies in your industry are hiring? Can you review my resume and let me know what changes you think I should make? You can easily think of many more. These are questions that respect your friend’s intelligence and that elicit information that you may find pivotal in your job search. If you ask enough smart people enough good questions, you will find that you have an operating advantage over people who are currently employed. You will know things that they don’t, and I can prove it.

Were you asking these questions when you were employed? No? I rest my case.

Problem Three: I’m Out of the Loop Being in the loop is easy when you are employed. It’s all around you, like “The Matrix” in that movie.

If the plug has been pulled and you have been disengaged from The Matrix, you will need to create your own. Begin with your “friends” (as previously defined), and ask the right questions. Network like crazy. Make new friends. In short order, you may assemble a more productive network than you had when you were supposedly “plugged in.” The information that you obtain from your new network may introduce you to opportunities unknown to your old, incestuous network with many redundant ties all regurgitating the same stories. Ron Burt, an important sociologist and analyst of social networking structures, put it succinctly. “Often people are like sheep eating grass. They’re so focused on what’s right in front of them, they don’t look for the whole.” Unless you started out as an ace networker, The Matrix was never all that valuable to you. So, it’s important to go outside The Matrix, even when you’re in it.

Even teenagers know this. They hang out with their own little Matrix of social groups and cliques, but then they log on to MySpace or Face Book to improve and expand their contacts and irritate their parents. When the time comes to network for business purposes, those kids will be far ahead of the curve, and far ahead of their disapproving parents, too. Unfortunately, a lot of adults haven’t caught on yet to the immutable fact that opportunities increase exponentially as the size of a network increases. They stay within their little group and never venture forth until they are motivated by dire need.

If you remain unpersuaded, let’s review yet another cliché. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” There’s more than a little truth to it. Certainly, if you’re a dimwit and your name isn’t Paris Hilton, you are unlikely to succeed no matter who you know. But if you are a strong and effective executive and nobody knows it, or knows you, then your future is equally grim. Let this be your new cliché: Network to get work. Now that’s a cliché we can all believe in.

Problem Four: My Confidence is Shot Either you have self-confidence or you don’t. Why don’t you? Nothing undermines self-confidence more than the feeling that events are out of your control. When you sit home and wait for things to happen, you are giving up control, creating a scenario where anxiety and depression will erode your self-confidence into nothingness. However, if you’re losing or have lost your self-confidence, you can rebuild your self-confidence rapidly by following one single never-fail technique.

The single most important thing that you can do for your self-confidence is to have a smart, practical and effective action plan and to implement it for all you’re worth. By putting a well thought out plan into motion, by throwing yourself into it, you take back control. As you gain control, your confidence will grow and your stress will begin to melt away. It’s your career – take charge of it!

Once you have a plan, do the little things that augment it, building confidence upon confidence. When you have business or personal meetings, dress for success. Wear your best attire commensurate with the occasion, be well-coiffed and polish everything to a high luster. If you see anything in the mirror that undermines your confidence, fix it now so you won’t be thinking about it later. You will feel sharp if you look sharp and you know that you look sharp.

Speak up! Enunciate clearly, make your point, and then allow others to make theirs. Listen intently, even if you are bored to tears or you think the speaker is a total nitwit. When you listen, really listen, you may learn something important. And even if you don’t, people will think highly of you because you paid attention. Be cognizant of your body language, starting with posture. Stand tall. Don’t shrink away into a corner like the school dunce. Make eye contact and show those pearly whites. Don’t tiptoe around like you’re trying to avoid stepping on landmines. Stride purposefully; walk into a room like you own it.

If you carry yourself with pride and exude power, people will respond affirmatively. If you conduct yourself like a loser, people will agree with you.

Problem Five: How Can I Build Employer Confidence? See the answers to Problems One through Four. Have a story, talk to your friends, expand your network, develop and implement a strong action plan, and this final issue will take care of itself.

Barrett Group