The Great Job Hunt

Last September, I got laid off from my job.  I’m in retail management, so this seemed like a great time to indulge everybody’s favorite retail fantasy, “Taking The Holidays Off”.  Actually, that might be the second favorite retail fantasy, right behind, “Getting Out Of Retail”.

Now that Easter has come and gone, I realize that maybe I should have been more specific about which holiday I had intended to take off…

The length of time I have invested in my job search guarantees that I have – not surprisingly – collected a few stories and complaints about the process of job hunting during this six month hiatus.  Process, yeah, right.  It’s more of a living, breathing demonstration of ineptitude and social awkwardness that I am hoping I never have to repeat.  God, it’s a toss up between job hunting and dating as to which is worse.

What’s so bad about looking for a job, right?  Pretty straightforward on paper.  Back in my day, we’d just get a paper and circle the ads that were interesting to us or drop into a particular employer’s office for a meet and greet.  “Pounding the pavement” isn’t something I’m nostalgic for, we live in a modern, pre-apocalyptic, technology-based world and I love the conveniences it yields.  I can do other things versus kill an entire day hoofing around town shaking hands and selling myself.  Plus, it’s the PNW, if I was pounding the pavement, I can guarantee you that this February and March would have been more of a traditional winter for us versus the Spring idyll that we experienced.  You’re welcome.

The deal with the old way of searching for a job was that you got face-time or phone time with an employer, the disadvantage was that your drop-in was, basically, saying “Drop what you’re doing, Bozo, I’m more important than whatever that was”.  I love the way that electronic communications – email, text – allow us to respond in a timely manner when it’s convenient versus the phone call or pop-in that demands immediate attention.  Now, if that timely reply actually happened, I’d have one less thing to moan about.  What’s the deal with people in a professional setting failing at returning communication?  Grab a shovel and I’ll do what I can to lower the bar of minimum expectations…but, I find that no matter how right I am, the universe rarely bends to my will, so no promises.

In today’s world of employment, there is a definite need for intelligent resources to help manage the onslaught of applicants for open positions.  There are programs available to do just this and most employers have either bought one or created their own version.  The programs help manage incoming application flow so you can organize who you want to talk to based on their resume and who doesn’t make the cut.  There are communication tools built in to help communicate back to applicants so that they know their standing in the process.  Personally, I like the templates that are provided by some of these programs that allow you to tailor a letter to reflect your company’s culture, whether it’s an interview request, job offer or a rejection letter.

I have used these systems extensively over the last 10+ years or so.  They are maddeningly clunky, but way better than the alternative of having to manually communicate with all of the applicants.

Why communicate at all if the applicants aren’t moving forward in the process?  Well, from a strictly capitalist based retail perspective, I want to hire my customers, basically.  People who love the product and environment of the store or company for whom they are applying to work.  I don’t want to piss these people off, they won’t shop with me anymore if they feel rejected or disrespected.  After all, this is still America, land of the entitled.  So, this behavior of mine – and it’s been an expectation at past employers – colors my expectations of my future employers and their behaviors around hiring.

Speaking of employer’s expectations, one pretty low-bar expectation is generally not to get your employer sued.  Applicant Trackers allow you to collect data about your applicants for EEOE purposes as well as have a record of communication between applicants and the company.  Very useful for establishing proof of behaviors when your fairness and consistency are called into question by a disgruntled applicant.

That’s a snapshot of what I expected my job search to be.  Lots of computer based applications using sites like Indeed to source available jobs and research about companies to see who I wanted to work for and check my gut about them using sites like GlassDoor to see what their employees have to say.  I also planned to target specific companies I wanted – or thought I wanted – to work with and create company specific search engines through the career page on their website. I was also open to some networking opportunities – which actually did yield some opportunities for me – but I wasn’t putting all my eggs in that particular basket.

My mom and dad – who are just the most amazingly supportive people surprised me every week with encouragement and the occasional infusion once my coffers ran dry and I was left to support myself on unemployment – and my closest friends we’re always there with whatever they could offer to keep my spirits up.  Because shit got depressing for a while.  Mom reminded me that the average job search lasted three months.  Dad consistently told me that I shouldn’t take a job just to have a job because it isn’t worth it, I needed to work somewhere I wanted to work and could get satisfaction beyond the paycheck.  My sister made sure I had something to keep me busy at least one day a week by inviting me to volunteer with her and mom.  The Fox gave me a couch to crash on when I needed to be in Portland for interviews – and when I decided that I just needed to be in Portland.  My neighbor from Seattle, D-slice, was always there to grab a beer and talk out frustrations to get a smile back on my face.  She joined me for a couple of weeks of (f)unemployment when she was laid off in October of last year.  Talk about solidarity.  My old boss-turned-friend and my ex were both there for a dinner and distraction to keep me from reverting to complete hermit status when I was in Seattle.

It really is amazing to deplete most of your earthly resources and be faced with the fact that your friends and family – near, far or virtual – and the relationship you have with them is really where your wealth and life are measured.  My misadventure in unemployment actually began three weeks before I was laid off when the company I worked for discovered a $600k incompetence-based-error, that wasn’t my fault but still affected my role.  I asked if my job was secure, since I had been thinking of starting a remodel and didn’t want to commit any of my savings to that project if I was going to need to live off of it.  I got a $10k raise as an answer.  Three weeks later, in the middle of that remodel, I got laid off.  Hard to see how this company hired an incompetent Controller, isn’t it?  So, instead of going into this job search with six months of savings, I basically had three months worth of expenses in the bank for what turns out to be a significantly longer period of unemployment.  Hoorah!

So…how about a few of those horror stories?

There’s the basic “I really suck at my HR job or job responsibilities” type of thing.  This is where people aren’t even clicking a button in one of those Applicant Trackers.  How friggin’ hard is that?  Don’t want to talk to me?  Click a button, send me an email to let me know I can just fuck right off.  Easy.  “Thanks for your time, get bent.”  Too much for some people, they’ve got coffee to drink.  These systems cost millions of dollars and the people responsible for execution not only aren’t doing their job and using their resources as fully as they should…their employer isn’t even checking that execution to make sure they get the return on their investment they expected:  preserving customer relationships.  I will likely never shop at a Gap, Inc company again.  I applied for 12 jobs with them over the last six months and haven’t gotten one word from them outside of “Thanks for your application” emails. The jobs I sought with them were a variety of positions as Store Manager or District Manager, both of which I am qualified to perform.  Jobs in Oregon, Washington, California (yuck), Florida, Arizona…across all Gap, Inc divisions – Gap, GapKids, Banana, Athleta, NOT Old Navy…nope – and I got zero progress with them.  No traction whatsoever, no communication, nothing.  I worked for them before.  When I revisited their website, I discovered that they have tweaked their Applicant Tracker so that applicants are expected to come back and check their progress in the application process.  Idiots.  Who signed off on that idea?  What next, “Please refold your clothes when you are finished in the Fitting Room”?

I was fortunate enough to have friends on Facebook recommend their employers as potential job sources for me, only to be followed up by another friend commenting on that thread that we had former colleagues there now doing Recruiting and Development.  Definitely a good situation!  Naturally, I sailed through my initial interview with my former colleague and was happy to perform as well, if not better, in my second interview with the actual recruiter for the role.  We spoke at length about the slight change of industry I would be undertaking going from retail to grocery, but also how they valued people coming into their company from outside of grocery – retail in particular – since they wanted to become a little “higher-touch” in their customer service.  Retail gives me that solid foundation in developing customer service environments that she said they needed to move the needle.  I was told that if I performed as well in my third interview as I had during the recruiter’s interview, there was no way I wouldn’t be offered the job.  And here I was, only  at my two month mark…I’m such an overachiever.

I was given “homework” to perform prior to my final interview with the Operations team, all of whom were promoted from Store Managers, which consisted of going to several of their stores to report back on the good, bad and ugly of their service culture.  When I sat for my round robin interview with the Ops team, I was able to easily highlight positive experiences as well as opportunities that I had seen with my suggestions on how to improve those opportunities.  A few days after my third interview, the recruiter called me with the tone of voice one would expect when reporting the death of a loved one.  She had been told that the Ops team wanted to pass on me because I was “Too comfortable and confident”.  Well, I’m not sure how to respond to that!  You want me to change a culture that you created into something better and different that you know you don’t know how to do?  Yeah, you probably want to hire someone who’s uncomfortable with that challenge and lacks the confidence to succeed.

I’ll tell you one thing, I sure didn’t feel real confident after that!  My savings was on track to last a couple more tight months, too…so I guess comfort was about to become a job search casualty as well.

Another socially networked opportunity came several months later, in the form of an email from a friend who had received an email blast asking for help for a DM who wanted to – needed to – fill her position in order to be promoted.  Of course, I applied – in the form of an email directly to the original poster.  I also thanked my friend, who would be a reference for the job, and mentioned to him I wasn’t sure I would be a good fit, since this role had been posted as a DM-in-training job for several months and I had applied for it and…heard nothing.  My friend then sent a separate email introducing me to the DM to give me some extra juice against any competitors.  Low and behold, I got a phone call from that DM!  I was the first call she made and she basically said that we shared a common work experience that she found really helped her succeed in her role, which she then bragged about.  She went on to barf out everything she thought I would need to know for my interview with her boss…which was apparently her way of telling me I was moving forward in the interview process.  She hadn’t asked me one question.

I spoke to the Director of Stores the next business day and we had a fantastic conversation.  With questions.  Still, the interview was very much focused on whether I was a cultural fit.  She needed to know that I would be someone who meshed with the corporate culture as well as with her personally, since I would be spending a great deal of time with her.  Nothing wrong with hiring a friendly persona, I suppose.  She was quite a bit more cautious about over-promising the position,  reminding me that I was the first person they had spoken to about this role, then committing to a third in-person interview in Seattle – details TBD.  When I followed up with her a couple of days later, she called me right back – with that uncomfortably familiar tone in her voice.  Apparently, her boss had changed her mind on how the position was going to go forward.  Instead of one DM, they were going to have two junior executive roles.  I could hear her seething into the phone as she told me of the development.

Hey, if she would have been checking for execution compliance on the DMIT job posting I had applied for four months prior, she probably would have hired me into that role and avoided the whole situation with her boss that pissed her off in the first place.  Bazinga.  Applicant Trackers…they’re a good thing.  When used well.

The upshot here, if I must have one, is that I was still averaging a solid and promising interview experience every three months or better.  If only the interviews yielded a job offer instead of ending in weirdness.  Crikey, it was coming up on six months.

That last experience was great, just from the instant credibility I was afforded based on my experience, my professional network as well as the overall enthusiasm these people had for me as a candidate.  But it was also sort of an example of something I was seeing frequently in phone screens or interviews:  people not knowing how to ask probing questions to get real, substantial and quantified answers.  I’ve been interviewing for 20 years, if not longer.  You get good at reading your “feel” for people after a while.  But you still need to have an interview where you ask hard-hitting questions to give yourself a gut-check that you’re hiring a qualified applicant versus someone who just presents well.  It’s perfectly normal to ask a question and get something of a shorthand or canned response initially.  It just happens.  It’s like saying, “I’m fine” when asked how you’re doing, even though your leg has clearly fallen off.   I’ve done it on this end of the interview process, but it’s up to the interviewer to determine – since they know what they’re looking for in a candidate for the particular role – which answers need a deeper dive and then ask questions appropriately until they are satisfied.  Not getting those probing questions led me to develop a skill as an applicant so that I could tactfully ask if I wasn’t meeting the definition of their ideal candidate.  That’s a tough one, because I can come off as too direct, and far be it from me to tell someone how to not suck at their job or accidentally talk myself out of moving forward in the interview process.  Still, though, I want a job where I was challenged in my interview, it’s a good indicator that I am going into a role with a company that has expectations of my position and specific results in mind.  Passive interviews and poor interviewing skills are what got me into the whole being unemployed mess in the first place.  When I interviewed with my former employer – look how careful I am to not name names – I came out of my interviews chuckling at the awkwardness of the conversations.  But when the COO of a company has to read interview questions off a piece of paper and doesn’t make eye contact with you for 20 minutes at a time or introduce the owner of the company when he pops his head into the interview…I should have taken that as a red flag, not an opportunity to develop my would be boss.

I reread what I’ve written thus far and it makes me sound like I’m some perfect candidate.  Or think I am.  Partially because I do.  Nonetheless, I was approaching my job search looking for specific companies that I thought aligned with my values as a retail pro and were companies that offered products, goods and services that resonated with my lifestyle.  That said, I did my fair share of applying for jobs with companies that I didn’t want to work for, just for the practice interviewing.  I actually made good headway with companies like CashAmerica and Jiffy Lube, all the while hearing my dad’s advice in my head throughout the interview, “It’s not worth it just for a paycheck…”  However, there’s something of a blow to the ego to know you can do a job, even though you may not want to, only not get offered the job you didn’t want in the first place.  That’s something to not dwell upon too long.

Another thing that I learned was that companies have an image.  In interviewing or even just applying for work with some of the companies that I aspired to become a part of, I learned that beneath the veneer of the company image was a particle board construction consisting of people who weren’t very good at their job.  Or at reinforcing the image the company worked hard to create.  I used to joke with a friend I worked with that just because someone has a job, it doesn’t mean they are the best person for it.  I’d say, “Every graduating class has someone who just barely graduated…and they got a job.”  I think my recent experiences introduced me to a lot of those people who just barely make it.

You’ve hung in there for 3000 words now…I’ve got one more interview to tell you about.

I saw a job posting for a Store Manager with Storables.  This is a company I want to work for because it’s small and locally owned.  It also represents a line of merchandise that has been a part of my retail experience in home goods for almost 25 years, so a very comfortable fit.  The sad part was that this job was for their store out in Beaverton, a long commute.

After the initial phone and face-to-face interview with the Director of Stores, I got the feeling that they were willing to make some changes to get me into their downtown area store.  A feeling that provided some reason for optimism and was born out during my interview with the President the next day.  He flat out said that they wouldn’t put me in the Beaverton store because it was too small and my skills made me a better candidate for the store in the Pearl District – a store I could walk to in a matter of minutes.  I found out later that they had recently fired the store manager for the Pearl store because he or she just couldn’t show up for work.  Seriously, if you’re going to lose your job for a stupid reason, at least make it someone else’s stupidity and not your own.  I’m betting someone was a problem drinker.

Anyway…it comes to pass that I got the job.  The type of corporate environment that I want to be in, product I care about, compensation in the right ball park – although I am going to have to work hard to rebuild my savings, the city that I love and in the part of the city that allows me to maintain my pedestrian lifestyle.

It was a long six months.  Grueling.  Dispiriting.  A period of my life that I couldn’t have gotten through without my incredible family and friends and the support their presence in my life afford me.  I owe them all a huge thank you that words cannot do justice.

I am happy now that – for the foreseeable future – I can just bang my head on the relationship wall by dating people who are practically alien to me – blog to come, I’m sure – instead of having to balance my frustrations between interviewing for a job and interviewing dates for a potential boyfriend.

Onward and upward from here, Chris is getting his shit together.

The Great Job Hunt

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