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How to hire - and get hired - in a recession

April 20, 2009 11:12 IST

Unemployment in the US is going to race past 10 per cent in the coming months and probably peak at 11 per cent or 12 per cent, according to the smart folks with whom I'm privileged enough to spend some time. There's an outside chance (call it 20 per cent) that we might have a "disastrous event" that causes it to hit 15 per cent to 20 per cent. Sounds impossible, I know, but there are many regions in the US already in the mid-teens.

The smarter folks whom I speak with think the recent market rally is "dead cat bounce" in nature and that we're "testing the top" before a return to the bottom. Who the heck knows what's going to happen with the stock market? What I want to talk about today is your employment - or employee - market. The stock market is the 10,000-foot view, but butts in chairs working? That's the 10-foot view. Let's stay micro in this essay, shall we?

Witness: We just put out a job for an entry-level researcher and had 200 resumes from highly qualified candidates in under 24 hours. We posted the gig at $10 an hour. Recent searches for a director of product and various sales positions at my company, Mahalo, resulted in 400-plus applications per position in a week. My In-box is flooded with really great folks desperate for a lead on a gig ("Hey, Jason, we've met a couple of times. I've been working in the Internet since 1997 and I was laid off in October...") My heart goes out to everyone who is stuck, or up against it, right now. I've been there; it sucks.

Anyway, let's cut the small talk get to the big pink (slip) elephant in the room: who gets laid off - and who gets hired - in a down market.

Some background

Over the past 15 years, as a CEO and entrepreneur, I've hired well over 500 people, laid off over 50, fired a couple dozen bad apples (many of whom are on my e-mail subscriber list!), and actually helped make a handful of people millionaires. Before I ran my own company, and even while running my companies, I've received countless job offers.

Bottom line: I've been around the block, and I know exactly why people get hired and fired.

Before the recession hit, I was actually convinced that my techniques for hiring could land almost any willing candidate a job. In this current mess, I can't make any guarantees, but I can definitely tell candidates that if they follow my advice, they'll have a much stronger chance at landing their dream job. For employers, I promise you that these tests and techniques will land you more killers then duds.

In each of my points below, I'm going to start with an overview and then move on to a "For Candidates" section and a "For Employers" section. I'm really blending two essays into one here so that each party can understand the other's perspective. I hope this isn't too confusing, but you guys understand that sometimes I ramble before getting to something worthwhile.

For candidates: People who work harder win

Wait, don't give up on me yet! I'm well aware that this first point is absurdly obvious, but for some reason, many folks overlook or discount this basic fact. The truth is, hard work pays off in almost all things: sports, education, relationships, and work.

The more you put into something, the better it tends to work out. (Brilliant observation, I know.)

If you're looking for a job, you want to send out as many signals as possible that show that not only are you not afraid of hard work, but you're actually turned on by it. You must understand that, right now, there are too many candidates fighting for each position. The leverage that led to bidding wars between employers two to three years ago is gone - just like the bidding wars over houses are over.

There is no sense in fighting the balance of power. In fact, you need to embrace it, because it will flip again in a couple of years.

The best way to signal that you're hardworking is to explain your routine and method for working explicitly to your employer. As someone who does a couple of hundred interviews a year, I can tell you I almost never get a proactive candidate who does this!

If I were coming into a meeting with me looking for a job, here is the script I would follow:

Candidate: "Thanks so much for having me in to discuss filling the role of VP of BlahBlah. May I tell you how I've been able to make an impact at the companies I've worked at before?" (Translation: "I'm confident I can fill this position. That's why I didn't put the word 'possibly' in front of 'filling the role.'")

Employer: "Certainly." (Translation: "Thank the Lord! Finally, a candidate with whom I don't have to pull teeth!")

Candidate: "My belief is that hard work - not busy work, but hard work - is what differentiates the teams that win from those that lose. My method for working is that I like to prepare for the week on Sunday. I read up in the trades on where the industry is on the weekend, and I prepare a game plan for myself for the week ahead. This only takes an hour or two.

Just a simple list of some goals I want to achieve and what I think will help the company reach its goals: I make it a point to get into the office on Monday an hour or two early. This gives me a chance to get an even bigger jump on the week - something I believe is very important. I tend to do working lunches with clients or hit the gym to get myself thinking. Finally, I've made a philosophy of not leaving the office until my boss does... I think that's the honorable thing to do."

Employer: "When can you start?"

Seriously, I've been waiting for someone to say that to me for a decade, and it still hasn't happened. Now, I'm not saying folks can't have a life and family - let's not start that whole controversy up - but in a market like this, people seriously are going to need to sacrifice.

Bottom line: Employers are going to hire the hardest-working people and lay off the clock punchers first in an economy like this (as they should). If you want to get employed, your best strategy is to put yourself into the hardest-working bucket.

For employers: How to spot the hardworking people

Wouldn't you just love to fill your open sales, marketing, or operations position with a candidate who gave you that speech above?

Yeah, me too. Too bad it never happens! You're going to have to figure out exactly who the hardest-working and most resilient people are when you're hiring. You have only a certain number of slots on your team, and you'd better start looking at it just like that.

You cannot - and you will not - give one of your few remaining slots to anyone who is not going to bust their ass. If you do that, your company is fracked. Period. You have to be cutthroat in an environment like this, because you're not doing anyone any good if you bring on - or keep on - a weak team member. Those folks can, and will, sink the entire ship in a market like this.

Let the weak people collect unemployment while the strong folks create strong companies that create more positions. (Positions that will, ironically, go to the weaker members of the herd.)

So, how do you find out if someone is a killer? Here are some of my favorite things to ask in an interview:

1. Do you live to work or work to live?

2. Do you consider yourself a workaholic? Do you think there is anything wrong with being a workaholic?

3. Are you able to turn it off at 6 p.m. and on Friday for the weekend? You don't get obsessed by work, do you? (Trick question!)

4. Do you consider yourself a balanced person?

5. How would you feel if we all needed to come in on the weekend to make a deadline?

Jason Calacanis, BusinessWeek