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Laurie Says

Samples of recent columns Laurie has written for a number of Cleveland newsletters and web sites.

“Fifty Shades of Typos”

When addressing college students, recent graduates, young professionals and even old pros on how to interview successfully, and how to craft a résumé, a cover letter and follow-up notes, I begin by identifying myself as “Chief of the Grammar Police” and asking everyone present who knows what a gerund is to raise a hand. The older I get, the fewer hands go up.

It’s almost a given that no one under 45 can define a gerund even if the word has been encountered in conversation or on paper, oops, the screen. And, since grammar, per se, hasn’t been taught in public middle and high schools in 15 to 20 years, younger communicators who never have experienced the joy of diagramming a complex sentence are clueless about the compositional minutiae older writers love to tinker with. OK, flog me with wet noodles for the preposition at the end of that sentence!

Recently, I was discussing the “merits” of the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy with two cousins who are oft-published intellectuals. As I espoused the books’ “positives” and recounted their bashing by verbose, hysterical feminists in the British rags I read last summer while in Scotland, I heard myself saying, “You know, it’s amazing that books even in their 1000th printing have more typos per page than I have digits. I did hate wading through the ubiquitous typos.” Has copy proofing fallen victim to cost containment at publishing houses even for runaway best sellers? Obviously, the great unwashed and some others don’t give a hoot about grammar.

One of my personal heroes is Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, who wrote in a July 20, 2012 Harvard Business Review blog post “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re. Good grammar makes good business sense – and not just when it comes to hiring writers…

“Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing – like stocking shelves or labeling parts…I hire people who care about details…Applicants who don’t think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things aren’t important…Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they’re detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.”

A few years ago, a recent grad lambasted me when I corrected her usage of “full proof” when she meant “fool proof.” “I did two internships in newsrooms so I know what I’m talking about,” she retorted. “You need to go back to community college and take a basic English grammar course.”

“How Many Manhole Covers in Los Angeles?”

Twenty years ago, an EVP/Marketing at one of the largest banks in town castigated my candidate -- interviewing in his office -- because “your (brown) shoes are the wrong color and you live downtown…bankers live in the suburbs.” Ignoring that this urban pioneer could walk to work, get in early and stay late to satisfy a demanding, workaholic boss, the banker’s stupid, mean-spirited comments were intended to rattle the candidate and dispose of him.

Now, I realize that the executive was using a primitive forerunner of what today is called “Extreme Interviewing”, a process designed to test the candidate’s mettle by making him ill at ease with many different interviewers.

Self-reverential managers who ask all-the-current-rage, oddball interview questions maintain that they are only testing how well a candidate thinks on his feet, and with what level of grace and humor. I often wonder if perhaps we should label this latest interviewing trend sadistic.

Annually, Glassdoor.com compiles the “Top 25 ‘Oddball’ Job Interview Questions” taken from submissions by those who were on the receiving end. The published survey also lists the names of the companies where the questions were asked. These samples are from the 2011 and 2012 lists. “Estimate how many windows are in New York.” – Asked at Bain & Company. “What kitchen utensil would you be?” -- Asked at Bandwidth.com.

“How many quarters would you need to reach the height of the Empire State building?” -- Asked at JetBlue.

“If you were to get rid of one state in the US, which would it be and why?” – Asked at Forrester.

“How many people are using Facebook in San Francisco at 2:30pm on a Friday?” -- Asked at Google.

“Would Mahatma Gandhi have made a good software engineer?” -- Asked at Deloitte.

“How much money did residents of Dallas/Ft. Worth spend on gasoline in 2008?” -- Asked at American Airlines.

So, what’s a stressed out, surprised candidate suppose to do and say? First, smile or chuckle, and reply something to the effect of, “Gee, glad you asked that as I’ve been pondering this subject all week.” Make sure that you keep your composure, go with the flow, and give an equally charming short and sweet answer. Then hope the next question is more relevant to your skill set.

In the 80s, I trained my candidates to answer psychological thrillers such as “If you could be any vegetable, what would it be and why?” or “What vegetable do you NOT want to be and why?” Answers: “Asparagus because they’re elegant and must be gently picked by hand” and/or “I don’t want to be a root vegetable which grows underground in the dark.” Alternatively, “I don’t want to be a potato because they get boiled, baked, fried, scalloped or mashed” or “I don’t want to be a tomato that is thrown at people.”

Interview styles are indicative of the times but there will always be jerks who ask silly questions in lieu of substantive ones just because they can. Deploy a sense of humor and never let anyone get the best of you no matter how hard they try. Remember that often the best deals are the ones you don’t make.

“I Am Who I Am: My Grandfather’s Granddaughter”
(Adapted from reflections shared at synagogue Yom Kippur 2012)

For both sides of my family, we have documented that our ancestors lived in Spain and Portugal at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. We know that some were burned, tortured and starved, and that their anguished, humiliated and penniless survivors fled Torquemada and his cruel henchmen and ran for their lives. Eventually, they settled in Lithuania in the early 1500s and their descendents survived pogrom after pogrom.

On my mother’s side, I am a third generation American and a fourth generation Clevelander, the great granddaughter of Lithuanian Jews who immigrated to Cleveland in the 1880s.

On my father’s side, I am a first generation American, the descendant of Lithuanian families who spread out across Eastern Europe in the early 1800s. My grandfather, Mark, was born in Galicia, and my grandmother, Lena, was a highly cultured Viennese brought up to believe that Americans were uneducated barbarians. Her parents had immigrated to New York in the late 1880s but found the country so unrefined that they returned to Vienna.

After my grandparents were married in 1922 in Vienna, they settled in Magdeburg, Germany where Mark prospered in real estate and their three children were born. Many of the tenants in his apartment buildings turned out to be Nazis who held party meetings in their flats, after which my grandfather would evict them. He became known as the local “Nazi Basher” and was soon a “marked man”. His children were beaten up daily for being Jewish. As the boots marched and the Reichstag burned in 1933, Mark became convinced that German Jews were an endangered species, and moved his family to The Hague. Relatives on both sides thought he was paranoid.

In 1934 in Amsterdam, Mark opened the first ice cream parlor in Europe. One December day, he noticed an American couple had ordered ten different dishes of ice cream. Repeatedly tasting and discussing each flavor, they were obviously up to something so Mark introduced himself and asked if he could join them. They had heard about his marvelous “Ice Palace” and wanted to personally see the crowds who flocked there. Despite a serious language barrier, they questioned him intensely about how he formulated his many flavors. Their name was Mr. and Mrs. Howard Johnson, and by 1935 they owned 25 HoJo’s serving many of my grandfather’s flavors.

As Hitler’s laws became more extreme in 1935 and 1936, Mark secretly bought and warehoused hundreds of barrels of herring and cheese, leased space on the lower commercial deck of the brand new Queen Mary, and purchased five tickets for her late October 1936 voyage from Southampton to New York. Despite fierce opposition from Lena and the children who had only just mastered Dutch, he sold their belongings, transported them to England and dragged Lena kicking and screaming onto the ship. Arriving in New York five days later, his unsuspecting teenagers asked why there were so many barrels of herring and cheese on the dock. Within three days, he sold the Dutch delicacies, and the family boarded a train to waiting relatives in Cleveland.

Between 1936 and 1940, Mark offered to gift each of his and Lena’s relatives a paid ticket to America. No one accepted. By the end of World War II, nearly 250 members of their extended families had died in the camps, including a set of Mengele’s twins.

In 2001, my father and stepmother, my husband and I, and three survivors then in their 80s who had grown up next door to my great grandparents and miraculously escaped the camps, journeyed to the Ukrainian killing fields and camps where our relatives perished. For ten days, we walked in their footsteps amongst the children of perpetrators and collaborators, and visited memorials erected in the God-forsaken hell holes where Jewish, Gypsy, Homosexual and non-Aryan blood once ran.

My family has been intimately involved with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since its opening in 1993. When I was asked to craft a fundraising email very specifically aimed at those who receive the Museum’s online newsletters but had never made a contribution, I wondered what I could possibly say to catalyze this particular constituency into making their first donation when they had clearly ignored other appeals.

On December 22, 2011 this email signed with my real name was sent to thousands of people I do not know and will never know:

“The Holocaust affected millions of families around the world. Mine was one of them.

As a child and grandchild of survivors, I also should have been a loving niece and cousin to more than 200 family members who were murdered by the Nazis. My aunts, uncles, and cousins – relatives about whom I’ve heard so much throughout my life, people I never knew – died because they were Jewish.

I’ll never be able to listen to their stories, learn and pass on their traditions to my own family, or celebrate holidays and other milestones with them. But, I can honor their memory by helping to ensure what happened to them never happens again.

That’s why I support the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Each year, I make a tribute gift to honor the aunts and uncles and cousins whom the Nazis stole from me, so that their memory – and the memory of many others will never be forgotten.”

“Acing the Phone Screen”

Recently, a thirty to sixty minute telephone screen has become the new first interview “norm” for many white collar positions. Talent Acquisition and HR professionals, many Hiring Influences and Third Party Recruiters (Headhunters) now find it more efficient – and less “messy” -- to conduct the initial candidate screen via phone using a prepared list of usually behavioral-based questions to assess a candidate’s skill set and “fit”. Doing so provides the interviewer “an easy out” if the candidate’s oral presentation of skills, accomplishments and/or attitude is less impressive than those on the résumé and/or application.

These tips will enrich your phone screen performance:

Go to the bathroom before the call. Have a glass of water, tissues, notepad, writing implement, glasses, your résumé and a list/cheat sheet of the accomplishments/lemons-into-lemonade/ anecdotes you wish to relate near you. Don’t type or eat while interviewing; it is bad enough that the interviewer may be typing.

Use a landline if possible and, if not, have your mobile phone plugged in and charging during the call. Make sure that you’ve previously checked the cell reception in the place where you will receive the call, and also make yourself “interruption proof”. No children, colleagues or bosses knocking, clients ringing or pets nudging you. Walk the dog beforehand.

The call may come in five minutes early or fifteen minutes late. Be patient. Don’t panic. If it is more than fifteen minutes late, send the interviewer an email, don’t call her, leave your line 100% open. Of course, double confirming ahead of time the correct number is obvious.

Remember to “smile through the phone” so that you sound friendly and relaxed. The interviewer will only allot a couple minutes for initial small talk so don’t drag it out.

When describing any situation or answering any question, make absolutely certain that you don’t digress, ramble or go off on a tangent and that you answer precisely what you are asked. Do not play politician and answer with what you want to tell the interviewer. HR pros hate – I really do mean “hate” – to redirect a question. If they must redirect, they will count it heavily against you even if you’re the best “fit” they have identified because it indicates that your listening skills are deficient.

Their perspective is that each question is asked for a specific reason and they want it answered. If you wish to proffer additional information, ascertain that the timing is appropriate, that doing so feels “right” or save it for the end of the conversation when you’re given an opportunity to add something or ask questions. Finally, if you like everything you have heard and learned, then most definitely ask what the “next steps” in the process are, clearly express a desire to continue interviewing, and thank the interviewer. Within a few hours of hanging up, send her a short, sweet and warm – but not fawning or unctuous -- follow-up email reiterating your most salient qualifications and desire to further explore your candidacy.

Caution: never tell an interviewer that you’re “the perfect fit” for a position. Unless you’re inside her head and/or privy to all the intangibles discussed on the hiring end, you can’t possibly fathom what “the perfect fit” is.

“No Such Thing as Post-Interview Thank You Letters”

In the early 1980s, dissatisfied with all the standard “thank you letter” content and advice floating around, an alliance of executive search firms commissioned several industrial psychologists to devise a post-interview letter format for use by recruiters’ candidates. The resulting “follow-up letter” concept -- built upon sales psychology and a closing “call to action” – was so brilliantly designed and so far superior to the traditional “thank you letter” that recruiters-in-the-know immediately began having their candidates deploy it.

To this day after 29 years as a headhunter, I have never put the format in writing for fear that others would successfully exploit it, and my candidates would lose their competitive advantage. Instead, I talk them through it, making sure they comprehend it, and, then, before they email their actual follow-up letters to my clients, I verify that they have utilized some semblance of the winning formula.

Recently, a local blogger advised her followers to send hand-written thank you notes after job interviews. Such advice does a huge disservice because it is based on several false premises. A job interview or even an informational or exploratory interview is a mutually beneficial business meeting; it is not a Christmas check from Aunt Mary. And, no matter how it is positioned, an interview is an interview is an interview is a chemistry check for future openings or referrals to colleagues.

Sending a handwritten thank you via snail mail -- which might not be delivered for days -- is totally inappropriate because the job seeker should be concentrating on formally “following up” and continuing the “sales” process -- not casually thanking – in a very timely manner, and, in fact, follow-up letters should be emailed within hours of the interview for maximum impact. Employing snail mail does not indicate a “bias for action” considering the current state of the USPS, and given that professionals often travel or work remotely, they may not see a physical letter for a week or two.

Importantly, when a candidate has interviewed with more than one person, the customized follow-up letters are usually compared with one another to ascertain originality and pertinence to each specific conversation. Emails can be easily shared amongst the interviewing team and stored along with the candidate’s résumé, individual interviewers’ notes, and the panel’s conclusions (data integration) in the corporate Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Illegible handwriting is never an issue, and, by the way, I’m not aware of “spell check” for stationery.

Without giving too much away, I will simply counsel that each compellingly crafted follow-up letter should include an opening compliment about something the employer discussed that resonated with the candidate, several concrete examples reiterating why the candidate’s experience and skills are a good fit for the position, and an “assumptive close”.

“LinkedIn and Good Judgment”

As I’ve often said, the search for good judgment is the hidden agenda in every interview and reference check, and the unwritten requirement in every job description. So, it should come as no surprise that headhunters and hiring influences pay attention to how candidates manage their online personas. Even mediocre and unimaginative recruiters google a candidate prior to presenting her to a client.

You’ve all heard the true tales of people unceremoniously fired for posting drunken or naked or vacationing photos during the exact time period they called in sick or claimed they were attending their grandmother’s funeral. (An old acquaintance once sent his colleagues a photo of himself ducking in the doorway of a California bar during a mid-week afternoon earthquake, and someone put the photo on the boss’s desk. He was fired the next day.)

I knew a young social media maven who serialized his job search saga in his updates. Every few days, he broadcast the names of the companies he was interviewing at and requested additional connections who might help him at each place. My arguments that these employers aren’t interested in announcing who they’re interviewing or that they’re interviewing him fell on deaf ears. His retorts that “you just don’t get it” reminded me that you simply can’t instill good judgment (or maturity) in another person, and that for so many otherwise wonderful souls, valuable time is wasted before they figure out that their online behavior is self-destructive.

Without fail, every single day an applicant tells me to check out his LinkedIn profile and references in lieu of a résumé. A LinkedIn profile is not a substitute for a résumé, and LinkedIn recommendations aren’t true references done by a seasoned pro who hears between the lines and builds upon real-time oral comments much like a detective assembles clues to figure out what really happened.

Have you ever seen a negative LinkedIn recommendation? Have you ever seen a profile which mentions the person’s weaknesses? Have you ever noticed that we all repeatedly edit and re-edit our public profiles because we can’t control our need to finesse these PR pieces? As many people lie on their profiles as lie on their résumés.

LinkedIn is an accessible, quick and easy, and very valuable tool. But, beware, it doesn’t always supply the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Thanks for the Criticism!”

In response to Ohio newspapers’ severing hundreds of writers in 2008, a wonderful day-long job search symposium for displaced print journalists was held in January 2009. While I was privileged to both serve on a panel and give a keynote address to the 120 in attendance, the program’s final two hours when I speed-critiqued the résumés of three dozen journalists who patiently waited in line were the most professionally interesting for me.

Nearly all were genuinely appreciative of the face to face counsel, several -- offended at the input which they had willingly sought after hearing me present earlier -- disagreed vociferously, and one angrily claimed he was so nationally renowned that he didn’t require a résumé (his was terrible). Afterwards, one woman requested and received several hours of résumé and interview coaching which resulted in a brand new career, and one young journalist so impressed me that I gladly mentored him, eventually placing him, sans recruiter’s fee, at another paper where he is treated with the respect he deserves.

The most prevalent misconception about recruiters is who their clients are. We are retained by the company, and while we must negotiate a win-win situation for both candidate and company, it is the client company who drives the process and funds the search. Given the heavy demands of their role, recruiters rarely volunteer advice to applicants who – for a variety of objective reasons -- are not “a recruiter’s candidate”.

No ifs, ands or buts: any recruiter who expends time critiquing your résumé without charge is extending a kindness. And, no matter how you regard that input, the only acceptable response is “thank you”. If you seek only compliments, call your mother. If you need emotional support, find a therapist.

Here’s an analogy: When you visit your doctor, you are weighed – damn it, stuck with needles, probed and examined nude beneath a flimsy sheet. She’s seen thousands of naked bodies, and yours isn’t so special. If you’re not completely honest about your symptoms, she can’t make a credible diagnosis or recommend how you can improve the quality of your life.

A recruiter reads scores of résumés (giving them more than the six seconds each that LinkedIn recently alleged) daily. Her multiple-firewalled, confidential database contains the career histories and salaries of thousands. Her suggestions are based on experience and training, substantiated by professional certifications. For her, a résumé is like the naked patient on the exam table. The recruiter recommends how you can increase your chances of finding your next position.

Recently, the blogger E. James Brennan, a Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, published this commentary titled “Thanks for the Criticism!”

“Feedback is always vital but is most appreciated when it is positive. Odd, isn’t it, because we should be more grateful for negative feedback. Very few people…are courageous enough to advise us of our corrective needs so we can improve. We should cultivate their frank negative feedback rather than avoid it, as is the normal tendency.

Compliments feel good. They feed our ego and build our sense of worth. Negative input disrupts our complacent self-image. Criticism is disconcerting, brings shame and diminishes our confidence. Being told what you did wrong inspires defensive reactions, invites counterattacks and can generally ruin your day. But identifying error is necessary for positive improvement to eliminate the problematic behavior or overcome the obstacles you have created for yourself. How could you fix what you do wrong if you remain blind to your shortfalls?

What bad stuff do you do that should be eliminated? That should be a lot more important to your survival, growth and success than what you do right. What you do automatically, easily and naturally is usually correct because it tends to be your default best response to a given situation…

Those who are expert at something and want to maintain their lead position are constantly seeking negative input. That requires patience, resolution, persistence and endurance. It can be mental, emotional or physical and frequently is all three. Every extremely successful individual exhibits those characteristics.

People who give you praise only build your ego, while those criticizing you are building your competence.

No pain, no gain, is the iconic phrase. Praise is pleasurable; criticism is painful. It is ironic that by inviting pain, you gain ability.

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