How to interpret job advertisements

Us Finns have some extraordinary qualities that come handy particularly in the surroundings we live in. Snow and silence (together or separately) for example can be quite tough for many other nationalities to handle – we have no problem with either. We are also punctual; if an appointment is scheduled to start at 11:15, it tends to do exactly that. There is no concept of mañana, e.g. ‘some time in the future’, in Finnish. And so on. We do, however, also have some qualities that do not play to our advantage. One of them is that we tend to take instructions too literally. As soon as EU sets a new Directive on anything, you can bet Finland is the first country jumping to implement it, at whatever cost. Regardless of whether there is any benefit. After all, there is the Directive. During the last couple of years, having met hundreds of job applicants in one-on-one coaching sessions, I have had to admit that the same mindset is also visible in how surprisingly many job seekers read and evaluate job advertisements.

It is understandably frustrating, when a professional seeking employment comes across an ad clearly promoting their dream job – only to find that they cannot apply because the requirements listed for the candidates are at least to some extent above and beyond what they have.

Let me take this opportunity to share a few tips on how to interpret job advertisements. These are by no means Directives, but aimed to help you evaluate whether you should send an application to that interesting vacancy that caught your attention.

  1. Role description. The level of detail provided in a job advertisement about the role in question varies tremendously between different employers. Some are way too detailed – some too brief to attract candidates. Employers try to stand apart from the rest by applying their own style also in job advertisements. Obviously also the scope of the role determines the need of elaboration. I would recommend to pay attention to what is said – and equally well, what is not mentioned. This is often times a good source of questions to ask when you call to get more details.
  2. Work experience. If there is a specific requirement on the length of work experience required, take it as indicative. ‘Minimum five years of equivalent work experience’ does not mean you should not apply because you have three and half years. If the requirement is minimum 10 years and you have three, opt out.
  3. Education. There are jobs where a very specific degree or qualification is required, end of story. Then either you have that qualification, or you do not need to apply. However in many cases it is stated vaguely, such as ‘university degree’, or my personal favorite ‘university degree or equivalent’. That leaves a lot of room for imagination. In public sector jobs, the indicated education level is mandatory and there is rarely room for negotiation around it. In private sector, however, the level or field of education is often not a critical, carved-in-stone type of requirement. The more working years you have under your belt, the more likely it is that your competencies and experience overrule.
  4. Personality / characteristics. If the employer is looking for a social, service-oriented person, with excellent interpersonal skills, and you know you are more of an introvert type, it still does not automatically mean you should not apply if the role appeals to you. It just means you need to be prepared to put more effort on the social aspects of the role, as those are typically not as natural ways of working to you as they are to more socially inclined individual. You yourself know best what you are capable of. If you do not feel the personality traits indicated match yours, ask yourself would you still enjoy working in that role. If yes, apply.
  5. Contact person. Every job advertisement should always have contact details where interested candidates can ask further details on the role or the selection criteria. Unfortunately they are still not always provided. I personally would not apply for a vacancy where there is no contact information listed, but that is just me. If the details are there, with a specified time when to call, try to time your call as instructed. That is not always possible, or the line may be busy. Then you can of course try to reach the person at another time. One polite way to do it would be for example to send an sms to the person and ask what would be an appropriate time for you to call.
  6. Target groups. This may not be top of mind when reading a job advertisement, but this is important so I wanted to take it up here as well. Job advertisements are just another form of company communication or marketing material that the employer publishes. In addition to job seekers, the employer knows that also their competitors as well as current and potential future customers read the job advertisements. In many cases, this has a significant impact on what is, or is not, said in the role description – or why certain role requirements are defined the way they are. Job ads can be used to boost company image in certain field of expertise, for example. Or aim to direct competitor attention to certain type of resourcing – perhaps away from something else going on. The more the reason for you as a candidate to ask clarifying questions, and not take the provided text at face value.

There. My five…okay, well, six cents on how to interpret job advertisements. Feel free to agree or challenge these points. The requirements in an ad may well paint the picture of an ideal candidate for the role. If the ideal one does not apply this time, the closest ones to that stand a good chance. And high motivation, even passion towards the type of role in question, will always make a difference.

Go for it!

An outplacement offering has a place in our time!

I recall a time in high school when learning English, and one source of entertainment was looking for the most complicated words in my native Finnish to then throw at the poor English teacher as ‘how would you translate this word’. The winner was something along the likes of ‘merkityksettömättömyydellänsäkäänköhän’. Er… don’t ask. However, my current favorite on the same ranking would be the Finnish word for outplacement services: uudelleentyöllistymispalvelut. I can only assure my Finnish customers, that the content, the meaning and the impact of the service is something far better than what the word may sound like.

While typing this blog and pulling out the few reference materials I have addressed in the text below, another three notifications caught my eye of various employers starting new layoff-negotiations in Finland. The situation in the labor market is remarkably tough to begin with – and by the tone of the news, it promises to get only tougher. Add to that an individual professional of any field who is still in some degree of denial upon an unexpected termination notice from previous job, and perhaps 10 years gone by since the last time he or she had had to apply for a job. That is what you call a total mess. And that is where the value of outplacement services becomes the most evident!

You may have noticed, or heard, that headhunting has become an increasingly common approach in looking for talent also in managerial and even senior specialist roles – no longer a method only applied in search for top-paid chief executives. Now, fortunately, the same is happening with outplacement services.

In the U.S. the Bureau of Labor Statistics findings even predict that we will see outplacement services becoming part of standard benefits packages employers are offering already at the time of recruitment! Boy, I can’t help thinking what a shift in mindset that represents from the old Japanese lifetime employment culture to exit support becoming used as a carrot already in the recruitment phase.

So what are these outplacement services? In a nutshell, they refer to support the employer chooses to provide to an employee at the end of employment, in order to help the individual to find a new job. Typically these services include review and improvement of CV, recommendations of improving one’s application process, and tips and tricks for effective preparation for a job interview. More comprehensive packages may also include for example some combination of personality- and assessment testing to bring out individual’s natural strengths in view of possible new career options. But equally importantly, a well-constructed outplacement offering should also help the individual to set realistic expectations on the duration of the job-hunting phase, what to prepare for, and how to keep updating one’s skills and profile during that time so they continue to appeal to potential employers. Effective utilization of one’s contact network is something us Finns tend to find difficult, or even embarrassing, to do. One essential element of a valuable outplacement service is to ensure exactly that gets done.

As tends to be the case with any kind of training or consultation, individual help with one’s own, unique situation is far more effective than more generic instructions shared in a group setting. Two separate studies were conducted in Belgium in 2013, and the results speak for themselves on this matter. Out of those who had received individual outplacement training, 80% found a new job. With participants of group training, the success rate dropped to 60%. While I personally advocate individual service in a matter as sensitive as support with one’s job search, career planning and competence evaluation, of course that result for group sessions is still far better than no outplacement provided at all. The same results, however, found that only 8% of outplacement participants had received purely individual coaching – the rest had only group sessions, or combination of both.

But wait! Why should an employer take up additional costs by providing an outplacement service for individuals about to leave the company? It actually makes perfect sense. The key beneficiary is the company image – both internally and externally. The remaining employees will pay close attention to how the employer is treating their colleagues that face an unfortunate lay-off. So an investment towards their re-employment will help to maintain morale high within the company in that challenging situation. Externally, job applicants will take note as well. A poorly managed lay-off process could easily have a negative impact on the employer’s ability to attract top talent the next time new resources are needed. In Greece a survey was conducted last summer on the impact of outplacement services, and the results show that the most significant benefit for the employer was indeed corporate social image (65% of respondents), followed by the facilitation of the end of termination process for the departing employees (59%).

The more difficult the situation in the labor market and the odds the individual job seeker is facing – the greater will be also the value and impact of a high quality outplacement offering for both the employer and the exiting employee.

Job seeker´s letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

This year I would like to approach you with a wish list you may find unconventional. I am unemployed, and have been actively applying for jobs throughout the past year. In doing so, I have repeatedly come across certain practices – some of them so common I would almost like to call them norms – that feel like unnecessary burdens on applying for a job. And the more I discuss this with my friends who are in the same situation as I am, the more we get the feeling that with many of these practices, the employers perhaps have not realized the implications.

So, dear Santa, in order to be able to land my Dream Job next year, and to help all my fellow job seekers as well, would you be so kind as to send a few of your energetic elves to whisper these things to the employers’ ears?

Firstly, the requirements listed for the vacancy. In many cases, the nature of the responsibilities described appears such that there is not just one candidate profile to excel in that role. Yet I often see a very narrow, limiting description for candidate requirements in job ads. Could you please ask the employers to consider alternative backgrounds for suitable candidates, not just look for a warm body to fill the ‘same old, same old’ mold? The same applies to competences. Openness to consider and effort to evaluate the candidate’s real competences and skills would most certainly benefit the employer more than considering formal qualification only.

The second item on my wish list reads ‘employer image’. As humble fan of yours, dear Santa, I occasionally get the feeling that the employers only remember the latter in the give-and-take. And the giving really should come first. In recruitment, that should translate to viewing – and treating – the job applicants as customers. Providing me with an opportunity to evaluate not just whether I would match the needs of that employer – but also whether the employer would match mine. Images of the work environment, video interviews with current employees, company values opened up and discussed… it speaks volumes of the employer if those are available – and it speaks equally loud if they are not. Personally, I would also consider stating the salary range in the job advertisement as an element of employer image. In any case, it is a remarkably thoughtful gesture towards job seekers – helps both sides to prevent wasting each other’s time.

A couple of things with regards to application process are the third item on my list. With all the time and effort I have invested into shaping and re-shaping my CV, it is really discouraging to come across an application tool where I have to copy-paste the contents of my CV, row by row, to a frozen template. I have actually now started to skip such employers altogether. I also tend to contact the employer for some clarifications prior to submitting my application – yet interestingly not all job ads provide instructions for doing so. Some employers are fortunately showing that it is in their values to be approachable. One trend I very much welcome here is to have vacancies for expert positions posted in LinkedIn, with the option to apply utilizing one’s personal LinkedIn profile. That is so easy!

I know, dear Santa, that you are real busy this time of the year. Let me throw in just three more wishes, okay? Oh, too many? Okay – two then. Deal? Thank you! This relates to seeing applicants as customers. Keeping all the applicants informed during the selection process would be really, really kind. I know cases where even the completion of recruitment has only been informed to the selected candidate. And I have heard rumors of a case where even that was not done! Keeping the candidates informed should also include giving feedback to anyone the employer has interviewed but did not select at that time. By helping candidates to improve, the employers themselves will get more competent applications next time.

The very last wish is about travel costs. When a candidate comes from out of town for an interview, it would be considerate for the employer to compensate for travel expenses.

Thank you for your time, dear Santa. And welcome down south! A word of warning – it looks like the only thing white around here again this Christmas will be the rice porridge.

Name your price…oops…salary

There’s not too many countries in this nice, blue planet of ours, where everyone knows how much money their colleague, their neighbor and their favorite celebrity made last year. But in Finland we all have access to that information via the public taxation records. What benefit does that serve? I can’t think of any. One major disadvantage comes to mind though: in a country where envy grows as an endless natural resource, that ability nothing but fuels it.

Okay. Fine. So we have public taxation records. Live with it.

I do. And I personally don’t bother with it. What does bother me, though, is the completely opposite approach – the ultimate secrecy – that hovers in the job market around salary ranges for any advertised vacancy. In public sector, the salary grade is often noted in the job advertisement. But in private sector, you will not find any such numbers in job ads. You would be more likely to find the original recipe for Coca-Cola in the vacancy text. This approach would not be sensible in most markets. And it is downright ridiculous in a market where the taxable income of everyone is public information.`

If the salary ranges were given in the job advertisements, everyone would benefit. The applicants would have one more critical piece of information available to determine whether the position is within their interests and reach (trust me, that is not always easy to evaluate from the requested years of experience and expected degrees). The employer would most likely get less applications – or at least applicants would be more of the expected caliber. And the unavoidable discussion on salary in the final stages of interviews would be far less likely to result in a dead end.

To further demonstrate that all Moomins are perhaps no longer in the canoe, in the Finnish job market it is normal practice to ask the applicant to state his or her salary request in the job application. Sing Hallelujah, brother! Dear employers, are you asking for salary request just because most other employers are doing so, or is there really an auction about to take place? But wait – if it is an auction you have in mind, is it the lowest or the highest bidder who gets the job? Do you then go for the seasoned, experienced talent who knows his worth, or aim for a discount deal?

In motor sports, race drivers have two ways to proceed with their careers. One is talent. By driving better than the rest, even with mediocre equipment, showing you got what it takes to become a champion. The other way, if you can’t quite excel on the track, is to excel on the sponsorship collection. You can buy your way to the next class, to the better team. Even with the latter approach, you can enjoy a season or two in the limelight and live your dream. Nothing wrong with that, as such. The champions, however, tend to still come from the first category.

When I coach job seekers, one of the most common questions I get is regarding the salary requests – how to address those. My advice is always the same – leave it out. And my justification for this is very simple: from the job applicant’s perspective, stating a salary request can only work against him. I have not come across a single case where otherwise promising candidate did not get invited to a job interview because he or she did not state a salary request in the application. But I am aware of cases where the opposite has happened: the single reason why a candidate was dropped out was because the stated salary request was off the employer’s range for the job. Typically quite significantly off, either too low or too high. The employer always – always – has a planned salary range or other compensation model in mind for the vacancy they have. They know what they want the person to be selected for that role to achieve, and what those achievements are worth to them. And they typically have done their homework on what, roughly, the ranges for similar responsibility level of roles, with similar candidate profiles, are in the market. Or at the latest, they will get that understanding when using a professional recruiter and discussing the role and the responsibilities.

There really is no need to run a lottery with the applicants to guess the numbers.

Did I hear someone yell ‘bingo’?