September 11, 2011
FACT: Speaker phones were invented to make untalented people sound important.
Tune in next week for my opinion on Bluetooth headsets.
On to your questions.
Q: After four phone interviews, two in-person interviews, a drug test and a background check, I received a good job offer, pending a credit check. And, of course, after being unemployed for 18 months and going from $5,000 a month salary, to $1,200 a month unemployment, my credit is a mess. The job offer was rescinded. Any advice to get over this final hurdle, before I lose my mind?
— Richard in Lansing, via e-mail
A: In the early 1980s, there was an Atari video game called "Pitfall!" You had to guide Pitfall Harry through a jungle that included an array of pits, quicksand and scorpions.
It seems today's job seekers are like Pitfall Harry, constantly falling into traps that keep them from their goals.
In last week's column I wrote about companies that post jobs saying "unemployed need not apply." And now we look at the credit checks that are, in many cases, keeping perfectly qualified people from getting jobs.
In May, National Consumer Law Center attorney Chi Chi Wu testified before Congress on this very issue, saying: "Using credit history, especially in an economy with such massive numbers of job losses such as the current one, creates a grotesque conundrum. Simply put, a worker who loses her job is likely to fall behind on paying her bills due to lack of income. With the increasing use of credit reports, this worker now finds herself shut out of the job market because she's behind on her bills."
Thus we have what Wu calls "a bizarre Catch-22." She told me that a number of states — including Washington, Hawaii, Connecticut, Oregon and Illinois — have passed laws that regulate the use of credit reports in hiring, but the practice is going on in plenty of places.
According to a 2010 report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 13 percent of companies run credit checks on all job candidates and 47 percent run checks on selected candidates. The report said that credit checks "are seldom used as a definitive hiring criterion," but groups such as the National Consumer Law Center fear they are coming into play more often than companies might admit.
Wu said that if a person suspects a credit check cost them a job, they should make sure the company followed proper procedures. First, the company needs a job applicant's consent to run a credit check.
"Then, if the employer is going to take an adverse action against the potential employee, they have to give them a copy of the credit report" first, Wu said. "Once the decision is final, then the potential employee is entitled to a second notice, which says, 'We are taking this action on the basis of a consumer report.' "
She also suggests people obtain their annual free credit report — from annualcreditreport.com, a site backed by the three nationwide credit reporting companies. The job seeker can check for errors and become familiar with what potential employers might be seeing.
Dawn Rasmussen of Pathfinder Writing and Career Services in Portland, Ore., said it's important for a candidate to be open about a bad credit rating, but only once the subject is brought up by the employer.
"You should never disclose it upfront," Rasmussen said. "But maybe toward the end of the interview, when they explain the process and say they're going to do a credit check. You can say, 'I'm glad you're going to do that, but I did want to explain something to you.' "
Then be honest.
"If you hide from it, it looks like you're guilty," Rasmussen said. "Indicate that you're not afraid of it and that you want to explain it. Don't blame anyone, just explain. And never, ever, ever lie."
Hopefully an employer will then have the compassion to understand that just because you have credit problems — in a country where credit problems have become prevalent — doesn't mean you're not the best person for the job.
Q: Beyond dropping them in a fishbowl at Chipotle or Dunkin' Donuts, why are we still handing out business cards? All my contacts are managed through an online tool and new contact information is obtained electronically. Has the business card gone the way of the watch?
— Anonymous in Minnesota, via e-mail
A: First off, never take for granted an opportunity to win free doughnuts. Until food raffles are conducted by scanning the computer chips in our foreheads, I will have business cards on hand to enter any and all contests — it just makes good fiscal sense.
As to the broader point, however, I consulted some folks who deal with personal branding and career building and that sort of stuff and the consensus is that business cards will not be disappearing any time soon. The primary reason is that despite our national love of electronic gadgets, most of us still like to leave a tangible reminder of who we are and what we bring to the table.
"It's a really interesting dynamic with regard to how technology should make things better and faster and easier while not taking the place of more personalized connections and relationships," said Deborah Shane, a Florida-based business and career branding specialist and author of "Career Transition: Make The Shift." "Your brand is a value statement about who you are, what you do and what value you bring to your business space or the world. A business card is no different than putting up a sign for your business so people can see you from the street. It's a visual representation of your value."
It's certainly possible that we'll reach a point where business cards becomes outmoded, like a pager or a Walkman or Madonna. But in the meantime, Shane suggests not only keeping a card handy but also finding ways to make yours innovative.
"That's one of the most important things we're all tasked with today is make yourself stand out," she said.
It also ups the chances that your card will be picked out of the free-lunch jar.
Q: How do I get work to lower their expectations of me enough that they will stop hoping for results but not so low that they fire me?
— Anonymous via e-mail
A: Bring in a wide array of pastries or "fun-size" candy bars each morning, then spend most of your day writing "Mork & Mindy" fan fiction. That should do the trick.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at email@example.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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