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Don't be muzzled in your Midwest technology job search

CHICAGO – So I went to have lunch in Chicago on Ontario Street with my young friend Jessica. Just out of college and a former babysitter for my kids, she is six months into her first full-time job and already being headhunted for other opportunities.

“The big thing my current job lacks is career advancement,” she told me. “So this headhunter sends me on an interview but she tells me: ‘Don’t ask them about career advancement.’ She didn’t even want me to use the word ‘career’ or ‘advancement’. I thought that was kind of weird.”

I could hardly finish my lunch. I wanted so badly to call that headhunter and give her a piece of my mind.

Still, I used the time more intelligently by explaining to Jessica that she is perfectly entitled to use any words she wants on a job interview and that career advancement is a perfectly normal topic area for a job interview (especially for someone who’s 22).

The larger issue – the attempted muzzling of the job candidate by the search person – inspired this column.
Yes, getting hired has something to do with packaging. Virtually every job seeker has some minor presentation flaw (whether it’s the crease of their slacks or the way they use the subjunctive clause). It’s kind and helpful when search partners (our advisors in getting better jobs) help us clean up some of these blemishes or hide them for an interview.

But muzzling a candidate who wants to know about the job’s career potential? That's outrageous. No headhunter has the right to tell you not to find out everything you can about the employer, the position, the manager, the team and everything else you’re interested in learning.

It’s you who will work at the job (not the search person). You should explore and probe to your heart’s content. You should ask every question you can during an interview.

Yes, there are questions that will get you bounced from serious consideration. For example: "Can I take off to go to Wrestlemania in two weeks?" or "How short a miniskirt is too short?" Questions about career path are not on the list. If the company can’t handle questions about your career progression, the company doesn’t deserve to have you.

It turns out that Jessica’s prospective employer was very antsy about interest from candidates in career growth. A number of young people apparently had left for better opportunities. Well, something is wrong then! The solution is to fix the environment rather than to forbid people to breathe the words “career” and “advancement”.

Jessica stayed put.

The next time you’re meeting with a headhunter pal about a job opportunity and he or she begins to prep you for the interview, keep your ears open. Is the advice you’re getting intended to help you interview better – to put your best foot forward – or to camouflage you into a package that the headhunter thinks the company wants, which is not actually anything like you?

If you take a job by masquerading as someone unlike yourself, you’ll eventually be unhappy. Don’t muzzle yourself and don’t allow anyone else to muzzle you. What sorts of muzzling suggestions might Midwest tech search folks make? Here’s a list:

1. Don’t ask about the team’s make up and personalities. It’s a sensitive issue.
2. Don’t ask about your predecessor. The guy was fired.
3. Don’t ask about bonuses. They hate that.
4. Don’t ask about stock options. People at your level never receive them.
5. Don’t ask about work hours. They really hate it when people are clock watchers.

Imagine going with a real estate broker to look at a house and the broker says: “Don’t look in the kitchen. They’re sensitive about that.” So your predecessor was fired. It’ll be worthwhile to hear how the hiring manager handles that delicate question.

“So, Annabel, I was wondering whether the person who had this job before is still at the company or why the job is vacant,” you say.

“Actually, Pawel, there was someone in this position who left the company about a month ago and that’s why we’re recruiting again,” the hiring manager says. “I understand that he is pursuing some other opportunities. What else can I tell you about our team?”

I’d say trust the search person when it comes to what to wear to the interview.

Trust the person on advice on product areas the company is addressing, the competitive landscape and all sorts of background that the headhunter can provide for you before an interview. Advising you against legitimate inquiries, though, is not helping you. It’s not fair to you either.

It’s your career. Take off the muzzle and go get ‘em, tiger!

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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