Job Talk: Would taking a year off be career suicide?
Dear J.T. & DALE: I am an upper-level financial manager with a CPA and an MBA. Next year, I will become eligible to draw a pension. Although it will not be an amount sufficient to live on indefinitely, it would allow me to take up to a year off for relaxation and travel. Will taking a year off be the equivalent of career suicide? — Allen
J.T.: Here's the unwelcome truth: A recent study shows that people who've been out of work a month or longer are discriminated against, and that's true whether they say they quit or were let go.
DALE: How do we make some sense of this unfair reality? It's easy to understand why hiring managers might avoid someone who's been fired, and you can almost understand — almost — concerns about someone who's been laid off; after all, many companies use layoffs to dump mediocre employees. But what about those employees who left voluntarily? Even in that situation, hiring managers may have doubts: Was it really voluntary? Is this someone who can't get along? Does this person not really need or want to work? Thus, while the year off might not be career suicide, it is a career coma, and you may have a difficult time coming out of it.
J.T.: That doesn't mean you shouldn't take the time off, just that you'll need a great story to tell when you are ready to go back. Here's the formula: Experience = Learning = Growth. Do something that allows you to grow as a person and a professional. Example: I know someone in a similar situation who took a year off to travel around the world by boat. When he came back, he was able to describe how the experience changed him in ways that made him better at his job. If you can do that, go for it! On the other hand, if you are planning to just "chill," then be prepared to encounter resistance. Your story will define you: Are you coming back burned out or fired up?
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Dear J.T. & Dale: Here is a question from the other side. My company expects to be expanding next year. I haven't done much hiring lately and know so little; however, I've been thinking that character, integrity, self-discipline and honesty are the most important traits to look for. I heard a radio interview where some guys were talking about "soft personality traits," and one eventually said they were really talking about character. Then he said they use "personality traits" because "character" sounds too moralistic. Is having morals bad? Should I expect employees to develop character? — Tom
DALE: First, I'd urge you to talk openly and often about character; if it makes a job candidate uncomfortable, you know you're looking at the wrong person.
J.T.: It's fine to talk about "soft skills" and character, but the challenge lies in how you define and evaluate them. Can you measure them in a job interview? Job seekers will tell you that their soft skills are their best feature, and I guarantee they'll all say they have an abundance of character. One solution is to study the interview technique known as behavioral interviewing. That's where you ask open-ended questions that typically start with, "Tell me about a time when ..." or, "Describe a situation where ..." Such questions help you see if the candidate's actions and thought processes fit your company culture.
DALE: That brings us to the most important piece of advice I give any manager about to embark on hiring: The person you interview is never the person you hire. Some managers try to solve that dilemma by hiring for a particular background — interviewing only those from particular schools, or just hiring veterans or former athletes. I recently heard of a company that hires young Mormons just back from their missions. Another option is to recruit candidates via trusted friends, colleagues or customers, or to hire talented people working for suppliers. The theme of the best hiring systems is that you are not passive, hoping the right candidate turns up, but you are out spotting and courting talent. The best employees have lots of opportunities and need to be recruited, not just interviewed.
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