Break the Rules to Get a Great Job

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Remember that you're part of the hiring equation, too

LinkedIn Influencer Liz Ryan published this post originally on LinkedIn. Follow Liz on LinkedIn.

Our client Christopher knew something was wrong. “It just didn’t make sense,” he said. “I job-hunted for six months as a full-time job. I customized my resumes and cover letters. I followed every instruction to the letter. I took over thirty online tests in that time, and I got no interviews.

My background is a perfect match for at least twenty of the hundred jobs I applied for, and a good match for another sixty of them. It’s obvious that the Black Hole recruiting system is broken.”

Christopher is right. You can’t get good people in the door by searching keywords. We can’t convey the power of a person through a mechanical system.

Why would we ever believe that we could?

“I’m fed up,” said Christopher. “I’m cynical. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.” We thought it was a good thing.

You have to feel a visceral reaction to something that’s broken in order to find your voice sometimes.

You have to feel in your bones, “This is not right. I know I’m a good employee. I know I’m employable!” before you find the courage to step outside the lines.

“I can’t do everything you teach job-seekers,” Christopher told us. “I’m a rule-follower from way back. I can do some of the stuff, but not all of it.”

No problem, we said. Do what you feel. It’s your job search. It’s your life!

Chris tried two Pain Letters and got one callback.

“Let’s see if I can break a rule or two on my first job interview in six months,” he said.

When he got into the conversation with the CFO interviewing him, Chris was surprised how easy it was to get the CFO off his script and into a real conversation.

“We talked for two hours,” he said. “The CFO cancelled his next meeting. I expect to get a job offer. Here’s the crazy thing. I don’t know if I’ll take it!”

Chris found his mojo and realized that he has needs in the hiring equation too. Now that he sees the direct correlation between breaking the old, crusty job-search rules and success on his job search, he doesn’t feel he has to take the first offer he gets.

Here are ten rules to break in your job search starting immediately. You have nothing to lose by stepping out of the box and bringing more of your power to every stage of the job-search process.

What can you lose if the old, robotic way isn’t working for you anyway? As FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”


1) Break the rule that tells you not to use “I” in your resume. How absurd! Your resume is a marketing document. You are the product. Six or seven uses of the word “I” in your resume will make it a personal document between you and the reader — the person who could easily become your next boss.

2) Next, break the rule that tells you to list your tasks and duties on your resume. Who cares? You’re different from anyone who has ever held any of your past jobs. Don’t tell us about the job description. We can guess from your title what each job required. Tell us what you left in your wake in each job, instead!

3) Now, break the rule that tells you to reply to a job ad by pitching a resume into the Black Hole of an automated career portal. Your chance of hearing back are close to zero.

Write directly to your own hiring manager — the person you’ll be working for if you get the job. Send that manager a Pain Letter together with your Human-Voiced Resume, right through the mail.

4) Break the rule that says “No direct contact with your hiring manager,” an instruction that shows up in job ads sometimes. Since when are you responsible for reading job ads? You can stop reading job ads right now. You can send a Pain Letter to anyone you want. You just have to find your hiring manager’s name on LinkedIn, and that’s not difficult.

5) Defy the rule that tells you to report your salary history as you apply for a job. Is the employer going to tell you the history of salaries they’ve paid to other people in the same role? They won’t, so why should you lose negotiating leverage by passing on your private financial details? All they need is a target salary number, so give them that.

6) Break the rule that tells you to go into an interview ready to answer questions like a good little sheepie and then go silent, waiting for the next question.

An interview is not a citizenship exam. You can get your manager off the script and into a real human conversation if you try — and if your efforts are unsuccessful, what does that tell you about the person you’d be working for?

7) Ignore the rule that tells you to hand over your job references before you’ve established that a strong mutual interest exists. Firms that pressure you to fork over your references early may be planning to misuse your contacts for their own purposes, as horrifying as that sounds (and is).

8) Blow past the rule that tells you to spend your energy in a job search pleasing people, from the initial resume screener to the recruiter who never calls back. The title of this story is “Break the Rules and Get a Great Job,” not “Follow the Rules and Take any Crappy Job You Can Get.” That is a different story that I will write the minute Hell freezes over.

9) Break the rule that tells you to wait around for weeks while a search committee takes its sweet time getting back to you. Three business days after an interview is more than enough time to decide whether you’re still in the mix or not.

Leave one voice mail message that says “Just checking in before I close the file, since I’m assuming you’re going in a different direction” and then truly close the file and move on. It’s incredibly satisfying to do, as Christopher found out.

10) Last, break the job-search rule that tells you that employers are in the driver’s seat. That may be true in the general please-someone-hire-me sheepie job seeker talent marketplace but it’s never been the case in the talent bazaar where eyes-open managers hire people to solve real business problems that could otherwise tank their companies.

Liz, what if breaking the rules gets me thrown out of a hiring pipeline?

If that happened, would you say “Oh darn, I wished I had kissed more booty in order to have a chance to work with those people?” Or “Thank God, I dodged a bullet!”?

But I’ve always heard I shouldn’t use “I” in a resume.

I always heard that too. Have you ever compared a Human-Voiced Resume to a standard Darth Vader resume? Which one looks more appealing to you?

I have a friend who got an email saying she was permanently blackballed from one employer because she approached the hiring manager directly.

Please congratulate your friend for me! It’s good to be reminded that not everyone is comfortable with your flame.

How did we all get so sheepified?

People have been sheepifying us since we were toddlers. Our education system starts the process.

Did your elementary school teachers tell you “Listen, kids, if I’m wrong about something or you disagree, let’s talk about it! Tell me what you think. Your opinion is just as valid as mine.”?

What’s the first rule for me to break?

The rule about using “I” in your resume and more generally, any rule that keeps your human heft and power out of your resume or buried under layers of sludge like “Results-oriented professional with a bottom-line orientation.”

Put a human voice in your resume. That’s the first step!

In job search as in life, the only people who deserve your spark and talents are the people who appreciate them. If they don’t get you, they don’t deserve you!

Liz Ryan is the CEO and Founder of Human Workplace.

TIME Careers & Workplace

6 Sure-Fire Signs They’re Planning to Replace You

A J James—Getty Images

What to look out for and how to deal with it

LinkedIn Influencer Liz Ryan published this post originally on LinkedIn. Follow Liz on LinkedIn.

There’s lot of wildlife in Boulder. I was gobsmacked the first time bear came into our yard, after living in Chicago and New York for years. It got to be more normal, and then we had a mountain lion on our street. Now there’s a mother lion and two cubs wandering the neighborhood. We didn’t have this kind of thing in New Jersey.

They say that a prey animal’s nervous system shuts down when the prey animal is snatched by a predator. Humans have a bit of that going on, too. We tune out signals that should alert us to be on guard and on our feet, at home and at work.

Most of us are so tuned into the next thing on our to-do list and the general crush of daily obligations that we shut down our antennae for new information, especially scary information. We don’t take it in, for example the signals that tell you “You are not going to have this job much longer.”

Every day in our office we hear people say “I was completely blindsided. I got called into someone’s office, they gave me papers to sign and I wasn’t tracking with the conversation, I was so overwhelmed.”

When you lose your job suddenly, you’re in shock. It’s normal. When you get bushwhacked, how else would you react?

When you turn on your antennae to be mindful of signals in the energy field around you, you’ll be in a better position whether you’re working for someone else or for yourself.

The more information you can take in and attend to, the better. The closer you can keep an ear to the ground and all your other senses working at a high level, the stronger your position will be.

When people get in a rut at work it’s called falling asleep on your career. Your spidey sense weakens. Your old street muscles from the playground or the basketball court atrophy. You forget how to pay attention to what’s going on around you, and the press of your work makes that inattention even more likely.

Just then you get the lightning bolt and you’re out of a job without warning. Two weeks later when your body has had time to process everything, you’ll say “Actually, there were signs. I missed them.”

I don’t want to make you paranoid, but every time I write about this topic we get letters from people who say “I was guided to read your column today. I see it now. I’m putting the breadcrumbs together. My boss wants me out.”

That early warning helps you get centered. When you see the storm swells forming as you look out across the water, you can prepare. You can be proactive then. First we’ll walk through the six signs they’re planning to replace you, and then I’ll tell you what to do about them.

You’re Pulled Off a Big Project for No Reason

Be suspicious when you’re on a big project doing fine, and all of a sudden you’re off the project for no reason. That’s not a sensible business move, unless they can tell you what you’re doing next and why that’s good for your employer (and you). If you ask why you were pulled off the project and the answer is mushy and non-committal, get your job-search engine going and start building your mojo for a job search.

All of a Sudden, Your Knowledge is Valuable

God bless our colleagues who lack emotional intelligence, because they broadcast their intentions. One way they do it is to suddenly have an interest in everything you know about your job.

They’ll say one random day “Why don’t you train Elissa, our temp, on how you create newsletters and marketing brochures, and teach her how to do trade shows?” Cross-training is great, but there should be a particular need for it, because cross-training takes a lot of time. If you feel sketchy about somebody’s sudden desire to pick your entire brain, trust your feelings.

Former Strategic Conflicts Disappear

Knowledge work can get us emotionally and philosophically attached to our jobs. We care about decisions made at work when we’re connected to our power source there. Strategic disagreements can get fierce and personal at times.

If you’ve been in a wrangle with someone and suddenly it’s all forgotten, there’s no discussion and everything is fine, the word may have come down that you aren’t staying.

You Can’t Get Forward Visibility

Most folks outside the executive suite don’t get formal employment agreements unless they’re contractors, but we like to have some visibility a year or so into the future. We like to know what the organization is trying to do, and to hear as often as possible how well it’s doing with its goals.

If you can’t get a hint from your manager about your future, that’s a bad sign. Most people would rather waffle than tell you something and have to backtrack later. They may keep you treading water until they’re ready to toss you out of the pool completely.

Your Red-Hot Project Goes Suddenly Cold

A screaming neon sign of an upcoming personnel switch-out is for a person’s pet project which was high-priority suddenly to slip to the back burner almost without mention. It typically means that the leaders still still love the project but don’t want you running it, for whatever energetic-disturbance reason they have. They’ll low-key the project until you’re gone and then rev it back up.

Don’t take it personally. It isn’t about you. Your flame can grow from an experience like that, even if you leave. Look what influence you had! Your great ideas travel with you wherever you go.

You Just Feel It

Humans are an old species. Once I traveled to visit a friend, and on the last day of my visit she scheduled a half-day off work to show me her city. In the morning she had a meeting to attend at work, and she said “Come to my office and meet everyone. There’s a spare office where you can work.”

She went into her meeting and I sat in her office working. I felt a chill. I was in a private office but the door was open to a suite of three other offices in a corner of the building. I stopped typing and felt it. Something in the looks of my friend’s co-workers when they walked by — I couldn’t put my finger on it. I scribbled on a Post-It Note “Went down the street for coffee. Call me.”

My friend called me an hour later and said “Which coffee shop are you at? I’ll join you. I just got fired.”

The bad energy was in the air – the tension. It drove me out. You will feel things and your job is not to judge or pooh-pooh them but to let them sit in your right brain and percolate for a few days. Is there a change in the air temperature? If so, you’ve got to mention it.

What To Do If It Happens?

What if you see some of these signs, or all of them? Take the bull by the horns and find your center. Set up a time to talk with your boss and warmly ask him or her what’s up.

Jump here for a script to guide you.

Liz Ryan is the CEO and Founder of Human Workplace.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com