Just Be Yourself? A Middle-Ager’s Approach to the Job Search

Unemployed people in front of a workhouse in L...

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We’ve had some discussion on this site recently about selling oneself during the job search – how much is too little, or too much, what’s the best approach to take – and it seemed serendipitous to me that I found the article titled “The New Rules of Job Interviewing for Boomers (and All Of Us)”.  I had just been sharing some back and forth with reader and new friend Jurate, when one of my LinkedIn groups shared the above article by “workplace strategist and career advisor” Liz Ryan.

As we have seen, the elder unemployed are facing relatively greater difficulty finding a job in the new marketplace.  As with anything, it is likely due to a confluence of many factors:

  • These are experienced, generally mid-to-high level employees, and have higher salary requirements than those whippersnappers straight out of school, still living with mom and dad.  These people ARE mom and dad.
  • These are workers falling further behind their colleagues in terms of technology proficiency, domain knowledge, and contact networks; with each month they remain unemployed these workers will have a steeper learning curve should they actually land that ideal job.
  • The endless cycle faced by the long-term unemployed, with every rejection (or even lack of response from companies) lessening the job seeker’s confidence, shatters their self-esteem. 

But it is a brave, scary new world out there – and while I am no Baby Boomer, most of my bosses have been; most of my teachers (both formal and informal) too.  It is from them whom I hope to get a job (though I’ve already once had a boss younger than me, and too many to count have been within five years of my own age), if not from someone my own age with the same traditional Boomer influences.

So while the title intrigued me enough to click through, the content kept me hooked.  It seems there are many out in the job search with the same questions I have.

Now I don’t think I quite have the ankles for Capri pants, and I was surprised to see that pink resume paper was ever appropriate, though I have often wondered if I really HAD to wear the necktie for a lot of these interviews.  You’ve seen me debate at the role of color in a resume, and even on how to follow-up after an interview.

According to Liz Ryan, everything is just a “branding choice”, an option that simply says more about who we really are, with no real “right” or “wrong”.

“We aren’t going on a job interview to please anyone, in 2011. We’re going to find out whether our brand fits with someone else’s brand — in this case, a prospective employer. This is a hard notion for some folks of my vintage to wrap their minds around. The Right Way and the Wrong Way to job-hunt have been replaced by Your Way, and that’s disconcerting to many.”

Now, I hate to argue here, but I truly don’t think I’m disconcerted because of the lack of structure – in a lot of ways, I embrace the pressure-free environment that says “wear the aviator glasses if that’s who you truly want to be”.   I am all for the “be yourself” approach in theory – allowing the worker to express himself/herself with their own personal style frees them up to be creative, it gives them a confidence in their ability to present themselves, and their ideas, to the world.

Liz goes on to say:

“Today, it isn’t the pleasingest job-seeker who gets the nod. It’s the person the employer most believes can solve its problems. Do’s and Don’ts are mostly out the window (except for the Do’s and Don’ts that apply to every interaction with other people: don’t spit in the potted plants, don’t curse at the interviewer, and don’t ask him or her on a date). The question to ask isn’t “What is acceptable?” but rather “How do I want to present myself to this employer?” This query begs the related question, “Who am I, at this stage in my life and career?” Many boomers have toiled away for decades at jobs they didn’t love. Why force ourselves to fit into another job that doesn’t inspire us or bring out our talents? Show up at a job interview (or in a resume, for that matter) as yourself, and you’ll be all the more compelling to employers — and all the more likely to end up performing work you love. You might as well let them meet the real you if you’re going to consider working for them.”

This, too, is great in theory, and for those of us who have the luxury of finding just that right job, regardless of the time it may take, this is a great approach.  It may help counteract some of the confidence-eroding long-term job hunt cycle, and although it might not address some of the other potential issues of the long-term unemployed, it may be enough to jump-start a stalled search. 

But at the same time I keep coming back to that mantra of my father’s, “it can’t help and it certainly can hurt”.  Take the issue of a beard, for example.  “Nobody’s going to see a clean-shaven man and wonder why he doesn’t have a beard.”  And while he eventually acknowledged that some people, upon seeing the beard, MIGHT react favorably, he still had to argue that some people MIGHT wonder what that beard is hiding. 

There is a logic behind this.  Yes, I will be myself – I have worn my beard in some form or another to many interviews, as long as it was in a presentable (and not-TOO-scruffy state) and I have even tried to use that to help form an image of myself, essentially trying to leverage a brand.  The full beard presents a good image when I am talking with academics, or when I want to present an experienced management image (thanks to the touch of gray which highlights my facial locks).  The goatee works better to appear younger, though my wife insists I look youngest clean-shaven. 

I’m not exactly going to interviews in jeans and flannel shirts though, which is really the self I am on weekends.  I need to dress a part, to put on a uniform that I might rarely (if ever) have to wear again for the actual job.  Some of the hiring managers might respond to a beard – they, or their spouse, or their father might have had one.  Maybe they associate beards with intelligence, with empathy, or with experience.   But it is just as possible that they will wonder what’s wrong with my face under that beard, or maybe think like my wife, that I look like a “mountain thief”.

Again, “nobody’s going to see a clean-shaven man and wonder why he doesn’t have a beard.” 

“Boomers – many of whom only found Facebook a year ago — aren’t generally well-versed in personal branding. “Who I really am” and “How I present myself to employers” are non-intersecting circles on most boomers’ personal Venn diagrams. It’s a new day for job-seekers, and job-holders for that matter. All of the choices are ours, from resume-paper options to interview-conversation topics and even decisions about capri pants on interviews. You’ve got a brand. The right employers will love it, and the wrong ones will shun it (and you), and that’s just as it should be. After all, if an employer doesn’t get you, s/he doesn’t deserve you.”

Thanks to the article, I am growing a little more comfortable with sharing the “personal brand” I am creating.    A little.  I don’t feel so bad having shared my “fact sheet” after one of my interviews – positioning it as a “way to remember me”, I was able to leave behind a professional-looking piece which highlighted my skills and personality.  I think I feel a little more comfortable sending a second follow-up note, beyond the traditional “thank you note” people are expected to send.  And if I don’t send that second or third note, out of respect for the hiring manager’s time and decision-making process, then that’s okay too, because it is my natural way of doing things, so that in itself makes it alright.

But at the same time it all feels wrong.  I don’t like to promote myself, to advertise, to basically have to be a personality that I am not in order to land the job.  If I thought that there really was an opportunity out there for a socially-phobic, very intelligent person who is almost passive-aggressively modest and driven by external validation, I would be glad to be that person at the interview.

The fact remains that our professional brand cannot be totally the same as our personal selves, nor should it be.  But the fact also exists that most of us form a lot of our new professional brand based on the company where we work. 

Just as in a romantic relationship, where aspects of ourselves change based on our partners, we mold ourselves to the workplace around us.  One question I have often faced in interviews is how I would handle a situation where I am not getting the response I urgently need.  And while my natural inclinations may lead one way, I am perfectly comfortable adapting to a new environment.  So while at Thomson I would send a note, pick up the phone or (when possible) just poke my head in the person’s cubicle, it would not be hard to adapt to other companies’ culturally-accepted approaches, such as having my manager deal with it, or simply making the decision on my own.

In the end, all any of us can do is “be ourselves”, even if that self is a constructed image which may have little to do with our potential, who we can truly be after a week, a month, a year at the job.

So who do you want to be?

5 Responses to “Just Be Yourself? A Middle-Ager’s Approach to the Job Search”
  1. missdisplaced says:

    Ugh! Sometimes these articles make me want to hurl (not your article, but the one you are referring to). So, they say it’s about your BRAND fitting their BRAND huh? Since when is it about your brand and not about who can actually DO THE FREAKING JOB!

    Now. I am far from being a Boomer, and I “found” Facebook and Twitter long ago. I just don’t happen to want to use them in my job search because, well gee, I happen to like my private life being just that, PRIVATE. I do maintain my LinkedIn profile as well as a personal web page. But you know what, enough really IS enough.

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