combating unhealthy power dynamics during a job search — the ones in your head

One of the many things that sucks for job seekers is the power differential that exists between job-seekers and employers.

Because the employer has something you want and it’s as important as money and possible career happiness, and because at times it feels like employers can wield their power arbitrarily, many people respond in a way that makes the job search experience even harder: They lose all assertiveness and feel utterly helpless during the process. They feel 100% at the mercy of employers, and when those employers act in ways that are confusing or inconsiderate, they feel helpless to change the situation.

It’s a recipe not just for frustration, but for outright depression.

It sucks, and you can change it.

How? Be your normal self, not your job-seeking self. Stop feeling like the employer is the source of all power in the world and you are dependent on their good will for your food that day. Don’t be deferential or suck up. Act like you are both businesspeople contemplating a relationship with each other, because you are.

Easier said than done, of course. But changing your mindset will make you feel a whole lot better. And not only will it not harm your chances of getting a job, but it may actually help them.

Look at what this means in practice:

Example #1: An employer emails and asks you to name several times you’d be available for a phone interview. You’re not sure if they’re asking you to remain available at all the times you listed, or if they’re going to pick one and tell you, or what.
Unhealthy: Naming five times and planning to remain available and by the phone at all of them.
Assertive: Naming several times and adding, “Please let me know which to plan on, so that I know which one to hold open.”

Example #2: An employer tells you they’ll call you for a phone interview at 3:00. It’s 3:15 and they haven’t called.
Unhealthy: Feeling angry and let down and helpless. Doing nothing.
Assertive: Calling them and saying, “We had a 3:00 phone interview scheduled and I’m checking in since I haven’t heard from you. Would you like to reschedule or is now a good time to talk?”

Example #3: At the end of the interview, the employer says, “We’ll be in touch” but doesn’t give you a timeline.
Unhealthy: Obsessing daily for the next two weeks, wondering when you’ll hear something.
Assertive: Saying on the spot, “Can you give me a sense of your timeline and when I should expect to hear back from you?” And following up appropriately if that timeframe passes without any word.

The key in all of these is that you’re just acting like a normal person — not too cowed to ask reasonable questions, seeking information that any rational person would understand why you want (even if it didn’t occur to them to offer it proactively), and using a tone that is neither obsequious nor demanding, just matter-of-fact and friendly. In other words, you’re talking to them like you would talk to a coworker you were already working with.

Trust me, it is fine to do the things in the “assertive” examples above, and other things like them. You will not ruin your chances. But you will reposition yourself mentally to feel less at the mercy of others.

And not only will you find the job search experience less upsetting because you won’t feel so completely at the mercy of other people’s whims, but you’ll also create a side benefit for yourself: When you act like a coworker would, you make it easier for the employer to picture you in that role (as opposed to a desperately frantic job-seeker, which presumably won’t be what you’re like as a colleague). And by respecting your own time, you’ll signal to the employer that you’re someone whose time is worthy of respect.

Try it. And hang in there…

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Mr. and Mrs. Stoneking*

    I love reading your blog… It makes me laugh, and think of my old managers when I used to work at a restaurant. As a nurse, I sorta kinda have a manager, but it is sorta kinda different because I feel as though I work for myself.. or really, my patients.

  2. Inside the Philosophy Factory*

    I actually think that doing these things shows a positive aspect of the employee.. namely that they aren't afraid to ask for reasonable information from folks with more "power" than themselves.

    Think about it this way — if you are a passive wimp during your job search — then the employer has no other view of you than as a passive wimp. This isn't a good thing. On the other hand, someone who asks reasonable questions about timelines and expectations is assertive in the right way and organized enough to follow-up when the deadlines aren't met by the employer.

    Finally, how an employer reacts to these questions tells you a lot about the level of professionalism in the organization. If they can't handle these standard inquiries, how are they going to deal with their business?

  3. Julie O'Malley*

    When you're desperate for a job, it's tough to feel your own power. But an employer with a job opening is an employer with a costly problem in terms of money, time, and lost productivity.

    One of the people they're interviewing is going to solve that problem. They're not doing you a favor!

  4. Erica*

    I love that at this point in the "oh my god, this economy is insane" cycle, advice is now: Be a freakin' normal person, you dummy.

  5. Anonymous*

    I wish this had been written earlier. As interesting as the personal stories are on here, it also helps to hear general advice.

    However, I would like to see something added on to here: When does being assertive cross the line?

    Why? There have been times in an interview where I wanted to point out something to the interviewer that I felt was wrong, but I kept my mouth shut. I've been on a couple of interviews that were interrupted or the interviewer was distracted. I wanted to say "hey, I'm over here speaking." But to me, that would've been the wrong thing to say and consequently not get me the job (which I didn't get anyway).

  6. Jane*

    Anon, to me there's a clear difference there–you're talking not about acquiring schedule-relevant information but about redirecting/correcting the behavior of other people. The latter is going to be sticky even if you have the job.

  7. a.e.*

    I would like to believe that I have taken an assertive approach in my job search (i.e. I respect my time and I respect others to as well and I do not think I have yet to play the deferential puppy to be kicked around as of yet) yet I still can't combat the helpless feeling that I have. I have been unemployed for over a year and a half and have experienced all the very high's as well as the very low's – from thinking that being flown out to meet the company head means you're a lock for the position, to arriving and being told that no one in the company thinks you'd be a good fit for the position. Nevertheless, I know I have a good resume, I have tried to keep my skills sharp and not appear to desperate, but the truth is that I AM. I am tired of living at home with my parents after over a decade of living on my own; I am tired of the rejection; I am tired of answering questions as to why I have been out of work for over a year; I am tired of explaining my college friggin' GPA as if it matters after 5+ years in the workforce; I'm tired of exhaustively researching a company and potential interviewers only to come off as 'impressive' but not impressive enough to get the job (apparently); and I'm just tired. So, AAM, how does one combat that unhealthy aspect of the job search? Because I have an in person interview Thursday and a phone interview on Friday (both jobs that in a normal situation I wouldn't even consider) and I can barely summon up the strength to care anymore.

  8. a.e.*

    Anon, I totally relate! I am a rather confident person, I would think, but I have definitely been in an interview and the other person is checking email, is reviewing some other material, taking 5+ min calls, etc. Good times! I always struggle with what to do. I have tried the, "would there be a better time to re-schedule this because you seem to have a lot on your plate right now", but that doesn't make a lot of sense when you traveled especially for the interview. Anyway, like I mentioned, I have been out of work for over a year and a half so its not as if I can say I have found a strategy that works particularly well.

  9. Anonymous*

    @Jane: I understand the difference between what was written in AAM's post and the scenario I portrayed. However, in a sense, it's about power. The interviewee has to show an interest in the company; after all, don't we research beforehand and ask questions in the interview? We have to pay attention and express that interest. But what about the interviewer? To me, they are showing a great deal of power when they can allow distractions to take them away from your time and interest…almost as if you don't matter. That's intimidating and a letdown – the sort of depression AAM is trying to steer us away from.

    However, when I have seen this, I apply to it the environment. Perhaps it's telling me something.

  10. Anonymous*

    Glad to hear I'm not the only person out there who's been out of work for over a year. I mean, not "glad" that we're unemployed, but somewhat relieved that I'm not alone

  11. Unemployed Gal*

    I agree with Factory. If you act like a desperate, spineless worm, and they hire you, it’s because they wanted a spineless worm for an employee. What does that tell you about their management style and the likely passivity of your future coworkers? What happens when you show up on the first day full of confidence and self-esteem and expecting respect from the worm-hiring management?

    Frankly, I’d rather be my assertive, confident self and let the worm managers screen me out. I don’t want to work for them anyway.

  12. Unemployed Gal*

    a.e., I’ve also been unemployed for over a year, and I’ve been where you are. It royally sucks. The best way that I’ve found to cope is to find a non-job-hunt activity. If you spend all day, everyday, obsessively focused on the job search, you will burn out very quickly. Join a weekend bowling league, take an adult ed class, volunteer for story time at library. Anything that gets you out of the house. Don’t look at it as an opportunity for aggressive networking or trying to join an organization through the backdoor. (Any networking will occur naturally.) Just have some fun and enjoy the distraction. When the activity is over, you be refreshed to resume the hunt.

    This will also give you something to discuss when the interviewer asks you, “So what have you been doing?” “I volunteer at a soup kitchen twice a week,” sounds a lot better than “I spend all day in my pajamas waiting for the phone to ring”

    (One last tip: DON’T volunteer at organizations where you’d like a paid position. They WON’T hire you if you already work for free. Trust me, this never works.)

  13. Jonathan*

    @Anonymous and a.e.

    It is quite unnerving and annoying when an interviewer doesn't seem to be paying attention to you, or seems to be playing some sort power game with you. Many times this could be because the person is a jerk or just bad at his or her job.

    However, this might be a tactic of the interviewer. S/he might be trying to unsettle you. The interviewer might be trying to get a rise out of you. It's quite possible that the position for which you are interviewing is high stress and requires dealing with oft rude people. The interviewer might need to see how you'll respond.

    AAM's advice still holds. You can't (always) control the behaviour of the interviewer, but you can be in command of your own behaviour. Remain strong and confident.

    And good luck. I know how bad it can be when your job search feels like it's going nowhere.

  14. Adam*

    One of the best blogs I've read from you, and you've done MANY great ones. It is so hard not to feel like you're at the mercy of the world or "the system". It almost seems like when you do make positive progress like you just plain got lucky.

    Thank you for the words.

  15. Anonymous*

    Wow, that's great advice. It really is. It's hard to take to heart right now though. You mention tips for being assertive when speaking to potential employers. Since Christmas I've applied to about 80 different jobs all over the career spectrum and aside from the occasional "You're credentials are impressive but…" form letter I've gotten zero response. Any advice on how to keep the faith when it seems like you're not even a blip on the radar?

  16. Kathy*

    Hi, I have a question that I do not mean with any snotty tone, whatsoever. I am truly curious because it's something I've always wondered:

    For those of you unemployed for lengthy periods of time, how do you survive? Did you have a large emergency fund built up? Do you tend to live on credit? Do you just cut back significantly?

    Also, is a part-time job a possibility? Again, please understand that I'm asking out of curiousity–not as an attack.

    I have often wondered this as I contemplate what would happen if I lost my job. I have probably several months of savings built up (as I continue to build it), but I don't know what I would do much beyond that….?

    Best of luck to you all in the job-search mode. Things will get better. It has to.

  17. Anonymous*

    I'm with Kathy….I have no idea how people do it. If I lost my job, I'd be moving back in with my parents within a week and be completely dependent. And I only have that luxury because I rent; what do you do when you have no income and a house that won't sell? Do they all have spouses who make so much that the rent or mortgage can still be paid with half the income gone? What do you do if you're single and you are your only source of income?

  18. Anonymous*

    This past July, my partner was laid off. We had 3 months of emergency savings and I was working a part-time job while attending graduate school full time.

    We immediately cut out every expense except food, mortgage, gas, electric, internet, and phone. We downgraded our car insurance to the state minimum. We did keep Netflix ($10/mo), but spent no other money on entertainment. My part-time job helped slow the bleeding, but wasn't nearly enough on its own. When the savings ran out, I took extra student loans.

    Luckily, the nightmare ended this week as my partner started a new FT job. If it hadn't been for the student loans (which now have to be repaid at exorbitant interest), I don't know what we would've done.

  19. Anonymous*

    @Kathy and Wondering Anonymous –

    From a different perspective (as I am single), I have learned the "do you really need that" standpoint. When everything's going well, you don't give two thoughts at purchasing that book or going to the movie theater. But when you are out of a job, you don't pull out your wallet as fast. If I want to read a book, I go to the free public library. Guess what? If I wait, I can also get the new DVDs there too. Yes, I'll wait a good few months to see the movie, but that's $10 that stayed in my wallet for food and other necessities. You'll become creative at saving money but still enjoy things.

    Like what Unemployed Gal said, you might cut back on eating out and staying home more often eating peanut butter. You can splurge every now and then, but don't make it a habit.

    And coupons become your friends!

    Can I thank you? I really appreciate someone finally asking what it is like to be struggling in this time. You appear to appreciate your job and understand that there could be a risk of losing it due to this economy. Thank you for realizing that times are tough. There are people out there who have jobs and turn a deaf ear when they hear others complaining/discussing/mentioning how hard it is out there. Do they live under a rock or can't face the reality? Whichever, I thank you for not being one.

  20. Unemployed Gal*

    @Kathy and others wondering:

    Do they all have spouses who make so much that the rent or mortgage can still be paid with half the income gone? My husband has a (reasonably) secure job that barely covers the bills. But we’re “paycheck to paycheck” until I find work.

    What do you do when you have no income and a house that won't sell? If my husband lost his job too, I guess we’d have to pick out a nice cardboard box to live in. (In other words, we’re screwed.)

    Did you have a large emergency fund built up? We did, until we had several emergencies, including a flooded basement. But that cushion did help.

    Do you tend to live on credit? We’ve managed to keep our balances low, but a single illness or emergency repair would definitely fill the cards again.

    Do you just cut back significantly? Oh, yeah. I’ve never had this many peanut butter-based meals in my life.

    Is a part-time job a possibility? I’m looking for part-time, full-time, and everything in between. Most unemployed aren’t sitting around waiting for that CFO opening. I’d walk your dogs for a paycheck.

    What do you do if you're single and you are your only source of income? During a previous period of unemployment in my early twenties, I enrolled in college and paid the rent with student loans. My credit cards got pretty fat then, too. It wasn’t fun, but at least I have a degree (and massive student loans) to show for it.

  21. Anonymous*

    I applied to a position and was granted an interview. I didn't get the job because they were looking for a specific combination of skills.

    They were looking for a PR pro with a background in the health and scientific field. I've been in PR for many years in the health care field, but don't have a scientific background.

    The job posting reappeared several months later so I reapplied. Perhaps they may have changed their criteria since the person they hired didn't work out and they were looking for someone with my strengths this time.

    The recruiter emailed me to let me know that she would conduct a phone interview the next week. The next week when I found out that my father was dying I emailed her to let her know. I told her to call my cell phone as I would be out of town and I would have limited availability for an telephone interview as I wouldn't have any privacy because of the relatives staying with us. I gave her a few times when I would be available and she emailed me back to let me know when she was available. I thought that she might be able to juggle her schedule because of my circumstances and she might inquire as to when was my father's funeral and maybe express some sympathy. She emails me back and one of the suggested times was the day of my father's funeral and the other was an early evening appointment that happened to be on my birthday, where I would be at my sister's celebrating my first birthday without my father.

    Then she emailed me back for a time slot the next morning that we finally agreed upon. I sat by my phone the next day for about 45 minutes when I arranged to have some privacy, but no phone call. I emailed her later to tell her that maybe she didn't reach me because my cell phone could have been acting up. (My cell phone was fine, I just wanted to give her an out if she forgot to phone me.) She said that she called me at my home number. This is after three or four emails telling her to call me on my cell.

    I emailed her to let her know when I would be back home and she arranged a date and a time for a telephone interview. After five minutes into our conversation, she said, "Oh, I wonder why your name was familiar," and realized she interviewed me several months ago. She indicated again that my background wasn't quite what she was looking for.

    If she had looked though her files in the first place to see who she interviewed the first go around, all this could be have been avoided! However, she was an outside consultant doing the initial screening, so I had no way of knowing whether she was representative of the attitude of the organization. I hope I never encounter again do the screening for another client!

  22. Anonymous*


    I see where you're coming from, but I highly doubt that's the case in my situation. I have been on interviews where I had their undivided attention and vice versa. However, in a couple, I would look the person in the eye to find they are more interested in the other objects in the room, and mind you, it wasn't just one time during the half hour. I don't know if they scheduled me for an inconvenient time for the company, if they chosen someone already and are doing this for a formality, if I said something that already determined a "no," or if that's the attitude of the environment. I thought about it more and got unsettled once I was home, but I didn't show it while I was there. I kept up my end of the interview.

  23. 12 yrs exp*

    I am new to this blog and don't consider myself a computer savvy person. However, I am trying everything I can think of doing.

    I have been unemployeed since October 2008 and I have gotten absolutley nowhere. As anonymous said; I am tired. I have tried every tatic I can think of.

    I have countless profiles online with the federal government to local government. To me this is a waist of time as I have been turned down via a letter, without explaination. What is that? How do I improve my approach if I do not know what happened.

    For example, I could be the best quarterback out there; but throwing interceptions for some reason. In stead of telling me I good and going on to someone else, there is a thing out there call a quaterback coach. The coach helps you with your weakness and focus and get you back in the game sooner than later.

    I've tried the resume writers (The ladders for one). They took my money and got me absolutley nowhere. I have even tried to get a local psycologist to create a focus group of people in the same situation. He was not interested. I look for two jobs (I say jobs because a career is out of the question) per week just to get my unemployment. I go to my state job services and they tell me there is not much they can do. I could go on and on and on…

    As anomymous said I'm TIRED. I'm tired of my situation i'm tired of having my wife who is dealing with breast cancer be the bread winner. Unless you're going through the same situation, it is very troubeling (as a man) to relly on your wife to make the house payment plus get treatment.

    I am looking for answers. I feel there are none out there. The reason I say this is because everyone says I know how you feel, but that is far as it goes. I was turned down by a grocery store for a part time stocking position because once they looked at my resume they did not think it was right for me. What is that!?!

    I am to the point where I want to create a fake resume that shows I have less experience just so I can get the stocking position or what have you. I don't think it is being weak, I think it comes down to how bad you want it. Money makes the world go around and I didn't make the rule. Therefore it is getting down to the nitty-gritty.

    What am I to tell my children when I tell them we have to move since I we can't pay the mortgage?

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