Our Take: Attitude Adjustment

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Just as the job market is gradually turning in their favor, some transitioning professionals are unwittingly sidelining themselves by falling prey to envy, resentment, delusion or self-pity.

The recession now drawing to a close has kept a great many people unemployed longer than ever before. In November more than 38 percent of jobless individuals had been out of work at least six months - the highest percentage since records began in 1948. A number of financial professionals I know have been in transition longer than a year. (However, three long-jobless contacts began new jobs this past month, a very positive sign.)

Being on the outside looking in is inevitably frustrating. But it's critical to avoid letting frustration sour your attitude. This is a frequent and valuable tip conveyed by career experts. Do whatever you must do to stay upbeat, urges Joshua Persky, a valuation consultant and author who has personally experienced long and frustrating job searches.

Inconvenient Truth?

Just how joblessness can corrode a person's attitude is evident from the responses eFinancialCareers News received to a hiring manager Q&A interview published Dec. 1. In that interview, a boutique investment bank's research director said he prefers unemployed candidates over employed ones, but with an important caveat: "There definitely is an expiration date just as there is for a gallon of milk. There is no set timeframe but it is about six months." After that, he explained, a salesperson's relationships with clients will likely atrophy, while a research analyst's connection with coverage universe and client base will start to weaken, eroding their value.

When publishing that article, I anticipated an enthusiastic response from eFC users. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Instead of asking how to contact that hiring manager, most comments bitterly attacked him for stating the simple fact that skills and contacts generally become rusty over the months a person isn't working. One commenter dismissed the article with an expletive, then - with irony that was surely unintended - went on to upbraid me for constructively criticizing a previous commenter's misdirected cynicism.

Adrift From Reality

Beyond the toxic attitudes, the comments also illustrate how a long time in limbo can dilute one's sense of reality. It reminds me of a guest blog entry in the Washington Post back in 2007, by a New Jersey woman struggling in vain to resume a career after a 20-year hiatus - and who blamed her difficulties on age discrimination. Her story represents an outlier, both in the length of time she hadn't worked and her extent of cluelessness about how modern employers evaluate job candidates. But because outliers often convey the clearest lessons of all, I will summarize her situation here.

She reported having a college degree, "post-graduate paralegal certificate" and a strong employment history. After taking 20 years off to raise two disabled children, she expected to parachute right back into a professional role. But, "The only interviews I get are for jobs that pay less than $30,000 a year and offer no benefits," she huffed. She equated her "community service, chairing the high school graduation gala, supervising 150 volunteers, 18 committees, and handling a budget of $60,000" with professional work experience. At one point she even appeared to refer to her paralegal certificate as "advanced degrees."

Similarly, one eFC commenter took offense at a hiring manager's judgment that he'd been "doing nothing for 6 months" while unemployed. He pointed out how much networking and job interviewing he'd done in that time. But I think that person was being disingenuous. Is there really anyone out there who's unaware such activities don't count as work experience?

True, there are activities you can list on a resume while in transition: projects performed on a contract basis, board service and regular volunteer work (especially if finance-related), or even - according to one career coach at least - substantial unpaid assignments performed as part of an employer's interview process. Still, there are lines a candidate should never cross. And the decision where those lines fall isn't up to you - it's up to the collective judgment of your professional peers, including teammates and prospective supervisors at your next job.

So, just as the job market is turning up, take care you don't slide into an attitude that could land you not in a new job, but in the penalty box for the duration.

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