Our Take: Hidden Rules of the Candidate Selection Game

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Making it through the job-search maze requires a finely crafted story and image. Besides recognizing and compellingly addressing a prospective employer's concrete business needs, a successful candidate must also address hidden requirements embedded in every screening and interview process.

Some financial professionals who've been out of work for a long time may be compounding their difficulty by overlooking one such requirement: A viable resume must show a current, or at least very recent, entry at the top of the "Professional History" section.

Even if your most recent job ended last year or (heaven forbid) in 2008, you simply must show something on your resume that proves you are devoting serious effort to keeping your skills and contacts fresh. Being involuntarily excluded from a full-time staff position is one thing; whiling away the hours playing Modern Warfare 2 is entirely different. And that's the image you unwittingly present when you submit a resume that shows a gaping hole where your (or anyone's) current job description should be.

What can an unemployed job-seeker plug in that hole? Project work, volunteering for professional associations or even charitable or civic groups (especially if finance-related), board service, career-relevant classes or certifications you've registered for, a reference to your career-relevant blog. List your current work as "Independent Trader," "Independent Analyst," or "Independent Writer," as the case may be. Or make up a unique business name to list as your current employer, and call yourself "principal" or "owner." Even if you had just a single client or project, you'll have something to talk about if asked how your independent business is going.

Don't Misrepresent, But Adapt to Prevailing Beliefs

If pressed for details about contract volume or income, tell the truth. The purpose isn't to misrepresent your current activity or income level, but to prove you're conversant with a universal assumption of the talent acquisition game and have structured your post-layoff activities and resume accordingly. The assumption is this: anyone's career "muscles" - their professional skills and revenue-generating contacts - atrophy if not exercised regularly.

Of course, exceptions always exist. But why begin at a disadvantage, by adopting a position where you must prove you're an exception to remain in the game? Instead of setting out to disprove a prevailing belief, you're better off adapting your presentation to conform with it.

Here are two other assumptions that underlie most employers' selection process.

A viable interview candidate must present a credible story about why this job and this company is precisely right for you at this moment in your career. If you're the proverbial "perfect" hire - you're currently performing the exact same job for the company's closest rival - the question answers itself. Excluding that rare situation, at some point in your initial interview (and probably in later ones too) you'll be expected to explain just how your career progressed to its present state and why you're certain the opening you're applying for is the logical next step in your career path. Forewarned is forearmed. (Note: If you feel "regressed" might be more accurate than "progressed," erase that thought from your mind. Apply caustic chemicals, if necessary.)

An Interview is an Acting Performance

A third convention is that a candidate must say only favorable things about her current and past employers. The universality of that rule is perhaps the clearest proof that interviewers aim to gauge candidates' acting skills. After all: If you loved and respected every previous employer, and each of them (of course!) loved and respected you, then why would you have changed employers twice, three times or more? And why would you be out of a job (or seeking to change jobs) now?

Unless you've jumped ship frequently enough to be labeled a job-hopper, no interviewer will point out the inherent contradiction between those two conflicting sets of "facts" you laid out when detailing your work history. Still, you will be expected to have convincing explanations for each job change... explanations that somehow reflect favorably on both you and each employer you left. Right.

All these resume and interview conventions make sense if you understand the person across the table is playing a game and expects you to play along. Not just go through the motions, but play hard and capably - and above all, act sincere.

After all, most finance jobs in one way or another depend on selling products or services that aren't all they're cracked up to be. Whether your expertise is dealing with clients and prospects, counterparties, vendors, auditors, regulators, investors, news reporters or an employer's own work force, performing flawlessly in a job interview just might be the most reliable way there is to prove you'll effectively champion the company's interests where the rubber meets the road.

Think that's hypocritical? Fine. Go off and play Holden Caulfield. But don't expect to work in finance. Holden never would have.

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