Last summer, I made the achingly painful decision to shut down my company. Even though I work in social media and marketing, I am not one for broadcasting these life events online. It always seemed like desperation to me when I saw others do this on Facebook or LinkedIn, rather than some positive career announcement. It made a lot of business sense to let everyone know I was looking for employment – you know, get the word out – but this would involve having to explain why I was in this situation in the first place. Something that would take more than a social media post to create context and stop others leaping to the conclusion at my ‘failure’ as a businessman. Even though I use social media for work, I am a relatively private person. The industry I work in can be full of gossipy, ambitious people, so despite living in a time where we all overshare, I wasn’t prepared to divulge that side of my life to get a job lead. I knew it shouldn’t be something to feel ashamed about either, even though every former business owner initially feels this way. The prospect of contending with further potential rejection in the job market is as equally intimidating after this first life-changing step. Owning a business is a deeply personal venture. You risk many elements to secure success, and not everyone is successful doing it. I launched my consultancy agency ten years ago in Australia and I’m extraordinarily proud of the work my company produced over the years and have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic clients. Unfortunately, my priorities changed and keeping my business afloat was becoming increasingly harder as a result. Partly through my own choice and unforeseen circumstances, I was forced to reevaluate my life and decide what I was prepared to focus my time and energy on moving forwards.
A different kind of interview.
It’s been ten years since I’ve worked for someone else other than a client, yet over the last six months, I have been surprised how hard it’s been to secure even a simple job interview. I never remembered it being this hard. Endless emailing, networking, LinkedIn messaging and online applications achieved only a handful of interviews. These all started with the same question:
“Why would you want to leave your own company and work for us?”
And the general feedback from these interviews? Apparently, I’m too qualified. I went on to discover these positions went to younger, possibly cheaper, supposedly ‘hungrier’ people. Is this unfair or an astute managerial decision? Perhaps. In defence of others like me though, I can’t help thinking this might be a little short-sighted. I can say this with some confidence, as I’ve spent many hours having to train several of these people managers end up hiring. I began wondering if I was experiencing some sort of ageism, or worse still, merely coming across badly in my interviews. Yet, the same responses – interview after interview – suggested there might be genuine apprehension out there in the workplace towards considering individuals who were former bosses of their own company, especially when it came to hiring middle to senior level management roles. A few friends, who like myself, had gone out on their own for a considerable period, deciding to return to the workplace for one reason or another, had told me they also found it difficult to be accepted as a prospective interview choice. And these aren’t just people who freelanced for a couple of years between jobs. At times, the fight to be a viable candidate for interview seemed impossible for many of them. It was as if their independence took them out of the equation. Justified reasoning, or not, these were the obstacles I was now facing after deciding to dust off my CV which had been sitting on my hard drive for far too long. I was given all sorts of advice which disheartened and angered me slightly:
“I had to dumb down my CV to get a foot in the door.”
“I got mine through my old client. Try doing it that way.”
“You may have to take a significant step down and pay cut to prove you’re committed.”
“You need a job, any job. From there, you can get the job you actually want.”
I quickly discovered convincing potential employers you are serious about returning to a full-time work is a tough one to pitch. At times, I felt the reaction was of suspicion and handled with ladles of cynicism. As if I wasn’t serious after the 12-page online application form, or the personality questionnaire, and after writing countless cover letters. Many of my interviews began having to defend my situation, and I left many of them feeling almost punished for my career trajectory — as if I had reached some mythical pinnacle of my career which meant I could no longer turn back. In one interview, my CV was described as having a lot of ‘experience’ — the speech marks being a polite way saying I was really old. Another meeting, my first question was if my application was a cunning way to get new business out of them. The truth is you can’t hide your experience and neither should you have to. Yet somehow my situation and achievements were confusing or intimidating to others, especially those who spent their lives working only for someone else.
I understand organisations are looking for the person who is the right fit. A new employee needs to complement the workforce and be able to take on the role with the least amount of friction and training – I’ve been that employer myself. Yet many clearly think if you’ve run your own business, you are a liability somehow. They don’t say you’re a risk to your face and will use phrases which are tenuous at best. I believe they are wrong. People like myself have so much to give to a new employer, and we are a wealth of talent and experience. So here are my responses to the few excuses I’ve had during my time looking for work:
Reason #1: They might not fit in well with the rest of the team.
These people are in fact a valuable resource of self-motivation, managerial expertise and valuable business knowledge. And smart bosses out there get this. My friend who runs a design agency declared her best employee was a developer who had run his own company for years before working for her. He was intuitive and empathic with clients, colleagues and management. You only get that with age and a certain type of experience. I look back now at my old boss and have a newfound respect for what he went through and the pressures he was under.
Reason #2: There is a potential conflict of interest.
There is a concern a former business owner will use their newly acquired work relationships to restart their business again perhaps. This is a risk all companies take with any employee, and non-compete clauses in contracts are designed to stop this from happening. New business is a core skill for any self-employed person, so tapping into that resource and using their wealth of connections is a crazy thing to miss out on.
Reason #3: They will get bored and frustrated in the role.
The reality is, anyone who has made the painful decision to seek work again has gone through a grieving process; saying goodbye to years of financial and emotional investment, and also a part of their identity which has defined them for quite some time. These factors make the perks of self-employment like flexible work hours and profit shares rather inconsequential. Doing your own taxes, being responsible for people’s salaries, paying bills on time, and working every hour you have, are not a tremendous amount of fun. So most individuals who have experienced this are very grateful for the defined responsibilities on offer. They far outweigh any potential boredom or frustration, I guarantee you.
Excuse #4: They are a ‘wild card’ application.
Being in the interview room and talking about working for your organisation is a big deal for someone who has most likely gone through a lot of self-analysis to get to this point. Neither party wants to feel their time is wasted, so being respectful of the time given by both sides is crucial, as no one looking to re-enter the workplace wants to hear it was just an excuse to ‘meet up’. Alternatively, why not see this ‘wild card’ as a potential future team member who respects and understands the pressures you have as a company leader. They will be self-motivated and offer you ideas you may never have considered before.
Excuse #5: They’ve been out of the workplace for too long.
Remember there is a considerable attraction to working full-time and it is not just a stop gap, as many would believe. It is a significant life change to jump in either direction. Job security, regular pay, holiday entitlement, and pension contributions, are all elusive pipe dreams for the self-employed person. Every new person needs to demonstrate an effort to integrate into a workplace, as every office environment is different. We have the advantage, we can adapt quickly, as many of us have had to over the years just to keep our businesses going.
At the end of the day, I get that there are hundreds of people suitable for any job. And self-employed people shouldn’t be given extra special treatment, however, they do have some special to offer – this should be treated with enthusiasm, rather than caution. Since we now operate in a growing gig economy, employers will probably encounter more and more individuals who have worked for themselves at some point in their career, so it is essential we remain open-minded and embrace the skills and experience they have on offer. Honest feedback is all anyone can ask for, with this we can learn and ultimately adapt our approach as we keep looking for the right opportunity to come along.
This article was first published on Medium on 2 January 2019.