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Controlling The Controllables: Attitude, Appearance, And Work Ethic

If you read this blog regularly, you may know that I consistently speak to clients at a non-profit called the Osborne Association.

I use my time to discuss how they can improve their odds, as job seekers, of gaining employment. As individuals who have dealt with the criminal justice system in various forms, this can be particularly challenging. While New York State has laws on the books outlining the scope and nature by which employers should assess a candidate’s criminal background, this doesn’t make it easier for this group of job seekers to obtain work. They’re an intelligent and hard-working group. I enjoy the chance to help where I can.

During a recent talk, a client asked about how to manage a conversation centered around a person’s criminal conviction. I explained that it’s important to be honest about the nature of the crime. I also outlined that, depending on the role being applied for, as well as each company’s policies regarding background checks, that this may or may not disqualify them from employment.

With this questioner I spent the majority of my time focusing on what I call “controlling the controllables.” These are elements that a person or organization has direct control over. For example, in retail there are the components of the physical environment, such as merchandise selection, staffing, and store atmosphere, that a retailer can directly adjust and optimize. What it can’t control is the weather. If a blizzard was to occur and the store to shut down, then sales would be still be impacted.


Controllables: the things a person owns or can directly manipulate

Non-controllables: those things that are outside a person’s control that can impact desired results


    For job seekers one’s attitude, appearance, and work ethic is directly within his or her control. These are areas in which they can work on, improve, and optimize. That’s not to say that there can be challenges to overcome (for example, a person may not be able to afford a new suit to wear to a job interview) but these are areas that they can work on directly. What they can hope to affect, through their attitude, appearance, or work ethic, is a recruiter’s or hiring manager’s opinion regarding their fit for the role.

    Let’s look at these elements in detail:

    • Attitude. For the purposes of this post I define “attitude” as the way a person tends to respond (either positively or negatively) to people, situations, or events. For job seekers, attitude is about how you interact with an organization and its members before, during, and after the recruitment process. Are you displaying enthusiastic behavior? Are you composing yourself in a professional manner? When you speak to someone, are you mindful of your tone, volume, and content? What signals are you sending when you believe when no one’s looking? This last question is often overlooked. I’ve talked about the idea of being onstage in the job market. It means that you should be aware that you could be seen and evaluated at any time. Overall, your attitude should reinforce your value proposition to employers. 
    • Appearance. How you dress and take care of your physical assets speaks volumes to employers. Personally, I’m not a fan of ties! Yet I understand that wearing one is part of the recruitment process, no different than having a copy of my most updated resume available. Your appearance matters, regardless of whether you’re interviewing for an entry level role, or a more senior one. There may be flexibility depending on the industry, company, or position. When in doubt, lean toward the conservative. Your appearance matters! 
    • Work ethic. This is part of your attitude, with a focus on how to demonstrate your approach to getting a job done. Your work ethic shows employers that your behaviors match what’s needed in order to execute effectively. For example, if the job entails short deadlines, do you demonstrate a sense of urgency? Are your beliefs in line with the organization’s values and mission statement? Has your work history (and your actions during the interview process) displayed characteristics such as initiative, grit, teamwork, and other traits that a hiring manager may look at favorably? Your work ethic is how you show employers that you know how to do great things for an organization.
    While organizations may choose to hire a person (or not), that doesn’t mean job seekers should leave their search to luck. Take charge of that which you have control over, which is your attitude, appearance, and work ethic. This can help tip the odds in your favor of finding the role you’re looking for.

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