Critical Consent: Setting Proper Expectations with Clients

By Todd W. Zabel

A résumé is a deeply personal document that tracks the history of a client’s working life, and even a seemingly simple resume review conversation can yield emotional results. Comments intended to help the client see opportunities for improvement (both in the document itself and in the client’s approach to their career), can sometimes elicit a passionate, negative response, which can catch the résumé reviewer by surprise.

As an experienced hiring manager, I know firsthand the many potential pitfalls in the corporate and technical hiring processes, and believe I am uniquely suited to help clients not only avoid them, but also shine in a stack of similarly qualified candidates. In order to help job seekers achieve their goals, I must provide direct and honest feedback that sometimes entails starting the résumé anew, or even propose a complete reevaluation of one’s career path. I have learned over time that it is important to set appropriate expectations with clients from the outset, so they understand the journey we are about to embark upon:

  • I am not here to make you feel better about yourself or to validate the quality of your résumé;
  • I am not here to make your résumé look nice;
  • I am not here simply to help you get interviews;
  • I AM here to push you and challenge you not only to make your résumé the best it can possibly be, but also to help you think very carefully about your professional path and approach to career development.

Those working with a professional résumé reviewer can expect to receive in-depth comments and critical questions about their documents. Over the years, I have had a few clients comment to me that they felt discouraged about their career path, and felt worse about their résumé than before they met with me. While this saddened me on these few occasions, it also helped me to realize that I didn’t set proper expectations with those clients about the process. One particular example comes to mind to illustrate a past mistake I made:

A young man who had worked for only one small company (~25 employees) since graduating from college seven years earlier came to me for help. He was ready to make a change. This client mentioned to me that his résumé simply needed some “sprucing up” in order to make a move into corporate program management or operations at the director level; roles which he felt were roughly equivalent to his current position at the small company. When I reviewed his résumé, I immediately saw some big problems:

  1. His current role had no parallel to the jobs he was targeting. Instead, the job he described was cobbled together from disparate company tasks and had clearly not afforded him the opportunity to develop any deep specializations. Furthermore, some of the tasks he routinely performed (shipping boxes, filing, answering phones) would likely have served as a red flag to potential employers that he was not qualified for the higher-level roles he was seeking.
  2. His current title (Director) was grossly inflated relative to his responsibilities, to the point of being a detriment in his job search. This was common at his company, and he was unaware of the disparity between his job functions and the duties of directors in more conventional / larger companies.
  3. He (and likely his employer) had neither monitored nor evaluated his job performance in quantifiable terms. Essentially, he had no way of conveying the success or scope of his work in a meaningful, tangible way that could translate to the roles he was seeking.

This client simply wouldn’t be seen as credible for the roles he was actively pursuing, and I could see that he would be in for a very rough and disappointing job search without guidance towards new and necessary steps. I delivered this unfortunate news along with very specific recommendations for how he could address these issues, but the damage had already been done. I learned later that he was really hoping for some encouragement with respect to applying for these Director-level roles, and was expecting to receive validation from me that his résumé was already strong.

My subsequent discussion with him was quite difficult; my feedback had really taken the wind out of his sails. After another coaching session, I helped him understand that he indeed had marketable skills, but in order to pursue the kinds of roles he was interested in, he would need to:

  • Develop deeper subject matter expertise in a couple of key areas,
  • Attempt to recast his title with the current employer to better suit the industry-standard, and
  • Focus on developing performance metrics and success measurements which could be accurately conveyed in the résumé and in a job interview.

At long last, he understood. He was grateful for my help in the end, but the process taught me a valuable lesson about setting proper expectations with career counseling clients and proactively obtaining their consent to receive critical feedback. Here are a few questions counselors can ask clients to ensure both on the same page:

Pre-Session Questions

  1. Why did you think it was time to seek out a résumé writer / career coach?
  2. What are you expecting to achieve by the time we finish working together?
  3. What are you expecting of me during our sessions? Have you seen a résumé writer / career coach in the past? How did it go?
  4. What are you expecting of me during our session(s)?
  5. What kind of time/effort are you willing to invest in improving your résumé and taking action on a career plan we might develop together?

Post-Session Questions

  1. Do you understand my feedback and do you know what you need to do next?
  2. How do you think this session went? Did it meet your expectations?
  3. Do you understand my feedback and do you know what you need to do next?
  4. If we meet again, how do you think we might make best use of the time?
  5. When would you like to meet again to discuss next steps or to follow-up on our mutual action items?
  6. Who else may be able to provide support during this process? Do you have a mentor, colleague, friend or family member who could give you additional feedback about your document and/or career plan? (Helps to clarify that a career counselor is only one of the important people the client should seek out for advice.)
  7. How are you feeling about our session? (This may be asked days after the session such that the client has time to process the information.)

As career professionals, we are passionate about helping people, but it is particularly important to help them understand exactly how we will help them and what they can expect from the document review experience. This goes a long way to ensuring that they will begin the journey with the proper mindset for taking tough feedback in stride and making bold changes, not only on their résumé, but with respect to their career choices.

Todd W. Zabel, J.D., CPRW, is an Operations Manager for a tech company in California’s Silicon Valley, as well as a résumé writer and career coach. He holds the Certified Professional Résumé Writer credential from the Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches. Todd can be reached via http://toddzabel.com.

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Kathryn Troutman   on Tuesday 08/02/2016 at 07:27 AM

This is a very good article. Our clients have very complex situations in their careers - on the edge of getting fired; 15 years in one job -- and now they want management; 10 jobs in 8 years; poor evaluations. And then they want a GREAT resume to get a GREAT job! Our jobs as resume writers and coaches is MUCH more difficult today! I don't know why exactly, but I see similar situations as Todd. Thanks for talking about the challenges. Great coaching questions. I"m going to use a few! Kathryn

Fred Hairston   on Tuesday 08/02/2016 at 11:04 AM

Loved your article! The client example, pre- and post-questions are very helpful. Great work

Mary Brown   on Tuesday 08/02/2016 at 09:08 PM

This article was very helpful. The idea of the pre-session/post session questions were a plus.

Olga Stetsyuk   on Wednesday 08/03/2016 at 04:31 PM

I was taught that to use Why? for questioning during the counselling session leads to devaluation of client's recent position. It looks like judgment . The first question can be asked as What makes you think that....?

Successful Me   on Friday 08/19/2016 at 11:23 AM

Useful Article!

Genita Spencer   on Sunday 08/25/2019 at 12:43 PM

I like this article, however, the suggestions made can be hard for some resume reviews. Some reviews don't want to be harsh and do want to make clients feel worse when the are already depress about being unemployed. The article brings out many good points especially help clients have the proper mindset on what going to happen during your meetings. Clients must understand the Journey they are about to embark on when working with you.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.