Career Building in the Time of Coronavirus

Charles Tharp, a professor of the practice and former head of HR at Bristol Myers Squibb, on starting, maintaining, or resurrecting your career during turbulent times.

By Toria Rainey

Furloughed? Laid off? Worried you will be? As the United States grapples with unemployment levels rivaled only by the Great Depression, figuring out how to reset a career—or prevent it from stalling—is a daunting task.

Charles Tharp, a professor of the practice, has an insider’s perspective on how to create, nurture, and grow careers—even in times of turmoil. He was head of human resources at Bristol Myers Squibb in New York City during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A former executive vice president at the HR Policy Association and CEO of the Center on Executive Compensation, he was an HR leader during the 1979 oil crisis, the SARS epidemic, and the Great Recession.

We asked Tharp for advice on how to manage a career during the COVID-19 recession—whether you’re a new graduate looking for your first job or a midcareer professional fighting back from a layoff.

 

QUESTROM: WILL THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAVE A LONG-TERM IMPACT ON HOW PEOPLE PLAN AND BUILD THEIR CAREERS?

Tharp: I was in a Zoom meeting today with about 280 human resources people, and a couple of the speakers were the heads of HR for some major corporations in America. We were discussing what’s going to change in the expectations of employers and how employees will have to adjust. This crisis has made some companies realize that perhaps some people don’t have to be in the workplace. That’s going to be important for the implications of real estate, but I think from a career development point of view, it’s going to impact many, especially younger, people in terms of their ability to develop close relationships in the workplace. The mentorship, the casual interaction that is so often important in key career movements, and the transition points in one’s career are going to be a challenge to replicate remotely.

IF YOU’RE EARLY IN YOUR CAREER, HOW CAN YOU MAKE SURE YOU’RE INDISPENSABLE TO YOUR ORGANIZATION?

It’s exactly the same things you would focus on during normal times. People want individuals who are conscientious, who are persistent. I think in this environment, persistence is going to be an incredibly important behavior­—not to get discouraged, not to feel that you’re being ignored simply because you don’t get as much face time, so to speak. Also, stepping back and making sure you’re attending to the emotional connections that you can develop and particularly being viewed as someone who’s thorough, a learner asking questions. All of those things make you a really desirable employee.

HOW CAN NEW GRADUATES BEGIN TO BUILD A CAREER IN A DEVASTATED EMPLOYMENT MARKET?

Your network is incredibly important. The traditional casting out of a thousand résumés, while you should still be doing that, I think the yield will be quite low. My first tip would be to look into communities of interest. Who do you know in that industry or company you are interested in? Reach out to them. Don’t ask for a job—ask for their advice. Get them to share some of their thoughts with you about their area of work and their career. Throughout my career, I was always willing to talk with people, especially students, about their careers and to offer whatever advice and counsel that might be helpful. Based on my experience, most senior leaders are more than happy to help. Seeking information, as opposed to asking for a job, is a good approach to building your network.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER TIPS YOU WOULD GIVE FOR GETTING TO THE TOP OF THE RÉSUMÉ PILE?

Before you do anything, write down what it is you want that person to say about you at the end of reading your résumé, the end of an interview, or really any networking interaction. Then, make sure that you’ve either developed your résumé and your cover letter or how you approach the interview so that person is more likely to say what you want them to say about you. Maybe you don’t have any experience in the area you’re interested in, so what are the things that would predict being successful there? Is it a leadership role you have had in a different context? What life experiences help demonstrate the characteristics that employers would find to be highly desirable in a job candidate? Share whatever it is that shows dependability, initiative, persistence, resilience—shows you’re open to ideas, and that you’re a learner.

WHAT IF YOU’RE LATER IN YOUR CAREER, MAYBE IN YOUR MID-50S, AND YOU GET FURLOUGHED OR EVEN LAID OFF. WHAT NOW?

That’s a hard one, because we as a society still put a premium on youth. As a culture, 55 and over becomes a pretty tough phase of one’s career for finding a new job. The question is, are you willing to invest the time for retraining, perhaps if there are skills that you don’t possess but are in higher demand? The more you can be flexible in terms of learning, the more you can open yourself to new opportunities. And then, the question always is, “I’ve been very good at doing x. What are some of the adjacent ponds where those skills and experiences could be applied, even if they don’t happen to be jobs directly in the area where I built my career?” For example, if I’m a very successful marketer, can I teach marketing? If I’m an incredibly successful underwriter or insurance agent, could I find a banking job or something that also has to do with accuracy, numbers, and precision? Find things in one aspect of your career that will apply to another—and be persistent about it.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING THAT PERSISTENCE IS A THROUGH-LINE.

It’s easy to get discouraged when we have a recession or a severe downturn in employment. It’s very easy to be discouraged when you lose your job. It’s very easy to be discouraged when maybe you had your eyes on a promotion, and someone you didn’t think was as deserving or skilled got it. And instead of being persistent and resilient, you focus on your disappointment. That’s a really bad place to be. Nobody wants to hire someone sour or negative. Having that resilience in keeping your self-confidence up, will always serve you well.

IF YOU DISCOVER ANOTHER PROFITABLE SKILL OR INTEREST, HOW WOULD YOU MAKE A CAREER PIVOT IN A DOWN MARKET?

Again, I’d say to look to communities of interest and your network. How do you make connections into communities where that new interest would have compatible opportunities and where you could learn from professionals and practitioners? While there’s no simple way to create jobs that don’t exist, there are always opportunities to stay engaged, and now is a good time to think about skills or learnings you could devote some time to during this soft employment market. Continue to focus on your education, keep investing in your own development. This too will pass, and you’ll be better prepared for opportunities in the future. What you have today are looking-backward skills, but through graduate education, and even undergraduate education, you’ll be developing looking-forward skills. Those are going to serve you not only when things are tough, but when things start to loosen up. It’s also a wonderful time to sit back and make sure you really are certain about your priorities. It’s easy to think that the only thing you can do is focus on a job. If you’re used to this very set routine, sometimes you don’t pay enough attention to family, friendships, and other nurturing relationships that are going to help you in terms of connections and emotional support. Don’t forget about the other things in life that are really important.

WHAT CAN THOSE WHO ARE MORE SECURE IN THEIR WORK, PARTICULARLY THOSE IN LEADERSHIP ROLES, DO TO HELP OTHERS NAVIGATE THIS CRISIS?

Your first duty is always taking care of people. If you’re a leader, your first priority is to make sure you’re taking care of not only the safety, the health, but the security of your workforce. How you treat them will most likely impact how they treat customers. I’ve been talking to our senior leaders and companies during this time about how flexible they are with work, with arrangements, how flexible they are with giving extra funds for daycare, waiving certain requirements in the health plan, all those things to signal that they really care about their people. Unfortunately, in times such as many companies are facing due to the pandemic, sometimes there is little choice but to make workforce reductions. Sometimes, companies can reduce hours before they have to lay people off, allow workers to take a voluntary furlough, or use vacation. If you do have to lay people off, look for ways to be compassionate and treat the displaced workers as generously as you can. Can you extend healthcare for 18 months, or can you spread the severance payout over a longer amount of time?

HOW CAN MANAGERS ALLOW THEIR EMPLOYEES TO CONTINUE BUILDING THEIR CAREERS?

When people are working remotely, development can often be more challenging. You know, obviously, if someone is working remotely, they may not have the day-to-day coaching and contact with you, so to be more conscious of making those touchpoints is important. Spend more time making certain that you’re connecting with your employees. It’s easy to let that slip when someone’s not down the hall or you’re not seeing them at the coffee machine.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?

I guess that’s the beauty of having been around during a series of ups and downs in the economy, I am optimistic that the economy will turn around. This is clearly an unusual down because it deals not only with a dip in the economy, but also has negatively impacted personal health. However, before you know it, this is going to be a memory—hopefully, one we’ll all learn from. So always be optimistic, look forward, and don’t get discouraged. I think that’s probably the best career advice to give to any young person—or any person at any point in their life: to always keep that optimism and self-confidence.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.