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Nobody Likes a Backseat Striver

By Liz Ryan Looking for work can be a particular bummer for anyone who has been unemployed for months -- as well as for career changers or people with hard-to-transfer skills. But if you're the job-seeker's husband, wife, or significant other, the search can be plenty tough as well.

It's way too easy, as an interested observer, to second-guess your beloved's actions to an obnoxious degree. As much as you respect and adore your partner, you'll find yourself uttering queries such as: "What do you mean, you didn't ask them about travel?" And dark looks will pass between you and your sweetheart.

Obviously, you should resist falling victim to this backseat-candidate syndrome. So here are some tips for supporting your favorite job hunter without driving him, her, or yourself crazy.

Follow, don't lead. Tread carefully as your partner takes the first steps. Ask open-ended questions that will help your honey zero in on the industries, functions, and company characteristics (large, small, private, public) that will most appeal to him or her. But don't dictate. Even if you happen to be a headhunter or a career coach -- in fact, especially if you're one of those -- follow, don't lead, the action. There's a fine line between helping and interfering.

Don't mix the job search and household finances. Your household's income requirements and your partner's career transition can become inextricably connected overnight. But it's important to keep these separate. There's nothing worse than feeling pressured to take a job just because money is tight by the person who, more than any other, has pledged to value one's happiness as his or her own.

It may not make sense for your partner to take a lousy job right now to make money, when making a few short-term sacrifices will allow pursuit of the best long-time opportunity. If a temporary gig selling suits fills the till sufficiently to allow time for an extended search, support the seeker in considering that. It's easier to focus on a strategic job hunt once the wolf backs a few yards away from the door.

Don't dissect interviews. Pity the job-seeker's partner on the day of a job interview. All day, the non-interviewing unit is stewing: How did she do? What did he say? What did they say in response? It's a trial to have to wait until evening to hear every word repeated and each nonverbal cue described, and woe to the interviewee who can't recall the last detail of a one-hour conversation.

As the supportive non-job-seeker, ask your partner how she felt about the interview, ask her to repeat its highlights, and ask if there are any parts of the conversation that she wants to replay. Focus on her reactions, not on your need for information.

It's tough for the candidate to be sorting through emotions after a big interview, and then to be interrogated on: "When did they say they'll get back to you? Who will you interview with next? What did they say about the reverse stock split that was in the news? Did that come up?"

However the debriefing goes, give your partner a kiss and say "I'm proud of you, honey." Job hunting is exhausting. Encouragement, rather than your expert opinion, is what your sweetie needs most from you.

Support a negotiation, don't try to manage it. I can't tell you how many times I've negotiated (from the employer side)job offers with applicants while acutely aware that a too-involved partner was pulling the strings. Why do I say "too-involved"? Because when the job candidate is negotiating from the standpoint of "I'm a tough negotiator, by gum, and I'm going to ask for a better deal without being able to quite explain why," it shows. And it detracts from an otherwise impressive candidacy.

It's perfectly fine to be a lackey in some negotiations, passing information back and forth between more significant participants. The problem is that you can't be a lackey and a job-seeker at the same time.

If you ask for something that hasn't already been offered, you have to argue for it persuasively. So, as the nonparticipating negotiating coach, make suggestions but don't dictate your partner's ideal terms. Rather, ask him to role-play the negotiation with you. If he can't explain to you why he deserves an extra week's vacation or more stock options, he won't be able to sell the employer on those benefits, either.

Whatever the outcome, be happy. It's down to the wire, and your partner is in a three-way negotiation with two of your city's top employers. Stand by her, and be on hand for urgent phone calls as the action moves along minute-to-minute -- but don't criticize her bargaining skills or admonish her for a flubbed move, no matter what.

Job hunting is hard, and you can't know how hard without walking in your sweetheart's Kenneth Coles. Whatever the offer, the title, or the firm your honey ends up with, be happy and supportive. Have a celebratory dinner, and be thankful the job search is over and your romance is intact.

Maybe you would have done better than your partner at getting an important title out of the employer. So what? Your relationship is more important than another few thousand in salary or a golf-club membership, right?

And one of these days, maybe when you least expect it, the Kenneth Cole will be on the other foot. Now, won't that be a learning experience? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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