In the July 11, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker tries to avoid going down the job application hole.

In the last edition, we discussed mistakes people make regarding information they share about themselves — and about information they fail to get from an employer. Now we’ll focus on a special kind of information employers demand from job applicants — your salary history.

job applicationThis has always been a hot topic, mainly because employers just won’t stop asking for information that’s none of their business. Even if HR managers swear up and down that they need your salary data “because that’s our policy,” we all know why they really want it: It gives them an edge on job offer negotiations.

I also promised you some interesting statistics about the value of personal referrals. What’s that got to do with how to deal with salary demands? Let’s take a look!


When I go after jobs through job boards, they always send me a link to a job application form. I’m just curious about your thoughts on the advice of a career coach about what to do when those online forms require you to enter your salary at your previous jobs. She says to type in your desired salary and, when you come to a text field, explain what you did. Do you agree with this?

Nick’s Reply

I think that advice stinks. It’s thoughtless right off the bat. If you have to enter your salary for each of your previous jobs, what sense would it make to enter the same desired salary (for the new job) for each of the old jobs?

More important, such tricks encourage job applicants to play along with a game rigged against them, rather than to pursue the best way of getting hired.

We are so brainwashed by employers to do what they ask that many “experts” don’t realize that it’s simply wrong. The answer to this problem is to consider the facts and to refuse to be manipulated.

Say NO to job application forms

The problem is not whether to disclose your salary history. The problem is the job application form itself. If your path to a job is a job board followed by a job application form, don’t fill it out at all, because it puts you at a disadvantage. Don’t apply via the application. Ignore the application because people get jobs in other, smarter ways all the time.

Now we’re going to un-brainwash ourselves and change the subject to what really matters when applying for jobs: how you get in the door.

A 2013 study from the New York Federal Reserve Bank (“Do Informal Referrals Lead to Better Matches?”) compared methods that a single company uses to hire. The purpose of the study was to test theoretical models of where hires come from — not to describe hiring across many companies.

Where most job offers come from

The Fed researchers found that most job applicants — 60% — at this one company came from online job boards. Only 6.1% of applicants came from personal referrals by employees. But the biggest chunk of actual hires — over 29% — came from those meager but incredibly powerful employee referrals. (See How to engineer your personal network.)

Of course, you might be referred by a company’s employee and still be asked to fill out that form — but now you’ve got an advantage over every applicant who arrived via job boards.

Says the Fed report: “The pool of candidates receiving serious consideration increasingly favors the referred over the course of the hiring process.” (This doesn’t even include personal referrals and recommendations from people outside a company.)

Personal referrals pay off big

The study concluded that:

  • Referred candidates are more likely to be hired.
  • Referred workers experience an initial wage advantage (which dissipates over time).
  • Referred workers have longer tenure at the company.

Getting referred clearly pays off in many ways.

Other studies I’ve seen in the past two decades suggest that personal referrals can account for up to two-thirds of hires. But the main point here is not what the percentages are. It’s that you don’t need anyone’s advice to see that a job seeker’s best bet is to go find people connected to a company — and get them to refer you. (See Referrals: How to gift someone a job (and why).)

Do the work to get the job

“But Nick, that’s a lot of work!” you’ll say. Yep. So’s the job you want. Start working at this now, or you don’t deserve an interview. Stand out from your competition. Don’t take the way in the door that’s offered.

When you get referred by an insider — whether it’s a company employee or a company’s customer, vendor or consultant — you also have more power to say, “No, thank you” to questions about your salary history. A personal referral makes you a much more powerful and desirable job candidate.

How to Say It
“I’d be glad to fill out your application form after I’ve spoken with the hiring manager. [The person who recommended me] spoke very highly of the manager, and I’d like to make sure this is a potential match before I fill out any forms. I’m looking forward to telling [the employee who personally referred me] that I had a great meeting with the manager.”

Does that seem very personal? Yep! It has to be personal if you want to avoid being impersonally abused and rejected!

A personal referral makes you a worthy applicant. If it’s not worth the work to get that referral, so you can avoid job boards and mindless forms, then the job isn’t really worth it to you. Move on to a job that is.

Always question authority — even when it’s a clever career coach. Leave the job application forms for your brainwashed competitors. (See “Make personal contacts to get a job? Awkward…” Get over it!)

Most jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. Everyone I know knows that — but few act like they know it. Why do people still rely on job boards, application forms and rote methods? (Don’t tell me “it’s easier!”) What one thing could we change to shift job seekers’ attention to what works?

: :

  1. Related to the ‘age discrimination’ issue, I recently noticed a posting on a job board looking for someone to join their ‘team of young professionals’.

    What does that tell you? Anyone who is no longer young need not apply?

    • Ronald Reagan had a great quote during one of the 1984 US Presidential debates when asked if his age (73) would be a hindrance for his second term in the Oval Office?

      “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

      President Reagan was referring to a much younger man, Walter Mondale, who he later defeated by a significant margin.

      There is one problem using this example with younger hiring authorities:

      They may ask you, “Who was Ronald Reagan?” :)

      Jokes aside, I have always believed that Mr. Reagan’s concise response could be useful in an age versus youth employment discussion.

      • Reminds me of the recent article about “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” Although the actor amazed the producers at his audition, they were hesitant to hire him. They told his agent that he was too old. Her response? “You can’t be interesting if you’re young.”

        • They will just keep on looking for the purple squirrel that is young and interesting.

    • The job market is replete with half-assed euphemisms intended to attract young applicants and to dissuade older applicants.

      Then there’s the problem of employers rejecting younger workers out of hand because they’ve got “the Millennial attitude” and are thus unworthy of a job.

      The problem is not that anyone is too old or too young. The problem is that the people who run recruiting at many companies are ignorant clods.

      • “The problem is not that anyone is too old or too young. The problem is that the people who run recruiting at many companies are ignorant clods.”

        I’ve run into this many times – especially at the agency recruiter side.

        I’m looking for a new gig and decided to reach out to a agency recruiter about a job that looked interesting. Now, I don’t have have your typical 9-5 full time experience in what they were looking for, but I have moonlighted/volunteered/gained skills that do transfer/other projects/education that I felt directly translate to this position.

        The recruiter hinted that I might be “less qualified” and at that time, I called him on it. I asked him specifically why and I used the job description against him by giving him concrete examples of what I did in the past. I also told him that in working for almost 20 years in related roles, that I found it hard to believe that he couldn’t find at least the 2-4 years of experience that his client “required.”

        • If recruiters at companies are clods, recruiters at agencies are mushrooms growing on the clods. The notion that an n-th agency recruiter would be able to discuss the ins and outs of a job description against your specific skills are, as Elvis Costello once put it eloquently, less than zero.

          In almost every case, the job seeker is better off talking directly to the hiring manager. So my advice is, when encountering an agency recruiter who’s trying to recruit you, insist that you’ll consider the job only if you can talk with the hiring manager briefly within 24 hours. If the recruiter can’t/won’t do that, let it go. You’re wasting your time. Because consider: Any smart manager and recruiter team REALLY wants to make a hire and will go out of their way to do so. So give them the chance.

          • “If recruiters at companies are clods, recruiters at agencies are mushrooms growing on the clods.”
            …and this is the reason headhunters are utilized by competent upper management to source A-player passive candidates that HRs, weak HA/Ms, and clueless staff recruiters are unable to bring to the table.

            “Any smart manager and recruiter team REALLY wants to make a hire and will go out of their way…”
            True. This is where urgency enters the picture and why the majority of online “job” postings are fake. If there really is a position that needs to be filled it will get filled as promptly as possible. If the company is fishing (no urgency) you’ll hear nothing but blow-offs (if anything at all) and excuses.

            Sound familiar?

            As Nick said, many times filling out apps prior to a short convo with the HA/M is a complete waste of time.

            It’s amazing how many job seekers ignore common sense in the quest of chasing a pay check. They rationalize “But I need to pay the bills…” which clearly identifies them as people who have no capacity to plan out their life further than two weeks – at most.

            It’s a vicious cycle of desperation that people willingly participate in – to their career peril. And people wonder why companies demand job seekers jump through seemingly endless paper work hoops.

          • “So my advice is, when encountering an agency recruiter who’s trying to recruit you, insist that you’ll consider the job only if you can talk with the hiring manager briefly within 24 hours. If the recruiter can’t/won’t do that, let it go. You’re wasting your time. Because consider: Any smart manager and recruiter team REALLY wants to make a hire and will go out of their way to do so. So give them the chance.”

            Good idea, I will have to try.

            Though, I have a feeling that I’m going to get the run around, “I have to talk to my account manager.”

            This is a large agency (name shame – think Netherlands) – It seems that their turn over is quite high. I get a new person calling me every year or so asking for an update. It does seem like most of the people there are always new college grads who have degrees in “Human Resources Management” or some non sense recruiting for tech roles.

            Recruiters, this is one reason why people dislike dealing with you, both on the management side and on the employee side.

      • When you see at the end ‘we like to have fun’ and references to free snacks, drinks, and Friday happy hour, it’s designed to drive away anyone over 45.

        • @Dee: “snacks, drinks, …happy hour”

          Are you suggesting fat, drunk old people wouldn’t want those jobs???


        • And/Or ‘foosball’. As I mentioned to a friend I didn’t even know (or care) what foosball is.

  2. Just started a new job in a director position.
    I’m 60 and had no issue about being too old. In fact, my plan is to secure a vice president position in 3 – 5 years. Meeting the challenges is part of being fit for the position.

    • @Tony: I think you forgot to end with – “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah nah”.

  3. Came across a thread over on another forum about ATSs requiring your Social Sec #, someone said they put in a fake number, then they submitted the application and as the screen paused to process they noticed the TOA verbiage with the usual “I swear I am telling the truth under penalty of perjury” nonsense at which point they questioned if they “did the right thing.” Have you seen the TOAs on some of those ATSs? Here’s a snippet from T. Rowe Price:

    “I authorize T. Rowe Price or its designee to contact my current/former employers for references regarding my work performance and other information concerning my previous employment, including the dates of my employment, my job titles and responsibilities, and my compensation. I hereby authorize my previous employers to respond to these requests and to provide T. Rowe Price with the requested information, and I release all persons connected with any such request for information from all claims and liability that may arise from the release or use of such information.”

    I particularly love that last bit where if you should get fired from your current job because they found out you applied to T. Rowe Price, well, tough titties. I’d also like to know how this kind of background check would work in the gig economy where you don’t have an annual review from a department boss to back up your experience.

    Maybe it’s time every person looking for a job should just hire a lawyer to submit their resumes for them. I’d love to force companies to click “yes” to my own TOA when wanting to view my personal info aka resume, “by accepting this resume I swear that this job is in fact a real existing position and not just being posted to satisfy the EEOC, to “test the waters” of the job market, to remind our current emplyees that they are replaceable, or to look good to stockholders and my competitors.”

    • @sigmaster

      “I’d also like to know how this kind of background check would work in the gig economy where you don’t have an annual review from a department boss to back up your experience.”

      I’d also like to know how this works for organizations who insist on contacting your most recent/current supervisor that has a strict policy of a neutral/no reference policy or agreement and/or have other issues relating to previous supervisors – like I’ve worked my my current supervisor for the last 5 years, all my other supervisors are also at my current employer and the last person I can dig up is from 10 years ago.

    • @Sighmaster: The real joke is that those jokers want you to sign that ridiculous release even before they meet or seriously consider you. Which means they can essentially sell all that private information about anyone who applies for a job to “any persons” without liability.

      The inimitable Conrado Hinojosa, Esq., covers all this in his article, “The No-Nonsense Interview Agreement”

      I’ve suggested more than once that job seekers hire agents to apply for jobs on their behalf. If the agent deems the employer worthwhile, the actual job seeker shows up for the interview. In the meantime, the agent gathers all necessary information and releases from the employer and recruiter.

    • Yeah, that was me that posted that. Companies should be asking for social security numbers as part of some mandatory tax thing that you have to take to apply for the job. I gave it the real last 4 ones but the rest were from a number generator. I figured that only bots will see it anyway. If they sue me, I’ll countersue saying that I gave the real last 4 digits and that they really don’t need any more than that as it opens me up to identity theft.

      BTW, you found the post at on a forum, didn’t you. Probably a job seekers rant forum, am I right?

      Also, for said position, a stocker, they asked for three references and their phone numbers. It was like I was applying to be store manager.

      What was more annoying was that thanks to their Taleo, I couldn’t even get to the mandatory tax government thingy stuff because it kept being borken or whatever and telling me to come back later.

      • BTW, I hadn’t noticed it at first as I thought it was just the standard lawyer bla bla bla stuff. Only in the second or two after I had clicked “Confirm” and before it moved on did i notice it, and it was already too late.

  4. There’s another fundamental problem with submitting applications through job boards. The job board makes its money in various ways. The technical processing of applications is complicated by the many ways in which the job board wants to use the information. Getting all the applications through to the employers is by no means always the overriding concern.

    Also, such information processing is often very sloppily implemented, especially on the Web and especially in the sort of wholly Web-based businesses that rely on doing things with bulk volumes of submissions that the company doesn’t have to pay for. It’s nothing to them if a certain percentage of the submissions get lost. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever know about it.

    This means that applicants sometimes find that their submission just won’t go through, or that something doesn’t look right and they can’t be sure it went through.

    For this reason, I advise my clients to apply through job boards only as a last resort. (And only for especially desirable jobs, and only when there are no better prospects in sight.) They should first look for other channels–and more information about the opening. It’s often not hard to find them. Select some uncommon terms or phrases from the posting, along with core elements of the job title. Do a Web search using those words and phrases as a search string.

    There’s a good chance that you will find a posting on the employer’s own career site. This will at least save the complications and risk interposed by the job board. The company application form might, at least conceivably, be at least somewhat less screwy and comprehensive about the information it demands. (The information demands made by job boards may be motivated by various factors in their business model or their sales pitch to corporate clients.)

    The posting on the company site may also give information not in the job board posting (such the identity of the company, or a department name) that might enable the applicant to make a more direct approach to someone in the hiring chain.

    • @Ken: You raise an important point. “The job board makes its money in various ways.”

      There’s much hidden in that. Mainly, job boards make money when people and jobs are NOT matched; when people keep coming back to the database; when employers keep buying access to MORE applicants.

      This is one of the few industries where a product that FAILS generates more revenues and profits.

      The marketing behind Indeed, LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter is brilliant: “Employers HATE recruiting and hiring, so keeping paying us to PRETEND you’re recruiting! Who’s gonna know??? The Dept of Labor will cover up for your failure to hire by manufacturing a skills and talent shortage to explain your failure!”

  5. The employment agency I work at is in the process of hiring another few career advisors. Yesterday, I spoke with a coworker that was participating in the interviewing to see how it was going. She reported that 1 customer was the “perfect” candidate for the position. He delivered perfectly crafted interview responses and was full of intensity and desire to do the job. A second candidate she mentioned submitted the wrong cover letter, had a mediocre resume, and broke every “rule” of interviewing because she spoke to the interviewers like they were people rather than as a supplicant. In other words, it was an candid discussion.

    For my coworker, Candidate A was an outright NO because he did not fit with my organization and who we are. Candidate B was her favorite because of her complete transparency.

    I feel very fortunate that they allowed my coworker to participate in the interviewing. She is the team lead and knows what it takes to get the job done. If they had done this all through HR, the preferable candidate would have never made it to the interview and I would have ended up with a new co-worker that was an over-zealous lone wolf that would have upset the customers and the culture of my office because he “fit the job description” and “had experience in the role.”

    I hope that she learns from this experience. Us career advisors are just as likely to be brainwashed and that has made it exceedingly difficult to share Nick’s advice with my office. I’m glad I stumbled onto this website when I was still new and impressionable.

    • @Admin Al: That’s how I got hired into my first search job. I blew the interview with the owner because I was coached to act a certain way. It was wrong advice. But she liked something about me after the interview was over, while we were chatting at the door. I figured it was all over, so I stopped the act. The next day, the owner had her office manager take me to lunch. We had a candid, friendly discussion. He recommended the boss hire me because I was smart, honest, friendly and mechanically minded. Lord knows, I had zero sales skills. (The office manager’s guess was that being mechanically minded meant I’d mix in well with the EEs we recruited. He was right, though I had zero knowledge of electronics or tech.)

      The boss also hired a few very polished, credentialed people who said and did what they were supposed to. One was a EE. (Never hire customers or clients.) They all bombed. I did very well. In fact, the manager that hired me and I left to start our own firm when we realized our boss was impossible to work for. She did teach me the business, however.

  6. If the online application enforces the field for salary history or desired history I always input zeros.

    As for SSN’s, I also input zeros or some variation. I got called out on that by the company recruiter before the real interview. I told her simply that, “I’m an information security professional, you are interviewing me for an information security position reporting directly to the CISO, who is responsible for the privacy and security of the company data. I don’t know you, have no clue what you are going to with my personal data, and you want me to give it to your because of your policy?”

    I got the interview, but never heard back from them again.

    • @Dave: Maybe they’ll get back to you after they’re done in court :-)

  7. Ask who handles the job applications – HR or hiring manager? I’ve become more picky in asking who handles the data part of the hiring process. Here’s what I posted to Nick’s April 10 comment section on references:

    “7:34 pm on April 13, 2017
    References on the application is another problem when the manager is in possession of the application, other than the HR. It happened to me once, when I filled out the application online and gave the hard copy of my resume to the senior manager who then passed it in private to the HR Department. All was well and I got the interview and eventually, a job.
    On my first day, the assistant manager came to me with the paperwork, stating that they need them for their file, when I immediately questioned as to why I need to fill the application again.
    It was fishy and I passed my concern to a HR rep about the duplicative need. I found out that the ass’t mgr made a habit of calling the references to cull more information for her own personal use on employees, outside of the HR interview parameters. The HR rep called into the method of the ass’t mgr and had auditors swoop into the manager’s office to audit every employee’s personal folders. They now must follow strict document guidelines.
    Keep in mind that there are some unscrupulous managers who employ this method. “

  8. This amplifies my biggest gripe about another time waster: Job Fairs.

    “Come dressed for success!”
    Why? no one is looking anyway. I could wear my derelict homeless panhandler cosplay, and no one would pay any attention.

    “Come ready to interview!!”
    Why? Hiring managers are not there, and no one is seriously interviewing.

    “Bring lots of resumes!!!”
    Why? No one wants paper anyway, and the drones at the booth just direct you to the online ATS anyway.

    Personal referrals and my theory of “resume on a business card” dovetail nicely. If you have 25 years experience petting feral kittens (for instance) and someone needs that kind of experience, you can make a connection and gain an interview.

    If they want 25 years experience petting feral kittens and you only know how to program in Python, Ruby, C++ and Assembly, no amount of resume customization will likely help.