In the September 19, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a headhunter screws up.



I read your PBS NewsHour column, Job interviewers shouldn’t be asking for your salary. Here’s why. I am a new headhunter and I agree with everything you said in that article.

I recently had a deal fall apart with a client in the northeast who was ready to pay up to a $220K base salary. My best candidate was making $150K in the midwest. He checked off most of the boxes on their wish list, was in a niche, and there are not a lot of people doing what he does. He was willing to move his family, but the company only offered $185K despite a $30K cost-of-living difference. He wanted at least $195K to make a move but the company wouldn’t do it because they were stuck on the 30% increase and thought it was too high.

Everybody in the company that met my candidate loved him. He was nearly perfect for the role but they wouldn’t budge because of his prior salary.

So my question to you is: How do you persuade your clients not to ask about salary history in states where it is allowed? I understand that you might not want to give out trade secrets but thought I would ask. Thanks in advance for your help!

Nick’s Reply

There’s no trade secret here. Just common sense, fair play, and good business. Your client is demonstrating none of those qualities. When a company pays a headhunter for help finding a top-notch hire, our job is to tell the client the truth and help them make a good deal.

But the problem here is not just that your client got stuck on your candidate’s prior salary. It’s also that you fostered the problem by disclosing your candidate’s salary to begin with. Get out of that habit. Learn to push back and say no. Part of telling your client the truth is telling them the candidate’s salary is none of their business — and not the basis for a sound offer.

When the client gets in its own way, the headhunter must take control — or fire the client. You can’t win when you do your job, deliver a great candidate for fair pay, and then let your client kill the deal so stupidly.

A good headhunter doesn’t run a bargain basement

What’s stupid is that your client is not recruiting your candidate for what he’s worth to them. They’re trying to get an unfair bargain by offering an excellent candidate only what he’s worth in the midwest. What’s going to happen is a competitor is going to snatch him up for what he’s really worth in the northeast.

The way to persuade your client to judge a candidate’s worth for themselves, without looking at salary history, is to tell them what I just told you. (Check the boldface in the paragraph above.) If they don’t respond well to that, then you tell them something like this:

How to Say It
“If you aren’t willing to pay someone what they’re really worth, then I won’t be referring candidates of this caliber to you any more. Your team loved him. He was highly motivated to take the job and do great work for you. We both know he’s worth at least $200K. If he was from the northeast, you wouldn’t hesitate to pay him $220K. So while you wasted his time and mine, you’re the losers. Lotsa luck when word gets around that you don’t know how to judge a person’s value to your business.”

If you can’t control your client with the first message, you have to fire them with the second. Do you want to go through this with them again? You’re not in the bargain-basement business.

Fire the client

Yes, I’d fire this client. They just cost you several big fees, because the candidate probably would have referred several other great candidates to you over the next several years if this had worked out.

This client has probably damaged your credibility with the candidate — and he’s going to tell people. While any headhunter’s fiduciary duty is to their client (the employer), the headhunter’s reputation rests on the experience of candidates, too. If you can’t negotiate a good — not just reasonable — compensation package for a truly good candidate, you’re hurting yourself.

A good headhunter controls clients

To other clients, I’d make your policy clear. Your job as a headhunter is not to disclose salary; it’s to negotiate it!

How to Say It
“I don’t disclose a candidate’s salary because it’s irrelevant. I’m working with you under the premise that your company has a competitive edge and is thus able to attract the best people. If you’re going to judge candidates by what other companies pay them, then where’s your edge? If you don’t have a competitive edge, why would my candidates want to come work for you? Why would I want to recruit for you? I’d be happy to invest whatever time is necessary to help you assess this candidate’s value to your company in this market and in this locale.”

A good headhunter controls candidates by teaching them how to manage their expectations reasonably and intelligently. But sometimes you also have to push back hard at a client, or you lose control – and that’s the end of any headhunter. When you disclosed your candidate’s salary, you forfeited your ability to negotiate a good deal for both parties. Everyone lost.

A good candidate becomes a client

I’m sorry you had to experience this. It’s a hard lesson. I’d fire the client, but I’d then quickly try to pick up some new clients — among its competitors. Can you get a similar assignment from them? I’m not suggesting peddling this candidate around town — that’s not what real headhunters do. (See Headhunters find people, not jobs.) But you’ve found one great candidate who will likely lead you to more, so work with what you’ve got.

If you can place him, I’d call back Lowball, Inc. and give them a heads-up.

How to Say It
“It looks like you’ll be working with Mr. X after all – but as a competitor. He’s a really talented guy, so I wish you luck! No, I can’t tell you where I’ve placed him — that would be unethical until he’s settled in. But you’ll know soon enough.”

And remember one other thing. When you fire a client, they become a source of candidates. And a good candidate can become a great client!

A good headhunter is a good broker

The best job seekers routinely encounter lazy, thoughtless, unscrupulous headhunters. So show this candidate you’re different. Build a relationship. I’d do all I can for a candidate who did such a great job to make me look good and to earn an offer, even if the employer blew the deal. If you can’t place him elsewhere, invest a few minutes to make some useful introductions for him in the northeast. He’ll remember it. That’s where new client companies come from!

A good headhunter is a broker who doesn’t just bring two parties together. A good headhunter educates, manages and guides them to a successful outcome that makes them both happy to work together. Sometimes you have to take charge to do that. And sometimes you have to fire a candidate or a client. In this case, your candidate may be more valuable to you in the long term than this particular “client.” If you can’t negotiate a fair salary with your client, fire the client and save your future relationship with the candidate. Don’t be any less than the best broker you can be.

I know some of my suggestions may seem a bit snarky, but employers that can’t get out of their own way aren’t good clients. I wish you the best.

My PDF book, How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you is designed for job seekers, but it’ll show you how to be a good headhunter, too.

Dear headhunters in the audience: Do you disclose a candidate’s salary to your clients? How do you manage your clients? Did you ever fire one? Job seekers: Do headhunters help you get a better salary or do they let their clients roll over you (and them)?

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  1. At the root of this problem are HR personnel who believe they can simply post a position on Indeed,
    and sift through the responses using keyword searches, et voila…out will pop the perfect candidate.

    They fail to recognize that cost of living and working conditions vary across companies. This includes
    the probability that a firm will continue as it is, when hired. In an extended era of mergers and acquisitions,
    the latter point, which embodies employee risk, tends to be completely ignored. The woods are littered with
    the histories of companies which no longer exist.

    The result is a least common denominator candidate being selected; sub-optimal candidates dominate the
    choices given to hiring managers.

  2. To echo Jim Jarvis above, the root of this problem is HR. I’d also finger cheap CFOs who look at employees as solely a cost center and the residual attitude that employers have after a 10 year recession, which is ‘if you don’t take our deal, there are 3-10 guys on the other side of the door who will.”

    Nick, thanks for sharing this story. It’s refreshing to know that there are some recruiters out there to whom candidates actually matter. I know a couple but they don’t work in marketing.

    The last time I had a ‘fair broker’ like that successfully place me was in the 1980s, though I’ve worked with a few since who have been completely frustrated with their clients (or where I’ve come in second).

    My experience since then with recruiters, when they’ve been involved in a hire is that they almost put themselves in opposition with the candidate to the point where they are an enforcer for the client’s whims. The candidate as enemy for the recruiter!

    I hope this person isn’t eventually forced to break down and compromise in order to make a living.

    • @Dee: You caught my hidden message! There are good headhunters out there who care about their candidates and try to learn how to do their jobs better.

  3. I’ve commented on here over the years, that these sort stories illustrate why it’s bad to share salary history.

    I’m afraid this HH is in a tough spot because of it and there is a good chance the deal will go through because of it.

    I think Nick’s advice is quite right here, you’re going to have to do the right thing and call your clients BS – as in, everyone knows if this candidate was local, you’d pay him/her $X so that’s what you’re going to stick to. This would also foster some goodwill with the candidate that you’re not some high volume recruiter that just wants to close a deal ASAP so you can get paid.

  4. The candidate has no responsibility to disclose their current salary and every right to ask the hiring manager, “what is this job worth to you?” If the manager has any idea at all they will then tell you what the key proposition is for the job in terms of value to be delivered to the company. If they can’t do that, there is just one word to paste on the inside of your forehead and that is “run.”

    • My hope is this headhunter stops disclosing candidates’ salaries. That’s a win all around.

  5. WWND? (What would Nick do?) I believe having read and followed him for years… First, when the headhunter approaches you, ask ‘what’s the pay like?’ Then tell him or her your expectations. Don’t reveal your salary unless you are 110% certain and confident that the recruiter will NOT reveal it to HR or the hiring manager–in other words, will use it as leverage for you. Don’t reveal it to HR. Dot’s eet.

    • @Dee: Hey, that’s one great summary….!

  6. I had an experience where a headhunter told me that my offer would be limited to a certain percentage of pay increase over my last job and that they check W-2’s. I told them my minimum. They didn’t meet it. I told them to go pound salt. (Actually I politely said “no.”) This was in 1995.

    Another thing I will point out is that if a manager yells at me, I find another job. I’m an adult. I don’t take yelling. When I leave, I do so on good terms. There was one job I had that I didn’t leave because of the yelling and I should have.

    You don’t have to stand for mistreatment in the job search nor on the job. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you inferior without your consent.” Don’t give people that kind of consent.

    • Another thing: I’ve actually been yelled at in interviews. On more than one occasion, the employer also angrily said, “You are the one being interviewed – we will ask the questions.” Next time a potential employer displays anger during the interview, I will leave.

      • I got yelled by a psychologist brought in to screen candidates for a marketing job in a long-term healthcare facility. I didn’t leave but raised MY voice in return in a truly demeaning situation.

        Like you, never again. Along with wacko and invasive psychological testing like Myers-Briggs, MMPI and CPI.

        • @Dee: I got yelled by a psychologist brought in to screen candidates

          Report the psychologist to the APA.

          • @Nick–described this experience in greater detail some years back. You are absolutely right, I should have. It was quite a shock, including the screamingly hot room with intrusive and inappropriate questions. Needless to say I went no further. I knew from other sources that this was a sick puppy of a healthcare company.

            You live and learn.

            A letter to the CEO might be the best way to respond to being yelled at in an interview.

      • Yikes. Probably the best response here is..

        “Not any more.”

        Followed by departure.

      • “You are the one being interviewed – we will ask the questions.”

        That’s where HR totally blows it and reveals it’s out of control. To recruit people means to entice, cajole, invite, impress, coax, seduce, convince them to join your company.

        Interviewing has come to mean a rude third degree in too many companies today. Yet HR has no problem crying there’s a “talent shortage.”

        When there’s a shortage of talent, do you want to abuse your job candidates? Where are the boards of directors at these companies? Do they know what HR is doing??

        • I have had engineers at two different companies make the statement, “We are the ones doing the interview – we will ask the questions.”

          I won’t do a stress interview.

        • I had an interview with CCNY for a marketing position in adult education where not only did the two interviewers have a fixed group of questions that HAD to be answered, but also held to strict Q&A–no conversation. I asked and this was, according to them, so that every candidate would have a ‘level playing field’. Ten minutes in I knew this was a no go and a considerable waste of time, but it’s happened to me at Drive (durable medical equipment). I learned later that Drive was a very unhappy place to be as a marketer. If the interviewers intimidate and yell, leave. You haven’t a chance. Note that I named organizations, too.

      • Wow. If anyone in any of my teams ever yelled at a candidate, the person would never interview another one, and that would be the start of their problems.

        I wonder if this person yelled at his prospective spouse when proposing.

        However, it is nice of them to clearly indicate that their company is not one where you’d ever want to work.

        • There are lots of articles out there about how to survive the “stress interview.” I don’t have to write an article: just leave – for the unemployment line and bankruptcy are easier to deal with than an abusive employer.

  7. I believe a key factor in this scenario is the attitude of the so-called headhunter. By his own admission he’s new to the process. As such it appears he wants to make a quick name for himself and acquire a “good reputation.” What this newbie needs to do is thoroughly research the companies that become his clients. I would bet money this particular client has a history of such low-ball tactics. Research will reveal the character of the company and the headhunter can then determine if he/she wants to deal with them. The research also reveals how to negotiate with the key personnel and if HR can be eliminated in such deals. This company has exposed itself for lack of true strong leadership by caving into HR despite the personal interview with the candidate. If I was the candidate I would be suspect of doing future business with the particular headhunter.

    • I think the headhunter in this case was poorly trained, but that’s actually the norm in the business. The fact that the headhunter asked for help and advice is a good sign. I’d rather get one more good headhunter out of this, than to spank the headhunter.

  8. I need an intervention. I almost filled out an online application today for Norfolk Southern Railway, which requires that you select a target salary from a drop down showing salaries in increments of $10k. Maybe I also need an intervention for even thinking about doing an online application at all, if it didn’t have the mandatory question about salary expection.

    Is there some version of AA that supports those seeking work who relapse and try playing the game according to corporate Amerika’s HR czars and czarinas?

    • The only person who can make you stop is you, that will happen when you finally reach the point where you “snap” and simply can’t do it anymore. What you need to realize is that you’re stuck in an abusive relationship, every rejected/ignored job application is another punch in the face, the only way not to be punched again is to walk away from the relationship, file for divorce, and get a restraining order. Of course, the abuser always reappears at your front door all apologetic with a bouquet of flowers in the form of a new job ad that matches your background oh so perfectly and says “aw, c’mon, baby, gimme another chance, I promise I won’t hit you ever again, I’ve changed!” And you fall for it because you so WANT to believe it, but it ends just like all the other times…

    • @Bill Freeto: I’m going to respond to your question in next week’s newsletter with a “How to Say It” tip.

      It’s time we worked up a way to address employers who claim to want exceptional “talent” but expect that talent to beg like a dog.

      The key, as you might suspect, is to talk to the right person in the company. So, why mess around? Tune in next week. Thanks for the great question!

  9. Good advice. Just as, from the candidate side, there are some employers who are not honest and therefore not worth working for, I think it holds true for headhunters. Some clients aren’t worth the time, money, and energy. If they’re not going to behave in an ethical way, then I wouldn’t want to risk my reputation as a newby headhunter (or even as a more experienced headhunter) by playing the client’s game.

    I’m not a headhunter, but if I researched a headhunter and learned that he disclosed something to a prospective employer or to my current employer then that would be the last time I would deal with that headhunter, not only for myself but if the headhunter called me to ask about current or former colleagues, I wouldn’t be helping him. I can’t trust him. I’m not paying him, but as a candidate, I would still expect a level of discretion.

    • @Marybeth

      I think it comes down to ethics as you state.

      One thing I thought of….. In the worst case, take a look at the salary surveys for the job type/industry/location. If your “client” won’t/can’t even meet the “average” or “median” salary for the position, then there is something amiss.

      Yes, I understand that salary surveys aren’t necessarily the best tool to figure out what a particular position should pay, but it forces people to address why a position may pay less or more than the average.

      What I’m guessing happens is that someone at the company is thinking “we got someone awesome for a discount… heh heh heh.” Your going to eventually hire someone for a year or two because a competitor could easily scoop the person up with an “average” salary and then you’re left holding the bag at square one.

      • I once went to work for a company that made a low offer – bad move! In fact I have taken low offers a couple of times. There was also a lot of negativity in these companies, and they always wanted more for less. The owners would also try to break you down. One company is gone. The other has a high turnover rate. (The second company fires people for the smallest offenses and they watch you constantly.)

  10. A few folks have shared some good stories of abusive interviews. I’d love to hear more of these!

  11. Nick,

    Would you say that too many bad clients drive some recruiters out of the business? I’ve had my share of experiences as a candidate, when a great-sounding opportunity evaporated because the client put the job on hold/filled it internally/whatever.

    If I’d been the recruiter instead, I probably would have bailed eventually rather than look like a liar to candidates.

  12. Abusive interviews…

    My brother-in-law went for an interview for some sort of marketing position, and had a folder of his research with him. One of the interviewers demanded to see the papers, BIL refused, the situation escalated, and BIL stood up to leave.

    At this point, the interviewers told him he’d passed the test, and could stay.

    BIL left anyway.

    • Mary, good on your BIL! From a marketer’s perspective, it is so important to trust your management and having their word being good. After all, marketers are responsible for presenting the company face to the world. He got to see how untrustworthy they were and the games they’d play. Right to leave.

      I bolted a job I had for 13 years when the new department head (in an acquisition) came in and told me that because he was ADD he wouldn’t necessarily remember what I told him 15 minutes earlier. From his track record, I knew he used this handicap as a weapon to undermine people and generally make them crazy. Three months later I was gone….

      I had a potential employer refuse to let me go on through the process without providing a Word or PPT copy of my presentation. I’ve been asked about I’d do the job or solve a specific problem (skirting free work), how I’d organize the department (which was totally questionable), and my personal 30-60-90 day learning plan (!) in PPT. Now you know what is going on here–copycatting. I don’t provide the first two (though they’ve tried every dodge like ‘we have to show it to senior management’) and the last in PDF because that’s pretty anodyne–there are whole books on it. There are of course converters but never leave behind your work without $ (on a check that doesn’t bounce).

  13. @Nick, I’m connecting some dots here re your ‘newbie’ recruiter and his situation.

    Responsible recruiters are very thin on the ground nowadays especially in contract or temp work. Practically all of them right up to director level are Indian (Asian) run or US fronts (WEBO is the big dodge) and they are contracted by the largest US and international companies like Citigroup and Siemens. They are not only primary contractors but they subcontract to other Indian companies.

    The dot I’m connecting is that HR departments LOVE Indian recruiters for several reasons. 1) They will compete on every job for submitting candidates at lowest rates, 2) they won’t tell candidates very much other than all information is mandatory, 3) because they are mostly offshore (India) call center operations, candidates can’t hold individual recruiters responsible, 4) they are a huge buffer for HR, and 5) they don’t advocate for candidates or kick back to the most absurd demands. All the Indian recruitment company (Collabera, Mondo, Infosys and the like) are interested in are the Benjamins. It’s a race to the bottom like no other, but it serves HR VERY well.

    And this is in addition to the job boards and the ZipRecruiters promising to do HR’s work for them!

    What self-respecting young person would go into recruitment? Being a piano player in a house of ill repute would be more respectable.

    Your thoughts, Nick?

  14. One of the tools I suggest folks use is the dice salary calculator. Yes, who really knows what logic or data sources that dice uses for this calculator, but If the company won’t acknowledge it then you can say obviously you have no grasp on market rates. Yes, tools like this don’t substitute for real insight on what the position should pay but it’s a start.

    • Your HR people are tuned in to the likes of and other sites. It’s simply a negotiation technique to justify a given salary, as is a request for your previous salary. You just have to get good at negotiations, learn when to hold cards close to the vest, and be able to demonstrate why you are worth a certain amount.

      True story: I was interviewing for a job at a company where a long time friend works who knew the owner well. This person told me not to underbid below a certain amount, or the owner would think I wasn’t that good. That lower number was 50% higher than my existing salary – even so, I quoted a dollar figure that was higher than minimum and lower than the previous person. I was offered the job on the spot. New salary was 66% pay increase.

  15. @Nick, Some of this is abusive but mostly it was arrogant and ridiculous.

    I was on my 3rd interview with the company. I passed with flying colors the other interviews and we were really enjoying the conversation. I was excited for the 3rd interview and I wanted to talk about what I could uniquely do to help them out.

    I got to the second person in line on that 3rd interview day and he comes in and tells me that he didn’t read my resume and that he could judge my abilities all by himself without any bias from me as to my abilities, if I answered some generic puzzle question. I should have called HR right then and told them I don’t work for arrogant people.

    On the ridiculous end, Google called me up and told me they needed one person with my exact skill set. It was a bit specialized and I thought the recruiter did a good job of finding me. Then they told me their hiring routine. I’d have to take a test during a phone interview and it would take a while. Then I’d have to come in and do 5 more tests. Then they’d shop my resume around to hiring managers and see if anyone wanted to take me up, then I’d get to meet the hiring manager and see how I liked it. I told them that they wanted to fill 1 position with one hiring manager and then we’d see together how much I could bring to the table. But they wouldn’t budge and I wouldn’t participate.

    The final story is a story of a company that said they hired only from the top 100 computer science colleges in the USA (I fit) and then they gave a set of tests. I had to do a set of puzzles and quizzes. Minimum score was a 90 for each test. One guy gave me a javascript test and 2/10 of the questions was trival pursuit about how javascript was named and who was the first developer. I didn’t know, but the kicker was that the person who gave me that test was the author of the test and he didn’t know the answers to the quiz either until he looked it up. I was told that I wasn’t smart enough and my degree (then over 25 years old) must have been a sham.

    • @Lucille

      I believe even Google admits that their hiring process is a sham, but they are okay with it because they get a million job applications a year or some such nonsense.

  16. Check this one out…

    Wanted: *Hispanic* Art Director

    Additional LOL:

    -Must be able to: Call home and tell them not to wait for you to have dinner-

    • This agency is even stupider than this ad. What they mean by ‘Hispanic’ is an art director who is bilingual and understands the drivers in the market. Instead they run an exclusionary ad. The big laugh on them, though, is that there is no ONE Hispanic market. It’s a farce! It is fractured by age, region, income, education, generational and national origin and probably other factors not top of mind. It speaks different kinds Having worked with the Latin American inbound market, I had three ads for the region (A/B markets only as it was car rental): Mexican Spanish, Carib/Central/South American Spanish, and Argentine Spanish. Locals know the difference! And there is a huge Brazilian market in the US that is lumped under Hispanic and THEY DON’T SPEAK SPANISH NOR EUROPEAN PORTUGUESE!

      Well, at least they are explicit about the long hours. Don’t even mention they are part of Omnicom nor their healthcare portfolio. Best be under 40, from the pics on the website!

  17. It makes sense how you said that a headhunter should build a relationship with the clients in order to help them get what they need. This would be really helpful because it would allow you to trust what they are doing for you. It would probably allow you to access better jobs as well!