In the September 20, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wonders how to get smarter, negotiate better, and avoid getting taken advantage of:

I had what may be a “Eureka moment.” I’ve been accused of lacking the “cojones” to handle interviewing and the job market, and I think it’s true. I started my career when companies treated people with respect. Today, employers deliberately set things up so that the job candidate is at a huge disadvantage. The rules have changed so that employers can really take advantage of the diligent, loyal folks who have the 1950’s work ethic.

They make an offer and demand you respond within 24 hours, or it is rescinded. They make statements in interviews that they back out of as soon as you take the job. Don’t assume that they will send you a health insurance card, or that the work week is 40 hours, or that there’s even time to eat lunch. One place I worked made everyone buy their own pens and office supplies. You almost need a bulldog lawyer to negotiate everything for you.

People have told me I have a “golden retriever” personality—too eager to please and to be a good employee. I need to be more skeptical, and I need to be a much tougher negotiator. It is hard when you really need a job, but I’ve learned the hard way not to be so trusting. It may be better to risk ticking off an employer, or losing out on a job, than to take the job and find that someone took advantage of your good nature. How can I get smarter? How can I be a better negotiator? Can you help me out?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

The best way to avoid being taken advantage of is to set your standards and expectations high. Then judge others accordingly.

One way to approach this is to politely make the employer jump a few hoops, too. The lousy ones will refuse, and that saves you time. I doubt it will cost you any good opportunities. My advice: Quickly find out what kind of people you’re dealing with. If there’s a problem, move on. Here are some suggestions.


Make a list of what you think is reasonable behavior from an employer, so you’ll be more aware of what to look for. If an employer doesn’t measure up, call them on it. Give them a chance to try again. Their reaction will tell a lot by itself. Here’s an example.

How to Say It
“Thanks for the offer. I’m very pleased about it, but I cannot make a decision in 24 hours. I’ll tell you why. I want to stay with the company I join for the long haul, so I want to make sure it’s the right match. Before I accept, I’d like to spend a little time with people I’d be working with, and with people in related departments. Can we schedule some brief meetings with managers and employees in [manufacturing, finance, whatever] asap? Then I can assure you of a quick answer to your offer. I appreciate your consideration. It will help us both to make a wise decision.”

Massage the wording to suit your style. It’s a reasonable request, and I think it will quickly reveal which companies are good and which are lousy.


Another way to be more assertive (and to protect yourself): Ask for the full employee manual and benefits package at your first interview, or before it. Hey, they have all your info in your resume and application, right? You want their info. If they won’t give you copies after your first interview, thank them and walk away. Don’t waste your time.


(This part of my advice is omitted. It’s for newsletter subscribers only. Subscribe to the newsletter to read all of next week’s Q&A! It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)

There are good companies out there. You have to weed out the rest, and these are some ways to do it. Of course, you must be polite, reasonable and very professional. Never be pushy, demanding, or rude or presumptuous. Wear a big smile, grow some cojones, and be firm. Sure, this will cost you what people loosely refer to as “opportunities”—but they are really nothing at all.

Know what your standards are. Go in with a positive attitude. Stand firm the first time they push you where you don’t want to go.

Some employers demonstrate high standards. Others smile a lot and bite you where it hurts. Learn to tell one from the other by testing them. Today’s Q&A offers 3 suggestions. How do you test a company before you accept a job offer? Have you been bitten?

How can job candidates be smarter and negotiate better? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  1. Ask them to show you where you’re going to sit.

    One time I reported to work only to discover I was expected to share a desk with two others! I walked right out the door.

  2. Sometimes the company reveals its character in the interview process. A few years ago I had 3 interviews with a large manufacturer. They jumped through hoops 1 & 2 without being asked. The first meeting was with an HR rep. Before asking me anything, she laid out the whole picture: wages; bonus policy; health, dental & vision coverage; vacation & sick leave. Next came an interview with the department manager where we mostly talked about day to day activities and worked with some of the analytical tools they used. The third interview, if you could call it that, was lunch with the 6 others in the department. It lasted almost 2 hours and was a combination of ‘Here’s what we do, how can you help?’ and a get to know each other session. I was disappointed not to get the offer, but the rejection was polite, respectful and personal, and in writing.

    So pay attention to the process and all the people you see and meet with. You will often learn who you are really dealing with.

  3. I wonder what is driving this 24 hour “or else” behavior? Could it be that a popular HR metric is the time it takes to fill a position and not the quality of the persons hired? – “let’s make bad decisions faster!”

  4. I’ve been in a similar situation (and learned!). A company I interviewed with extended an offer with a rate that was far below what I was expecting (red flag #1). This was on a Wednesday.

    I expressed my regrets and politely declined the offer.

    The next day, Thursday, they called back and said they would match my required rate (red flag #2). I accepted–everything else about the job and company appeared to be okay.

    They then asked if I could start the next day to meet with the client (RED FLAG #3).

    That job didn’t last very long. Apparently, they’d just landed the client, who was flying in that day (Friday) to meet the team.

    Fire. Ready. Aim.


    Lesson the first: if the rate is substantially lower than I expect, walk away. Even if I *prove* my value, they have seriously undervalued the position.

    Lesson the second: beware of the stability of companies who have a small number of people, clients and years of existence. (Unless you’re into the startup thing, then go for it.)

    Lesson the third: if relatives are working for the company (in director or above positions), run like hell and don’t look back.

    Lesson the fourth: deja vu is my gut telling me to “get out now!”

  5. @Suzanne C.

    I’m guessing it’s some sort of metric and/or poorly run group – i.e. instant gratification of “we need someone NOW”

    But the sad thing is I’ve heard of people complain about not finding “qualified canidates” and then when they find one, they are all over them like a cheap suit.

  6. @Bryan –

    Been in “similar” situations… I agree about the “new” company/small number of people issue.

    I once had an interview with a company that was small… As it turned out, their job posting was poorly written. Then the interviewer claimed that he was having a tough time getting qualified people and that I was the most qualified. Job was not what I envisioned. He asked where I saw my self in 5 years – I was honest and laid out some long term goals which the interviewer was hostile towards. They wouldn’t tell me their revenues/profits.

    Of course at the end of the interview, I brought up the money issue because if the rate was good enough, I could consider a job offer. I basically said “I’d like $X but if you offer some sort of career progression, I’d consider less.” They seemed to me “shocked” that someone would suggest such a thing – I choose not to continue the interview process.

  7. Yes, a job is like a marriage—a two-way street.

  8. @Bryan,
    Sometimes even public companies with well established businesses pay below average salaries for thier professionals. Somehow, they manage to keep muddling along with who they can attract and retain.
    Private, family owned companies are much different as they are often infested with family members in managemnt positions. The damage is two fold. The family members pull down way more in salary than they produce. For obvious reasons, this causes resentment among the regular employees. The extra salary taken out of the buisness by the family members is made up for in lower salaries for the regular employees causing more resentment.
    After the founder dies or retires, the die is cast and the business folds in a decade or less.

  9. @Bryan

    Family-run companies (or ones that claim to be “like a family here”) are awful. And the family member does not have to be in “management” to make your like a living breathing hell. One small place I was had held a straw poll as to whether to hire a outside cleaning service or do it ourselves. Vote was whatever-to-2 for the outside service. Of course, we would do it ourselves. Then the bosses wife (the part-time receptionist) would complain about how it was done, how many bags were used to take out the trash (less was better), without consideration that this housekeeping was forced on the technical staff.

    However, worse still are the ones who mix religion with business. If the interviewer starts talking about “strong Christian principles” or you see an abundance of religions icons on desks, run for the hills. Unless you are a deacon in the same church as the boss, you just never will “fit in here”.

  10. @LT,

    I concur with your comments about mixing religion and business. I worked for a 24,000 employee, multinational, publicly traded corp in a very small R&D center 1000s of miles and 1 country away from Corporate HQ. An engineer, who was not a “people person” and who was a complete “conflict-phobe” was mandated to become a manager. This engineer-turned-manager was a very devout Mormon Bishop. (To be clear: I have nothing against Mormons; I just don’t want religion at work. Period.) He instituted prayers at meetings, would not promote coffee / caffeinated soda drinkers or social alcohol drinkers or smokers. An ambitious, young, non-caffeinated, materials scientist converted to Mormonism and was promoted 3 ranks where she started supervising scientists whose job she could not do.

    I admit my past experience with mixing religion and business is completely anecdotal, but it didn’t go down so well. I, and several others, left.

    In case anyone is wondering, the “brass” from HQ were not in the habit of swinging by, think I met them once in 3 yrs. They likely had no idea why they were suddenly losing people. No one went to the trouble of figuring out the other country’s employment laws, application of USA’s laws to USA operations of foreign corp, or pushing complaints through the giant bureaucracy of this huge corp…

    Obviously, this took place in another decade, when jobs were plentiful and pay / benefits were generous at many corps.

  11. This is good advice, Nick. It is about knowing your own value, not being afraid to speak up for yourself (if you don’t, no one will), and being willing to walk away if your minimum standards do not seem to be met. That last part also means listening to your “gut”. Too often, when we’re desperate for a job or even just want a particular job badly, we’re willing to ignore the red flags and our gut giving us warnings.

    @MBS; in one of my first jobs after college, I worked in a library and had to share a desk with a colleague. I worked full time, she worked part time. I was young and my previous jobs had been in retail, so office work was new. We worked around eachother; if she needed the desk and computer, I’d find something else to do; if I needed it, she’d work on a project that didn’t require a computer or our shared desk. But we were both sooo glad when we moved upstairs and we each got our own desk! No more juggling time, space, duties!
    @Chris, Bryan, and Dave: Agreed. There are all kinds of warnings. I don’t pay much heed to a lower salary offer because I think that employers expect you to negotiate, and a good negotiator for a business IS going to lowball the salary–they want the best person for the lowest salary they can get because it means more profits for the company. That’s just business 101. It is up to you, the candidate, to negotiate the salary. If the company’s attitude is “take it or leave it” (refuse to negotiate), then the ball is in your court. Are you desperate for a job? Desperate enough to take a job that pays far below your value? If not, then you can ask about benefits–health insurance, life insurance, paid holidays, paid sick time, personal days, paid vacation time, family sick time, tuition remission/reimbursement for education, career progression. If the salary is low but you can still afford to live on it and your benefits are good, you might re-consider the cost to you to pay out of pocket for these benefits if you get a higher salary (but no benefits) vs a lower salary (with the benefits). You just might come out ahead with the lower salary. But I really like the idea of spending a day or part of a day with the folks you’ll be working most closely with. That will tell you a lot.

    At the job I had before my last job, the interview process was 2 days. The first day I met with the manager of the dept. and HR. The second day I met with other workers in the dept. On that second day, the manager was introducing me to the people in the dept. and when I was introduced to one woman, she looked at me, and I mean squarely in the eye, long enough so that I knew that she had seen me, and then glanced down at my extended hand, and turned her back on me without a single word. That should have me a cue to me to leave. But I needed a job so I took it and that woman made my life hell. The manager and the others excused her behavior as typical for her, that she doesn’t take to new people, to strangers well, that she doesn’t talk to you until you’ve been there for 20 years, etc. The dept. was small–including the manager, there were 6 of us, so it wasn’t like I could avoid her, though I tried. And I did try to be pleasant to her, because I didn’t want to start out a new job on the wrong foot.

    @LT: You’re right too. In my last job after having 3 dept. heads leave (one resigned, two retired), the replacement brought her religious beliefs into the dept. I worked for a large STATE university. She was from the South, and when she arrived she started holding morning and afternoon prayers and Bible readings and study during lunch. The previous 3 never brought their religious beliefs into work. We wished eachother happy holidays, and one in particular was able to joke about religion without anyone giving or taking offense, but he never ever forced his faith on me or on the others working in the dept. The new boss was another matter. One employee told her very nicely that she wasn’t coming to prayers or to Bible study on her break. This woman was religious herself, but never forced it on anyone else. She told the boss that it wasn’t the boss’ place to make employees start the day with prayer and read the Bible. The rest of us met with the boss and told her as politely but firmly as possible that this was inappropriate and unacceptable at a STATE university. The boss said “I’m the boss and you will come to prayers and to read the Bible with me or else.” We went to the Dean, who backed the boss (who was her friend). We went to the Provost, who had a “chat” with the Dean and with the new boss. We all refused to start our days like that and spend our lunches like that–it wasn’t that people didn’t believe in God and more than a few were of the same denomination as the boss, but resented having it forced on them AT WORK at a STATE university. If we had worked at Notre Dame, it would have been harder to say no. Then, because she was stymied, she started sending out religious emails and prayers to staff, faculty, and wanted me to send them out to students. Yeah right. I started deleting the religious emails without reading them and when she’d try to discuss religion at meetings and ask me what the students thought, I had to tell her that I deleted them and that I didn’t send them to the students and why. A state university means gov’t, and the First Amendment means the gov’t can’t promote or favor one religion or religious denomination over another. Her prayer meetings and Bible study during lunch means the gov’t is dictating to me, other staff, faculty, and students which religion we have to practice. And that’s illegal. A good number of the faculty were Jewish, a couple were Muslim, and the rest were Christian. Even among the Christians, it never occurred to her that they might not be her brand of Christian, and even if they were her brand of Christian, they might prefer to focus on work (we weren’t in the religion dept.) at work and be left free to worship as we saw fit on our own time. I remember her telling me, that first semester she was there, to send out “merry Christmas” greetings to all of the students. I politely refused–this happened just before Christmas, but after Chanukkah and Ramadan. I’m sorry, but I can’t, for the same reasons it is inappropriate to schedule morning prayers and Bible readings. If you had wanted to wish everyone happy holidays, then it needed to have been done before Chanukkah and before Ramadan so the holiday wishes were inclusive. She didn’t get it. At that time, 8 of the students were named Mohammad and 3 of them lived in Saudi Arabia. There were a lot of Jewish students too. There are times when I think political correctness goes too far, but this was one time when I thought it didn’t go far enough. The boss wasn’t stupid–she had a doctorate degree and had worked at many universities, but never in New England. I still don’t get how you get to the level of assoc. dean and think it’s okay to force employees to join you in morning prayers and to read the Bible with you. Dumb.

  12. Because I’m in a survival job now, I can do some assertive things I couldn’t when I needed an income, like respond firmly to rude interviewers. When they tell me that they haven’t had time to read my resume (you set up the appointment, not me!)I gently say, “I’m sorry! Could we please reschedule after you’ve had an opportunity to study it? I’d like you to have time to absorb it.”

    This isn’t just rude, it’s unprofessional. If I was a walk-in, of course I wouldn’t mind, but I had to take vacation time to come to this interview. I drove down the night before to make sure of your location so I wouldn’t be late. I’ve researched your company online, and studied every page of your website.

    The least you can do is give my resume a careful read and scribble a couple of questions on it.

    Another time I really was late. I had just started my survival job and couldn’t take time off to make the time frame of the interviewing company. (Another good reason for progressive managers to interview after hours–I always did.) The manager wasn’t out of control, but he called me out on it. In case he didn’t have the story, I informed him why, but took full responsibility and offered to withdraw immediately. He went on anyway, and it was a very useful interview. I didn’t get an offer, but I didn’t feel my time was wasted–I revamped my portfolio of accomplishment after that to make future interviews even smoother.

    The only time I felt a need to psychically skewer a hiring manager was when he not only had not read my resume beforehand, but didn’t understand survival jobs in todays brutal economy. I could have ended the interview when I detected “the fit wasn’t right”, but this was my third out of town trip to the same conference room, and though I knew I wouldn’t get justice, I could at least get something for my dry cleaning bill.

    I stretched it out to half an hour, far more uncomfortable for him than it was for me.

    Not all of them are bad: I recently had a fabulous time with a very nice and professional company. From start to finish, everything was great except for not getting the job. I regained much confidence from that one.

  13. @Erika & Marybeth

    Mine was with a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo. And a pure IT job.

    If you belonged to HIS parish he could absolutely trust you (this included the guy that was running a sports bookie operation with company resources on work hours). If you were of the same religion, but a member somewhere else (say, Our Lady of the Blessed Shroud) her could kinda sorta trust you.

    The rest of us were unwashed heathens, not to be trusted. And trust (and seeing you in your assigned pew Sunday morning at mass) was important to him.

    When he did fire me, I took him to the employment commission and won (never, ever underestimate a former paralegal with a state supreme court library card).

  14. @MBS: That’s a more profound suggestion than folks might think. I once took an exec-level job only to show up and find I had no office, no desk, no phone. Asking to see your chair is smart.

    @Suzanne C: 24 hour decision times aren’t new, but they’re much more common. Time was when companies respected a 1-2 week decision time by the candidate. (I recommend answering much more quickly, but sometimes you can’t.) I think it’s part of a mentality — Hurry up! — that’s contradicted by employers’ own behavior — There’s no rush to decide whether we’re hiring anyone!

    I think there’s a lot behind this behavior. More than I can get into here. There’s a lot of dysfunctionality in it.

  15. @Bryan: Those are 4 very good lessons. In today’s economy, it’s too easy to dismiss what our gut tells us.

  16. Ouch: Religion at work!

  17. @LT: That’s awful! I’m glad that you won, but it sounds like it was not such a good place to work if your boss’ reason for not trusting you had absolutely nothing to do with your work ethics or your ability to do the job but because you didn’t pray the way he did.

    And no boss should have the right to dictate religion to employees. I think it should apply to the private sector just as much as to the public sector.

    And my job had nothing to do with religion either–I ran a graduate program at a large state school. We admitted students of all faiths and of no faith. We hired faculty based upon their education and background, not on their religion. Yet my former boss didn’t think anything was wrong with requiring staff to start the day with her leading us in morning prayers. She tried to get the faculty to join, but they didn’t and she didn’t harass the tenured faculty but made veiled threats to the adjuncts (who needed their jobs and didn’t have union protection) and threatened the staff, who are never tenured and who had a weak union. It was awful. I stood up to her, but feared I’d see a pink slip in my mailbox every week. She did try to fire one employee (her refusal to come to prayers and Bible readings were one issue; the other issue was bigger and funnier, if it weren’t so stupid).

  18. This is an excellent, excellent post, and I wish I’d gotten this advice 10 years ago when I started working for my current company. My experiences here have been awful, bordering on traumatic. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to end up quitting and going back to being a temp. It is that bad.

    I can definitely use this advice going forward, though!