In the September 10, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter we tackle 5 nightmares:

  1. An employer wants free work
  2. A relocation dream turns into a horror story
  3. A guy’s network POOF! disappears into thin air
  4. LinkedIn makes an employer tell job seekers to sleep it off, and
  5. A headhunter and his client are lost in salary dreamland…

I get a lot of questions from readers, and I sometimes reply via e-mail with short answers (when I have time) that I never publish. But some of them are just as worthy of discussion… so here we go with some short(er) ones!

Question 1: They want free work!

nightmaresYour column regarding working on a real problem during the interview hit home. In the past six months I’ve had two interviews where I have been asked to work on a real-world problem. The first time, I suspected that this “interview” was to get an outsider’s opinion on a problem the staff was working on. (They wanted free work.) I never heard from the employer again. The second time, I asked the interviewer if the problem was something they were working on. He said yes and that this was a way for them to get a combination of interview and consulting work! I finished the problem and sent them an invoice for the time I spent at the firm. I can appreciate demonstrating your skill to a potential employer. However, the candidate has to be on guard for those seeking free work. How to handle these situations?

Nick’s Reply

When I emphasize the importance of “doing the job in the interview,” I usually include a warning about not working for free. That’s an abhorrent way for an employer to get free work from a job applicant — but I’ve seen it done many times. When responding, it’s always best to be a big cagey, and to hold back some details. If they press you, smile knowingly and offer your consulting time (for a fee) while they complete their hiring process. Heavily detailed “sample problems” are a tip-off. Do just enough to whet their appetites.

Question 2: Relo nightmare

My company relocated me to a new city in another state to a job with the same description as I had before. I thought it was going to be great. Unfortunately, I hate it. There are spider webs and low lighting everywhere, and I dread going to work every day. They got me to sign a contract — I have to repay relo costs of $12,000 if I leave before two years. It’s all of my savings. I am feeling stuck at this not-as-advertised job. I’ve certainly learned a lesson about getting a tour of the site before signing a contract. Am I totally stuck?

Nick’s Reply

Ouch. Relo can be a kind of indentured servitude. Since a contract is involved, I think your best bet is to see an attorney. You can probably get an initial consultation at no cost, but I’d get a good referral from a trusted source. The alternative is to feel depressed for two years. I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but you might be able to show that the job is not what they “contracted” for. I wish you the best.

Question 3: My network disappeared

I am a senior software consultant. I recently hit a dry spell finding work and finances have become very tight. What’s alarming is the realization that I am not really connected to any sort of reliable, non-virtual network that can help get me back in the game sooner. I guess while I am actively working, I don’t really think about it. Instead, my de-facto “network” is a random collection of job boards, fruitless job agents, and a few incredibly rude recruiters. Clearly this is inadequate. How do I tap into the support system I desperately need during the down times?

Nick’s Reply

You can’t tap into a support system you don’t have. A big part of life and work is cultivating friends and relationships over time. Please see Tell me who your friends are.

Frankly, a support system is more important than any job. I’m not talking about a loose network of “contacts” for that purpose — I’m talking about real friends and buddies. Attend conferences. Join groups. Take training classes. Offer to do presentations. Cultivate and invest in your relationships — not just professionally, but in all parts of your life. You’ll know you’re doing it wrong if it’s not enjoyable.

Question 4: LinkedIn & ruled out

Thanks for your eye-opening article on LinkedIn. If I were an employer looking to hire (which I was when I was starting my small but successful software company about 20 years ago), I would respond to the sleazy practice of paid uplisting by working my way down the list and e-mailing anyone who had paid for an uplist. I’d let them know that I would not consider them for the job because they had clearly indicated that they didn’t consider themselves good enough to stand on their own merits.

Nick’s Reply

What puzzles me is why job seekers don’t get past the guard (the online forms and the HR department), and why hiring managers don’t open the door to the most motivated applicants! (If you liked that LinkedIn article, see the extended one I wrote for PBS NewsHour.)

Question 5: Salary nightmare

I recently had a discussion with a headhunter for a well-known staffing agency who insisted on getting my current salary. He told me the pay range for the position was $80k-$100k and that if $80k was more than 10% above what I’m currently making, he couldn’t offer me the position. I told him that $80k was more than 10% above what I’m making now, but I refused to give further details. He asked a few more times for my salary and finally ended our “interview” by saying he’d submit my resume and see what happens. What happened here? Is this B.S.? Who said I can’t make more than 10% higher in a new position?

Nick’s Reply

No one says you can’t make more than 10% higher, except this “headhunter’s” client. Many headhunters merely parrot what their client tells them. That’s a poor way to service a client. Sometimes you’ve got to tell them what they need to hear — not what they want to hear. His laziness further reveals itself in the fact that he won’t even back up his client — he’s still going to submit your resume! It’s not clear what he’s really doing to earn a fee. He’s waiting to see if some spaghetti might stick to the wall. Who knows, maybe he’s got no other candidates to submit and he’s willing to chance it.

Of course, employers have the right to limit job offers, even if the limit is completely irrational. The next candidate might be making $90k, so the top offer would be $99k. If you’re making $70k, but can do the job, and they gave you $80k — more than a 10% bump — they’d be saving money, right? Go figure. There are idiots in HR departments who can barely count their fingers and toes, and they’re making these kinds of salary calculations? The decision you must make is, do you want to work with an employer or a headhunter like these two?

I’ve placed people for close to twice their old pay. And the client and the new hire were perfectly happy — value delivered and paid for with no regrets. If I were you, I’d move on to a headhunter and an employer whose goal is to hire good people, not to learn how to count their fingers and toes. (See How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

My compliments for holding fast and not disclosing your salary history — but you let the cat out of the bag anyway. Next time, just say the job seems to be in the right salary range in terms of what you want. Of course, later on, if they make an offer, you must hold fast and not disclose what you’re making. (See Should I disclose my salary history?)

I’m sure you’ve got your own advice to offer on these little nightmares. Please pile on!

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  1. Wow, number 5 seems to involve an amazingly dense headhunter! I always was of the opinion that since they are generally working for a percentage of you wages, even though theynare technically working for the employer, that at least in this aspect their self-interest and the job sekers are aligned.

    These days when they ask for salary history i get them to agree to not disclose it directly to the employer and gently remind them of the above; and ask that they then just shoot for as high as they can go.

    Haven’t really had problems since I start taking that tack rather than blindly complying or denying their request.

  2. Question 1 was dead on!

    I recently interviewed with a startup e-commerce company, and after being put through the interview grinder (didn’t mind, very insightful), I was given the “let’s solve a real world challenge” scenario.

    I was asked to watch a series of videos, then construct my solution/scenario.

    I treated it as you suggested, a taste of what they could get, writing a brief almost summary type solution.

    Unfortunately this company was a scumbag, and didn’t bother replying to even thank me for the work or any indication of potential next steps.

    I accepted an offer with a much better company, so wrote them a scathing review for said freebie solicitation on Glassdoor (for what that was worth).

    As always, keep up the great stuff Nick!

  3. Regarding #1… You’re right on, it’s common sense here… If they are asking you to do some convoluted stuff, then hold back. I.e. If they are asking you to do something that will be thousands of lines of code and take hours (or days) or something, you’re within your right to just psuedo code it…

    Also, it is rude to not discuss any solutions you come up with. I had this happen recently to me and just think it’s just wrong.

    Regarding #5… Agree here.

    Many head hunters and recruiters are just shills for the client. I.e. you must have VERY specific skills and salary range and history, and any deviation from that will not be tolerated. Where is the value add of a head hunter/recruiter? In other words, why pay a big fee if all you’re going to do is checklist matching?

    Secondly, there’s no reason why someone can’t get at least a 10% raise when switching jobs. For example, someone may be losing vacation time, 401k matching (in the short term), relocation, higher cost of living, spouse needs to find a job if relocating, and you haven’t had a raise in years due to the economy.

    I also think this relates to the talent shortage as well. Employers make these stupid rules and then claim there is a “shortage” because no one can meet the criteria. It also doesn’t allow people to grow in their careers or to switch careers as well.

  4. I may have read it wrong, but in #5 the reader refers to a “staffing agency.” My guess is this is not a regular employer but a so-called “job shop” or “consulting firm” that puts people on its payroll and farms them out to its clients for a mark-up. The recruiters who work for such firms can be among the worst – they work from a shopping list produced by the client and the sales rep who sold the deal to the client. The recruiter is thus twice or three times removed from the action and, as Dave points out, is doing little but “checklist matching.”

    What many don’t understand is, such “projects” are not even firm deals. That is, the consulting firm doesn’t even have a contract yet with the client company. In order to produce its proposal (sales pitch) to its prospective client, the consulting firm first recruits (at the lowest salary possible), and THEN gets an actual contract. So the person being recruited doesn’t even know whether there’s really a job available yet.

    What this means to the applicant is, you’re trying to negotiate with a recruiter who has no authority or leeway to negotiate anything – and the recruiter will never let you talk to the sales rep who is pitching the deal to the prospective client. That’s why the recruiter in this case was so cut and dry. He’s probably frustrated, too, and has no control.

    In other words, the less private information you disclose, the better. The lower your expectations, the better. Except for when you’re dealing with one of a precious few very good consulting firms, these deals are almost always just a crapshoot. Be very careful.

  5. I had an opportunity for relocation assistance and asked my company to roll 1/3 of the value into my salary instead. I never ended up relocating permanently, and I still have the raise.

  6. @Michael – Wow, good for you! My issue is with question #3. I recently emailed a supervisor from a temp job I did 3 years ago. Not only did he remember me, he said my work was very valuable in the audit they had. (I did the prep work.) It took a few days to get his response, but that really confirmed I must do the leg work to get the desired results. Keep trying if you’re having difficulty locating someone. You could be using the wrong email address. I’m shocked at how many people do not reflect their correct email address in their profiles on LinkedIn. Yes, I do use LinkedIn for my sources sometimes but I do NOT pay them a dime to do whatever the heck they said they’ll do with my profile for a few extra bucks.

  7. About #2: I could imagine it would be difficult to establish enough of a network to be able to anticipate the problems in a job if one were relocating. Other than a tour of the office, what other advice could be discussed?

  8. But wait a minute, in scenario no. 1 there is way more going on there than outlined against what Nick suggests in my opinion. This is going into apples vs oranges and if that scenario above happens it is no longer an interview in my book.

    Where is it work for free? If you ask for a hypothetical and then you provide your solution to their alleged make-believe problem, then they actually implement your pearls because their hypothetical was a real issue – in my view then just a real attempt to con and scam you into free labor – not an honest hypothetical but an actual problem they faced …and used you for free consultation under pretense without compensation. There is a serious issue to me at hand.

    There are legal guidelines regarding copyright and original material as well as employment laws in each state so what grounds would they stand on? I would never sit idle and allow that to take place, if that happened to me that is the time I phone my attorney.

  9. I especially liked #1 and #4. #1 Especially seems to be a reoccurring issue in this economy. They want the solutions from fresh minds under the guise of possible employment. Nick answered it well, “just enough to wet their appetites”. This practice is seen popping up all over the place. For the potential candidate this is good advice to be aware of.

    @David Mercer-what a great way to remind these staffing companies the amount of your “cut” depends on me getting the most I can get! Awesome!

    #4 Made me have hope in some companies again where the manager/owner actually “gets” it. Paying for uplistings on LinkedIn doesn’t fool him. He actually wants the most passionate and go-getter person who represents themselves as someone who wants to show they can do the job with contacting by email or whatever methods necessary, getting past HR, and etc.

  10. #1 and # 5…

    #1 – I was asked to write a report for a position I applied for right out of college. I thought I was desperate (I wasn’t), and I did it. I was offered the job, but didn’t take it.

    If I would have known then what I know now, I would have never done it. My dad even told me that I should have told them a fee that I would charge.

    #5 – I routinely refuse to give my salary information. Yes, I’ve been disqualified for jobs because of this, but that’s besides the point. If this point of contention is that big of a deal, I probably don’t want to work for the company anyway.