In the December 15, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains that employers hide the money.


On an almost weekly basis, headhunters ping me about technical jobs they want to fill, but they won’t tell me what a job will pay. Then we get down to the brass tacks, and rarely do any of these corporations want to pay what I know I’m worth for what I bring to the table.

lips-sealedMy skill set wasn’t developed by being average, and I will not accept anything average. I make my employer lots of money. I impact the bottom line and that will cost you.

It’s interesting to watch companies lose money because they employed campers instead of climbers. I’m willing to do the job for those employers, but when I tell them they need to pay me $25k more than they’re paying the campers, they squeal. Meanwhile, millions are being lost right in front of their eyes. Yet they expect me to interview without disclosing what a job will pay. Their lips are sealed until after the interviewing is done. What’s up with that?

Nick’s Reply

It’s pretty astonishing how many consumers and employers are tire-kickers. They won’t spend what’s necessary on the product, service, or hire that they want. But they will keep looking, usually until they find a less costly solution — and by that time, they convince themselves it’s sufficient.

Employers view new hires as an expense, not an investment. An expense costs you. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.) A good investment generates a good return. It seems few employers look for returns — they’re just trying to fill jobs with bodies (that don’t cost much). Then they wonder why their business is mediocre if not failing.

I think the prudent approach is to have a simple protocol for limiting the time you spend with headhunters. In my opinion, it has to involve an up-front discussion about salary range. (See Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money.) Many people think it’s too forward or inappropriate to ask what the salary is — and employers love that.

It’s the old foot-in-the-door sales approach. The more time and effort employers can get you to spend talking to them, the more chance you’ll compromise on the money later on, to justify all the time you spent.

I say bunk to that. We all know money is the first bridge, so cross it immediately. Don’t let it seem complicated. When an employer or headhunter solicits you for a job, here’s how to proceed. Always ask this question before you agree to do an interview:

How to Say It
“So, what’s the pay like?”

Yes, that’s all it takes: an off-handed, casual, natural, obvious question. (That tip is part of “The Pool-Man Strategy: How to ask for more money,” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games, pp. 13-15.)

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Would you take a nice-looking bottle of wine to the checkout counter at a liquor store if it doesn’t have a price tag on it? Of course not. So, why would you agree to spend hours talking about a job whose salary range you don’t know? You might have to put that job back on the shelf, after you’ve wasted precious time and energy.

When an employer declines to disclose the salary range for a job, it’s time to end the discussion. Don’t be afraid to ask the salary before you agree to interview. (Of course, you should keep your own salary under wraps!)

You have no idea what the job pays? Then why are you interviewing for it? What’s the big secret?? How do you handle situations where an employer refuses to tell you what the salary is for a job?

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  1. I agree with Nick. Too many employers view new hires as an expense, not an investment. Remind them that he best workers cost more, but they’re worth it. Here are some facts. The top 5 percent of the workforce produces 26 percent of the output. The more complex the work, the bigger the difference between top and average performers. The best developer at Apple is nine times more productive than the average software engineer at other technology companies. The best workers are a great value, too. Even though they are 400 percent more productive, their salaries are less than 20 percent over average. Not only are top performers more productive themselves, but they tend to elevate the performance of those around them and make it easier to attract additional top performers. Top performers generate higher-quality candidate referrals. All of this data can be found in the sources below.

    1.Ernest O’Boyle Jr., Herman Auguinis, The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance, Personnel Psychology Spring 2012.
    2.Michael Mankins, Alan Bird, James Root, Making Star Teams Out of Star Players, Harvard Business Review January-February 2013 Issue.
    3.Dr. John Sullivan, Top Performers Produce 4x More Output And Higher Quality Referrals, ERE May 2013.

  2. I too agree. If the salary is not in the right range, and the employer is unwilling to budge on the salary, there is no point in continuing the conversation.

  3. Tire kickers, indeed!

  4. You wanna see tire kickers? Try being an independent consultant chasing gigs — oy!

  5. At the organization I work at, we try to advise employers to advertise their wages. It’s really amazing how few of them want to disclose what they are willing to pay for an employee. Thousands of jobs are going unfilled in my service region and the employers seem clueless as to why. I see help wanted signs everywhere but none say what they’ll pay. Of course, they only want to pay about 75% of a livable wage but that’s also a fact that they can’t seem to digest. Maybe they hope that they can get people to settle even if settling means losing their house, car, and everything they care about.

  6. @Larry Kaplan

    I hear you. In my experience, non profits can be especially stingy. They often try to squeeze out as much free work as possible out of me. I try to speed up the conversation towards a TOR and a basic 1099 contract as soon as possible. I’ve been burned before.

    Heck, I once helped an NGO win a half million dollar grant program, even though they balked at paying me for the couple days of work. Gosh, these people even wanted me to run the project I won…but have me front my expenses…haha. I politely wished them luck with the project and took a 6 month project from a wwell-paying client a week later.

  7. How about staffing companies that overstate what the client is willing to pay on temp-to-perm positions? I had two interviews through the same, international (think Dutch) staffing firm. The max. hourly rate the company listed in the job posts was $2-4/hr higher than what the client was willing to pay. $4/hr annualized comes to $8300/yr. That’s not chump change.

    I mentioned the discrepancy to the second company and they were startled that the agency had listed $22/hr as the max when $18 was stretching it for them. Unsurprisingly, I never heard back from the agency when I asked them to clarify the pay rate discrepancy.

  8. I’ve been approached by recruiters for contract jobs and been told the MAX hourly rate – benefits not even a factor – would put me back 15-20 years.

    It’s incredible. I had a recent experience where a company wanted to pay me a medium-level engineer’s salary for a PROGRAM MANAGER’s role. A year later that role is still open – I wonder why! *musing*

  9. Oh. Most of the engineers looking for work that I know have – like me – saved our companies multiples of our salary every year. Go to an investor and tell him you have an investment that has historically had an ROI > 100% consistently, they’ll beat themselves to a pulp to invest.

    (Shameless self-promotional link to my portfolio – I am on a job search, you know. ;)

  10. @ David Hunt PE

    I wonder if salaries will ever recover the collapse they’ve made in the past 15 years. I’ve had to laugh at job offers that paid not too much more than I made a few years after (undergraduate) college in the late 90s.

    I would rather make less while billing 2-3 days a week than be whipped and beaten for a crappy salary for God knows how many hours a week. At age 41, I guess I’m cranky. Either that, or I have self-respect and value my time.

    The truth is, if any of us could go back 15 years, investing in almost any capital good/asset– just about anything but investing in the quality of our own labor would put us ahead of the game. Heck, hop in that time machine, put all that money spent on university in gold or silver and let that appreciate.

  11. Companies tend to use the excuse that candidates will go to the top of the range when they see your numbers.

    Of course they will; that is human nature – you have up to $X to spend, I’m going to try to get you to give me $X. If you can feel a candidate is not worth $X, then you are free to walk and find someone that is either worth $X or someone willing to take less. That’s called “sales” and “negotiation.”

    Secondly, I think companies have had a lot of creep into job postings, yet have not adjusted their own salary expectations. One of the biggest complaints (and you see it in the comments here!) is that employers want highly experienced professionals – i.e. those in the top 5% or 10% of performance – but will only pay them an “average” salary.

  12. To Dave’s point, you not only should ask what the pay range is for the job/role you’re talking about, but as important the context question.

    * What’s the salary structure look like. Lets say you’re a software Engineer. You want to see the salary structure for all the SW Engineering family of roles, Entry, Eng 1, 2, 3, 4 etc, consulting eng 1, 2, 3, 4, manager, director VP.
    Then you’ll know where you fit into that company’s idea of how much they think SW engineering is worth.
    Focusing only on the job, or role and what it pays is flying blind. You may nail down where you enter the sandbox, but the range structure tells you where you can go.

    You’ll see why they squirm when you ask for 25K more than they are willing to pay. You’ll either by bumping the high end of your range (setting you/they up for more grief next year when you want a decent raise) or you’ll be sitting in the range for roles they don’t need.

    As someone said, that’s BS, but the full picture puts you in a better negotiating position. You want 25K more, if you’re that good, you can suggest a simple solution, bring you in, into the level where it fits. Or create a new role and range that works.

    Asking the question is also a litmus test for you. If you think employers squirm revealing pay ranges, the structures are even more guarded. But…at some point before you decide, there’s no reason you shouldn’t know the context. You may see that the whole structure is below market and it may not be worth you time to swim upstream every time you want a bump in pay or promo.

    You also want to know how the salary game is played in that company. What are the rules of engagement? When are salary reviews held? annually? individual anniversary? or everyone at once?

    And what’s the current budget for raises? What can you expect? There aren’t any guarantees, but it’s useful information.

    In my experience, everyone’s so focused on walking in the door they don’t look ahead all. It’s assumed, you’ll hit home runs and management will take care of you.

    It’s much better to understand what tools your management has to work with.

  13. I agree that getting the answer to the question “what have you budgeted for the position?” or “what is the salary range and benefits package for the position?” is important. Too many employers start sucking air, hem, haw, stall, do anything they can NOT to provide you with this information. It is a huge time-sink to apply for jobs, get screened, maybe even have several interviews, only to find out too late(after you and they have wasted a lot of time) that your salary requirements don’t match up with what they want to pay you.

    I’ve seen jobs go unfilled, get posted and re-posted, and then often get a make-over–same or greater duties, same or greater level of skills, same or greater level of education required, but now they come with a lesser title and a much lower salary. I’ve wondered whether they think people notice that the expectations they have don’t match what they should be paying, and that’s why they’re not getting “good” candidates.

    Before I apply, I try to make contact with the hiring manager and I always ask “what have your budgeted for the position?” or something to that effect. Those who inform me that they don’t provide that information at this stage (when they have no problem requiring me to provide all kinds of personal and non-essential information about myself at the same stage) or that they don’t disclose that information until the candidate accepts their offer, or worse, a hiring manager who fobs me off to HR or who doesn’t seem to know get a polite “thank you and good luck”.

    @Don: I like your approach as well because IF you can get answers to those questions, it gives you insight into what raises, promotions, reviews, and opportunities for advancement look like (assuming that the bottom doesn’t drop out and the company doesn’t go belly up).

  14. So far I’ve haven’t been refused an answer to salary, sometimes offered before I ask to see if there is enough agreement to go forward. Maybe the tech field is different, or maybe they got turned down enough to want to avoid it again.

    Sorry to say, I’ve been shocked at the low salaries for supposedly senior positions. The last phone screen ended quickly when the salary matched about what I was making 15 years ago.

  15. @Jurassic Carl: That’s a very good question. WILL things recover, in particular for “seasoned” professionals?

    Personally, I’m not sure. For several reasons:

    1. There are oodles of young bodies in virtually every field; ambitious, willing to work insane hours, and desperate enough to take whatever scraps are tossed their way salary-wise. Even if a more experienced person could come up to speed faster, and make more significant contributions, the PERCEIVED valuation is on people in the office, not necessarily on things getting done. Activity is seen as more important than progress.

    2. Companies can offshore work far more readily these days. E.g., at a company very close to me, where I’d gotten to know the hiring manager, he sent the job HE KNEW I WANTED to a China-based product development company. Not only cheaper, but… less actual management work required. And don’t get me started on the H1-B visa thing, e.g., the Disney situation.

    3. Currently I teach at two different schools – adjunct, of course, not making much. At least something though. I want to scream at these kids “Make your money by 40!”

    In general, I’m seeing a subtle but pervasive marketing effort to convinve people to make do with less. To accept less. To accept multiple PT jobs as the “new normal”. Meanwhile, those at the top laugh all the way to the bank.

    And now, of course, there is an uptick in articles saying you need to hop every three years. Just the thing to eliminate your vesting in company 401k matching. Or am I overly cynical and suspicious at this point?

  16. Seeing so many comments about low-ball salaries is giving me validation (thank you!) because it just happened to me (I work in the nonprofit sector)-offered a salary I was paid back in 2009. Yikes! I have a feeling the organization does not understand the salary requirements of their requirement of 10+ years of experience. I am going to see what I can negotiate and if they can’t meet my needs, I am going to decline the offer. I am unemployed so that will be hard, but I know down the road I will become resentful if I take a salary that is too low.

  17. @Sarah L.

    One should never go “full cynic” – but here goes! ;)

    If offered, take it and keep looking. Something’s better than nothing, and showing you’re employed is a LOT better than not being in a position. Given the overt discrimination towards people who have no job, you can’t afford to be choosy.

    BUT… if a position comes in a month that pays better and more in line with what you’ve made, jump. And when you jump, and they protest “But you’ve only been here a month”… reply “Well, you screwed me on salary, so I’m screwing you now.”

    Harsh? Yes. But as Nick has pointed out, companies are making decisions to low-ball – and then can’t figure out why they can’t hire (or keep) people. ONLY WHEN THOSE DECISIONS AFFECT THE BOTTOM LINE AND THIS IS NOTICED WILL DECISION-MAKERS CHANGE.

  18. Ooops – the above comment was directed to David Hunt PE.

  19. @David Hunt: love your article! It isn’t just engineers and computer tech people, but this is unfortunately becoming more and more common in other professions too.

    I’m not so sure the job market will recover to its pre-depression levels (that goes for salaries too). I suspect that this is the new normal, and the pr machines are working overtime to convince those of us who work for a living that we want this and that it is preferable to what we had. But the stock market is doing well….too bad that the job market’s recovery hasn’t kept up with the stock market’s recovery.

    I’m not an economist, and while I vaguely remember Keynes and Friedman from my college econ course, I do know what happens when people have nothing, and thus have nothing to lose. Economic, social, and eventually political instability follow (in the worst cases, there are revolutions; when people are truly desperate and there’s no hope, they do go after those who they perceive ruined things–kings, queens, ruling class). Having a strong middle class, with good economic, education, training, and social opportunities is good for the super wealthy and for the politicians too. I think the economy needs to work for everyone (or almost everyone, as there will always be some unemployment), not just for a select few.

    Loved the joke too–and not surprised that it was the Russian who had the most pessimistic take–80+ years of communism, preceded by 5 centuries of autocratic rule and no way to improve your lot in life results in that answer!

  20. @marybeth:

    1. Thanks for the praise.
    2. You might like this one too:

    Admittedly the title is a bit “click-baity” but… it echoes your point to a “T”.

    Look, I don’t mind that Bill Gates (to name one person) has more money than I’d ever see in a thousand lifetimes. He made a product that people have bought (a crappy product, but that’s another dimension entirely). Bully for him!

    But when the PERCEPTION is that “the 1%” has enriched themselves AT THE EXPENSE of the middle class, that’s a problem. And when their attitude towards the people they lay off, or displace with H1-B visa holders, is “so what”? That’s an even bigger problem.

    Have you seen the video of the Carrier exec telling the people the plant and distribution center will be closing? All the EQ of a dead fish. No sympathy, no empathy, no recognition of these people and their livelihoods being disrupted if not destroyed. None. And the people reacted just as I would have – with anger. I’m actually impressed with their restraint.