Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?

In the July 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter questions whether it’s prudent — or even possible, when forced to use an online form — to say NO to an employer that demands your salary history.

Question

I read your article “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.” While I found it to be an excellent article overall, I couldn’t help but wonder when it was written. Within the last several years, many employers have moved their application process to the web. Current salary (along with desired salary) is a required field in the online application, and there is no option to quote a salary range.

In this economic downturn, with so many people still without employment, the competition is beyond fierce. It’s definitely an employer’s market these days. Unless you are a highly sought-after executive or the best of the best in your field, the company has plenty of other applicants to move onto if you don’t provide the information they are seeking. 

As an HR professional, I don’t mind giving them my desired salary range, because I keep up with the market and I have done my homework. However, I despise the question, “What are you making currently?”, or, in my case, “What were you making in your last position?” As you state in your article, I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business, and it definitely has no bearing on what the job is worth. Yet, can I (or anyone else who is unemployed due to the recession) afford to be “contrary?”

Nick’s Reply

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!)

I wrote that article several years ago. But it’s still valid. I know the pressure is on, and employers don’t make it any easier with their cattle-call job applications. It’s up to you to protect your integrity.

salary history

Say NO to demands for salary history

I think good candidates must be contrary. They must stand out. Withholding salary history is not indicative of an uncooperative candidate. Demanding it reveals a company that’s not going to negotiate based on the candidate’s value. This is fundamentally wrong. I think you’re letting an employer’s poor management practices seduce you into complicity.

Don’t let application forms intimidate you

If an online application requires salary history, ignore the application. Find a better way in the door. As you point out, if you don’t cooperate, the company has plenty of other applicants who will do what they’re told, and destroy their ability to negotiate. Let the company have them. It wants cows, not people who think and act outside the box. Join a company like that, by playing along, and soon you’ll be looking for yet another job. The herd mentality hurts employers that rely on it, too—especially in difficult economic times.

Read what a successful job hunter has to say about this. He attended a presentation that I gave at Cornell University recently, then he interviewed for a top job.

“The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now. Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: Never divulge my current salary, and Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done. They oughta make you a Cornell professor! I can already see that the one hour you spent with us will have as much impact on my MBA ROI as any class that I have taken in the program, if not more so.” — Rich Mok

That presentation was based on How to Work With Headhunters. The audience was a group of corporate executives in Cornell’s Johnson School of Management Executive MBA program. You don’t have to be an executive to stand your ground, but you do have to be the right candidate. (Otherwise, you have no business applying for the job!) Rich Mok reveals how to redirect an employer’s attention: Show what you’ll do to make the company more successful. Your salary history (and your resume) won’t matter so much. I’ve seen this work at every level of compensation.

Don’t compromise yourself to appease an employer

You clearly agree that salary history is no one’s business. Then why capitulate and compromise yourself? You need not forego an opportunity if the application requires salary history. You just have to demonstrate your mettle and find a better way in the door. Being contrary when the world behaves foolishly doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected. It makes you stand out. It’s what makes you worth hiring — and worth interviewing.

Do employers force you to disclose your salary history? It’s a perennial argument. You feel you can’t afford to say NO when an employer demands your salary history. I say you can’t afford to disclose private information.

So, what do you do? Can you protect your integrity and still apply for the job?

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Readers’ Forum: The ethics of juggling job offers

In the September 21, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to deal with two job offers, when you accept one then a better one arrives a few days later.

Question

I am in this dilemma and read your article about Juggling Job Offers. Yours is the only one that says to accept the first job offer, and when the second job (which would be a better offer and more suitable) presents itself, then retract acceptance of the first job offer.

However, the other articles and guidance suggests not doing this at all as it is unethical and can damage one’s reputation in a given industry. I have gone back to the first company and gotten a decision window of one week to decide. The timing is off as I need one more week for the second job’s response and possible offer.

Do I ask for yet another extension? Any thoughts?

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Sorry, but I don’t buy the ethics angle on this. As I point out in the article, if a company lays you off six months after hiring you, is it behaving unethically? No. It’s a business decision. What if it lays you off a week after you start, due to unexpected financial setbacks? What’s the real difference?

How many job offers do you really have?

The fact is, in a situation like this, you are not making a choice between two job offers. You are making a binary choice: Yes or No to one job. While I hope the other offer comes through, I can tell you that in many years of headhunting I’ve seen most “sure thing” offers go south. Either they are delayed indefinitely, or they never come through.

Is this about ethics or business?

I agree that accepting then rescinding your acceptance can have an effect on your reputation. But likewise, a layoff has an effect on an employer’s reputation. Still, sometimes it happens out of necessity. It doesn’t make the company (or you) unethical. It’s a business decision.

I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of rescinding an acceptance. But to behave as though the second offer is a sure thing is to put the first offer at risk. Is it unethical to continue to ask the first company — which has stuck out its neck and and made a commitment to you — to keep extending the decision deadline?

How many times will the second company need “one more week” to produce the offer, if it produces one at all?

Sorry, but a bird in the hand is the only bird you’ve got! Decide about that, and then deal with the future later.

For more about this thorny topic — and how to deal with job offer challenges — see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master Of Job Offers.

Am I being unethical? Is it wrong to accept an offer then change your mind because a new offer is better?

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Job-board Scams: WNYC Public Radio

On Tuesday, March 16, 2010 I talked with New York Public Radio (WNYC 93.9FM) host Brian Lehrer about bogus and misleading job advertisements. Brian has been following a group of his listeners as they try to land new jobs — and in this segment we discuss some of the scams they have encountered.

jobscams1This audio clip (12:41 minutes) is from a longer segment in which listener “Jim” described a service that wanted to charge him $5,000 for “exclusive job listings.” We discuss that scam and we also talk about:

  • The success rates of the job boards
  • TheLadders’ misleading “Only $100k+ jobs” advertising
  • Whether you should ever pay a recruiter or “consultant” who says he’ll find you a job
  • The value of using personal contacts
  • “Education” scams that cost thousands of dollars but deliver nothing
  • Common sense: the importance of checking references before spending money on “help”
  • Identity theft
  • The CareerXroads “source of hires” surveys

Listen in and add your comments!

The entire radio segment can be found at WNYC: Help Wanted.

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Q&A: Climbing out of the hole

You think you have problems?

We’re the parents of a 30-year-old college-grad-gone-wrong man. Our son now has two incidents and a criminal record as a result of his ten-year obsession with eastern culture (martial arts/intense spiritual yoga indoctrination). He got fired from his daytime jobs and still has a few hearings scheduled in court.

While we provide support for him, there must be some honest labor or odd jobs that he can do. Not only for $, but we feel that a sense of providing for himself can restore his self-esteem, which could be just the thing to tear him away from that spiritual breakdown and return him to society.

Do you know any job source that can tolerate his criminal record? I asked his public defender. He had no clue! We will appreciate any leads for him. Thanks a million.

The problem is that he’s getting fired presumably because of his behavior. I don’t know of any job where that would be tolerated. He has to want to build his self-esteem, or his behavior will not change.
 
This might sound strange to you, but a program like Toastmasters or a Dale Carnegie course might help him — if he wants the help. These groups teach self-reliance and the ability to get up in front of people to talk with poise. I find that problems with work and self-esteem often stem from a lack of self-confidence. Learning to talk to others publicly is a great path to building confidence. By changing his behavior around other people, he may be able to change his underlying attitudes. (This is a simple tenet of behavioral and cognitive psychology — behavior change can stimulate a change in attitude.)

Toastmasters is free. Carnegie charges.
 
The nice thing about both? Many of the people you meet in those programs have jobs in good companies. They can be the first step toward a new job.
 
He has to want to do it.
 
I wish you the best.

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Q&A: Where should recruiters look for candidates?

A recruiter from a consulting firm asks whether I really shun job boards, and where to find good candidates really fast…

Question
I caught you on NPR last week and thought you were a breath of fresh air! I am in the process of letting our CareerBuilder job posting account loose. First, because it costs a lot and secondly, because you are absolutely right, most of the jobs we post are bogus after the first 24 hours. Okay, I promise I’m getting to my question…

Are you saying don’t use any job boards? And if so, what’s the best way to find talent FAST if you don’t have someone in your database or pipeline when a requirement comes in? Especially when in some cases you have a little as fifteen minutes to get to that great candidate before a flurry of other firms do. I’m avidly learning LinkedIn but that seems to be better for making client connections than ones with candidates.

Nick’s Reply
Thanks for the kind words.

I don’t think your clients pay you to race your competition. They pay you to find the best people. What you’re doing is competing with other recruiters for a limited pool of people whose resumes are on job boards.

Anyone whose resume is on a job board is already “used up” and picked over. Your odds of closing a deal are way diminshed even before you contact them… so that 15 minutes doesn’t matter much. It’s already too late.

Where are the people who are not on the boards? They’re among your network. I just don’t see the point of pulling some resume off a board and sending it to a client who probably already has it from some other firm or agency… It’s a waste of time. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather poll my contacts and scratch my head… and go look where the competition doesn’t.

Why the focus on finding people in data bases? Try investing half that time in meeting new people in the industry you recruit from. When you call those people later on about an assignment you’re working on, they won’t be on the other line with your competitors…

I know it’s a hard business. But step back and ask yourself, what are you doing? And, what should you be doing? Do you have a line in the data base pool, waiting for a nibble? Or do you have good relationships with great people in the community you recruit from — who can reliably refer you to the people your clients need?

My compliments on cutting CareerBuilder loose. Invest the money instead in taking a shining light in your industry to lunch!

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Q&A: No connections, no opportunities

Question
As someone who’s rather “out of the loop,” living out in the country, I don’t have social or business connections with the folks at the in-city companies for which I should be working. Is there any best method for finding and approaching the decision-makers who have the problems that I certainly can solve?

Until now I’ve depended on the whims of personnel jockeys, but now that doesn’t work, the listed jobs being so few. Personally, I have no lack of work, but it’s all farm work on my farm, and leads to gaposis of the
resume. I’m sure that in spite of the absence of job listings, the problems are still out there, hidden from me. How do I best find them and the folks who need them solved?

Nick’s Reply
Gaposis… That’s a good one!

But there’s no excuse for gaposis in relationships… You can meet those people online. Through LinkedIn, through business/professional web sites that have discussion forums, and by e-mailing them after you’ve read an article in which they are mentioned.

Make a contact or two that way, and it’s worth leaving the farm for a visit to the big city ;-).

I have a similar problem. My office is out in the boonies. And I love it here. But I make time to go to the city (and to big towns!) and to hang out among the people who do the work I do (and want to do). Face time is more precious than online time… You just have to do it.

Did you go to college? Does your alumni association have a branch in a nearby city? Join, go, mingle. Don’t worry about meeting people at the companies where you want to work. A few “links” and soon you’ll be finding them.

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Q&A from WNYC Radio

Yesterday I did 20 minutes with Brian Lehrer on WNYC, New York Public Radio. (I archived the audio on the blog post prior to this one if you’d like to listen.) We’ll be doing an Ask The Headhunter segment every week through July. Hope you’ll join us!

20 minutes is not a lot of time to take questions from listeners, or to provide much in the way of advice. But Brian’s blog is full of good follow-up questions from listeners, and I’ve tried to answer many of them in the comments section.

One listener was bugged about what I suggested about becoming a consultant in today’s economy:

This was a terrible segment. Almost chilling. The conversation seemed utterly detached from reality; the idea that someone at their kitchen table, six months into being fired, is going to be able to tell some company (and whom exactly at that company?) how to run itself, (or use information technology or green technology or whatever), is bizarre. There seemed to be a huge disconnect between the reality of the callers’ situations, and the generic bromides and cliches that the guest suggested. Brian should have worked harder to bridge this gap.

It seems that the real issue is the social and knowledge-networking isolation of the recently unemployed, and the need for supportive communities, not a dated piece on how to turn yourself into a consultant from home…

Here’s my reply:

You’re right: Unemployed people become quickly isolated. But the problem is magnified when they join “support groups.” Unemployed people gathering to share job leads and advice. Think about that. It’s patently absurd. The best thing you can do to stay motivated and to actually get something done is to hang around people who do the work you want to do. Starting your own business is not bizarre at all. Waiting for some company to come along and hire you is what’s absurd. Waiting for some personnel jockey to pluck your resume from the millions on a job board — that’s absurd. As for telling a company how to run itself better, why do you think companies hire people? Not to fill head count. They hire you to help them make more profit. If you can’t explain that to a company that you work for, you will eventually get fired or laid off. If you can’t tell it to a company you want to work for, then you have no business in the interview. Job hunting is not a step by step process. If it were, every ad would yield an interview which would yield an offer. Far from it.

That listener is pretty demoralized. Maybe I’m misreading the comments, but what I read is a plea for magic dust and for a place to commiserate with others. And my point — which I discussed with Brian at the very beginning of the segment — is that job hunters and consultants must focus first not on getting a gig. They must focus on showing a company the money. Why should anyone hire you — or even sit through an interview with you — if you aren’t prepared to show how you’re going to improve the business?

Listeners from WNYC are welcome to post more follow-up questions here — I’ll try to get to them all. Unfortunately, Brian’s blog does not handle longer URL’s so I can’t refer to relevant articles there.

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Out of exit excuses

In a recent edition of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, I discussed exit interviews — the cockroaches of the HR world. You just can’t get rid of ’em, but you don’t wanna swallow one, either.

Ed Heron, a seasoned manager, submitted comments that I’d like to share with you. His perspective is sharp and on target. His message is simple: Good managers don’t need to do exit interviews.

I have been a successful manager for three decades. I do not believe that anyone who is fired should engage in any form of exit interview. Their employer has already indicated their opinion of their worth!

For more about exit interviews and related topics, see Parting Company: How to leave your job.
However, if they are voluntarily resigning, and if the parting is amicable, it might be considered. Consider it more if you are leaving behind co-workers that you respect a lot. I agree with Tony Banaro’s comment, “It amazes me that with all of the volumes and volumes of books and articles and papers out there, managers still do not understand the number one rule of business: Take Care of Your People”.

Through out my entire adult life, I have found it amazing the way companies have made it easy for me to appear successful. I would take almost any employee who was about to be released, and treat them with a little human dignity and respect. In short order, I would rehabilitate the deficient area or areas. Positive reinforcement would be employed whenever it could be “genuine.” (Simple “One Minute Manager” stuff.) In no time at all, the employee in question would feel and act as though they worked principally for me, and not just for our company.

The need for exit interviews was extremely rare in any area that I managed.

Thanks, Ed!

Every reason I’ve heard to justify exit interviews is an excuse for not talking to employees while they are still your employees. This manager reinforces my view.

Have you ever been exit interviewed? Ever done it to anyone? What’s your advice to managers (or employees) about this practice?

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Military transition & discipline

My office is nice and cozy. I have a big cherry-wood desk and a great chair. Views of woods and grass through lots of big windows. It’s a peaceful habitat.  No one bothers me. I know I’m safe, and in a few hours I’m gonna see my wife and kids. So now I’m going to try and show my gratitude to one guy who foregoes everything I just described, every day and every hour, to ensure that I can enjoy what I have all day long, every day. That, and my thanks, won’t make him one bit safer where he is, but I hope maybe it’ll help him through his military transition into a good job when he returns home.

military transitionQuestion

Nick,

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog in my free time over the past week. I’m a Captain in the US Army, currently stationed in Iraq and making the transition to civilian life in the next 6 months. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone in this unique situation that could smooth the transition from a mid-level military officer to a managerial or leadership position in the business world?

I’m currently serving in the Logistics branch, so I believe my skill set will translate well, but I need some pointers on how to sell it. As officers, we are bombarded with spam from headhunting firms and database job mills (often to our professional email addresses). The majority of my peers have used these services with mixed results. Perhaps you could give some guidance in one of your upcoming posts?

Thanks for your time,

Kevin W. Ryan
CPT, LG
ISF Logistician

Nick’s Reply

Hi, Captain Ryan,

Thanks for what you and all our military do for us — I’m glad to offer any advice I can, hoping it might be useful.

Here’s the best initial suggestion I can make to you:

  • Don’t go looking for open jobs.
  • Avoid the job postings and ads.

If it’s open and posted, the competition is already so huge that your odds of success have dropped like a rock. The quality of your credentials and skills is almost irrelevant because the systems (human and otherwise) used to sort through applicants is not good at separating signal from noise.

Your best bet is to figure out what you’d like to do, and who you’d like to work for. Start with industry — which one? It helps to start with good targets. Don’t waste time with second-tier companies. Start with the best, the shining lights, whether they’re big or small. Research their operations, figure out what job functions might match your skills and interests. (Don’t get too specific. Like the guy said, most of what we know we learned in Kindergarten. The rest is about riding a fast learning curve without falling off.) The key is that it’s up to you to map your skills onto the work, as best you can.

That’s how you pick the job(s) in the company — not from ads.

Once you’ve selected a handful of companies, and identified some functions and jobs, you need to make new friends. Something like 40-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. So don’t waste time with other channels. The next task is to work backwards from contacts you already have, and ones you can develop quickly, to meet and talk with insiders — people connected to each target company. They need not be employees. They might be vendors, customers, attorneys, accountants, landlords, bankers, etc. Find them any way you can — one good way is business articles about the company. Look for names of such folks. Google them, email them, call them. Be brief and respectful. Explain you’re considering working for company X, and you know they do business with X, and you’d like their insight and advice. Have a few good, friendly questions to ask about the company.

You score when the person personally refers you to someone in the company for more information. That’s when the real fun starts.

Use these introductions (you need only a handful, and you may have to talk to lots of folks to get them) to more closely map yourself to the work and function in the company. The best way to tackle this is to ask:

“What problems and challenges is your company facing in [logistics, purchasing, marketing, whatever]? Can you give me a little insight? I’m interested in working for your company, but I haven’t yet identified where I can contribute the most to the bottom line.”

It takes only one savvy manager to hear the words bottom line, and you’re in.

This is actually a lot of fun, because you’re meeting new people, learning new things, and getting into the circle you want to be part of. If you’ve got six months, I encourage you to start now. It takes time. But it’s the only reliable way to get in the door and find the job right for you.

Employers are lousy at figuring out what to do with job applicants. Most of the time, they realize people are just looking for a job, any job. If you start by picking an industry, a handful of companies, and then focus on mapping yourself onto a company’s challenges — that’s how you use your brain to create your own job opening. More likely, you’ll identify something that’s about to come open, and you’ll be the first candidate to interview. No competition. And due to the research you’ve already done, your motivation will translate into very effective dialogue in interviews. While your competition is answering questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?”, you’ll be busy explaining how you think you could add 10% to the department’s bottom line. Big difference!

Do me a favor and stay in touch. I’m glad to help. You’re ahead of the pack already because you took time to make contact in the business world. Keep doing that. Reach out to insiders in your target industry and companies. Forget the job applications and resumes. Do this right, and you won’t need a resume. The conversations you have will evolve straight into interviews.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention military transition once except in the title of this post. That’s because the same methods that work for everyone else will work for you, because this is all about delivering profitable work, no matter where you’re coming from.

The edge you have is discipline. The military has given you that in spades. It’s something every job hunter in the civilian world needs, because roaming the job boards isn’t a task. Identifying your objective, focusing on it, pursuing it, and not stopping until you attain it requires… well, you get it. You don’t need to transition. Just apply your discipline to the task at hand and don’t abandon what you learned in the Army about getting the job done. Not to be rude, but civilians won’t be much competition.

Start with The Basics: Pick your targets. You know the old saying, you can’t get there if you don’t know where there is.

Be safe. I’ll be thinking about you.

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