Pop Quiz: Can an employer take back a job offer?

In the June 5, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a guy gets honorably discharged from the military, carries a secret clearance, but has a misdemeanor conviction from 2003 for which he’s done probation. He gets a job offer. Then the nightmare begins:

Today I received a job offer from a large, well-known and respected company. I have a misdemeanor criminal conviction from 2003. I told the headhunter about the conviction. I put it in the application before my interview. I put it in the e-application for the background check. I even discussed it with the HR person that was giving me the offer.

After discussing the conviction, she extended me a verbal offer. At the end of the call, I accepted the offer. She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears. After the phone call, I turned down a competing job offer from another company and told my headhunters that I am no longer on the job market.

Less than an hour later, the HR person called me back and said she has to withdraw the offer because my three-year probation was cleared in 2006. Since that’s less than the company’s policy permits — seven years — I am ineligible for the job. The company’s security regulations would prevent me from gaining access to their campus.

The job posting required that the applicant must qualify for a government secret clearance. I was just honorably discharged from the military, where I held a secret clearance that I was able to renew after my misdemenor conviction.

It seems quite unethical to extend an offer prior to assuring that the information that I provided multiple times wasn’t an issue. This should have been caught well before I got the interview. Is this legal?

My Advice

This sounds like you got the shaft, but it’s a bit more complicated, based on the information you’ve provided.

I published your story in this week’s Ask The Headhunter e-mail newsletter, but I did not publish my advice and comments because I wanted to challenge our community to figure this one out. I asked subscribers to think about your story, and then come to the blog ready to post their take on it.

  • Did HR give this job applicant the shaft?
  • What went wrong?
  • How could this situation have been handled better?

Here’s how I see it.

HR blew it.

While it was nice of the enthusiastic HR lady to give you the offer on the phone, she jumped the gun when she “welcomed you to the team.” You weren’t on the team yet, and she had no business implying you were. Someone needs to call her on the carpet.

The HR lady tipped you off.

The key to this entire unfortunate episode lies in this sentence: “She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears.” That meant she made you a contingent offer. It was not bona fide. That is, it was dependent on the background check. In other words, you had no offer to act on.

You jumped the gun.

I always tell job applicants who “get an offer,” to never, ever, ever resign their old job, or turn off other opportunities, until they’ve been on the new job for two weeks. Sounds kind of extreme, eh? Yah, well, so’s what happened to you. While odds are pretty good that a job offer will turn out fine, the enormity of the consequences if anything goes wrong is why no one should do what you did. [Correction: My bad on a poor turn of phrase that confuses two issues — when to turn off other job opportunities and when to resign your old job. Please see my comment about this below.]

Before even orally accepting the offer, you should have waited for a bona fide offer in writing, signed by an official of the company.

Before setting aside other opportunities (because there is no sure thing), you should have completed the company orientation, met your new boss, started the job, and ensured nothing goofy was going on at your new job. I’ve seen many people quit new jobs within the first two weeks. It takes that long to… well… make sure nothing’s goofy. You don’t want to be out on the street with nowhere to go if the new job goes south. (Likewise, an employer should not stop recruiting and interviewing just because a candidate accepts its offer.)

You did the right thing, again and again.

You disclosed, from the start and throughout the interview process, that you had a misdemeanor conviction. That takes guts, and it was the smart thing to do. The company had an obligation to be as candid with you, and to disclose its policy about hiring people convicted of crimes. It had no excuse for not detailing its policies once you made your disclosures.


Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer's Full AttentionDo all employers behave like this? Absolutely not. It’s up to you to find the right employers and to know how to get their attention — because lousy employers aren’t worth your time or aggravation! Learn how to:

  • Stop walking blind on the job hunt!
  • Pick worthy companies.
  • Test the company. Is it a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Recognize and beat age discrimination. (Or is it your own anxiety?)
  • Deal with a bad reference. Don’t get torpedoed!
  • Investigate privately-held companies — Here’s the secret!
  • And more!

Don’t waste your time with the wrong employers! These methods are all in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention


But somebody didn’t do their job.

As soon as this employer learned about your conviction, HR should have pulled out its policy book and mapped it to your situation before making you an offer. The HR lady explained the policy clearly to you — too late!

What bunch of numbnuts knows it’s got a policy issue from the start, but ignores the implications of its policy? Especially because you were so candid and forthright about your problem, HR should have had the background check completed far sooner, and should have inquired about the dates of your conviction, sentence, and the resolution.

(I’m waiting for someone to suggest that, for legal reasons, the background check could not be done until you accepted the offer. That would be a good trick — accepting an offer for a job that company policy prohibits you from accepting.)

Who’s on the hook now?

I think the HR lady is on the hook. She should have made it crystal clear to you that the job offer was not yet bona fide, and that it was contingent on the background check. I think she should have even gone so far as to advise you not to take any other action until the check was confirmed. She blew it. She should be on the hook, but you’re the one who got hurt.

You’re on the hook because you rejected another (more bona fide?) job offer, and notified the headhunters that you’re no longer a candidate for a job.

Most important, this company’s HR practices are on the hook, and they need to be gutted and cleaned.


Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources ObstaclesThere’s no way to beat HR, is there? Sure there is! Learn how to recognize and overcome these HR obstacles:

  • HR demands too much private information, like your salary history. But two can play this game!
  • HR throws a “behavioral interview” at you.
  • Online job application forms — learn to get past them.
  • HR gets between you and the decision maker. Learn how to go straight to the hiring manager!
  • The HR rejection letter: Why you should reject it!
  • And more!

HR isn’t as tough as you think! You’ll find myth-busting answers in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources Obstacles


Doubling HR Costs: Time to change company practices.

Poor HR practices are what make HR executives scream that, “There’s a talent shortage!” Well, here’s the talent, fresh out of the military, worthy of a job offer, but… Aren’t an honorable discharge and a fresh secret clearance enough to merit more careful treatment when the company is looking at an applicant who qualifies for a secret clearance?

Now where’s the talent shortage? In HR.

HR spent a lot of company money to process this hire — only to stumble at the last minute. Now HR will spend the money again on another candidate. HR costs just doubled in this case. I wonder what the board of directors would have to say? Because HR will sweep the mistake under the rug, along with all the other good candidates HR lost because:

  • An otherwise excellent applicant’s keywords “didn’t match;”
  • A wise applicant didn’t want to disclose her salary history;
  • A highly motivated applicant dared to contact the hiring manager directly;
  • HR interviewed the engineering applicant but doesn’t understand engineering;
  • The applicant seems a bit old;
  • The applicant refused to meet with HR until he first interviewed with the hiring manager;
  • And on and on… through the myriad wasteful practices we discuss on this forum that cost companies good hires every day…

It’s time for this company — and many companies — to take a good, hard look at HR practices because good talent is not easy to come by.

Whose bad?

That offer was no offer, so give it back! Has an employer ever given you a job offer, then rescinded it? Why? What was the reason? What did you do? What’s your take on this reader’s experience?

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HR Wags The Dog

In the May 21, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an executive who’s about to be interviewed by another executive wants to know why HR is sticking its nose into the process:

You are going to love this. (NOT!)

I was contacted by an ex-colleague to ask if I’d be interested in the position of Regional Sales Manager at his company, which is actively recruiting. I said yes. The VP of Sales called me and we had a very positive discussion which progressed to setting a meeting in their corporate office. He was going to fly in from his office, and I was going to travel hundreds of miles from my home. But, the meeting has stalled because the HR person who was to attend was busy.

Two questions. What has HR got to do with an initial interview whose purpose is to (a) determine my suitability to do the job, and (b) the company’s ability to satisfy my needs? What sort of company insists on having HR present at an initial interview?

If ever there is a case of a “tail wagging the dog” — this is it. How can a VP of Sales operate like this? I now patiently await the availability of His Royal Highness — the HR Manager.

My Advice

HR can provide valuable input on executive-level positions. However, recruiting people like you is a sales task. It’s no surprise that you view such interference as a serious management error.

If sales people know one thing, it is the importance of striking when the iron is hot. Success in closing sales often depends on the sales person having the authority and the power to act quickly.

Get HR out of recruiting.

You have highlighted the main reason I advocate against HR being involved in recruiting. (See 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.) HR is largely a bureaucratic function that is at least once-removed from the action. Depending on how you, the candidate, view this delay, you may decline further discussions because you could reasonably surmise that the company is not nimble. The Sales VP could lose an excellent candidate thanks to the bureaucracy. That’s not good. That’s very bad.

Take heed: Running a sales operation within this company could prove frustrating to an assertive sales manager. If HR can delay the Sales VP’s meeting when recruiting, who might hinder your sales team from closing a deal?

You are right to be concerned. This is bureaucratic meddling of the worst sort, and it leads me to repeat this caution to companies: It matters what image you project to the professional community from which you recruit, as much as what image you project to your customers. An HR manager who contributes only to overhead is controlling the agenda of an exec who produces revenue? Get HR out of your recruiting.

Now let’s discuss what to do. You could have some fun with this, but this approach can be risky. Decide how assertive a sales manager you are. I’d call the VP of Sales and politely tell him you’d be glad to meet the HR manager at some point, but your schedule is very tight for the entire month.

How to Say It

“I’ll be frank with you. I am available this day and that day only. When an opportunity arises to make a deal, I like to strike while the iron is hot. I have some ideas for your business that I’d like to discuss with you, and I’d like to suggest that you and I get together to talk shop as soon as possible.”

If you can support it, suggest a specific sales objective. For example:

Hot to Say It

“I think I can show you how to increase your regional sales by 20-30% without increasing your costs more than about 5%. But, I really do not want to let this wait. Opportunities come along every day — but great ones like this disappear over night. If I can’t convince you, then you shouldn’t hire me. But I think you will like what I have to share with you…”

Let him assume you may not be around to talk a month later.

Remember: You’re a salesman. This is a sale. Be respectful, but show the VP of Sales that you home in quickly and accurately and will not be deterred by underlings. See what he says. If he cowers at the idea of bypassing HR so he can talk business with you, well, why would you want to work with him? Imagine what it would be like trying to hire a top sales rep if you take this job. Get past the guard. Your mission is to meet with the VP now. Sell.

Patiently awaiting HR to find time to join the meeting is not a sign of a good sales ethic. This is how companies lose prospective customers to the nimble competition. It’s also how they miss the best hires.

HR can be part of the process. But HR should not lead or limit a recruiting effort.

Is this another stupid HR trick? Are great candidates slipping through the HR cracks? Has HR ever intruded into your interviews with a manager? Do you know how to parry the move? If you’re a manager, do you let HR control your interviews?

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Another Top-10 Stupid Interview Question: “Tell us all about yourself!”

In the May 15, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter comes up with a good way to deal with one of the Top-10 Stupid Interview Questions:

I’m looking at positions as an intermediate- or senior-level software developer, and I’m trying to think of new ways to tackle the famous open-ended interview question. Here’s one approach I am considering.

Them: “Let’s start off our interview with you telling us about yourself.”

Me: “Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to give you a little whiteboard presentation of some of the projects I’ve worked on during the past 3-4 years. May I?”

Basically, instead of giving them the typical, brief executive summary about myself, I’d like to show what I’ve done and discuss it, so I can use it as a reference throughout the interview. What do you think of this approach?

My Advice

Another of the Top-10 Stupid Interview Questions rears its head! “Tell us about yourself!” Sometimes I think employers are just lazy. The question reveals the interviewer has no idea whom she’s talking to. But let’s put criticism of employers aside…

I like your approach a lot, because it focuses on the work. When a person talks about the work they’ve done, they invariably reveal a lot about themselves in the proper context. In other words, the employer can see how the candidate’s personality and character fit the job. Talking shop is a good way to reveal a lot about yourself.

Loaded questions yield canned answers.

In most interviews, this highly-loaded question usually evokes a well-rehearsed narrative akin to a political speech. All it tells the manager is that you’ve rehearsed a pitch. But if you embed information about yourself in a discussion of work and projects you’ve done, the information is not just more palatable; it’s more relevant. Pause during your presentation to ask the employer how her team handles similar projects, and your presentation becomes a dialogue. Now you’re talking shop, and you will also find yourself relaxing because a discussion is more natural than a presentation. That’ll make you perform better.

Steer discussion to the work.

This approach is even more effective if you discuss not just the work you’ve done, but your understanding of the problems and challenges the manager’s department is facing. In other words, steer the discussion away from your last employer’s objectives, to what this employer needs. Map your expertise and abilities onto the manager’s projects as you understand them. (Ask the manager to confirm you’ve got the story right.) This is a polite and deft way to turn the discussion around to the employer. If you can get the employer to outline one or two things she needs a new hire to take care of, then you can show the manager what you can do in terms that matter to her.

All of a sudden, you’re the candidate that’s solving problems, right there in the interview. That makes you stand out. (For more detailed tips about how to stand out, please see How Can I Change Careers?, which is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to stand out in a job interview by showing what they can actually do for the employer.)

If you do your homework carefully before your interview, you’ll be able to conclude with “the bottom line” when you describe each project. That is, how did your work benefit your employer? If you can describe this in dollars, all the better.

Now for the capper.

Discussing how your work paid off for your old employer is a perfect launch pad for a dialogue about how you might help the bottom line of the projects the manager needs done. Suddenly, you’re revealing an unusual focus (for a software developer, or for any employee): You’re talking about the impact of your work on the company’s success and profits.

Now you really stand out.

If the manager presses you for “what your career goals are” (This is just another angle on “Tell us about yourself”), turn the discussion back to the employer again.

How to Say It

“I love developing software, but I could do that on my own. The satisfaction I get out of my work comes when I see how it actually produces a profit for the company. My goal is not only to be a great developer, but a profitable one. I really believe that my career success depends on that more than anything else.”

I get the feeling you’ll be able to provide some examples from your background. It seems to me you’re already taking this in the right direction! My compliments.

(Do you like to talk about yourself? Does it get you anywhere? What do you think an employer is really looking for with that question?)

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Can an employer charge you for quitting?

In the May 1, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an employer is out $6,000 when a new hire found through an agency jumps ship after 15 days. Can the employer charge the next employee for quitting?

We recently hired an employee using an agency through which he was temping for us. We paid the temp agency a fee of $6,000 (20%) of the person’s salary. After 45 days, the new employee resigned to move out of state. The temp agency says that he was here for more than 15 days, so they are not going to do anything about their fee.

We have a policy for encouraging continuing education. If an employee in good standing wants to take a course or go back to school at night or weekends, we will pay 70% of the costs, providing successful completion of the courses. If the employee leaves before two years, the employee must reimburse our company for the education expenses.

Because of this disagreeable experience with the agency, we are contemplating a similar policy: “If you leave before your second anniversary, you will need to reimburse some portion of the headhunter fee.”

What are your thoughts on this approach? It would make us feel more confident about using a placement service. Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

My Advice

Suppose you hired that employee without an agency’s involvement, and he quit after 45 days. Would you require him to refund part of the salary you paid him?

Of course not. Yet that’s what you’d be asking someone to do if you hired him through an agency: To pay you back out of their salary. Did you pay a fee to the employee so he’d come work for you? Of course not. So there’s nothing for the employee to refund.

(I’m not a lawyer, but my guess is it would be illegal for you to take back salary because someone quit a job.)

The agency, on the other hand, earned a fee for finding an employee for you. It’s up to you to work out a reasonable contract and financial arrangement with the agency, for the work it does for you (recruiting). The underlying problem is that you as the employer make the hiring decision — not the agency. The agency’s job is to deliver viable candidates. It’s duty ends there, or after some agreed-upon guarantee period. I don’t think any agency would guarantee a placement for two years, one year, or even six months.

I don’t like your idea at all because you’re making the employee responsible for your contract with the agency.

So what are your options as an employer? Let’s start with typical placement agreements, though of course they vary greatly. Commonly, a headhunter’s (or recruiter’s, or agency’s) fee is about 20% of the employee’s starting salary. Please note: The fee is not deducted from the employee’s pay. It’s merely calculated based on that salary. So it’s an additional cost to the employer. Employers that routinely use external recruiters usually budget for such fees. Negotiate the best fee you can.

It’s common for temporary placement agency agreements to permit you to change from “temp to hire” — that is, to hire the temp permanently. The fees and any guarantee period should be spelled out in the contract. To control your costs, you might negotiate a permanent placement fee that is progressively lower based on how long you’ve already been paying temp fees to the agency for that particular employee.

Whether it’s a temp agency or a headhunter you’re working with, the contract usually includes a guarantee period. Many recruiting firms offer guarantees for between 30-90 days. (Some offer no guarantee at all.) If the new hire “falls off” in that time, the agency will either replace the hire, or refund a prorated portion of the fee, or the fee is refunded completely. I’ve never heard of a 15-day guarantee period. It seems too short to be meaningful. But if that’s what you agreed to, it was your choice.

You might be able to negotiate a more aggressive refund guarantee with recruiters. Please keep in mind that it’s pretty unusual for a new hire to leave so quickly. (If it happens to you often, then you’ve got another problem!) Check a recruiter’s (or agency’s) references: Do they have a reputation for placements quitting early?

I want to caution you about charging placement fees back to your employees. If it’s not illegal, I think it’s unethical. It comes out of the employee’s salary, but (unlike education) the employee gets nothing in the bargain. I suggest you work this out with your agency or headhunter instead.

Has an employer ever charged you to quit your job? If you’re an employer, have you ever recovered a placement fee from a departing employee? Headhunters: How do you handle “fall offs?” How long is the typical “guarantee” on a placement?

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Open Mic: What’s your problem?

Every week in the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter I answer one question from a reader in the traditional Q&A format. From time to time, we have an “open mic,” where you pose the questions on the fly here on the blog.

This week, I will do my best to answer any and all questions you post. As always, I welcome everyone to contribute their best advice to the questions, and to add their comments to the discussion. The more input, the better!

  • Lost your job and don’t know how to start hunting for a new one?
  • The employer wants you to do a stress interview?
  • Wondering how to deal with a headhunter who just called you?
  • They want your salary history, but you don’t want to share it?
  • Your company posted a job and you got 5,000 applicants. What now?
  • The manager made you a good offer, but HR just called to rescind it?
  • What’s your problem? Please post it and we’ll tackle it.

(You don’t have to include any identifying information.)

I’ve answered over 30,000 questions from Ask The Headhunter readers since 1995. This week I’ll answer as many as you post — and I’m sure you’ll get lots more great advice and commentary from the rest of our community. So… please ask away!

(This column was published before the comment threading feature was added to Ask The Headhunter, so my replies to questions do not appear immediately below each comment. Please scroll down in the comments and look for my reply “@commenter-name” to each question. Sorry for the inconvenience!)

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My boss is a liar

In the April 17, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader laments that the boss — uh — doesn’t tell the truth:

My boss lies about the availability of projects, about giving bonuses, and about promised help. I suppose the high road is the best and I should keep quiet, but I hate giving into this behavior. What can I do?

My Advice

Bosses sometimes make commitments, then conveniently forget about them. What matters is the frequency and the intent of their forgetfulness. It seems your boss forgets a lot, and it’s clear you don’t like the intent.

A long time ago, I learned the value of the internal memo. When your boss commits to something, go back to your desk, write a thank-you e-mail, and send it to the boss along with a clear “cc” to yourself. (I would not copy the note to anyone else. That would be a clear threat, and I don’t think you want to do that as a first step.) It’s like money in the bank. You don’t just make a deposit; you keep a copy of the deposit slip. That cc is evidence of how much money you have in the bank. Meanwhile, your boss should get the message.

This approach to making people pay off on promises works pretty well. When you’re ready to make a withdrawal, present that “deposit slip” you kept in your file. Be very polite and matter-of-fact.

How to Say It

“Hey, Boss: I’m ready for that bonus (or promotion) you promised six months ago. Here’s the memo I sent you re-capping our discussion. Thanks very much for making that very valuable commitment to me way back then. You’re quite a boss, and that’s why I like working for you. I’ll take that bonus in tens and twenties, please.”

(No, don’t use those exact words. I sprinkled some sarcasm to amuse you, not to get you into trouble. Pick your own words carefully!)

One of three things is likely to happen.

  • Your boss may never forget again (success!).
  • Your boss may never make another promise (another problem altogether).
  • Or, your boss might just ignore you. Then it’s time to take your deposit slip to the “bank president” (your boss’s boss or the personnel manager) and explain that you want to close your account — unless the “bank” settles up with you.

While one person’s lying is another person’s forgetfulness, I don’t cut any slack to liars, and I accept “I forgot” as an explanation only once or twice. If people don’t do what they say they’re going to do — again and again — then they’re jerks and not worth working with.

How do you deal with this kind of problem? Do we need to hang the culprits out to dry? Or can we discuss good ways to make people more accountable without having to hang them at all?

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How long does the headhunter control me?

In the April 10, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks how to cut the cord to a headhunter:

If a recruiter gives a company your resume, how long are you tied to that recruiter concerning that company?

For several reasons, I recently lost what I consider to be a great opportunity with a small company, A. I am now accepting another good position at another company, B, but not the one I really wanted. In the situation with company A the recruiter was not very helpful and virtually non-responsive when I had questions, which I am learning is not unusual. I would like to approach company A again at a later date under my own representation. (Perhaps that is not the best attitude to have going into a new position, but my long-term career goal would be better served at company A.)

Can you please tell me how long this recruiter controls my resume at company A, and at what point the company may consider me without the original recruiter’s involvement?

My Advice

People get it into their heads that headhunters have some sort of magical powers, or that they control companies and jobs. It’s not true. The headhunter may have no rights at all if you contact company A on your own. A lot depends on what kind of headhunter or recruiter you’re dealing with.

To understand how to work effectively with headhunters, it’s important to know the differences between retained and contingency headhunters, employment agencies, job shops and career management firms. Also relevant are the kinds of contracts employers and headhunters use. Perhaps most important in this case is knowing how employers routinely deal with headhunters. It’s not complicated, but if you don’t know how employers manage headhunters you’ll never be able to manage them yourself. I cover all these issues and more (including how to find headhunters and how to leverage them to negotiate the best salary offers) in How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

How long company A would respect the recruiter’s involvement depends on a few things.

Did the recruiter send you to an interview with the company?
If no interview took place, I think you could reapply at any time without a conflict, though I’d probably wait a few months to avoid irritating the headhunter. If you had an interview, it depends on the company’s policy and on the contract it has with the recruiter–if there is one at all.

Did the headhunter give the company your resume?
Companies usually rely on an actual interview as proof of the recruiter’s referral. If the headhunter submitted your resume but there’s no interview, the headhunter probably has no claim to you. However, if the personnel office read and tagged your resume REJECT, and you then reapply on your own, the initial rejection may be invoked and you’re toast.

I don’t think it’s ethical to go around a headhunter who introduced you to a job and a company. But if that headhunter was not able to get you in the door for an interview, then he probably has no claim on you. You could approach the company anew on your own.

How about if the headhunter got you an interview, but you were not hired? The headhunter’s contract with the employer might earn him a fee if you are hired within a certain period of time. Here’s what I’d do to test the waters. Have a friend call the company’s personnel manager to find out what the policy about headhunters is.

How to Say It:

“I’d like to ask about your headhunter policy, but I’d rather not disclose my name. If I interviewed with you through a recruiter at one time [don’t say when–the less info the better], and then I came back to apply for a job myself, would you consider me without the recruiter’s involvement? What are your rules about that?”

Don’t make this call yourself. There is no telling how the personnel manager might react, and you don’t want this to backfire. (I see nothing inappropriate or unethical about someone calling a company to ask about its policy.)

Where confusion might arise is if the headhunter (or recruiter) works for a “job shop” or “consulting firm.” These businesses will recruit and hire you, put you on their own payroll, and assign you to do work at their clients’ offices. A contract protects the recruiter from company A “poaching” you without a fee, after the recruiter made the initial introduction. And that’s as it should be. The contract probably locks you out of company A for one or more years, unless the recruiter is involved. (There’s an entire section in the aforementioned book about job shops and how to protect your options when working with them. There’s also a section that answers the question, Can I fire the headhunter?)

The best way to settle this might be to notify the headhunter that you consider his involvement with you terminated. (While this is a powerful move, it might end your relationship completely.) There’s a special How to Say It section in How to Work with Headhunters about how to handle this effectively.

Know what you’re doing when you work with headhunters. A good headhunter can boost you into the next phase of your career. An inexperienced headhunter might frustrate you by being unresponsive, and your misunderstanding of his role could cost you a great job.

Have you ever had to cut the cord to a headhunter? What happened? Were you able to “get back in the door” at a company where a headhunter failed to get you an interview (or to get you hired)?

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Don’t Get Hired, Get Acquired: Audio from Cornell workshop

The April 3, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter is a SPECIAL AUDIO EDITION.

(This is no April Fool!)

On Sunday, April 1, I conducted a workshop for a group of Executive MBAs at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management. (These guys attend the EMBA program on weekends!) The topic was the differences between applying for a job and delivering profit to a company.

The presentation ran almost two hours, and the discussion and debate were lively. One of the key points we explored was about how we view employers and jobs when we go job hunting, and how employers view us.

  • Are you being interviewed to help a company fill out its open headcount?
  • Or are you more like a business the company is considering acquiring or merging with?

The difference in these two approaches is profound.

I don’t think anyone should behave like “the next hire.” I think every time you approach a company about working together, you should be prepared to show that you are a profit-making operation unto yourself.

Are you ready to get acquired? Please listen to this brief section of the Cornell presentation:

 

      Don't get hired, get acquired

 

Now here’s an excerpt from the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers? (p. 9) that explains how to Create your next job, rather than just get a pre-made job:

How do you inspire a company to create a new job for you? Forget about your credentials, your history and your past jobs. They are irrelevant. If that’s what you focus on when searching for a new job, you’ll shoehorn yourself into the same kind of job you just left.

Decide where you want to work. Study your target company. Explore the problems and challenges it is facing and figure out how you can help the company tackle them profitably. Apply your skills and abilities in new ways to re-define your qualifications. Think in terms of what the company needs but doesn’t have: That’s your new job. That’s the business plan you need to present.

The job you want to create is essentially a new business. But don’t expect your target company to figure out whether this “new business” is justified. You must be ready to explain it to them. Show how you’ll deliver profit in new ways. That’s what may prompt the company create a new job just for you.

(How Can I Change Careers? isn’t just for career changers — it’s for anyone who wants to stand out from their competition.)

I think we’ll find the value in this topic in the discussion more than in what I have to say.

What does it mean to get acquired or to merge with a company?

  • How does this change the way you’d approach a new gig?
  • Does it change salary negotiations?
  • Do you even need to apply for a job — or what’s the new alternative this approach suggests?
  • Have you ever felt like you were acquired — or merged — rather than just hired?

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Business Cards: What do Asians know?

In the March 27, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a business owner defends business cards:

I just read an article in the L.A. Times that says Passing out business cards is quickly becoming passe. Instead, I’m supposed to “bump” my phone with someone else’s to trade contact information. If cards are optional, then so are new clients and referrals. The end of that article points out that in the world’s fastest growing market, Asia, you’d better have a card because it’s crucial. I run a successful small business and I think anyone who doesn’t carry business cards is naive. Do you use business cards?

My Advice

Hmmm… what do Asians know that the rest of us don’t?

I run an online publishing business, and “digital” is an enormous part of my work and life. If there’s a way to do something more effectively or efficiently, I take advantage of it. Sometimes, digital technology enables us to do things we could never do without it — like publishing this newsletter and my books.

But I do carry business cards, and I don’t intend to give them up. Guess I’m good to go to Asia.

Last week I gave a presentation, and afterwards I had a cup of coffee with one of the attendees — who is a potential client. She asked me for a business card. Suppose I’d told her, “I don’t use business cards. Find my e-mail address on my website.” I’d have broken the pace of our discussion. It would not have helped.

I do a lot of business online and I don’t always meet my clients, so there’s not always a chance to use a business card. But for those in-person meetings and work sessions, cards are a necessity. I’ve encountered some people who don’t have a card to share, and sometimes — not always — this sends a bad signal. I quickly assess whether the person has a viable business, or is just knocking around, trying to get lucky. It affects how I judge them. Is that fair? I don’t think that matters. I know other business people who react the same way. Cards are cheap; so’s a simple website. If you’re too cheap to have both, you may not be worth talking to.

But there are lots of subtle benefits to cards. Some people are in too much of a hurry to recognize them.

If you want to encourage someone to talk to you again, it’s easy to offer your card. Asking for their e-mail address or getting them to jot down yours is a bit more awkward. (Not all phones “bump.”) Contrary to what that article suggests, cards are not all tossed in the trash. I have a large digital contact list, but I also have a well-organized box of cards that I refer to often.

I can write a note on the back of a card, to personalize the memory someone has of me. And when they give me their card, I can jot a note on theirs, too. I could do it on my Droid, but so what? That card stays on my desk for a while and reminds me of the person. If the information is only in my phone, I won’t see it until I have reason to search for it.

A university professor is quoted in that article: “It’s time-consuming to organize business cards — and not portable.” That’s pretty naive. New contacts earn their way into my phone. Many start out as cards. If I need them more than once or twice, I add them to my digital list.

One last reason cards are good: Design. A person’s card tells me as much about their brand as their website does. Do they care how they come off?

What’s most unfortunate about the article is its self-righteous tone. It pits “under-30” and “young and Web-savvy people” against… who? Over-thirty and Web-ignorant people? Gimme a break.

The real punch line in the article reveals how gratuitous it is. “Firms that do business abroad, particularly in Asia, have found printed business cards to be crucial to corporate culture and ritual there.” In one of the fastest-growing markets, cards are crucial. Did someone miss a bigger point when writing this article?

Why come off like a clueless dork? Carry cards as well as one of those digital communication thingies, what do you call it? A smartpod? A pad thingy. You know what I mean — here, I’ll write it down on my card for you… Call me. We’ll do lunch.

Do you use business cards? Are they on the way out? What do Asians know that the rest of us don’t? Do biz cards offer anything that digital doesn’t? Post a comment… or write me a letter…

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Should I disclose my salary history?

In the March 20, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries that disclosing salary history to an employer is not a good idea…

What’s the best way to deal with an interviewer who wants to know my salary history and salary requirements? While I know employers always ask this, I feel it takes away from my edge when I divulge that information.

My Advice

You’re absolutely right — to a point. When you show your salary cards at the wrong time, your negotiating edge disappears. When employers ask for salary requirements, they usually follow up quickly with a question about your salary history. Then they use your last salary to limit any offer they make. And that’s why you need to take control of the discussion.

You should avoid disclosing your salary history, while expressing your desired salary as a range you can justify and defend. The best way to negotiate a good salary deal is to demonstrate that you’re worth it.

Salary history is confidential.

In my opinion, discussing salary history is a no-no. It’s no one’s business. Some employers will object, but keeping your past salary confidential is pure common sense because it directly affects your ability to negotiate. Although an employer may suggest that your old salary is a good indicator of your value, the truth is that it’s up to her to make an independent assessment of your value to her business.


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Your salary is nobody’s business. Disclosing it can cost you a big raise.

Learn to say NO firmly and with authority when employers demand your salary history — to make them say YES to the best possible offer.

It’s all in my new PDF book:

Keep Your Salary Under Wraps

BONUS: I’m throwing in a special mp3 download, from my recent workshop at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management.

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ORDER NOW! Get a BONUS mp3 download!

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Don’t cap the job offer.

Employers claim otherwise, but once they know your salary history, they’re likely to use it to limit any job offer they make to you. They offer myriad excuses for why they need to know your salary, but I’ve never heard a legitimate one. (My favorite: “It’s the policy!” Gimme a break.) If they want to make sure you’re “in the right ballpark,” ask them what the salary range on the job is. If they continue to press you, ask yourself whether they’d disclose the boss’s salary — or anyone else’s salary in the department. Makes no sense, does it? Don’t help an employer cap the job offer by retreating to your old salary before you even begin to negotiate.

Talk profit.

Turn any salary question around and ask what exactly the employer wants you to accomplish for her business. Then be ready to show how you will deliver. If this sounds like a lot to prepare in advance, it is. If you can’t do it, then you have no business in the interview.

Know what you want.

It’s legitimate for an employer to ask what you want, as long as it’s couched in a larger discussion about how you will contribute to the bottom line. As we said above, the more value you can contribute to the work, the more you’re worth. There’s no way to provide a desired range until you know what the job entails and what the expectations are — and that requires thoughtful discussion about the manager’s business objectives and how you will fit into them.

Salary negotiations can be challenging. But it’s easier to negotiate the right deal when you’ve demonstrated good faith — and firmness — by keeping your salary history private, by demonstrating your worth, and by sharing your goals with the employer.

How to handle demands for your salary history is such a hot topic on Ask The Headhunter that I wrote a 27-page Answer Kit that teaches how to say NO politely and with authority, so you can prove you’re worth more: Keep Your Salary Under Wraps!

How do you protect your ability to negotiate the best salary? Should employers demand your salary history? Should you disclose it?


Don’t miss these other Ask The Headhunter Answer Kits:

How to Work With Headhunters

How Can I Change Careers

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