Every job is one job. What’s its title?

Every job is one job. What’s its title?


You write in one of your articles, “If the employer could avoid hiring you or anyone else, he would. He doesn’t want to create a job. He wants to produce more profit.”

While that may be true for some employers, or at least for sales jobs, I have my doubts it is true for even 20% of the jobs out there.

profitable workIn my opinion, most jobs exist to solve a problem, but that’s not always “to increase the bottom line.” Sometimes these problems are just mindless corporate B.S. Sometimes a hiring manager just needs a “warm body” to dump stuff on. Sometimes hiring managers don’t want a superstar. They’re happy with a mediocre person, for whatever reason. Sometimes managers are looking to hire simply because they have a budget and get a massive ego-boost saying they are responsible for X number of people, or doubled in size in a few months, etc.

For example, a publicly owned company is rarely looking for talent that would increase the bottom line. Who cares? The company isn’t owned by anyone; it’s owned by the public, so let’s milk that baby while I can, while I am in my seat, and just do what’s going to fly so I can stay in this seat as long as possible.

I offer no conclusion. Perhaps I am only rambling, but my point is, yes, I agree with you, there is a reason to be hired, but “to produce more profit” is rarely the case and just one use case. Think of a technology manager that is expected to build a product. He just wants to hire capable people, and doesn’t care about profit. If an engineer comes in and shows the hiring manager he knows his stuff, he is hired. If that engineer on the other hand comes in and starts talking about increasing the bottom line, the manager will just think, “Who the hell cares? I just need a guy that fixes my scaling problems!”

Anyway, this is just my two cents. I believe that, for jobs like sales, “increase profit” may be a more common goal. But in jobs such as technology, consulting, and back office? Meh.

Nick’s Reply

You raise a really important issue that I wish the entire business world would face head-on: Why do we hire people? I think that businesses with more than about 20 employees forget the real answer to that question because they forget why they exist. They forget what everyone’s job really is.

What you say is entirely true. Most jobs are created and filled for reasons that have little or nothing to do with producing more profit. You’re right! A job seeker doesn’t need to address how they would add profit to the bottom line, and they can still get a job.

The manager’s “requirement” might be nothing more than using up the hiring budget, or to hire a “go-fer” to do menial tasks, or to boost the manager’s ego by increasing the size of the operation.

Profitable work

So, why do I harp on this profitability component when job hunting or hiring?

Here’s the best way I can express it: Every job exists to create an outcome that has more value than what was put into getting it done. We don’t start an enterprise to squander money, effort or other resources. We dedicate ourselves to doing profitable work.

If a job does not contribute to a company’s bottom line, or profit, it should not exist. (Of course, many jobs don’t meet this criterion.) If you cannot explain or show how your job (and the work you do) affects profit, you should quit before you get fired for being superfluous. If a manager does not understand how (or whether) a position under their auspices affects company profits, they should eliminate the job.

(Profit can be measured in dollars, customer satisfaction, repeat business, quality or any metric that shows a business is meeting its objectives. The work must yield more of something desirable than is put into it.)

I believe loads of unprofitable jobs continue to exist because most companies are so out of control that they stopped considering profitability at the job level. That’s a huge mistake that I believe is at the core of our economic woes. Every job must, in its own way, help produce profit. The kicker is, managers and employees must understand how.

Are you revenue or cost?

Business guru Tom Peters once suggested that a company larger than 11 employees was untenable. He later upped it to 25. He reasoned that 25 people all know what everyone else is doing. They all feel responsible for and accountable to one another. It’s pretty easy to see how each contributes to success and profitability. When a company gets bigger, accountability is diluted. There’s more chance marginal workers will be hired, unnecessary jobs will be filled, and that some employees will not do their jobs.

As you put it, the attitude becomes, “Who cares? The company isn’t owned by anyone; it’s owned by the public, so let’s milk that baby while I can.”

As you also point out, the connection to profits is rather obvious with sales jobs — but that’s only because we associate revenue with profit. People that work in jobs like manufacturing or shipping will claim they have nothing to do with revenue or profit — they’re overhead cost. But every job affects either costs or revenue (or both). That means every job affects profit because every job is a company’s attempt to prosper more.

What is profit?

The profit equation is simple:


An accountant or finance person might scoff at that because, of course, each of the terms on the left comprises many factors. But in general, that’s the accounting.

If your job (e.g., sales) seems to affect mostly revenue, you’re more likely to understand your role in profitability. If you work in quality assurance (QA) or on the computer help desk, it’s easy to see how your work represents a cost to your employer. However, all those jobs affect the equation. Do your job thoughtfully and well, and you help increase revenues or decrease costs — hence you help boost profits.

If a help desk worker can successfully close more problem tickets, that brings costs down. When a QA engineer examines a product design more effectively, costly failures are reduced. When a salesperson closes more sales by developing more product expertise, that boosts revenues. All three employees have affected profits.

The challenge, of course, is how do you calculate your impact on revenues and costs? Few companies understand how every job impacts the bottom line, as if it doesn’t matter. Many can’t even track P&L (profit and loss) of entire divisions or departments, much less individual workers.

That’s why their hiring practices are so screwed up.

Foolish ignorance

That’s what’s wrong with business. This is a big reason why companies fail. It’s also why good workers get laid off and why mediocre job candidates get hired. It’s why companies often have open jobs that shouldn’t even exist. But, rather than sit down and work this out, most companies prefer to remain ignorant of what is perhaps the key metric of success. They find it easier to “throw bodies” at nebulous “problems.”

That’s foolish.

If you and your manager can’t explain how your job contributes to the bottom line by reducing costs and/or increasing revenues, you’re revealing a dangerous kind of ignorance. Neither one of you is going to have a job for long. You may be able to “hide” for a time, but not forever. My suggestion is, go meet your company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and ask for some insight on how your department affects the bottom line. Then discuss how your job affects it. When a company’s total bottom line shrinks or goes negative, it’s because nobody’s watching whether divisions, departments, teams, managers and individual workers are doing profitable work. How your CFO responds may tell you a lot about the prospects of the company.

Every job is one job

Why do companies hire? Despite how critical a factor profitable work is to a company’s success, most companies don’t care whether a job candidate can show how they will contribute to the bottom line. They hire blindly. Most job applicants don’t care whether or how the job they’re interviewing for contributes to the success of the whole. This makes a fool of the manager, the job seeker, the company, and its investors.

So in response to your suggestion that we need not worry about who does or doesn’t do profitable work because employers don’t — I say we do. Fundamentally, every job is really the same job and its title is Profit Maker. Companies should hire only to fill such jobs.

Our bottom line here is this: Why would any job seeker want to throw their lot in with a manager and a company that doesn’t understand or measure whether a job is profitable? It’s a slippery path to one dead-end job after another, and ultimately to a failed career. For a company, it’s one of a thousand cuts that leads inexorably to bankruptcy.

And it all starts with understanding the purpose of a job.

When managers roll their eyes at a job candidate (or employee) who cares to discuss how a job contributes to profit, that’s a signal for the candidate to walk out of the interview. That’s a signal to go find a better-run company that’s going to blow the manager’s company out of the water.

Is it wise to accept a job when you don’t know how it contributes to the company’s success and profitability? Is it wise to hire someone without exploring how they can help make your company more successful? How would you explain your job’s contribution to your employer’s bottom line?

Challenge: Can someone explain how all this is true for non-profits, too?

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Create your own job to get hired or promoted

Create your own job to get hired or promoted

No Question

There’s no Q&A in this week’s edition. Instead, I want to tell you about what someone said to me at a presentation I gave.

I had just suggested to my audience of job seekers that they should consider doing something more bold than applying for jobs. “Stretch! Take a chance,” I told them. “It’s better to cleverly create your own job and convince an employer to hire you to do it, than to chase published jobs and compete with the masses.”

Normal people must wait to get hired

hired or promotedA hand shot up. (I encourage people to interrupt me because this is Ask The Headhunter, after all!)

“Only a LeBron James could get away with that! You have to be a star to name your own game. In my world, only uber-geeks who know 10 languages, 4 operating systems, and 12 databases could even dream of trying that! The rest of us normal people have to apply for whatever jobs we can find and hope there is a good fit!”

That really got to me. It implies that most people will always be stuck because they’re not stars or big experts. There is no bold action they can possibly take. Even if they tried, they’d be laughed at and rejected out of hand.

That’s bunk. To change your life — and your prospects — you can’t wait. To get hired or promoted you’ve got to step out of line and take a chance. You don’t have to be LeBron James or an uber-geek to do it. But you can’t behave normally, either, because (to quote Bruce Cockburn) the trouble with normal is it only gets worse.

Do you wait to get promoted?

We all get stuck in a rut — and if America’s employment system isn’t a rut, I don’t know what is. Convention dominates our thinking and our lives. Especially at work. While we want to get ahead, our first objective is not to rock the boat. We want to protect our jobs, to avoid irritating the HR manager who’s reading our job application, and to come off as being able to follow rules. Who wants to  be viewed as abnormal? What good is thinking out of the box if it gets us thrown out of the box?

So we follow the rules. To get a job, you fill out an application. To get promoted, you wait for your boss to tap you for a better position. You wait your turn, because who wants to tick off the management?

Maybe you should stop waiting.

Out of line, not normal, but promoted

When I was in college, I took a weekend factory job just before Christmas. A nearby Mattel toy factory couldn’t crank our enough Barbie Ferraris for the holiday rush. Any Rutgers student who showed up got hired — no interviews.

I showed up and was handed a punched time card with a red border. (Yah, punched computer cards. This was a long time ago.) The red border meant I’d build Barbie Campers for $3.25 an hour on a production line. Luckier hires became material handlers, operating manual pallet lifts. They didn’t have to stand in one spot for eight hours like the rest of us suckers. They cruised the football-field-sized factory floor, bringing us pallet-loads of parts. They got paid $5.75 an hour. Once assigned, you could not change jobs.

One evening the floor supervisor was in a foul mood, stamping his feet and wiping his brow as he moved along our ranks, assigning us to one assembly line or another. When he got to me, I must have been wearing my naive college-kid smile. “Maybe you’re in a good mood, Kid, but I’m short material handlers. That means the lines are gonna slow down for lack of parts and my production numbers are gonna fall off. I am not in a good mood.”

I looked down at the red-bordered time card in my hand — the dopey card that kept me at the bottom of the Barbie pay scale. I reached out and snatched a blue magic marker from his shirt pocket. Before the blood rushed all the way to his head, I smeared a blue line over the red one, and handed my time card back to him. “Just sign this and you’ve got one more material handler.”

Step off the line

My compadres down the line craned their necks to see whether I’d get reamed or fired. But the supervisor’s frown curled up briefly into a smile. “Turn around, Kid.” He used my back to sign the card. “Find a pallet jack. You’re a material handler.”

I never did get to build a Barbie Ferrari, but my pay went up 75% and so did my confidence. I wasn’t an uber-anything. But I learned that ignoring “normal,” and stepping out of line and solving problems without being asked, would pay off for me again and again throughout my life. It also earned me friends in higher places. But I was lowlier than anyone reading this website when I first tried it.

What about creating a new job?

Assertively reaching for a promotion to a better-paying job is one thing, because you already have a boss you can appeal to. But what if you want to approach an employer with your idea for job you really want that may not exist? That’s another story, and here’s one way to do it: How to create your own job.

The trouble with being normal is that you always have a lot of competition. When you step out of line you possibly become a target, but you do stand out — and that’s your chance to become the next LeBron James. Or to get a job or a promotion. It also saved me from having to box up another Barbie Camper.

Ever take a big chance that got you hired or promoted — or that cost you a job? Have you ever created your own job to get hired? What could you do to stand out, even just a little bit? Or am I just nuts to suggest it?

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Recruiter pressure

Recruiter pressure


When independent recruiters are discussing a job with me, they ask if there are any job opportunities that I’m actively exploring on my own. What should I tell them? If I say no, then it seems no one is interested in me. If I say yes, the recruiter might think I am a waste of his time because I’m about to accept an offer. I’m also a little worried about divulging the names of companies I’m pursuing on my own. Is this kind of recruiter pressure reasonable?

Nick’s Reply

Never subject yourself to pressure from a recruiter, simply because a good recruiter will never pressure you.

Some recruiters will ask who else you’re interviewing with no hidden agenda. They’ve already checked you out and they’ve concluded you’re worth competing for. What you’re doing on your own isn’t going to affect their perceptions. They just want to know whether there is a time constraint. In other words, are you close to accepting another offer? That could affect how and when they present you to their client. And that’s fair. If you trust the recruiter, don’t hesitate to discuss your situation candidly.

How to Say It
“If I’m working on another opportunity, will that affect your interest in me?”

A good recruiter will be candid right back, politely. A recruiter that applies pressure is not recruiting. In this business, recruiting means pursuing, appealing, seducing, enticing — not pressuring. If you don’t feel wooed, you’re not being recruited properly.

Recruiter pressure

Other recruiters may be playing games, as you suggest. If they are, well, why worry about them? Let them think what they will. Too much disclosure too soon is risky. Disclose only what you wish and don’t worry about pressure. Remember that the likelihood that any recruiter is going to place you is pretty small. Don’t engage if a recruiter is overly intrusive.

If you’re interviewing with companies on your own, and you don’t know enough about the recruiter to trust them yet, play your cards close. When asked if you’re interviewing anywhere, tell the truth, but don’t reveal enough details that the recruiter can figure out who the company is. Who else you’re interviewing with is none of the recruiter’s business. It should not affect their relationship with you.

Common sense

What a recruiter does need to know about, if you’re going to work together, are potential conflicts. If you’re already interviewing with the company they’re recruiting for, they need to know that. (So do you.) That’s just common sense.

Nonetheless, you should not divulge what companies you’re talking with. (We’ll discuss the risk in a minute.) Ask the recruiter who their client is, and explain that you will confirm whether or not you have already established contact with that company. That’s more common sense.

Recruiter tactics

Some recruiters will explain that if they disclose the company’s name, you may go directly to the company, costing them a fee for making the introduction. That’s a recruiter who has no relationship with the employer, and a job for which every recruiter in the land is submitting candidates. They’re all just fishing, which is not good for you. It’s one example of why recruiters suck so bad.

Some recruiters will say it’s confidential; they can’t divulge their client’s name. Well, that’s that. The recruiter isn’t willing to trust you. Why should you trust the recruiter? Unless it’s a top-level executive position, or it requires very specialized knowledge and skills, it’s not confidential. The recruiter has to decide whether it’s worth telling you more.

This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road, and the recruiter and the candidate begin to forge a relationship. Remember that the recruiter called you. The recruiter should “give something” first.

It’s a matter of trust

Unfortunately, there are too many people trying to make a fast buck in the recruiting business. It’s common to encounter unsavory types “dialing for dollars.” You will recognize them from their high pressure tactics: “I’m the recruiter. If you’re not cooperative, it could cost you this job. Tell me what I need to know!” Lots of people instantly cower before that kind of presentation. Don’t.

Unless you know and trust a recruiter, you have no idea what they may do with information about other jobs you’re pursuing. I’ve seen recruiters go out of their way to torpedo another opportunity a person was developing, just so the recruiter could advance their own placement. It’s unlikely you’d encounter that nasty a recruiter, but you must be careful all the time.

Keep your standards and expectations high. Deal only with recruiters who behave like your interests matter as much as their own, because that’s what defines any good, successful business relationship. So answer in whatever way feels comfortable to you, and let the chips fall where they may. In the process, you will learn something very important about the recruiter, well before you need to trust them to negotiate on your behalf.

What kinds of questions do recruiters ask you that make you uncomfortable? How do you deal with this?

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Friction between employers & recruiters hurts you

Friction between employers & recruiters hurts you


I’m a third party recruiter and I refuse to bend over and appease any HR department that insists on a jealous stranglehold over hiring decisions. As proven by their public website, this company’s HR department has made itself the one and only gateway through which employment is granted. Such policies about recruiters are how internal HR politics often eliminate A-player candidates.

Attention Staffing Agencies/Recruiters:
Please do not correspond with, or in any way solicit, any individual [Company name redacted] employee, including hiring managers, regarding our current open positions or staffing needs. All communication should be directed to [HR e-mail]. Any and all resumes submitted by Search Firms or Employment Agencies to any employee at [Company] via-email, the internet, or in any form and/or method will be deemed the sole property of [Company], unless such business(es) were engaged by [Company] for this position, and a valid written agreement has been executed with [Company] and is in place. In the event a candidate who was submitted outside of [Company]’s agency engagement process is hired, no restitution of a fee or payment of any kind will be exchanged.

I think this is very bad news for headhunters and job seekers alike. What a disaster.

This is why more and more “recruiters” use the random “resume flood” method of candidate submission. Much of the industry has fallen victim to worshipping throwing darts at the board all due to HR’s failed policies.

Nick’s Reply

recruitersBefore I address your ire, I want to explain why this problem is relevant to all job seekers: Know how frustrated and upset you get when a recruiter gets you on the hook about a “perfect” job — then the “opportunity” goes nowhere? Some of the time, it’s because the recruiter has no contract with the employer, and thus no authorization, to submit candidates like you. The employer simply refuses to interview you. And the recruiter is simply using the job as bait to gather more information about you so they can submit you for other jobs that aren’t so perfect and waste more of your time.

Recruiters without contracts: bad business

Employers routinely require a contractual agreement with a search firm or agency (aka, recruiter, headhunter) before they will pay a fee for candidate referrals. That’s a common policy and I think it’s actually a good thing for headhunters that want to deal with this company. I don’t see how it’s a disaster. A contract avoids friction between headhunters and employers — friction that can hurt the naive, unsuspecting job seeker. Unfortunately, even some of the most sophisticated job seekers don’t understand this problem.

The notice you shared above clearly says the company works with headhunters and outside employment agencies, but requires a contract to be in place. What this policy does is exactly what you bemoan. It blocks recruiters that use “the random resume flood method of candidate submission” that wastes everyone’s time. It sounds like you don’t have a contract with this company — or why would you be complaining about it?

The policy is also good for job seekers. By locking out unapproved recruiters, a job seeker interested in working at this company faces less competition. (See A headhunter locked me out of jobs for 6 months.)

As a headhunter, I’m not a fan of conducting business through the HR office. This means I prefer to work with companies where HR serves in a primarily administrative role in recruiting. I deal directly with the hiring manager, and I still have a written contract with the company. That’s just good business. Why would I chance delivering my valuable services without assurance I’ll be paid?

Headhunting is not a free-for-all

Headhunters that submit resumes to employers without a contract in place put everyone involved in jeopardy.

It’s actually good for a headhunter when a company requires engagement contracts. It prevents headhunting (or recruiting, if you prefer) from turning into a free-for-all. It makes it easier to work with the company (whether it’s with HR or a hiring manager) because you’re not competing with unapproved recruiters spamming the company with “resumes” they found online.

That policy statement seems directed at recruiters the company doesn’t do business with. It doesn’t mean approved headhunters are forbidden to call and talk with hiring managers. Of course, if this is a case where HR still tries to keep the headhunter and the hiring manager apart, then it’s time for the authorized headhunter to fire the client. Most of the time the only problem is unauthorized headhunters insisting on submitting candidates to an employer.

I don’t like HR roadblocks, but the reality is, a company can use any rules it wants to, and the headhunter is free to take great candidates to the company’s competitors instead.

Job seekers, pay attention!

There is an important lesson here for job seekers. You know as well as I do that recruiters often waste your time after they ply you with solicitations to consider a certain job. One reason is that the employer in question has no contract with that third-party recruiter. An unauthorized submission of your resume could waste your time with unauthorized interviews that go nowhere, and even kill any chance you have for a job at that company.

This contract problem also reveals itself at the job offer stage. The employer may decide to set aside the recruiter’s lack of a contract because the hiring manager really wants to hire you anyway. Your problem is that the recruiter has no pull with the employer to negotiate the best deal for you. As a drive-by opportunist, this non-contracted panderer just wants a quick fee, not the best deal for both sides.

Vet recruiters

My advice: Vet all recruiters. Ask a headhunter that solicits you for proof that they are authorized to recruit for the employer in question. You could even check yourself, by contacting the company’s HR department before you agree to do anything else. (If the headhunter is indeed approved, don’t then try to apply for the job directly. That’s slimy and will probably get you into trouble.)

As you can see, this kind of friction between third-party recruiters and employers can hurt you. No one really talks about this, and that’s why I took some time to cover it here. Be careful. Don’t step into a mess. (See Recruiters: Raise your standards or get out. For thorough coverage, check out How to Work With Headhunters and how to make headhunters work for you.)

Job postings and resumes are essentially free for the taking online. There’s nothing to stop anyone from trying to earn a placement fee by contacting you about a job they saw online (without the employer’s approval) or from “submitting” your resume — which they found online — without your approval. This practice doesn’t make anyone a headhunter. Just a fast-buck artist.

Has an unsavory “headhunter” ever put you in a bad spot with an employer? If you’re a headhunter, what’s your position on having a contract with your clients? And I’d love to hear from HR folks. How do you handle unsolicited applicant submissions from headhunters that have no contract with you?

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After my business failure, can I get hired?

After my business failure, can I get hired?


Four years ago, three co-workers and I bought the software development firm we worked for, but business has slowed down and the company is failing. My 10 years working for this previously successful company is the only major work experience I have. How will an employer view a business failure? How can I sell my employment qualifications even though my own business isn’t succeeding?

Nick’s Reply

Not a lot of Ask The Headhunter readers have owned a business, but this is an interesting question because at its heart it applies to anyone who is trying to make a job or career change after a failure.

The answer is all about how to shift from failure in one area of your work life to success in another. So whether you’re a failed business owner, or a manager who couldn’t really manage looking to return to a staff job, or a widget designer who tried and failed at sales and is ready to go back to making widgets, please read on.

Business failure is not professional failure

Don’t confuse your technical skills with your ability to manage a business. Failing at running a business doesn’t mean you’re a failure professionally. In your interviews, focus on what you do best and pursue jobs along the right lines. This applies to anyone — not just programmers or technical folks. Don’t get bogged down in your failure. If you tried and failed at management, remember that you still have a solid record as a software developer.

Business failure is common

What if the business you ran was a consulting business? Can a self-employed consultant get a regular job?
In a world where everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, few actually try, and most who do try, fail. Many of the employers you interview with will understand that. Our business culture has never been so comfortable with the idea of people trying and failing to run their own businesses (or trying and failing to pursue a new career). So, don’t expect negative reactions.

Of course, you will get some knocks for your failure, but take that in stride. Be careful to present your failure with candor and good humor.

Business failure is not the question

Remember that the key questions the employer has for you are not about how you’d run a business. They’re about whether you can do the job at hand. So turn the conversation to your prowess as a developer. Show how you will use your skills and experience for the employer’s benefit in software development.

Another key question will have to do with your work habits. Employers sometimes presume that a business owner will find it difficult to take direction and to be managed. It’s up to you to demonstrate that you can work for the manager and be a good team member.

If you’re asked why you’re leaving your own business, just ‘fess up.

How to Say It:

  1. I’m not a great business owner, but I am a great software developer. (Or, I wasn’t great at selling widgets, but I am great at building them.)
  2. My technical talents helped make the business successful before I bought it.
  3. I no longer have aspirations about running my own business. I got that out of my system. I want to be part of a team that works well together.
  4. My goal now is to be the best software developer I can be — and to contribute to my team’s success.
  5. Now that I’ve learned designing software and producing great code are my strong skills, I’m all the more focused on doing exactly that.

When meeting with a prospective employer, demonstrate that you understand the difference between what you failed at, and what you want to do next. Don’t be afraid to be blunt with an employer.

How to Say It

“You focus on running the business; I’ll focus on delivering the best product anyone could produce.”

(Or selling the most product, or running the most efficient production department, or producing the most effective marketing materials.)

Convey that message as honestly and compellingly as you can, and I think you’ll get a good reception. Stick to talking about the job you’re going after. Focus on the work to be done, not on your business failure. That’s how you let the employer know you’re not stuck in the past. If you start getting defensive (or too detailed) about your old business, you’ll put the employer off. (Check these two magic interview questions you can use to put the interview on track.)

We all have failures, but the smartest people reveal their strengths when they admit their failures. They show they’ve learned from the experience. They stop talking about the failure and eagerly move on to the next challenge.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever run a business that failed? What was it like getting a job? How would you advise this reader? What would worry you about hiring someone whose business failed? What other kinds of failure have you recovered from?

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The labor shortage is really a pay shortage

The labor shortage is really a pay shortage


labor shortageI bookmarked an article you wrote a few years ago: B.S. on the jobs numbers euphoria. Jobs numbers are the #1 story again: 260,000 jobs added versus over a million the economists predicted would be a slam-dunk! Is that a labor shortage or job shortage? Maybe a pay shortage? Once again they’re blaming us, people looking for jobs! We’re not educated enough or skilled enough or willing to go on goose-chase interviews recruiters e-mail us about. Now we’re deadbeats living on rich unemployment supplements. Who needs to work, right? I DO!

Nick’s Reply

The burning question in the news today is, why are so many employers unable to fill jobs? Is it because, as some claim, recipients of pandemic relief benefits would rather “collect” than work? Is it because people who want to work are afraid to, because the virus is still a risk? Or, as others say, are working women staying home because someone has to watch the kids while schools are closed?

Labor shortage or shortage of pay?

I’m no economist — hell, they just got the “jobs added” numbers wrong by about a factor of 4! — but based on what my readers tell me and on what I see, the answer is simple. Employers don’t want to pay market wages and salaries to attract workers for jobs they say are so important to fill.

I believe low pay most readily explains much of the inability to hire. There’s no labor shortage. It’s a supply and demand problem. And many employers are running scared because they don’t know what they’re doing. (A more cynical view is that they’re just greedy.)

Let’s look at the contradictions.

Business to labor: You’re deadbeats

On one hand, unemployment has remained at around 6.1% — still very high. According to Neel Kashkari, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, between 8 and 10 million people who want to work can’t find jobs. He also suggests it’s unreasonable to expect the effects of the pandemic are over. He says things are getting better, but it’s going to be months before we see substantial improvements. Judging from the numbers, we don’t need an economist to tell us the problem is a shortage of jobs — jobs that pay enough to attract workers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on another hand, suggests those 8 to 10 million are deadbeats living large on pandemic relief benefits. In fact, the Chamber is so sure it can find jobs for all those people that it has demanded the extra $300 per week unemployment benefits be cut immediately. Says the Chamber: “It’s giving some recipients less incentive to look for work.”

Labor to economists: You’re stupid

Now we need a third hand to juggle the facts. On May 6 Barrons proclaimed, Get Ready for a Blockbuster Jobs Report of 1 Million or More. Oops! The next day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that business added just 266,000 jobs last month — not over a million like economists confidently predicted. So, where are “all those jobs” employers can’t fill and that you should be applying for?

Who’s stupid about jobs?

It seems pretty simple: The real disincentive to look for work is that there aren’t enough jobs since the pandemic started! Employers who are trying to get back up and running think they can keep pay low because millions are “looking” — but job seekers aren’t buying low wages. They’re not stupid.

I’m sure some jobs are going begging, but lots of unemployed workers are refusing to beg. Let’s look at some examples.

Who’s competitive?

New Jersey’s Star-Ledger reports:

“Mike Jurusz is worried about the summer. As owner and executive chef at Chef Mike’s Atlantic Bar & Grill in South Seaside Park, [a New Jersey beach town] he said he can’t find anyone to hire. He blames his staffing troubles on expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus payments. ‘It’s impossible to get help right now,’ he says.”

Here’s where facts run into overwrought explanations — and perhaps into poor business decisions. (By the way, I don’t pick on Jurusz or anyone else except that they’re a handy examples provided by the press. I don’t know him or his business other than what I’ve read.)

Jurusz doesn’t reveal what he’s paying to fill those jobs. Yet he complains that “businesses that raise their hourly wage to entice workers make it harder for others to compete.”

Now get this.

“‘We are going to have to be forced to pay people who are not worth what they should be getting,’ Jurusz said. ‘That will increase my labor costs, then we have to increase the pricing because we have to stay in business. You’re going to see $30 plain pizzas and $35 subs.”

What I hear is a small businessman running scared. I feel for anyone facing business challenges, but having to make payroll is going to put some businesses out of business. Welcome to the new economy.

Do employers really need to pay more?

They do if you listen to retailers, who say that to compete with Amazon, which pays more than $15 an hour to snatch up available labor, they, too, have to raise wages. While some restaurateurs can’t beat that kind of job offer, Amit Patel, a snack-food manufacturer, also in New Jersey, said to the Star-Ledger:

“Do you think an employee would want to work at $10 or $11 an hour in a COVID environment when they have no job security, no benefits? People are realizing their worth is a lot more.”

Patel has raised the wages his company pays by 30% since the start of the pandemic.

Smart employers are busy hiring

Another New Jersey restaurant owner in the same Star-Ledger article, Tim McLoone, said he doesn’t blame the hiring challenges on people who don’t want to work.

“It’s offensive to demonize one group of people,” he said. “There’s no question that unemployment has contributed to the diminishment of the labor market, but it’s not like they’re staying home to watch The Price Is Right and they don’t want to work.”

McLoone recently increased hourly wages to $15 for employees who don’t receive tips. Got a labor shortage? Grow up and pay what you have to. It’s called a market.

The economists who got it wrong are trying to scapegoat working stiffs who know from experience that employers aren’t adding jobs at the rates economists claim. All those job postings on Indeed and LinkedIn include a lot of dupes and garbage. They know many employers aren’t offering wages worth working for — just ask them what the recruiters are pitching. Anyone that planned on over a million new jobs got suckered by wishful economic predictions.

It’s a new labor market

Blaming the pandemic relief program is a cheap shot designed to deflect responsibility from employers large and small that have been profiting enormously for a decade without sharing with their employees. You can look up the average disparities between executive pay and employees somewhere else. I’m frankly sick of looking at the numbers. If anything, the relief benefits are balancing the scales a bit.

But there’s another part to this. Some of those unemployed workers have wised up to the game. They’ve gotten smarter than employers and economists. They know they’re worth more and won’t work for less.

In other words, it seems employers that respect the law of supply and demand offer higher wages — and they can afford to. Just look at Amazon. If your business model doesn’t permit you to pay enough to attract good workers in a highly competitive market, maybe that says you can’t compete. Maybe you shouldn’t be in business. It’s a new labor market.

The “jobs numbers” suggest that many of the millions of unemployed who want to work are wise to wait until healthy businesses offer them higher pay. The pandemic benefits make it a bit easier to hold out, but it’s the choice I’d make even without the benefits.

The noise continues

I’m not an economist or a labor market expert. But it’s not hard to see what’s going on. I can interpret what I see pretty easily by looking where the big money is telling me not to look — past the noise.

For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says:

“Based on the Chamber’s analysis, the $300 benefit results in approximately one in four recipients taking home more in unemployment than they earned working.”

The Chamber is bragging that its members pay less than unemployment does? If employers really believe Uncle Sam is out-bidding them and keeping labor on the sidelines, those employers are simply uncompetitive.

The Washington Post reports that:

“Some businesses have been complaining to the White House and lawmakers that they are having a hard time recruiting workers, particularly for low-wage, hourly jobs.”

But are these businesses offering more competitive wages?

“Average hourly wages rose about 21 cents across the country, data that the BLS suggested reflected increasing demand for labor.”

21 cents? Not only are these clowns not competing with Amazon and Tim McLoone, they aren’t even anteing up to stay in the game. The Star-Ledger reports that Morey’s Piers, operator of amusement parks in New Jersey, has boosted pay 25% to $15 an hour to fill 1,500 seasonal jobs this summer. There are those that get it and those that don’t.

Labor shortage: Last thing employers want to do is raise wages

This isn’t complicated, unless you listen to economists and greedy employers. Yes, greedy employers. I’m not even going to offer you links to articles about massive profits, stock prices and executive pay that has dwarfed employee pay in the past several years. I’ll just point out that the business world’s alpha dog, Jeff Bezos, has allowed that he understands and supports tax hikes on corporations and the very wealthy — and Amazon has boosted employee pay. The jig is up. It’s time for business to pay up.

I’ll leave you with two brief audio segments from a Bloomberg Radio interview with Fed President Neel Kashkari. (I’ve added emphasis.) This guy gets it and he’s not afraid to say it.


      Neel Kashkari-1


“I hope we see employers step up. That was one of the things that was extraordinary about the last recovery. It took 10 years to return to something like maximum employment, and I’m not even sure that we quite got there before the pandemic hit. And it was only in the last few years of the recovery, after many years of businesses complaining that they couldn’t find workers, only in the last couple of years that we finally saw wages start to pick up, especially for those lowest income workers. Businesses will do anything they can do to try to meet their labor needs — and the last thing they want to do is raise wages.”



      Neel Kashkari-2


“We have the tools to tighten monetary policy to keep inflation in check. I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about is not having another 10-year recovery for our labor market. That’s devastating to millions of Americans and we need to put them back to work much more quickly.”


Yah, I know it’s more complicated, but this Fed president has the candor to break it down so it’s simple. It’s time for politicians, employers and government to grow up. The sooner the economy faces it, the better. To get businesses back up and running post-COVID, companies have to pay more. Not because of COVID. Because it’s long overdue. The virus has just served to remind people that life is short — and they’re not willing to work for less.

Those employers that cry higher wages will put them out of business must realize that offering low pay will probably put them out of business.

What do you see when you step back from the “labor shortage?” What’s the fix? Have you stayed out of the job market because employers are low-balling you? Have you found competitive employers who pay well? How can an unemployed job seeker find a good-paying job today?

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Does severance pay make sense?

Does severance pay make sense?


I’m curious about how companies determine severance pay packages. I assume there are state laws that dictate minimum severance amounts, or it seems there would be no severance packages at all. But some companies give more than that. One recently gave its laid-off employees six months of severance, which is very generous in these times. But why? While that’s good news for the employees, why would a company or its shareholders want to give more than it has to?

I’m also curious why upper management receives more severance. I understand that CEOs and their echelon often have prearranged golden parachutes. But managers without such agreements or contracts sometimes get more severance (in terms of weeks of pay) than others. Again, I don’t understand the benefit to the company. What’s the deal?

Nick’s Reply

I hope some of the HR members of our community will chime in here. I’m sure they’ve got some good insights on this (and even better stories.) You’re asking a lot of questions, but not for advice. I’ll try to illuminate what I can, and I’ll offer some advice at the end anyway!

Why severance pay?

I don’t believe there are any states in the U.S. that require severance pay to be paid to a departing employee. For the most part severance is a company’s prerogative and an employee’s privilege — it’s not a right.

severance payHowever, severance always serves the employer — it’s not a gift. It’s always a form of handcuffs because the agreement you sign will tie your hands in some ways.

One of the main reasons companies offer severance is to avoid future legal problems. A company will offer severance in exchange for you signing an NDA or a non-disparagement agreement, or a release from any further liability to you. Call it a bribe, but it often works. Sometimes the severance offer is very aggressive: “We’re willing to drop big bucks on you, but you have to agree so some pretty unsavory terms.” The more they offer, the harder it is to say no.

While extravagant severance deals sometimes border on criminal, they’re usually negotiated at the time of hire. The employer makes the deal with eyes open. So what might seem irrational is a pragmatic way for a company to convince a desirable job candidate to accept an offer.

Severance pay is practical

It’s also a practical thing to do. When used properly and for the right reasons, severance is a company’s way of parting on good terms, especially when it’s the company that terminates the relationship. (Companies rarely pay severance when you decide to leave.) It’s the complement to an employee giving two weeks’ notice before quitting.

Negotiating a job offer? Don’t miss:
Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection
While we all know parting company can be a fraught – even nasty – experience, it should be civilized, and we should try to respect one another’s needs when we can. We don’t want to leave each other in the lurch. Of course, that’s the best case.

Often, severance is paid to ensure a smooth transition. The departing employee getting a nice package is more apt to leave their workflow in good condition for their replacement — and perhaps to take a call or two with questions even after they’re gone.

Severance is often based on how badly the company needs the employee’s services between now and the termination or layoff date. For example, a company might need a manager to stick around until the last employee is laid off and until the last project is wrapped up. In exchange for having less time to look for a new job, the manager accepts more severance.

It’s also good public relations

Why do some companies pay more severance than others? They’re smart. When a worker leaves a company with a nice package, he or she is more inclined to speak favorably of it to other workers, probably for years to come. That’s a competitive edge. Good public relations are no accident, and they don’t require government incentives. A company that wants a good reputation works hard at burnishing its image as a responsible employer. Severance is part of that strategy.

Managers often get better packages than staff for a few reasons. To start, their compensation is higher and severance formulas are usually rational (if not outlandish). They’re based on compensation and time served at the company. Higher compensation usually means more severance.

Managers also belong to a club of sorts, and they tend to take care of each other because they never know when they’ll run into one another again. Today’s department manager might one day hire his or her old boss, and what goes around comes around. So it’s not just public relations. It’s also professional relations.

Some advice

And this brings us around to my advice. There’s a lesson you should take from all this: Not everyone gets a chance to negotiate a severance deal. But everyone should try. You might ask yourself, what will this company need from me when I depart, and what will they not want me to do? (For example, share something I learned at the job.) What’s that worth?

Don’t assume only executives or managers get severance pay. When you negotiate your next job offer, ask about severance. If you believe your job is important to the employer, you might even negotiate aggressively. Make it part of your written offer. Then you might not be so irritated about the severance deals others get!

To give you a head start on dealing with severance deals, I’ve included a special News I want you to use item this week. Don’t miss Hack that severance agreement! You’ll learn not just what you might ask for, but what to avoid agreeing to.

Do you have a good severance agreement with your employer? Are you in management? How did you negotiate your severance deal? Do you bring severance up when negotiating a job offer?

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Control what your professional references will say

Control what your professional references will say


professional referencesI’m in the final phase of getting a job offer I really want. They already told me what the offer is, but they need to check my references before they deliver it in writing. I know my professional references are good but how do I really know what a former boss or colleague is going to say? Your advice will affect whose names I give out. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

You know what your references will say by controlling it in advance. You’d never go to a job interview without being prepared. So, why would you let your references talk to an employer without preparing them?

Having checked thousands of references — always on the phone, never via e-mail — I’ve found that most are bleah at best. A bad reference is rare and a superlative reference is uncommon. But without a lot of prompting from me, a candidate’s references usually have little to say. They’re unprepared.

How your professional references can hurt you

This is bad for two reasons. First, an unprepared reference comes off as unenthusiastic. Enthusiasm about the candidate in question is paramount in a reference check. An awful lot of insight and information about a candidate is folded into the way their references speak about them.

Second, uninspiring comments about a candidate can count against them; for example, if other problems arise with your candidacy, there needs to be some countervailing fervor. If a reference can’t speak enthusiastically about the candidate, I’ll go with a candidate whose references can.

Here’s the tragedy. People get rated #2 or #3 in highly competitive interviews not because they lack necessary qualities, but because their references aren’t prepared to deliver clear, compelling opinions about them.

Control what your references will say about you

Don’t lose a job offer because of your references. To pull this off, you must select professional references that will launch you into the new job you want. How do you choose whose names to submit? Well, you need to know what they’re going to say, right?

The robo-reference problem
What if an employer wants your references to fill out online forms or to talk to a robot, rather than take a call? See Before you risk your references.
The best way to control what your references will say is to coach them!

I’m going to offer a few observations and suggestions about how to control — yes, control — your references. I don’t mean manipulate; I mean prepare them to deliver opinions and comments that will make an employer want to hire you. There is nothing dishonest or underhanded about this. We’re going to exploit some simple laws of psychology. We’re going to prepare your references to do their best for you.

How to prepare your professional references

1. Call them
When you need a former boss or co-worker to step up and deliver a warm, enthusiastic endorsement for you, don’t make the request via e-mail. Make your request just as warm and personal. Use the phone. This is critical because only a conversation will enable you to control what they say. Of course, you must start by asking if they’d be willing to give you a reference. If they agree, tell them who is going to call, and very briefly outline the job you want.

2. Help them remember
When an employer calls, most references are taken by surprise. They’re in the middle of something else. They’re not thinking about you and your time working together. That’s why you need to call them first, to remind them what made you a great employee and to prepare them about the job you want. (If you have a solid relationship with the person, this is where you can disclose what you’re doing. “To be frank, I know how busy you are. I figured that recapping our work together might help with the reference call.”)

3. Say it out loud
Here’s a fun fact from the world of cognitive psychology: People remember better when they write something down or say it out loud first. More important, in this case, is that people also tend to repeat what they’ve already said or heard. So, when you ask your former co-worker or boss to serve as a  reference, recount your past experiences together out loud. Trust me: They are then likely to parrot the words from your conversation to the employer that calls them. This is how you’ll know in advance what they are most likely to say.

4. Recount successes
Ask if they remember a successful project you worked on together. Say this: “I know we faced some challenges, but I’m proud of how we did X, Y and Z.” Ask what they remember about it. Guide your discussion so they will recount out loud (a) what your contribution was, (b) how you did it, and (c) how it paid off. Let them say it so they can hear it.

5. Map skills
Briefly suggest which of your skills (that were so valuable to your old employer) will map onto the new job you want, and how they will pay off to the new employer. Then…

6. Ask for advice and insight
Briefly describe the challenges of the new job. Ask your colleague’s advice about which of your skills might contribute to your success. Ask how they suggest you should approach it.

7. What did you do best?
Help the colleague express out loud what you did best at your old job.

8. What would make you a better worker?
Ask this: “If you could give my new boss some advice about how to help me perform better, what would you say?” (This is a subtle way of influencing the answer to the infamous reference checker’s question, “What are this person’s weaknesses?”)

Prepare your professional references

As we’ve said, you prepare for your job interviews, so prepare your references for a reference call. People parrot what they hear. Help your references parrot themselves. Gently make them say it. Helping them say it out loud to you helps them remember it for the reference call.

Don’t expect to do everything I’ve suggested! Just what you’re most comfortable with and what there’s time for. And of course, there is no guarantee any of this will work — but it’s the best way I know to have some measure of control over your references. Don’t forget to thank your reference for their kind help, for taking a trip down memory lane, and for taking time to speak with who you hope will be your next employer.

Finally, say this: “If I can ever return the favor, don’t hesitate to call me.”


Now I’ll try to anticipate a couple of objections you may have:

“I don’t feel comfortable doing this.”

Then why submit the person as a reference? Please think about it. If a former colleague is not likely to take a few minutes to discuss your experiences working together, do you really think they’ll help you get hired?

“I don’t have any references I know well enough to do what you suggest!”

This is a wake-up call. Start cultivating colleagues now, so you can count on their references in the future!

Do you have references you can count on? How did you cultivate them? How do you avoid awkwardness when requesting a reference? Has a reference ever torpedoed a job opportunity for you? Has a reference ever clearly tipped the scales to help you get hired? What tips would you add to the list above?

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Hired, quit 2 days later. Would you rehire?

Hired, quit 2 days later. Would you rehire?


rehireA new hire in my department resigned after two days at work. He took a counter-offer at his previous company where he had been 22 years. I know you advise against accepting counter-offers because it “marks” you as a wayward employee that will likely be replaced soon. My manager says that he burned bridges with our company and we would not interview or rehire him. My take? Employment at-will rules the day, so I would have no problem, but it’s not my decision. Should he be “marked” here, too, because he quit? How would you advise my company if he were to apply again in the future?

Nick’s Reply

You raise a good, new question, even if it’s hypothetical. How should your company, which he jilted, view this if the errant new hire returns and applies for a job again later? I think the answer lies in another question: What’s the a difference between an employee that quits 22 years after they were hired, and one that quits after just two days on the job?

Why rehire?

To some extent, I agree with your boss. Why take another chance on a new hire who quits to go back to the old employer? Again, it depends on the circumstances. It’s important to remember that hiring and getting hired is a business and financial decision. Certainly, other factors matter. But in the end, that new hire had to consider several things, including leaving your boss in the lurch and hurting his own reputation.

If he revealed a callous disregard for your company, was rude or manipulative and dishonest, then I’d never rehire him.

Why rehire someone who walked out on you? Well, why did his old company take him back? You do it if they are forthright, very good at their work and honest. I would seriously consider hiring him again if only because my company needs good workers. So I agree with you. Hiring him back would be a business and financial decision. Isn’t that why his original employer made a counter-offer to a “disloyal” employee who “walked out on them” after years instead of days? (Of course, it is possible he’s now “marked” — we may never know!)

Why do we hire?

The unknown is whether he might disappear again. It depends entirely on the individual and the circumstances. If this sounds wishy-washy, consider an extreme case. Suppose this guy was not very pleasant, but your company desperately needed his skills. You might hire him anyway. Sometimes we have to swallow hard, ignore the difficulties, and make the purely pragmatic decision. We don’t hire because we want to be happy. We hire because we need good workers who can get the job done.

The bottom line is, if the guy was worth hiring the first time, he’d probably be worth hiring again. Of course, it would be wise to have a heart-to-heart about “Are you going to do it again?” Perhaps his old employer asked this question, too.

Sometimes we make decisions in business that hurt others, like laying someone off or quitting our job. We’re inflicting pain unintentionally but perhaps unavoidably. Each person and company must do what’s best for them. So, I’ll reiterate the puzzle I already posed: Does it make a difference when someone quits after two days or 22 years?

Where is the line?

Is a no-rehire policy prudent? If this individual were to apply again for a job at your company in the future, I agree with you that they should consider him. Since your boss hired him once, I assume your boss has judged him to be good at his job and pleasant enough to work with. While this episode has been inconvenient and has cost your company time and money, that’s business. If your company writes people off as “no rehire” because they quit, it’s going to miss out on some great talent in a highly competitive economy. And meanwhile, the work is not getting done. So where is the line?

Have you ever started a new job only to accept a counter-offer and quit? What’s your company’s policy on re-hiring employees that quit? Would you re-apply at a company you quit after just two days? Where is the line?

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Questions recruiters ask that you shouldn’t answer

Questions recruiters ask that you shouldn’t answer


questions recruiters askI’d like to ask you about questions recruiters ask. I had a call with a recruiter for a well-known recruiting firm. It was a “get to know you so we can potentially work together in the future” type of call. During our conversation the recruiter asks where my family lives. I tell her some of my family is in X state and my husband’s family is in Y. That being said, I am open to various locations. Then she asks where my parents live. In the moment I am thinking, does she really need this info? But I tell her they are not in the U.S. Then she asks, “So where are they?”

Am I obliged to answer this question, especially when it comes across as pushy? I want to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is looking out for me but it made me uncomfortable. How should I handle it in the future?

Nick’s Reply

You are never obliged to answer any questions that make you feel uncomfortable. And I agree — something’s up with that recruiter. I cannot imagine how your parents’ place of residence would affect your job.

How will that help you place me?

There is no reason to not ask why she needs to know. You can reject any question you feel is too personal, illegal, or indicative of bias — especially if the recruiter offers no explanation about how that information will help her to place you.

And that’s the key point about any questions recruiters ask: How will that help you place me? That’s a perfectly professional way to challenge them without being confrontational.

I wouldn’t bother bringing it up again because it will serve no purpose. If she asks another such question, that’s when you should state your position. (Here’s a batch of interview questions that are illegal.)

What’s she look like?

As a headhunter, I’ve encountered questions that have been surprising. Some were questions clients asked me; others were questions employers asked job candidates. Here are some examples.

A new client asked about a candidate I had presented: “We looked her up on LinkedIn but her profile has no photo. Can you have her add her photo?”

When I inquired about the reason they wanted to see a photo, they said they just wanted to get a look at her. I fired the client. A photo and what she looked like were irrelevant. (Then there’s this stupid interview question to ask a woman.)

Man to man?

After two rounds of interviews went very well, the HR recruiter wanted to discuss the Quality Assurance Engineer I sent him.

“Is he, uh, you know?”

“No, I don’t know,” I responded. “Is he what?”

“You must have noticed. You know. How do I put this. The other guys on the team here prefer to work with, you know, a man’s man.”

“A what?”

“You know, doesn’t the guy seem effeminate to you?”

Oh, I suddenly knew. His company missed out on a great Q.A. engineer that day, and I fired the client.

Can you steal?

A senior executive came to me for coaching while she navigated a complex interviewing process at a company she really wanted to work for. The company was a direct competitor of her current employer. At the second interview they asked her to bring certain materials to her third interview: her current company’s price lists for customers the new company competed for.

She felt she had no choice but was worried about the ethical problem. I told her not to do it. She was relieved because she agreed. I suggested she tell them she would no more reveal her current employer’s confidential data than she would reveal the new company’s data to her next employer. To her surprise, they hired her anyway and never brought up the subject again.

I’ve got more: The high-tech employer that wanted to know “What kind of accent is that?”  The retailer who wanted a new HR executive but only females need apply. I’ll close with these two really insulting interview questions. Now let’s hear yours.

What inappropriate questions have recruiters and employers asked you? How did you handle it? What questions have you answered that you wish you hadn’t? What was the outcome?

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