5 Job Search Nightmares

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

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

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

Question 1: They want free work!

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

Nick’s Reply

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

Question 2: Relo nightmare

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

Nick’s Reply

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

Question 3: My network disappeared

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

Nick’s Reply

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

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

Question 4: LinkedIn & ruled out

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

Nick’s Reply

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

Question 5: Salary nightmare

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

Nick’s Reply

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

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

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

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

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

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Beat The Salary Surveys: Get a higher job offer

In the February 19, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job applicant resists lower job offers “justified” with salary surveys:

I don’t like telling employers my salary history when they ask, and I know you advise to keep the information private. But I’m happy to tell an employer what salary range I expect. That way we’re all on the same page, or why bother having interviews? The problem is that employers sometimes gasp when you tell them you want more than an average salary. When they trot out a salary survey and tell me what I’m asking is too far on the high end, how do I say, “You should offer me more money?”

Nick’s Reply

Here’s the advice I offer in my PDF book Keep Your Salary Under Wraps:


If an employer cites a salary survey, ask to see the curve. Point to the leading edge of the curve, where the most unusual individuals are earning the highest salaries.

salary-curveHow to Say It
“I believe I’m on the leading edge of the curve. If I can’t prove that to you during our interviews, then you shouldn’t hire me. But please understand that I’m not looking for a job on the middle of the graph, this part of the curve.” [Point to the fat middle of the graph, where average workers earn average salaries.]

Your challenge is to demonstrate that your performance would indeed be at the leading edge of the curve.


I realize this borders on sounding cocky, but remember that if you don’t make your case in this meeting, you probably won’t get another chance. Be polite and respectful, but be firm. Your future compensation is on the line. Obviously, you must be prepared to justify what you can do that makes you worth a higher salary. There is no way around this. Employers don’t increase job offers just because people ask for more money. You have to give them good reasons based on what you will bring to the job. (You also must decide what is the minimum you will accept. This article will help you flesh that out: How to decide how much you want.)

This is where I call employers and human resources departments to task. While the job offers they make are often only mediocre at best, they claim they reward “thinking out of the box,” and that they are in the forefront of their industry. This is where they need to prove it. I suggest you politely (and perhaps quizzically) address the person you’re negotiating with.

How to Say It
“I’ve studied your company carefully, and I’m impressed at your philosophy. Your company prides itself on thinking and acting out of the box. That’s why I’d like to work here. Of course, out of the box is another way of saying on the edge of the curve. I’d like to show you how I can bring edge of the curve performance to the job — but of course that means edge of the curve compensation. If you will outline what you consider to be exceptional performance, I’ll try to show you how I will deliver.”

There is nothing easy about this. You must do your homework in advance. (For more details on this assertive approach, please see The Basics.) It’s important to open a serious discussion on salary. Companies, and HR departments especially, love to talk about how people are their most important asset. We all know that assets are cultivated so they’ll grow. We want to maximize their value. So we hire the best people, pay them the most, and cultivate them well so they’ll pay off, right?

Well, that’s not what happens when an employer insists on knowing your past salary so it can base a job offer on it. It’s hypocritical — and risky business. It’s how companies lose great candidates who won’t stand for average job offers.

But you can make an employer’s pretensions work for you, if you can be firm but diplomatic, emphatic but gentle, challenging but cooperative. My suggestion above is one way to do it.

Putting Ask The Headhunter to work usually requires saying something to someone to make it pay off. My suggestions about How to Say It are not the only way. There are many good ways to tell an employer that you want more money when you’re negotiating a better deal.

What do you do when you want more money? How would you say it — and what’s worked for you?

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Will a consulting firm pay me what I’m worth?

In the January 29, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an underpaid consultant keeps trying to get more raises:

I am a computer consultant working at a company that assigns me to work at other companies. My salary is less than average in the region for people with comparable skills. I went to my boss and got an increase that’s still less than I’m worth. I think they just tossed me a bone to quiet me.

I like this company even though they’re underpaying me. What else can I do, apart from getting another offer and proving to them that the market values me more than they do?

Nick’s Reply

pay-me-moreFirst, if you’re relying on salay surveys, know when to fold them. Generalized surveys are okay to give you an idea of salaries in a particular field, but they are not a good place to start negotiating your own salary.

I would not dangle another company’s offer in front of your boss unless you’re absolutely ready to take that offer. I’ve seen many companies usher people straight out the door for doing that. (It’s not clear whether you did that anyway, or whether you just asked for a raise on your merits. I hope it was the latter.)

Your employer has already agreed to pay you what it thinks you’re worth, and that doesn’t seem to match what you (and the market) think you’re worth. I don’t think it would be wise to approach management again. My guess is that they don’t really care. Without knocking consulting companies in general, it’s my belief that many of these “meta employers” aren’t as motivated as regular employers to treat employees equitably. Unless they’re one of the exceptional firms out there, they may view employees as a commodity.

Perhaps more important than figuring out how to get more money out of this employer is deciding how you’ll handle the next one. Consider How to decide how much you want, and be ready to ask for it before you accept your next job.

Consulting firms are accustomed to pretty high levels of employee turnover, and they’ve got mechanisms for dealing with that. They may pay decently to bring you aboard, then keep your raises low while your market value goes up until you leave. In the interim, they enjoy higher billing rates and increased profits while you decide whether to get up and go. Then the cycle repeats with the next hire. Of course, some consulting firms demonstrate more integrity. I know this sounds cynical, but remember that the consulting business is incredibly competitive. You are the product, and you can be replaced easily because the firm’s projects and clients come and go in fast cycles. (Read Scott Henty’s excellent Consulting Jobs Primer in the Industry Insider section of my website.)

If you don’t know a better consulting firm to work for, my advice is to seek out a regular employer where the future might be a little more predictable and where the compensation program is more oriented toward holding on to good employees. You might find the culture more to your liking, too. The best companies are grappling with the issue of retention, or how to keep good people.

Needless to say, lots of regular employers don’t demonstrate much integrity, either — and don’t guarantee any more job security than consulting firms do.

If you can’t get satisfaction, move on.

Have you ever worked for a consulting firm that farms you out to other companies on assignment? What are the ins and outs you’ve experienced in that business? What should this reader do next?

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They promised a raise but won’t deliver

In the October 30, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful manager complains a promise about higher pay hasn’t been kept:

When I was hired almost two years ago as a manager, it was with the promise that if I achieved certain milestones and met the company’s expectations my compensation would increase dramatically. I’ve met all the requirements and more, and no one disputes that. But when I approached top management about this recently, they said there’s no way they could pay me that much money.

These are basically honest people, and I like working with them. They created the expectation, and I have worked exceptionally hard to earn exceptional money. I’m willing to stick it out, but I’m wondering if I was too trusting. I did not get all these promises in writing as you recommend. I decided to take a chance. (I just bought Keep Your Salary Under Wraps. I figured I owed it to you. Your first book basically got me my current job!) I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Nick’s Reply

There’s no law against employers promising things they later decide they just “can’t” deliver — unless they put it in writing. I learned this the hard way, too. Many years ago I took over a sales group, and the VP offered me one of two deals: A decent salary and a pretty good commission plan, or no salary and a phenomenal commission plan. I quickly decided that if I couldn’t blow the quotas away, I just shouldn’t take the job. But I did, and the VP used to crow that he and I were the only ones that put their money where their mouths are and worked on 100% commission.

I made a lot of money. And, as I anticipated, I blew away the plan. Again and again. Until they brought me in and said, “We can’t keep paying you this much money.”

It took a while for me to leave. But I’ve seen this happen many times to others, and the caution I offer is, get it in writing when you accept the offer.

The criteria for more money must be:

  • Written
  • Objective
  • Achievable, and
  • Measurable.

The agreement must also guarantee the plan throughout your employment, or they’ll reduce it. Few employers will put it in writing because the deal they offer isn’t real to them. That is, they really don’t know what to do with exceptional performers, except promise that they’ll take good care of them… until time comes to pay off. And here’s the serious problem: They can’t accept the idea that paying you a big chunk of a lot of money is better than paying a small percentage of a lot less money. So they lose managers like you.

For some of the very best advice about how to protect yourself when accepting a job offer, see Bernie Dietz’s excellent article, Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection.

None of this helps you now, but it might help you next time. If your boss doesn’t understand that the best way to lose the best employees is to welsh on compensation, then either you adjust your expectations, or you find an employer that is willing to pay for exceptional performance. They’re out there. But you won’t find them by applying for jobs. You pick the sweetest companies, then research the management team — and when you find such a company, you go after it. But once you’ve got the deal you want, get it in writing. It’s not real (as you’ve learned) if they won’t sign it.

But you can still try to fix this now. Try to “renew your wedding vows.” Is the company willing to sign a friendly letter of intent that re-states your original agreement with a firm timeline based on your performance? It’s not too late to amend the employment deal you took.

In Keep Your Salary Under Wraps I recommend William Poundstone’s excellent book, Priceless: The myth of fair value. This book explains how a salary is “anchored” to a low point. Don’t let it happen to you. The book also explains how to pull a negotiation upwards by understanding the parameters of the anchoring effect. Contrary to the conventional wisdom (“Whoever states a number first, loses.”) it turns out that you can control negotiations about money if you know what number to state and how to state it.

Thanks for your kind words. I wish you the best.

Did you get paid what you were promised? Or, did you get suckered into delivering exceptional performance without exceptional compensation? Is it reasonable for employers to avoid big payouts? Let’s talk about how to protect yourself.

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Why do companies hide the benefits?

In the August 7, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to why an employer refuses to disclose what the employee benefits are until the offer has been accepted:

I’ve been offered a job by a very large company. The salary is fine and the job sounds good. The offer letter states that I am eligible for benefits, but it doesn’t say what the benefits are.

I asked the headhunter who was working to place me, and he said the company’s policy is not to disclose the benefits until after I’ve accepted the position. This sounds really bizarre. The headhunter has assured me that the benefits package is very good and I shouldn’t worry about it; I’ll be happy with the package.

Should I take his word for it and accept the job, or should I run the other way?

My Advice

You’ve run smack up against one of the most perturbing and ludicrous practices of many companies: They will not divulge the details of their benefits package and/or their employee policy manual until after you have started work.

Why? Honest, this is the usual answer: “Our benefits package is considered a competitive secret, and our employee manual is confidential.”

You are right to be skeptical.

They invite you to join the game, but you can’t see the rules in advance. You may make an investment in the company, but you may not see the financials. You may buy the house, but you may not do an engineering inspection first.

Did you ever ask to see a menu at a restaurant only to be denied?

Please rest assured, the company you’re dealing with is behaving stupidly. You may be tempted to run away, but don’t. Take some control of the negotiation.

Call the office of the CEO and very politely explain that you are sitting on a job offer that you’re ready to accept, but you have a question no one — including the HR department — seems able to answer to your satisfaction. Decline to say what the question is until a staff member from the CEO’s office (someone who is not in the HR department) agrees to talk with you. I’ll bet you dinner (I’ll even show you the menu) that the CEO’s office has no idea that HR withholds such basic information from potential hires.

If you get to talk with a sensible company representative, here’s How to Say It:

“I’m impressed with your company, and I’m eager to come to work with John Jones, the manager of your finance department [or whichever department]. However, I cannot accept this offer without knowing all the terms of employment. I could no more sign an employment agreement without knowing all the terms than your company could sign a contract without knowing what it was committing to. I’m sure you understand. Could you please send me your employee manual, benefits package, and any other documents that would bind me after I start the job? Once I have these, I will promptly respond. I look forward to accepting your offer, and to making a significant contribution to your business. Please don’t ask me to talk with your HR department — they have already refused to provide these basic documents. I hope I can count on your help so we can all get to work.”

Although I think a company’s refusal to disclose benefits is sufficient reason to decline an offer, I should warn you that the more serious risk lies in taking the job before you’ve seen the employee policy manual. This is where things like non-compete rules, prohibitions against moonlighting, surrender of invention rights, and other important terms are sometimes hidden.

If you balk at these rules after you’ve started the job, your only option is to quit — without the freedom of being able to fall back on your old job. Moreover, be aware that those rules may still apply after you quit. A job offer is a contract, and certain terms of that contract may survive your resignation or termination. Get it all in writing. A company’s employee manual is usually incorporated by reference into a job offer. When you accept one, you accept the other. But don’t stop there: Beware the cause clause.

Be very careful. Question authority. Question such policies. They stink, and there’s good reason to say so. You risk getting the company upset, but as I asked earlier, would you agree to pay for a meal at a restaurant before you know what’s on the menu? (In some European restaurants, they go a step further and graciously invite you into the kitchen where you can see how the food is prepared and check out the bubbling pots for yourself, before you even sit down!)

Not all companies have such policies about benefits information. I discourage you from signing a contract (a job offer) from a company that will not divulge everything you need to know. I’d tell the headhunter you have your own policy: I need to know what the entire offer is — including the benefits.

Have you ever taken a job without knowing the employee benefits? Have you encountered a “gotcha” too late? What else do you need to know before quitting your old job to accept a new offer?

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How to negotiate salary through a headhunter

In the July 24, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know how to get the best compensation deal through a headhunter:

What can I expect from a recruiter when I’m negotiating salary and compensation? After all, doesn’t he work for the hiring company?

My Advice

This question is so common that I include an entire section about it in the PDF book, How to How to Work with Headhunters … and how to make headhunters work for you. This advice is from Section 4: Talking Money.

To understand a headhunter’s motivations for negotiating your compensation, you must understand the headhunter’s job.

How to help the headhunter help you

Before there’s any chance to negotiate, the headhunter’s real challenge is to get a company and candidate to agree they want to work together. This has nothing to do with money. It’s all about the people, the company, and the job. That’s why it’s crucial for you to decide whether you actually want the job (as long as the terms can be worked out).

Saying you want the job doesn’t mean you’ve accepted the offer, but it sets the headhunter loose to get you a deal you’ll accept. It helps you win the headhunter’s cooperation, because half the battle is won. There’s nothing for the headhunter to negotiate unless you let him know you want the job.

Once your motivation to take the job is settled, the headhunter can get to work on the financial terms. Even though the headhunter works for the employer, he earns no fee unless he can work out terms that are satisfactory to you.

Be ready to express what you want

This is where many job candidates blow it. They don’t want to express what they want. They believe that if they don’t state what they want, they might magically get more. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Take note: If you have an offer, the employer has already put a number on the table. It’s decision time for you. If you can’t decide what you want, you can’t make the headhunter work for you. You must arm him with specific instructions. At this stage the headhunter will advise you what’s reasonable to negotiate with the employer — but he will do the negotiating on your behalf with his client.

So, be frank, but don’t be ridiculous. Tell the headhunter what offer you would accept. If the headhunter thinks your terms are nuts, he’ll tell you, but don’t hold it against him. He won’t go back to his client with an unreasonable request. But he’s not likely to drop-kick you out of the deal, either. He may try to convince you to take the offer as it stands. Or, if he thinks there’s some wiggle room in the offer, he will try to negotiate with you and with his client for a compromise.

Know where you fit in the negotiations

The headhunter’s position as the middleman makes it easier for you to work out the terms without jeopardizing the offer altogether. He wants to get the deal done as much as you do.

The client pays the headhunter, but the headhunter needs your cooperation, so he’ll work with you to set reasonable terms for your acceptance. The client gets the hire. You get a job you want on favorable terms. The headhunter gets his fee. All three parties must work together.

Of course, this all assumes you’re dealing with a good headhunter, but that’s another question, covered in another section of the book, Section 1: Understanding Headhunters. You’ll also learn more in the book about exactly why this approach to negotiating with a headhunter helps him negotiate a better deal for you. (Needless to say, the headhunter could be a she.)

What’s your experience been with headhunters? Did you get the deal you wanted? How did the headhunter handle the negotiations between you and the employer? How did you protect your interests?

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My employer withheld my pay

In the July 3, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a 20% bonus disappears:

When I was hired, my offer letter included the promise of an annual 20% bonus. Recently I was transferred internally, but there was no notice of a change in my compensation deal. Bonus time came around but neither my old or new department budgeted for my bonus. I’ve been making monthly appeals to my boss, who keeps getting the runaround from Accounting. It turns out that no one else at my level gets bonuses. To make matters worse, the company was acquired and all our jobs are up in the air.

Is there any way I can get the bonus I’m due? The amount is substantial. This sounded too good to be true when I got the offer letter, but there it is in black and white: 20%.

My Advice

I don’t ordinarily tackle questions that require legal advice, but there’s also a matter of principle here. It seems the company is breaking a simple agreement and it’s worth discussing how to deal with that. However, my advice is not legal; for that you’ll need an attorney.

Since your offer letter promised an annual 20% bonus in writing, and since you got no other written notice to the contrary, then I think the company has an obligation to pony up the money. While a company may have the right to reassign you to a different job or department, I don’t believe it’s got the right to withhold compensation.

If your boss is “getting the runaround from Accounting,” that’s not your problem. Accounting doesn’t decide whether you’ll be paid; your employer does. This passing of the buck suggests that who’s getting the runaround is you.

Given the circumstances, I’d pursue this quickly and create a document trail. If you get laid off before you put the issue on the table, it’s going to be harder to resolve it.

Take this to the highest level HR manager you can. Put a copy of your offer letter on the desk and politely ask what the problem is. (Keep the original under lock and key.) The difficulty is that you’ve waited a long time since the bonus was due, but that doesn’t excuse your employer. I’d also ask HR for a written statement about the company’s position on the matter — build that document trail.

Listen to what the HR manager has to say. If there’s no resolution within a week, send a certified letter (with proof of receipt) to HR outlining the situation, and copy the letter to your attorney. Do not say anything accusatory in the letter: Be purely factual and request your bonus.

It’s unfortunate that you need help to get paid what you were promised. But my expectation is that this is going to require the help of an attorney. When your boss blames Accounting for not paying you, you can blame your attorney for any awkwardness, too.

By the way: Don’t let the idea of turning to lawyer make you uncomfortable. A good lawyer will work with you to control legal costs, and to develop a strategy for collection that avoids spending more than the recovery would be worth. Start with a consultation to help you decide what your best options are, and to estimate the costs.

Ever get paid less than you were promised? Was it in writing? What did you do to recover the money?

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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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When should you bring up money?

In the December 13, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a long-time reader asks whether it’s okay to discuss salary range with a headhunter before taking time out of a busy work schedule to interview:

I’m a long-time reader. This is my second-time question — the last one was in 2004! I’ve just been headhunted for a position that would require an hour commute. We’re past the phone-screen stage, and now at a point of coordinating schedules for in-person meetings. This is the busiest time of year for my current employer, so to leave for a half day would be very difficult. Is it acceptable to discuss salary range before I invest time in interviewing? Or does that automatically mark me as a problem child?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

Nice to hear from you again! “The money question” troubles many people. We all know there’s no hire until money is discussed, so why is it such an awkward topic? Why do employers and applicants alike prefer to “wait until later” to bring it up?

An employer has a budget for a position. It might stretch the compensation to hire a particularly good candidate. But that depends on the quality of the interviews, not on whether the salary range has been discussed in advance.

I think it’s key to get the money question on the table early — especially if you have to invest travel and time to interview.

I like the off-the-cuff approach. Call the headhunter, express your interest in the job, and then say the following.

How to Say It

“By the way, what’s the compensation like for this position?”

That’s not aggressive and it’s not the last word. It leaves room for further discussion. Then stay silent and let the headhunter speak. If she won’t answer you candidly, then don’t feel guilty pressing her.

How to Say It

“We should make sure we’re in the right range…” or “I’d like to make sure I’m on the same page as the employer before we all invest our time…”

If the headhunter deflects by asking what you’re making or what you want, you should turn the tables to test the headhunter. Yes, I said test the headhunter. Make her work to recruit you, or she’s not really worth talking to.

How to Say It

…(This last How to Say It suggestion is only in the newsletter… Don’t miss next week’s edition. Sign up now! It’s free!)

This makes the headhunter work for it. If she’s not able to engage with you now on the subject of money, then negotiations are likely to be difficult later, after you’ve invested a lot of time. (This is why both headhunters and employers often avoid talking money: The more time they get you to invest, the less likely you will be to walk away from a low offer.) For more about negotiating with headhunters, please see How To Work With Headhunters.

Could the headhunter conclude you’re a problem child and drop you? Sure — but you’ve hardly been “dropped.” Rescued is more like it. If you don’t know what the compensation range is, there’s really nothing more to talk about. Exploring new opportunities is a good thing, but not every recruiting call is an opportunity. Test the recruiter quickly. Find out how much she knows about the employer and the position, and make sure there’s a suitable payoff if you invest your time. If the headhunter thinks you’re a problem child because you want to talk about money, then the call itself is a problem.

Do you ask about money before you interview? I’ve heard lots of justifications for putting it off, but I don’t really buy any of them. Am I wrong? How far do you go before talking money?

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Am I chasing the salary surveys?

In the August 23, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a frustrated reader who’s been on the job for just a couple of months checks the salary surveys and wonders whether it’s already time to ask for a raise…

I love my new job. However, I checked some recent salary surveys and it seems I am underpaid as much as $5k/year. Since I’ve only been here for two months, how long should I wait to discuss this with my boss? Or do you think I’m chasing the salary surveys? This has really been bothering me and I want some peace of mind.

I think salary surveys are fine as general indicators, but do they tell you anything about yourself? I think using them to establish your salary requirements is like checking the cover of Vogue to plan what your face should look like…

What’s this reader to do? Are salary surveys good tools for career development? What do you think of how they present the data?

My detailed advice to this reader is published in the free weekly Ask The Headhunter newsletter, which is delivered only by e-mail. Subcribers and I discuss the question and my advice here on the blog. Please join us! But to read my advice — including frequent How to Say It tips and links to other valuable resources — Sign up for your own FREE subscription! Don’t miss another edition!

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