The Salary “Two-Step”

Many a productive job search voyage, sailing along smoothly toward a much sought-after interview, has run aground on the rocky shoals of a seemingly simple question like,

“tell me what kind of compensation you need?”

This question, and others like it, amount to the Scylla and Charybdis of job search- with an incorrect or inappropriate comment wrecking the candidate’s ┬áplanned cruise toward a new career goal.

My experience over three decades suggests that the first place this monster rears its ugly head is in discussions with search consultants. One of the responsibilities of any ethical recruiter is not to waste either his time, or his client’s time, in protracted discussions with prospective candidates whose current compensation levels are far out of the range of his client’s capability to pay.

At an early stage of the recruitment process therefore, a recruiter will likely ask about the candidate’s current compensation level- including bonus opportunity and other perks.

Sounding like a presidential candidates during a televised press conference, I have heard candidates respond with things like:

“At this stage, I choose not to disclose that information,”

or “I don’t believe that information is relevant to our conversation.”

Sorry, wrong answer, and likely to inject negative dynamics into a relationship that a candidate wants to establish and maintain as universally positive, if admittedly only for selfish reasons.

Like it or not, recruiters are gate keepers and possess a certain amount of control over who gets interviews and who does not. Resisting their need for information about compensation levels, or anything else pertinent to the search for that matter, is likely to backfire on candidates. Candidates need to understand that a recruiter who presents a candidate whose current salary is $250,000, for a job which rates a compensation level of $100,000, risks embarrassing himself and possibly getting fired.

Standing on principal is just fine as long as the risks of doing so are clearly understood– no info revealed, no interview, no new job.

Later in the process, post interview and at the stage where offer letters are contemplated, the same dilemma will raise its head. Either the recruiter or the client himself will ask the identified candidate what his or her “expectations are” with regard to salary and incentives. “What’s it going to take to get you into this job?”, or something like that.

Candidates then face the conundrum of asking for the moon, and perhaps risking turning a a positive dynamic with the hiring manager into a negative; or selling themselves too cheaply by undershooting a competitive compensation level.

I am frequently asked what to do at these critical stages of the the job search. Here are some suggestions:

* When asked by recruiters about your current level of compensation, it is often worth emphasizing that your interest is more about the challenge than about the money, and your approach will be flexible based on what is fair to both sides, or words to that effect.

*If pressed (and you probably will be), however, have in mind a bottom line salary below which you will not even consider an opportunity, and provide the recruiter a range with that as your floor.

*As much as it may rankle, keep in mind that refusing to answer the recruiter’s questions, or excessively playing rhetorical games around compensation, can and likely will prevent you from getting an interview– particularly if there are multiple qualified candidates!

*When you finally approach an offer of employment, the employer will want to know something about your salary expectations. Again, it makes sense to stress flexibility with regard to expectations, but a candid discussion about an acceptable “range” of compensation is the best approach.

*Most employers recognize they have to be competitive and are often willing to stretch at this stage (they have psychologically committed to you), if they sense honesty and forthrightness in your approach to establishing an acceptable range.

*After an initial offer, most employers expect and are tolerant of “countering” (asking for more money) by a candidate. However, be aware that a positive climate can be quickly soured by candidates who approach negotiations as an endless game of chicken. Smart candidates intuitively sense at which point they are risking pushing the prospective employer beyond a breaking point. Employment offers are sometimes rescinded in such circumstances.

In today’s labor market, candidates who adopt a posture of authenticity and directness in communication when dealing with potential employers are more successful than those who are perceived as devious or excessively manipulative.

When in doubt, err on the side of candor and save everybody’s time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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