Answering Salary Questions: A Recruiter’s Take

In response to my article yesterday, about how job hunters should handle salary questions, my friend Jim Krouskop couldn’t resist weighing in with his thoughts, as well — and was kind enough to allow me to post them.  Jim’s a Partner with Shea Staffing and has been doing executive recruiting for many years now, so his answer is backed by years of credibility helping negotiate this sensitive issue with candidates and employers.  Here’s what he had to say:

Matt: You bring up some good points. Re: the answers you featured in your article yesterday, here is my take based on my perspective as a recruiter:

Answer #1: Not a good approach. Avoid this answer.
Answer #2: This is a decent answer and the best of the 4, but you can do better (see below
Answer #3: Complete failure.
Answer #4: See #1

My advice to candidates:

#1. Do your research and find out what the market rate is in your area for a similar position. Recruiters are wonderful resources for this type of data. They can tell you what the approx median and typical range is for your particular functional role and level and whether your desired comp is below, on par, or above market. Sample from several recruiters to get a representative data set.

There are also websites that provide this info but you typically have to pay and I don’t think you should have to pay for this info if it is available for free through recruiters as well as your associates. At least the good recruiters will/should share this info with you. Finally, talk with other folks in your line of work and ask them. It baffles me that people do not share compensation data. It is in candidates’ best interests to do so and in the best interest of employers that you keep comp data private. The more info you have the better prepared you are to go to market on a job search and maximize your earnings.

#2. Once you determine what the market range is for the type of position(s) you are applying for, determine where your desired comp falls on the spectrum. If your comp requirement is below, obviously you have room to go up. Use your job search to upgrade your comp accordingly. If you are on par, you have validated your worth in the market and are likely in the sweet spot for the employer. This makes you a good/desirable candidate from a comp standpoint and puts you on solid footing when it comes to negotiating your offer. If you are above market, you need to be prepared to justify this with some type of specialized subject-matter expertise, unique skill, deep network, executive communication, amazing looks (just kidding), etc. Some employers are willing to pay above market (especially for high-demand positions such as web developers), but they want to know what they are getting for the premium.

There are many variables that go into decision making re: comp packages and job offers besides base salary (bonus, benefits, corp culture, mission, location, career growth, etc). For the purposes of this exercise, you should have a good idea of what your desired total cash comp (gross W2) will be when you go out to market on a job search. As long as you have this figure, you can always work out the details on how you get there from a base, bonus, and equity standpoint during negotiations.

#3. This is the most difficult part. Be resolute in your comp requirements. When you are armed with the going market rate for your area of expertise/functional role, you will be emboldened to hold your ground as well as prepared to make the best informed decisions re: compensation and minimize selling yourself short by taking a job at below market. Most employers are willing and happy to pay market rate for good candidates. Organizations that want Nordstrom quality at Walmart prices are organizations that should be avoided, in my opinion. If they have this mentality about paying their employees, do you really want to work there?

Know the difference between what you are currently making and your compensation requirement. These are two separate things. The latter is what you will require to make a move from your current job and/or what you would consider compelling to accept an offer. The former is irrelevant when it comes to discussing your compensation vis-a-vis a job offer, in my opinion. Every candidates’ circumstances are unique and different. Some candidates choose to take a paycut in order to work for a great company, gain new skills, take a risk with a startup, etc. When it comes to discussing possibly accepting an offer, it should not matter what you are currently making as much as what your current market value is and what YOU believe would be compelling to make a move.

Recruiters and employers respect candidates that know what they are worth. This supports our assumption that good candidates are highly employable and can justify their comp requirements. If you are wishy washy about your comp, it makes me wonder if you are actually qualified to do the job, are desperate, or wanting to make a move for the wrong reasons.

Know what you are worth and stick to your comp requirement. Assuming you are on par with the market rate and offer comparable skills and experience for the job, employers will be willing to meet your requirement. You’ll be happier when you do come across an organization that recognizes your value and is willing to pay it.

#4. How to answer the question about compensation/salary. When you are asked what your comp requirement is, simply answer “My comp requirement is a minimum of $XXX to $XXX total cash.” This is the figure/range you know would be compelling enough for you to make a job switch and be happy walking through the front door on the first day. This answer leaves room for some flexibility, yet establishes a floor that you are not willing to go below.

If you are asked what you are currently making, my advice is to answer as if you were asked what your comp requirement would be. If they insist on knowing, state that it is not relevant because your comp requirement is the amount you need to make it compelling to make a move and anything less doesn’t make sense for you to consider. Most recruiters and hiring managers will respect this. If they do not, then I would again question if I would want to work for such an organization.

It is not appropriate or polite to simply ignore the comp question. Many recruiters and hiring managers want to make sure both sides are starting off on the same page from a comp standpoint in order to not waste each others’ time. I hope this helps and can provide a win-win scenario for everyone involved. Long-winded, but I feel important to get out there. It is a shame to see candidates sell themselves short on comp. The dynamic between candidate and employer makes it difficult to negotiate offers, which is why I believe it is in the candidate’s and employers best interest to have a third party (e.g., recruiter) as an intermediary. I think this is where we add most of our value along the value chain of recruiting. But that is best left for another discussion.”

Great advice — thanks Jim!

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7 Responses to “Answering Salary Questions: A Recruiter’s Take”

  1. Jill: Thanks for your comment and yes, a recruiter does indeed “work for the company” as you said, although there are two different forms this could take. If they’re a recruiting professional ON STAFF at the company you’re negotiating with (aka a “corporate recruiter” or “in-house recruiter”) than yes, obviously, they’d have the company’s interests 100% at heart. If instead they were an “external recruiter” (aka headhunter, staffing firm, etc.) they should ideally be more objective in helping broker the deal, since they’re serving as the intermediary between the candidate and the company, but as you’ve pointed out, they’re getting PAID by the employer — not the candidate — so yes, I’d be wary of some bias on the employer’s behalf creeping into the equation. In other words, you’re right, I don’t think it’s realistic to say that a recruiter is “neutral” or “fully objective” in these cases and in my opinion, a job hunter should factor this reality into their negotiating strategy, accordingly.

  2. In response to Jim’s statement: “The dynamic between candidate and employer makes it difficult to negotiate offers, which is why I believe it is in the candidate’s and employers best interest to have a third party (e.g., recruiter) as an intermediary.”

    The recruiter typically works for the company, right? So they are hardly a neutral or 3rd party, right?

  3. Thanks for the excellent recommendations. Lots of folks get antsy about answering these kinds of questions and your suggestions will be very helpful to them.

  4. Hi Matt and Jim,

    The question of initial compensation requirements is historically tricky but even trickier in today’s job market as evidenced by the vast array of opinions and answers. As a mature HR Executive (not a recruiter) my input is sometimes requested regarding this and similar employment issues. I seldom respond in a forum…I am doing so now because these are seriously challenging times for a great many people and businesses and it deserves an array of perspectives. Because this blog centers around higher level recruitment my response will be confined to the same scope. Additionally, there is a tremendous difference between “working” with a recruiter having the inside employer information and “responding” to a company or external recruiter’s job listing. However, most applies to job seekers in every employment sector with every employer.

    Some of the biggest problems in determining a candidate’s worth are the inadequate job postings on line or on site by recruiters and in house recruitment staff. Most are cut and paste formats of the company’s internal job description. Lack of a specific job title (or one that is intra-company specific), 3 – 4 page (confusing) or 1 – 2 paragraph (inadequate) descriptions hardly spell out or give the applicant enough accurate information to assess where the range is or should be. Without company industry, size, revenue, scope, employment, number of locations etc. responders are shooting in the dark…leaving one to wonder why they would want to, could or should respond at all …and the answer is…. this is a REALLY TOUGH market!!! Most must respond to blind ads and internet listings if there is any glimmer of hope, regardless of connections or not. (Career Horizons and others have many articles/blogs regarding why internet job posting response is so unproductive, but a useful tool, and not a successful venue for finding a position by itself.)

    One can do all the research one wants but the “facts” are simply not readily apparent and available to many responders at the time of initial contact. Additionally, many companies are finding they can get highly qualified candidates at substantially reduces prices in today’s market. Numerous long time recruiting firm friends across the county are reporting up to a 30% reduction in salary ranges and offers versus 2 – 4 years ago (certainly the case for the hourly wage earner). They feel this trend will continue for a while and might even be the “new” base. Higher level executive and high demand technical positions may be the exception, but consider this: Today, even publicly traded CEOs, and other C-level executives have board, shareholder and SEC compensation oversight approval to contend with.

    Consequently, when a recruiter (in house of out side) asks what your salary or compensation requirement is (two different things) the individual could be really stuck! I firmly believe much of the problem with this compensation conundrum lies within the recruiter’s recruitment process than anywhere else. As a real life example, a colleague recently applied to a posting for an HR Director position. It was a 3 or 4 page job description (very long) with some rather unusual and specific “preferreds”, most of which the colleague had. Despite being able to find out very little about its size, revenue, locations or employment and its background, because it was a privately held, they applied referring to connections to, but not within, the company as references.

    When the candidate was finally contacted, a month later (!), the recruiter commented that the candidate was obviously qualified but what were the salary requirements????? How can anyone prepare for this? Fortunately, the colleague had asked for advice and was prepared to respond to this question in these circumstances with the following…. “I know you are a professional HR person and have done your research to establish a salary range for this position. Why don’t you tell me what the range is and I will simply tell you if it’s agreeable and we can both decide to go forward together or move on?” (Not a new technique but not one either Career Horizons or Jim Krouskop apparently subscribe to ~ although it may be their company knowledge, client base or candidate circumstances. I neither consider this phrasing confrontational nor impolite with a lot of wiggle room because the company is not helping without a range.)

    The salary range was stated to be $85 – $105K. The colleague agreed the range was acceptable, moved forward and was eventually hired! The interesting comment made by the recruiter after the candidate agreed the stated salary range was acceptable was this…. the recruiter had talked to many candidates, yes many, who simply stated they would not work for less than $150K (or were looking for $140 – 150K)!!! More interesting, the benefits and performance bonus package negotiated for the final accepted offer exceeded $150K!!! Candidates had eliminated themselves or were eliminated because their salary requirements were too high!!!! Other observations: This is a very different job market requiring innovation but not dishonest approaches to old issues. Why is $100K+ not good enough when you’re out of work and/or have been for awhile? Where does common sense enter into the initial contact?

    Another recent real life example is about a close personal friend’s response to recruiter’s referral to an East Coast Director/VPHR position ~ requiring their same background and industry. No one would/could state the actual job title or company (confidentiality of course!). How could anyone determine their own or the job’s worth? When contacted regarding this position, 2 weeks later (!), the inquiring recruiter spent quite a bit of initial time in a very low key conversation covering the candidate’s impressions, views, opinions, likes and dislikes which, according to the candidate, was very unusual. (I agree, but it was nice to hear.)

    When finally asked about their compensation requirements the same technique was used, “I know you are a professional HR person and have done your research to establish a salary range for this position. Why don’t you tell me what the range is and I will simply tell you if it’s agreeable and we can both decide to go forward together or move on?” In response to this range question the recruiter stated the following, “That’s an interesting response and this seems like a good time to let you know we have submitted 3 highly qualified candidates so far. We do not have a stated salary or compensation package range from the employer! (??? The candidate thought how strange – the posting responded to listed one???) Despite their great qualifications we have just heard from the employer these candidates have not been paid highly enough in their past positions to, in the company’s opinion, be qualified for this position.”???

    Further detailed questioning of the recruiter revealed the position being discussed was not for the position applied for but a top HR position at a nationally recognized branded company!!! The actual title was Executive/Sr. VPHR or CPO (Chief People Officer) possibly – a new position. This is a significant difference!!! In this case, had a $150K range had been mentioned, it would have been the end of the story….thankfully it was not. The actual compensation range was in the $300 – 400K range, because the recruiting firm had an unlisted position. They had contacted the candidate for this position because of the candidate’s resume and cover letter in order to get “feedback” and a “feel” for the candidate’s personality and as a potential match for the company’s culture, gauging how flexible the candidate was in rapidly changing environment before talking about obvious qualifications and prior compensation. How can one prepare for this?

    Finally, compensation is one of a large number of recruitment issue causing great problems on in the pre-employment scene and within the recruiting/talent acquisition market place. In my opinion, recruiting, in general, seems to be failing in its charter as representing an employee’s first company contact regarding the company’s professionalism, courtesy and customer service to its employee(s). It isn’t just my perspective, but seems to cut universally across most industries, positions and most recruiting efforts, whether external on internal. Although there are exceptions, namely those companies and recruiters who are the “Best in Class” in their industry, the problem regarding the recruitment processes are generally thought of as universally terrible by most applicants! Regardless of the reasons – lack or systems, lack of staff, lack of time, lack of resources, lack of experience, lack of oversight, lack of direction, lack of commitment, lack of expediency, lack of timely decision making or lack of follow through – these processes and that perception by the “outside job seeker” is sitting on the employers virtual doorstep like a huge lost, tired, wet and smelly dog (or the big elephant in the room). It stinks, but it’s up to homeowner to decide how to proceed and what their conscience (the company’s culture) dictates.

    My personal opinion and recruiting/talent acquisition process requires every applicant for every position be treated as if they were that company’s best customer. This is simply because the candidate is, or their parents/friends/relatives are or will be, a best customer. It’s a simple notion. It is legendary “best employer and practices” of customer service. Not to do so is a disservice to the company, their current employees and those relatives and friends who are their customers. More importantly, what impression does performing the recruitment process in any other manner say about that company? If the recruitment process is so un-people oriented and un-responsive what must employment be like within the company? These common questions of disbelief are blogged about and asked repeatedly by job seekers – customers or potential customers of the very company they are applying to!!

    It takes little effort to determine the opinions of job searchers and employees in today’s wired world. The recruitment process is failing, or has failed, even if they are finding and hiring people. It matters not that people are told they shouldn’t take this lack of a thank you, response, communications, follow-up or follow through personally. It is VERY PERSONAL! How could it not be??? Ask them!!! Great employers and recruiters know this. The real question is “To whom or what is it not personal?” What does it say about that company?

    The recruitment process can be changed. People want, expect and deserve a lot more. However, the executive team’s and/or business owner’s culture has to understand that and demand a lot more. Recruitment must be developed and nurtured, insured it is occurring and rewarded for being done right – not simply performing the prevailing recruiting metrics! Not to do so ultimately describes a company paying lip service to “best employer” or “best in class” phrases but not practicing it. Employees, job seekers, their friends and relatives know the truth about what’s going on and, I believe, most recruiters do as well. Those employers with high functioning recruiting/talent customer service are reaping, and will continue to reap, the harvest of large crop of unemployed, under-employed or unsatisfied “best in class” people being attracted to and staying for the “best” reasons at that “best company”. The others will not. Nor will their best people stay when actual “best” opportunities arise. It is the company’s choice to keep or change its culture and their recruitment processes.

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