Without question, the salary issue seems to be a hot topic right now both for job seekers and hiring managers alike.  Inspired by my own recent post, as well as the additional comments submitted yesterday by recruiter Jim Krouskop, reader John Hagen, an HR Executive, couldn’t resist sharing his own insights on the question of “How should job seekers respond to salary questions during an interview?”

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 reduced 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 or outside) 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 issues causing great problems on in the pre-employment scene and within the recruiting/talent acquisition marketplace.  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.”