How to Avoid the Pain of the Salary Low-Ball

Avoiding the Recruiters Low-Ball When We’re Asked to Give Our Salary History Can Be Done. Here’s How. 

Changing Jobs

When taking on a job change or even whole career change, we might use a recruiter. You may already know this from past experience, but recruiters generally don’t have a great reputation.


During the decade I was headhunting I often heard about many poor recruiting practices. However, the way the recruiter had handled the candidate’s salary history was the reason for most complaints.


My wife had an experience where a recruiter pushed her to reveal her salary. She was reluctant to give away personal information, but she felt she had little choice. My wife was thinking about a job change and the recruiter had put her on the spot. He had seen her LinkedIn profile and had cold called her about a role.

The recruiter assured my wife that her salary was needed for his own records. He said there was nothing to worry about. Ok she said, I trust you, here’s my salary figure.


A few days later, the recruiter called again. However it was not to arrange a job interview. Instead he tells my wife that the client had said they won’t pay more than X amount. 


He low-balled her. Having said her salary was for his own information, he had relayed her salary to his client. The number they would pay was less than the going rate for her skills but more than her current salary. If she wanted to have a job interview, she had to “accept” the figure. There are a number of reasons why recruiters ask for our salary history, it this case it was to low-ball her.


The recruiter claimed her salary was needed for his own records. This was a 100% ‘untruth’. Totally wrong. If she proceeded she would be agreeing to take a figure which was less than the market. It had zero to do with her own skills and experience. She would move from one underpaid position to another.


After declining to take the process further, after a few days later she emailed the recruiter to instruct him never to contract her again and to take her off his database.  


Recruiters Are Not All Bad


I’ve said it before and I do so again now. As someone who has a long history of recruiting, it’s not my intention to bad mouth recruiters. Before my career change I saw myself doing a good job and worked hard to develop my reputation. They perform a great function in the job change or career change process. Recruiters can be the front line with the client. If you’re thinking of changing jobs, they can offer some great job change advice. Maybe you’re looking for a broader perspective, if so, recruiters can be a good source of career advice.


However, salary history is a sensitive subject for any candidate. Handled the correct way by the recruiter then there should be no problem. 


In my wife’s case the recruiter was being dishonest. Not only that, he omitted to explain to his client about the reasons why she was underpaid. Her story was lost amongst the other candidates he put forward.


Poor Past Experiences With Recruiters 


If you’re changing jobs or have a job change planned, the pain of past experiences with a recruiter might be fresh your mind. Perhaps you’ve heard from colleagues about their own poor experience. I can understand and sympathize with this pain.


Recruiters will argue they have your best interests in mind. The reason to know your salary isn’t to offer you a lower salary. Instead, they argue that knowing your salary will ensure you will be given a decent salary you’re happy with. Yes, this might be sometimes true. However, there are countless examples of where it isn’t true, including my wife’s story.


They Have Something We Need


As far as they can, recruiters will push the knowledge that they have something we need, a job. When we’re changing jobs, just our hope to get an interview is enough to weaken our position. 


Recruiters know how strong their position is. Some will maximise this as far as they can. They will dangle the carrot of a potential role in exchange for knowing our salary.


We can feel stuck, caught between a rock and a hard place. How do we maintain the equal balance of power without compromising the opportunity the recruiter might have? We have fear driving us. The stress of knowing we have bills and recent or a mortgage to pay. So we jump when the recruiter says so. Despite our reservations, despite the previous bad experience, when we’re asked about our salary, we cave. We just want to get back working.


What Can We Do?


The first thing we need to do is realize that the recruiter needs us as much as we need them. Despite what we might think, when changing jobs, we have more power than we realize. Realizing this power isn’t about momentarily feeling good about our situation. Understand that empowerment can be found by following some clear steps. It’s about avoiding pain by taking control. 


Two tips below can be seen as alternatives to using a recruiter. If you just need help with what to say when the recruiter asks you for your salary history, download the free 3 Ways to Win.


  • Use Our Network

The first is to ask ourselves whether we really need a recruiter. When changing jobs, have we maximized our own network. Are we on LinkedIn? If not, then we should be. It is a tool not just to showcase our experience but primarily to connect with people and build our network.


A Forbes article quotes a interesting Department of Labor statistic. It says that the cost of a hire can be as much as 30% of the first year salary. Much of this figure is the commission paid to the recruiter. If we can use our network and present our resume to the company without a recruiter, the company will finding huge savings. Which company would not want this?  


  • Mix Networking With Using Recruiters

If we’ve exhausted our network with only limited success we might then want to consider a recruiter. Our list of the top target 5 companies we want to work for is the starting point. We don’t have a list? Make one. When changing job we should have a list of the top organizations we want to work for. To make it onto the list we decide the parameters. Personally, it would be commuting distance of up to one hour from my home. Also, there have to be good career prospects.


We use our network to reach out to people working at 2 or 3 of those firms. We then approach 5 or 6 recruiting companies in our area and ask if they have a relationship with that firm.


This is a simple question to the recruiter, have they hired for the company we are targeting? Are they on the ‘Preferred Supplier List’. If not, phone down, move on until we find a recruiter who says yes. 


The Preferred Supplier List are all the recruiting agencies which have proved themselves to the hiring company. They have gone through the vetting process. Resumes sent from them will not be ignored. 


  • Do Our Due Diligence

Three calls later, we find someone. Great news. We then explain that we have been unable to use our network to find a route in. We are hoping to work with the recruiter to find a role. What does the recruiter know about the company? How long has he recruited for them? Does the firm offer bonuses? What is the typical salary range for VP level staff (or whichever level we are).


At this stage we have revealed nothing about ourselves. The only thing the recruiter knows is that he’s on the backfoot giving reasons to you why you should use him.


Our engagement with the recruiter is a partnership. This might be new territory for us. Previously, WE might have been on the one on the backfoot. We need to shift our perspective. Are we comfortable working with the recruiter? Have they proved themselves to us? Hopefully, the answer is yes, trust is key for a job change. Then we should play the game ourselves. We need to meet them half way. This is our chance to give our best pitch about ourselves.


  • The Pitch

We have a skillset than fits the company. We tell the recruiter about the research we have done as part of our job change. The research proves we have the skills the company hires. We have seen on LinkedIn the type of experience that the company hires. We have that experience. At this stage we still haven’t asked if the company is hiring. That is irrelevant for our job change strategy. We then ask our new recruiter friend to make a speculative approach on our behalf to the company.  


A speculative approach is something that happens if the company isn’t ‘officially’ hiring. There is no rule that says that as part of a job change or when changing jobs we can only talk to companies which are officially hiring.


They might unofficially be open to good resumes. Our resume is good. We’ve made sure of that before sending it to the recruiter. The recruiter sends our resume to the company. We ask him to include the elevator pitch we gave him. 


  • The Salary Question

During this conversation or the one that follows the recruiter asks us our salary. By this stage that is a fair question to ask. We see this as a collaborative partnership. If the recruiter is helping you, we should be happy to reveal our salary. 


However, we still hold back on the number. Instead, we remind the recruiter of the range he told us. This is the answer to the salary range question we asked him in the first conversation we had. We then tell him that we realize that our salary is important but what is more important is our expectation.


Our expectation is slightly above what the company pays. We remind the recruiter of our pitch and why our experience matches our salary expectations. Then we go on to explain that because money isn’t our primary motivation, we are pragmatic. We stress we haven’t even had an interview with the company. However, we like the reputation of the firm and we want to work for them. We should remind him that a great deal depends on what we discover during the interview process. Therefore, we are prepared to come down a little on our expectations.


We’re doing two things here. We’re deflecting the conversation away from our salary and on to our expectations. Remember though we need to meet the recruiter half way. We need to give justifications as to why. The second thing we have done is used the recruiter to set the ‘anchor point’. 


The anchor is the initial figure or range. It is the starting point. In the past you may have been the one to set the anchor. It was your past salary that becomes the point that negotiations start. This time is different. 


  • Collaborative Partnership

A key point and one I write about more in my ebook is the need to change our language. The relationship we have with the recruiter isn’t a ‘them and us’. It’s a partnership. Rather than using the word ‘I’, the word ‘we’ suggests to the recruiter we are thinking as a collaboration we them. We should feel comfortable working with them. They should be listening and working around us.


Take Away


When changing jobs, working with a recruiter should only be done as a last resort. Our job change should be driven by firstly using our own network and a good start is LinkedIn. If we’ve exhausted all the possible avenues available then choosing a recruiter is about finding one who has the connections we need and who we feel comfortable working with.


This is a about a clearly defined strategy. Not thrown as much at the wall and see what sticks approach. Much of what we will do comes down to two things: A)Managing the relationship we have with the recruiter and B) Managing the conversation we have with them.


If take one thing away from this post it’s the realization that you hold the keys to what you get out the engagement with the recruiter. You tell them as much as you want, on your terms and in your own time.


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