Saturday, April 4, 2009

Salaries Redux

Dear Career Stuff Guy,

One thing I did not see (I might have missed it) in your blog post - what to do if they ask for salary requirements in the application materials. The way I was told to address that was with a statement in the cover letter something like this:

"My salary requirements are negotiable and depend on the nature of the full compensation package."

If others have heard differently or have better advice, I would be very interested in hearing it.

Signed - Salary Gal

Dear Salary Gal,

No you didn't miss it... I did. First, let me say that the advice you proffer would be adequate. I might rephrase it a little and say something like,

"Given my understanding of the current salary market for Widgeteers, I am certain we will be able to arrive at a total compensation figure that is suitable for me and ABX Widgets."
It is increasingly rare to see such demands upon initial application, but not uncommon for a request like this after the first paper screening. As I indicated early, the mere appearance of such requests should be a red flag for applicants. Organizations that are doing well and are committed to hiring the "best talent" seldom worry about salary until the offer stage is reached. Asking for salary requirements is an upfront indication of operations based on budget projections and not achievement.

Hope this helps.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Salary? We don't need no stinking salary.

Two questions that create the most panic in a jobseeker are requests for salary history and requests for salary needs. On a rare occasion, these fears meet in one jobseeker with definitively contradictory concerns. For instance, sometime last year Bubba came to see me about an upcoming interview. Prior to his interview, he had been asked to supply both a salary history and current salary requirements. Bubba was soon to receive his PhD in Physics, but was completely baffled by how to solve his dilemma. He was afraid that if he listed his actual salary as a PhD student (just over $17,000/yr) that he would not be taken seriously, on the other hand he was fearful that listing salary requirements that were too high would result in his be eliminated from the pool based on that alone. He approached the problem with a strategy that I recommend for most applicants. He did not get the job, but we were both satisfied that his denial had nothing to do with his response to the salary questions and for the record, he did get an offer a few weeks later that met his salary needs.

Today's entry? How to tell an employer what salary you need, even if you have never had it before.

Those who do not learn from history are probably just tired.
This part is really pretty simple. When someone asks you for your salary history, you give it to them. Bubba's big concern was that he was going to list his $17,000 salary and the $60,000 jobs for which he was applying would simply blow away. Last year the average starting salary for a newly minted bachelor's level grad was between $39,000 and $42,000. During the previous four years, most of them had salaries between diddle and squat and yet companies were more than willing to hire them anyway.

The other concern that I often hear raised is something like, "If my salaries have been low over the years, then the company will lowball me and I will not get a legit offer." We'll discuss a couple of resources below that should keep this from happening, but generally speaking salary equity exists in either an informal or formal manner in most organizations. More problematic than listing a salary history indicative of poverty is listing one that makes the prospective employer leery of being able to "afford" you.

A few years ago, I interviewed for an administrative position that was three miles from my home. At the time, I was commuting about 45 miles each way on a daily basis. The interview went quite well and it was clear that I fit well, but the dean called me a few days later to tell me that the committee had gone with another candidate because I was currently making $150 more per month than they could offer. He shared that he had "gone to bat" for me with HR, but they were unwilling too budge. Sadly, I pointed out to him that my monthly commute cost me in excess of $500 per month, so taking a $150 pay decrease would have been the equivalent to a $350 raise... not to mention the two hours of daily commute that I would save. His silence was eventually broken by a rather contrite, "Oh. Maybe we should have talked to you before just looking at your salary history." Duh.

When an application process requests your salary history either directly or indirectly, be sure that you share it in a way that they will understand. I pointed out to the grad student mentioned above that his $17,000 assistantship was technically for 30 hours per week (even though he generally put in 50 hours) and included another $12,000 in tuition and fees for a total of $29,000 for 30 hours per week for a 10 month academic year, or about $28 an hour for the 990 hours he worked during the academic year. Instead of listing a $17,000 or even $29,000 per year salary, we listed a $28 hourly wage. The other tip here is just because the blank you are asked to fill in on a job application requests an annual wage, you don't have to be an obedient sheep. Give them an hourly rate with an approximate number of hours worked each week.

Of course I will need that new 72" plasma screen, as well.
While I have worked with professionals such as established attorneys, physicians, MBA's, and senior management types over the years, my current gig puts soon to complete graduate students in my office. While they are stumped about how to list salary history, the fact is that history is what it is. So easy even a PhD can do it. When it comes to the dreaded, "What are your salary requirements?" questions, their reactions make one wonder what they have been doing for the past five or six years.

To be fair, whether secondary, post-secondary, or graduate, little of what occurs in formal education prepares new job seekers for the world of work. I always get a little chuckle out of students entering or re-entering the job market. For years, they have been living on Top Ramen and cold pizza purchased with the proceeds of coin scavenging expeditions conducted on pants pockets dredged out of the laundry baskets. When someone asks them what kind of salary they require, their extrapolations begin with, "Hmmm. If I move into a house with only four other people instead of eight and get my clothes at Walmart instead of the Salvation Army Thrift Store, I would probably need another $6,000 or $7,000 a year......." I have seen students so awed by the fact that they will be earning $18 an hour, that they don't realize that they will be making $37,000 a year, or $2000 below the average starting salary for a new graduate. Since Uncle Sam and (in California) Cousin Arnold will be taking about 25% of that total, their operating capital will be about $27,750. While we should all be realistic about constraints in the current economy, we should also be realistic about what our REQUIREMENTS are. Following is a basic template for you.

Equity and Market Value. The first and most basic element of understanding what we are worth on the market is understanding what others in similar jobs are earning. There are several online tools to assist in determining this, but remember that all of these tools will give you average salary, not necessarily entry-level salary. Bottomline is that there is no reason that you should not have a fairly good picture of what the going rate is for occupational titles.
  • Salary.Com - A fairly robust site that has both free and paid services. In general, the free salary calculator gives a very good idea of what you can expect to earn in broad job categories in various geographic areas.
  • SalaryList.Com - Takes a different approach. Instead of simply aggregating all salaries in general job category, SalaryList gives very specific information about very specific jobs with very specific companies. While I would not use this site without an aggregator site such as Salary.Com, it is an incredibly helpful data mining tool, especially if you can find a salary for the exact position you are applying for at the exact company that you are applying with.
  • GlassDoor.Com - This may be the most intriguing site I have seen recently. If you are a student and have a ".edu" email address, you can get a one-year free membership. If not you have to give them profile information about your current work situation, salary, and benefits. The information is kept confidential and it is possible to "disguise" yourself enough to feel comfortable. I gave them the requested information and got access to their salary database. Like SalaryList, it is possible to see what a specific job title at a specific company is earning.
Obligations and stuff. I spoke with a young man a few weeks ago who is still in his first job out of college. His primary concern was how to get rid of the gas-guzzling sports car that he bought right after he started his job. The monthly payment seemed to fit his budget, but as time went on, he realized that he had not really charted his course well and now the least of his "necessities" was a two-seater convertible that got 18mpg and had a six-year note at $299 per month. If a company asks "What are your salary requirements?" Rather than simply saying, "Uh. About $45K," try actually knowing what you are talking about. I would submit something like the following.

Housing$1500/mo (2BR APT near work)
Transportation$450/mo (gas, insurance, maintenance)
Professional Dues$50/mo
Medical Costs$100/mo
Miscellaneous Exp$400/mo
Total All Exp$$44,400/year
I am not suggesting that these specific amounts are correct for anyone, but the general categories are the minimums that you should take into account. Do not ballpark anything. Sit down and crunch the numbers.

A final word on value. I am worth more in California than I am in Alabama. (My wife would tell you that neither place is probably rushing to acquire me for their collection.) For instance, if I made $40,000 in Irvine, CA and managed to live well on that, I could probably keep the same lifestyle on just $30,000 in Birmingham, AL. You can make this calculation with one of the many online Cost of Living calculators. I typically use Sperling's Best, but there are others that you can Google. For the record, having lived in both Irvine, CA and Birmingham, AL, I can tell you that the calculators tend to overestimate high-end places to live and underestimate low-end places to live. The difference that most calculators give between these two regions is 53%. I my personal experience is that the difference is probably closer to 30-35%... still a dramatic difference.

You talkin' to me?
I suppose the last piece of this is what people need to know and when they need to know it. As a rule of thumb, I recommend that applicants not bring up the subject of money until a basic offer is in hand. If you know that widget makers generally $10/hour and you are interviewing for a widget maker position, it is realistic to assume that you will be offered $10/hour. When an offer is finally made, should it less than $10/hour then you should say, "Dude. I was expecting $10/hour," or maybe something a little more tactful.

If you are asked in a face to face interview before an offer is made what your salary expectations are and you haven't followed my instructions, so you don't have a spreadsheet handy and you don't know what widget maker earn, then try this.
"You know, I have tracked ABX Widgets and found out that you are one of the top widgeteers in the country. I am assuming that your salaries are competitive with other widgety companies in the area, so I believe that if an offer is made that we can find a salary that will suit both of us."
If they persist and say that they cannot make an offer without knowing your position, simply indicate that you would like an opportunity to put some numbers together so that you can give them a fair assessment. As with many other aspects of job-hunting, however, the mere fact that this is occurring is a bad sign and should serve to make you somewhat nervous about signing on with them. Tacky, bullying behavior should be used as a negative screening mechanism.

I ain't afraid of no ghost!
Scared to talk about money? Who you gonna call? Here's the deal. The primary reason that people freak out about salary discussions/negotiations is because they have not prepared themselves for the market. Our observation is that the majority of jobseekers under-estimate what they actually need and over-estimate what they believe they will be offered. Spending a little bit of time organizing your research about salary and expenses will keep you from getting slimed when you actually get a job offer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What do employers want?

I am quite sure that if you do an internet search for "What do employers want?" you will get thousands of returns. Here. Let me do it for you. Google=7680 entries. Yahoo=44,800 entries. MSN=77,000,000 entries (Hmmmm. Now I know why I use Google and Yahoo so much.) My point is that there is a huge amount of information on the Webernet telling you what employers want. Some empirically researched, some not. I do not want to add to either end of the pile today, what I would like to do is dispel one giant myth about what employers are looking for. Oddly, the myth is that employers know what they looking for. That's right. The best way to give a prospective employers what they want is to assume that they do not, in fact, know what they want.

I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.
Let me clarify one thing before we go further with this post. I am using paradox as a literary device to get my point across. (I am hoping to use onomatopoeia too, but I haven't yet figured out where to work it in.) To varying degrees employers understand the experiences that might give a candidate a better chance of performing well in a job. Likewise, they have an idea of how they wish a specific position to take shape. The fact remains, however, that there are many qualified candidates for every position out there (particularly in this economy), but I am never surprised, good or bad economy, when a recruiter or hiring manager says to me, "I can't find anybody to fill this position."

The reason for this is that a job description is not an actual person, nor is it the description of an actual person. Job descriptions are often the result of an over-zealous HR representatives who want to be nothing is left to chance. I think I have mentioned before the University of California job descriptions that include the requirement, "Squat - occasionally; Bend - frequently." I find it difficult to believe that a hiring manager ever ponders an applicant's "squatibility" or "bendiness". That does not mean that a job requiring "high-throughput protein expression clone synthesis and validation" will ignore the candidate's lack of laboratory experience and training. So, what is the dividing line between requirements that are "drop dead" requirements and those that are less essential?

Minimally, I prefer these qualifications.
The first rule of thumb that I use for whether or not to apply for a job is, "Never turn down a job you have not been offered." The surest way of doing this is to not apply in the first place. Before I hear the sad, sizzling sighs of despair (There! Onomatopoeia!) because you now think you should have applied for that Secretary of Commerce position, let me hastily add that when you KNOW you are not qualified for a position, then you use the second rule of thumb for whether or not to apply for a job, which is, "Don't." If you remain unsure about rule one and rule two, perhaps these five guidelines will help a little.

1. When job announcements are divided into "minimum requirements" and "preferred requirements," you will want to apply if you meet all of the minimums, even if you do not meet all of the preferred. If you do not meet the minimums, don't bother. Move on the next application.

2. Anytime a job simply lists qualifications without telling you which are minimals and which are preferreds and you know that you meet most of the list, take a moment to rank order the list. For instance, actuarial positions typically require a thorough background in statistics and a college degree. My assessment, however, is that extensive statistics training would probably rank higher than a college degree. The emphasis here is on extensive training, not "I took a stat course once and didn't fail it."

3. As a corollary to the above, experience will often trump other formal qualifications or requirements. For the past twenty years, I have been hiring counselors in clinical and career development settings. I learned early that simply having a graduate degree in counselor did not make someone a good counselor. Heck, it did not even make them a good student. Applicants with extensive experience working with people, however general signifies that they are capable of handling the ambiguity of interpersonal interactions.

4. With lengthy job announcements that have more than ten or twelve qualifications listed, I typically recommend the 60/70 rule. That is, if you have between 60% and 70% of the qualifications, go ahead and apply. I was on a search committee a few years ago that included 22 separate qualifications. It was impossible for me to keep things straight from application to application. Additionally, it was very clear that we all had slightly differing opinions about which of the 22 qualifications were most important.

5. Contact the source if you have genuine, legitimate questions about the job announcement. This is getting increasingly difficult to do. The Web has become a giant buffer around recruiters and hiring managers, so good luck in actually talking with someone. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no law or rule that forbids a candidate to ask questions clarifying a job announcement. So, if an email address is all you can get, then send questions via email. Be advised, however, that there is also no rule forbids a recruiter to be rude to people who ask questions. J/K. Even when they turn down your request, most HR folks are polite about it.

The most important thing.
One of my favorite quotes is from Kurt Vonnegut.
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
I can't tell you how often that my counselors and I hear a student say something like, "I want to be sure that my resume matches their job perfectly." I understand this and, to some degree, we have created it. We tell students and job aspirants to be mindful about tweaking their resumes and cover letters to address the needs that employers appear to have. We seldom think about the impact our words are having as we create a world in which employers have highly specific requirements and they are eliminating the unqualified from their candidate pools with surgical precision. That is simply not the case.

Most employers want employees who are capable, dependable, articulate, and persistent. I think that the reason that they like college graduates is because higher education is one of the most chaotic, disorganized, out-of-touch environments on the planet. Anyone who can manage to complete a degree, whether in four, five, or nine years deserved to be considered for any job out there. Employers want employees with whom they can comfortably converse. They are looking for candidates who understand when team cooperation is necessary and when acting on one's initiative is ticket to success. Employers want us to be comfortable being ourselves. If we have to pretend to be someone to be successful on the job, then a good employer wants us to like who we pretend to be.

In the long run, being ourselves is the surest way of finding out what an employer wants.