Monday, April 8, 2013

Handling tech recruiters and salary negotiations

I got another new job. This is the second one in ten months.

I had some serious concerns about how I was being used at my last job and I wasn't able to correct them, so I felt that I had to leave before it did damage to my long-term prospects. Now, I'm in a much better situation than I was before and I was able to use the earlier round of interviewing as a learning experience for this most recent round.

One thing that almost no one likes dealing with are tech recruiters, but they're a necessary evil. They want to know your salary history. They tell you how their six month contract 50 minutes from your apartment is the best thing that could possibly happen to you. They assure you that the positions that they have open will jumpstart your career. What does that even mean? Are they implying that my career has stalled and that it needs a jumpstart?

It doesn't mean anything. None of it does. You aren't their client, you are their product. They're taking somewhere between 20-30% of your first year's salary as commission. It is in their best interest to place you in a position that they currently have available, even if none of the positions that they currently have are actually a good fit for you.

Don't get me wrong, some recruiters are genuinely good people, but even so — you are still their product. Don't lose sight of this.

During my last job search, I posted my résumé to and I also subscribed to the emails, and I suggest you do as well. You can type in keywords and get daily emails for new jobs in your area that match your search criteria. This lead to somewhere between 6-10 calls and emails per day for the first week or so, and then it trickled down to 1-2 a day after that.

It's pretty easy to spot generic form emails from recruiters. I consider these spam and don't even bother replying. If they can't show me that they have at least skimmed my résumé, then I'm not going to waste my time interacting with them. It's amazing how many recruiting agencies send out emails to candidates based strictly on keyword searches. Don't do business with them.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when talking to recruiters:

  • Be personable and friendly. They'll be giving your potential employers their first impression of you.
  • Be firm. If they ask for information that you don't want to give them, politely tell them no and stick to your guns. Don't let them think that they can manipulate you. They will if you let them.
  • Be honest with them about what you like or dislike about potential opportunities. They may have another listing that's a better fit for you. They can also pass these along to the employer and it can result in additional perks.
  • Always remember that they're not your friend and they don't work for you. You are their product. They are selling you to their client for a percentage of your first year's salary.

First thing is first: Don't take recruitment calls on business hours. Recruiters are used to working with people that are currently employed. I talked to at least a dozen between the hours of 6p and 9p. None of them offered any resistance to these times. If you take a call on work time, you risk being dismissed at your current employer before you've got another job lined up. You're a more attractive candidate if you're currently employed and it gives you more leverage in salary negotiations. Don't mess it up because you're too anxious to wait until 7p to take a call.

One of the first things that they're going to ask you is for your salary history. Don't give it to them. If you're looking to make a leap in salary, it can only hurt you. Best case, you get what you want. No one ever got more than they hoped for by disclosing salary history. Many recruiters will insist that their client requires it. Tell them that if the client is that interested, they can ask you directly before they make an offer. Whether or not you disclose it to a potential employer is up to you and your comfort level. I, personally, would not. Either way, never give it to the recruiter.

When they bring up your salary, that's your cue to ask them what the budget for this position is. If it's extremely low, it might be a good time to politely end the conversation. If it's close, you can tell them that it is less than you're looking for, but you're flexible for a position that's a good fit. If they really like you, it's pretty easy to get them to raise their ceiling.

You need to use sites like and to know what your market value is for your area. Salaries in NYC and San Francisco will be significantly higher than those in Philadelphia or Boston. Philadelphia and Boston Salaries will be higher than Portland or Houston. Make sure you're comparing apples to apples. You also need to make sure you're comparing your total compensation. Benefits can add ten thousand dollars or more to your overall package when you count retirement and insurance contributions, tuition reimbursement, training and certification reimbursement, etc. Can you put a value on work from home or flex hours? Try. Don't say yes or no to a number until you have the total picture.

Recruiters will be pushy. Don't be afraid to push back. I was offered a position as a Senior Storage Engineer at a multinational logistics company. The salary offer was about thirty thousand dollars below market. I said no way. The recruiter kept telling me how great of an opportunity it was. I'd report directly to the Director of IT. I'd be able to grow into a great position. I'd be able to say that I worked with hundreds of terabytes of EVA storage and I'd get to architect solutions that span data centers across the globe. I'd have unilateral control over my area of IT.

Autonomy. The promised land.

It was tempting. But not for 30K below market.

I told him that the pay was way too low. I wasn't perfect for the position on paper, so I had no problem taking a slightly below-market deal, but not that low. He went back to get another offer. The next day he told me they'd come up 5K and would throw in another week of vacation and pay for a parking spot in a garage right up the street.

Thanks but no thanks. The big picture is that the total compensation was still at least 25K below market.

I told the recruiter that I appreciated his time, but we were still very far apart. Privately, I also had reservations about their work environment. The cubes were aged. The hardware that I saw on everyone's desk looked janky. I walked away from the offer, despite the recruiter giving me a 15 minute pitch about how opportunities like this don't come along every day and that some things are more important than money.

Right. Money doesn't matter. If you believe that, you're crazy. Sure, the opportunity to grow into a position that you're not an exact fit for is worth something. Maybe 5K. Not 25K.

Even if you value professional accomplishments more than your paycheck, going to work day in and day out knowing that your peers at competing organizations are making so much more than you will eat you up inside.

The next day, he called again. They decided to bump their offer by another 6K and promised a performance review at 6 months and again at 12 months. I had the potential for two raises in my first year.

Mark, they never tell me to go get a candidate that has walked away. You're their guy. You're going to be a cornerstone here for a long time. They believe in you so much that they've come up eleven thousand dollars from their initial offer. Don't pass this up!

I still passed. We were too far apart. The recruiter kept telling me how big of a mistake I was making. The reality is that he was watching his commission walk away and was trying to do something about it. He didn't care that the offer was still about twenty thousand dollars short of being fair.

This is how you need to handle negotiations. Trust your gut. Don't trust your recruiter.

I ended up taking a Senior Architect position at a consulting firm and I'm specializing in System Center and Microsoft core technologies. It's a much better situation than what I turned down.

It pays to be patient.

1 comment:

  1. Your statement "Don't take recruitment calls on business hours" is valid for more than one reason. Regardless of how you feel about your current employer and your position with them, taking job search related calls on their time is unprofessional and disrespectful. In your career you're measured by your character and your professionalism (as well as a litany of other things). It's not how your employer treats you that ultimately defines your "career" character, it's how you treat your employer and your colleagues and it's how respectful you are of the position you currently have, whether you like said position or not.