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Recruiting Mistakes Made by Employers
… and How to Handle Them

Copyright © 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003 by David E. Ross

[I originally wrote this in 1997 for the Web magazine Disgruntled, which is now defunct. Having retained the copyright, I now post this on my Web site with some updates noted — as this is — indented in brackets.]

This article is based on my personal experience while searching for work after being laid-off twice in 13 months. I might not even have noticed the mistakes employers make if it had not been for training received through Experience Unlimited, a self-help program for unemployed professionals sponsored by the California Employment Development Department (EDD).

[I participated in a local unit of Experience Unlimited in Simi Valley called the Outstanding Professionals Employment Network (OPEN).]

I am a senior software engineer specializing in requirements analysis and testing. I am experienced in technical management and thus have been on the recruiter's side of the desk. I can honestly say that I never made any of these mistakes when recruiting (although some may have been made by my Human Resources Department without me knowing).

Although I am salaried in my position, much of this also applies if you are seeking hourly (or non-exempt) employment.

Blind Ads

Yes, an employer might have a very good reason to remain anonymous. Perhaps the company is very well known as treating its employees very good and does not want to be flooded with 500 resumes for every advertised position. Perhaps they do not want their phones tied up with prospective employees. On the other hand, perhaps the company is notorious for treating its employees very shabbily and they want at least one resume.

The ad might have been placed by a recruiter rather than the actual employer. They know many truly talented employees do not want to deal with recruiting agencies. The recruiter might not even have a position; they merely want to "test the market" or fill up their database in anticipation of future positions (as do some actual employers).

In an improving economy with growth in jobs, a blind ad can be a mistake. Talented potential employees will tend to apply only at companies they know, companies that they can identify. After all, the applicants have to identify themselves to the employer. Why should a really good employee not expect potential employers to identify themselves? In the meantime, not the unemployed but only the desperately unemployed — less talented and thus less able to be choosy — will respond. Thus, the employer who places blind ads limits the talent that responds.

What can you do about blind ads?

If you are currently working, ignore blind ads. The ad you see might have been placed by your own current employer. You cannot improve your situation by responding to your own employer's ad, and you can hurt your continued career if your employer discovers you are thinking of leaving. If the ad was placed by one of your previous employers, you are likely wasting your time. You do not work there now, and you will probably never have the opportunity (or penalty) or working there again.

If a blind ad is very attractive, you might be able to discover the identity of the employer. The U. S. Postal Service treats the identities of individual post office box holders as personal and confidential, but they must disclose the identity of a commercial box holder to an individual. I have identified employers who listed street addresses or fax numbers in blind ads by doing Web searches on those small pieces of data. It might even impress the employer regarding your resourcefulness if you address your resume to the company by name.

In any case, you should be keeping a log of your job search that includes copies of every ad. If you get a response from an employer that does not appear in your log, it might have been through a blind ad. Do not be bashful about asking questions to identify which blind ad.

"Fill Out This Employment Application! Here and Now!"

You have just entered the door, and the Human Resources person asks you to complete an employment application. No, this does not mean they are ready to offer you a job. They merely want some data about you. Too often, this is a surprise. No mention was made of completing an application when you made the appointment for an interview. One of my friends thinks this is a ploy to see how you respond to unexpected stress. If there was no prior warning, I think this is just dumb: The employer expects you to memorize addresses, phone numbers, dates, and other information about your past. I do not even remember what I had for dinner a week ago.

Since I have never seen my employment application during an interview, I know the demand just prior to an interview is dumb. The interviewers do not want to read an application while I am sitting across their desks from them. If they are good interviewers, they want to talk to me. If the application were really important for the interview, they would have mailed it for me to complete and mail back in time for them to review it before the interview.

How can you handle this?

I carry an information sheet with me to every potential employer, but I never allow the employer to know this. On one page, it has all the information I am asked on employment applications. I never tell them I have this "cheat sheet", but I always have it. On a second page, I have a list of professional references. I always bring two copies with me: one to keep and one to attach to an employment application (but only if references are requested).

However, if I was not told when I made my appointment about having to complete an application, I resist strongly. I lie; I tell them I cannot complete the application because I did not know I should bring the necessary information with me. I ask for an envelope and tell them I will mail the application after I complete it at home. Most good employers will accept this explanation.

If they continue to insist the application must be completed before the interview, you should ask (politely, not in these words) "Will it be given to the interviewer before we meet?" If the answer is "No", then ask "If the interviewer does not need it for the interview, why do you need it before you let me see the interviewer?" (I am still learning how to get past this without hostility and anger.)

When an employer insists that the application must be completed NOW or if I was warned about the application when I made the appointment, the issue is not over. I do not accept their little clip-board; instead, I ask for a desk or at least a table. I cannot sit in those soft, deep chairs in the lobby and be expected to write about the continuation of my career. I need a proper writing surface and space to keep my "cheat sheet" in view while writing. When I complete the application, I ask the HR person to make me a copy NOW. I want to take the copy with me and not wait for the mail; too often, promises to mail a copy remain broken.

Leave blank the spaces on the application requesting your Social Security number and prior salaries. Before the first interview is much too soon for you to share such personal, confidential information (see below). Twice, I was bullied by Human Resources persons into providing such information; both times, I left feeling abused. I then decided I would not work where getting an interview required divulging information to which a company has no right until an offer of employment is presented.

If you have a positive feeling after the interviews that the company's needs and your talents do match and that you want to improve your chances of a job offer, then you can contact Human Resources — or better yet the manager who interviewed you — and provide the missing data.

Give Us Your Social Security Number

This is bad! Too many people already have your Social Security number (SSN). Until a company actually becomes your employer — when the law requires them to have your SSN — resist giving this information. On the Web, Some Frequently Asked Questions on SSNs discusses the privacy issues involved.

That Web site is not entirely valid in this case. When an employment application asks for your SSN, do not invent a fictitious number as suggested on the Web site. Lying on an employment application is generally grounds for immediate termination for cause, which can also delay your unemployment benefits. The Web site lists defenses against requests for your SSN; these generally work only when you are applying to work for a government agency.

Nevertheless, an employer should not be asking for your SSN before you have had your first interview. The employers often want your SSN early so they can start doing a background and credit check on you. They should not be that nosy if they have not even interviewed you yet.

How should you respond to this request?

Generally, your SSN is requested on an employment application. If you have already been interviewed and employment appears very possible, give your number; you want to facilitate the process of being hired.

If you have not even been interviewed yet, try to delay completing the application (as described above). If that is not possible, you should diplomatically ask (i.e.: not these words, but this meaning): "What use will you make of my Social Security number since you are not yet my employer?" You should also ask: "What practices do you follow for keeping the numbers of non-employees confidential?" You might also say: "Let's see first if there is a match between your needs and my skills before we start exchanging personal information." If a good, specific answer is not available, walk out! You do not want to work where they treat people that way.

[Before anything else — definitely before walking out — explain your concern about identity theft (whether or not you are actually concerned) and how SSNs are the primary tool used in such crimes. Of course, you should explain this in a non-accusatory manner, merely indicating that you restrict the disclosure of your SSN to actual employers. You might even cite the Federal Trade Commission's warning against giving out your SSN.

In California, Civil Code §1798.85 strictly limits the use of SSNs. You might tell the person asking for your SSN that the question may be as illegal as asking your age. This is not entirely true. The law limits the use of SSNs for ID numbers, not as data for evaluating a prospective employee. In the case of an overly aggressive HR person, however, this ploy might be worthwhile.]

How Much Did You Make in Your Prior Jobs?
How Much Do You Want to be Paid?

Ads often ask for your salary history or requirements. Employers use a salary figure as a filter to eliminate you before they even have a chance to determine if you are worth every cent. Watch out! What you made before may be totally irrelevant to what you could be worth to a new employer.

Recruiters, temp agencies, and actual employers use this data to update their own pay scales. I believe some even solicit resumes just to get the salary histories. There is no job to be filled! This is cruel: making applicants think they have the possibility of employment when the ad soliciting salary histories will merely be used to adjust the salaries of existing employees.

Asking what you want to be paid is silly. "Tell me, Mr. Fox, how many chickens do you want in that henhouse I'm assigning you to guard?" An intelligent answer requires knowing what you and the position are worth to the new employer. You cannot possibly know this before discussing the job, its responsibilities, and the employer's expectations. This is a major recruiting mistake. When an employer starts the process by asking about money, the scene is set for the applicant to begin by asking about money, too. Then the employer is upset because all the applicants seem to be money-hungry.

How can you avoid theses subjects?

When I mail a resume, I never, ever disclose either my salary history or salary expectation. If a preliminary phone contact from the employer presents these questions, I deflect them. If I cannot avoid filling out an employment application before being interviewed, I leave that information blank (but see above).

In all contacts when money is mentioned by the employer, I raise some of the following points.

Do not fall into the employer's mistake. Delay discussing money as long as possible. Very early, you should establish an attitude that money can wait. In my cover letters, I use variations on the following when ads ask about salary expectations:

When evaluating an offer of employment, I consider total compensation, combining salary and benefits. Therefore, I would need details about your benefits package before I could suggest an appropriate salary. Perhaps a discussion of compensation would be more appropriate after we find that your needs and my talents match and that an employment relationship might be established between us.

If the ad asks about salary history or both history and expectations, I use this longer version:

The responsibilities and efforts in a position with you might differ from my past responsibilities and efforts. Therefore, a discussion of my future salary expectations would be more appropriate than any information about my salary history. This discussion should be deferred until we find that your needs and my talents match and that an employment relationship might be established between us. Please note that, when evaluating an offer of employment, I consider total compensation, combining salary and benefits. Thus, I would need details about your benefits package before I could suggest an appropriate salary.

Once, I received a phone call in response to a resume. The woman on the phone asked for my salary history. I asked her if that meant they liked what they saw in my resume. She told me the hiring manager would not even look at my resume without a salary history; she requested it in writing. I sent a letter explaining that, while I do completely share my financial situation with my wife, I do not discuss it even with my adult children. I surely was not about to share it with an unseen stranger. I do not know their reaction; but before I mailed that letter, I had already moved that employer into my "closed" file.

Just the same, if you are close to receiving a job offer, recognize that many employers may want to see your last pay-stub from your prior employer. Now that the job is very near, this is the time to share information. When this time does arrive, describe your salary expectations in terms of the worth or value of the job to the employer. Yes, of course, you are giving the amount you want and think you are worth. Just don't tell the employer that; put all emphasis on the employer's needs. For that reason, if you were asked for both, try to state what the new salary should be before disclosing your prior compensation.

A Very Good Interview Without Any Response

If there are 200 resumes for a single advertised position, I can understand why an employer would not send even a post card telling you that you are not being considered. On the other hand, if an employer has staff spend three or more hours interviewing you — plus perhaps also spending an hour of telephone interviews and money on credit and background checks — a failure to tell you that you are no longer a candidate for employment is just rude. It indicates a lack of skills in dealing with individuals that likely exists within the workplace, too. This employer might not offer you a job now, but the company might have a position for you in the future. Would you still consider working there under such conditions?

By showing some courtesy, you also show that you have class.

Do not be rude in response. When you finally get a job elsewhere, send the negligent employer a brief note withdrawing from consideration for employment. Send it to a manager who interviewed you, not to Human Resources (where they probably do not care). Explain that, since you had not received further communication after your positive interview, you must assume you might still be under consideration. Also explain that your own professional ethics (yes, even for the lowest-paying hourly position) require you to notify the employer so that no further effort is expended in evaluating you. Stress the "positive" nature of the interview (even if it really was negative); emphasize "professional" in place of "personal" to relate the situation to work. Be very polite. After all, you might answer the question in the paragraph above with a "yes"; then, you do not want to create a problem that could haunt you the next time you ask for work at that company.

A Final Word

If, you are 100% convinced you would not work for a prospective employer for any amount of money, let them know about their mistakes. Get rid of your frustration on the proper target, not at the next company that calls you. And remember, "the proper target" is really the manager whose staffing needs are still not met, not Human Resources. HR is merely following policies that the manager might be able to change. Let the manager know what recruiting mistakes prevent him or her from meeting those needs. Do not communicate personal anger against the manager, but describe what practices are wrong and why.

Keep your dignity, no matter how strongly a prospective employer tries to undermine you. You are better than they are because you can do something they cannot do. You can meet a need in their company that they cannot meet. Otherwise, they would not have solicited you to consider working there. If they did not hire you, they just do not know what they are missing.

[In 1997, just as I finished writing this, I applied for a job at TRW (now a part of Northrop Grumman). I was interviewed for several hours. At the end, I was handed an employment application and told to take it home to complete; there was even a return envelope. We discussed money only when a hiring manager called to ask, "If we were to offer you a job, how much would we have to offer you to get you to say 'Yes'?" TRW made none of the mistakes I describe here. I worked at TRW for six years and then retired.]

17 March 1997
Updated 14 November 2003

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