Stupid Recruiter Tricks, Vol. II – Salary Talk and Candidate Control

While training for my first job as an agency recruiter, I was directed to ask all candidates for their current salary. It was uncomfortable at first, partially because of the vast disparity between my income as an entry-level recruiter and the salaries of experienced software engineers in the late 90s during the dot com boom. Discussing compensation with strangers can make people uncomfortable, whether in casual settings or in negotiations with employers. Children (many in the US anyway) are taught not to ask people how much they make, and this cultural element may contribute to why some are reluctant to discuss. Even as an experienced recruiter, I rarely get a rapid-fire response to money questions.

Recruiters gather as much data on candidates as possible, and are trained to use a strategy to prevent spooking anyone. Initial calls start with harmless questions about candidates’ interests and experience, eventually graduating to more sensitive topics once rapport is built.

In my early years, candidates unwilling to respond to the “How much do you make?” question were told that I needed numbers to proceed. Some candidates shared data, some refused again or ended the call, and others asked why I needed to know. Nobody needs to know someone’s salary history to hire them (or recruit them for hire), do they?

One scripted rebuttal was “I don’t want to waste your time“. This phrasing is no accident (“waste your time”, not “waste my time”) and infers that candidates derive benefits by answering, although recruiters are likely more concerned about wasting their own time. The time reference alludes to the possibility that a candidate goes through interviews but gets an offer below expectations.

The most popular theory behind the recruiter’s insistence upon learning salary information is probably the one eloquently expressed by Patrick McKenzie (aka “patio11”) in his epic 6K+ word 2012 post on salary negotiation, where he suggests that candidates being interrogated for numbers (though not specifically by an agency recruiter) should think “You’re lying to me to attempt to get me to compromise my negotiating position.” I believe there are more exceptions than Patrick does to the often quoted “never speak first” rule of negotiation, and I feel informed candidates with market knowledge shouldn’t fear providing salary history. The number provides one data point as to what someone was willing to work for in the past, but candidates familiar with market values don’t need to accept less than market for their services.

As a recruiter, couldn’t I work with a candidate without knowing their current salary or their expectation? It probably depends on the hiring company, but most of the startups I have worked with are willing to play along without salary data and I’ve made successful placements blind to salary history.

The better explanation for a recruiter’s behavior when candidates deny salary info requests is that the refusal indicates a lack of candidate control.

Candidate Control

As I’ve written before, candidate control is the notion that a recruiter gains influence over puppeta candidate’s actions during the interview process, culminating when the recruiter gets the candidate’s acceptance to a job offer. Considering that an agency recruiter is only paid if a candidate takes their job, time spent with candidates unlikely to accept an offer is wasted (using entirely short-term thinking).

How Candidate Control is Achieved

One method of gauging and achieving control is through small incremental requests with multiple positive responses over time, with the theory that this repetition will somewhat condition the candidate to be agreeable to future suggestion particularly at offer. The first requests are small and necessary to the hiring process: schedule a phone call, send a resume, respond to basic background questions, etc. Eventually the requests are not vital and in some cases just self-serving for the recruiter: call immediately after an interview with feedback, requests for references early in the process, asking for referrals or introductions to contacts, etc. Compliance is a good sign for the recruiter.

Examples of the highest levels of control might be when candidates give recruiters proxy to accept offers over $SALARY or to let the recruiter provide resignation notification to the candidate’s current employer. Yes, this happens.

What Every Job Seeker Should Know

Candidate control isn’t something to fear for most job seekers, but it’s helpful to be aware of how recruiters are trained to gain influence and close deals. This doesn’t necessarily mean recruiters are all coercing candidates to accept jobs they shouldn’t, but candidate control could lead to that outcome.

When a candidate refuses recruiter requests (whether reasonable or not) early in the process, recruiters assume that candidate will prove difficult to persuade when interviews and offers are at hand. If a candidate is unwilling to provide information, a recruiter who insists on control may simply abort the process.

The aforementioned “I don’t want to waste your time” rebuttal might really mean “I don’t want to waste my time with candidates I can’t control who therefore are less likely to accept my offer“.

Got a question about recruiter behavior that might make for a Stupid Recruiter Tricks column? Leave a comment below.

Or discuss on Hacker News


  1. Mike S.

    I appreciate your posts, Dave. This logical path is something that’s completely intuitive now that you explained it, but that was not obvious to me before you laid it out in detail.

    It definitely has been my experience that most recruiters open a job pitch in email or LinkedIn with a brief description of a position and then “When can I call you to discuss this?” I prefer to have as much information as possible in text form first, so I can think it over before discussing it with anyone.

    • fecak

      Thanks for reading Mike. I think that the trend is for candidates to require more information up front these days. 15 years ago recruiters told candidates almost nothing, but now the expectation is much higher. The biggest issue for contingency recruiters is still the problem around revealing client names, where there is potential for candidates to go direct and cut the recruiter out of the deal. Candidates do need to understand that contingency recruiters who reveal client names are vulnerable to that behavior, and candidates that go direct will discourage recruiters from being transparent about their clients.

      • Mike S.

        That concern about getting bypassed makes complete sense, of course. But even if the recruiter endangers their commission by releasing the client name, or their technology stack (if they’re widely known for a particular stack), or their market cap, they can still indicate compensation range, expected work hours, expected travel time, general category of application, possibility of remote work, vacation policy, job title, etc…

      • fecak

        Agreed 100%, with the only possible exception of compensation range – but that’s material reserved for another blog post! 🙂

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