Why banning the salary question misses a major point

November 16, 2017

In a remarkably progressive move, not without resistance from the business community, various jurisdictions in the USA are banning interviewers from asking candidates about their salary history.

Few jobseekers will lament this move.  It’s the no win question – either tell the truth and the advantage is with the employer when an offer is made, or risk being found out later for exaggerating when the tax information is passed on, for example.  While there are ways to sidestep the question it’s difficult to do so, and carries the other risk that an unwillingness to share will put the candidate at a disadvantage.

The reason for the ban is right and proper.

Women in the US earn approximately 80% of the salary of men for the equivalent job. By asking for salary history information this discrepancy is perpetuated. Now, it is suggested that by asking instead for salary expectations the problem will persist, and that may be partially true, at least until women gain the confidence to ask for the right amount, nevertheless this ban can only be a good move.


This is the best image I could find when searching on the term “women’s relative salary”

Certainly, many women and men will be relieved not to have to answer the last / current salary question, although most people don’t know how best to deal with the question about salary expectations.

Why? Because they don’t know what number is most likely to secure them the job, and they therefore shoot low.  The mistake is to think that they are required to answer with a number. While the interviewer is almost certainly looking for a number,  if the candidate does not know what they can legitimately expect they can’t answer the question with a figure.

And here’s the thing.  The question is framed in such a way that it assumes the candidate knows how much they should be paid for a job, when they know very little about the role. They don’t know what demands and responsibilities it holds (the job description and person spec are unlikely to be sufficiently accurate sources of data to allow one make such a judgement) and crucially, they don’t know how much other people (read: men) at that level in the organisation are paid.

It’s an inappropriate question to ask a candidate because the employer knows what the correct pay level should be, and the reason they ask the question is because it might provide an opportunity to offer a lower salary than they need to, and all the better if that lower salary is still greater than the candidate quoted as their expectation.

In an ideal world there would be no discussion of salary at the interview stage.  If a person is deemed to be the best candidate they should be offered the job at a fair salary that takes into account the level of difficulty, targets, scarcity of skills and what other colleagues earn. It doesn’t work like that because there’s a zero-sum game that is played out in recruitment that sets up an antagonistic rather than collaborative relationship between employer and employee from the very start.

Of course it’s completely unacceptable that women are offered less than men for the same position, but what is missed is that employers want to play games that might lead to resentment from any employee when they could, if they were honest and fair, increase loyalty through their salary system.


The end of retirement

September 14, 2017

I read a book. Not just any book. I read a business book. I buy business books every now and again, and read them less frequently. I have a small pile of unread business books going back several years. The truth is I don’t much enjoy reading business books. I find they rarely have much to say that justifies the time it takes to go through them, for a slow reader like me at least.

However, for a reason that defies any logic given what I’ve just said, I recently joined a reading group for career consultants and the first book we agreed to discuss was The 100-year life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.

I’m pleased about that because I found it full of interesting ideas, some of which I have been considering myself for a while, which meant I felt simultaneously flattered that my thoughts rank alongside those of the authors of a Financial Times business book of the year shortlist maker, and frustrated that I didn’t write the thing first. It would possibly have been the first business book that justified the time it took me to read.


I won’t offer a review because there are many available.  Instead I’ll pick up on the overall theme of the book, because it encapsulates much of my thinking about careers as we look to the future.

The essential premise is that as we live longer people will no longer conform to the Education – Work – Retirement pattern for a number of reasons, primarily economic.  Instead people will transition between periods of different uses of their time.  They will dip in and out of education throughout their life, they will spend chunks of time across their life in a range of different careers, they will spend periods of time travelling, or raising a family, or focusing on charitable activities. These are not mutually exclusive.  More and more people will work part-time while volunteering or engaging in other personal pursuits.

The challenge for society will be how it adapts to this model. Apart from the obvious question about how pensions will be funded – a problem we are already struggling with – we also need to consider when state pensions will be available to a person if they are potentially going to be economically active for blocks of time with an undefined end point?

It seems obvious that people will need to save more when they are working in order to fund the time when they are not working, and the big implication here is that people will be working for many more years, overall, than they do now. We will, perhaps, be working well into our eighties, and this suggests the most profound shift – that society will be forced to re-think its current narrative that people are no longer of value to the economy after a certain age.

Retirement at an early age is, as the authors point out, a fairly modern concept. It turns out that it is probably a historical blip and that most people will work for as long as they have capacity to do so. In the past the amount of time that elapsed between retirement and death was just a few years at best. In the future we will probably have the same number of years between our last stint in employment and death.



Are Portfolio Careers Now the Safest Form of Employment?

January 3, 2017

I recently facilitated a panel discussion about work in the twenty-first century, with particular focus on portfolio careers.  Something one of panelists said stopped me in my tracks, ever so momentarily.  It stopped me because while I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the world of work and how it is changing, and while a lot of that thinking is about portfolio careers, freelancing and the diverse ways by which people make a living and relate to the “employer” (however that relationship is defined), the point that was made challenged the received wisdom that I have simply accepted throughout my years as a career coach.


A portfolio career is about spreading the risk, not having all your eggs in one basket

The panellist, a person whose portfolio of activities comprises eight separate income streams, said that in his view a portfolio career is more secure than traditional employment.

And there am I trying to tell people that while it may not be secure, for many people the portfolio career is the best work pattern for reasons of lifestyle choice or pragmatic need.  I never really thought of portfolio careers as a smart move for the risk averse. When I work with people for whom a portfolio career seems sensible, it’s often because permanent (full or part time) employment prospect for people with their capabilities are rare. I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to someone that a portfolio career is the way to go for someone seeking financial security.

The reason is fairly obvious. When faced with starting out on your own or finding a job with a regular, known, salary from day one, the salary appears to be a safer proposition.

In the longer term, however, employment is precarious, and living in a world where redundancy can come with short notice, leaving a person without any income, is a reality of the twenty-first century.

So when my panellist pointed out that he no longer has any worry about finding himself without any income, because out of eight activities, even if some of them declined or went through a bad period, he’d still be earning from the others and would have time to fix or replace the failing ones, it made total sense.  Being self-employed is safer than employment.

Why does this notion turn our received wisdom on its head?  I suspect it’s about how society has viewed self-employment pretty much since the beginning of industrialisation. Working for a well-established, successful company was seen as secure employment.  Why has it been harder to get a mortgage or insurance as a self-employed person than as an employee? Because the actuaries have worked on the basis that a self-generated income is riskier than a pay cheque every month from a corporate entity.

That’s all changed now.  Employment is not a guarantee of security.  It’s just a guarantee of predictability for the duration of the employment. You know how much you’re going to earn, but you don’t know how long you’re going to earn it for.  On the other hand, self-employment means that you know you will always be working (as long as you choose to) you just don’t know exactly how much you will be earning.

Building a portfolio that manages the overall income stream is where the art of the portfolio careerist comes in.  My panellist could quite possibly develop one or more of his current activities into a successful business, taking up all of his time if he wanted it to, but he has decided that to put all his eggs in one basket in this way would diminish the security that his portfolio provides.

In other words, this portfolio career is specifically designed to offer a level of job security that he couldn’t achieve if he were employed by a large company.


Five Lessons from Leicester 

May 3, 2016

Unless you are from another galaxy, or America, it’s unlikely that the David and Goliath story that is this season’s English Premier League has passed you by.

As such, I feel it is my duty to attempt what pretty much every other business commentator will be doing; make profound connections between sporting and business success.  I just hope you read mine before you are fed up with everyone else’s.


Obligatory picture of Leicester City football players teaching business a spurious lesson about something or other.

1 Take the team for a pizza for the slightest reason

Pundits have snorted at manager Claudio Ranieri’s motivational tool of taking his players out for a pizza when they finished a game without conceding a goal. How could such a pathetic reward motivate high earning sportsmen?

It’s not about the reward, it’s about celebrating small successes together, and importantly, spending time outside of the workplace getting to know each other. Seeing each other in a different way, learning to be around each other, learning to care for each other. That’s team-building.

2 Know your job and keep it simple

Leicester City are not a team made up of high flyers by top professional footballing standards. They are competent individuals at their level, no more. What’s important is that each of them knows his job, believes in his ability to do it well, understands how his role contributes to the whole, and gets on with what he is supposed to do.

At the point of winning the title Leicester City had the fourth best disciplinary record in the division. Maintaining discipline translates to maintaining individual focus in the world of work, not resisting the urge to gouge your competitors’ eyes out. When an employee maintains focus on their task they make fewer mistakes.

3 Minimise mistakes

If you can get your team members to do their job well, mistakes are minimised. A high number of mistakes leads failure, and no matter how talented your team is on the attack – innovating, selling, marketing – if you can’t get the basics of the operation right you’ll lose customers (or let in goals) faster than you can gain (score) them, and as everyone knows, customer acquisition costs about five times as much as customer retention. Leicester have conceded fewer goals than all but two teams in the division.

4 Minimise staff turnover

Leicester City have used fewer players than any other team during the Premiership campaign. Every time someone leaves or joins it causes disruption. Disruption means performance is compromised. Staff retention is absolutely crucial to the success of any team.

5 Don’t work too hard

Actually I have no idea whether Leicester’s training schedule was more or less arduous than that of other teams. I’m just chucking this in here because I want to.

Training too hard increases the chances of injury. In terms of business, working too hard reduces motivation and life balance. Being healthy is critical to performing well at work. Strings of late nights in the office are not good for the individual, the business or the customers. Balancing work with other activities; physical, social and intellectual, is good for business.


So, if you adopt some of these ideas for your team, who knows, maybe next year they will win all sorts of awards for their performance?

And then the following year they’ll probably be struggling to avoid relegation again.




Time to down tools and relax

December 21, 2015

I’m so pleased that we are entering the holiday season.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the case of Jack Nicholson’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it made him much worse than dull.


During my working life I’ve seen the number of hours worked by white-collar employees gradually increase.  I’m not talking about the standard working week.  I’m talking about the additional hours referred to in employment contracts as “and any other times you are required” or something similar. These are the hours that you work late into the night, or early into the next morning, whenever a deadline approaches, because the alternative would be that next time there’s redundancies are in the offing your name might be on the list.

Don’t misunderstand me.  This is a fact of modern life.  I think it’s wrong but I can’t offer an alternative for a service based economy where people are the machines and being competitive requires squeezing as much out of those machines as possible. My issue is that employers on the whole, don’t appear to recognise how this relentless life is bad for business.

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression is at unprecedented levels accounting for 10 million sick days per year, that’s 43% of all days lost for reasons of ill-health. It has taken over from back pain as the top reason for absenteeism, reflecting our transition from a physical to a mental economy.

So while employers may not be moved to address the issue (and it should be stressed that the problem is far, far greater in the public than the private sector) at least this season gives employees the opportunity to turn off the technology and leave work alone until January.  That’s right.  Just put it down.  It can wait whereas your health can’t.  You need to be attending to your well-being all the time.

I’m not so naive to imagine that bosses and clients won’t try to make contact over the holiday period, and you may not want to ignore those calls, so at least try to contain dealing with those approaches to certain ring-fenced times, and relax as much as you can the rest of the time. Put messages on your voicemail and set up an “out of office” response on your email. Otherwise, coming back in January without having felt you’ve been able to re-charge the batteries will set the new year off on a bad footing.

Of course, you may be one of those people who finds being stuck with the family more stressful than work, in which case I suggest you volunteer to go in between Christmas and New New Year for your period of relaxation, after all, as we all know, nothing happens in the office then.

Be Like a Curious Interim

December 14, 2015

One of the qualities that marks out a great interim consultant is their ability to understand the problem their new client is dealing with quickly and without fuss.

They come to the situation without the baggage of history and are therefore free from any emotion or relationship issues that might contaminate their judgement.  That’s not to say they are cold and unfeeling, just that they can be objective.


To do this they challenge the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude.  If they feel the problem has some sort of institutional component they can name it as such.

I wish it wasn’t only interims who did this.  How much more positive would it be if employers invited new starters to look objectively at their business once they are on the inside, and to ask questions about how things are done?

I’m not suggesting that the new recruit looks to criticise, nor that the business should be obliged to act on what is raised.  Neither am I saying that the new employee should come up with solutions or alternatives to whatever it is they have noticed.

I’m saying that a new pair of eyes and a free mind can ask innocent questions that encourage the business to think about what they do and why they do it that way.  If the outcome is to do no more than encourage the business to articulate out loud their reasons for certain behaviours then that is really very healthy.

As a counsellor I spend much of my time asking questions of my clients.  Not because I’m nosy, not because I know the answer and want the client to confirm it for me, and not because I believe there’s something to be fixed.  I ask questions to give my client the space to consider why they do what they do, what the underlying, unexamined narrative of that behaviour is, and how that behaviour serves them.

Companies and other employing organisations would surely benefit from a similar opportunity, but it can’t easily be done from within.  It requires a curious outsider, unaware of and therefore unaffected by the internal dynamics or history of the organisation to notice things that are odd, and to ask the innocent question “Why?”

Are you brave enough to ask permission to do this next time you start a new role?  More than that, are you brave enough, as an employer, to ask your new recruits to do it?

How much work do you do for nothing?

November 16, 2015

Here’s a viral that’s going round…

If the amount of time and work that goes into trying to win business makes the endeavour so uneconomical for small suppliers that they stop pitching, the outcome is that they miss out on business, and the client may miss out on the best supplier.

When I first saw this I thought it good that the advertising industry is fighting back on behalf of creatives and consultants.

Then I showed it to a friend who works for a consulting business and he thought otherwise.

Of course the film is ridiculous in many ways but the idea of whether a supplier should be expected to put time and intellectual know-how into a proposal that will likely not result in a fee is worth considering.


Now it’s possible that this self-selection is a good thing, after all, a big project will need significant resources. It would be a disaster if half way through an important change programme the consulting business was forced to admit that they were not well enough resourced to continue with the project.  But is it fair for a freelancer with limited time and resources be expected to make an up-front gamble like this in the hope of winning even a modest amount of work?


Let’s accept that the resources expected to be put into a pitch reflect the size of the project. Should we be worried about the losses incurred by those who are unsuccessful?  The question is, are clients expecting more than necessary from suppliers at the pitch stage?


This is where my friend and I differ.


His view is that this is simply a cost of sales – marketing.  Any agency or individual consultant will expect to win some and lose some.  If they lose too many then they are doing something wrong and need to improve.  Furthermore, they absorb the cost of pitches in the work they successfully win.  The model I have always used is that a third of my time goes on marketing, a third on working and about three quarters on cycling (maybe that’s where I’m going wrong).


My concern is that clients expect too much and encourage potential suppliers to compete at too high a cost to themselves for work, thus making it a much riskier proposition for small agencies and individual freelancers.


What do you think?  Are clients expecting too much and raising the barrier too high for small businesses at the pitch stage?