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.


Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




Cote D’amour: The art of fitting in

February 5, 2015

Alfred Dreyfus was a brilliant student of warfare and military tactics. He was ambitious and dedicated and he was immensely patriotic.  

Against great competition he won a place at the prestigious École de Guerre where he was determined to pass out as the best in his class.  

He didn’t manage that.  He would have been third, an exceptional achievement under any circumstances, but for being marked down to a zero by one of his examiners.  The reason for this zero grade?  Not as simple as you may be thinking. Institutional anti-semitism almost certainly had a part to play, but it wasn’t the whole story.

Although he was intelligent and highly motivated, Dreyfus lacked one important quality:  Côte D’amour; what we might call likability or the ability to fit into a group. 

He lacked warmth as a person, could not do small talk, lacked empathy, had little sense of humour and possessed a dull, monotone voice.  As a result he was not deemed suitable by his superiors for the highest ranks in the armed forces because they felt he would not be liked by his colleagues or subordinates.  

Côte d’amour is important for everyone at work and it is definitely something that can be worked on and improved, but it’s not easy. Many don’t even realise that they need to work on it and it is rarely pointed out in appraisals, partly because it’s often hard to put your finger on why someone doesn’t fit in – it’s just a feeling you get about a person. 

If you’ve ever wondered why you haven’t managed to progress beyond a certain level in your career, or struggle to make a good impression at interviews, it may well be that you lack côte d’amour.

Compromising Positions.

September 23, 2013

I was with a client recently who has parted ways with his former employer under a compromise agreement or, as they are now more palatably known, a settlement agreement.  The subtle change in words suggest something more positively negotiated than a compromise, that has a whiff of reluctance about it. Nonetheless, the outcome is the same, and that outcome usually works for the employer better than for the employee in the long run.

In most cases the reason for the compromise, sorry settlement, is to enable the employer to get rid of someone in circumstances where the employee might other wise have a claim for unfair dismissal for example, where the employee having not performed poorly over a period of time as measured by a performance management programme, or where their role is not being made redundant.


I’ve worked with several people who have agreed to leave an organisation with a generous pay-off (and sometimes a not so generous pay-off) simply because they were at something of a loose end without anything realistic they could do to justify their salary.  Rather than go through a formal redundancy process it’s sometimes easier and more convenient for both parties to agree to part company with an enhanced pay-off.

However, in a small number of cases, the reason is more serious.  It may be that an incident has taken place where the employee has experienced a form of discrimination and rather than drag the employer through a tribunal process, the employer may persuade them (perhaps with good reason) that a quiet settlement would be better for all concerned. Another case I dealt with  concerned an employee not seeing eye to  eye with a newly installed boss (for which read “new boss wanted to bring their own guy in”).  You can see why in such cases  it is important for the employer to draw a line under the affair in order to avoid publicity.

The deal will comprise a pay-off, a nice reference and a gag. The problem for the former employee is that such agreements often lead to curiosity and suspicion and without the ability to explain the circumstances of the departure, the employee may find themselves rejected for another candidate when they apply for another job.  This can be a particular problem at times like these when prospective employers have enough choice of candidates to be able to exclude any that come with unexplained baggage.

Furthermore, it is very unusual for people to leave a job without another to go to when unemployment is high, so people really need to be prepared to answer the question about why they have done so and not assume it will be overlooked. Employees are often on the back foot in such circumstances and this might lead to them agreeing to a deal more rapidly than they ought. With the temptation of a chunky pay-off and a glowingly written reference people often think there’s no downside.  It’s only later on when the restrictions on what they can say start to cause them difficulties.

If you find yourself in this situation take professional advice  to make sure you are thinking about all that needs to be thought about.  Your employer should be prepared to pay for this advice. You also need to be sure you can answer the inevitable interview question – “why did you leave your last job?”  Can you look the interviewer in the eye and give an honest answer?  If not, you haven’t covered well enough what should and shouldn’t be restricted.  Your advisor should be able to help you find a form of words that protect the interests of both parties.  That set of words is critical to your ability to secure a new job so it requires plenty of consideration before you sign the agreement. Remember that you have done nothing wrong and this exercise is for your employers convenience.  Don’t let them make it a future problem for you.

Ten Top Telephone Tips

June 3, 2013

(Well eight actually, but I couldn’t spoil the alliteration.  That said, you never know, I may have come up with a couple more by the time I’ve finished writing this piece).

If you’re anything like me you hate using the telephone.  I don’t like chatting on it, and I really don’t like receiving calls.  Don’t they know I’m doing something and they are disturbing me?

Free stock image of an old phone.  Maybe I could have got an image of a new one if I were prepared to pay for it).

Free stock image of an old phone. Maybe I could have got an image of a new one if I were prepared to pay for it.

Pre-arranged calls are OK for work, I suppose, they are convenient and can be helpful when you want to do no more than exchange information.  I use them regularly to assess potential clients.  It saves us both time, allowing me to understand what the client wants in terms of support. However, unless there are logistical or geographical factors that demand telephone conversations, I strongly resist them for the rest of the coaching or counselling relationship because, quite simply, there is no substitute for being together in a room if you really want to get to know a person.

That’s why telephone interviews have limited value.  They’re useful for screening people out of the interview process but I wouldn’t recommend their use for the latter stages of selection.  Nonetheless, they are used frequently and it’s worth understanding how to be at your best when you’re facing one.

  1. Speak slowly and clearly.  Not like some weird person who is teaching pronunciation.  Just remember that without the visual clues, and because the quality of sound of the ‘phone may be variable, you won’t be as clear as in a face to face conversation.
  2. Speak with more intonation.  Again, I’m not saying you lack vocal animation, but over the telephone you really need to work your voice a bit harder.  Modulate it, i.e. focus on stress, pitch, tonal variation and volume.  That doesn’t mean do everything louder.  It means use more variety in your expression.  That keeps the other person listening when they have nothing to look at except their emails. (Oh yes, they’ll be doing that.)
  3. Stand up and walk about.  To help with the above, being on your feet is a good tip.  Your lungs have more space to work and people generally find it easier to express themselves when they are able to move freely.  This is one of the things you can do in a telephone interview that you can’t do in a face to face interview.
  4. Use a quiet room. You don’t need distractions, so decide where you should be and pick the right time for the call.  Make it a room you can move about in if you can.
  5. Use a well-baffled room.  you don’t need to sound like you are talking from inside an oak barrel.
  6. Spread you paperwork out on a large table in a way that it is easy to view.  Then when you’re asked a question it’s easy to find your notes without shuffling papers.  That doesn’t mean prepare scripts, far from it.  These would be the same “aide memoire” type jottings you would possibly take into a face to face interview.
  7. Have a picture of your interviewer.  If you know who will be interviewing you try to find an image of them on the internet.  Linkedin would be my first port of call. Print it off and use it as a focal point during your conversation to remind yourself that you are not standing in a room alone talking out loud, but that you are in conversation with another person and you are trying to build rapport with them.
  8. Smile. People can hear you smile over the phone.  Yes, it’s been said a million times before but it’s true.  It goes back to the stuff about intonation.

Anyway, there you have it.  Sorry I couldn’t add any more tips to make it up to ten, without them really being variations on any of the above, the sort of thing you would do in a face to face interview, or just lame.  Please feel free to send in a response with your own tips to make the list up to ten.

Linkedin Profiles for Job Searchers

April 23, 2013

I know, I know, all this social media is really tedious for the over 40’s.  The rest of you probably don’t need to read this, and why should you?  What can a (nearly) fifty year old tell you about using the interweb?

Not me.  You can buy this T-shirt at http://www.zazzle.co.uk/linkedin+gifts (Now hopefully they won't me using their image).

Not me.
You can buy this T-shirt at http://www.zazzle.co.uk/linkedin+gifts (Now hopefully they won’t hound me for using their image).

Probably nothing.  But I have been gathering my thoughts about Linkedin.  These are not the thoughts of a gunslinging socmedguru, although I do still wear T-shirts with provocative slogans from time to time.  Instead, they are the thoughts of a person who likes to think he knows a bit about the job search process and who has been fiddling around with a Linkedin presence for a few years also.

Furthermore, to prove I am fully au fait with the internet age, the contents of this article is the result of internet research.  In other words, I did a quick Google search, found a few lousy articles (probably much like this) lifted a couple of ideas, mixed in my own et voila, and original piece.  Just for you.  Call it “a literature review” if you like,  that’s the way they describe plagiarism these days.  You’ll notice that, like so many other blog articles these days, it is in the form of a boring list of “dos and don’ts”.  Apparently that’s the most effective way to communicate nowadays.  Lists of stuff.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, How to create a great Linkedin in profile.  There’s loads to talk about so this cannot go into everything.  Just a few things that I think make a big difference.

  1. Get a professional profile picture.  In almost every other respect your Linkedin page is like your CV.  However, one of the big differences is that this is a searchable public document.  You want strangers to look for it and to be interested in you.  A good quality photo helps.  A lousy picture is a bad thing.  No picture makes you look like you can’t be bothered.  No holiday snaps.  No pets, family, or full body images of you taking up 10% of the frame because you want us to see the beautiful landscape, no busy backgrounds.  Just a good head and shoulders shot against a plain background.  Look like you’re at work.
  2. Your Professional headline.  Describe yourself as a professional:  Marketing Director, Senior Finance Professional, Property Lawyer.  be truthful, but use the language that people searching for someone like you might use.  There’s no point in giving yourself an obscure title because the chances are you won’t be spotted.  Some people also like to add a few words like “Seeking new opportunity” to indicate they are available for work.  Don’t be shy about doing this.  People looking for you won’t think any the worse if you are not currently working.  They know there are plenty of talented people out there looking for work.  Make it easier for them to spot you.  You have a big advantage in being available to work.
  3. Summary.  Unlike your CV where you should limit the amount of space assigned to this, on your Linkedin profile you can go into a little bit more detail because nobody is counting pages.  That said, it is not an invitation to ramble. Your objective is to communicate, succinctly, what it is you might bring to any organisation.  Since you don’t know who is looking at it or what they are looking for, you need to keep it reasonably general, but not so general that it reads like it could be by or about anyone.  Don’t fall into the trap of using universal platitudes – stick to meaningful facts.  Tell the reader a little about your background, your level, where you have worked, etc, and tell them some stuff that will make you stand out from the crowd.  Particular relevant experience, languages, overseas experience, significant projects, that sort of thing.
  4. Experience.  Describe  achievements, not responsibilities.
  5. Be proactive on Linkedin.  Most people set up a profile and then ignore it.  The way to be noticed, to come up on when people search, and to prove yourself and knowledgeable is to participate.  The way to do this is by joining Groups (up to 50) related to your area.  Recruiters are also in these groups and they will see you there.  Don’t make a nuisance of yourself by spending your whole time in those discussions, but do drop by regularly and offer a comment if you have something useful to add.
  6. Be visible, not anonymous.  When you visit someone’s profile you want them to know you visited, unless you’re a spy or possibly journalist.  Go to Edit Profile, scroll down to the bottom of the page where you will find a heading entitled Connections and the option to Customise Visibility.  Click on this and make sure your connections can see your other connections – that’s what networking is about. Then behind the dialogue box you’ll see a list under Privacy Controls.  Choose Select what others see when you’ve viewed their profile and make sure the first option, Your name and headline is active.

I know this article may give the impression that I find the whole business of Linked in tedious and wearisome.  that’s not entirely true.  I just find all the blabber about it tedious and wearisome.  I also get fed up with the way it is badly used by job seekers.  Linkedin is not networking.  It is a tool to aid networking.  Having a Linkedin profile doesn’t bring waves of job offers to your inbox, it just makes it easier for you to do your job, which it to find people to connect with who may be able to help you.  The above tips just highlight some of the many ways I have noticed that people fail to make best use of their Linkedin presence.

How not to answer the “Weakness” question

March 11, 2013

Here are five ways not to answer the question:  “Tell me about your main weakness”.

I don’t have a weakness
Everyone has a weakness.  In fact everyone has several weaknesses.  If you don’t know your weakness then you lack self-awareness and self-awareness is what this question is trying to uncover.  Of course you could say your weakness is lack of self-awareness, but I wouldn’t.

I don’t suffer fools gladly
Then you’d better become an artist who doesn’t sell their work.  Fools surround us all and we have to suffer them.  This is possibly the smuggest and most transparent answer you can give.  All it is trying to say is “I’m clever and I don’t have time for people who aren’t clever like me (and you, the interviewer)”.  It doesn’t wash.  It’s such a cliché that it actually makes you look like a fool.

I’m not very good at managing my diary 
Big deal.  You’ve probably got someone to manage your diary for you.  You may as well tell them you don’t make good coffee.  However senior you are, find a weakness that is relevant to your level of seniority, not several ranks below.

How long have you got?
OK, so honesty is generally a good principle at work, but that doesn’t mean you need to demonstrate it by telling the interviewer that you are not afraid to admit you have loads of weaknesses.  When you go into the room be ready with two weaknesses and offer the first.  If they ask for another then offer that one.  Don’t encourage the interviewer to turn the question into a confessional.

honesty 1Honesty 2

Not explaining how you manage your weakness
Admitting to a weakness is only the start point of the answer.  The remainder is explaining how you manage that weakness.  Remember this when you tell the interviewer that you don’t suffer fools gladly.

If you want to learn how to answer this question well, and garner plenty of other useful interview skills, join me on March 21st in London for my Interview Preparation workshop.  Click here for further details and registration