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.




Beware the Linkedin Recruiter Scam

December 7, 2015

The BBC is reporting a scam targeting Linkedin users looking to make connections with recruiters.

Job seekers are especially vulnerable because they are delighted to be invited to connect with recruiters and they rarely check the credentials of the person inviting them to connect.

By joining the target’s contact list the process of building trust and gaining useful information for later exploitation begins.


There’s no evidence that this activity is particularly widespread at the moment but it’s certainly worth taking simple precautions.

  1. As the articles suggests, do a reverse image search on the photo.
  2. Also, use one of the many free plagiarism checking sites to see if the profile or other content have been lifted from elsewhere.
  3. A search for the company may also help, but be aware that some of the more sophisticated scammers will have set up convincing websites so be careful.
  4. Check if the recruiter is a member of one of the professional bodies such as the REC, ARC, APSCo or the IoR.  If they claim to be so then check with that body as well.
  5. Use your common sense.  If it smells funny it probably is.  Don’t let your desire for a job make a fool of you.  That’s exactly how these people operate.

Remember another thing as well: you don’t need to connect with recruiters on Linkedin.  If they think they can help you then they should send you an InMail message.  They often try to avoid this because they have to pay for InMail but the downside for you of accepting a contact request is that you give them access to your full profile. Better, if at all possible, to conduct your relationship with recruiters directly.

Don’t let this put you off using the Linkedin.  As I’m always saying, it’s a great tool for your networking activity. Just remember that networking with fellow professionals is not at all the same as networking with recruiters.  As with any contact request, be very careful who you allow to be in your network. This useful article looks at how scammers exploit Linkedin in other ways.

You’ve probably heard it before but it’s worth repeating:  the internet is like the wild west.  Be cautious.

Why Volunteer?

October 19, 2015

It’s five thirty am and I’m writing this from a thronging Luton Airport departure lounge. It strikes me that if I picked any house at random in the south-east of England, I’d almost certainly find it empty, the occupants being here at the airport with me. If only I’d chosen to be a burglar rather than a coach, I’d be minting it.

I’m travelling for a few days in my capacity as a trustee for a small charity. I must stress that this is not a glamorous task, in fact I’d really rather not be doing the travelling, but volunteering for the charity more generally is important and fulfilling, and as with most activities, there is good and bad. You just need to make sure that the good outweighs the bad.

I'm looking for a volunteer. Hands up!

I’m looking for a volunteer.  Hands up!

Volunteering is one of my recommendations for a healthy, balanced life and it’s good for work on a number of levels.

No job perfectly matches our skills, interests and values. Taking on the right voluntary role allows you to derive satisfaction where work may not offer it. As a sole trader, my charity role allows me to work with others and to take on leadership opportunities.

For someone in employment or looking for a job, having an alternative source of achievements can certainly enhance career prospects. A recent example was that of an accountant, qualified overseas who was struggling to find work in the UK owing to a lack of local knowledge and experience. My suggestion was to find a charity that would allow her work on a part time basis. She gets experience, they benefit form her expertise and skills.

If we’re lucky our job allows us to learn about something we are genuinely interest in, but that’s not the case for everyone, and even if it is, most people have wider interests than their job caters for. Working for a charity allows me to develop my interest in this other area.

In a similar vein, there are activities we enjoy doing, but opportunities for those activities are not always available in the job we have. Charity work may be the answer, enabling us to do some of the things we like outside of employment.

Ideally our values would be shared by our employer and in the work we do, but that’s not always the case. While a charity usually stands for clear enduring values making it easy to support if you share those values, a company’s values are often less clear, and they change depending on economic circumstances and the beliefs and ideals of its leaders. It’s common for a person to join a company whose values in terms of purpose and behaviour they share, yet after a period of time those values diverge and the person finds their beliefs at odds with those of their employer. Finding a charity that allows us to live more authentically according to what we feel is important can solve that problem.

I know many people reading this will be thinking, “that’s all very well but if you have a busy job there’s no time for volunteering”. They’re right, not everyone can or wants to give their spare time away, but if you are one of those people, I encourage you to think about the wider benefits you might derive from voluntary work, not just for your personal well-being, but also for your longer term career goals.

Twenty-somethings and the World of Work

April 16, 2015
“Can you help my child to move their career forward?” is a question I’m often asked.  My first response is to ask whether it’s the child or the parent who is worried.  It’s usually the parent who, understandably, is concerned that their child should start to climb the career ladder and is able to live independently as soon as possible.

If you’re a parent of one of those twenty-somethings, here are a few thoughts that may help you to manage your concerns.

The first thing to say is that it takes time for some people to decide what they want to do and are best suited to.  Don’t worry if your son or daughter spends the first few years of their working life trying different jobs.  this will help them  to work out where their strengths and interests lie.  Are they better suited to working with the public, a close set of colleagues or largely alone?  Do they like to be moving about or sitting behind a desk?  Can they sell? (I always recommend people try at least one job where they have to sell – it’s excellent training for all areas of work). Do they like the cut and thrust of business, or are they better suited to something that is related to social values?

Think of those first few years as a set of extended paid internships and by the end of it they will know themselves pretty well.  I like to think that in the future there will be far fewer people coming to see me around the age of 40 having realised that they have been unhappy for the best part of twenty years because they entered a career without knowing if it really was right for them.

Secondly,  the world of work is probably very different compared with when you started out.  There’s much less long-term careering nowadays.  The workplace is changing so rapidly that skills needs come and go almost overnight.  I think you’re going to see many more people who enter the job market today end up with upwards of four or five different careers behind them.  By the time they end their working life there’s a chance that some of their early jobs will be as obscure and obsolete to their grandchildren as a lamplighter is to us.  In other words, they might look like they are drifting from one thing to another, but the reality is that this is how many people will work in the future.

Which brings me on to my next thought: I don’t think the current generation entering the workforce think about work in the same way as we and our parents did.  Many are still motivated to achieve in a professional sense.  They are concerned about being able to enjoy a good quality of life and they worry about whether they will ever be able to own a property.   Nonetheless, a career (and life more generally) for the next generation will not be about climbing a ladder, but about gathering a range of fulfilling and challenging experiences.

One final thought.  Your children are going to be a long time working.  Much longer than us.  They are going to live longer, and if they retire at 60 or 65 they’re going to struggle on a pension plan that will need to stretch for perhaps 40 years.  They know that they are probably still going to be fit enough to work into their 80’s and they know they will probably need to.  Is it any wonder they’re not all champing at the bit to get started on their career now? In a sense they are bringing their retirement forward.  Instead of going on cruises at the end of their working life, they’re going to irrigate African villages at the beginning of it.

In conclusion, don’t worry that your child appears not to be engaging in their career they way you might expect them to do.  They are probably looking it through a different lens.  Their world of work is very different to yours, and the way they are approaching it probably looks strange to you, but not to them.

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.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

November 6, 2013

Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director, often remarks that the key to the success of Team GB cycling over recent years is what he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  These almost unnoticed changes to the way the athletes train eat, rest, as well as the small tweaks to their bikes may not make a marked difference alone, but when combined with many other tiny improvements they do effect significant improvement.

Individually they may seem so marginal as not to warrant the effort required to put into them.  Is it really worthwhile removing a tyre and re-fitting it just because it could be set on the wheel slightly better?  Brailsford would say yes, absolutely. If  the combination of all these tiny improvements means the difference between gold and silver there is no doubt that it is worthwhile.

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

The principle is relevant to all areas including job search.  Indeed, especially job search because when going for a job there is only the gold medal.  There is nothing to celebrate when coming second in job applications. Either you get the job or you don’t.

There are many tiny things you can do to make a marginal improvement in your application process.  Here are a handful of ideas.

Networking is the key to increasing your chances of finding a new job because the opportunities to network are almost unlimited whereas the number of jobs advertised is.  So add another networking meeting or event to your weekly job search activity.

Have high quality personal business cards made.  Give them to people.

Be proactive in your relationships with recruiters.  Don’t sit and wait for the phone to ring.  Keep in contact with them but don’t pester them.  Seek their advice about how you can improve your performance in the job market.

At this time of year wear a poppy unless doing so compromises your personal ethics.  It is unlikely to offend anyone, but it will, in a small way, send a positive message about you as a person to the person who is interviewing you.

Phone the recruiter or HR person before applying for any clarification that will help you to construct a better application.

Phone the recruiter or HR person a day after submission to ensure they received it.  Making voice contact will raise you in their awareness and they will feel a tiny bit familiar with you when they see your application.  Obviously don’t pester them or it will have a negative effect.

Read, re-read, and then give your application to someone else who is good at grammar to read over your CV, cover letter and application form.  The third stage is really worthwhile.  You will miss a lot of errors because your brain has learned to ignore them.  Fresh eyes will almost always pick something up you have overlooked.

Plan your journey to the interview carefully and ensure you are early.  Not on time, early.  Be at the reception 5 – 10 minutes before the appointed time, no more.  That might mean sitting in a coffee shop or taking a walk around the block.  No problem, use the time to relax yourself.

Talking of relaxation, if you tend to get anxious learn some simple relaxation techniques.  Don’t be one of those people who always struggles with nerves in interviews.  You don’t have to be that person.  You can learn to control those nerves.

Take extra time with your grooming and think carefully about what you will wear on at the interview.  Make sure all your clothes are properly cleaned and pressed and men, ties go grubby at the knot after a while.  Wear a clean tie or buy a new one.  Polish your shoes. People often think that appearances shouldn’t matter, and maybe they’re right, appearances shouldn’t matter, but they do.  If you want the job, play along.

If you are rejected for the role seek useful feedback.  That means not simply asking “Is there any feedback?”  because that will most likely get you an answer along the lines of “other candidates were more suitable”.  You need to know what you must do to improve your performance next time, so ask for specific feedback:  “What were you looking for that I lacked?”, “What could I have done differently or better?”  “What advice would you give me if I want to succeed next time?”  You won’t always get useful information this way either, but it’s a better way to ask for feedback.

Of course you could look at all these and many other ways of doing things ever so slightly better, and decide that the effort required is not worth the bother, and if you do that you may keep winning the silver medal.

If you’d like to suggest any more tiny improvements people can make please post them up here.