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Compensation: When Should You Talk About It?

Compensation. It’s the one topic everyone needs to address, but candidates, managers and recruiters alike are often afraid to talk about it.

October 28, 2020 6 minute read

I have been a recruiter for 20 plus years. I cut my teeth in the staffing industry where I worked for 13 years with one company, and have worked for the last 7 as an internal recruiter for WWT. 

During this time, I have found that there are a few key showstoppers for employers and candidates. Four that quickly come to mind are travel, shift work, advancement opportunity and compensation. Yes, skill set is important, but many companies will be flexible here if the candidate is a great cultural fit and has the proper foundation. But if the role mandates shift work or travel and that’s baked into the assignment, it can be a non-starter for a candidate who may have other obligations. 

Most candidates want growth as well. If the role happens to be a dead-end spot or is working with irrelevant topics or technology, these can also be reasons to not pursue an opportunity. The same can be said for compensation. So why are so many people afraid to talk about it? I have a few suspicions based on years in the field.

Why we don't talk about compensation

I think the first reason people do not want to discuss compensation early in the recruitment process is that they do not want to come off as strictly money motivated. Let’s face it, that can be a bad look. And honestly, I do not think most candidates are strictly money motivated. 

Total compensation can be everything from a benefits package, to flexible work schedule, to career advancement and each of these things holds different weight for individual candidates. However, each potential employee also has a personal lifestyle, personal goals and usually other financial obligations that compensation allows them to meet. People do not work for free, nor should they!

Second, I think there is a general mistrust of recruiters or the “corporate machine.” I think candidates, and some recruiters, view compensation as a negotiation where someone has to win and someone has to lose. No one wants to “leave money on the table.” Personally, I view this as an adversarial relationship. If we start out competing with one another, how are we both supposed to flourish long term? 

I understand no one wants to be taken advantage of. A good recruiter should not be attempting to low ball candidates, but they should also be mindful of market rates and corporate financial goals. I have always believed that if you low ball someone, and they take the job, the chance of them sticking around once they start getting calls for roles paying substantially higher, especially if other areas of need like benefits or work life balance are not being met, becomes smaller and smaller. 

A good recruiter should always keep the candidate’s goals and interests in mind and work to get them what they need from a compensation standpoint, if that compensation works with the company goals and market norms. So why are we waiting to talk about it?

Why we should talk about compensation

In my experience, being open and honest about compensation from the very first phone call is critical to a successful recruitment. Is it the first question I ask a candidate? No. I want to figure out their general skill level. I want to understand what they are targeting for their career, and often by ascertaining this, I have a general idea of what their compensation should be. 

If someone is seeking an executive role, but they applied to an engineer opening, there is a good chance that the compensation is going to be way out of line. It’s the recruiter’s job to figure out why the candidate applied to this kind of role and if they are willing to take a substantial step backwards in compensation. If we get to the end of the process only to find out that the candidate truly needs executive compensation, we would have wasted everyone’s time. Why do that? Time is valuable to candidates seeking a new role and to recruiters attempting to fill roles. 

I cannot tell you how many times I have had candidates tell me they would rather wait to the end to discuss compensation. I suspect there is an idea among some candidates that if they just blow the interviewers away enough, they will be able to get any compensation they demand. I can assure you, this is not the case. Most managers simply will not feel comfortable bringing in a new, unproven employee and paying them more than the highest compensated member of their team. It is best to know what the parameters are up front to not waste time with a lengthy interview process.

There are many things that go in to considering compensation, and there is always a little give and take. For instance, at WWT, we have an amazing and incredibly affordable healthcare plan and a very healthy match on our 401k. Given the costs of healthcare for most employees, many candidates will see a raise in real value if they simply make a lateral move. 

This can certainly impact the salary to some degree. I have made it a personal policy to never ask candidates to go backwards in terms of salary, so some candidates can expect to see a real raise in total value of their role with only a minimal raise to their salary.

In the interest of transparency and creating an efficient process that can lead to a great candidate experience through the interviewing journey, it is critical to have the compensation conversation early. There is no shame in knowing your market value and finding out if the role you are interested in meets your personal requirements for compensation. This will assure everyone is on the same page from the very beginning of the process all the way through to the offer and acceptance phase. 

It should not carry any combative or adversarial connotations. Instead, it allows candidates and companies to express their expectations to assure both are met in the end. Should you be willing to walk away if a company can’t match your needs? Absolutely. It is better to do that early in the process instead of figuring it out at the very end. 

By being open and honest, it will assure a positive experience for both the candidate and the company. Additionally, it leaves the door open to an amicable relationship around future roles that may be more in line with everyone’s compensatory needs.

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