Do you really want to work there?
Look out for these red flags when considering a job offer
by Josh Doody
It’s tempting to see a job offer as an unequivocally good thing, but sometimes there are good reasons to avoid certain companies and situations.
Here are some red flags to look out for when interviewing and negotiating your salary.
Jump to a red flag:
- The recruiter won’t continue interviews without salary details
- Private company is offended when you question their equity valuation
- They retract your offer when you negotiate
You’ve probably heard me say that you should not disclose your current or expected salary when asked for it during your job interviews or salary negotiations.
A common follow up question to that guide is…
I didn’t disclose my current or expected salary, but now the recruiter says we can’t continue the process unless I share that information. What do I do?
There’s a bigger question at play here, and I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider when you run into that aggressive recruiter who won’t talk to you because you won’t share personal information with them.
So here’s my answer to that question:
Do you really want to work there?
This is a difficult message to communicate because it’s so counterintuitive. If you’re interviewing with a company and talking about salary numbers, of course you want to work there, right?
But maybe not. Let’s take a step back and look at the situation from a different vantage point.
Looking at the bigger picture
You want or need a job. This company has a job to be done, and they’re considering you as a candidate for that job.
So far, so good.
They have your resume, they know your work history, they have talked to you in interviews and over email. They know their budget for this particular job. They’ve probably done some market research to see what the going rate is for the kind of job they’re trying to fill. They know how many other candidates they’re considering. They know how badly they need to fill the job.
They already have a lot more information than you do.
Now they need to decide if you are the right candidate for the job.
But before they do that, they need to know your salary history and salary expectations. Huh? What does that have to do with anything?
If they want you to do the job and they know how much they have budgeted to fill the role, why not just make you an offer based on the value they think you’ll bring to the role?
Instead, they want even more information from you. Furthermore, they’re not willing to make you an offer based on the value they perceive you’ll bring to their company.
They’re taking a shot at getting that info—more power to them!
But you don’t have to share that info, so you reply, “I’d rather not say.”
If their response to that is, “We can’t continue.”, that’s a bad sign. It tells you that they aren’t looking for a good candidate with your qualifications who can do good work and add value to their company.
Instead, they’re looking for a bargain. You don’t want to be a bargain.
This may be the nicest they’ll ever be to you.
This is the courtship phase of your relationship: They should be trying to convince you to join their team. They should be selling you, which means there’s a good chance that this is the friendliest, most copacetic phase of your relationship with this company.
If they’re pushing you around and demanding your personal information while they’re trying to woo you to join their team what will it be like once they’ve convinced you to take the lowest salary they could offer and shunted you off to your desk in the basement?
How likely are they to give substantial raises for the high-quality work you will do? How flexible will they be when you want to explore a new career path?
This is difficult to do in practice. It will be a little uncomfortable.
But if you you don’t share your current or expected salary and the recruiter shuts down the conversation, that’s a big red flag that this isn’t the kind of company you want to work for. Find a better opportunity to work for a company that values you and your work.
Don’t be a commodity.
The negotiation began pretty normally, and they even moved a little bit on salary. But then the recruiter suddenly tightened up and even became defensive and a little combative.
Can you guess what set him off?
We asked them to double the equity since they couldn’t move very much on base salary. Sure, that’s a pretty big ask, but not uncommon for Software Developers right now.
This is a pre-IPO “startup”, which means their equity doesn’t have real value yet because it’s not publicly traded and we can’t do our own valuation of the company because their books aren’t open to the public.
Even their method for showing the possible value of their own equity included a lot of uncertainty: They sent a spreadsheet with “low”, “medium”, and “high” potential outcomes for the value of their based on a hypothetical, as-yet-unscheduled IPO. (They went with the “medium” option.)
Arguing over the value of Monopoly money
Their equity offer—a significant component of the total value they put on the offer—is basically Monopoly money. And we asked for more of that equity as a last-ditch effort for my client to improve the offer somehow before deciding whether this company was the right place for them.
Instead of compromising, the company asked why my client wanted more equity. His answers were reasonable: they’re not public yet, so imputing a real value on the equity is extremely difficult; while he appreciated their internal valuation for their own pre-IPO stock, he felt their valuation was optimistic given recent news and market conditions he had observed; he would be leaving a stable job with a large raise coming soon for a riskier situation and wanted the upside for that risk to be higher.
They didn’t like those answers and actually said it rubbed them the wrong way that he would question their own valuation of their stock:
“It didn’t sit very well with our Finance team that you questioned our equity valuation.”
Watch out for red flags
This was a big red flag for my client. Nobody really knows the value of a private company whose books aren’t open for public review.
This company was just trying to get a relatively cheap Software Engineer by keeping the salary lower than his market value while making up for some of that gap with over-valued equity.
And when my client said, “I think your valuation is a little rich and would like more equity to make my numbers work.”, the recruiter got defensive.
This is the time when the company should be working its hardest to get good candidates to help it grow and get ready for its IPO. Instead, it’s looking for cheap labor and arguing about the value of Monopoly money.
That’s a red flag that things inside the company may not be going well, and it could be a very difficult place to work.
In the end, my client decided to go with a better option at a company who didn’t mind a little light negotiation and I got another item to add to my list of red flags to look for when considering an opportunity.
You have agency when choosing where you work. If you see red flags during your negotiation, pay attention to them and consider other options if the red flags start to pile up.
Jim felt like he ran into a dead end at his job, and missed being challenged and having opportunities to try new things. He had a strong Mechanical Engineering resume that landed him plenty of job interviews, but he struggled to get call-backs. So he hired me to help.
His interviewing technique improved dramatically as we worked together, and he made it through several rounds of interviews for an exciting opportunity at a promising company in his field.
It seemed like a job offer might be on the way!
The recruiter asked about his current salary, which he declined to share. She seemed a little frustrated, and shared the salary range for the role he had interviewed for. The range she provided looked like this:
Principle Mechanical Engineer: Low-end salary - Medium salary - High-end salary
She asked if that salary range and job title sounded reasonable. Jim said:
“…It’s hard to react without a specific offer including benefits and everything else, but that’s definitely in the ballpark! If we move on to the formal offer phase, and I have a chance to review all the details and a chance to talk things over with my family, I’ll be able to give a more specific response.”
This is where things start to get a little confusing. Remember, the recruiter said, “If we offer you this job with this salary range, would that be reasonable?” Jim basically said, “Sure, I would consider it!”
But the recruiter responded that…
The information you provided me is still very vague.
So if we made you an offer with the title : Principle Mechanical Engineer at [Medium salary from the range suggested earlier] + Benefits, you’ll consider it?
This was a mixed bag. On one hand, there’s definitely a red flag that the recruiter said she felt Jim was being vague, and then asked him if he would accept a hypothetical job offer.
On the other hand, at least we have a more precise number to work with now!
Yes, I would definitely consider an offer for the Principle Mechanical Engineer position with [that salary] plus other benefits.
As I mentioned, I would want to consider the salary among all other factors around pay and benefits, as well as consider the full opportunity with my family if and when we get there. But the offer you described sounds pretty good to me.
Now the recruiter had everything she needed to make an offer that she knew Jim would at least consider. We were just waiting for an offer to consider and negotiate.
Sure enough, she made an offer!
But the offer she actually made was below the “Medium salary” she had previously suggested with the hypothetical job offer. She had suggested a specific number in the hypothetical phase of the discussion, then reduced it by $4,000 when she made the actual offer.
Another red flag.
She also said Jim had 6 days to “accept, decline or counter” (her words) from the date I receive it officially.
At least she had firmly left the door open to negotiate. It seemed like the original “medium” salary was available, so we could hope to negotiate at least that amount.
Suddenly, things went sideways.
It was sort of a painful process to get a firm offer, but at least we knew the company would consider paying a higher salary than offered and the recruiter explicitly said countering was an option.
So Jim sent an email countering about 15% above the offer—still well below the “High salary” that the recruiter had shared earlier.
He quickly got a reply from the recruiter:
Well, this is why we discuss these things before we waste everyone’s time. I will bring your “counter offer” to my hiring team and HR.
And just a short while later, she followed up with:
You never provided your current salary. I provided you with compensation ranges and without this information all we have to go by is internal equity of the level as a Principal Mechanical Engineer (which is the highest you qualify for). We have declined your counter offer…
He emailed back asking if that meant they were fully retracting the offer or if it just meant that they were standing firm on the initial offer.
She didn’t respond to his email, so he called her directly. She didn’t answer and didn’t return his calls.
She totally ghosted him. Jim still hasn’t heard back from her since that last email.
Why we celebrated when Jim lost this job offer
You might be thinking, “Woah! That really blew up in Jim’s face!” But Jim and I ended up celebrating this as a huge victory. Why?
Here’s a short recap of Jim’s experience “negotiating” with the first company who eventually retracted the offer and stopped speaking to him:
- They asked for his current salary, but he didn’t share it.
- They suggested a range of salaries for the position - Low, Medium, High - and asked if he would consider an offer in the “Medium” range.
- He said he would consider such an offer.
- They made an offer below the “Medium” range they had suggested and said he could “accept, decline or counter” (those were the exact words from the recruiter).
- He chose “counter” and countered about 15% above their offer (still well below the “High” part of the range they told him earlier).
- The recruiter implied that talking to Jim had been a waste of time and that she would run his “counter offer” by HR.
- The recruiter then got back to Jim and said they had declined his counter offer.
- Jim asked for clarification on whether the original offer stood or not.
- The recruiter ignored him.
- Jim called the recruiter to talk about the situation.
- The recruiter ignored his calls and never returned his voicemails.
Looking back on that experience with the other company, one question keeps coming to mind:
WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD JIM WANT TO WORK FOR A COMPANY THAT TREATS CANDIDATES THAT WAY?!
The recruiting process is typically when the company wants to put its best foot forward and make the best impression so they attract the best candidates to join their team.
This isn’t a simple case of “Jim negotiated so they pulled the job offer.”
The recruiter suggested they would offer a salary higher than they did, and asked Jim to pre-commit to accepting it. When she offered a lower-than-suggested salary and he negotiated well within the range they told him the job would pay, he completely stopped talking to him. She even mocked his “counter offer” a little bit and implied he had wasted her time.
So if this experience is the best they have to offer, what’s it like to actually work for them? Probably pretty awful.
Fortunately, Jim had been interviewing with another company at the same time. They made a slightly better offer and were very friendly throughout the subsequent negotiation. Now he’s working there, making more money and he loves what he’s doing and feels great about the career opportunities that lie ahead of him at a solid company.
That’s something worth celebrating.
Another real-world example: Carrie was relieved when they rescinded her product manager job offer
Here’s another story from Carrie, who read about Jim’s story and reached out to share her own situation.
Thank you for this great story! I had a very similar experience recently and it is good to know I am not the only one out there.
Having recently completed my MBA and in the process of pivoting careers, I have been job searching pretty seriously for about 2 months. A couple weeks ago, I received a call from a recruiter from a company for a position that I had not even applied for (this probably might have been my first clue that something was up).
He told me he had this great position as a product manager. I would have full responsibility for a line of products in this growing company with tons of opportunity for future growth. It sounded exciting and like a great opportunity. He said he would talk directly to the hiring manager and get back to me.
Two hours later, he calls me back. They wanted to meet with me! We scheduled an interview for a few days later. Then he says, “Ok, before you go to this interview, I need to brief you about some things.” Ok, well that sounded a little strange. The HR recruiter for the company then goes on to tell me what I needed to know before meeting with the hiring manager, “Bring 3 copies of your resume, don’t use staples, he likes paperclips, when you go in to his office, don’t touch his desk, he likes to talk about himself, so don’t talk too much.” What?! Was this guy kidding?
Needless to say, I thought about not showing up to the interview. However, it was the first call I had gotten about a job since starting my search, I needed the interview practice, and I was morbidly curious, so I decided to go.
And they were super nice! The interview lasted about 2 hours, they talked about the company, its history, and how they thought I could fit in to their culture and their team. They invited me back for a second interview the following week. I was so excited!
The next week, I went in for the second interview. We talked briefly about salary, they had me choose and office and told me they would be sending a letter out later that day via e-mail. (This was when I looked up your website, by the way. I wanted to be prepared to negotiate.)
I received an offer letter from their HR department the next morning, a Tuesday. It was a reasonable offer, enough that I could live on, but not up to what the position should have paid, there certainly seemed like room for negotiation. I responded to HR within the hour, “Thank you, may I have some time to think about it.” He responded saying they would like a response within 48 hours. Wow, that is not much time, but I started drafting my negotiation letter.
That afternoon, I got another phone call. It was from the hiring manager, the EVP of the company. He asked why I had not accepted the offer yet. I let him know that I was thinking about it, I had some other companies interested in me and I wanted to make the best choice for myself and my family.
He EXPLODED! (this is the guy I had been warned about, apparently he had been hiding this side of himself throughout the job interview)
He was obviously angry, and seemed to think that I had personally offended him in some way. “That offer was fair and reasonable, way above the max for that position! I will not be PLAYED like that! If you don’t want to accept our offer, we are rescinding it!” Mind you, by that last sentence, he was practically yelling. This was literally hours after receiving the offer, I had not even begun to negotiate yet.
After that, I politely said, “Thank you, have a great day.” And man, I meant it. He really did me a favor. I cannot imagine having to work for a company that treats candidates like that. What would working there be like?
It turns out, I should have listened to HR, and my gut feeling in the beginning. But I am so glad I didn’t take that first offer. I will always try to counter, even if it doesn’t work, you learn a lot about the company in the process.