A. As a lone job hunter on the short end of the leverage stick, it's easy to see conspiracy in the shadows cast by firms and the agencies that staff them. But you can rest easy on one point: While a recruiter may not care whether the job goes to you or another candidate, it's in his or her interest to secure top dollar for every placement.
'Most recruiting arrangements are strictly fee-based around a percentage that can run from 25% to as much as 35%,' says outplacement consultant Rod Williams at Lee Hecht Harrison. Recruiter Peter Gonye at Spencer Stuart says the standard is usually around 33% of total cash compensation (salary plus bonus).
True, this standard commission-style agreement can be tweaked depending on the situation. For example, a recruiter may earn extra money for completing a search within a very tight timeframe. The arrangement you mention-awarding recruiters a bonus for lower-paid candidates-is 'an interesting incentive,' says Gonye. 'Historically there hasn't been such an arrangement, but it's not unimaginable.'
As to an employer's right to ask about your current salary, the truth is neither pretty nor completely insurmountable. 'Prospective employers absolutely have the right to ask this question, and many do, so be prepared to answer,' says Williams. 'Having a well-planned response to this question is the key to whether you lose any leverage in the negotiation process.'
The best-laid response is founded on research. Do you have a good (realistic) sense of what you're worth? 'You should be doing your homework in terms of researching what colleagues in competitive organizations are making,' says executive coach Maggie Craddock. And resist the temptation to artificially boost your starting point. Firms that ask about your salary history may (and frequently do) require proof in the form of a W2. You may even find yourself disqualified for rounding up your number based on the value of your non-cash benefits.
Now take the fruits of your research into the interview. After revealing your salary and perhaps the range of what you expect to earn in the coming year at your current firm, turn the conversation quickly toward what you ought to make given the market value of your skills and ability to produce. Think of the employer as a buyer, says Williams. 'It's up to you to justify a higher 'selling' price.'
Do recognize, however, that no matter how deftly you handle this part of the interview, it will probably only get you so far. 'Understand that any prospective employer has probably done their own homework on the other side of the supply-demand equation,' says Craddock. 'Most of the time the employer has a budget and a number in mind that is unlikely to be significantly swayed by salary demands on your part.'
It's worth a minor digression to point out that though a prospective employer may have the right to dig into your current salary, the same cannot be said for recruiters who phone you up on fishing expeditions. 'Generally speaking,' says Gonye, 'don't answer the question. It's not something that a well-heeled candidate should indulge in. It becomes an uncontrollable event, someone going around with that information on an unsolicited basis. I can't imagine a useful or positive outcome.'
Finally, while compensation is a hugely important issue, it's not the only one. As so many before you have learned, a fat paycheck does not necessarily herald a fulfilling (or even tolerable) job. Don't sweat the dollars so much that you ignore what your gut is telling you, or you may find yourself facing these questions all over again sooner than you think.
Next week's question:
My employer paid my MBA tuition. However, since earning my degree 18 months ago, I haven't received either a raise or a promotion. I want to leave the company but under the terms of my repayment contract, I will get stuck with most of the bill. Under the circumstances, what are the chances my current employer will enforce the contract, and is the repayment negotiable?
What would you advise? Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look out for the experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week. If you would like to submit a question to our panel of experts, ASK THE EXPERT.