salary when you don’t know what the job is, illegal interview questions, and more

It’s short answer Sunday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Being asked about salary when you don’t even know what the job is

I have a question about networking and salary. I have a great networking contact who is in management at a company I want to work for. He told me to apply for a general position (not from a listing) and use his name. The hr contact he gave me got right back to me and thanked me for my interest and asked my salary requirements.

I really don’t know how to respond to this. I’m not even applying for a specific job and don’t have a real idea of what the job entails! I don’t want to price myself out of an interview and I don’t want to lowball myself either. It feels weird to go back to my contact and ask for his advice, but it also feels weird to start arguing with HR over a hypothetical job and salary. Thoughts?

They’re asking because they assume that you, like most people, have a certain range that you’re looking for that corresponds with the type of work you’re seeking to do and the level that you’re at. But it’s certainly reasonable to respond with, “Well, without having a specific position to discuss, it’s difficult to give a specific answer, but in general I’m looking for a position doing XYZ. I’d be glad to talk salary once we’re able to talk about a specific role!”

That said, be prepared for this to be met with skepticism, because they’ll assure you still have a salary range in mind, regardless (which you probably do — it’s just silly for them to be starting there before even hinting at what type of role they’d be considering you for).

2. Talking with multiple recruiting companies without it getting back to my employer

I am in a very comfortable job that I like a lot (3+ years, first job) but I have started to look around for a similar position with more responsibility or a different set of tasks.

I always thought I would be searching for a while for positions in this very specialist field in this small (non-U.S.) area, and I was fine with that. Now it turns out there is a lot of demand for someone with my profile and work experience, and I have had several recruiting companies contacting me without even knowing that I was looking. Do you have any advice on how to coordinate different recruiting companies wanting to talk about job opportunities? I am very hesitant in giving out my information to multiple people since I currently do not want word of my search spreading too far. Are there any unwritten rules that I should be aware of?

If they’re contacting you without knowing that you’re looking, it’s fine to say, “I’m happy where I am now, but I’d be glad to talk with you with the caveat that I need to keep our discussions confidential for now. I wouldn’t want my employer to think I was actively looking to leave.” Which is true.

3. Applying for an internship after being rejected for an entry-level position

I have several companies that I would really like to work for and have applied to entry-level positions there. If I get rejected, is it acceptable to try again for an intern-level position, or will that look inappropriate? (My financial situation means that I really need to try to have a more substantial income if I can, but I will take an internship and work something out if I have to.)

Yes, you can do that.

4. Should I complain to an employer for asking me illegal interview questions?

I interviewed for a position at a small nonprofit (4 full-time staff members). I had two interviews; both were with the executive director and the person I would be replacing (the executive director’s #2). I was highly qualified for the job, had excellent chemistry with both staff members and the organization, and felt confident with my answers to their questions. I was not hired.

During the course of the interview, I was asked several questions by both staff members that I know are illegal. These included, “Do you have children?” and “Where did you grow up?” The one that especially bothered me was about where I lived and “How long is your commute?” I live in a suburb but no more than 30 minutes from the city and it is an average commute (i.e., all my neighbors do it and my last commute was 80 minutes). This came up again in my second interview. There was nothing in the job description, nor did anyone tell me the job required urban residency. I know a lot of these questions came up conversationally but I still feel bothered by it.

I was rejected in a voicemail. I emailed a thank you and got a pleasant thank-you back. I want to reply and let them know they are asking illegal questions and while I won’t press charges or while I don’t care, they should know if they want to grow their organization. But a part of me thinks I am just bitter and should let it go. Thoughts?

Yes, let it go. These are not illegal interview questions. In fact, there’s no such thing as an illegal interview question, other than questions asking about disabilities. All the other ones that people think are illegal — questions about kids, marital status, ethnicity, religion, etc. — aren’t illegal. What’s illegal is making a decision based on the answers, and so as a result, smart interviewers don’t ask them — no point in asking a question that (a) you can’t take into consideration and (b) might make the candidate think you’re going to illegally base your decision on.

What’s more, even the law preventing employers from making decisions based on the answers to these questions wouldn’t apply in this case, because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act only applies to employers with 15 employees or more, so this employer isn’t even covered by it. And what’s more on top of that, asking where you grew up (unless it’s designed to get at ethnicity or national origin) or how long your commute is isn’t even sketchy; they’re pretty common get-to-know-you questions.

All of which means, let it go and move on.

5. Should I keep recommending this former intern or should I decline?

I’ve recently served as a reference for an intern who worked under me a couple of years ago. His work was sub-par and I wasn’t particularly impressed with his soft skills either. I’ve been recommending him as an act of good will but am wondering what other options I have without ruining his chances for the positions he’s applying to now? Should I continue to recommend him or can I decline?

Please decline. Would you want someone recommending you hire a candidate whose work was sub-par? Your own credibility is at stake here; you’re vouching for work that you know isn’t good. Tell him you no longer feel comfortable acting as a reference for him.

6. Recovering from a bad interview when you’ll want to apply again

I have a question about recovering from an awful interview, when the organization is one that you’ll need to apply to again. I recently had my first post-grad school interview for a contract position with a regional government. I prepared in advance by brushing up on Excel, reading about the acts covered by the department, studying the position, and practicing interview questions. I felt well prepared (thanks in no small part to your interview guide).

But the interview was terrible. The interviewers asked questions that I wasn’t expecting (I understood the job to be focused on client service; the questions were much more technical and covered ground not outlined in the position). The only opportunity to address how I would be a good fit in terms of experience and personality was at the very end, during the “do you have anything to add?” stage. I don’t think I did all that well on the skills test, largely from the stress of what I knew was a bad interview, but partly because I didn’t have the level of technical skill that I was expecting to need from the job description. Overall, just a bust.

My question is, how do I proceed when applying to future postings with this organization? Should I just lay low for six months or so? I live in a rural region, and this is one of the major employers for people with my background. Honestly, I’m just thrown. I feel like it was such a bad way to start off my job search, and I’m embarrassed by my performance.

Assuming you don’t get the job, follow up with them with a gracious note, and say that you realized in the interview that you didn’t have the technical skills for this particular position, that you hadn’t realized that beforehand, but that you’re very interested in working with them in some capacity and that you hope that won’t mind if you’re in touch in the future about openings that seem like a better fit. Then do so.

This is a good approach because it will show that you understand why this wasn’t the right fit and that you’re not clueless about what your strengths are, and it will set you up applying again in the future. That assumes, though, that the company is smaller enough that anyone will remember or care — if they’re large enough, no one will and this won’t matter at all.

7. How should I approach this potential networking contact?

I’ve read several of your responses about not asking for informational interviews when you really want a job interview, and I’m not sure what I want or what’s appropriate. Recently I was browsing LinkedIn and came across the profile of someone whose list of certifications and resume matches what I’d like mine to look like in the future. He’s employed by a company whose work I’m impressed with and works on projects that I find interesting and lives in a city where I’m planing on relocating.

He viewed my profile and added me as a connection and then a few days later viewed my profile again. I’d like to send him a message to ask if he has some time to answer some questions about how to grow my career, but also would like to ask him to keep me in mind for future openings. Is this a bad idea?

Start with the first part and hold off on the second for now. He doesn’t know you yet and has no reason to keep you in mind for future openings. The value that he really brings to you is that his career looks like what you’d like yours to look like, so focus on that. Send him a note telling him exactly that and ask if he’d be willing to let you pick his brain about his career path and how you can follow a similar one. (And then make sure you come prepared with good questions; it’s frustrating when you make time for a request like this and then the person doesn’t have many questions to ask.)

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