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Danger! Lousy employer ahead

If a potential employer wants proof of your previous salary and gives vague answers to specific questions, bolt for the exit.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

One time, when a company I worked for was in the midst of a hiring binge, I had an illuminating experience. My car was in the shop, so I called a cab to get to the office. Luckily, the taxi company had our home phone on file under my husband's name, because as soon as I told the driver where I was headed, he started his monologue.

"Oh yes, that is a great company to work for," he informed me. "What do you do there?" "Uh, I work in the office," I said. "I type."   "Yes, everyone I know is trying to get a job there," he continued, "and the person to see is Liz Ryan. It is hard to get to this Liz Ryan. She controls the hiring at this company. My cousin knows someone who knows her. I'm going to try to approach her through my cousin. All of us drivers are trying to contact Liz Ryan, to get a job at this company."

The matter of manners
You could say I felt conflicted. Should I own up to my maiden/professional name and identity? I wavered. Finally, I decided that coming out to this cabdriver would not be a good thing, in light of the fact that I regularly took cabs to the airport. Sympathetic as I was to the driver's situation, by spilling the beans I would be setting myself up to convert many future taxicab rides into one-on-one job-seeker pitches. I kept my counsel.

Still, that experience reminded me that hiring managers and human-resources folks have a solemn obligation to the job-seeking public, in that we control who gets hired and who doesn't. Whenever we fill a job, someone will get the nod and others will get a "no thanks" letter — if they're lucky.

When there are fewer jobs than candidates — meaning most of the time — that power to dole out sought-after positions carries with it a serious responsibility: namely, to treat job candidates with respect and courtesy. Unfortunately, we often fall short of that standard.

Early warning
Take the issue of "offer letters," which I raised in this column not long ago. Several readers approved of the advice I offered my friend Bill: to ask for a written offer letter before seriously considering a job opportunity.

But others took exception to my view that all bona fide job offers must be proffered in writing. Astoundingly (to me at least), several HR folks and hiring managers pointed to the time and energy it takes to commit an offer to paper, and said, in effect: "If the candidate doesn't accept the offer over the phone, we won't put it on paper."

On reflection, there's a certain equilibrium at work here. A company that would hesitate to put in writing the details of an offer for full-time, permanent (what we used to call permanent, anyway) employment is a company that any self-respecting candidate should shun. So, the good news is that by broadcasting its priorities to job-seekers up front ("Shoot, I don't have 40 minutes to get you an offer letter made up ... do you want the blinkin' job, or should I call the next name on the list?"), such a company will do a good job of securing the second-tier candidates it so richly deserves. More discerning candidates will simply keep looking.

Time for a cab?
I started thinking about the loud, ugly message that is conveyed when an employer balks at the simple request to put an offer in writing, and came up with several more "runaway" scenarios for the benefit of people currently on the job market. Any of these red flags is sufficient cause to remove yourself from consideration by a given employer.

At a minimum, if you run into one of these situations, you can dig more deeply to find out what's up and whether the opportunity is compelling enough to get you to overlook the slight. For your own benefit, I would ask a lot of questions — and keep your cab fare handy — if any of these warning signs turn up in a job search:

They request verification of your current salary in the form of a W-2 or tax return.
If you're surprised to hear that this is a common practice, then I'm happy for you — many job seekers have been dealing with it for years. If a company believes what you've said about your accomplishments and challenges at past jobs, if it believes what you've said about your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, and everything else you discussed at the interview, but can't believe what you say about your past earnings without written proof — then it doesn't deserve you.

This practice is so unspeakably tacky that I can hardly move my fingers over the keys to write this, but run — RUN — away from a company that asks for proof of your past compensation.

They refuse to share key documents with you, including the employee handbook.
I put this issue to an HR e-mail group I belong to, and one of the participants wrote back saying: "It's an employee handbook, not an applicant handbook."

Oh baby, is this the state of human resources today? Given that an employee handbook governs the employment relationship, and given that you'll be asked — or rather, compelled — to sign off on the handbook on your first day of work, you need to have a look at the blasted thing.

Also, ask yourself, what kind of weird, paranoid company would have any hesitation about sharing the employee handbook with a promising job candidate? What's in it? The blueprint for the company's next hot product? I mean, seriously.

They refuse to allow you meet the rest of the team.
Now let's see. If you take this job, you'll spend 8 or 10 hours a day, five days a week with these people — more time than you spend with your spouse or loved ones. Before meeting them, you'll have no idea whether this company employs brilliant, enthusiastic high-performers or drooling cretins. Wouldn't you like to meet them? Also, if you were already on the team and a key new hire was being considered, wouldn't you like to meet him or her?

Be afraid of an employer who won't let the team members mingle with civilians. A one-hour meeting with the whole team, just before an offer is extended, is plenty. If there's any aversion to this sort of friendly chat, think about what it will be like to work for the company.

What, after all, is it afraid of? That meeting your colleagues might scare you away? That your life-altering decision about this career opportunity doesn't justify pulling five or six people away from work for 45 minutes? There's no explanation that puts the company in a favorable light.

Keep looking
You can look at the issue this way. As much as I subscribe to the view that the recruitment and selection process should consist of equal parts evaluating and selling a candidate, there's no question that the end of the process is where selling — if there's going to be any selling at all — is essential. If the company's idea of selling you on the opportunity includes elements like demanding proof of earnings, refusing to share the employee handbook, or hiding your future teammates like prisoners in a dungeon, you may need to continue your job search.

If you're forced to run from an opportunity at the last moment, take heart — your future career and lifelong self-esteem are worth the cost of extending your job search a month or two. If it helps, practice these potential responses:

Re: Written offer letter: "I do understand that paper is costly, and postage even more expensive, so please allow me to withdraw my request for a written offer letter, the creation of which has clearly caused you so much distress, and to withdraw as well my application for the position."

Re: Request for W-2: "I sincerely regret that the company's confidence in its assessment of a candidate's market value is so limited that it would be forced to make such a shockingly inappropriate request for one's private financial records. I extend my best wishes for you in your struggle to develop alternate strategies for evaluating talent, and will continue my search elsewhere."

Re: Request for employee handbook: "I sympathize with your discomfort in sharing an essential contractual employment-related document with an employee two or three days before his hiring would rest on his agreement to sign the document. You have my utmost respect for your ability to assemble a world-class leadership team while withholding, until the deal is signed, critical details of the employment agreement. I must blame my conservative nature, which has always guided me to read what I'm agreeing to prior to consummating a deal, for my decision to withdraw my candidacy."

Re: Request to meet the team: "How silly of me to want to meet my colleagues prior to agreeing to come on board. Understanding fully that your discomfort with this request stems from a concern that such a meeting might negatively dispose me toward the opportunity, I respectfully withdraw my name from your candidate list."

In your mind, and to your sweetheart or drinking buddies, you can spice up the language a bit. I guarantee you, there are companies that treat job candidates like value creators rather than like cattle — and more of them are showing up every day. Working for an employer that understands it's so much better than working for a bad one that some people will even drive a cab until they find the right place.