columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I recently had a bizarre interview experience. I applied for a job that has the same title as the one I currently hold, at another company that's similar in many ways to my current one. I had a phone interview with the person who would be my boss at the new company that went very well. We later set up a meeting to have an in-person interview. After this interview, he emailed me about salary expectations and said, "It's helpful for us to know, so we can avoid leading on any candidates and then realizing we're low-balling them in the offer stage." I told him what my current salary was and explained I'd be interested in a 15 percent increase at a new role.

He said great, and the process moved forward. I completed an exercise that he said the team was impressed with. He asked me to come back to the office and meet with six other team members for interviews. I took the day off from work and went. All of the interviews went well, and I felt great about my chances. The team even implemented a bunch of my ideas after speaking with me. This whole process took about 50 days.

I was offered the job. But remember when he asked about salary in order to avoid leading candidates on and low-ball them in the offer stage? That's exactly what happened. They offered me nearly $10,000 below my current salary. I, of course, told them I could not take a pay cut. He responded by saying that he spoke with the executive team and they can't get close to what I'm making now, but hopes we can work together in the future when our "budgets better align."

What gives? Why would they have me invest so much time and effort into this process and offer me the role only to tell me that they can't afford me? Why would he ask about salary to refrain from leading me on or low-balling and then do exactly that? I'm genuinely so confused and extremely frustrated.

Green responds:


Sometimes when this happens, it's because the employer genuinely believes that the job is so enticing that somehow candidates will overlook that the salary is significantly lower than what was discussed earlier. Sometimes it's because they assume candidates are inflating their salary expectations -- that you're leaving room to negotiate or that you'll take less but figure you might as well try for more. (That tends not to be the case when the salary they're offering would be a cut from what you're earning currently, of course.) Sometimes they mistakenly think you want the job badly enough that you'll accept what they're offering. And of course, sometimes people do.

Other times, especially with positions that are new, they hadn't fully thought through the salary and run the numbers until very late in the process. In that case, they've been working with fuzzy ideas of salary range, and so when you shared what you were looking for, they didn't yet have a strong enough sense of what they were willing to pay and so they just vaguely agreed ... and then later, when they actually looked at their numbers, they realized they couldn't or didn't want to make that work. That's pretty disrespectful of your time, of course, but it happens.

The thing that's most offensive about what they did is that they didn't even acknowledge or explain it. I suspect you would have felt differently about them if they'd said, "I really apologize about this -- I know we discussed salary earlier on, and you'd said you were looking for $X. Because of (reasons), the most we can offer is $Y. I really hope we can make that work but I of course understand if we're just too far apart." That's at least respectful -- it acknowledges that the earlier conversation happened and it explains what changed. But acting like that never happened or like it's not important enough to mention is just rude. And it's a bad sign about them.

Speaking of bad signs, this part of your letter is alarming: "The team even implemented a bunch of my ideas after speaking with me and looking over my test." That's your work. They're using your work without paying you for it. That's not OK. It's extremely sketchy.

These people are not impressive.

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