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A fight between a recruiter and job candidate over salary shows a growing divide in the war for talent

June 16, 2022, 7:24 PM UTC

It is inevitable that employees and corporations will have differing ideas on important facets of the workplace like pay raises, commuting, remote work, and standard benefits. As generational shifts occur regarding work and money, one point of contention between salaried workers and the companies that hire them is wages. 

In 2021, because of the Great Resignation, workers had additional bargaining power and were able to demand higher wages. In the United States, the average wage grew 4.4% in the first year of the pandemic, per the Economic Policy Institute. Average hourly earnings also jumped significantly over the past 12 months to $31.95, a 5.2% annual increase, according to a June report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, as the hiring market becomes less competitive due to higher labor force participation and companies substituting lower-paid workers with machines, worker bargaining power decreases, according to a recent report from the U.S. Treasury. It is possible that because employers are having an easier time hiring, companies feel less inclined to offer competitively high salaries to prospective candidates

The battle of wages on social media

In a June 15 Reddit post under the r/antiwork subchannel, this divide on salary expectations versus wage realities led to thousands of people commenting on a potential candidate’s experience with a recruiter. 

User Main-Yogurtcloset-82 detailed their experience as a gig employee who makes about $100,000 annually being approached by a recruiter. The recruiting professional requested an interview with the anonymous Reddit user, who then inquired about the salary for the position.

“She responded with one of my biggest pet peeves, ‘well what is your expected salary for such a role?’” Main-Yogurtcloset-82 said in the post. “Such a sh*tty way to either try and underpay someone who doesn’t know how to ask for more or to pressure a person who knows their worth into taking less.” 

When the Redditor disclosed their salary expectations and current salary, they were told that their “demands” were unrealistic.

“That is way out of our budget for this role and quite frankly an unreasonable expectation,” the recruiter allegedly said, as summed up in the post. “We are no longer interested in you as a candidate for making such demands. For future endeavors I recommend you keep yourself more appealing to prospective employers by reducing your standards to something more in line with your skills. You will never find work with this attitude.”

HR recruiter backlash

“I was horrified by the disrespect the recruiter showed the prospective candidate and shocked by the number of Redditors who shared similar experiences,” Shayla Thurlow, VP of People and Talent Acquisition at The Muse, a values-based career site, told Fortune. “Finding a passive candidate who is outside of your budget can be demoralizing for recruiters, but insulting the candidate is never OK.” 

Many Reddit commenters commiserated with the original poster and shared their own negative experience with recruiters lowballing them, talking down to them, or offering them salaries below a living wage.

“Senior responsibilities, junior title, sophomore authority, freshman pay, 90% of job postings these days,” one Reddit commenter, CG_Ops said in response to the post on Jun. 15. 

“Quite frankly, it’s unreasonable to expect someone to take a pay cut for harder work,” another Reddit commenter, Boibi, said in response to the post. “I would recommend to them that if they want to actually find employees, they need to be more appealing to prospective employees by increasing their standards to something more in line with market value. They will never find employees with that attitude.”

How should HR professionals and job candidates approach salary conversations?

The massive social media outcry in response to the botched recruitment attempt has many commenters siding against the recruiter. But while the consensus is that berating prospective candidates for having higher salary expectations than you can meet is unreasonable, what is the correct approach for discussing salary?

“Asking about ‘expected salary’ can be ‘code’ for asking about current salary, [which is] prohibited in a growing number of counties and states,”  Christine J. Spadafor, a Harvard Business School lecturer and a lecturer on Strategic Leadership in the Visiting Executive Program at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, told Fortune. “The question also puts the onus on the candidate—who reasonably might request salary and benefits higher than currently provided—but may be well below what the position actually pays and benefits available.” 

Instead of responding with expectations, a great strategy for turning the tables is for the prospective candidate to ask, “What is the value of this position to the company?”, according to Spadafor.

“The value of the position to the company sets the salary and related benefits, not current salary or what the candidate hopes to be paid,” Spadafor told Fortune. “Flip the conversation—put the onus on the company to give the salary and benefits information up front. The candidate can then decide whether they want to continue in the recruiting process.”

Salary transparency is paramount

Clarity around compensation is a dealbreaker for a growing number of job seekers. Over three-quarters—79%—of employees want greater pay transparency, and 11% of job candidates have never applied or interviewed for a role without knowing the salary, citing the Pay Transparency Pulse Report from Visier, a people analytics provider. 

“HR professionals should be transparent about compensation at the beginning of the interview process,” Thurlow told Fortune. “Transparency is even more critical if the company does not have flexibility with the range or if the budget for the role is less than market. When I have flexibility, I tell candidates that the purpose of asking for the salary expectations is not to eliminate them, but to ensure that I am making them an offer they are willing to accept if we reach that stage. There have been times when a candidate gives me a salary that is below what I believed was appropriate for the role. In those cases, I told them that and disclosed the minimum salary that I would pay for that position.”

Ultimately, if a job seeker’s salary expectations are reasonable, there is no reason to settle for less pay, according to Thurlow. 

“My advice to job seekers is to know your worth and own your worth,” Thurlow told Fortune.

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