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CAREERS / ETIQUETTE AT WORK | CHAPTER 5: HIRING

Get Polite, Get Civil, Get a Job

November 04, 1996|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The road to that perfect job looks more like a minefield than a superhighway. But there are strategies that can boost your chances of making it successfully over this rough terrain.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I am a middle-aged woman interviewing for a great job at a company with a strong future. During a job interview, an employer asked me how old I am, whether I am married and whether I have kids. What should I have done? Is this proper?

--Older but Wiser

Dear Older: Technically, no. Federal law prohibits employers from asking questions about age, race, ethnicity or marital status.

"They're not even allowed to ask if you own a home," said Gary Kaplan, president of a Pasadena executive search firm that bears his name.

That said, the reality is that employers do indeed ask such questions, whether out of innocent ignorance of the laws or out of malicious intent. The key for a job candidate is to know which is which, and to judge whether such improper questions say something about your potential employer.

If you call the interviewer on the matter, you stand a good chance of losing the job. On the other hand, if you respond, you may be setting yourself up for discrimination, or worse.

"You must make a judgment call," Kaplan said. "More often than not, such questions are asked out of ignorance. . . . A lot of people are not trained in formal interviewing techniques."

But questions about a person's marital status, sexual preferences or ethnicity send up a clear red flag.

"One would have to evaluate how important this job is going to be to him or her before you directly answer them or turn them off," said Gary L. Saenger, an executive vice president with Right Associates, an international career management consulting firm.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I've applied for a job that fits my skills, is situated near my home and is for a company with a good reputation and prospects. I've already gone through the first stages of screening, and have spent a day interviewing with several management types. So far, though, no one has volunteered salary or compensation information, and I'm beginning to worry about that. When is the best time to bring up salary issues during the interview process?

--Wondering in Wilmington

Dear Wondering: If you're being represented by an executive recruiting firm, experts say it's appropriate to have that discussion from the very beginning. The same is true if you are solicited by a recruiter from the firm that is considering you for employment.

In this case, however, it sounds as if you have applied through an advertisement or other solicitation without representation. In that case, "you clearly don't want to bring up compensation in the first round of interviews," Kaplan said.

On the other hand, it may be a good idea to inform the hiring company--in the form of a human resources person--of your current compensation so the firm will have an idea what salary range you have in mind.

As the interviewing process progresses into the second or third round of interviews, it's appropriate in a low-key way to bring up with a human resources person the point that a salary range hasn't been discussed yet, Kaplan said.

"A general answer is better than a specific offer" at that point, Saenger said. "Saying I won't take a dollar less than $50,000 is a poor response."

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I've been offered a job at a specific salary and bonus. It's a better package than I currently earn, but it is somewhat less than I expected. As far as I know, it's competitive with what others in similar positions make. Is it proper to come back with a higher bid? What's the best way to negotiate with your potential employer?

--Applying in Agoura

Dear Applying: There are people who believe that any job offer is simply the first move in a negotiation, and that the proper response is always: "Is that all?"

But employment experts say that's not always the case. If the offer meets your expectations, there's no shame in accepting an offer on the spot, said John A. Challenger, an executive with the Chicago outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

If an offer is somewhat less than you'd hoped for, the best tactic is to ask for time to make a decision. Most firms will give you a day or two to make up your mind.

"You can come back the next day with the areas of concern you might have and ask for improvement," Challenger said. "Usually there's some room for negotiation. . . ." Beyond base salary, consider compromising on a bonus structure, a better title, etc.

But keep in mind that the employer may not respond, particularly if the package you have been offered is competitive with the industry or with comparable positions in the firm.

And there's always the risk of setting up a bad dynamic, Saenger said. How much do you want the job, and are you willing to turn it down if the package doesn't meet your needs?

"You may need to walk away," Kaplan said. "If the offer really is far away from your thought process, and it doesn't make sense for you, and you can't effectively negotiate to a point that is acceptable, be prepared to walk."

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