wee answer Wednesday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

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

1. Interviewer mentioned contacting my current boss

I was on a phone interview recently and was asked, “What 3 good qualities would your current boss say about you?” And then the interviewer proceeded to let me know if this goes further they may call him for a reference. I couldn’t imagine that was a serious thought, right? How can someone possibly think it would be OK to call someone’s current boss for information about a potential employee for them?

It’s typical for employers to either agree not to contact your current employee for a reference, or to do so only when they’re ready to make an offer. Either way, you should control whether or not it happens, and what the timing is. If you move forward in this hiring process, say something like this at the next contact: “When I spoke with Jane, she mentioned that you might be contacting my current manager for a reference at some point in the process. My employer does not know that I’m job searching and I need to be discreet at this point in the process. At what point do you typically reach out to a current employer? I’ll obviously need to speak with her before that happens.”

 2. Factoring overtime pay into salary history

I’m a little unsure how to answer the question about salary at my most recent job and hoped to get your advice on this subject. This position had a base salary, but it was a non-exempt position so I also received overtime. When a prospective employer requests my salary history, I’m unsure if I should give my base salary or my actual take-home pay … which was a bit higher than my base. The concern with providing my actual pay is a prospective employer potentially being given a lower number than I provided (ie = my base pay) if they call to verify my salary and this disqualifying me from a job offer, but I also don’t want to cheat myself out of a potentially higher salary by not providing my total compensation. My W2’s could serve as validation of the discrepancy if pressed, but I’d hate to think it would come to this.

If you choose to share your salary history at all — which I maintain is no one’s business but yours — just be clear about what the numbers are. Say something like, “My base salary was $X, but with overtime, I earned $Y.”

3. Asking a recruiter about a position in a different location

About three weeks back, I applied for a position at a certain company at location x. Today, I heard from a recruiter from their company who wrote me to see if I would be interested in a different position at location y. I feel unqualified for the position at location y. (They’re both creative positions but require different software experience, so I have experience relevant to x but not to y.) I would like to reach out to her to inquire about the position I originally applied for at location x. How could I politely go about turning her down and inquiring about another position at the same time?

Just be direct: “I don’t think Y is a great fit for me because it emphasizes experience in Z, which I don’t have, but I’m actually very interested in X, which I applied for a few weeks ago. I’d love to talk with you about that if you think it’s a good fit.” (However, keep in mind that software can be learned, so if you’re turning down Y only because of that, it might be worth rethinking.)

4. Declining to give a mandatory contribution for office holiday gifts

I have been employed at my current job three years. I was shocked my first year there when I was told I was expected to contribute to a fund for Christmas gifts for the physicians and PAs. I was hoping you may have some advice as to how to decline or defend against this “mandatory” contribution.

I thought that this year I may suggest I would do something on my own, such as bake cookies, but I don’t want to continue this tradition at all. My “gift” is working hard every day! And now there are more people employed at the top level but the support staff is the same or fewer. There is an extremely high turnover rate. I am tired of sucking it up and compromising professionalism on so many levels so much of the time. My manager is a nice person and has a big heart, but he may be the worst manager ever! Horrible communication, misdirected priorities, finger pointing, lack of confidentiality, there is NO line drawn between personal and professional, and on and on and on.

You can simply say, “I can’t participate this year.” You don’t need to go into your reasons. If some of your coworkers feel the same way, you can also talk to them and suggest that you speak up and say you want to discontinue the tradition, since there are already so many demands on people at the holidays.

Read an update to this letter here.

5. Explaining why I’m going “back” to an admin position

I am currently applying for administrative/assistant positions. I have done this type of work for several years in the past, and I am well-qualified. The only concern that I have trouble explaining in a job interview is that I currently am not an administrative assistant. I left an admin role to work in a much more front-line sales position, and the question I am asked frequently is why I am interested in going “back” to a support position. The completely honest answer is that I just had a baby and I have an ill family member, so I am looking for a job with more consistent hours and where I can leave my office worries at the door come 5:00 pm. But if I said that in a job interview, I feel I would come across as unmotivated and possibly unreliable because I have admitted to these personal commitments. I am not unmotivated. I work hard, I take pride in doing a good job, and I take initiative. I am just looking for a better work-life balance. Is there any good/less concerning way of answering this type of question?

You shouldn’t get into a discussion of your personal commitments, but it’s completely reasonable to say that you found admin work more satisfying than the sales work you’d moved into and you’re eager to return to that career.

6. Can I apply without going through this recruiter?

A recruiter contacted me about a position I had not seen before, but I happen to know people at the company. The job is posted on the company website. So my question is, am I obligated to apply for the job through this recruiter, since I wouldn’t have known about the opening otherwise? Perhaps I’m being soft, as I feel the recruiter did me a favour by telling me who he’s recruiting for. It looks really promising, so I want to get my application in the best way possible.

Hmmm. The recruiter’s contract with the company might require that he get credit for the hire, if you’re hired — which isn’t your problem, but it could become your problem if it turns into a disagreement between the recruiter and the company. Realistically, if you were to tell the recruiter that you’d spotted the position and were planning to reach out to your contacts there, he wouldn’t know the difference … but it wouldn’t really be ethical to do that. The reality is that the recruiter earned his fee in this case, and you’d be interfering with that.

7. I want my boss’s job in 5-7 years

I am a hospitality manager at a nonprofit organization. I love what I do! I love the company I work for! I love everything about the job! Right now! I am way underpaid for what I do in the field that I am in. That is not a problem. I am more concerned about the limited advancement opportunites. Like I said, I love everything about my job now. However, I am worried that I am not going to be happy doing it for the next 25 to 30 years. If I were to move into my boss’s position when he retires (5-7 years), I believe I would be happy with the job and pay for the rest of my career. I fear that they may choose someone from the outside. Most of my peers would not want the position, but we all do work closely together. Human Resources may realize this as well and determine that an outside candidate would be best. That is where my boss came from.

I have asked multiple people about my future here and I have not had any real solid answers. I had applied for a similar position to my bosses and it was filled internally (seemed political). Which I am okay with. Should I consider other opportunities elsewhere? If I leave, would that open up that door when my boss retired?

It’s normal to not think you’ll be happy doing your current job for the next 25 years, even though you like it now. That’s the case for most people. You shouldn’t be getting anxious about the fact that you may eventually need to change jobs or companies; that’s normal and something you should expect.

You can certainly mention to your boss that you’d love to be considered for his job when he retires in 5-7 years, ask if he thinks they’d prefer external candidates, and ask what you can do now to start positioning yourself to be a strong candidate when that day comes — but keep in mind that that’s a long way off. I wouldn’t leave a job you love just because it might help you get a different job in 7 years — the odds aren’t good enough. Instead, just talk to your boss and get his advice.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Andy Lester*

    I also don’t want to cheat myself out of a potentially higher salary by not providing my total compensation

    Yet another reason that salary history is nobody’s business. Even if past salary is a good indicator of your actual value to a new company, and I suggest that it is not, there’s no way that an employer can know all the circumstances that went into that number.

    1. Brian*

      “Salary” does not include total compensation and as such is just one piece of what I would consider when evaluating a job possibility. My current position is non-exempt so I get overtime, but I also have a company car and get commission on sales even though I’m not in a sales position. All of those contribute to a total compensation package that is much larger than my base salary.

  2. Lisa*

    #7 – you are in the perfect position to get that job. Have a frank discussion with your boss. Outline that you want his type of job in 5-7 years, and that you would really appreciate his help in preparing for that role. Ask if he will mentor you, give you tasks for projects that he is working on, and ask him for a conversation to create an unofficial plan to acquire the needed skills over the next few years so that when that position or a similar one elsewhere comes up , you will be in a position to apply for it.

  3. AnotherAlison*

    #7 – If I were to move into my boss’s position when he retires (5-7 years), I believe I would be happy with the job and pay for the rest of my career.

    Question for the OP: Are you assuming they would start your pay in his general salary range *if* he retired and *if* you got the possition? Because this seems like it’s probably a big leap. Let’s say you made $30K and he made $85K right now. If 5 years of raises got you to $40K by the date in question, if they offered you $48K to take his position, would you be satisfied? That would be a 20% increase for you (good!) but still far from what he earned (bad!).

    My bigger point is that even if you thought you would love his job as it is right now, companies have a way of changing things over time. I wouldn’t base any decisions off the possibility of that one job being open in the future. Sure, position yourself & get experience for that type of promotion/job with many different employers (maybe sooner than 5 years, maybe 15 years, who knows), but don’t hang in there in an underpaid position blindly hoping it will lead to that one job. Conversely, don’t leave a position you enjoy for something else if the sole purpose is to hope to come back for your manager’s job. A new position would have to offer other plusses, too.

    (Lastly, I love that there’s someone else out there who worries about what’s gonna happen in 25 years. In many ways, I am in the same boat and constantly think how despite loving my job now, I am poorly positioned for anything else within my company! Bring on the anxiety attack.)

    1. Lily*

      LOL! I procrastinated and procrastinated about signing my contract, because I was terrified at the idea of staying in the same job until retirement!

      I have given up fearing that I could get bored. If anything, there is too much excitement.

  4. Becky*

    #6 Is there a reason OP couldn’t apply through the recruiter, but still mention to the people they know that they are applying, or have that information mentioned by the recruiter to the company? That way you get the benefit of “inside contacts” without doing anything unethical. I would talk to the recruiter about it as well. They want you to be hired so they get their fee; anything that helps that would be appreciated, I would think.

    1. Elizabeth*

      My thoughts as well. After applying through the recruiter, why not send an email like this one to your contacts? “Dear Frank, I found out about position X at your company through a recruiter and I’ve applied. I think it would be a good fit for me, and of course it would also be great to work more closely with you!”

      1. OP*

        I actually wanted to got the other direction, applying through my friend but disclosing that the recruiter found the job. I put the recruiter as CC when I sent my resume, and it turns out the recruiter beat my friend to the punch. Not really impressed that he went ahead without my say, but what’s done is done and hopefully this doesn’t turn sour.

  5. just laura*

    #5– I think sales are for a certain type of person (and I’m not one of them!). Many interviewers would get that, I would think. So saying that your strengths are better used in admin instead of sales doesn’t seem hard to believe.

    1. Jamie*

      This. Sales is the easiest thing to explain moving away from because it really is one of those things you are either suited to or not.

      1. Anonymous*

        But the OP didn’t say she wasn’t good at it. She just said she wanted to escape the overtime and stress that is often part of a sales job. Should she say she is leaving sales because she isn’t cut out for it, if that isn’t true? Would you pretend to be bad at a job you were not bad at?

        1. Scott M*

          I think that AAM’s suggestion to say that the admin work was “more satisfying” covers that angle. It doesn’t imply that she was bad at sales, just that she would be a better fit for the admin work.

          1. Jamie*

            Right. You can be really good at things and not want to do them for a living.

            I’m very good at laundry, baking kolachkis, and cleaning the ears of dogs who do not want their ears cleaned – but I wouldn’t want to earn my living doing any of those things.

            1. Anonymous*

              Fair enough. You’re right that AAM’s angle was more about what you find satisfying. I personally love sales (hate to sit at a desk), but to each their own :)

              1. Jamie*

                I’m in awe of good sales people. I admire them the way I admire Olympic athletes – I see it and I know we’re of the same species but I have no idea how you do what you do.

                There are a lot of cool jobs out there that I think – oh if my life had taken a different turn I could have ended up there or learned that…but sales? My family would starve if I had to try to support them with sales.

                Good sales people are a pleasure to watch in action.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  They really are! I encountered an incredibly impressive salesman recently, when I went to buy a new vacuum cleaner. I normally think I’m immune to sales tactics, but this guy was so good at what he did that he completely had his way with me (well, with my wallet) and I even walked out feeling good about it. He was amazing to watch.

                  P.S. I bought a Miele. Dear god it’s incredible.

                2. Not So NewReader*

                  AAM- a good product is an easy sell. It’s easy to present it enthusiastically to the potential customer. Plus, the facts about the product line up like stars being in alignment.

                  Enjoy the new vac. I am jealous. ;) You got a good one!

  6. emmavt*

    #4- did I read correctly that the support staff chip in, in a nearly mandatory way- to provide gifts to physicians and PAs? That is awful and I have never heard of that. The other way around, for sure, which strikes me as fine considering the financial disparity for a physician and a medical coder, for example, and in recognition of the work of the support staff. But if I was a physician or other kind of high level professional I would be horrified if the support staff had to chip in for a present for me; home baked cookies, on the other hand, are a perfectly nice and appropriate gesture.

    1. HR Gorilla*

      This was my question, as well! The thought of the physicians and PAs accepting gifts from the support staff, year after year, makes me sad.

      1. Jamie*

        Sad is a good word for it. My mom was a nurse and every year she was given lovely gifts from the doctors in the practice – and she brought in eclairs and kolachkis. I think that’s the way that is supposed to work.

  7. Elizabeth*

    #5, it also seems reasonable, if you’re asked for more, to mention that you prefer the more predictable working hours of being an admin assistant to being a salesperson. Alison’s main advice, though – that you’ve found out that you prefer admin work after trying out something different – should really cover it. You could name a few specific things about administrative assistant work that you enjoy doing, too.

  8. KellyK*

    #4 is an unrealistic expectation, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation of why you can’t participate. Just say you can’t.

    I would do the cookie thing IF AND ONLY IF you sincerely want to, not because you feel forced or guilted into doing something.

    1. OP #4*

      Yes, KellyK, that’s what made me change my mind on the cookies. It would be forced and therefore insincere. The manager has also organized baby showers during the work day. Most recent was a joint shower for a nurse and a PA. The PA had already invited the staff to her personal shower on a weekend several weeks ago.

  9. some1*

    I agree with the advice given to LW of #7, I’d also like to add that be prepared for your boss to possibly not be ready to retire in seven years. My parents are baby-boomer age and so are most of the parents of my friends, and there are many, many reasons I have seen for people to put retirement off, financial or otherwise.

  10. Colette*

    #7 I’d add that you should discuss advancement in general with your boss – not just “I want your job”, but “I’m interesting in advancing with this company, can we discuss what skills I need to develop so that I am more likely to be considered for future openings”. If you know what advancement looks like (other than getting your boss’s job), that would give you some direction, but if not, perhaps your boss can help.

  11. Anonymous*

    #5: AAM’s advice sounds good for seemingly different tracks like admin versus sales, but what about someone who’s a great individual contributor but not a great manager, and wants to find a non-management role?

    I have my current title as manager on my resume but I can’t help but think that doing so might get me automatically rejected, meaning even if I explain in my cover letter about better fit and work/life balance, the cover letter won’t even be read.

  12. Wilton Businessman*

    #7: Good time to sit down with your boss and craft a training plan. Use him as a mentor and gain the skills that you will need. It may even give him the opportunity to get out early. However, you both run the risk that you like doing his job more and you bolt early.

  13. princessfluffysparklecutie@sk8rgurl.net*

    “If you choose to share your salary history at all — which I maintain is no one’s business but yours — just be clear about what the numbers are.”

    Seriously? 95% of the job listings and employment agency forms I see want salary history up front and right away. (not to mention the SS# before I even put down my name!)

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