5 sticky job searching conundrums and how to solve them

Job searching is rife with sticky situations that job seekers often aren’t sure how to handle. Here are five of the most common – and advice on how to navigate safely through them.

You get a job offer but you’re waiting to hear back from another employer about a job you’d rather take. Can you stall the first employer while you wait to hear from the second?

Maybe, maybe not – but you can try to speed things up with the second employer.

First, tell the employer that made you the offer that you’re very interested but need some time to think it over, and ask when they need your answer by. Most employers will give you a few days to a week. You’re unlikely to get longer than that, because they have other candidates who they need to get back to.

Next, contact the second company. Tell them you are extremely interested in working with them, but that you have an offer from another company that you need to give an answer to within a week. Tell them that an offer from them would be your first choice, but you’re constricted by the timeline. Companies that are very interested in you will do what they can to expedite things with you.

However, be prepared to hear that they won’t be able to make a decision within a week. If that happens, then you have to decide whether you’re willing to turn down the offer you have, without any guarantee that you’ll get one from the other company.

A prospective employer asks if they can contact your current manager for a reference, but your manager doesn’t know you’re looking for another job.

It’s completely normal to ask that your current employer not be contacted; in fact, most people do this in order to avoid tipping off their employer that they’re job searching. Simply explain that your manager doesn’t know that you’re looking for a job and thus can’t be a reference. If the prospective employer is insistent, explain that you are not able to jeopardize your current employment without a firm offer in hand from them, but that you’d be happy to supply other references and to allow them to contact your current company once you have an offer (which can be contingent on that reference check).

You exaggerated your salary history on your job application, and now an employer is asking you to verify the numbers.

Ouch. There’s not much you can do in this situation. Lying on job applications is not a good idea.

Some companies do indeed verify the salary information you give them, by asking to see a recent pay stub or a W-2, or by checking with your previous employer directly. What’s more, they often do this after you’ve already accepted a job offer as part of their new hire paperwork, which means that you risk the offer being pulled after you’ve already accepted it and resigned your current job.

You’re better off declining to discuss your previous salary altogether and keeping the focus on what you want to earn now and why you think you’re worth that. But don’t lie.

You need to schedule an interview, but you’re currently employed and can’t get away during the workday.

Scheduling in-person interviews can be especially tricky when you already have a job. Try asking the interviewer to schedule the meeting for first thing in the morning or late in the day, or during lunch time. But you might need to take a personal day or half-day because you have “an appointment,” “an out-of-town visitor,” or “some family business to attend to.”

You have an interview after work, but if you come to work wearing a suit, your whole office will know you’re interviewing.

If your workplace is business casual and you show up in a suit because you have an interview later that day, you might get bombarded with coworkers asking if you have an interview. Instead, bring a change of clothes with you and change outfits somewhere before you arrive to the interview. Alternately, you can wear part of the suit to work and put the rest on when you leave for the interview (for instance, wearing the pants and the top and putting the jacket on when you’re on your way).

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Lisa*

    I used to say, I am going to a wake after work. Its the perfect excuse, and as long as you don’t claim it was that 6th grandma who died no one will know.

    1. Jamie*

      I’m superstitious in that I never use death or illness as an excuse – even though I don’t really believe I’m omnipotent and my words can’t actually cause harm…I just can’t do it.

      Going out for dinner after work works…meeting family, whatever.

      What I hate is when people get all nervous just because I’m in nicer shoes than normal. I wear a pair of pumps and I’m reassuring people all day long that I’m not looking…but in my sneakers no one cares.

      Like if I was looking I couldn’t find a way to swap shoes in the car…the easiest clothing exchange ever.

      1. KellyK*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t use that excuse either. Not because I’m superstitious (about that) but because it seems cruel to have people feeling sorry for you, thinking you’ve had a death in the family, when everything is fine.

        Not only that, but it’s not a terribly *smart* lie, because it invites questions that some other excuse wouldn’t.

          1. Lisa*

            I usually say its a friend of the family, or a great aunt, or 2nd cousin. No one writes notes for that at least not in my office. We barely acknowledge when a parent dies in this place, and then its only for certain employees it seems.

            1. -X-*

              Not good that you’re lying often enough that you can use the term “usually” in describing the lies.

    2. Lisa*

      My other go to excuse is complaining how I don’t want to do laundry. It lets me wear nice stuff for a few days, and sparks a how much underwear do you own that you can extend not doing laundry again!

  2. -X-*

    On #5, start wearing a suit sometimes just for the hell of it. At least once a week if you can afford it (have a few different suits/interview-level clothes to choose from).

    The questions will come the first few times and then be forgotten. And as a bonus you’ll likely be more comfortable in your formal clothes.

  3. some1*

    I had an interview once on a Friday which were casual at my then-office. I was prepared to say I was going to a wake right after work, too, but no one even asked why I was in a suit.

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    So glad people in my industry don’t typically wear suits for interviews. Since I usually wear some variation of jeans and a T-shirt, a suit would be a bedazzled red flag with flashing neon lights spelling out “INTERVIEWING!” At least a nice dress, which is what I usually wear, can get spun as “going out with my husband.”

    1. KellyK*

      It’s funny, this post actually made me glad my office is *more* formal. Enough people wear suits on a regular basis that it wouldn’t be out of place to show up for a regular day of work in interview clothes.

  5. Lori*

    How about just wear the bottom half (like nice dress pants) and the nice shirt to work and leave the jacket in the car? When leave work, then just put the jacket on and all ready. Just be absolutely careful when eating lunch not to get anything on it!!!

    1. AG*

      I have done this. Left the jacket and the more formal shoes in the car, wore a sweater and more comfortable shoes to work.

      Of course this is harder when you live in a city where you take the bus to work.

      I have also taken off days for important interviews.

      1. FormerManager*

        As a transit user and business casual employee, my method involved bringing my totebag and blazer to work in a canvas shopping bag. Then when I got near my location, I pulled out the tote, put on the blazer and folded the canvas bag into my tote.

        Also, I made a habit of wearing my black slacks every so often with a nice top so it never seemed like I was dressing any different.

  6. AG*

    Ok I agree that you shouldn’t lie about your salary history (but also that it’s not something that they should really ask in the first place). I would like to know, however, why they would need to verify with a paystub as part of your hew hire paperwork!?!?!

    1. Chriama*

      Because if the salary they’re paying you is based on what you made at your old company, they need a paper trail

          1. girlreading*

            Yep, happens ALL the time. I love my new job, but they told me they were basing my salary off my previous salary, which was annoying because the previous job was way below market (one of the reasons I didn’t want to work there). I did try to negotiate, but it was a firm offer.

  7. cncx*

    For me a prospective employer who is too hardcore about wanting to talk to your current employer is a big red flag. I can understand wanting to make sure that you aren’t hiring someone who isn’t trying to get a job before s/he gets fired or something, but sometimes too much is too much. I had one who wouldn’t send the offer letter without talking to my current manager- luckily he knew I was looking anyway- but after I took the job it was the worst job I ever had. There were other red flags too, like how the interviews are scheduled, but I remember thinking, “if i am the candidate you want, I interviewed five times, and you have a glowing reference from my immediately prior manager, why so obsessed with my current job?”

  8. Greg*

    Here’s an even easier solution to the “can’t dress up in my biz-casual office” dilemma: Ask the interviewer if it would be OK not to wear a suit. Most employers don’t really care about this kind of thing, provided you clear it with them beforehand and don’t just look like you’re clueless or uninterested.

    Obviously, if you’re working for a non-profit and interviewing at a bank, that might be harder to get away with. But if your current employer is business casual, there’s a good chance your new one will be, too. In fact, in some cases (such as a super-casual startup) you might even damage your prospects by overdressing. Either way, unless it’s super-obvious what the required dress is (eg, the aforementioned bank), there is zero risk to asking.

    1. fposte*

      That’s kind of a weird query, though. You can ask generally about levels of dress formality at the company, but a “Would it be okay not to wear a suit?” would make me feel like I’m supposed to be telling you what to wear when you’re supposed to be using your own judgment, and if a suit is actually required, asking if you can get out of wearing one isn’t going to sit well.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree. Asking for permission not to wear one would be much weirder than just not wearing one to begin with.

        It’s an odd request and I’d feel like I was being asked to micromanage something I don’t really care about.

      2. Greg*

        Seriously? “I work in a casual office. Showing up in a suit would make it obvious I was interviewing. Is it OK if I show up to the interview in business casual?” I’ve done it many times, and only once been told I should dress up (and that was from HR; my guess is if I had asked the hiring manger directly he would have been fine with it).

        Like I said, you should have a good idea of what the company’s dress code is before you ask. But much like scheduling an interview off-hours, most employers don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position at your current job, and are willing to accommodate reasonable requests. After all, I can assume we all agree that there is no reason in particular for someone to dress up for an interview in order to work in an office where everyone dresses casually.

        1. Jamie*

          I think the reason people dress better for interviews than the people with whom they’d be working is social convention.

          If everyone in my office is in either chinos/jeans and polos (men) and slacks/jeans and business casual tops/sweaters (women) doesn’t mean that would be expected from someone interviewing. It’s just expected that they’d take it up a notch or three.

          Obviously I am of a different opinion, but I do think the question is odd and I would wonder why they were asking me what they should wear rather than figure out a place to put on a jacket and tie (or whatever) on the way to the interview.

          1. Greg*

            I understand why people dress up. My point was that the dressing up doesn’t actually have anything to do with their qualifications for the job (a point you implicitly concede by saying it’s a “social convention”).

            What you’re basically saying is, “I will judge candidates based on their willingness to inconvenience themselves for the interview.” Not because their willingness to do so is important for the job, but simply because it’s a social convention.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Lots of things are part of the hiring process that don’t really have any bearing on your ability to do the job: how enthusiastic you seem, how compelling your cover letter is, whether you send a follow-up note after your interview and what you say in them, whether you have a rapport with the interviewer.

              I’d look askance on someone who asked me if they could skip wearing a suit, despite your reason — because every other candidate manages to wear one, and plenty of them are in similar offices to yours. It comes across like asking for something you really don’t need, which will then make me wonder what other conventions you’re going to ask to be excused from.

          1. Greg*

            Have you been hired every time you showed up in a suit?

            Honestly, if an employer was going to reject me solely based on that criterion, I’d probably just as soon not work for them. Which I suppose means I’ll never work for any of the people in this thread.

            I will say, though, that I’ve also interviewed many, many candidates, and I can never remember rejecting any of them based on their dress, or even noting what that dress was (well, other than the guy who showed up with a big stain on his shirt, but then, that was only one of the many weird things about him.) I also don’t remember if any of them ever asked whether they could dress casually — probably because I generally made a point of proactively telling them they didn’t need to dress up — but if they had, I certainly wouldn’t have judged them for it. Call me crazy, but I prefer to evaluate candidates based on, oh I don’t know, their actual qualifications for the job.

            1. fposte*

              My point is that just because somebody answered the question doesn’t mean it was a good idea to ask it. To me this is like an applicant asking what kinds of things she should prepare to talk about in the interview–it is, as Jamie suggests, asking me to micromanage what is the applicant’s responsibility to handle.

              It’s not about whether suits are crucial or not. The question could also be about pajamas or jeans or no shirt at all. I’d still be taken aback at being asked it.

              1. Greg*

                Oh for Pete’s sake. They’re not asking you to tell them what to wear. What they’re saying is, essentially, this: “I have been placed in an awkward situation [remember, that’s the reason Alison wrote about this in the first place.] Since that awkward situation is entirely the function of a social convention that dictates I must be dressier than I would need to be as your employee, I am requesting that you waive that convention in this case.”

                And for the record, whenever I’ve asked this question, the response has usually been “That’s fine.” I suppose it’s possible that they were secretly judging me, but I tend to doubt it (like I said, I also used my own judgment as to how they were likely to respond). The one time I do remember ever getting feedback was when I interviewed at a startup I knew was super casual. I asked mostly as a formality, and the hiring manager later told me he found it kind of funny that I even felt a need to ask, given that they were all wearing jeans. Of course, since he ended up hiring me, I’m guessing he didn’t hold it against me.

                1. Greg*

                  You know what? You’re right. If there are hiring managers like you who would irrationally hold such an innocuous request against a candidate, then yes, the risk is greater than zero.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Honestly, I’d hold it against someone too. Not refusing to hire them over it, but it would part of the overall picture I had of them, and as I said above, it would make me wonder what other fairly-easy-to-comply-with conventions they were going to ask to be excused from. I think there are plenty of good hiring managers besides the two of us who feel the same.

                3. Greg*

                  So it’s “fairly easy to comply with”, yet you included it in an article of “sticky job searching conundrums”?

                  Anyway, I’m not going to keep belaboring this point — obviously, we just see it differently. I just think you’re all being insensitive to the needs of job seekers for no particular reason other than “Everyone else has to go through it, so why shouldn’t they?” a sentiment I generally associate with sadistic fraternity brothers.

                  I guess what it comes down to is that, as a hiring manager, unless someone blatantly violates social conventions in a way that suggests they lack judgment, I’m not going to give their mode of dress (or questions about that mode) a second thought.

                  But if I ever end up interviewing with any of the people in this thread, I’ll wear two ties just to be safe. :-)

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  People are confounded by lots of things that are pretty easy to comply with once they understand the expectations of the situation better (including other items on the list).

        2. Anonymous*

          Word might not get around if several people are interviewing the candidate, and that could very well reflect badly on them.

  9. Julie K*

    Regarding what to wear: I think it depends on what you’re comfortable with. Even if I were interviewing with a company where everything was really casual, I would feel uncomfortable not wearing a suit. Knowing I was wearing something that feels comfortable to me means that it’s one thing I don’t need to be anxious about.

    Also, every time I see a post about what to wear to interviews, it reminds me of a time when I was looking for a new job. One day, I had on a suit and was waiting for the elevator when my work friend yelled out across the lobby, “Hey! Nice suit! Are you going to a job interview?!” She had no idea I was interviewing and was just being “funny.” I’m sure I turned red and stammered. I think I finally said I was having lunch with a friend. The interview ran long, so I had to call and say that my lunch accidentally ran long and that I was on my way back. What a stressful day!

    1. Greg*

      That’s fair. You should definitely take actions that increase your level of comfort and eliminate distractions. For me, keeping a tie stuffed in my jacket pocket and surreptitiously changing in a public restroom is far more stressful than saying, “Hey, would you mind if I showed up in a dress shirt and a nice pair of slacks?”

      1. SC in SC*

        I think what everyone needs to consider in reference to the interview attire dilemma is that that different industries have different expectations. Casual attire for IT start-ups….that’s most likely the norm and even asking about it may strike someone as odd. However, try doing the same thing at a CPA or law firm and you will have one giant strike against you going in to the interview and showing-up in anything other than a suit will just about be the kiss of death.

        It doesn’t matter if you think it’s fair or wish for a perfect world where candidates are judged solely by performance but I’m afraid that is not reality. The reality is that you are being judged against other candidates and if the employer’s expectation is that you should be wearing a suit well then I would suggest that you do it. As I see it, the goal of the attire is to make it a non-factor. As a candidate I want them to focus on me…not what I’m wearing whether it’s over-dressed or under-dressed.

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