is it ethical for a recruiter to require you to agree to a salary up-front and not discuss the offer with your current job?

A reader writes:

Is it ethical for a prospective employer to require you not to negotiate with your current one?

I love my current job at a nonprofit and am very happy. A recruiter reached out about a job that would be a significant promotion for me. The job application requires candidates to agree to several “etiquette requirements” that this recruiter regularly uses:

• They ask that candidates receiving an offer “treat the offer in confidence” and “not ‘shop’ or discuss the offer with your present employer.”

• They also require a “candidate due diligence” phase right after speaking with the recruiter (so before speaking with anyone at the actual organization) in which you have to discuss compensation, benefits, relocation, and resolving any other questions about the position before you meet with the committee. The recruiter asks you not to interview with the organization if you think you are unlikely to accept the position should it be offered to you.

On moral grounds, I object to these requirements.

Employees already have disadvantages in negotiating salary compared to employers, and this structure seems to be set up to advantage the new job at the expense of your current one. I am comfortable with my current salary and would only pursue the new job if I genuinely was interested in it, but if I discovered through this process that I was severely underpaid, I would want to be able to raise that to see if my employer could match it before deciding which job to accept.

Given our workforce which discourages collective bargaining, it also feels inequitable to ask employees not to share with their current employers when at many workplaces the only opportunity to negotiate salary is when they have another offer in hand. Since disadvantaged groups (women and minorities) tend to start with lower salaries, they will be particularly disadvantaged by this policy.

Finally, this policy seems even more problematic because you essentially have to negotiate the compensation package before exploring any of the substantive aspects of the job, and indicate you plan to commit in advance of the interview. By not allowing you to discuss it with others, this policy reduces the candidate’s leverage in negotiating the salary with the new employer.

I’ve already decided not to pursue this particular role for separate reasons, but may be interested in future roles from this recruiter. I would not want to pretend to agree to the recruiter’s terms but shop an offer anyway (as I expect many might do in this situation).

If I did pursue an opportunity with this recruiter, would I be in my right to raise that I am unwilling to agree to the terms requiring me not to share, if I carefully and politely explained my reasoning? For instance, I could emphasize that I would only pursue the job if genuinely interested, and only share with my employer if it were a close case between the two jobs. Or is that just a recipe for getting rejected from the position?

Oh jeez.

It’s interesting that these requirements are coming from the recruiter and not the employer. This is clearly an external recruiter who feels like they’ve been burned by investing time in candidates — pitching them to the employer, shepherding them through the hiring process, negotiating the offer — and then having them turn around and accept a counter-offer from their current job, which means that the recruiter doesn’t get paid for any of the time they put into that process. (External recruiters are generally paid only if a candidate is hired.) If it’s been happening a lot, you can see why a recruiter might be frustrated … but this isn’t the way to handle that.

Savvy recruiters do take steps to probe how interested a candidate really is and how vulnerable they might be to a counteroffer, often by discussing that possibility explicitly — warning candidates their current employer may make a counter and asking how they think they’d respond (which also means that if it does happen, the candidate is less likely to be flattered and more likely to realize, “This is exactly what my recruiter told me they might do”). And they also make a point of discussing salary, benefits, relocation, and any other possible deal-breakers early on, before they’ve invested a lot of time. But they generally do all of that through normal, straightforward conversation, without resorting to the “rules” this recruiter is attempting to impose. Good recruiters also accept that no matter what they do, sometimes they’ll still lose a candidate to a counteroffer (or a simple rejection of the offer). That’s just the way it works.

What this recruiter is trying to do is to take much of the risk out of their job — but at the candidate’s expense. Framing it as “etiquette requirements” is BS. This isn’t about etiquette; it’s about power.

As for what to do if you’re interested in a role through this recruiter in the future: I think you’re better off avoiding a lengthy explanation of your objections to their policy. And really, of their two points — don’t share the offer with your current employer and don’t interview if you don’t think you’re likely to take the job — I wouldn’t worry about the second one at all. By agreeing that you won’t interview if you’re unlikely to take the job, you’re not actually committing to taking it — you’re just saying, “Based on what I know at this point in time, I remain interested.” Once you learn more about the job, you can always advocate for a higher salary based on the new information you got in the interview process.

It’s the counteroffer piece that doesn’t have as much wiggle room. If you want to be transparent about your intentions, you could say, “I’m not job searching as a way to increase my salary at my current job, but I’d always be open to hearing my current organization out if they try to retain me.” That doesn’t quite get at what you’re really saying in your letter — that you want to be able to share the specific offer with your current employer if you judge that it would be in your best interests — but I think it’s more likely to keep you in the running than a full declaration would.

That said, I’d encourage you to re-think the wisdom of accepting a counteroffer at all. If your employer is severely underpaying you and the only way to get your salary up to market level is to be on the verge of leaving … it’s very likely that you’re going to be stuck at the new salary level (or close to it) for a long time. The next time you’re seeking a raise, you’re probably going to hear, “We just gave you that huge raise when you were thinking about leaving.” And that’s on top of the fact that employers often make counteroffers in a moment of panic about losing someone at a bad time, but once that panic subsides, the relationship can be fundamentally changed: you’re now the person who had one foot out the door and you might be seen as more dispensable if your company needs to make cuts in the future. There’s also a real risk that that once the immediate threat of you leaving is gone, your employer may backtrack on pieces of their counteroffer in ways that you didn’t expect. (There are some industries where using counteroffers is the only accepted method of getting a raise or promotion, but make very sure that you’re in one before proceeding that way.)

In fact, that’s something a good recruiter would talk through with you, rather than just trying to preemptively block you from exercising all of your options.

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. The Dogman*

    Great answer from Allison, nothing too much to ad except… WOWSER!

    Seriously, that recruiter has it all wrong, that is one of the maddest concepts for getting a job I have heard of…

    I still can’t quite fathom how someone could come up with something this silly and unhelpful!

    1. Nanani*

      Presumably by thinking of job candidates as uncooperative widgets instead of human beings with agency. I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at this recruiter.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        Perhaps it’s like those Nigerian scam emails that are so badly written that only an idiot would take them seriously. Turns out, that’s deliberate, to filter out people who aren’t likely to fall for the scam.

        Maybe this recruiter knows the jobs he’s peddling are crappy jobs, and that smart, capable candidates will never take one. So this is how he filters it down to the desperate and the foolish.

        1. The Dogman*

          Ahh the old “3D chess strategician” method of recruitment eh?

          The sad thing is that will actually work on some people… preying on desperation is awful… but very capitalist of them.

  2. AvonLady Barksdale*

    I’m on board with the second piece, honestly– with Alison’s caveats, but discussing salary and benefits before meeting with the company should be a huge plus. If you know you won’t accept $X, or that you must have a certain minimum amount of PTO, then that’s a great conversation to have pre-interview.

    It’s very odd to make that part of the application, for sure. But I have to appreciate that it’s a stated part of their process.

    1. Antilles*

      Honestly, I’m just surprised the recruiter even *has* this information in sufficient detail to make it a firm requirement.
      In my experience, external recruiters usually know the general salary range, but not much more than that. Especially for benefits, I don’t think I’ve ever met an external recruiter who actually has a firm handle on the benefits beyond a general description that the company offers a “great health insurance plan” or “excellent 401k options” or other vague platitudes – with a large YMMV on whether I’d agree with “great” and “excellent” as adjectives.

      1. Cobol*

        I haven’t had amazing experiences with third-party recruiters, but they almost always have salary info and are willing to discuss.

        1. Antilles*

          For salary, sure.
          But “benefits, relocation, and any other questions about the position”? Never ever seen recruiters who really have details on that, beyond vague mentions of “competitive benefits” or “great health insurance” or similarly un-descriptive statements.

          1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

            They usually know PTO policies though, which are usually one of the deal breaker benefits. Especially for young, single, healthy workers, the specifics of the insurance being offered may or may not be a huge deal, but going from four weeks to two weeks of PTO, say, would require a much bigger adjustment.

          2. English Rose*

            Then you’re dealing with the wrong recruiters. Or the hiring company is rubbish at briefing recruiters and the recruiter is desperate. Any really good recruiter/hiring company relationship will cover all this off in depth.
            Problem is that when hiring companies instruct multiple recruiters on a contingency basis (rather than retained search) they are all in competition with each other and things get mucky and desperate.

      2. Mimi*

        The recruiter is also very unlikely to know job-specific context that might affect my decision-making about how much I wanted to ask from a particular company. I would want more salary from a company that routinely had lots of after-hours work than I would from one that was strictly during work hours, for example. And I might be willing to take a lower salary for a position that I was otherwise really excited about. Or, in pre-COVID times, I’d want more salary for a job with a substantial travel component, or where I had to spend several days a month at the less-convenient regional office. But those are things that I’m unlikely to know until I’ve talked to the team.

      3. Public Sector Manager*

        I’m in the public sector and I’ve only dealt with two recruiters. One was an in-house recruiter who would contact me, I’d call back, then the recruiter would ghost me. I presume they got my email from our agency’s public page and I was just part of their cold-calling quota. The second was a third party recruiter who couldn’t even answer simply questions about the salary band and benefits for a General Counsel position. The advertised pay scale would have been a too tough to absorb pay cut, and the benefits were worse. I did an initial screening with the recruiter, and made a short list of three candidates who would be interviewed. I asked the recruiter to find out more information on the pay scale and they did nothing. Because of the pay cut, I withdrew. I found out 11 months later that there was, in fact, a second pay scale beyond what was posted and that pay scale matched my current salary plus a little bit more. Had the recruiter let me know that, I would have sat for the interview because there was room to match or slightly exceed my current salary.

      4. Amy*

        If it’s a “retained search,” where the company is basically outsourcing their own HR / search functions (usually for niche roles), the recruiter will likely have a significant amount of info

        1. Cassie*

          Actually that’s not what ‘retained search’ is. Any time a company uses an agency recruiter they are outsourcing their hiring – usually to more than one recruiter and usually alongside their own internal process. The recruiter gets paid only once their candidate gets hired.

          Then you have exclusive where they’ve only outsourced to one agency. Recruiter gets paid when their candidate is hired.

          Retained is the same as exclusive except the recruiter gets an upfront fee to start the search (the retainer) and then usually gets the rest of the payment on completion.

          If there’s no upfront payment it’s not retained, but plenty of recruiter-employer relationships fall outside of this.

    2. MakingMistakes*

      I think discussing it ahead of time is great, but committing to something, even a threshold, at that stage is a big no – especially since (in my experience at least), most recruiters don’t actually know what the company is willing to offer.

      1. Yorick*

        The language in the letter is about “unlikely to take the job,” and I think that makes sense. If I think I probably wouldn’t leave my current job for the salary they’ve discussed, they don’t want to put me forward for the interview process. That’s very different from thinking I probably WOULD take it for that salary and then changing my mind later when I realize the role involves higher-level work that I’d expect more for.

    3. Smithy*

      The only way I can imagine this possibly working with any kind of good faith – counter offer issues aside – is if the employer does not allow for negotiation of salary/PTO. Where the salary on offer for the position is $X, PTO package is Y, other benefits are Z, and what can be negotiated upfront are things like how many days you can work from home, relocation costs, etc. That the “big” parts of the offer are essentially set in stone.

      Certainly for some people issues like number of days working from home and relocation aren’t small issues, but their impact from the actual interview might not have as much of an impact.

    4. Generic Name*

      The problem is if you, a candidate reads the job posting and is told the salary range is $XXX- YYY, and then you get to the interview and you realize that what the actual job entails is a level or two higher than the posting would lead a reasonable person to believe, then the salary range would be inappropriate. I don’t think it’s rare for an employer to have a certain budget and to pluck a job description that fits that budget, but the actual job is for higher level skills than their salary range can comment. For example a role is advertised as a junior level role, but during the interview you learn that the level of duties they expect to be performed is more senior level. Accepting a junior level role for junior level salary and then expected to succeed at senior level work is a recipe for resentment on all sides.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        But there’s nothing preventing you from withdrawing or not accepting an offer. Prior to the interview, the position sounds great, then you get there and it doesn’t. The language isn’t a binding, “you must accept an offer if we put you forward,” it’s, “Knowing all of this, are you still interested?”

    5. Observer*

      but discussing salary and benefits before meeting with the company should be a huge plus. If you know you won’t accept $X, or that you must have a certain minimum amount of PTO, then that’s a great conversation to have pre-interview.

      Sure. The problem here is not that there is going to be a preliminary conversation, but that the recruiter wants a commitment. That’s not reasonable.

      1. GrooveBat*

        The recruiter isn’t asking for a commitment to accept the job if it is offered. The recruiter is asking for a commitment to not interview with the company if the salary and other requirements as stated aren’t acceptable. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

    6. MCMonkeyBean*

      I agree, it doesn’t seem like they are saying you have to *agree* to the salary so much as they want to make sure everyone is on roughly the same page before moving forward. I feel like that is something we actually want!

      Also, it seems like it’s worded overly formally and that it’s odd to have it as this up-front list of “rules,” but… the other pieces don’t seem that unreasonably to me either? It seems like they are basically just saying “please don’t apply for this job if you just want to take our offer to your boss for a better salary.” And I would agree that that would be a bit unfair to waste their time on that. I’d roll my eyes at the formality of it, but I wouldn’t let the whole concept put me off of a job I was genuinely interested in. Especially if they are an external recruiter so it’s not representative of the communication style of the employer.

      1. GrooveBat*

        I agree. I think the presentation/positioning is a little clunky, but the request that you not use them as a bargaining chip isn’t unreasonable. That said…what are they really going to do about it if you do “violate” their rules? Sue you? You’re under no obligation to tell them why you decline the job if it is offered. I’m not saying I’d do this or recommend that you do it, but just pointing out that it’s kind of an unenforceable demand.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          It is unenforceable for sure, but I think we saw something similar recently where the recruiter was trying to actively enforce rules like this–but listing them out as “rules of etiquette” (again, super awkward and weird for sure!) doesn’t seem like they are trying to enforce them so much as just like… heavily request them.

          It’s all weird and poorly done, but I just don’t see anything to “morally object” to.

  3. I'm A Little Teapot*

    If you have any sort of relationship with the actual employer, consider letting them know what the recruiter is doing. A decent employer is going to realize this isn’t ok and tell the recruiter to cut it out (or just find a new recruiter).

    1. Original LW*

      Unfortunately it was a cold email so I didn’t have any connection to the organization. I definitely would have done so otherwise!

      1. Rolly*

        Then just say “No thank you, I can’t agree to salary without knowing more.”

        It’s not just a moral issue – it’s also a practical one. Just say no.

    2. anonymous73*

      I agree. They may be losing good candidates for positions because of this recruiter. And if they have no issue with what the recruiter is doing, that’s a big red flag that you don’t want to work for them in the future.

  4. Helen*

    I’d avoid working with this recruiter if at all possible. As they’re an external recruiter, the roles will be available elsewhere too. I want to be able to trust that the recruiter is trying to find me a job that I will be happy with, rather than guilt me into accepting a role or salary that isn’t what I want

    1. Original LW*

      Unfortunately this is a specialized niche field and this recruiter covers a specific geographic area of interest to me. I’m not positive, but this recruiter seems to specialize in the precise type of role that would appeal to me. So unfortunately I don’t think it will be easy to avoid this recruiter if I am interested in relocating to this other geographic area.

      1. Helen*

        Darn, I hope you’re able to find a different recruiter who also works in that field and region. Or that you can find these roles publicly listed or through your network instead

      2. Generic Name*

        Well, this one recruiter is not the only way to know about jobs posted, even in specialized niche fields covering specific geographic areas. Are there professional organizations covering your field? They often have job boards targeted exactly to their members. I also work in a specialized niche field, and my company (and many other companies) post jobs on Indeed. And there’s always looking at specific employer’s websites too. This clueless recruiter is not a gatekeeper, even though they apparently think they are. They reached out to you, no?

        1. Original LW*

          Totally agreed and appreciate there are other ways to find a job! From what I could see for this particular post, though, the only way to express interest, even had I found the job on my own, was to fill out the form the recruiter provided. No contact for the hiring organization itself was made available, and the hiring org’s own website redirected people to the recruiter’s website. So absent a personal connection to the staff, I’m not sure there was a way to avoid this recruiter if I wanted to express interest in this job (and I have to imagine similar jobs posted by this recruiter would work similarly).

          1. Meg Murray and some dragons*

            Wow, in your place I’d still be tempted to reach out to the hiring org to warn them about the recruiter’s behavior, but I know that wouldn’t always be well-received so props for the restraint.

          2. Lizzo*

            Could you possibly identify someone on LinkedIn who is in your network (2nd connection) or simply in the right role at the hiring organization, and reach out to them that way?

          3. RabbitRabbit*

            I wonder if that’s the org’s instructions, then, rather than the recruiter’s quirk? Perhaps they don’t even want to talk to anyone unless the salary range is considered acceptable?

    2. Cat Tree*

      Yeah, this is why people loathe recruiters. But it is sometimes necessary to deal with them. I once had an offer and the recruiter told me that it’s *unprofessional* to try to negotiate. Naturally the offer was pretty mediocre. It’s one thing to say that there was no room to negotiate, but to tell me I’m a bad person to even try is really crossing a line. And then he was all shocked Pikachu when I just flat out turned down the offer and stayed at my then-current job.

  5. PB Bunny Watson*

    Wow. That’s crazy. Could any of those “agreements” be legally binding? I’m just curious. I can see a situation where people would feel that they are stuck with that agreement if they didn’t read AAM.

    1. Antilles*

      Legally? Not unless there’s an actual contract involved which almost certainly doesn’t exist because the hiring company would not want a binding contract like that which involves them before they’ve even met you. And honestly, even in the case that such a contract did exist, it could very easily fall afoul of the at-will employment laws that most states use and be unenforceable anyways.
      The reality is that the recruiter is asking you to commit early hoping that your sense of loyalty/living up to your word/etc makes you accept the offer even if you’re reluctant to do so.

      1. PB Bunny Watson*

        Or maybe the recruiter is hoping you won’t know enough to know that they can’t hold you to that? I can definitely see me falling for that in my 20s.

    2. Bamcheeks*

      Yes, the wildly unenforceable nature of this “agreement” is what struck me. So I pinky promise not to discuss this new opportunity and salary offer with my current employer, and then I do— what are you going to do? Scowl at me? Shake your first whilst exclaiming, “Why, yoooouuu..!!!” Ooh, I’m so scared.

      1. Kella*

        Especially because the second agreement is very vague: “The recruiter asks you not to interview with the organization if you think you are unlikely to accept the position should it be offered to you.”

        Okay, so as long as I think going in that there’s a good chance I’ll accept the offer, if I learn during the interview that I don’t want to accept the offer, what I thought beforehand is irrelevant. It’s like the agreement is saying “Please don’t pursue a job that you don’t want.” I guess there are people who actively choose to go to interviews for jobs they don’t think they want but I don’t have that kind of time and energy and how on earth would you prove that after the fact?

    3. RagingADHD*

      No, of course they aren’t legally binding. It’s a request. A wierd and overstepping request, but they aren’t trying to fool anyone into thinking it’s legally binding.

      They use the word “etiquette.” It’s a social contract, not a legal one.

  6. MakingMistakes*

    Sounds like that recruiter needs to find a new line of work! Some freelance gigs involve an upfront time investment that might not directly pay off and it’s just an unavoidable part of that job.

  7. Pikachu*

    Recruiters: Nobody wants to work anymore

    Also recruiters: If you can’t lower your expectations and keep your mouth shut, you don’t deserve a job

  8. Not that kind of doctor*

    I once dealt with a recruiter who refused to move me through the process unless I said I would accept the job if offered to me – before I’d spoken to anyone at the actual employer. I explained multiple times that I was very interested and very likely to accept, but I couldn’t commit until I’d met the people I would be working with. She got all annoyed at me and basically said, “What else do you need to know? I can answer any questions you have.” She was so stuck on it that I finally fed her the line she wanted; I needed/wanted the job and was 90% sure I’d take it… but in the end I didn’t. I felt a small twinge of guilt, but you know what? She brought it on herself by insisting on something so unreasonable.

    1. Very anon*

      This. I want to get away from my current employer, badly, but at the same time, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. At least here, the terrible manager who threatens to report me to my grandboss whenever I do anything other than kiss their feet while doing the thing they want me to immediately (which usually has a deadline several weeks in the future and needs to be weighed in on by people who are not me) is negated by a grandboss who knows the business will be completely screwed the day I turn in my two weeks notice. Another place might not have that, so I’m not going to jump ship until I’m sure I’m not jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

    2. TheLinguistManager*

      This happened to me for my very first job search out of college. It was through a contracting agency too, not even a recruiter. The person told me they had lined up an interview but I could only go to it if I agreed ahead of time that I would take the job if offered it. It was 2008 (post-crash) and it was my very first interview, so I was worried about how long it might take to get a different spot if I turned this one down… but I held firm and declined.

      I found out later that that particular client goes through contractors like a wood chipper goes through logs, and that everyone hates working there. No wonder they try to pressure people into taking the job!

  9. Sabine the Very Mean*

    It seems issues with external recruiters could mostly be handled with direct communication. There was once a letter where the OP was cold-contacted by a recruiter about a job opportunity and the OP applied directly to the hiring company. OP didn’t realize they made a mistake until after and reached out to AAM. I don’t come from a world where external recruiters are used so I guarantee I’d make all the same “etiquette” mistakes as others do in letters we read. A third party recruiter would need to tell me directly that their job is to place people in positions on behalf of an employer, how they are compensated, and how the whole process works. I’m a reasonable person who can read between the lines and hear, “so please don’t lead me on and thanks for your candor”. Here, I would think the recruiter would foster much better professional relationships by allowing for such candor by using Alison’s scripts and advice. This person is fostering a car-sales type relationship where people just lie and ghost.

    1. anonymous73*

      I’ve worked with external recruiters before and the most I’ve had to do was sign a document stating that I wouldn’t work with another recruiter for “this specific job”. The recruiter in this letter is wildly out of touch with reality and as the OP I wouldn’t even begin to consider working with that specific individual again. Trying to guilt a candidate with “etiquette rules” is BS. I’m not committing to anything until all of the facts are in front of me. I would even consider reaching out to the company and let them know what this recruiter is doing. They may be losing good candidates because of the way this recruiter is handling their duties.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I’ve worked with external recruiters before and the most I’ve had to do was sign a document stating that I wouldn’t work with another recruiter for “this specific job”.

        It’s been a few years, but I used to get the requirement from external recruiters that they be my sole representative to the employer for 3 or 6 months. I can’t really tell you how it worked out, because each was a one-off and never went anywhere.

  10. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    I had many external recruiters straight lie to me before the interview with the client, so this kind of… em… “requirements”… aren’t that surprising to me.

    1. Karia*

      Yep. The amount of external recruiters that I’ve had lie to me about the job duties, perks or salary… I’d never agree to accept a job based on their provided information.

    2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

      This recruiter is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the large number of “spaghetti ceiling” recruiters – the ones who throw as many candidates at as many employers as possible, hoping that a few stick. Those tend to be the same ones who will lie to both the candidate (about pay, benefits, title, etc) and the employer (about the candidate’s skill and experience), whatever it takes to get the interview to happen and then hope to sneak a candidate in and get a commission. They choose quantity over quality.

      1. NotMy(Fancy)RealName*

        r vs k strategies. Interesting to see it in recruiting rather than evolution. (r strategists have a large number of offspring but put little investment in them, k strategists have fewer offspring but invest more resources)

  11. PollyQ*

    Note that the recruiter came to LW, so in a sense, is already asking for a favor. tsk tsk tsk Such nonsense.

    1. Generic Name*

      Yup. LW, you have the upper hand, not them. You have a job you’re generally happy with, and they approached you. Why on earth would they expect you to jump through additional hoops?

  12. Karia*

    I would never commit to accepting the role before interviewing, because so many times the interview has exposed reasons why I don’t want to work there. E.g. the role advertised as an individual contributors where it became clear the boss was going to treat me as an assistant.

    1. GrooveBat*

      The recruiter isn’t asking them to “commit to accepting the role.” The recruiter is asking them to commit to not interviewing if the initial terms aren’t acceptable and to not shop the offer.

      1. Karia*

        “The recruiter asks you not to interview with the organization if you think you are unlikely to accept the position should it be offered to you.”

        1. Groove Bat*

          And that is a far cry from “committing to accept the role.” It is self-selecting out of the interview process if the salary and other benefits are not in line with expectations.

          I thought this is what everybody wants. We want to be clear on expectations before engaging in a prolonged and ultimately fruitless interview process. Why would you go through an interview process if you know upfront that the salary is unacceptable?

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          To me that is saying “if you already know you’re definitely not interested in this job at all then please don’t interview with us.” That is many, many miles away from committing to accepting the role.

  13. irene adler*

    IS this recruiter asking for the candidate’s VERBAL agreement ? Or are they asking for the candidate to SIGN something to this effect? What’s that saying? Any verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s written on.

    Spot-on advice for any recruiter: get all the job details out on the table-right up front. All of them.

    I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with recruiters who are very shady on the details. It’s like pulling teeth just trying to discern if the job is contract or direct hire. Never mind informing me of the benefits for the position.

    1. Original LW*

      The recruiter did a 30 minute call with me and then asked me to fill out a form if I was interested in the job. That form required me to digitally sign a statement saying that I would agree to those two terms. It was a few months ago now, but I don’t believe you could even continue with the application unless I agreed to the terms.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        I’d view it as more of a EULA, I mean we all sign them but are they particularly important in our lives. Not really. Are they enforceable, maybe-ish (Back in the day a company put in a “You agree to turn over your eternal soul to the company” I don’t think that would hold up!)

        I mean what is the worst this recruiter could do, not contact you in the future. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in contract law, but this doesn’t sound anywhere near contract level language. If I were really bored and/or annoyed, I probably would have struck out the two terms, initialed, and then signed. Then I would have sat back to see what they did. Presumably they would shrugged it off if they thought you were a strong candidate.

        1. Original LW*

          Good idea, and I did think about doing that. In this case, though, it was a form where you could not advance to the next stage in the application without confirming that you agreed to the terms.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        One wonders just what they’d do if those terms were broken. I mean, they can’t sue for any kind of money because none has been earnt/spent, and I’d love to see an actual employment lawyer take a look at it. Realm of fantasy I know, most people don’t have the money to run paperwork past a lawyer!

        I wonder if there’s a way of asking them if they’ve got experience with people who’ve broken their rules and what they’ve done about it, without sounding like you’re trying to trip them up?

        1. RagingADHD*


          They would do nothing because there is nothing to do, other than refuse to work with the candidate in future. And if the candidate complains about that, they can go, “This U?”

          It’s the equivalent of a student “behavior contract” where they acknowledge they were told the classroom rules.

      3. Amy Farrah Fowler*

        Yikes – I wouldn’t want to work with a recruiter like that. I understand you said above that this recruiter seems to work specifically with jobs in your niche, but couldn’t you apply directly to the companies you are interested and still avoid working with the recruiter?

        1. Original LW*

          Unfortunately at least in this case, so far as I saw there was no direct application. The org’s website directed you to the recruiter to apply.

  14. Emily*

    They can’t require you to do anything, all they can do is not work with you again if you don’t comply. Given that, I wouldn’t worry. It doesn’t say anything good about the recruiter that they’re asking this, but that doesn’t say much about the actual employer in question. I would agree to this and then just let it play out how it would have played out if you didn’t agree.

  15. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    I can understand it, although it’s unacceptable and certainly unethical.

    I once worked for a company that was counter-offer heaven. You could never get a raise or promotion that was due unless you resigned. Now, some people who resigned had their resignations accepted, but if they really valued you as an employee, they countered. In many cases, the counter offer was already prepared! I know, it happened with me!

    Headhunters wouldn’t work with people from that company, often because of this. The only “logic” behind such a policy is that management felt they were bidding against themselves.

    In that place, I saw a 50-50 split of those they tried to keep – half refused the counter, half took it. Albeit, those that took the offer kept looking after that for something better.

    There’s something you have to figure = some managements view “lose-lose” as a “win”.

    Also – remember – most of the “Never accept a counter-offer” articles are written by headhunters (or, “professional recruiters”, or “executive search firms”.)

    1. I'm A Little Teapot*

      Except Alison cautions against it as well. If you’re unhappy enough to look, then it unlikely that you’re going to be happy enough to stay after a counter offer. It’s never just the money or whatever. If the employer valued you, then it woudn’t have gotten to that point.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        Well if I recall correctly, it’s “in most cases.”

        There are times where a front line manager has his hands tied by his superiors on promotions and raises, but when it comes down to, as they say in the NBA, “game time”, somehow the money is there. Or, the opportunities you have been denied suddenly appear.

        Quite often if someone’s passed over for a promotion, and the person they didn’t give the job to doesn’t work out, and management realizes (but does not openly admit to it! ) it, often the wheels are set in motion to fix the problem.

        In my case, as I said above, I accepted the promotion – but kept looking and really got something better.

        It all depends. If you have five years invested in a place, and the counter-offer is going to fix things for you professionally AND financially, it makes sense to listen to it.

      2. BRR*

        I think the advice can also apply when it is about money. I love my job except that i’m paid well below market rate. I asked for a raise recently and I did it intentionally without an offer. Because if the only way I could get a raise was with the threat of leaving, then that shows much how much my employer values me.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          Yes, absolutely. In 45 years of being in IS/IT, that is how the game is played (quit and get a raise there, or quit and get a raise at your new place — either way you WIN).

          AND- (parrot squawk) “No money in the budget, no money , no money”…. but several places I’ve worked there’s an “emergency slush fund” … off budget, to cover these events. There has to be an escalation but if the company is large enough – and profitable – the money is usually there.

      3. Pants*

        Also: if you accept the counter from your present company and decide to stay, they now know that you were looking to leave and were at the end stages of quitting. I’ve seen that bite back more times than I can count.

      4. Avril Ludgateau*

        If you’re unhappy enough to look, then it unlikely that you’re going to be happy enough to stay after a counter offer.


        I’m not unhappy and I’m not actively looking, but recruiters and friends (referrals) have nonetheless reached out to me. Merit raises aren’t a thing in my industry, even raises for promotions are capped (and this frequently means that you’re better off as an external hire than an internal one, if you first started at a low salary band – yes I have rallied and still rally against this). Our COL raises have been in limbo since the pandemic started, so financially the last couple of years have been harder, especially this last year. If an opportunity found me, and I got to the offer stage, and the money was good but changing jobs is inherently scary and I’m still waffling… I would much prefer to get my current employer to match or come close to the offer and stay in an environment where I am comfortable and confident (plus have unusually amazing PTO and benefits) than take a risk. Because if the only reason I am considering leaving is money, then why not fix JUST that issue?

        This is one thing I frequently (not always) disagree with Alison about. I completely understand her reasoning, but I think it relies on a hostile/adversarial relationship between employer and employee, and it assumes people only apply for new jobs out of “irreconcilable differences”, neither of which are always the case. If you’re leaving a job that you hate, in a toxic environment, where you are overworked and underappreciated, where your growth opportunities are limited… Then no, don’t take the counteroffer!

        But for me, for example, I’m generally happy with the nature and duties of my job, I like the people I work with, I feel supported and have made substantial strides in professional growth in the less than 10 years I’ve been here. Still, if an opportunity to interview for an exciting role with higher compensation came up, I would take the interview, and depending on the specifics, make the decision only AFTER I know everything that is on the table. Because by leaving, I’m not just leaving a comfortable job for a risk with a higher salary – I’m also leaving all of my social capital, my rapport with my boss and colleagues, my mentors, my pension, my established work-life balance, 12 weeks(!) of accrued PTO and over a dozen annual holidays, and a no deductible healthcare plan with a $100 premium (just to highlight some of the ridiculous non-monetary benefits I recognize are rare and I am extremely privileged to have).

        The “take the counteroffer or not” situation is so individual and personal, and while it may be that 3 out of every 4 times you should skip it, the advice should still be “very carefully weigh your options”, not an absolute “never take the counteroffer.”

  16. Cobol*

    I don’t know if this is off-topic, but my experience with third-party recruiters is their jobs just aren’t as good, especially when talking about a direct hire opportunity. It’s not that surprising to me that some are trying to lock people in.

    1. WomEngineer*

      My experience as an applicant was that no one prepared me for how it works. My college’s career services focused on resumes, interviews, and networking. So I didn’t know how 3rd party recruiters were different.

      1. Cobol*

        My experience is that college almost never prepares you for anything. It’s figure it out as you go the first couple years.

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      I’ve had both good and bad experiences with external recruiters. One I felt comfortable with that I went back to him when I was job hunting again, because of his contacts within my industry.

      Others, especially those who found my name on job hunting sites, were terrible.

      1. Cobol*

        I’ve had some good recruiters too, and while I haven’t taken a job, I’ve interviewed with a handful of good companies I likely wouldn’t have otherwise.

        (I think) in every case it’s either been a situation of good company job, but it’s temp to start out so the company can pick the cream to hire full time, tech is famous for this, and I believe federal government as well, or the job has had a pretty significant downside, like lower pay, semi disfunctional org, or stagnant company.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          I had a good recruiter who managed my career through three stops. Very ethical, great guy – and he fully understood that counter-offers are part of the game.

          1. Cobol*

            Are you in a hard to fill role like developer or nurse? I’m sure it’s different for those fields. And to be clear, most of the recruiters I’ve worked with are good, and their jobs aren’t horrible, they’re just not good, especially as my career progressed.

  17. BRR*

    I can understand the recruiter’s position, assuming they’ve just been burned too many times, but this is so incredibly off putting. I, as a candidate, would not want to interview anywhere that puts terms and conditions on the process. Especially if it’s called an “etiquette requirement.” Unless I was in a desperate position for a job, I’m 100% jumping through hoops as an applicant. The recruiter needs to learn interviewing is a two-way street.

    As for the LW, I wouldn’t write a manifesto to the recruiter on why they’re wrong. I would say something short that conveys you are interested and serious about the role but won’t agree to their conditions.

  18. awesome3*

    I know that some recruiters read this column, I’d be interested in their input, do they think this is completely off base or is it still worthwhile for the LW to check with this recruiter for other opportunities, implementing Alison’s advice?

  19. theythemtheirs*

    Ugh I hate this on so many levels. As a recruiter, I’m always upfront about salary. At my old job there wasn’t any room for negotiation but I was able to just tell the candidates the potential salary up front. My boss tried to get me to hide the salary in job ads and got a big no from me.

    1. Groove Bat*

      I’m not understanding why you hate it on so many levels then. You’ve just expressed frustration that your boss is not upfront about salary, and here is a recruiter who is being upfront about salary. The wording and approach might be clumsy, but they are establishing clear expectations up front.

  20. Salad Daisy*

    Ethical – Recruiter. That’s a good example of an oxymoron. You need to remember that the recruiter does not work for you. They work for the hiring company. They are just pimps and you are part of their stable.

    1. Rose*

      This is silly. I’m not a recruiter and I’ve never been a recruiter, but I’ve happily worked with several. They’re not your mom or dad, they’re not going to hold your hand and tell you that you’re a beautiful flower and you deserve a million dollars. It’s a business relationship and everyone will have their own objectives. That doesn’t mean all recruiters are immoral any more than job hunters are immoral for wanting to maximize salary.

    2. GrooveBat*

      That seems harsh. I’ve worked with recruiters as both a hiring manager and a candidate and have found them to be supremely helpful in clarifying job requirements and positioning myself. The ones I’ve worked with have been honest, hardworking, and completely up front about who their client is. I’m sorry if you’ve experienced otherwise, but it’s unfair to describe them the way you have.

  21. Rose*

    Write back and tell her those etiquette rules sound great, and you have a few or your own!

    Don’t interview me unless you’re pretty sure you’ll offer me the job.

    Don’t consider other/more junior candidates based on the fact that they might be willing to work for a lower salary.

    Only offer me the highest salary it’s possible for you to pay.

    Don’t contact any references until you’ve already offered me the job.

    And so on…
    This recruiter is totally out of touch and going to find a lot of strong candidates mysteriously unwilling to work with them.

    1. Sans Serif*

      Just took the words out of my mouth. They would never agree to what they’re expecting the job candidate to agree to.

  22. Chairman of the Bored*

    I understand employers/recruiters not wanting candidates revealing *all* the details of an offer to other employers, as a company might reasonably not want their competitors to know exactly what their compensation looks like.

    However, I don’t see any ethical issue with presenting an offer to a current employer in a generic way without naming the actual company. “Hey Boss, I got an offer of $XYZ from another company – you interested in beating it?”

    Overall this recruiter’s requests both fall in the “ask a silly question” bucket. If somebody makes your potential career progression contingent upon an unreasonable demand there’s nothing wrong with telling the unreasonable person “sure thing” and then proceeding to do whatever you would do anyway.

  23. Cait*

    Alison’s advice about not staying at your job if they offer you a higher salary is sound. I was working for a talent management company and really and truly loved my boss, but we got bought out and things went downhill. People were jumping ship and I got another job offer. My boss promised me a raise and other benefits if I stayed. It sounded like a great counteroffer so I declined the new job only to find out the new owner pulled my offer off the table the second I said I’d stay. I went back to the new job with my tail between my legs and they were very understanding and renewed my offer. Needless to say I took it. Of course my boss wasn’t surprised when I left and I really did feel bad for him. But I learned my lesson.

  24. No Dumb Blonde*

    I work in state government, and a written offer from an outside employer is the only way our employer can possibly document and justify paying someone more than the established pay band for their job title and experience level (and it would also require a history of positive performance evaluations and other ways to demonstrate that it’s in the agency’s best interest to keep that employee). So it’s not always that an employer is underpaying and trapping an employee in an inequitable situation; it’s sometimes literally a cost-benefit analysis of the appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. I don’t love it; I’m just saying there are sometimes other reasons for a given policy.

    1. Original LW*

      FWIW, my situation is more similar to this than to private sector jobs. I run a small division at a nonprofit and raise my own budget. There is no clear path for promotion from where I am, nor am I interested in my boss’s job. In general, people like me get regular cost of living adjustments, but cannot get salary increases while staying in our role unless it is to match an outside offer.

  25. NotATerribleRecruiter*

    I got my start in recruiting doing purely contract to hire and very occasional full-time hire positions. For contact roles we always had to provide the candidate’s hourly rate up front to the client, and once it was in the system it was “locked-in”.
    Occasionally I could argue for adjustments for a candidate but not without being reprimanded. I’m
    thinking that’s where the working around “no negotiation” might stem from.

    All this is say, I got out of contract recruiting as quickly as I could and switched into corporate and feel much better about what I do.

  26. The Bimmer Guy*

    That “backtracking on a counter-offer” happened to me. In December 2020, I’d been working for my then-current employer for 4 years, as a software developer. They had recently rescinded our WFH arrangement, which I had grown to love.

    So I put feelers out for new employment on LinkedIn, was hit up by a great recruiter, and was eventually given an offer for a 1-year contract from a company you’ve definitely heard of. While it *was* a contract, they had a good record of converting people to actual employees on or before the 1-year mark, the pay increase was *substantial*, and it’s never an issue to find work in my industry, so I figured that even if they didn’t convert me, I’d be fine

    I gave notice to my current employer and told them where I was going, and they were alarmed. My boss and grand boss asked me to give them a few days to prepare a counteroffer, which they did. They raised my compensation to match that of the new offer by putting me on a quarterly executive bonus plan and allowed me to go back to a WFH arrangement. And they codified all of this in a written letter. So I decided to accept that and turn down the new company.

    Well, in May 2021, they decided that due to politics—and despite me doing my job better than ever—I needed to return back to the office, and gave me a week’s notice to do so. So I put in my two week’s notice, for good.

    Ever since then, I’ve been self-employed and have been loving it.

    1. irene adler*

      It always boggles my mind when management does things – for no sound reason – that get in the way of their high performing employees. And then they are surprised when said employee scrams.

      We have met the enemy and he is us.

      1. PB Bunny Watson*

        It’s the whole “what have you done for me lately” thing. They quickly forget how hard they worked to try to keep you (or maybe they resent it?) and then get lazy about it after a while. It really reminds me of bad relationships. “But no, I love you… I’ll do better.” Then a month later it’s back to business as usual.

      2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        As I said in another post, irene – and in other posts along the way.

        Sometimes managements end up hurting themselves, without thinking situations through.

        And sometimes they think that two “loses” equals a win. Or, the best way to fix a mistake is to make another mistake…..

        And often, they make a mistake that they can’t un-do (most often). This happens most often when they pass over an internal candidate for a promotion and hire off the street – OR – choose the wrong internal candidate for the promotional consideration – but the “passover-ee” is critical for the operation, and also critical for the promotion/off street hiring stunt to proceed.

        No way outa that one without losing face.

  27. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    A lot of recruiters act unethically. If I were to ever write my “Dinner Table Stories” book, I have a few doozies I could include.

    Most notably, one sleazebag (female) lied to me about the job, its qualifications, and what it paid.
    I went for the interview, and the manager wondered why I was there – vastly overqualifed.
    I kinda suspected a skunk in the room when Ms. Sleazey Headhunter said “don’t talk money”.

    Then after the interview I realized Ms. Sleaze had lied to BOTH OF US. About the job (it was clerical, not a data security officer job) and it only paid half of what she had told me.

    I immediately called the manager, told him what was going on — he thanked me and dumped his arrangement with her.

    1. Karia*

      Had a similar thing where the salary discrepancy was so wide that I honestly don’t know what the recruiter thought was going to happen.

  28. Fikly*

    Setting aside all the massive ethical and power issues, this simply isn’t practical! You learn all kinds of information by speaking with people at the actual employer that informs what kind of salary and benefits you would be willing to accept.

  29. Hiring Mgr*

    Not sure what you mean by objecting on moral grounds, but I’d wager that if you told this recruiter you’re still intersted in the role but can’t agree to those terms, she’ll still work with you.

    It’s probably something her boss learned in a sales traingin that they’re trying to shoehorn into their communications.

  30. MentalEngineer*

    This is a side-note to the main discussion, but since you mention that the nonprofit world is resistant to collective bargaining: Yes, but that is changing and might be something you can change at your workplace! Both the Office and Professional Employees International (OPEIU) and Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) organize nonprofit staff at every level except top-line management. I know NPEU in particular has folks who are experienced with the same dynamics you describe and might be able to suggest a path forward if there are enough people at your org who might be interested in unionizing.

  31. RJ*

    This is definitely a recruiter who has been burned by previous candidates or possibly a company who has been burned by previous candidates. Some recruiters, depending on the companies they are placing for, are getting very, very specific on preset conditions for employment. I’ve run into a few, but nothing like this example. OP, I’m glad you’re looking elsewhere and I agree with Alison on accepting counteroffers. It has not been my experience that these work out in the long run.

  32. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    So the recruiter is asking you to sign an agreement with these conditions (ie, the application containing the so-called etiquette rules)? As ridiculous as this recruiter seems, I wouldn’t talk about morality here. It is not about morality. This is just a bad deal — a bad proposed business arrangement that disproportionately favors the employer and recruiter and is to the significant detriment of the candidate. What do you do when presented with a bad business deal?
    (1) Walk away
    (2) Negotiate
    (3) Accept the bad deal – assuming you have a compelling reason to do so.
    If this was me, and I was very interested in the position, I would attempt negotiation. I assume a resume/CV was provided already. I would convey my sincere interest and enthusiasm to the recruiter with a little earnest salesmanship, tell them that I am happy to provide additional details as needed about my work history, references, etc. and to attest to the accuracy of that information through signature, BUT also tell the recruiter that I won’t be signing contractual conditions and restrictions (the etiquette rules) in order to apply for this job, and that I hope that we can work around that, given this exciting opportunity. :)

  33. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

    Rules for recruiter. If you decide to interview with them, company commits to not interviewing any other candidates.

  34. learnedthehardway*

    I get that we all want certainty in life, but this is ridiculous. More than anything, it’s the tone that’s objectionable. Some of the requests make sense, but, even if the recruiter has been burned by previous candidates, there’s a limit to what they can demand of candidates. I would argue that they’re outsourcing part of their job to the candidate – it’s up to the recruiter to get a read on why the candidate is interested in the role and to make sure they’re not just kicking tires. The candidate can’t be sure that they’re really interested in the role / company before they meet with the hiring manager and team.

    This also violates the “don’t require what you can’t enforce” axiom of setting rules for interactions. While it makes sense for a recruiter to advise a candidate that counter-offers rarely work out well (because they usually don’t) – it doesn’t make sense to make it a requirement that you don’t discuss the offer with your current company, because that’s unenforceable (besides being an unreasonable demand).

    As for the other things – a good recruiter WILL have a discussion to make sure that you’re aware of the parameters of the job, that you’re affordable for the company, that your main questions have been addressed, etc. That all makes sense. But while it is reasonable to assess whether a candidate will consider the compensation range, people ARE going to negotiate, and they can’t know for sure what the role is worth to them until after they have interviewed and gotten to know the company better.

    The recruiter might be in a niche area, but they are guaranteed NOT the only recruiter in that area. They can’t work for all the companies in their industry, that’s for sure – otherwise they’d have nowhere to recruit from. Seems to me that the recruiter is doing the companies that they DO work with a disservice, by excluding candidates based on convenience to themselves (and possibly ego), rather than based on the candidates’ actual qualifications and value to the employers.

  35. Meg Murray and some dragons*

    The older I get, the less I understand why high schools don’t teach a basic labor law class, and warn kids how predatory the whole employment process is/can be. Or have they added that to the national requirements since I was there?

    1. Kevin Sours*

      Because that would be Communism. Or something. The people who make the rules consider “how predatory the whole employment process is” to be a feature.

  36. JT*

    I think it’s reasonable to say essentially don’t waste my time on purpose and consider whether you are moving forward in the process out of real interest or just for kicks, obviously they can’t force you to take a job or not get a counter offer so it doesnt seem like a big deal if you just say sure and then do whatever you want anyways?

    1. Kevin Sours*

      It’s superficially reasonable but the fact that they are saying is comes across like a motel advertising they have color television. I don’t think there are a ton of people out there deliberately wasting the time of recruiters by interviewing for jobs they don’t want. The exceptions are almost certainly not going to stop because the recruiter told them to. So in the end it really comes across like: “I do a bad job vetting positions and candidates and matching one to the other”.

      There are better ways of doing what this dude wants to accomplish.

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