When a prospective employer makes unreasonable demands on you before things start to get serious, it's a strong signal to hit the road
Job seekers have issues to keep them up at night. They worry that the beautifully crafted cover letters they're sending off won't be read and that plum jobs will go to less deserving candidates. They worry that their résumés don't showcase their shining accomplishments well enough to command the six-figure offers they're hoping for. If they're job hunting while working, they worry that a stray comment by a hiring manager or human resources screener to the wrong person will make its way back to their own boss.
These are all reasonable worries. Personally, I worry about something else—on behalf of job-seekers everywhere. I worry that they'll tumble into The Vortex and accept a job they should have scorned.
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What's The Vortex? It's the set of forces that overtakes a job seeker when he or she is deep into the selection process, somewhere between the first and third interviews, when the employer begins to send signals that he's interested. The Vortex is deadly, because in the face of all that approval and positive feedback (way more, in many cases, than we get on our jobs most of the time), it's easy to lose one's head. It's easy to overlook slights and red flags that should warn us away from dangerous waters. It's easy to get sucked into The Vortex and let our brains override what our instincts are telling us: that no matter how much wining and dining and affirmation is involved, some companies don't deserve our talents.
If we end up taking a job because of Vortex effects, we'll regret it, and we know it. That's why we've created this list of Six Reasons to Run from a job opportunity, no matter how pleasant and charming the company representatives are, and no matter how much latte, red wine, and discussion of end-of-year bonuses is involved.
(You'll see that our list makes liberal use of the notion of Strong Mutual Interest. Each of us must determine on our own when SMI has been established, but it usually happens between the first and second interviews.)
Here's our list of Six Reasons to Run:
1) Your employment references are requested before a strong mutual interest is established.
Any employer who values a job candidate also values his or her time and relationships. When a headhunter or company recruiter tells you "We'll need to call your references" too early in the game, they're sending a signal that the valuable time of your reference-givers is not nearly as valuable as the time that the company would waste in interviewing you before checking up on you. Your cue to bail.
2) The employer asks for your Social Security number or your approval for a credit or background check before strong mutual interest is established.
When a company says, "We need to check on you before we can spare the time to talk with you," it's time to get out of Dodge. A talent-focused employer will call you for a phone interview (at a minimum) before bothering you for personal information that they won't require if they don't make you a job offer. This type of batch processing shouts, "Get in line to genuflect." Keep looking.
3) You're sent a questionnaire (not a job application) or online test to complete before you've had any human contact with the employer, including a phone call.
When a company makes its selection process more efficient by shoving tests in your face before so much as chatting with you, they're sharing their views on reciprocity. "Prove to us that you're worth our time" is not the message that a talent-aware employer sends to the talented people applying to use their talents on its behalf. Reciprocity works in the same that permission-based marketing does; you give something to get something at every step in the process. A smarter company will chat with you, answer your questions about the job, and then ask, "Would you mind filling out our questionnaire, as the next step in the process? Can I answer any questions for you, to help you feel comfortable investing more time in our company?"
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4) Unreasonable or short notice to travel for interview.
The Vortex becomes more powerful over time, and many a job seeker has called me excitedly to report, "They're flying me to New York City, tomorrow," without stopping to think: "Wait a second, they didn't ask me whether it was convenient for me to fly to New York City, now that I think about it." I know of one situation in which a candidate was pressured to fly to the company's headquarters on his wife's birthday. He was told, "If this isn't a priority for you, it isn't a priority for us, either." He wavered for an hour or two before telling them: "If my personal life and my most important relationship isn't important to you, I don't want to work for you." If they really want you, they can wait a day or two.
5) You're told you can't meet the team, or see the employee handbook, or meet clients (if appropriate) before an offer is extended.
This is a big, neon red flag that plenty of job seekers miss in the swirling colors of The Vortex. You need to meet your co-workers. Period. You need to see the employee handbook, which you'll be expected to adhere to during your tenure with the company and which will govern your working relationship. If you will work closely with a client at a senior level, it could make sense for you to meet with someone from the client's team before accepting the job. Ask yourself: Why wouldn't they let me meet the team or read the handbook? What is this employer afraid of?
6) All communication is funneled through the HR rep or the headhunter.
Practical matters, like interview times and paperwork flying back and forth, doesn't need to take up a hiring manager's time. It makes sense to have an HR point person or third-party recruiter handling communication with a candidate over these "mechanical" issues. But if you're really interested in a job and have a question for your prospective manager, the manager absolutely needs to take that call. If you can't get the manager's attention now, what makes you think you'll be able to when you work there?
Leave any of these six scary Vortex situations behind and don't look back—you'll have dodged a bullet. You have a lot to offer, and if an employer can't see it as the selection process unfolds, your talents are better used elsewhere.
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.