I’m unemployed. My workload yesterday consisted of one YouTube exercise video, three episodes of an awful Netflix series, and the submission of one freelance invoice for $50. When I was laid off from my full-time job three months ago, I never could’ve imagined that these months would sweep by in a swift procession of days, coming and going without many job leads.
When you’re unemployed, an urgent sense of anxiety can cut through your daily 2 p.m. Netflix binge like a hot knife through butter. “Funemployment” stops being fun a month or so in, depending on your resources. So when, after applying for over 100 jobs, I finally received a message from a recruiter working with a startup just a few miles away from my apartment in Philadelphia, I jumped at the opportunity. It didn’t matter that I had never applied for the position in the first place. In fact, it felt good to be sought after.
When you’re on top—you have a steady job, you know the date of your next paycheck, and you’re just passively shopping around for opportunities—one or two red flags will likely halt you in your tracks. But when you’re out of work, you’re tempted to flick these flags away in the hopes that they don’t reflect reality; you’re a desperate optimist, at least until you can’t be any longer.
Here are a couple of red flags I was almost able to overlook as an unemployed job seeker—and one very, very big one that I just couldn’t.
1. No Reputation To Speak Of
It didn’t matter that in a decade of living in Philly, I’d never heard of the company that had reached out to me, or its local founder. It didn’t matter that he was a guy who, as LinkedIn revealed, had held only a few internships before designating himself CEO. A quick internet search didn’t give me any real insight into how successful this company was or wasn’t, but I chalked up a lack of press or web presence as a result of being a startup. I even kind of convinced myself that no news was good news—that it was an opportunity for me, a potential marketing coordinator, to help build the company’s online footprint.
2. Salary Squeamishness
During my first in-person meeting with the business development director, I asked the standard interview questions. They were all answered sufficiently, except for my last one—about salary range. Now, some career coaches will tell you it’s déclassé or even dangerously premature to talk money on a job interview, and surely for some gigs, it is. But because this was a startup, where standard protocols didn’t seem etched in stone, and because the pay range and the position’s relative seniority had neither come up in the interview nor appeared in the job listing, I ventured to ask about it.
“We usually save that conversation for the second interview,” the man across the table in a stiff suit told me—and left it at that. No “we’re interested in offering competitive compensation” or even “we’re thinking of this role as a senior position.” He just quickly shifted the conversation to something else. I thought that was a little weird, but figured it couldn’t hurt to move forward for now. The office was literally a few blocks from my apartment, and my Netflix queue could wait.
To be honest, I was actually embarrassed: Maybe I had popped the question too early? I wondered whether it was appropriate for me, the unemployed candidate, to be so forward about my salary needs early on in the interview process. But if you, like me, feel awkward about asking for money, know this: It’s a good question. It’s why you’re sitting here. If you ask me, it’s important to be clear with your needs from the start. And usually, when there are no other red flags in the way, hiring managers will at least allude—even in general terms—to a salary range in the initial job description, the first phone screener or, if nothing else, the first in-person interview. At a minimum, they shouldn’t appear put off by the polite insinuation that the getting-paid part of the opportunity matters to you.
3. A Free Trial Period
I counted my red flags. So far, I had a few. But after convincing myself that they were really more of a pale pink than a crimson, I imagined I could wave them away after a clear conversation with the CEO. The following week, I had my chance.
About an hour into our interview, he tells me point-blank that he definitely sees me fitting in with his team. Great. He says he thinks I might be a fit for more of a senior role than we’d originally discussed. Even greater. And then, as if a lightbulb had just gone off in his head, he remarks, “You’re not working now, right? Why don’t you come in for two days next week and we’ll start you on a project to see how you work with the team.”
He says that a trial period, in order to gauge my management style, should prove whether or not I’m the right woman for the job. When I ask if these two full days—approximately 18 hours of work—would be compensated, he quietly mouths the word, “No.”
With this final flag, I’m seeing red. I quickly reply that I’m not comfortable working for free, and his response comes uncomfortably quicker. He thanks me for being honest and asks if I have any more questions. With this, I realize, he’s cutting the interview short.
Still, I do have one more question, and I figure I no longer have anything to lose by asking it: I inquire once more about that salary range. He tells me that isn’t something he’s willing to discuss until there’s an offer on the table. The flag flutters to the ground.
In retrospect, it was useful to see the intern CEO tear off his nicety mask after telling him that, as a 30-year-old professional with over seven years’ experience, I wouldn’t work for free—and therefore probably shouldn’t work for this company at all. I got up, thanked him for his time, walked out—and wrote a scathing Glassdoor review. Because sometimes when you’re unemployed and don’t have much leverage, that’s all you can really do to feel empowered during a tough job search.
That, and realize that despite filling your days with junky TV, your time is still valuable—dollars and cents valuable. And any company that doesn’t understand or respect that isn’t worth another minute of it.
Nikki Volpicelli is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her writing has been featured in Teen Vogue, Nylon magazine, Noisey, Paste magazine, and Consequence of Sound.