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Background: I am sophomore college student currently working on my way towards a computer engineering degree. Despite being very young, I have 3 years experience with a Fortune 500 software company, with experience in both software QA and actual software engineering.

Last week, I had a couple interviews with a company about a possible summer internship. I had one over the phone with HR, which basically was just a weed-out interview, and then an actual video interview with the two "hiring managers", which were really just members of the team I was going to be working for. Originally, I had applied for the software engineering team, as I am very suited for that position, but was contacted and interviewed for the "release team." During the initial interview, the HR rep made it clear that this position was not technical, and required no programming skills. It seemed to me like a lot of paper work and communication with all the actual programming teams.

Both interviews went really well, they were impressed with my resume up to this point, and personally, I felt over qualified for the position. However, when I asked about housing and compensation, it seemed to 'irk' the interviewers. They made it clear that housing stipends were not supplied by the company, even though they are located in one of the most expensive places to live in the country. When I asked about compensation, the HR rep was unsure about the answer, and she expressed a lot of surprise when I told her I made $16.50 an hour at my last programming job. When I asked the hiring managers, they too did not have an answer, but joked that any salary should be fine since a lot of internships are unpaid. I remained amiable, but I was not very amused by this answer. The majority of my living money during the school year comes from summer jobs, and considering I already have a head start on experience, unpaid internships are just a waste of my time. In no way did I express this opinion, but unpaid internships are almost unheard of in the engineering field, and hearing that they were planning on offering me a low salary put me off a bit.

Overall, I felt like the interviews went very well, and that I was almost a shoe-in for the job, I had experience working releases as a software dev, so working as a release intern on a high level would've been easy. However, I received an email this morning from HR stating that they were going to move forward with other candidates with more experience in the engineering field. Did I scare away the interviewers with talk of compensation and living stipends? Are these not questions I should be asking until they offer me the job? My step brother got an internship with a company in Houston, and they gave him an $8000 moving stipend, along with a very high salary and housing stipend, but is it not reasonable for me to expect something like this?

I was legitimately interested and excited for the job, however I feel like I might have scared the interviewers. The fact that they are "pursuing candidates with more experience" seems like an excuse. Anyone with more experience than me would expect the same information as I did, possibly more. Should I not expect this from an internship interview?

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Seems to me like they are not really interested in providing the conditions you require. I urge you to apply to other positions since as you put it you have a stellar resume thus you shouldn't have any problems getting other offers. My friend got $40/hr + $1500 housing stipend each month as well as $2000 travel bonus. He was sophomore and CompE. I did international internships where companies specificely do not pay interns however, I was paid around the minimum wage. – Mert Karakaya Mar 9 at 14:49
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@MertKarakaya, your friends package is quite amazing. Annualized, that works out to be 100K. That is an excellent package for a graduate, but generally not reasonable for someone to expect that as an internship. – cdkMoose Mar 9 at 19:27
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@MertKarakaya, Impressive, but far from the norm. For the general readers of this question, they should not see those numbers and use that as any benchmark. – cdkMoose Mar 9 at 19:42
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Side note: just because you're not using the technical skills doesn't mean you're over qualified for a position on the release team. You need to fully understand the SDLC to do well in that role. – corsiKa Mar 9 at 20:25
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"one of the most expensive places to live in the country" + no housing compensation = "we're looking for local kids". – Agent_L Mar 10 at 14:20
up vote 77 down vote accepted

No, it is not unreasonable to state your compensation requirements early in the interview process. It saves both you and the interviewers from wasting time by talking about a job you wouldn't have taken anyway because the pay is too low. In fact it is not unusual to state your salary requirements right in your application. Many companies even ask for this.

Maybe your step-brother got a job with a better compensation, but that was a different job, not the job you were interviewing for. The job you interviewed for was below your pay rate, so it wasn't suitable for you, even if the work itself would have been interesting.

Also, you should not pay any attention to the reasons stated in rejection letters. They are usually untrue anyway.

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I'd add emphasis on ask. I think this bears repeating everywhere. Ask how much they will offer. Do NOT tell how much you want. – kush Mar 11 at 3:41

The most important thing to remember is that while they are interviewing you, you are also interviewing them.

It is not inappropriate to ask questions that are material to whether or not you would accept an offer.

I would, however, caution you that you should not judge what your compensation should be by what someone else gets nor should you look at individual perks such as stipends or moving expenses but rather total compensation and what your own needs are.

Which would be better for you, 8,000 dollars to move, or a salary that's 2,000 higher than the one that offered the compensation for moving expenses? These are things you need to keep in mind. I've personally gone to work for companies where the compensation was lower, but the opportunity to move up was great.

If they can't or won't meet your needs, it's the wrong company for you. And I agree with Philipp. Ignore anything in rejection letters. They are all lies.

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It might not seem like it now but this is really valuable experience for the future. Getting used to asking about pay and other benefits during the hiring process is important and, as others have said, an entirely legitimate thing to ask. The interview process is there for both parties to sound the other out and see if they are a good match - just as companies don't always want to hire applicants, sometimes applicants don't want to work for companies. Getting comfortable with this now will help you make better informed career decisions in future.

Did you scare them away by asking? Almost certainly. It sounds like they were looking for an unpaid intern to pick up some lower level tasks during the summer. This is fairly common and, for the business, doesn't make sense to spend a fortune on these interns (the morality of that is a separate issue).

It definitely seems like a learning experience but one that you shouldn't let put you off.

Best of luck getting a more suitable placement.

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+1 for clear and concise answer. – Richard U Mar 9 at 16:17
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Generally good answer, but I would note that unpaid internships are definitely not common in engineering in the U.S. Even in quite cheap parts of the U.S., engineering interns usually get decent compensation (though generally nothing like what they'll get after graduation.) – reirab Mar 10 at 7:07
    
Thanks for adding that. I work in Finance in England where they sadly are. Noted as a style point for future answers though :) – Maladictus Mar 10 at 11:07
    
an unpaid internship is likely illegal unless the intern is getting college credit or is receiving more training than doing work. – Vidro3 Mar 11 at 14:25

Some firms, and not always the smaller ones, or the less reputed ones, have as a doctrine to use interns as much as possible to reduce costs. You may think it works well, or not. But some firms really work like that.

This firm, obviously, belongs to that category. Which means they never planned to pay you, and expected you to make a good job for nothing in exchange.

If you cannot afford an unpaid internship, then it's a good thing they turned down your offer. There are other firms with other, more intern-friendly policies. Just, it's not something you know until you actually have an interview with them - or have a chat with people who already have the information.

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This practice also happens to be illegal in many cases. – Philipp Mar 9 at 15:12
    
@Philipp Yep, I believe I read recently that in the US, at least, the structure of an internship must always be toward the benefit of the intern - the intern should be learning about the industry or developing marketable skills, and especially cannot be brought on to do trivial work for little to no pay, in order to free up employees' time for other tasks. – Dan Henderson Mar 9 at 22:14
    
@DanHenderson I believe that law refers specifically to unpaid internships, which are nearly unheard of in engineering in the U.S. AFAIK, it's perfectly fine (from a legal perspective, at least) to hire someone less skilled for lower pay to do menial tasks to free up time for more senior employees as long as the person is getting paid at least minimum wage. Whether such a job is actually worthwhile for an engineering college student is another matter. – reirab Mar 10 at 7:09
    
@reirab yeah, that sounds right. I only mentioned it because of "the hiring managers... joked that any salary should be fine since a lot of internships are unpaid." So citing this law would be a counter-argument to that position. – Dan Henderson Mar 10 at 13:36

Asking logistics questions is more than reasonable: You didn't pass on a chance here; you dodged a bullet by doing so.

I read your description as: The company looked for someone to do unpaid work. Anyone qualified (and unqualified for that matter) deserves some sort of compensation for their work. The compensation does not need to be monetary. However they were offering:

  • (close to) no beneficial experience, because you already worked with more complex tasks. Doing "paper work" is rarely something to brag about.
  • no payment or at least relieve of actual costs.
  • no respect for you and your effort, which is implied by the company's lack of general rules for stipends and the interviewer's unwillingness to even discuss the matter. The interviewer joking about it even tops this.
  • apparently no interesting entry on your CV. You said you already worked/had an internship at a fortune 500. What would the other company add to your CV? How would that internship help you, e.g. finding a better job later worth any drawbacks now?

Seriously, keep up asking any kind of questions that may help finding an internship where you get at least two of the above points. The same goes for work in later life but then payment definitely needs to be involved to make a living.

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I noticed after answering that there actually IS a similar answer by @gazzz0x2z . Obviously, my initial skimming through the answers was insufficient. However my answer adds points to look out for in internships and employment that were missing according to OP's description, which is why it's a good thing to have passed on this particular "chance", i.e. dodged the bullet. I don't mind, if these points are incorporated into other answers and this answer gets deleted. – NoAnswer Mar 10 at 13:19

This smells like bad faith to me.

When I asked about compensation, the HR rep was unsure about the answer, and she expressed a lot of surprise when I told her I made $16.50 an hour at my last programming job. When I asked the hiring managers, they too did not have an answer, but joked that any salary should be fine since a lot of internships are unpaid.

How could a HR rep show up for an interview and have no idea about the level of compensation?

She must have been either lying, incompetent or both.

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Background: I am a hiring manager in a technology company.

I suspect the problem is you got the timing of the discussion wrong. It is certainly appropriate that any candidate for a position, whether intern or experienced hire, should discuss compensation and terms. However, it is not normal to do this until the point where an offer has been made.

At this stage of the interview process as you have described it, you are still being screened. Some of the aspects under consideration will be your personal fit, inter-personal skills and professional judgment. Unfortunately by starting compensation discussions at this stage of the interview process you've done yourself a disservice.

From the point of view of your peers you've demonstrated poor judgment by asking them the wrong questions (you're expected to understand that engineers don't handle salary discussions). From the point of view of HR you may be considered naive, or perhaps even presumptuous by assuming the role was yours before an offer was made. Taken together, these factors will dilute your starting position of being a strong candidate on the strength of previous commercial experience.

The fact that you didn't receive an offer is therefore, regrettably, not surprising. However, it's unlikely to be because of your assumption that they're looking for someone cheaper.

As a general tip, when asking questions in an interview it's best to contain them to the organisation, the work and the people. Discussions about compensation are best deferred until the organisation has expressed its interest in hiring you.

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I disagree with many of your statements: "you're expected to understand that engineers don't handle salary discussions" they were the hiring managers. They do know the compensation bracket for the position. "Discussions about compensation are best deferred until the organisation has expressed its interest in hiring you" - No. No. No. An interview is a chance for the candidate to asses the company, not just them you. The OP was overqualified for the job and was well within his rights to request this very important information. The approach you're describing is for people applying hat in hand. – AndreiROM Mar 10 at 19:16
    
Theres a difference between "how much is the going compensation for job X", and "how much will you pay ME for job X" – Mike Mar 12 at 19:48

Asking the question is a good idea. You should always ask, and in fact I don't even go to interviews without knowing that they are offering inside my salary range. If they aren't willing to offer what I'm willing to work for then continuing is just wasting everyone's time.

The one thing that might have been a mistake though is this:

"hiring managers", which were really just members of the team I was going to be working for

People you are going to be working with would generally not know what you are earning and would be made uncomfortably by discussions of what either you or they are making. Recruiters and someone who is going to be your managers are the only people you should discuss salary with.

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Welcome to workplace :-) – AndreiROM Mar 10 at 19:17
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I've been around for a while, just only answer occasionally :p Most of my rep is one answer though :) – Tim B Mar 10 at 22:58

I'll add another point of view not mentioned so far: your question seems to show a fair bit of indignation on your side about how the interviewers reacted and that they joked around in an interview. I can certainly understand that the interviews are very important to you and thus you tend to place weight on every word said, however:

When talking with HR people or especially team members, please do keep in mind that they are totally normal people like you and me. They probably did not get any formal training in doing such interviews, and especially for the team members, the situation is not that important for them. From their point of view, they're taking half an hour out of their busy day and chatting with someone. You might find that unprofessional, but that does not change the fact.

Their job is not to make you feel especially well, but simply to find someone who can work for/with them. If they're cracking jokes about salaries, just put that aside. The only "meaning" you can read into that is that the time and place was not correct to talk about salaries, and that the tone in that company seems to be rather informal. If you know that you are not comfortable in a workplace where jokes are cracked, then you can take that into consideration. (Note: if a HR guy starts cracking jokes, I'd worry - from those people I would expect professionalism even dealing with very fresh people).

All of this will be different when you have many years of expertise, written a few books, are known in your circles etc. But at the current stage, just talk with people, relax, learn to read between the lines and take it for what it is. It is very good that you kept your composure and didn't say much about what offended you.

You will want to really pay attention when sitting in front of your contract with a pen in your hand. Then it is time for making sure you didn't miss anything. Until then, it's all just words.

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Then they should get formal training. Their job is to identify and recruit. All the time and money spent recruiting and "their job is not to make you feel especially well"? – Paparazzi Mar 10 at 18:38
    
I specifically stated that the HR guys are expected to perform professionally. An idiot HR guys would be a big red flag for me. But in reality, other people like in the case shown by the OP, where two people "which were really just members of the team I was going to be working for" were doing the interview, are what they are. Just offering the thought that it would help the OP more to see the situation from their point of view, then to be angry about it. He cannot change it anyways and will be in that situation all the time in his working life... – AnoE Mar 11 at 9:03

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