Do you even have to answer salary questions?
It is now illegal to ask for salary history in NYC, as well as many other cities and states in the U.S, but asking for a candidate’s salary history is so routine in other venues that it’s important to learn how to answer questions about your salary. In venues where it is illegal, recruiters may just rephrase the question, asking instead what your salary expectations are. Your response could put you at a disadvantage once an offer is made, so let’s examine why questions about salary history became part of the hiring process.
Why do recruiters ask for your salary history, anyway?
Two reasons, primarily. For one, they want to find out if you’re within their price range before they invest time vetting your candidacy. And to be fair, you want to know what their range is before you waste your time on a position that’s less than what you’d accept. So here’s what you do – if you’re filling out a job application, write NA, and if you’re completing the application on a website for which salary is a required field, put in all zeros. However, when a recruiter asks, you can’t be rude – so how you respond is critical. I’ll cover that further down. But you can ask the recruiter what the company’s salary range is, and they should be willing to tell you. Otherwise, they risk wasting their time as well as yours.
The other reason recruiters ask for your salary history is because they intend to base the offer they make you so that it’s an increase over your last salary, but not a substantial increase. And this puts you at a real disadvantage.
How could your answer hurt you?
In a perfect world, job offers are made based on what you – unique individual that you are – are worth to the company that wants to hire you. But other considerations get factored in, such as where you live and work. Salaries for identical jobs are generally higher in major metropolitan markets, like New York City or San Francisco than they would be in smaller markets, like Indianapolis or Kenosha. Another serious consideration is how much the company can afford to pay. Start-ups that aren’t yet flush with capital may be long on potential, but short on cash for salaries, while more established companies may be constricted by set-in-stone compensation parameters.
And what if you’re coming from a company where you were paid below market value? Is it fair to peg your future salary to a salary that was sub par to begin with? Of course not. What if your new position leverages and expands your responsibilities to the extent that a 20% increase over your last salary doesn’t mesh with what’s expected of you going forward?
You want to approach compensation negotiations from a position of strength. If you already know the company’s salary range and you’re okay with it, come in armed with data that provides salary ranges for your field based on experience and market. Salary.com is a good place to obtain the these ranges.
A good way to answer salary questions
Moment of truth. The recruiter asks for your salary history. Don’t say “no” outright; instead, deflect the question. “I think it’s best for each of us if we first determine what value I can add to the company in this role.” Then try to return the conversation to the position and your qualifications for it. If this is your first interview, and it’s with the recruiter or HR, AND if you’re aware that their salary range is within your desired amount, then stick to your guns and concentrate on whether you’re the best candidate – and whether or not you’re interested.
So now you’re further along in the interview process. You’ve met with the hiring manager and he or she has asked you about your salary history. Continue your policy of deflecting to focus on your potential contributions to the company. This accomplishes two things: it tells the hiring manager that you’re more concerned that both parties do their due diligence with respect to one another, and it allows you to negotiate salary once the company has already chosen you – or has at least come close to deciding to make an offer. But once you are on their short list, you’ve already made your case for why you’re valuable, so you are now in a stronger position. Here’s how the conversation might go:
HR/Recruiter: We’re really going to need to know your salary history in order to structure an appropriate offer.
You: I’m definitely interested in having the company make me an offer, but I would hope that it’s being made based on my experience and skill, and how I will leverage both to achieve the goals for this position.”
HR/ Recruiter: I understand, but this is our procedure.
You: Understood, but may I respectfully ask that you discuss this with the hiring manager. I’d really like to know how the company values my potential, rather than by any other metric.
So long as you are respectful, self-confident without being arrogant, as well as showing genuine enthusiasm for the position, you should never have to reveal your salary history.
One SERIOUS note: NEVER, ever lie about your former compensation – or anything else – on your resume or job application. Misrepresenting facts concerning your salary, title, experience, education, etc can result in an offer being rescinded or termination if you’ve already begun work. Most companies conduct background checks, and the truth always comes out.
for further insight into how revealing your salary history can hurt you, read this Wall Street Journal article, “High Salaries Haunt Some Job Hunters.
Need help navigating your job search? Read about my interview coaching service.