My take on salary history questions from a prospective employer

I remember the day when talking about my salary was taboo.  It was not appropriate to talk about my pay with my coworkers or anyone else.  It did not take long working as a recruiter to get over that.

When I ask people salary questions I am often met with hesitation.  I think some of this is a holdover from the taboo days but I also think that some is due to occasional articles and discussions that tell people not to discuss their salary history with a prospective employer.

I read an article about this recently that had been reposted by several of my linkedin contacts.  I disagreed with most of the article and thought that it could lead to many people losing out on good job opportunities.  Rather than just reply to that article I decided to write my own blog about it.

I am going to ignore all the clever ways to avoid answering salary questions.  If you are interested in reading about those I am sure you can find them with a search but I suggest against it.

Why withhold your salary information with a prospective employer?  Why do some people recommend this? My impression is that the biggest reason is fear of getting a low-ball job offer or that the company will use the number against you to offer as low a salary as possible.  So the base premise is that the employers are really out to take advantage of prospective employees.

I am not going to lie to you.  This does happen.  I know a number of companies in my area that absolutely would do this.  They are companies that I would never want to work for as a consultant and that I would never recommend that any of my candidates work for.  If a company starts the hiring process that way then you can be sure employment will be unpleasant in the long run.

If you pay attention you can often find these unpleasant companies before you apply.  Your network may know or your friends or enemies.  Use your network.  Independent or agency recruiters will likely know.   Ask them all questions to avoid these companies.  If the company is not willing to disclose a salary range that may be a sign.    If you do not hear anything bad about a workplace and get an interview then continue to pay attention during the interview process.   You cannot always avoid these companies or know about them in advance but if you get a low-ball offer you will know for sure.  Use the offer letter to start your next campfire. Celebrate that you know a company to avoid.

I think that you should be willing to share your salary history when asked.  I also think that you should get information in return.  Before you share your salary history you can ask that it be an exchange of information.  Ask to get the expected salary range or budgeted salary. Right at the start you are creating a discussion not blocking the process from moving forward.

And you should know before you even apply for a job what your target salary range is. If you have not done the research based on the job and the size of the company then you need to gather your information before an interview, even if it is just a phone interview.  You should be able to present a salary range, from your least acceptable (for the perfect job) to your upper level target.  For most of the jobs I work that would be about a 5 to 10K range.

In my case when I am interviewing I will always provide everything I know about my client’s salary range.  Sometimes when people are reluctant I have to provide this information before they provide me with their history. As far as I am concerned that is fair.  Both sides should be willing to share salary information.  And just because I have their salary history does not mean that I will automatically share all that information with my clients.  I will work together with the candidate to determine how we can best present the information to improve the chances of an interview and later an offer.

If a candidate is not working through a recruiter like myself when applying for a job I still recommend that they share their salary information as requested.

What are the reasons you should share your salary information?  The first is one that I already mentioned.  Denying the information to the company may block the process.  Presenting it can open a discussion and make you look like more of a team player.

Good companies pay for perceived value.  They get this value from your resume, the interview, and comparing your skills and experience to their current employees.  They will make an offer that will be in line with the experience and productivity that they expect from you compared to their other employees.  They really want your salary expectations to make sure that what you want will be in line with what they have.  The companies I work with will make their best offer up-front.  They want to pay people an appropriate amount for the job they are doing.  They want their workers to be happy and productive.  A low-ball offer will not get them there.

Discussing your salary history may also be a positive.  Quite a few companies have not been providing good raises over the last 15 years.  If you can show that you have had consistently better raises than the market then that will be another positive indicator of your performance.

If you worked for a company that had/has low salaries compared to the market you may think that you will have a problem.  But your situation will not be uncommon.  If your previous employer paid poorly the recruiter may already know that.  If discussed, present that salary history and raises as data.  Do not get negative about it, or see if you can find something positive.

For example: in 1993 I received a layoff notice from my employer GRS.  I had not received a raise that year and my pay was below market.  But no one else got a raise either.  What I would tell an interviewer is that made I it through the first two rounds of layoffs, and managed to keep my job longer than many of my co-workers.

Bottom line?  Communicate.  Discuss.  Provide your information and get what you want in return.   Tell short stories or give examples.  Use a request for salary history to move the process forward not backward.

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One Response to My take on salary history questions from a prospective employer

  1. Tim Arrowsmith says:

    Good advice. I particularly like the exchange of information idea. They share the salary range and I share the salary history. Fair.

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