Salary History

by Mr. Cheap

Part of most job interviews is where they ask you about your current salary or salary history.  This is obviously valuable information for the other side of the negotiation to know, as it tells them exactly what amount of money you were willing to work for.  At it’s core, while useful for them to know, I think it’s a highly inappropriate question.

I have a somewhat skewed view of employment compared to many people.  I have been an employee at a large number of venues (from McDonald’s to Nortel), a manager (with 4 people working for me), a sole-proprietor (from a paper boy through to running my own software company), a contract worker, and a dot-com startup employee.  I’ve worked in industries from server management software to hospitality / tourism to education.  All together this allows me to see employment as a fairly balanced process, employees need jobs and businesses need employees.  The market rate for the work is how badly each side needs the other.

The dot-com boom (and bust), which I caught the tail-end of in San Francisco, was the far side of the pendulum where employees were in the drivers seat.  Companies were desperate for tech workers, and some employees developed prima-donna attitudes.  While this certainly wasn’t right (as I used to tell the CEO of my company when he hand-delivered my morning coffee and I was chastising him for not putting enough milk in it), the standard attitude prima-donna attitude of the employer isn’t right either.

Asking for a salary history is an example of this.  How is it any business of a potential employer what you’re being paid at your current or previous jobs?  This is between the previous companies and yourself and has nothing to do with potential employers.  If you were to turn the question around and ask them to provide a copy of last weeks payroll to all the employees in the company (or even asked the salaries of everyone working comparable positions at the company or what they’ve budgeted for the position) there’s no way they would answer.

No one likes answering this question, but I think enough people feel intimidated by the interview process that they do (and it has become a standard question).

How Answering Hurts You

The company obviously has a range they want to pay for the position, you have a range in salary you’re hoping to earn.  If you’re lucky there’s an overlap and both side want to a) come to an agreement and b) have that agreement be the best possible deal for them (low salary for the company, high salary for the employee).

The problem is, if your current salary is very low, it may be below what they’d intended to pay, in which case they’ll happily match your current salary (or give you a small bump that’s still below what they originally intended as the low-end).  For someone who had to temporarily take a job at a lower salary, this can make it a very painful process to claw there way back up to what they should be getting paid.

Conversely, if you quote too high a salary, they might just decide that you’ll be unhappy working for what they can afford to pay you and not offer you the position.  You may have considered the salary they’re willing to offer, but by having quoted the high number you never get a chance to hear their offer.

I don’t advocate lying, even in answer to inappropriate questions, but there’s extra reason not to lie here:  a lie can STILL hurt you if it’s the wrong number.

Ways To Evade The Question

This is a tough one (much harder than the old “don’t be the first to mention a number” idea).  In truth, I’ve always been fairly confident that I’m getting paid market rate (and have been happy to negotiate with an offer letter in hand) and have provided this salary history information when asked.  I don’t think I will if I’m ever asked in the future however.  Off the cuff, some ways I’d consider answering would be:

  1. “Unfortunately that’s priviliged information I’m not able to share.”
    • PRO:  Quickly ends the discussion, if pressed you can say that YOU make it privileged, not the previous employers (much like when someone tells you “sorry that’s against our policy” as a “reason” why they can’t do something).
    • CON:  You come across as somewhat aggressive, which for most jobs isn’t the image you want to convey.
  2. “I’d like to focus on whether I’m a fit for this position, and I’m sure we can work something out with salary after we’ve determined that.”
    • PRO:  Taps into the “don’t talk numbers” game, and they might let it go without firming it up.
    • CON:  Probably they won’t accept the attempt to sidetrack things and will try to pin you down.
  3. “Why would you like to know that information?”
    • PRO:  If you ask this sincerely and don’t come across as defensive, it may give you a chance to just talk philosophically about salary information (perhaps discuss some of the points in the section above) and you both may agree to just leave this question unanswered.  Depending on why they say they want to know, you may be able to answer the underlying question without providing the history.
    • CON:  They may not take it as sincere and you may come across as aggressive.  They might just say it’s part of their interview process and not provide a rationale (and demand an answer).
  4. “I’d be happy to give you that information, but first could you please tell me what salaries people currently in this position at this company are earning”
    • PRO:  Clearly makes the point that this is a one-sided questions that is clearly inappropriate.
    • CON:  Most people don’t hire smart-asses, so you’ve probably just talked them out of hiring you.
  5. “Well, I don’t think my recent salary history is relevant because of XYZ”
    • PRO:  If you have a solid reason (such as learning something new at your most recent position or being overpaid for some reason) they might accept that as a reason not to answer.
    • CON:  In all likelihood they’ll just say “we’ll take that into consideration” and still want to know.
  6. “My last job paid $1,000,000 annually, and the job before that paid $1 / year”
    • PRO:  Perhaps as a second attempt to deflect after one of the early responses, humour may be able to put off the question.
    • CON:  Even when it’s an obvious lie, deceit as part of a job interview may not be the best idea.

How do you answer when you’re asked about your salary history for a job?  Do you feel this is a reasonable question?  Any ideas for better responses than I’ve come up with?

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