It’s almost inevitable that in the course of your job search you will be asked for your salary history—either what you’re currently making, what you made in your previous position, or beyond. Employers want to know because they think it is a good gauge of your market value, and they want to get a sense of what salary level you might be expecting and/or hoping for. If you and the position you’re applying for are not in the same league, asking about salary can save you both a lot of time.
That said, what if you’re being underpaid at your current position? What if you know you’re getting far less than market value, to say nothing of your actual value? Or what if you were hoping this new position would lead to a significant pay raise? Or it’s your dream job and you don’t care that you’d be taking a massive pay cut?
Follow these guidelines and tactical options for when (and if) you should show your salary cards to your potential employer.
Think in terms of your worth, rather than your pay.
There are situations in which divulging your salary information is basically like underbidding on yourself and setting the bar fairly low for negotiations. (And, in situations where you make dramatically more than the position would pay, you don’t want to scare anybody away from hiring you.) The trick with this strategy is to find out what the position is worth on the market and negotiate from that position.
Address any major discrepancies with your current pay level in your cover letter. If the question comes up in your interview, simply deflect by saying you’ve researched the fair market value of the job in that region, and you’re sure that at the appropriate time, you would be able to settle a mutually appropriate figure. (Hint: you can’t say this unless you’re sure you would accept something in the fair market range.)
It's okay to deflect.
If you’re keen not to give a number and the interviewer or HR department keeps pushing you, you can come up with a respectful way to say that you don’t believe your salary history should affect your prospective salary future at a different company—or in a different role or industry. Pivot again to describe the ways in which this job is different, and thus your salary comparison is not appropriate. If they’re all about the dollar amount and really getting pushy for no obvious reason, then ask yourself if this is the kind of company you really want to work for.
Keep your cards close to your vest.
Take caution, especially in the beginning! There’s no reason to preemptively disclose your salary history on your application. Put dashes in those boxes if they appear on any forms. If you’re asked for a resume and salary history, send just the resume. If they really want it/need it, they will ask, and you can proceed with your chosen strategy from there. If they do call you, that means they’re interested in you. Score! You’ve just gotten one of their cards before showing your full hand!
Of course, this strategy can easily backfire if no one calls you to get the extra information. Then you lose out on a potential interview. (Note: some civil service and other jobs require salary disclosure, but these have very rigid pay structures, so there’s much less risk to you. In these cases, divulge immediately.)
If you sense that you are really just frustrating your interviewer by not budging, maybe you can rethink. Try the tactic of honesty—the best policy. If you’re hesitating because you’re currently being woefully underpaid, try just being straightforward about that. This also opens up the conversation about why you think you’re being undervalued, which gives you another chance to sell your unique skills and expertise.
The Bottom Line
No matter which strategy you go with, remember that the point is to explain your worth in order to get the salary you want. The only way to do this is by selling your skills and your particular blend of experience and expertise. Let your record stand as the biggest bargaining chip. You’re the best candidate at the fair market price you’re asking. It is possible to get what you want and what you deserve from the right company willing to realize your value.
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