In your job search, you’ve likely visited your share of employer websites. If you’ve been at it for a while, you’ve also probably applied for jobs online. In other words, you have endured the seemingly endless procession of screens, asking you increasingly private and confidential questions. It’s part of the process. And if you want to be considered for the job, you accept that you need to answer them. After all, “it’s policy.”
It is increasingly common for companies – especially larger organizations – to require all applicants to funnel through their online system. And, frankly, there are good reasons for this policy. It not only saves the employer money and time in the initial screening process, it helps ensure cleaner record keeping, even more fairness in the hiring process.
Yet, as a recruiter, I can assure you that the online application process is a minefield for many candidates. One of the gnarliest questions to navigate: your salary history. Share a salary that exceeds their pay range and you’re disqualified. Share something too low and they’ll offer you less than they might have. Worse: show an inconsistent earnings history with peaks and valleys, ending in a valley and you’ve portrayed yourself as someone tumbling down the career ladder.
While it may sound bleak, do not despair. I’ve counseled many job seekers through this tricky terrain. The following tips have worked for them. And they can work for you. Check them out and learn how to confidently work your way through the salary discussion and get yourself the offer you deserve.
Shift your own attitude.
If you enter into any job-hunting communications with the attitude that you are at the mercy of “company policy,” or that no questions are off limits, you’ve just diminished your own power. If you’re not sure what I mean, consider this: imagine being at a dinner party, getting introduced to someone and, within seconds, having that virtual stranger ask you how much money you make, how much money you made at your last job, and, indeed, exactly what you have been paid in your last several jobs? Do you just bob your head and spill the beans for them? Do you wish to spend a lot of time with them, even if they are an interesting person? You’d (rightly) be tempted to call such a stranger out for the rudeness. I’m not suggesting you do that to a potential employer. But I am strongly suggesting that you put these kinds of questions in their proper place in your head space: they’re invasive. It’s none of their business.
Do Your Homework
Keep in mind, the employer is asking about your prior salaries for several reasons, one of which is absolutely valid: they don’t want to waste their time or yours pursuing a job offer if they’re paying less than you would ever accept. Unless this is a truly unique job in an unusual market, you ought to be able to find reasonable salary ranges for it. If the range fits what you need, pursue the job. If it doesn’t, then pass.
Put on your dancing shoes and practice your best poker face.
Also keep in mind that, in asking for your earnings history, this employer is trying to gain leverage for a possible future salary negotiation. Your strategy here is simple. You want to delay any conversations until you’ve convinced them that you are the find they’ve been seeking. That’s when you’re worth the most to a potential employer. You don’t want to talk salary before they see your value. If an employer asks you, verbally or via email, about your salary history, be ready with a well-rehearsed answer that says something like, try inserting in a worded message that says something like, “While I keep my personal financial information private, I will happy to discuss the salary range of this position to ensure that we’re all in the same ballpark. What is the salary range of this job?” Or, “Although my salary is personal and private, I would be happy to discuss the value I could add to your organization and what that would be worth in terms of compensation.” If you’re confronted by the Salary History question online, try leaving it blank. If that doesn’t work, type out the message you’ve been practicing.
Know When to Walk Away
The truth is, this approach will not always result in an interview or an offer. There are plenty of employers out there who will simply turn away an applicant who refuses – no matter how politely – to go full, open kimono. So it’s important to be prepared for this ahead of time. You may have reasons for wanting or needing that job and, in those circumstances, you may be willing to share everything when you first submit your resume. That’s your choice. But if you are confident in your options and if you’d like to keep your private financial information private until you have an offer in hand, say so. Just make the decision consciously. Before you decline to provide the information, be prepared for the employer to end the process.
Use your research.
You did your homework. You know the marketplace salary range for this position in this industry. While it’s better to not share any numbers at this stage, if all else fails, offer up what you know. A comment such as, “my own research suggests that this position falls into a broad salary range of $60,000-$100,000. If that is roughly right, then it is in the same ballpark as my salary needs.”
If you decide to share, do your math wisely.
At some point, you may decide it’s worth it to share. If you do, remember to factor in the value of bonuses, commissions, stock options, and any other form of financial compensation that you earned on the job. If your previous employer provided extraordinarily high value benefits, note that.
Honestly saying you decline to answer is a far cry from answering with puffed up numbers. Aside from the obvious ethical turmoil this kind of fibbing would create within you, there are enormous practical consequences. At job offer time, after you’ve accepted – but before you start, an employer will likely ask for old W-2’s and your permission to run a credit check. Producing anything that contradicts your earlier claims will result in a rescission of that offer – and a very likely “no interview” stance against you in the future.
At the end of the day, every organization is different. Each has their own set of policies and how they enforce them. But the decision to share your financials with strangers is an important one. Only you can decide when is the right time to do so with a potential employer. But with a little extra homework, scripting, practice, and confidence, the question – and how you answer it – gets easier.