I hate this question more than almost any other! This is a great article from one of my favorites!
Even when you’re ready for the question, it’s jarring. “What did you earn at the last place?” Somehow there never seems to be a good answer.
If you earned a great salary, the interviewer’s eyebrow may rise with an ever-so-faint hint of “REALLY? They paid you a lot.” If your salary was horrendous and maybe even the reason you’re looking for a new job, the eyebrows may go a different way, signaling “How good could you really be if they paid you so little?”
Typically, your new employer is going to pay you a shade more than you were earning before, once they hear that last-salary number.
If your old salary was $67,500, the new place might offer you $69,000. (You couldn’t go all the way to $70K, for Pete’s sake? Evidently not.)
You lose most of your negotiating leverage when you give up your old salary, but sitting in the hot seat as a job-seeker, you feel that you have no choice but to do that.
You do have a choice. Your personal financial info is just that – personal. Don’t give away your last salary.
I come from the other side of the desk — I was a Fortune 500 HR VP, negotiating job offers with new hires for two decades. They don’t need that information to keep you in the pipeline. They only need to know your target salary range.
If you want to hold back on sharing your past salary, as I recommend, you’re going to have to share a target salary instead.
If you were selling your house, you’d put a listing price on it, right? It’s the same way in your job search. You have to price yourself like a house. Otherwise, if you don’t give the interviewer a number and the topic of compensation doesn’t come up in your interview process, you’re going to get a lowball offer.
Here’s how it will work. The recruiter will call you to set up a second interview, and that’s when you’ll broach the topic. The first interview is too early. You don’t know whether you like them yet, or whether they like you. Don’t go back for a second interview until you know your target salary is in the employer’s ballpark.
RECRUITER: So, Megan, can you come back at 2:30 on Tuesday and meet the rest of Barney’s team?
MEGAN (YOU): Let me look at my calendar. I might be able to make Tuesday work. Can I ask a quick question?
RECRUITER: Sure, what is it?
MEGAN: Just to save your time and Barney’s, shall we synch up on compensation? I want to make sure my target range is in the ballpark.
RECRUITER: Well, what were you earning at Acme Explosives?
MEGAN: (No way, chickadee, that’s private — I’ll give you my target range, instead): I’m focusing on positions in the $70K range. Is that going to work for this opportunity?
RECRUITER: I think that will work. What were you earning over at Acme?
MEGAN: You know Bruce, $70K is really the number we should focus on. If this position is in that range, it makes sense for us to keep talking. My accountant is a stickler for keeping financial details private. He’d have my head if I gave that information out.
RECRUITER: Let me check with Barney. I think that range will work.
The good news is that employers don’t need your past salary information. They use it as shorthand to evaluate what they’ll have to pay to get you on board. A negotiation with a prospective employer starts the minute you begin communicating with them, and the vital broach-the-salary-topic event is part of that negotiation.
Some people say “Don’t mention salary until you get an offer.” That is the worst job-search advice ever!
I have never heard of a person keeping quiet about compensation down to the offer stage and then being happily surprised by a ‘highball’ offer. I’ve been in HR since Elvis Costello topped the pop charts, and I haven’t run into that circumstance even one time. These days, it’s even less likely that you’ll get an offer that’s higher than you expected.
You have to put your target number out there, or expect to be offered what we used to charmingly call “galley-slave wages.”
Don’t believe the job-market hype that says that employers get twenty qualified applicants for every position. They get applicants, no doubt — but are those the switched-on, intellectually curious, get-it-done people they’re looking for? Evidently not, or the phone in our office wouldn’t ring night and day with employers complaining about the lack of available talent. Lots and lots of great people are consulting, running their own businesses or scuba-diving in Cayman. Price yourself like a house on a job hunt, and when the question “What were you earning before?” comes up, smile and share your salary target.
If you’re still in doubt, ask yourself this question: is the hiring manager going to tell you what s/he paid the last person in the job? I’m pretty sure he or she is not going to do that. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander — don’t you agree?