The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters
Many of us tend to think of personal income as a private matter. A person's worth isn't determined by how much he or she makes – so why should a prospective employer think otherwise? Some job seekers, though, get an unpleasant surprise when an interviewer pops the question of previous salaries – and it's important to know how to respond in a way that preserves your negotiating position without compromising your shot at the job. Understanding why some employers ask this question can help you provide an answer that keeps you safe on both those fronts. Here's how to approach your response.
No law requires you to divulge your previous salaries to a prospective employer – and in fact, some career coaches strongly advocate a polite refusal, no matter how much pressure the employer applies. "Employers have no business asking for your salary history," says this article. "It's confidential. It has nothing to do with hiring you. When you divulge your salary history, you put yourself in a corner that's very difficult to negotiate your way out of." That's because, once you've told an employer how much you've been paid in the past, they'll have no real incentive to offer you much more than that – even if they actually have the budget to offer you, say, twice your last salary.
It's often possible to address the question without seeming evasive, yet still make it clear that you're not going to disclose your salary history. Tell the employer that you know the company has a budgeted range for this position, and you'd be happy to talk about a ballpark figure. This protects you from being the first to name a figure – crucial if you want to find out how much the company is willing to pay.
Another option – if you've got time to prepare in advance – is to do some research on the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), on the sites of publications in the company's industry, with recruiters who work in that industry, and even with personal friends who've recently held similar jobs. This can allow you to name a ballpark figure without claiming it as your own previous salary.
Above all, keep in mind that by this point in the negotiation, the employer already considers you a serious candidate – so it may be possible to gracefully dodge the history question and still have a frank salary discussion. However, some companies just won't take no for an answer. If you decide the job is worth it and you're willing to disclose your previous salaries, the following tactics can still give you some leverage for negotiation.
One of the main reasons an employer asks for your salary history is to make sure you won't ask for more money than they've budgeted. As discussed in the previous section, this issue can easily be sorted out by discussing publicly available ballpark figures – but if the prospective employer won't settle for this approach, you can try offering them ballpark figures from your own recent career. For example, if your last three positions have paid $38,000 per year, $40,000 per year and $37,000 per year, you can say that your salary range is "around $40,000 per year," and still remain faithful to the truth.
Although no employer wants to waste company time discussing a contract with a potential employee who'll ask for a higher salary than the company has budgeted for the position, they'll also expect you to ask for a raise, since this is common practice for new hires. So it's also acceptable to get proactive and say something like, "I've noticed that people in this position, in this region, typically make around $48,000 per year. Is that the range you're expecting to pay?" The company may surprise you by agreeing to the higher figure.
Another reason a prospective employer asks for info on your previous salaries is to look for a pattern of progress in your career – so give them one, if possible. Your salary growth doesn't have to be astronomical, but a pattern of growth demonstrates that you're continuing to gain new skills, and that you haven't already "peaked" as a valuable employee. Your resume likely already portrays an upward progression like this, by skipping over side-jobs in order to focus on your professional maturation. That means it should be easy to match your upward salary story with the one on your resume: Just call out the points in your career where your salary took a significant leap.
If the prospective employer presses you for more details on positions where your salary didn't improve – or where it took a temporary dive – you won't help your case by avoiding the question. Instead, simply admit that you made a brief mistake in judgment, but that you quickly fixed it by moving on. In other words, downplay your salary valleys and emphasize your uphill moves.
Another point worth noting is that experience adds value – so even if your salary at your previous position remained fairly unchanged, you can point out to your prospective employer that you gained, say, five years of in-the-field experience tackling new issues that arose around your job. If this is true, bring it up in a way that emphasizes how you gladly rose to the challenge. For example, if you were originally hired as a human resources executive, but gradually took over executive accounting as well, point out that you enjoyed that opportunity to learn and grow as a worker. Between the value of your extra experience and your new employer's desire to lure you in, you may net a small raise just by mentioning a fact like this.
Tips for Evading the Salary Question — A list of points to consider when a prospective employer asks for info on your previous salaries.
How to Deal with Salary History Questions — Tips on discussing (or gracefully avoiding discussing) your previous salaries.
Responding to Requests for Salary Requirements or Salary Histories — A detailed article on determining your worth as an employee, and on possible responses to the "previous salaries" question.