How to not give myself away to HR?
December 18, 2012 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Interviewing for a new job. HR has asked- in writing (email) - for current salary (which is low, in part due to location in low-cost-of-living state) and salary expectations. Because they want this in writing, it doesn't seem like I can obfuscate with the kind of answers that are usually suggested for in-person interviews. Any suggestions? Details within.

I currently make about $60,000 in a job based in an area with a very low cost of living. The new job is an academic executive directorship at a law school in an area with a high cost of living, and I'd like to make at least $80K. I don't feel I can tell them either of these details straightforwardly without either lowballing myself or eliminating myself from consideration as too pricey. I'd greatly appreciate your help in how to reply.
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Work & Money (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What about saying something like, "my current salary is $60K, commensurate with the cost of living in Ann Arbor."
posted by phunniemee at 2:13 PM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Answer the question they're really asking, but do it by couching it.

"Hi Jim,

Thanks for your email, and for being so upfront in asking about my salary expectations. It's really refreshing to get that out of the way early in the process.

Right now, I make $61,100/yr plus generous benefits, which is the market value for my work in {small town}. Of course, a compensation package includes more than just salary, but for a job like {Executive Director} in {Big City}, I'm seeking a salary in the range of $78-82K.

Best wishes,
posted by juniperesque at 2:17 PM on December 18, 2012 [35 favorites]

Is there a reason why you can't just reply with the standard "I'm sure we can reach agreement on fair compensation if I'm offered the job" line?
posted by momus_window at 2:17 PM on December 18, 2012

HR isn't going to negotiate your salary, you'll do that with the hiring manager.

Give them the correct figure, and you'll have a chance to discuss a salary if and when you get to that stage in the negotiations.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:17 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

This article (and its comments) may help give some tips for sidestepping the question.

You also might say that it violates your current employer's policy. If you must, you can bump the number with all of your compensation, such as bonuses and the value of your benefits. For example, the amount that your employer contributes to your health care payments.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:18 PM on December 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

Is the future job covered under a collective bargaining unit, most likely through the faculty association?
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:24 PM on December 18, 2012

Don't tell them what you make, and don't quote a figure on what you would like to make. In most circumstances, divulging this information can only hurt you. This isn't theory. I know people who have gotten far more than they were expecting by just keeping their mouth shut.

Asking your current salary is a way to anchor your future salary negotiations. Answer their real question: tell them you'll be considering cost of living and what the market is like for your profession, but that you don't have a number to share. If they press on your current salary, tell them your policy is to not discuss current compensation.
posted by danny the boy at 2:34 PM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

but for a job like {Executive Director} in {Big City}, I'm seeking a salary in the range of $78-82K.

Although all the advice is never to be the first person to drop a number, at some point somebody needs to say something. I agree mostly with juniperesque's take, but I'd encourage you to remember that you might be able to take a significantly lower salary depending on the value of the benefits package they offer. You may want to mention something to that effect, even.

I think you can definitely tell them your current salary without lowballing or outpricing yourself. If they're already talking to you based on your experience, it most likely means you're in their general range. Telling them your expected salary is a bit riskier, but I'd error towards the over-pricing yourself side, as this has the more positive up-side vs. the risk of not getting the job (as opposed to low-balling).

So, consider throwing out something along the lines of 5-10% more than you're hoping to make at minimum (80), along with a qualification that you're flexible on that depending on the benefits package.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:39 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If they press on your current salary, tell them your policy is to not discuss current compensation.

Any hiring manager is completely within their rights to just quit pursuing a candidate for a role for any reason, not the least of which could be getting annoyed with you for not providing salary expectations. As a hiring manager myself, I have certain budget restrictions and it is a hell of a lot easier for me to pass on a candidate who just wants way more than I can pay, than to do the endless 3-way dance with HR and the candidate.

So you have to remember you are taking a risk here. How calculated a risk it is depends on a lot of factors, including how many other well-qualified candidates they might already have, etc.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:43 PM on December 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

As one who regularly approved the hiring of upper level managers I firmly believe allkindsoftime and juniperesque are right. It is usually difficult to go wrong with candor and clarity. Answer direct questions directly--there are almost always opportunities for negotiations based on a thorough understanding of the position and the employees/employers needs.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:02 PM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

They're asking what you make now, not what you expect to make. Tell them you currently make $60K. That's enough to illustrate that your current employer values you substantially, but hopefully not so high that the new place will assume you have overly high expectations. Go through the interview process. Establish yourself as a fantastic candidate. Then, when they say, "We'd like to offer you $68,000," you can easily reply, "I'm so happy that you'd like me to work for you. I'm really excited at the prospect But, I also know that the cost of living there is substantially higher than where I am now, and this job also carries a higher level of responsibility..."

This isn't bowling. You don't have to line everything up perfectly and hope the ball hits the head pin at just the right angle 6 weeks from now. Be the forthright, honest person they want to hire.
posted by jon1270 at 3:14 PM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

The advice to obfuscate mystifies me. At my company, which has its pick of top applicants, there is almost nobody who wouldn't get dropped as a candidate early in the process if they refused to provide that basic bit of information.

Maybe it's different at little places where they are building up their staff and don't have to consider internal equity? I don't know. All I can say is I've worked in staffing both as a headhunter and as an in house recruiter and in neither setting is it ok to withhold this information. It is definitely ok to say "I make X, and my research suggests that I should be targeting at least Y for a role such as we're discussing, but I would want us to talk about the entire comp package rather than get hung up on just that number."
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:16 PM on December 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to clarify re: John1270's response, they are asking for both current salary and salary expectations.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:23 PM on December 18, 2012

I just went through this recently. I ended up saying something like, I'm making X at the moment, but I know that I'm underpaid in this position by Y (totally true). For position aX that you are considering me for, which is a step up from my current position, I would be looking for Z.

I knew Z was right in the sweet spot of what people in that position in this city were being paid.

I have had zero problems w this approach.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:30 PM on December 18, 2012

Ooops, sorry I misread.

Still, I don't see why you wouldn't be honest here. There are obvious reasons that your new salary should be higher than the old one, so disclosing the old one isn't a problem. It's probably too early in the process for you to be pinning down a single number for the new salary anyhow, so a range that includes your desired salary is probably a fine way to go.
posted by jon1270 at 3:36 PM on December 18, 2012

My experience and advice is not to leave a huge gap between current salary and expectations. There are lots of reasons employers want current salary, not just one.

1) They want it to see if you are in their price range, sure, but also;
2) They want it to use as a base for negotiation. No one, knowing your current salary, is gonna offer more than 20% - and quite likely a lot less - over it.

My experience in these cases has been to up my current salary, so it's in 10%-15% range of my expected salary (where it's not already), and add qualifications to make it clear I'm expecting more, e. g "I'm currently on a 110k package" (leaves it open to how package is interpreted, e.g does that mean gross or after-tax, does it include superannuation, or insurance?), or "I'm currently on 95k, obviously this org is not-for-profit (or govt, or part-time, or whatever), and I'm looking to move on to something more representative of what the commercial sector pays for this level of experience."

Something to bear in mind: The larger the organisation is, the less the hiring manager - and even less the recruiter - gives a shit about lowballing salary expectations. It's not their money; they just want to fill the role, preferably as fast as possible, with the best person (you). In my experience of large orgs, hiring managers and recruiters are generally happy to go to the top of the budgeted salary range very quickly if they feel you have the experience. Going beyond that is much, much harder, though, as it can take senior exec sign-off. They will never pick the second best person because they are 10-20k cheaper in my experience. That's not much over the long haul.

Additionally, if you are the right person, HR/hiring managers will offer you the job if your expectations are at all realistic. Being out of their budget (within *reason*) won't stop them - they have nothing to lose by offering you less; just make sure you communicate your enthusiasm.
posted by smoke at 3:38 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

OK then, tell me exactly what advantage revealing your current salary gives you as a candidate? We've heard from the hiring side that you should because it makes their lives easier. Cool. And a threat about passing on "difficult" candidates. But how does it position you better to get you what you want?

I'm lucky enough to be in a high demand profession, but I think in any industry, once you get to a certain level, the limiting factor is always going to be supply of qualified people. If you're the person they want, they're not going to lose you on compensation, much less pettiness about not filling in a blank on the form. If you're not the person they want, you're certainly not going to change their mind by disclosing your current salary.

About the only reason I can think of to tell anyone your current salary is if you make more than what you think they're willing to pay you, and that's a real gamble.

Any number you give them is going to be the starting point they negotiate from. Whatever you ask for, they will either give it to you, or negotiate down. If you wait for them to make an offer, it will either be above your expectations or you will negotiate up. One is all downside, and one is all upside. Simple.
posted by danny the boy at 3:39 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

tell them your policy is to not discuss current compensation.

Right. Because nothing says "high-maintenance", "game-playing", "hard-to-get-along-with" like this response. HR is not your enemy. They would like nothing better than for you to be THE ONE. It lets them check one more opening off their list!

Try looking at this from an altogether different point of view ... what if the employer really likes you and wants to make an offer you can't refuse? How will they know what that is?

My experience in these cases has been to up my current salary,

Lie. Now there's a concept that will take you far. And what happens when a reference check reveals your actual salary?

Yes, juniperesque has the best answer.
posted by John Borrowman at 3:41 PM on December 18, 2012

There was an AskMe not too long ago about the risks of withholding salary information at the early HR screening stage -- which is pre-interview, don't forget. Indeed, as many people discussed in that thread, lots of companies are quite willing to kick you down the road (pre-interview, again, before they know how good a match you are) if you won't at least signal to them that your needs are a vaguely equivalent match to their budget.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:46 PM on December 18, 2012

Sorry, John, I'm just offering my experience. It's worked very well for me. I would suggest that if you haven't coached your references on what to say, you are not seriously job hunting. Additionally, every large organisation I have worked for has a strict policy of only confirming duration of tenure - not salary, not reasons for leaving, not performance - for fear of law suits.

Lying has gotten me a >40% pay rise in a new job. So yeah, it did take me pretty far. I grant you, I was the right candidate, with the best skillset, they wanted me, and they needed someone fast. I did my research; everyone seriously applying for a job should do their research - general rules are a waste of time, and I think it's revealing how many people advocating for disclosure are recruiters or HR. How many times have they been lied to and don't even know?
posted by smoke at 3:52 PM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

My experience and advice is not to leave a huge gap between current salary and expectations.

Disagree strongly. A) as you mentioned you're moving to a much higher cost of living city - I took a huge bump early in my career when I moved to an essentially similar-level job in NYC from Pittsburgh. B) typically your largest pay increases in your career should come from when you change employers, your second largest from internal promotions.

And definitely do not lie about your current salary. Most organizations / companies / schools / etc. have an informal policy of disclosing current salary on any employee as a general courtesy to whatever HR person happens to be calling. They won't disclose an actual number, typically, but they will confirm whether the number the caller is asking about is correct or not.

What you can do is quote your current salary and any key benefits you get that have a significant dollar value to you, separately.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:58 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, chances are that you're already screwed. Jobs like this tend to be in grades or tiers, and have a pre-determined salary range. Which isn't to say that, for the right person -- which might just be the person who has the guts to negotiate -- it can't go beyond that range.

I don't think there's any benefit to disclosing your current salary, at all. The only purpose which it could serve your potential future employer is to know how to lowball you.

So, name your expectations around salary -- give one number. Do not give a range. Ever. You'll want to go 15-20% higher in this number than what your absolute minimum is. You said $80k to us -- to them, you say $96k.

This is a game. They are not the only ones who get to set the rules. It doesn't matter how much you might love them, or they might love you -- what matters is whether or not you'll be able to pay your bills, and whether the compensation is commensurate with your skills and experience.

Good luck - go get 'em!
posted by gsh at 5:23 PM on December 18, 2012

They're asking what you make now, not what you expect to make. Tell them you currently make $60K

Except they have no reason to want to know that except to use it against you in negotiations. They're not just politely inquiring to pass time.

I don't think there's any benefit to disclosing your current salary, at all. The only purpose which it could serve your potential future employer is to know how to lowball you.

Yes. I would decline to start if at all possible, and if really pressed I'd respond with a fudged "total compensation" number including benefits and such.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:44 PM on December 18, 2012

Any hiring manager is completely within their rights to just quit pursuing a candidate for a role for any reason, not the least of which could be getting annoyed with you for not providing salary expectations.

"Salary expectations" is not the same as "salary with current employer". The former is relevant to a job interview, the latter is not. Getting the interviewee to disclose current salary is simply a ploy to increase the asymmetry of information between the interviewer and the interviewee.

HR is not your enemy.

It sure as shit isn't your friend. While they like to play the role of "friend" by printing flyers announcing new benefits or the office Christmas party, I view them as the secret police of the corporation, right down to the personnel files they maintain that contain allegations (yes, mere allegations) regarding employees. I don't advise my friends to share any information with HR that they do not want used against them.

Try this experiment with your "friend": see how the HR department that was so eager to ask you your current salary during the interview reacts when you start sharing your salary with your coworkers once you're hired.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:52 PM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

I know this is tricky but I'm inclined to hold out as long as possible on disclosing current salary. A good friend and I got new jobs at about the same time. When I first applied for my job, I filled out a form on the website that asked what I wanted to make. I asked for a very specific number and got it, which makes me think I could have gotten more. My friend never said her current salary and she got a substantial raise over her previous salary. If there's a way to avoid being the first to shout out a number without being a jerk, do it.
posted by kat518 at 6:12 PM on December 18, 2012

I think it's hilarious that there are people seriously advising OP to lie in her application to be an academic director at a law school, a world that is both very small (in that it's tightly networked and salary information is even more easily discoverable than in most job scenes) and one in which they will fire her promptly if they find out she lied in her application.

I mean -- this person is going to be enforcing the school's honor code, if she gets the job. And academics is a small and gossipy world; plus there is no shortage of applicants for jobs like this.

I do think $80k sounds low (unless the city is not a coastal city.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:23 PM on December 18, 2012

I'm with Tanizaki.

I let my current employer name their price first. I dodged the question that HR asked (by just ignoring it) and then letting the hiring manager know in the first interview that I did my research and would be expecting a salary in line with the market.

There is absolutely no reason for them to need your current salary information. It's irrelevant. They know what their market is paying.

I would ignore the current salary question entirely. Answer the expected salary question truthfully by giving a number or asking them what the market rate is.

Have you researched your expected salary? (,, calling other academic departments?)
posted by just.good.enough at 8:00 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to juniperesque's excellent advice, remember that it's not all about you. H.R. departments are instructed to ask about salary expectations to make sure the organization is providing competitive compensation packages for candidates in your position. If you are underwhelmed by the pay they offer you, and you don't take the job consequently, they'll want to know.
posted by deathpanels at 8:25 PM on December 18, 2012

Do you have a scheduled interview with the hiring manager? Or do you have a screening interview with a recruiter/HR? From the way you've written this, it sounds as though you're on the screening list, not the candidate list. If you want this job you need to get from the screening pile to the manager's pile.

Also, any competent HR professional with industry knowledge can guess your salary within 10%, in academia that's probably 5%. There are wage studies, internal equity reviews, geographic pay reviews, etc. Salary isn't the big secret people think it is.

juniperesque's advice is on point here.
posted by 26.2 at 12:11 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It doesn't matter if they low-ball you, you know what you're worth and what that position should be paying, so do they. You can always stick to that to help adjust expectations if you get to that stage.

I used to work for a big, national company and they had a website with every job description in the company along with salary ranges. They also included "region differentials" so you could see how the salary range for that position changed in different areas of the country.

Maybe you could do something similar for your current position so you could say, "I currently make $61,000 which my HR department/my research tells me is roughly equivalent to X in (area where the job is) due to the higher cost of living there."

I don't know if that's a good idea, but it's something.
posted by VTX at 6:14 AM on December 19, 2012

Response by poster: 26.2, I already had one interview with the hiring committee. HR asking me for this info means I'm on the short list, or a shorter list.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:33 AM on December 19, 2012

I have a completely different take. When I applied - merely filled out the application - for the jobs I applied for in my current company, I had to select from a 10k tier list (ie, 30,000-39,999, 40,000 - 49,999) my current salary and expected salary. Just pick a number and go with it. I added in my bonuses and so forth, and ended up selecting my then-current tier and the one I for which I was aiming. When I got my offer, it was 17k over my max request because that's the grade for the job. So HR/hiring managers aren't always out to screw you, just usually.

However, academic job grades are a lot wider. I'd go with one of the iterations above that adds in any bonuses, etc, throw out your top number you'd like to get, and put in the the standard "I'm willing to discuss comprehensive benefits packages including but not limited to salary" to start the ball rolling.
posted by RogueTech at 10:40 AM on December 19, 2012

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