How to answer the salary history question?
January 11, 2016 8:34 AM   Subscribe

A possible employer has asked for my salary history. Hooray, they're interested! But I want to make *more* if I take the new job.

Here's why...
  1. The new job would involve more responsibility.
  2. People with similar jobs at the organization I might move to make about $95K. I make about $80K now.
  3. I took a pay cut when I moved to my current job about 8 years ago because it was an organization I care about, so even my current salary undervalues my worth.
  4. How do I answer the prospective employer's question in a way that will keep them open to the salary range I'm hoping for?
posted by underthehat to Work & Money (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Just tell them your history is irrelevant and you're looking for a salary commensurate with the position and your experience. Never give a number first. I highly recommend this article on salary negotiation (it's written for software engineers but it's applicable to just about any job).
posted by Itaxpica at 8:45 AM on January 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

Ask a Manager knows.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:45 AM on January 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

"I'll accept an offer at $xx,xxx."
posted by saeculorum at 8:50 AM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Agree with "never name a number first". Also, give them some wiggle room to offer you more vacation, work from home, etc, if the salary isn't quite what you want.

I usually go with "I believe that salary goes beyond just monetary compensation, and I know that when everything is considered, your offer will be fair based on my relevant experience and the responsibilities of the position".
posted by dotgirl at 8:52 AM on January 11, 2016

I know that when everything is considered, your offer will be fair

This sounds a lot like pre-negotiating the offer. It's pretty hard to negotiate after their offer if you've already stated their offer will be fair.

I will comment that the highest paid employees I know are the ones that don't negotiate or dither on salaries. They don't determine their worth by other peoples' salaries (which are irrelevant to them), they state what they want to make. If you know what you are worth, then any employer you want to work for should be able to provide you with (at least) that number. Essentially, if you set your own salary, then you should be happy when you don't get a interview or job offer - it means the company can't pay you what you're worth and you can focus your efforts on companies that can.
posted by saeculorum at 8:57 AM on January 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

They don't determine their worth by other peoples' salaries (which are irrelevant to them), they state what they want to make

Seconding this very strongly. This is the only way to get your salary back on track. And it actually becomes a very easy decision for you. If they can't match what you're looking to get, you quickly say your thanks and move on. Don't pretend it's a negotiation trick and don't wait for them to call back with a response. Because they still won't be able to ever match what you expect. You can always give a range to them if really like the company, but never drop the lower end of that range below your comfort zone.

Of course this is only possible when you *have* a job and the luxury of time to look for a new one. But this is exactly what you need to do.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:06 AM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

"I'm seeking xxx to take this role, based on my research on the role, what I see out in the market, and what I'm sure I can bring to your company."

If they press harder for answers and documentation, ask yourself if you really want to work in that kind of culture. It's very much a leading indicator of trouble.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:12 AM on January 11, 2016

I will start with the OP's original question, and express what will appear to many as a contrarian view.

How do I answer the prospective employer's question in a way that will keep them open to the salary range I'm hoping for?

One way is to use a combination of facts and context. "When I accepted my current position in Month/Year, I took a cut in pay from $A to $B. I did this because (blah, blah, blah). My pay increased from $B to $C in Month/Year and from $C to $D in Month/Year. (Cite other increases if they occurred.) I believe that my current pay undervalues my worth because A, B, and C reasons."

Just tell them your history is irrelevant

Well, it's relevant to the potential employer or they wouldn't be asking. And like it or not, they hold the cards at this point. Telling them (in effect) they are wrong can mark you as high-maintenance and risk your being eliminated as a candidate. For all you know, the employer may be very impressed with you, may very much want to bring you on board, and may want to demonstrate that by offering a significant pay increase.

If/when the employer asks your pay expectations or makes an actual offer, other advice above will be useful.
posted by John Borrowman at 9:21 AM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

When a company asks for your salary history, they want to either see the profession of your salary over time, or what you were last being paid relative to what you want to be paid now. I'd say something like...

"At my last job my base salary was $50k which was average for (city). Given what I will contribute to you company in terms of skills and experience and the known average for this role in (this city), I would be looking to start between $75 -85k."

Don't offer up pay cut info unless asked. Just answer the question, limit your editorializing, and assert what you want to be making now based on positive factors A, B, and C.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:23 AM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Never, ever, EVER give your salary history. Ever. There's no reason for it. You will interview, they will make an offer, you will evaluate the offer, and you will ALWAYS counter-offer. Always.

You will be nervous, you will feel awkward, you will be scared. Ignore these emotions. NEVER give your salary history.

They ask for salary because they are trying to get an employee for the cheapest amount possible. there is NO other reason. They are a business. They are trying to save money. Stand your ground!
posted by gsh at 9:50 AM on January 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

Salary should be based on the value you bring to an organization, which doesn't have a lot to do with what value you brought to other organizations doing a different job with different people. It benefits them to know, and they're free to ask, and you're free to tell them your recent salaries are confidential information you agreed not to share, or whatever.

A reasonable organization will not be surprised or put off by this. When they ask about salary, turn it around back on them: "My research indicates $X-$Y is the normal range for jobs like this, does that seem about right to you?" They should be able to answer this question without knowing your salary history, and then if you absolutely have to disclose it later, you can do having already anchored them to a number you'd be comfortable with.
posted by substars at 9:53 AM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

"My salary history is valuable information. I don't just give it out for free."
posted by Wild_Eep at 10:22 AM on January 11, 2016

*sorry, meant to say progression, not profession.

I'm sort of perplexed by how many people are saying not to give a salary HISTORY. Histories are different than ranges; the former is meant to show progression, the latter establishes what you are aiming to be paid now. They aren't the same thing and refusing to dialogue about your past salaries is in my experience a huge red flag to hiring managers. You have nothing to hide but you will make them think you do if you decline to give them your history.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:33 AM on January 11, 2016

refusing to dialogue about your past salaries is in my experience a huge red flag to hiring managers

These would be the same types of companies and managers where it is not permissible for employees to discuss actual salary numbers in conjunction with their "levels"?

There are red flags for employee's too - we should never be "begging" for jobs.

Yeah - NO.

Your salary history is private financial information - lets say that you list one of your previous managers/employers as a reference - do you think that they are legally allowed to discuss your salary? The answer is "NO" (if they do, they open themselves up to legal action against them).

So, why would you hand that over to a "potential" employer? You should know the market ranges - and what you want - ask for that.
posted by jkaczor at 10:54 AM on January 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

So, to give a little more nuance to my earlier answer: salary history is not the same thing as salary range, no. But if your salary history is far enough from your salary range you're giving the other party in the negotiation ammo and getting nothing for it in exchange, since they can offer you more than your current salary but less then your desired salary range and play the "well it's more than you're making now" card.

Now, no HR department is going to like you not giving them your salary history, because it denies them leverage, which is never a good thing. But depending on the strength of your negotiating position you may or may not be in a position to tell them to shove it. If you're in a powerful position (they want you a lot, or they've already made an offer, or you work in an industry/have some kind of specialization where hiring is extremely tight) their dislike of you giving a salary history is going to be trumped by the fact that they need you. If you're in a weaker position (no offer yet, you're one of a thousand qualified applicants, etc) you might not be able to afford not to give them the information they're requesting since they can just move on to someone else.

My answer is colored by the fact that I work in a field with an extremely tight hiring climate, so as a candidate I have an enormous amount of negotiating power. That may not be the case for you, and unfortunately there isn't really enough detail in your question to say for sure. So as a ballpark answer, you shouldn't give a salary history if you can get away with not doing it because doing so puts you at a disadvantage, but if you think that not revealing your salary history will be a dealbreaker for them then you should reveal it but do so recognizing that it might make negotiation more difficult.
posted by Itaxpica at 10:58 AM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your salary history is $95,000. It just went down after that. So cut off the "history" part at the $95,000 and don't mention the $80,000. Problem solved.

Harmless editing of the truth IMO.
posted by quincunx at 11:18 AM on January 11, 2016

Histories are different than ranges; the former is meant to show progression

The work history should show progression of responsibilities via the skills being used and the amount and types of tasks done. Salary history doesn't necessarily correlate with either, especially if the candidate has lived in areas with different cost of living.

A lot of this comes down to how sought after the employee is. I'd expect someone being considered for a nearly six figure salary to have some fairly specialized skills and relatively little competition.

do you think that they are legally allowed to discuss your salary? The answer is "NO" (if they do, they open themselves up to legal action against them).

This is not actually true in general in the US, though it varies by local law. Factual information about former employees is protected as far as slander/libel in most cases, just most companies adopt extra cautious stances. And in this case, giving out salary information can damage the former employer, so they especially doing want to give it out unless required to.
posted by Candleman at 11:58 AM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's how it works from the HR side of the house: if anyone calls an HR department to verify the salary numbers provided by a prospective employee, there are two standard approaches:

1. "We don't verify salary."
2. The HR rep can indicate whether or not the number was in range, or not (this is probably rarer)
posted by gsh at 12:28 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

JoeZydeco is correct. Furthermore, employers expect candidates to want to significantly increase their salary if they are leaving their current employer for a new job with more responsibility. So proceed with confidence.
posted by AndrewInDC at 12:39 PM on January 11, 2016

[I doubt this has any meaning for your situation, because this sounds like a grown-up-people job at a decent company, but for future readers: I helped do preliminary interviewing/data collection for HR for a company, and my boss had a strict policy that anyone who would not give a numeric range for what pay they were seeking, either when filling out the application or to me over the phone when asked, their application/resume was chucked, no exceptions. This was for both the blue-collar and white-collar type jobs we had. I would bend the truth to get a number out of people so they wouldn't get tossed and tell them that my (non-existent) application database wouldn't let me save their application if I didn't put any numeric characters in that field. Point being, refusing to give a number may get you booted from some opportunities. Usually they're crappy ones anyway - that company was the most dysfunctional I've ever worked at - but if you're desperate/struggling, just be aware.]
posted by dust.wind.dude at 2:11 PM on January 11, 2016

my boss had a strict policy that anyone who would not give a numeric range for what pay they were seeking... their application/resume was chucked

That's a very different question (and a more reasonable one to ask) compared to questions about salary history. That's just part of the negotiation concerning salary, it's not asking for information that causes an asymmetric power shift from the applicant to the interviewer. It's a bit donkeyish to be so dogmatic about it, but it's not as terrible as the salary history question in my view.
posted by bonehead at 3:10 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with the ideal of stating the salary that you want. Note that this goes against the common advice of never being the first to give a number, but I think that advice is really only helpful in a very limited set of situations.

Also note that if you have a number and are confident in it, then it's perfectly fine to give them your salary history, because you already know that the fact that you make $80K now isn't relevant to your desired salary. If they argue that it is, well, you know that they're wrong or that you have other reasons to feel that $95K or whatever is justified.

(At one point I took a job that paid the highest salary I'd had so far. Before they made the offer, they asked me for not just my salary, but what bonuses I'd received and details about benefits. It felt a little weird, but I gave them all that info. And they ended up paying me a lot more than I had been making. So I think it's also true that companies can understand you're looking for increases in compensation.)
posted by jjwiseman at 5:00 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you ever HAVE TO give a number, make sure it's not your base salary. Give them total compensation, including the value of my intangibles (vacation, sick days, health plans, etc).
posted by blue_beetle at 6:39 PM on January 11, 2016

Thanks, everyone-- very helpful. I replied by saying that I prefer to keep my salary history confidential, and that I had done research which indicated the range appropriate for a position of this type. For future readers, I'll try to post again with how it turns out.
posted by underthehat at 6:08 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Final update from the OP:
Better late than never, I hope... I got the job! As I had hoped after reading this thread, I was able to center the negotiation on what the new job should pay rather than what I was earning. I ended up at $90K, but I'm OK with that because the comparable jobs ended up not being as comparable as I thought. This is also a public university and therefore much less able to dicker.

Thanks for the good advice. With everyone's help I'm now on one of the best jobs I've ever had.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:14 PM on June 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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