Salary and Benefits

January 17, 2014

Don't duck the 'current salary' interview question

Don't duck the 'current salary' interview question

(Thinkstock)

A reader emailed recently with an interesting job-search question. She explained that when she interviews with prospective employers, human resources officials always ask about her current salary.

“I am willing to share a target salary but prefer not to share my current salary,” the reader wrote. “It seems that an individual who has not jumped jobs every few years is behind on average pay. By sharing this information with a prospective employer, the underpaid dilemma has an opportunity to persist.”

She then asked whether she’s legally required to provide salary information and if there’s a delicate way to handle the situation when she doesn’t want to reveal her current pay.
This is an issue I’d never considered, and since I’ve yet to achieve omniscience (only four more classes to go!), I consulted an expert.

Craig Annunziata, regional managing partner at employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, says that it’s 100 percent legal for an employer to ask a job candidate about salary or wages.

“There’s no prohibition on that,” he says. “And there’s nothing wrong with it. I think it’s more appropriate than not to do that.”

Annunziata explains that while it’s easy to suspect an employer wants that information for nefarious reasons, like trying to keep a job candidate’s pay as low as possible, that’s rarely the case.

“The reason most employers ask about wages is usually a benevolent one,” he says. “They want to make sure that if it’s an employee they really want, they can be competitive with their offer.”

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Part of the reason they ask the applicant is because former employers won’t reveal wages. They’ll confirm information such as dates of employment or last position held, but nothing about money.

So the only way a company can know what you’ve been making -- and thus what
ballpark it needs to be in if it wants to make you a competitive offer -- is to ask.
Annunziata adds that even if your current salary is low, it’s not in an employer’s best interest to lowball you on its offer.

“There has to be some harmony within their organization,” he says. “So let’s say the new employer decided to underpay the new hire by 30 percent. That person is eventually going to find out what she makes compared to her peers, because that always happens. And that would invariably cause some problems.”

Since it’s legal to ask, I don’t think there’s an artful way to dodge the question. You’d do best to just give them an honest answer.

But --pause here for dramatic effect -- you shouldn’t stop after giving that answer. Quickly pivot to information that makes it clear you were outperforming your previous salary. Give some concrete examples of the skills you bring to the table.

You’re not in a salary negotiation; you’re in an interview. You need to sell yourself to the company before you worry about what you’ll get paid.

Convince the interviewer that you’re the most qualified candidate and that you’re a good, likable person who will fit in well with the company’s culture. The time for talking money is after you’ve left an indelible impression on the interviewer and he or she calls a few days later and offers you the job.

If a company’s final offer still seems low, consider these two things:

• Is the job good enough to take the lower pay? (There’s value in being happy.)

• Does it present room for growth and a chance to increase your pay? (Nothing wrong with being confident that you’ll impress them and move up quickly.)

That should be enough for you to make a decision, safe in the knowledge that you can always say no.

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