We’d like to welcome to the blog Jim Hopkinson, the author of Salary Tutor. In his posts, he’ll help you with a skill that most of us dearly need to improve—expertise in negotiating salary. Today he covers dealing gracefully with an all-too-common problem—knowing what to say when a hiring manager wants to know how much you make at your current job. A slightly different version of this post appeared on Jim’s website.
Conducting a job search often leads people through a series of highs and lows. You have a great lead, but it falls through. You haven’t had any interviews in a month, and then you get three in a week. Even the end of a successful job search can be stressful: the company offers you the job, but you’re not sure how to discuss salary.
Someone wrote to me with the following question: “Good news. I received this email from the hiring manager and am a finalist for the job. But how should I respond to the salary question?”
Hi Amy. We finished all our interviews and we will be making a final decision between you and one other candidate. Could you provide two references and also let me know your current salary so that we are in a position to make an offer.
(First of all, I have to say the approach this employer took bugs me a bit. If you read between the lines, you can almost hear someone saying “It’s between you and someone else, and since we’re not confident enough to know what this position pays and simply make an offer to the best candidate, we’re going to let the two of you fight it out in a low-bidding war.”)
I urged her to do the following:
1. Respond excitedly, saying how thrilled she was to be considered and that she’s certain it will be a great fit. She should also reemphasize one of her skills.
2. Provide the two references, saying they’d be happy to speak with the hiring manager, etc.
3. Then take on the salary question.
But in this scenario, should she reveal, ignore, or evade the salary question?
Let’s start with the easy one first:
Question: Are there ever any circumstances where it makes sense to reveal what you are making?
Hardly any. In order to negotiate the highest possible compensation, your goal is to never reveal your current salary. What you are making at your current job should have no bearing on the position you are applying for. You want to make sure you’re getting paid the fair market value for the skills you are bringing to this new position. (Think of it this way: when a graduating college senior with a degree in finance goes on an interview, does a company make an offer based on his “current” job of working the cash register at the university bookstore? No, the offer’s going to be based on his skills and what an entry-level finance person should make.)
In other words, you need to address the issue without giving up a number. More specifically, you need to have the employer respond with its number first.
To be clear, you definitely do not want to avoid or ignore the question completely. If Amy just responds with the references and doesn’t say anything about salary, she might put herself out of the running entirely. So one option is to evade the request for a current salary and respond as follows:
In terms of compensation, I’ve done my homework regarding comparable positions in the industry and have a pretty good idea of the market value for someone with my skill set. However, I know that this varies from company to company, so you are probably in the best position to know what [company name] feels is appropriate. If you can give me a range of what you have budgeted for this position, I’m sure we can settle on a number that works for both of us.
By doing this, she has thrown the ball back in the company’s court and is addressing the question without revealing a salary. I think answering this way is appropriate and effective, but it is up to you to gauge the relationship you’ve had with your potential employer so far.
If you want to address why you are ignoring the salary question, you can lead with one of the following responses before going into the paragraph above. The right one to use depends on your situation.
In terms of compensation, unfortunately my employment contract at [current company] plays things pretty close to the vest in terms of sharing private company information, so I don’t feel comfortable revealing my current number. However, I totally understand that you want to get to a figure and I’m sure we can settle on a number that works for both of us. I’ve done my homework . . . etc.
In regard to compensation, I understand your request in terms of my current salary to help settle on a number. However, when I started at [current job] in 2008, it was right as the economy entered its massive downturn. As you know, during this time many companies had layoffs, hiring freezes, and did not give performance raises, therefore, I don’t feel that my current salary level is a good representation of my current skill set, so I’d like to speak in terms of the [position name] role. I’ve done my homework . . . etc.
In regard to compensation, I took the job at [current job] in order to make a career transition into [new field], expand my skill set, and as you’ve seen, I’ve now acquired some amazing experience that I am looking forward to bringing to this new job. So I’m not sure my current salary is a great indicator for this new role. I’ve done my homework . . .
By tailoring your response to your individual circumstances, evading the question but still addressing it, and not revealing your current salary, you put yourself in the best position to respond to the range that the company comes back with, without getting into a race to the bottom with any competitors for the job.