July 11, 2011

Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?

Filed under: Getting in the door, Readers' Forum, Stuff I worry about, Stupid HR Tricks

In the July 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter questions whether it’s prudent — or even possible, when forced to use an online form — to say NO to an employer that demands your salary history:

I read your article “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.” While I found it to be an excellent article overall, I couldn’t help but wonder when it was written. Within the last several years, many employers have moved their application process to the web. Current salary (along with desired salary) is a required field in the online application, and there is no option to quote a salary range.

In this economic downturn, with so many people still without employment, the competition is beyond fierce. It’s definitely an employer’s market these days. Unless you are a highly sought-after executive or the best of the best in your field, the company has plenty of other applicants to move onto if you don’t provide the information they are seeking. 

As an HR professional, I don’t mind giving them my desired salary range, because I keep up with the market and I have done my homework. However, I despise the question, “What are you making currently?”, or, in my case, “What were you making in your last position?” As you state in your article, I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business, and it definitely has no bearing on what the job is worth. Yet, can I (or anyone else who is unemployed due to the recession) afford to be “contrary?”

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

I wrote that article several years ago. But it’s still valid. I know the pressure is on, and employers don’t make it any easier with their cattle-call job applications. It’s up to you to protect your integrity.

I think good candidates must be contrary. They must stand out. Withholding salary history is not indicative of an uncooperative candidate. Demanding it reveals a company that’s not going to negotiate based on the candidate’s value. This is fundamentally wrong. I think you’re letting an employer’s poor management practices seduce you into complicity.

If an online application requires salary history… (This is where some of my advice is omitted. To get the whole story next week, subscribe to the free newsletter. It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)…

Ignore the application. Find a better way in the door. As you point out, if you don’t cooperate, the company has plenty of other applicants who will do what they’re told, and destroy their ability to negotiate. Let the company have them. It wants cows, not people who think and act outside the box. Join a company like that, by playing along, and soon you’ll be looking for yet another job. The herd mentality hurts employers that rely on it, too—especially in difficult economic times.

Read what a successful job hunter has to say about this. He attended a presentation that I gave at Cornell University recently, then he interviewed for a top job.

“The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now. Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: Never divulge my current salary, and Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done. They oughta make you a Cornell professor! I can already see that the one hour you spent with us will have as much impact on my MBA ROI as any class that I have taken in the program, if not more so.” — Rich Mok

That presentation was based on How to Work With Headhunters. The audience was a group of corporate executives in Cornell’s Johnson School of Management Executive MBA program. You don’t have to be an executive to stand your ground, but you do have to be the right candidate. (Otherwise, you have no business applying for the job!) Rich Mok reveals how to redirect an employer’s attention: Show what you’ll do to make the company more successful. Your salary history (and your resume) won’t matter so much. I’ve seen this work at every level of compensation.

You clearly agree that salary history is no one’s business. Then why capitulate and compromise yourself? You need not forego an opportunity if the application requires salary history. You just have to demonstrate your mettle and find a better way in the door. Being contrary when the world behaves foolishly doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected. It makes you stand out. It’s what makes you worth hiring — and worth interviewing.

Do employers force you to disclose your salary history? It’s a perennial argument. You feel you can’t afford to say NO when an employer demands your salary history. I say you can’t afford to disclose private information. So, what do you do? Can you protect your integrity and still apply for the job?

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55 Comments on “Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?”
By Nick Corcodilos
April 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

@R: No, don’t lie. Because after you get hired, and the employer brings you into new employee orientation and asks to see your pay stubs, you’ll get fired. If you decline, you will probably be in violation of company policy, which you probably agreed to abide by when you signed the job offer.

The entire world could be lying – that’s no reason to become a liar, too. It’s wrong, stupid, and it’ll cost you.

There is a solution: Politely and firmly decline to disclose your past salary before you get an offer. No employer has any legal right to your salary history, until and unless you sign something granting it. If you don’t disclose, and after they hire you they learn you managed a 50% increase, there is no lie.

By Jeff
September 15, 2014 at 11:13 am

So what do you do when the employer is willing to pull you out of consideration for not providing your salary information. They back you against a wall and basically say, give the info up or move on!

By Nick Corcodilos
September 15, 2014 at 1:29 pm

@Jeff: This is a personal decision and you must do what you think is best. I agree with many who have posted their opinions on this discussion: I’d move on to an employer that isn’t playing the salary history game, because I know my salary history will be used to cap any offer. I don’t negotiate against myself like that.

I’ve often used this analogy: You’re on the new car lot and you want the red sports car and you start talking price. The salesman asks to see your checkbook register, so he’ll know how much money you have in the bank before he quotes you a price. Do you show him?

Some employers demonstrate integrity in the hiring process. Some don’t. It should be no surprise that so many Ask The Headhunter readers report that employers very often back off — or that they don’t mind walking away.

By MaryJD
August 18, 2015 at 1:48 pm

What is interesting to me is asking for salary history is so artibrary. I have made over $200K (in sales) and much less. Much (most) has to do with realistic goals, the quality of the product/service you are selling and in some part, the economy. So if your last few jobs weren’t great for some of these reasons but historically you have earned more, what are you truly “worth”? You’re only as good as your last year/quarter in some cases? I actually hit 95% of my goal one year recently but only rec’d 60% of my OTE due to the crazy compensation plan so if I provide that to an employer, it’s defninitely not going to bode well for me. Also at that same place, I grew the business more than double in two years but no one seems to be interested in that…what people are basing decisions on seemed really warped these days.

By vj
February 11, 2016 at 9:49 pm

Company cleared my background.

Gave me a offer letter.

Came back and asked for w-2 for my last employer.

I had them talk to two staff members from the previous employer.

W-2 – I said no. They came strongly and I said no.

So, I was suppose to start 11/15 and guess that is not going to happen.

I strongly believe it was not for me. I am moving on.

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